Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Someone in comments over at Cassandra referred to the Dalai Lama condemning homosexuality. I followed the link, but found (as so often on the net) no reference, but only a repetition of the assertion. So I don't know exactly what the Dalai Lama said, in what context.

People may wonder why this doesn't particularly disturb me. Gay rights concern me closely. Many of the people dearest to me are gay or lesbian. I drive around with a rainbow sticker on my car. So what am I doing with a "pope" who "condemns homosexuality"? (Not just any "pope," but one I intensely admire.) Am I a hypocrite?

I hope not. Anyway I want to take this apart a little bit, and it will take awhile, because there's a fair amount to unpack.

1) The unchurched often have extravagant ideas about the uniformity of opinion in churches, and the authority that the heads of churches carry. Probably I simply disagree with the Dalai Lama on this one. Part of belonging to a communion is being willing to be associated with people who disagree with you. A communion that harbored no disagreement would be a pretty scary thing. Less like a communion than like a totalitarian state. The corollary to me having to belong to communion that contains people who are intolerant of homosexuality is that *they* have to belong to a communion that contains me. Which seems, to me, all to the good.

2) There are distinctions here that are going to be invisible to the outsider. Chief among them in this case is, were we talking a monastic context? The Dalai Lama, after all, is a monk, and the head of a monastic order. A monastery is supposed to insulate people from sensual indulgence, for a variety of reasons. You can insulate people from heterosexual attachments just by separating the sexes. Homosexual attachments are more difficult to prevent. I can picture the Dalai Lama "condemning" homosexuality in this context, and having it mean nothing more than -- monastic vows are monastic vows: we're commited to renouncing these attachments.

3) The Dalai Lama grew up in the context of unscientific Tibetan medicine. I don't dismiss Tibetan medicine altogether, but some of it looks clearly bogus to me, and none of it has stood experimental test. Traditional Tibetan lore says that some kinds of sex mess up the various "winds" of the body in ways I don't understand. I view this in exactly the same way I view Chaucer's "humors." It's obsolete science, the best they knew at the time. There may be something to it, and there may not be. I don't expect people from other cultures to drop them wholesale as soon as they come into contact with my own, any more than I drop mine.

4) There's the meaning of "condemn." I strongly suspect that the Dalai Lama didn't "condemn" this behavior at all. When the Pope "condemns" something, he means that it's displeasing to God. When the Dalai Lama "condemns" something, he means it's a bad idea. Or possibly that it won't fit with a monastic life. The difference is immense. (Here again is where I wish I had the actual words to work with). Ethics in Buddhism are fundamentally different from ethics in revealed religions: Buddhist ethics are essentially advice, accumulated over centuries, about how best to lead a life that's calm enough so that a person can cultivate mindfulness. In revealed religions ethics are the pronunciamentos of God, and following them is *in itself* a way of approaching God. (And breaking them is *in itself* a way of turning away from Him.)

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