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Culture and Religion

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Towards a queer dharmology of sex
Roger Corless

To cite this Article: Corless, Roger , 'Towards a queer dharmology of sex', Culture
and Religion, 5:2, 229 - 243
To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/143830042000225457
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© Taylor and Francis 2007

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Roger Corless

Lay practitioners of Buddhism, especially lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer per-

sons, are given little guidance by the traditional Dharmology (Buddhist theology) of
sex. The most extensive discussions are the detailed prohibitions in the monastic rule,
which focus on the mechanics of sex rather than on love and relationships. What
advice there is on sex for lay persons is either vague or over-determined by its cultural
context. Christianity, despite being homophobic and mistrustful of sex, has developed
a positive attitude towards sex within heterosexual marriage. An investigation of this
suggests a Dharmology of sex as relationship, based on central Buddhist doctrines
such as interdependent arising. This Dharmology can be strengthened by queering it
with reference to Harry Hay’s notion that gay subject–SUBJECT consciousness is more
compatible with Buddhist non-duality than the hetero subject–object consciousness. It
can be claimed, therefore, that Buddha Nature, and Buddhism itself, is queer.

KEYWORDS Buddhism; sexuality; monastics, Buddhist; lay persons, Buddhist; les-

bian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer; Vinaya

Speaking on ‘The Holiness of Sexuality’, the American gay poet James

Broughton remarked: ‘Buddha is very down on desire. Broughton is very up on
desire’ (Broughton 1991, 43). There are good reasons for being down on sexual
desire, for finding ways to channel and control this most powerful of human
drives, but it is time to ask about the very: why is Buddhism so very down on
desire and, therefore, sex? Can it be at least a little bit up on sex and still be
recognisable as Buddhism? It is time to ask this because Buddhism in the West
is a non-monastic phenomenon. For most of its history Buddhism has had more
lay followers than monastics, but the spotlight has been on the monastics, as if
they were the actors in a play and the lay people were the audience. When
Ashoka said ‘Where there is the Samgha, there is the Dharma’, he meant the

Culture and Religion Vol. 5, No 2, 2004

ISSN 0143-8301 print/1475-5629 online/04/02000229-15
 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/143830042000225457

monastic community (bhiksu-sam  gha), not the Buddhist community as a whole.

Lay people were second-class Buddhists—they did not have, in this life, the good
roots (kuśala-mula) or the fortunate karma to take the monastic precepts. But
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now, in the twenty-first century in the West, lay people are moving out of the
shadows, towards the centre of Buddhist life.1
Early monastic Buddhism was democratic. Decisions were made by con-
sensus (sangha-kamma). The Pali texts quote the Buddha as being opposed to
caste. Over the centuries, however, hierarchy and a kind of caste system have
proliferated within the Samgha.
Recently, some followers of Nichiren (1222–1282) rebelled against the
stultifying control of a corrupt clergy and with, unfortunately, a lot of shouting
and bad feeling on both sides, the lay association Soka Gakkai International (SGI)
broke away from Nichiren Shoshu, its clerical parent. A notable effect of the
break is the freedom that SGI gained to re-organise along democratic lines, and
to re-assess its teaching on sexuality. Not only does it support married life, it
enthusiastically accepts the contribution of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/
queer (LGBTQ) persons (Corless 2002).
LGBTQ persons should be in the vanguard of updated thinking on sexu-
ality. If we are bisexual or ‘formerly’ heterosexual we may have produced
children, but when we are acting as gays or lesbians our sexuality is one of
relationship, not of reproduction. That is, we value sexuality for its own sake, not
as a means to an end, as a mechanism for perpetuating the species.
In this article I will review traditional Buddhist attitudes towards sex,
comment on their strengths and weaknesses, and suggest an approach to
sexuality that is more consonant with a culture in which Buddhism has regained
its original democracy and is at last taking the lay person seriously. This
approach stresses the important contribution of LGBTQ persons in the develop-
ment of such a dharmology.

