The Good General has decided Thailand will be a happier place if its monks were a bit less light in their sandals. His junta’s cabinet has approved a bill that would ban gay men from entering the monkhood and is preparing to submit it to the National Legislative Assembly. Included in the proposed legislation is wording that can be used to prosecute – with accompanying jail terms – people who propagate ‘incorrect’ versions of Buddhist doctrines, or cause harm to Buddhism. And that specifically includes prison sentences for homosexual monks. ‘Cuz evidently there’s only one kind of flaming monk the Buddha approves of.
Gay monks are not a new problem in Thailand. Assuming the problem with Maria is one of sexual identity. Back in 2009 there were rumors a ‘good manners guide’ would be published to discourage monks from wearing make-up and tight robes. The guidebook was to also address issues like smoking, drinking alcohol, walking, and going to the toilet properly, but of special concern was the flamboyant behavior of homosexual and transgender monks, who could often be seen wearing revealing robes, carrying pink purses, and sporting effeminately-shaped eyebrows. Because that’s how things are done in Thailand, that guide never materialized. The idea that it would be was enough. Until now. And The Good General doesn’t merely want an etiquette manual (although he feels that would be adequate to solve the Chinese tourist problem) but instead wants a ban on gay monks to become a matter of law.
“Buddhism is one of the pillars of the Thai nation and is the religion that most Thai people adhere to. Therefore, Buddhists should be united in patronizing and protecting Buddhism to make it prosper and enhance Buddhist principles and ethics to develop the quality of one’s life,” the proposed legislation’s preamble reads. The bill would allow the Sangha Supreme Council and the government to punish anyone seen to threaten their version of Buddhism. That includes abbots who ordain – knowingly or unwittingly – monks with ‘deviant sexual behavior’ as well as ‘sexually deviant’ monks who ‘harm and disgrace’ Buddhism.
Not that solving the problem of gay monks through legislation is new either. Since 2006, the Sangha Supreme Council (the governing body of Thai Buddhist clergy) and the National Office of Buddhism (the secular office under the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for promoting Buddhism) have unsuccessfully tried to propose a bill to “Patronize and Protect Buddhism” several times. Each attempt was rejected by previous military and civilian governments who instead recommended that the issues raised by the bills should be included in monastic rules, but not apply to the general public. This time around, the results may be different. ‘Cuz The Good General tends to get what The Good General wants.
In Section 8 of the bill, Article 32 states that anyone who propagates wrong versions of Buddhist teachings – meaning versions that differ from those of the Sangha Supreme Council – could face one to seven years imprisonment. Provincial Buddhist committees will be established under Article 14 of Section 3, and one of the functions of these committees would be to form a warning center in each province against threats to the Sangha Supreme Council’s version of Buddhism.
Venerable Phramaha Paiwan Warawunno, a liberal Buddhist monk known for his criticisms of the Sangha Supreme Council, says the content of the bill violates the rights of individuals to interpret the Buddha’s teachings. “Whose interpretations of Buddhist doctrines are correct and shall be used as standards? Who will have the right to judge whether a specific version of the Buddhist doctrines is correct and point out that the others are not?” he questions.
Um, that would be The Good General’s. ‘Cuz he wants Thailand to be a happy place. But not, necessarily, a gay one.
Venerable Shine Waradhammo, an undergraduate student monk at Wat Mahathat Yuwaratrangsarit’s Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University in Bangkok, said that if the bill is passed it may become the religious version of the controversial Article 112 of the Criminal Code, aka the lèse majesté law. “In order to thrive, religion must always be adaptable to societies to allow people to understand its practices and teachings, including, making itself open for debate and discussion,” he says. The proposed legislation would remove that debate in preference for State sponsored doctrine.
Vichak Panich, an expert on Buddhism and religious studies, pointed out that if the bill on protecting and patronizing Buddhism passes, it will become another obstacle to democracy in Thailand. “This bill will give the Sangha Supreme Council – which is already quite a dictatorial organization since it is not transparent and elected – the power to prosecute not only monks but also lay persons who defy its authority,” he says. His concern is that the version of Theravada Buddhism promoted by the Sangha Supreme Council and the National Office of Buddhism has two all-encompassing functions in Thai society.
“Theravada Buddhism is promoted as a part of the Thai identity and nationalism,” Vichak says. “Moreover, it promotes the intangible concept of virtue and morality over freedom and rights. This lends support and justification for some groups of people in society to judge others.”
“It is no surprise that this bill is being accepted under the current political regime.” adds the religious expert.
