It’s not every day that a 78-year-old man comes out in favor of same-sex marriage, particularly when that septuagenarian happens to be His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In an interview on Ora.tv’s Larry King Now show, the exiled spiritual leader offered a matter-of-fact endorsement of gay marriage: “If two people—a couple—really feel that way is more practical, more sort of satisfaction, both sides fully agree, then OK.” The Dalai Lama clarified that the religious should still follow their faith’s rules on sexual behavior, “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.”
The Dalai Lama, considered in Tibetan Buddhism to be the 14th incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, a being who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas, had previously urged for “respect, compassion, and full human rights for all,” including gays.
But many of his previous statements regarding homosexuality would seem more at home at the Conservative Political Action Conference. At a meeting with gay and lesbian Buddhists in 1997, His Holiness said that “Even with your wife, using one’s mouth or the other hole is sexual misconduct. Using one’s hand, that is sexual misconduct.” He has also described relations between people of the same sex as “what we Buddhists call bad sexual conduct. Sexual organs were created for reproduction between the male element and the female element—and everything that deviates from that is not acceptable from a Buddhist point of view.”
Much of the Dalai Lama’s objection to homosexual behavior stems from the Buddhist belief that sensual enjoyment, and desire in general, are hindrances to enlightenment. Lay Buddhists—that is, Buddhists who are not monks and have not sworn themselves to celibacy—are expected not to engage in “sexual misconduct.” However, some modern scholars, pointing out that homosexuality is not explicitly mentioned in any of the Buddha’s sayings, have pushed to have same-sex sexual behavior evaluated on the Universality Principle, or the Golden Rule: “How would I like it if someone did this to me?”
The Dalai Lama’s statements come on the heels of another religious leader’s mellowing on the issue of same-sex relationships: On Wednesday, Pope Francis called on the Catholic Church and its leaders to explore civil unions and how they provide for the economic security and well-being of same-sex couples.