Traditional Buddhism and sex

Monastic regulations
The Vinaya (the collection of Buddhist monastic regulations) expects the
monastic to refrain from all sexual activity. The general rule is stated at the
beginning of the Pātimokkha:

Should any bhikkhu having undertaken the bhikkhus’ training rules and
way of life and having [still] neither disclaimed the training-rule nor
declared his inability [to keep it], engage in sexual intercourse even with a
female animal, he is defeated and no more in communion. (Pātimokkha
1966, 18, precept 1:1)

This formulation seems at first to be quite clear and specific—a man who has
undertaken the discipline (sikkhā) of the monastic life is to refrain from copu-

lation (methuna) with a woman, and if he has not undertaken the training, or if
he has formally disclaimed it, the rule does not apply. However, the term
methuna and the compound meaning ‘even with a female animal’ (tira-
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cchānagatāya ’pi) are given wider meanings with reference to other passages in
the Vinaya and the commentaries. The prohibition is expanded to include anal
and oral, as well as vaginal, copulation with a woman, any sexual activity with
a male human being, with a non-human being, with a male or hermaphrodite
animal, or with the ambiguous individual known as pan d aka.2 Masturbation is
also forbidden, although it entails a lesser punishment—‘a meeting of the
community’ (saṅghādisesa, literally ‘[a matter which] begins and ends in the
community’) requiring an ad hoc decision, usually involving temporary suspen-

Intentional emission of the semen, except in a dream, entails initial and

subsequent meeting of the community. (Pātimokkha 1966, 2, precept 2:1)

These two rules should be, we might think, sufficient, but the Pātimokkha goes
on to prohibit 26 other actions that it fears might lead a monk to break the
primary rule.3 These include fairly obvious precautions such as not touching a
woman, not talking to her suggestively, and not sitting with a woman in a
secluded place, but there are also some rather obscure precepts such as not
having wool prepared (for a monastic habit) by a woman who is not a relative.
The 28 sexual prohibitions in the Pātimokkha are only the beginning—in the
Vinaya as a whole a great many sexual activities, some of them quite bizarre
(such as auto-fellatio) are mentioned only to be prohibited. Why does the Vinaya
go into such detail?
The standard, and most obvious, answer is that it is due to the casuistic
way in which it developed. When a question about monastic discipline arose
during the lifetime of the Buddha, he was asked to promulgate a rule. The Vinaya
list is long, we are told, only because the monks were so inventive in looking for
loopholes. This is all well and good, but the effect of enshrining these offences
in a sacred text, couching them in the negative, and placing them in the
Pātimokkha, which is recited in the Community every two weeks, is to focus the
mind obsessively on the problem, not on the solution.

Lay precepts
In contrast to the wealth of material on sex in the monastic code,
Buddhism is strangely taciturn on the subject of sex among lay people; that is,
the Buddhists who were actually expected to be having sex. However, once
again, what is said about it is negative.
Sex is mentioned in the third of the five fundamental precepts of ethical
conduct (śīla). In the Pali version this precept reads kāmesu micchācārā veramanī
sikkhāpadarṅ samādiyāmi, which we might translate as ‘I undertake the

