Since the California Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage in the state, predictably, conservative groups identifying themselves as Christian have begun to campaign against that decision in any way they can. It might be instructive to look at how other religions such as Buddhism deal with the issue.
The Alliance Defense Fund is trying to get the court’s ruling postponed until after the general election, when voters will vote on a ballot initiative on the issue of same sex marriage (26 states have amendments prohibiting same sex marriage). According to its website, the ADF was “founded for a unique purpose: to aggressively defend religious liberty.”
Reuters reports that over the years, this issue “has mobilized millions of socially conservative Christian voters” While it has unified some Christians, it has caused ongoing divides in mainstream churches, for instance, the United Methodist Church.
The Judeo-Christian tradition of prophetically standing up against immorality on the personal level and injustice on the social has shaped the conscience of our societies. At the same time, it has made life difficult for those who do not agree with those codes and has led to such strange splits as Christians who offered a Christian justification for slavery and Christians who were abolitionists.
Buddhism deals with moral issues such as gay marriage differently. Buddhism does not label acts as good as much as it labels them as “skillful.” A skillful act is an act of treating others with respect, as, for example, one who commits adultery does not. A skillful life is lived by one who treats himself/herself with respect (as one who engages in promiscuous, unsafe sexual behavior does not) and treats others fairly.
Although Buddhism does not make very great demands upon its lay followers regarding sexual behavior, one of the five precepts (rules of personal conduct) for laypeople is, “Do not indulge in sexual misconduct.” Exactly what that means is never interpreted to include homosexual activity.
For monks, homosexual action is prohibited, but according to the monastic discipline, the Vinaya, all sexual activity (from masturbation to sex with animals) is prohibited for monks. Gay sexual activity is never singled out as being less (or more) compatible with Buddhism than any other form of sexual activity, whether permitted for laypeople or prohibited for monks.
Lay Buddhists do not have to be celibate. (The rules are the same, by the way, for women and men.) But, a lay woman or man can lead a skillful life, a good life, in a relationship in which there is mutual consent and mutual respect and affection, whether that relationship is between two people of different sexes or two people of the same sex.
The Buddha has been recorded recommending against some behaviors not because they are inherently wrong but because they run afoul of society and the laws of society, thus causing the fear of punishment.
In the West with its beliefs about any public and private morality largely set by the Old Testament and the New Testament, being gay is much more of a problem than it is in Buddhist countries.
Although no predominantly Buddhist country allows gay marriage, there is no religious justification against it. Instead, the attitude toward homosexuality is based on cultural bias not on the rationality with which Buddhism deals with moral issues.