Buddhism and Sexuality

José Cabezón is Professor of Religious Studies and the XIVth Dalai Lama Professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Cabezón edited a collection of essays entitled Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender (1992), one of the first scholarly works in the field. His participation in a 1999 conference hosted by the Institute for Religion in the Age of Science (IRAS) led to further intensive research and another book, Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism (2017).

In 2007 a group of gay and lesbian Buddhists from the Bay Area wrote a letter to the Dalai Lama, asking to meet with him for clarification of what the group regarded as some of the homophobic tenets of Buddhism. His Holiness agreed to the meeting, during which he expressed sympathy with the group’s concerns but argued that he could not adjudicate the matter by himself, since the tenets are codified in ancient texts. Rather, a consensus among the worldwide Buddhist community was needed.

In his presentation for the Burke Lectureship, Cabezón examines those texts for what they may tell us about fundamental Buddhist views of gender and sexuality. The texts were written largely in Sanskrit between the 1st and 9th centuries C.E. and present a surprisingly complex view of the topic, with some aspects familiar to the modern Western mind and others decidedly foreign. As Cabezón notes, they are often “not what we want to hear.” He traces a woman’s sexual life journey from sexual (biological) embodiment at conception to old age, in the process outlining the belief in four biological sexes (2 normal, 2 abnormal or “queer”) and their determining factors, karma as always being foremost. Determinism – a foundational tenet of Tibetan Buddhism – is key in establishing causal links between sexual biology, gender, sexual desire, and sexual pleasure.

Cabezón also discusses the treatment of male sexuality in the texts, noting that sexual ethics for men are described in exhaustive detail while none are listed for women (other than fidelity to their husbands). Men are allowed access to prostitutes, and prostitution is considered neither a crime nor a moral failing. In fact, prostitutes are uniformly portrayed in a positive light, whereas wives frequently are not. Regarding marriage, the texts maintain that the goal is not expression of love but the creation of strong bonds between families.

By contrast we know little about the lives of “queer” people in early Buddhist societies, since there is little mention of them beyond acknowledging their existence as one of the four genders. It is the classification of genders other than biological male and female as abnormal, along with a strongly patriarchal bent, that troubles many modern Buddhists in the West.

According to José Cabezón the study of ancient Buddhist writings on gender and sexuality may be thought of as the study of a cultural construct, one that remains relevant to Asian Buddhist and Western convert communities today.

Watch What is a Woman? What is a Man? Exploring The Buddhist Sources – Jose Cabezon – Burke Lectureship on Religion and Society

Combatting the Scourge

Malaria has been described as “the perennial scourge of mankind,” with over 200 million cases reported annually resulting in up to 750,000 deaths and incalculable misery. The disease is most common in the tropical and subtropical regions that surround the equator, including Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia, but it may be found in any region where climatic conditions favor the growth and spread of the mosquito-borne parasite.

On-going global eradication efforts employing pesticides have been successful in southern Europe and the southern United States, but less so elsewhere. In recent years genomics has taken center stage in malaria research with the sequencing of both the malarial parasite and the human genome. One experimental application of this research is the production of genetically-modified mosquitoes that do not transmit malaria. Another new and promising technique is the gene drive, which combats malaria by introducing disruptive genes into wild populations of mosquitoes that interfere with the development of females.

The use of such radical measures unavoidably prompts serious bioethical concerns, including the possibilities of unforeseen mutations and broader ecological impacts. Ethicists also question whether we have the right to potentially eliminate a species. In her self-described role as a “moral philosopher” Laurie Zoloth (University of Chicago) has written and lectured extensively about these issues, arguing that:

In the 1960s, the world agreed that smallpox was a species worth eliminating. We should feel the same way about A. gambiae. And isn’t deploying a gene drive that specifically targets the mosquito species that carries malaria far better than using chemical sprays, such as pyrethroids, organochlorines and DDT (still used in some countries) that indiscriminately target any insect?

Though malaria and other insect-borne diseases have historically been associated with Third World poverty, Zoloth notes these maladies are no longer the exclusive province of underdeveloped tropical countries. As climate change results in greater and more widespread extremes of temperature, rainfall, and humidity, the range of mosquitoes is likely to increase, and with them the diseases they transmit including malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and Zika. While acknowledging the dangers of meddling with the genetic status quo, Zoloth maintains that preoccupation with those risks is a luxury afforded only to those who are not at risk of losing a loved one to wrenching fevers and severe dehydration.

Zoloth concludes that in that light, gene drives and other genomic-based eradication methods represent the most moral and ethical choice available to scientists.

Watch May We Make the World?: Religious and Ethical Questions with Dr. Laurie Zoloth – Burke Lectureship