rule of training to abstain from sexual wrongdoing’. Kāma is a richly evocative

word that consumes nearly seven columns of small print in the Pali–English
Dictionary (Pali Text Society 1921–1925). Its basic meaning is ‘sensual pleasure’,
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and it is always taken to mean, in the context of this precept, the pleasure of sex.
The compound micchācārā literally means ‘conduct which is false or wrongly
performed’ (a variant of micchā is mithu, which is cognate with the English prefix
mis- as in misdeed). However, when we ask ‘what, specifically, is wrongdoing?’, we
find very little in the texts to help us with an answer. The Tibetan Master
Gampopa gives the following list in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation:
There are three types of sexual misconduct: protected by the family,
protected by the owner, and protected by the Dharma. The first one means
sexual misconduct with one’s mother, sister, and so forth. The second one
means sexual misconduct with someone owned by a husband or king, and
so forth. The third one has five subcategories: even with one’s own wife,
sexual misconduct refers to improper parts of the body, improper place,
improper time, improper number, and improper behaviour. Improper parts
of the body are the mouth and anus. Improper places are close to the
spiritual master, monastery, or stupa, or in a gathering of people. Improper
times are during a special retreat, when pregnant, while nursing a child, or
when there is light. An improper number is more than five times. Improper
behavior refers to beating or having intercourse with a male or
hermaphrodite [i.e., pan d aka] in the mouth or anus. (Gampopa 1998, 113;
cf. Gampopa 1959, 76; 1995, 76–77)
Gampopa does not justify the inclusion of any of these activities in his list, and
he reproduces it as if it is already well known and accepted. This specific set of
activities does not appear to go back to the sutras or any other buddhavacana
(Word of the Buddha), and its origin and meaning is at present, as far as I am
aware, mysterious. It seems to have the following components: sexual miscon-
duct as similar to stealing, as harmful to the partner, as abhorrent to established
custom, and as addictive. It may also be influenced by what the medical lore of
the time regarded as sexual dysfunction. These considerations may be addressed
briefly as follows:4
• Sexual misconduct as stealing. The wording of this comment makes it clear
that the partner is assumed to be a woman who is the property of another
man. In a society where the equality of the sexes is fully recognised it does
not apply.
• Sexual misconduct as harming the partner. Rape is, we now realise, more
about power than sexual pleasure. Its condemnation is not culturally
specific and is thoroughly Buddhist.
• Sexual misconduct as abhorrent to established custom. The intent seems
to be to protect the good name of Buddhists and Buddhism. In cultures
that encourage individualism and innovation, this issue is of minimal

• Sexual misconduct as addictive. The image presented by Gampopa is that

of a man who sees women as sexual objects and little more, and who
cannot restrain himself from copulating again and again. Such a person
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would today be referred to a psychotherapist.

• Sexual misconduct as sexual dysfunction. The identification of ‘improper
parts of the body’ may derive from medical models that were compelling
at the time of the Buddha (or of Gampopa) but that no longer seem
Generally, lay sexual misconduct is not dealt with in detail and is chiefly confined
to the condemnation of adultery.

Tantric sex
If there is little to say about sex and the Buddhist lay person, there is
(despite popular rumours to the contrary) much less to say about Tantric sex.
The Orientalist imagination filled the monasteries in the Land of Snows with
randy mystics who were constantly ‘on the job’. Their approach to sex, we were
told, was positive, reversing the body-negating practices of early Buddhism. This
blessed lasciviousness has recently broken out of the fancied cloister to become
a growth industry. For a not inconsiderable sum one can now, according to the
advertisements in some popular New Age magazines, enjoy one’s partner in a
weekend of so-called Tantric ecstasy on Maui.
The reality is that Tantric sexual yoga is a method of realising enlightened
attitude or pure perspective so that the practitioner can go out from the session
to teach and transform beings with renewed wisdom and compassion. It is not
recreational sex and it is not about establishing and nurturing a committed
relationship with a human partner. Some Tantric teachers are married, but the
marriage itself does not seem to be the focus of their Tantric practice.

Summary and conclusions

Traditional Buddhist attitudes towards sex are unrelievedly negative. Mon-
astic celibacy is praised, and marriage, or indeed any sexual activity, is at best
permitted as a weakness that the Buddhist hopes to overcome in a subsequent
life by building stronger roots of merit in this life. Sexuality is reduced to the
physical activity of the genitals fuelled by passionate desire (rāga) for sensual
pleasure (kāma) that can never be sated, and therefore is addictive. The focus of
attention is the male, with the sexual activity of the female being treated, if at
all, by analogy with that of the male.6 The heterosexism of this worldview
supports a dualism between subject and object despite a rhetoric of non-duality.
This discordance is especially poignant in Tantra, where the symbolism of
non-duality is entirely patriarchal. The absence of any discussion of sexuality as
relationship, in a tradition that bases itself on the teaching of interdependence,
is startling. To this question we now turn.

