In a March 2014 segment on Larry King Now, a television series available through on-demand digital television network Ora TV, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said gay marriage is "OK." In light of previous statements by His Holiness that homosexual sex amounts to "sexual misconduct," this seemed to be a reversal of his prior view.
However, his statement to Larry King was not inconsistent with what he's said in the past. His basic position all along has been that there's nothing wrong with homosexual sex unless it violates the precepts of one's religion. And that would include Buddhism, according to His Holiness, although in truth not all of Buddhism would agree.
To explain this, first, let's look at what he said to Larry King on Larry King Now:
Larry King: What do you think of the whole emerging gay question?
HHDL: That I think is a personal matter. Of course, you see, people who have belief or who have special traditions, then you should follow according to your own tradition. Like Buddhism, there are different kinds of sexual misconduct, so you should follow properly. But then for a non-believer, that is up to them. So there are different forms of sex—so long as it is safe, OK, and if they fully agree, OK. But bullying, abuse, that is wrong. That’s a violation of human rights.”
Larry King: What about same sex marriage?
HHDL: “That’s up to the country's law.
Larry King: What do you think personally about it?
HHDL: That’s OK. I think it’s individual business. If two people—a couple—really feel that way is more practical, more sort of satisfaction, both sides fully agree, then OK …
The late AIDS activist Steve Peskind wrote an article for the March 1998 issue of the Buddhist journal Shambhala Sun, titled “According to Buddhist Tradition: Gays, Lesbians and the Definition of Sexual Misconduct." Peskind said that in the February/March, 1994 issue of OUT magazine the Dalai Lama was quoted as saying,
“If someone comes to me and asks whether it is okay or not, I will first ask if you have some religious vows to uphold. Then my next question is, What is your companion’s opinion? If you both agree, then I think I would say, if two males or two females voluntarily agree to have mutual satisfaction without further implication of harming others, then it is okay.”
However, Peskind wrote, in a meeting with members of the San Francisco gay community and the Dalai Lama in 1998, the Dalai Lama said "A sexual act is deemed proper when the couples use the organs intended for sexual intercourse and nothing else," and then went on to describe heterosexual coitus as the only proper use of organs.
Is he flip-flopping? Not really.
What Is Sexual Misconduct?
I mentioned precepts earlier. The Buddhist Precepts include a simple precaution against "sexual misconduct," or not "misusing" sex. However, neither the historical Buddha nor early scholars bothered to explain exactly what that means. The Vinaya, the rules for the monastic orders, forbid monks and nuns from having sex at all, so that's clear. But if you are a not-celibate layperson, what is it to not "misuse" sex?
As Buddhism spread through Asia there was no ecclesiastical authority to enforce uniform understanding of doctrine, as the Catholic Church once did in Europe. Temples and monasteries usually soaked up local ideas about what was proper and what wasn't. Teachers separated by distance and language barriers often came to their own conclusions about things, and that's what happened with homosexuality. Some Buddhist teachers in some parts of Asia decided homosexuality was sexual misconduct, but others in other parts of Asia accepted it as no big deal. This is, basically, still the case today.
The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), a patriarch of the Gelug school, wrote a commentary on sex that the Tibetans consider authoritative. When the Dalai Lama speaks of what is proper and what isn't, that's what he's going by. But this is only binding on Tibetan Buddhism.
It's also my understanding that the Dalai Lama does not have the sole authority to override a long-accepted teaching. Such a change requires a consensus of many senior lamas. It's possible the Dalai Lama has no personal animus toward homosexuality, but he takes his role as guardian of the tradition very seriously.
Working With the Precepts
Deciphering what the Dalai Lama says also requires understanding how Buddhists regard the Precepts. Although they somewhat resemble the Ten Commandments, the Buddhist Precepts are not considered to be universal moral rules to be imposed on everyone. Instead, they are a personal commitment, binding only on those who have chosen to follow the Buddhist path and who have taken vows to keep them.
So when His Holiness told Larry King," Like Buddhism, there are different kinds of sexual misconduct, so you should follow properly. But then for a non-believer, that is up to them," he's basically saying that there's nothing wrong with homosexual sex unless it violates some religious vow you have taken. And that's what he's been saying all along.
Other schools of Buddhism -- Zen, for example -- are very accepting of homosexuality, so being a gay Buddhist isn't necessarily a problem.