Nidhi Eoseewong, a prominent Thai historian and political commentator, says no one really knows what the Lord Buddha taught word by word. “You only have the Tripitaka which was in fact written some 500 years after the Lord Buddha died. Therefore, even the oldest Buddhist scripture is written through an interpretative process,” he says. And unlike with the Christian bible which specifically deems homosexuality to be an abomination – right along side having a tattoo, divorce, wearing polyester or any other fabric blends, and allowing your wife to grab the testicles of the guy you get into a bar fight with – The Buddha never addressed going gay. Whether while wearing saffron or not.
Buddhism teaches to, and expects from, its followers a certain level of ethical behavior. The minimum that is required of the lay Buddhist is embodied in the Five Precepts, the third of which relates to sexual behavior. Since homosexuality as it applies to the layperson is not explicitly mentioned in any of the Buddha’s discourses, and since The Buddha seems to have had a profound understanding of human nature and to have been remarkably free from prejudice, one can assume that under his teachings homosexuality is meant to be evaluated in the same way that heterosexuality is. And unlike the Christian god, The Buddha did not feel sin-free sex was limited to the act of procreation.
In the Pali Canon (the scriptural texts that hold the Buddha’s original teachings) the Buddha describes the Five Precepts – which serve as voluntary guidelines for life and are the bases of Buddhist morality – as gifts toward oneself and others. The Third Precept – I undertake the training rule to avoid sensual misconduct – is further expounded upon in the Anguttara Nikaya, one of the numerous discourses ascribed to the Buddha contained within the Sutta Pitaka which covers the actions of non-monastic followers. In that text, sex with mutual consent – where adultery is not involved, and where both partners are of an appropriate age – is viewed as an expression of love, respect, loyalty, and warmth. Which follows the dictates of the Five Precepts. Whether between two people of opposite genders or not.
The picture in the first of the three Tripitaka , the Vinaya, is a bit different. The Vinaya concerns itself with rules for monks and nuns and deals with all kinds of possible sexual behaviors. None of which are allowed by the Buddha. In fact, the Vinaya explicitly forbids monks from having sexual relations with any of the four genders. Two of those you are probably already familiar with. The third gender, ubhatovyanjañaka, is usually thought to describe people who have both male and female sexual characteristics (i.e., hermaphrodites and the intersex . . . like Bruce Jenner). The fourth gender is the pandaka, a complex category that is variously defined in different Buddhist texts, sometimes as homosexuals, sometimes merely as the hyper sexually promiscuous. However, The Story of the Prohibition of the Ordination of Pandaka from the Vinaya provides an example of a monk with an insatiable desire to be sexually penetrated by men, so both may be true. And in either case, it’s doubtful any fan of Sunee Plaza will ever be wearing saffron.
However. while homosexuality is explicitly mentioned in the Vinaya, and prohibited, it is not singled out for special condemnation, but rather is considered one of many forms of sexual misconduct contravening the rule that requires monks and nuns to be celibate. In several cases the penalty is actually less in the case of homosexual behavior. For example, for a monk to erotically touch another man is a less serious offence than the same act with a woman, which is a big no-no. In fact, the Buddha’s criticism of a monk who broke his celibate vows is especially snarky:
“Worthless man, it would be better that your penis be stuck into the mouth of a poisonous snake than into a woman’s vagina. It would be better that your penis be stuck into the mouth of a black viper than into a woman’s vagina. It would be better that your penis be stuck into a pit of burning embers, blazing and glowing, than into a woman’s vagina.”
Kinda makes ya wanna swear off vagina for life. Which many of us already have. But within Theravada Buddhism, sex alone is not the sole principal transgression that entails expulsion from the Sangha. Theft, murder, and falsely boasting of superhuman perfections are viewed as equally bad offenses. And are as frequently committed by members of the clergy in Thailand if news media reports are to be believed. Monks behaving badly is a common enough subject in the news that you have to wonder why it is only the gay monks that The Good General and the Sangha Supreme Council single out in the proposed legislation.
The Buddha’s proscriptions against certain types of people joining the ordained community are often understood to reflect his concern with upholding the public image of the Sangha as virtuous; social acceptability was as vital for the clergy in his time – since it could not survive without material support from lay society – as it is today. In fact, seemingly in accordance with the Buddha’s wishes, back in 1989 the Sangha Supreme Council affirmed that ladyboys are prohibited from being ordained. But since Buddhist monastic rules already stipulate that monks must be celibate, the intent behind the proposed legislation is troublesome.
“It seems as if people who took part in writing this bill hold prejudiced views against people with alternative sexes and genders,” says Venerable Shrine. “This is a form of violence and a violation of human rights because naturally gender and sex can’t be straightforwardly defined as male and female.”
He believes that if the bill passes into law, its application will be problematic because it is based on prejudice and discriminates against monks with alternative sexes and genders. Which is an act the Buddha never blessed. Regardless of how happy its passage may The Good General make.
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