Sex and relationship

A suggestion from Christianity
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Christianity has, like Buddhism, a strong tradition of celibacy, but unlike

Buddhism it also manages to honour, rather than merely tolerate, marriage and
sexuality. The Christian witness is indeed not all positive—the ascetical writings
are often pathological in their fear of sex and their hatred of women, but at the
same time Christianity literally celebrates heterosexual marriage. Before the
Reformation, and after it in the unreformed churches, celibacy ranked higher
than marriage, but the liturgical books, nevertheless, provided a Christian
context for marriage.
In 1549 the Church of England replaced the library of old Latin service
books with a single book in English, The Book of Common Prayer. The marriage
service in this book begins with an address by the priest in which ‘holy
matrimonie’ is called ‘an honorable estate instituted of God in paradise, in the
time of mannes innocencie, signifying unto us the misticall union that is
betwixte Christe and his Churche’. The address goes on to give three reasons for
the institution of matrimony: first, for procreation, in an environment that
permits the instruction of the offspring in the Christian life; second, a remedy
against promiscuity; and third, and most significantly, ‘for the mutuall societie,
helpe, and comfort, that the one oughte to haue of the other’ (Solemenizacion
of Matrimonie 1549, 252).
Martin Luther is the great Christian supporter of marriage over against
celibacy, and the advocate of the virtues that accrue to the married state.7
Having tried the monastic life and found it wanting, he wrote at first of marriage
as little more than a concession to weakness and as the divinely ordained
mechanism for the continuation of the human race. As he continued to study
the Bible he found more and more support for defining marriage as (in the
words of the Anglican liturgy) ‘that honourable estate instituted of God’, and no
support at all for celibacy. After he married Katherine von Bora, a former nun, he
enlarged his view of marriage to include companionship. He called marriage ‘a
school for character’, and spoke of the trials of dealing with spouse and children
as a more effective means for becoming virtuous than the isolated ascetical
practices of the monastery (Bainton 1955, 234, chapter 17).
Here are some of Luther’s words on ‘the school for character’, drawn from
the Table Talk collection (Luther 1967):

There’s more to [marriage] than a union of the flesh. There must

be harmony with respect to patterns of life and ways of thinking.
(No. 5524)

The first love is ardent, an intoxicated love which dazzles us and leads us
on. When the intoxication has been slept off, the connubial love of the
godly is genuine, while the ungodly have regrets. (No. 3530)

He who takes a wife is not idle, for marriage keeps him busy…the
annoyances of married life are [almost] unbearable. (No. 3508)
[When Luther’s son had cried inconsolably after his circumcision, Luther
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said:] These are the annoyances of marriage, and on their account every-
body avoids marriage. We all fear the caprice of wives, the crying of
children, bad neighbours. (No. 2867b)

A Buddhist response
To put it crudely, the view of sexuality in the Vinaya is a celibate’s wet
dream: it concentrates on lust and genital activity. But a marriage or a commit-
ted relationship is just that—a relationship—and without a focus on the
connection between the partners, the relationship dies. When we query (or
queery) the Dharma for help on relationships, we are almost overwhelmed by
the material. It is a secret that has been hidden in plain sight. All we need do is
apply the teachings to marriage and committed relationships.
The teaching that reality is interdependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda, also
translated as codependent origination or conditioned co-arising) is so central
that it is sometimes said that fully awakening to this teaching constitutes perfect
enlightenment. When a Buddhist is with a partner, whether intimately or socially,
bringing the knowledge of interdependent arising into awareness will assist the
relationship and, if the partner is also Buddhist, further the practice of both
Are there scriptural texts in Buddhism that support committed relation-
ships in a way that is comparable with the support found in the Bible? With the
caveat that the place of the text in Buddhism is not as central as it is in
Christianity (Corless 1993), it can be said that there is a basis for a dharmology
of sex as relationship in both Theravada and Mahayana.
In the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa (1923, 340–375, chapter 9) gives an
extensive and detailed teaching on the four pure abidings (brahmavihāra):
friendliness (mettā), compassion (karun ā), sympathetic joy (muditā) and equa-
nimity (upekkhā). He catalogues and describes them and explains how to
develop and nurture them, supporting his teaching with many references to the
suttas. He begins:
The student who wishes to begin with the development of the Four Divine
States … should first … think on the evils of hate and the advantages of
forbearance. Why? Verily by means of this practice hate is to be put away,
forbearance is to be acquired. (Buddhaghosa 1923, 340)
We seem to hear Luther sighing, ‘Ah, yes, in the married state how many
opportunities do we have to practice forbearance! And if couples had that virtue,
how pleasant would be their home, with everyone living in that unity which is
“like the oil on Aaron’s head which ran down to the collar of his robes” (Psalm

