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Traditional Buddhist teachings exclude LGBTQ people from monastic life, but change is coming slowly

Jue Liang, Assistant Professor, Denison University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

One concern regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the Buddhist community is that their nonbinary gender does not fit neatly into the fourfold structure of the sangha. Another might be anxieties about preserving the perceived purity and reputation of the celibate monastic order. Therefore, Buddhist orders emphasize creating and maintaining the monastic order as an ethically exemplary community capable of spiritual pursuits.

In Buddhism, the belief is that the fruits of one’s past moral actions are manifested in the body. The Buddha’s perfect body is said to be the result of his virtues. Traditional Buddhist texts teach that sexual expression and queerness bear ethical implications. To be sexually queer implies past negative karma, which is interpreted in some cases as ground for exclusion from a monastic life – but not from Buddhist practice in general.

References to LGBTQ Buddhists in pre-modern Buddhist literature are few and far between. These mainly take the form of injunctions against their ordination in the literature on Vinaya, the term for the discipline of Buddhist practitioners.

Despite being underrepresented in Buddhist monastic practices, LGBTQ Buddhists in the past few decades have worked to be included in these communities.

Some kathoey performers – kathoey being a term describing transgender women or gender-nonconforming gay men in Thailand – have received ordination in their sex assigned at birth. However, their ordination practice is not without controversy.

The Thai Sangha Council, the governing body of the Buddhist order of Thailand, tried to ban such practices in 2009.

Thai Buddhism is part of the Theravada tradition, practiced in Sri Lanka and a large part of Southeast Asia. Outside of Theravada and in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions, the prerequisite of having a cisgender identity for monastic ordination is changing.

A monk who was denied full ordination because of his queer identity in the Theravada tradition was accepted in the Tibetan Buddhist community in India. Michael Dillon, born as a girl, Laura, in West London in 1915, was rejected from attaining full ordination in the Theravada tradition after being “outed” as transgender. However, Dillon was reordained as a novice monk in the Tibetan tradition and promised a full ordination, although he died before that could happen. Dillon authored a short book on his struggle to change genders and be accepted within the Buddhist community; in it, he argued that Buddhist teachings should accommodate a more expansive definition of gender.


Other cases of transgender and queer monastics in the Tibetan Buddhist world include Tenzin Mariko, the first openly transgender Tibetan Buddhist. A former monk and a 2015 Miss Tibet contestant, Mariko is now an LGBTQ rights activist. She frequently cites her monastic training and the Buddhist teachings on kindness as her inspiration.

Tashi Choedup, a transgender Buddhist monastic, also talks about experience of his teacher not inquiring about their gender identity, as prescribed by the Vinaya, during his ordination. Choedup attended an inclusive Buddhist monastic institution that did not enforce rigid gender divisions. Choedup now works to build awareness and inclusivity for the transgender Buddhist community.

The dogmatic interpretation of membership in the monastic community that limited the kathoey monastics and Dillon’s quest for ordination appears to be changing. The experiences of Mariko and Choedup represent progress and hold the promise of a wider institutional change.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Jue Liang, Denison University. The Conversation has a variety of fascinating free newsletters.

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Jue Liang does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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