Buddhaghosa is addressing monastics, but his teaching can be readily

adapted to lay life. Couples may not have as much time for meditating on the
pure abidings ‘in a secluded spot’ as Buddhaghosa recommends, but they
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will have more opportunities to develop these virtues in the vicissitudes of daily
Mahayana is richer than Theravada in teachings that explicitly address
interconnection. The most elaborate teaching is in the Huayan Jing, a text that
runs to more than 1500 pages in English translation (Flower Ornament Scripture
1984–1987). Its core teaching is helpfully summarised by Fazang (643–712 CE) in
his Essay on the Golden Lion (Fung 1952–1953, volume 2, 339–359). Pointing to
a golden statue of a lion and using it as a metaphor of reality, he distinguished
between the gold as a symbol of essence, and the lion form as a symbol of
manifestation, going on to describe in detail the various ways in which essence,
or Buddha Nature, and manifestation, or everyday experience, interact and
interpenetrate. His final teaching is the mutual interpenetration of manifestation
with manifestation; that is, the coinherence of everyday reality, which, by
interpenetration with Buddha Nature, is non-dual with reality seen from pure
perspective, with itself. This teaching is so popular in East Asian Buddhism that
it is almost a cliché (Japanese: jijimuge). It can certainly be applied to interper-
sonal relationships, deepening one’s understanding and practice of the Golden
Rule, which is expressed in Tibetan Buddhism as ‘exchanging self for other’
The teaching of the Huayan Jing allows us to take everyday reality
seriously, without the split between it and ‘finally established reality’ (as it is
called in Yogācāra), which a life of celibacy may support. In Christianity this split
is called the heresy of angelism—pretending that one is a disembodied spirit or
‘pure intelligence’ (as Aquinas defines an angel) rather than a body–soul unity,
in accordance with orthodox Christian teaching. In Buddhism it may be
identified by the Mahayana as being stuck at the Hinayana stage of practising
self-benefit by observing negative precepts rather than advancing to the Bo-
dhisattva path of other-benefit and the observance of the positive precepts of
the perfections (pāramitā). Further support for this view is found in the sutras of
the Tathāgatagarbha school, which sees reality as the womb or matrix (garbha)
of the Buddha (Tathāgata).8 The possibility of high attainment by the lay person
is famously recounted in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa (Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti
1976). However, since this article aspires to be no more than a suggestion
leading towards a dharmology of sex, and not an exposition of it, I will leave that
matter to be explored in a later work.
If we were to re-interpret the compound micchācārā in the third precept
as ‘inauthentic conduct’, it would include all of the aforementioned consider-
ations. Actions that do not take account of the interdependent arising of all
phenomena, of their interpenetration, and of the supreme value, or Buddha
Nature, of the other person—all of which Thich Nhat Hanh summarises under
the term interbeing—are not authentically Buddhist.

Queering sexual relationships

Traditional Buddhist ethics, while teaching non-duality, assumes in practice
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the privileged status of the male heterosexual, addressing almost all of its
remarks to him. Furthermore, while asserting the absence of essence
(nih svabhāva) in beings, it assumes in practice an essentialism of male and
female. When we ‘queery’ and ‘queer’ these assumptions we permit Buddhism as
it is practised (real Buddhism) to come into accord with Buddhist doctrine (ideal
Buddhism). This ‘queering’ of Buddhist sexual ethics owes much to the pioneer-
ing work of feminist Buddhologists such as Rita Gross (1993).9
Buddhism teaches that the untrained mind divides the interconnectedness
of reality into discrete units such as person, place, or thing, and assigns an
essence or ‘own-being’ (svabhāva) to them. The effect of this is to close up the
basic openness of reality, to deny change, and, most importantly, to block the
door to freedom by assuming that the suffering of samsara is imposed by fate
or by some other outside force over which we have no control. When these
supposed essences are subjected to analysis and insight (vipaśyanā) they are
found to be illusory, and śūnyatā (emptiness or, as I prefer to translate, transpar-
ency)—that is, the lack of inherent existence in persons, places, or things, is seen
to be the case. The identification of men and women as male or female in their
essence is then recognised as a function of untrained mind. Gross has shown
that, at least for the Mahayana, there is considerable support for the argument
that there is no such thing as inherent femaleness (and, by extension, no support
for inherent maleness). There are many examples in the texts of persons
changing from one sex to another so that, finally, the Dharma is neither male nor
female (Gross 1993, chapter 5).
The lack of gender in the Dharma and in enlightenment is put strongly in
The Sūtra of Sāgara, the Nāga King, chapter 14. Jewel Brocade, the Naga King’s
daughter, tells the great male disciple Mahākāśyapa:

‘You have said: “One cannot attain Buddhahood within a woman’s body.”
Then, one cannot attain it within a man’s body either. What is the reason?
Because the thought of enlightenment is neither male nor female’ (Paul
1979, 236; see also 235–241).

This argument is even stronger for queers. By ‘queer’ I mean anyone

whose sexuality does not fit the accepted social model—lesbians, gays, bisexu-
als, transgendered persons, and heterosexuals who enjoy non-normative sexual
activities such as bondage, sadomasochism, and fetishism. What all these per-
sons have in common is their indifference, or even opposition, to heterosexual
activity in the missionary position. By their very existence they proclaim the
absence of an intrinsic maleness or femaleness, and since most queers engage
in non-reproductive sex they demonstrate that sexual love in humans is more
about relationship than about reproduction.10

One of the more important discoveries of the feminist approach to cultures

is the patriarchal nature not only of sexual mores, but of the culture in question
as a whole. Patriarchal consciousness, feminists claim, goes along with a splitting
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of reality into the male subject and the female object. The male subject is
regarded as rational, passionless, and a privileged observer. The universe ‘out
there’ is made into the despised female other, irrational, full of disordered
passions, and existing only to be possessed, controlled, and enjoyed by the male
subject. Everything from the history of philosophy, through oppressive govern-
ments, to the present ecological crisis has rather convincingly been ascribed to
the exercise of the patriarchal consciousness.
From a Buddhist perspective, the most obvious mistake that patriarchal
consciousness makes is to split reality into subject and object. This is identified,
especially by Yogācāra, as a serious block to understanding reality and achieving
liberation from samsara. When reality is seen through feminist eyes, the patriar-
chal dualism is not so much in evidence—but it is even less credible from a queer
perspective that, by its fluidity, supports the teaching of the interdependence of
subject and object.

Gay consciousness and non-duality

Harry Hay, who is generally regarded as the founder of the modern gay
movement, has proposed that gays see reality differently (Timmons 1990; Hay
was writing before the proliferation of acronyms such as ‘LGBT’ and the re-estab-
lishment of the word queer). When a gay man falls in love with another man, the
relationship is not that of subject to object, as it might be for a man and a
woman, but of subject to another subject—not of ‘me’ to ‘another’ but of ‘me’
to ‘another me’. As Hay put it:
The Hetero monogamous relationship is one in which the participants,
through bio-cultural inheritance, traditionally perceive each other as OBJECT.
To the Hetero male, woman is primarily perceived as sex-object and then,
only with increasing sophistication, as person-object. The Gay monogamous
relationship is one in which the participants, through non-competitive
instinctual inclinations, and contrary to cultural inheritances, perceive each
other as Equals and learn, usually through deeply painful trials-and-errors,
to experience each other, to continuously grow, and to develop with each
other, empathically—as SUBJECT. (Hay 1996, 210; italics and small capitals in

Hay calls this gay consciousness subject–SUBJECT consciousness or analogue con-

sciousness and proposes it as a solution to the problems brought about through
the unthinking acceptance of patriarchal consciousness, or what he calls Hetero
male consciousness. Hay regards the gay male as neither male nor female at the
level of consciousness, but as something else. Gay men, he says, should think
back to their boyhood, and recognise this:

We allow Bully-boy to persuade us to search out the ‘feminine’ in our-

selves—didn’t good ole Bully-boy used to tell us [sic] we threw balls like a
girl? … Did you ever ask the girls back then if they thought you threw a
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ball like them? They’d have straightened you out in nothing flat! They’d
have told you that you didn’t throw a ball like a girl, but like something
other. You were not a feminine boy, like the boys said, you were OTHER! (Hay
1996, 260)

Hay then goes on to describe how gays are other, living in what he calls
a ‘new planet of Fairy-vision’ (Hay 1996, 260). This vision, as his friend and
collaborator Mitch Walker claims, overturns our conditioned views of reality:
‘Imagine, for instance, that the tops of the trees are really the roots’ (Walker, in
Thompson 1987). Hay states: ‘Subject–SUBJECT consciousness is a multi-
dimensional consciousness which may never be readily conveyable in the
Hetero-male-evolved two-dimensional, or Binary, language to which we are
primarily confined’ (Hay 1996, 260).
Gay or queer consciousness, then, challenges dualistic thinking and
replaces it with non-dual consciousness, and overturns, inverts or turns inside
out, consensus reality. This is a stated goal of Buddhism. Ordinary, deluded views
about reality are called ‘upside down’ (viparyāsa). The Yogācāra school teaches
that wisdom (jñāna) is obtained when consciousness (vijñāna) is reversed—liter-
ally turned around or turned inside out (parāvrtti). Perfect wisdom appears when
the deepest level of consciousness, base or store consciousness (ālaya-
vijñāna), is reversed (āśraya-parāvrtti). If this is true, queer consciousness is more
compatible with the Buddha Dharma than the traditional patriarchal conscious-
ness, and we can expect queer thinking to refresh and reform Buddhism in the

The Buddha Nature is queer

Harry Hay’s paean to gay consciousness is somewhat idealistic, and it
tends to oppose ‘good’ gays to ‘bad’ heterosexuals. In real life, we find many gay
men, lesbians, and queer persons in general, who are anything but loving and
egalitarian. On the other hand, we also find heterosexual men and women who
have a gay, or, as we might say now, a queer, consciousness. Locating gay or
queer consciousness in non-heterosexuals and denying it to heterosexuals
escapes from one essentialism only to fall into another. The way that we can
refresh Buddhism by queering it, in my opinion, is to foster the queer conscious-
ness that is, I believe, present in all humans.
When SGI split off from its clerical Japanese parent and followed its own
insights into the nature of true Buddhism, many queer members were encour-
aged to see their Buddha Nature as queer. Martha ‘BiBi’ Potts, an
African-American member of SGI, presumed at first that she ‘could fully carry out
her life purpose’ only if she ceased being a lesbian. She earnestly chanted the

Daimoku (the mantra NAM’ MYO HO REN GE KYO, which honours the Lotus Sutra as
the teaching of the true Dharma), sometimes for 10 hours a day, for 10 years. Her
sexual orientation did not change, but she could not get a date. In 1998 she had
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a spiritual experience on hearing a passage from the teachings of Nichiren (the

root teacher of her lineage): ‘Cherry, plum, peach or damson blossoms—all just
as they are, are entities possessing their own unique qualities’. She realised ‘I am
a pear trying to be a cherry’, accepted herself as a lesbian, and recovered her
zest for life (Perry 2002). Another SGI member, Peter Nellhaus (2000), quotes this
same passage in an essay on accepting his bisexuality. The SGI members whom
I interviewed in San Francisco in Spring 2002 seemed to be comfortable with an
identification of ‘[one’s] own unique qualities’ or ‘one’s own true potential’ with
the Buddha Nature as it is taught in the Lotus Sutra. I want to extend this insight
and suggest that it is not only the Buddha Nature of queers that is queer, but
the Buddha Nature in itself is queer.
Queer consciousness is not really about sex, although sex is a part of it; it
is about relationships, it removes our attention from sex as genital interaction
and the mechanics of reproduction, and transforms addictive lust (rāga and
kāma) into the pure abidings. It creates an environment in which Buddhism can
re-visit sexual relationships and see them as noble.
This conclusion is not only applicable to the lay person. The Vinaya
remains intact. Its pornographic prohibitions might well be allowed to gather
honourable dust except when they are really needed, but the monastic witness
is central to Buddhism. Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha for our space-time
continuum, was a monk, and there is massive scriptural support for monasticism
in Buddhism. Lax observance of the rule is not an argument for the abolition of
the bhiksu-samgha or bhiksu-sam  gha (the order of monks or nuns); it is merely
an indication that the Samgha should be reformed. The celibate who is in touch
with his/her queer consciousness (whether he/she self-identifies as lesbian, gay,
bisexual, transsexual, transgendered, or plain old heterosexual), is existentially in
touch with the Dharma, which is neither male nor female. Not only the Buddha
Nature, but also the Dharma, is queer. It queers samsara, it questions our
unawakened mind that sees only samsara, and shocks it awake so that we can
see samsara as nirvana.

1. I use the term ‘the West’ in its cultural rather than geographical sense,
following the suggestion of Hodgson (1993).
2. For the complete list, see Vajirañanavarorasa (2512/1969), vol.1:28–9. On the
meaning of pan d aka, often but misleadingly translated as homosexual,
hermaphrodite, or eunuch, see Zwilling (1992).
3. In Roman Catholicism similar lists of actions, called proximate causes of sin, are

taught in Catholic High Schools—usually to the merriment of the students—

but they have never been given formal ecclesiastical approval.
4. For a more extended discussion, see Corless (2001).
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5. Zwilling (1992, 204, note 6) alludes to this possibility, but more research needs
to be carried out to clarify the issue.
6. In Madison, Wisconsin in 1980, a teacher told the women students (who
comprised fully one-half of the group) to ‘reverse’ the symbolism, but they
were given no instruction on how to understand the recommendation to
‘retain the [energy of the] semen’.
7. For many valuable insights into Luther, I am indebted to the late Professor
Timothy Lull, President of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley,
California, for an interview that he graciously granted me on Tuesday, 14 May
2002. Lull’s (1999) work is an entertaining and learned introduction to Luther
that stimulates the reader to reflect on the past, present, and future of
8. Very few of these sutras have been translated into English. One of the smaller
sutras of the group is available as Lion’s Roar of Queen Śrīmālā (1974).
9. Gross’ book has already become a classic. One of the more disturbing recent
works, written by an author who makes extensive use of the major French
feminist theorists, is Campbell (1996), which charges that an unexamined
sexism has led to a covering up of serious Vinaya violations in the context of
the teacher–disciple relationship.
10. This point was made long ago in a neglected article by the Russian theologian
Vladimir Solovyev (1945).

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Roger Corless (author to whom correspondence should be addressed), 591

Daffodil Drive, Benicia, CA 94510, USA.
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