Behind the tinkle of white cups is my aunt’s loud and confident voice, declaring that while gay marriage should be allowed, it shouldn’t be permissible for homosexuals to adopt children. Lest, of course, they be confused at having two daddies or mommies and being asked awkward questions by their kindergarten peers. I stay quiet, masking my desire to debate her by simply sipping my jasmine tea in an irritatingly filial fashion. I’m mindful of my aunt’s proud Christianity but also of the fact that it’s her treat tonight. I’m politely offering harmless, generic replies (“Yes, that may be so” – these neither affirm or betray my own opinion) from behind the kingdom of shredded roast duck, Sichuan beef brisket and stir-fried shallots.
So I simply carry on eating.
If I felt I had any greater say, I would have liked to go further than she would have agreed. But if I were to be truly honest, her qualified concession is more generous than many others’, because never mind the question of homosexual couples having children, the raging storm about gay partnership and marriage is fierce and violent enough.
Behind every religious debate about ethics and morality squirms a shadow. In the shadow of Buddhist ideals about marriage and romance lurks the question of homosexuality and gay marriage. In theory, Buddhism has little to say about homosexuality that it can’t say about heterosexuality. Both involve passion, so if you can’t rid yourself of passion you should at least restrict it to those you truly love. Celibacy is the best, of course, embodied in the Holy Community of monks and nuns. We laypeople, who are free to come to terms with our sexuality by experiencing it, are faced with problems that are ancient yet, at the same time, uniquely modern and require a modern response. Obviously, homosexuality was present in the Buddha’s lifetime, but today’s questions of gay marriage and equal rights are far more complex than the ancients could have ever imagined.
The Buddhist position on this, unlike other controversies like bioengineering or euthanasia, is relatively simple.
Behind the argument of equality is our concern to uphold everything that leads to greater commitment between people, between sentient beings. In this increasingly fragmented and isolated world, perhaps we need affirmations of commitment more than ever. Be we traditionalist or liberal or a mix of both, Buddhists believe, above all, in vows. Buddhists believe in the precepts that bind us to a higher moral order. This higher moral order, the uncreated, timeless Dharma, empowered the religion to survive for 2600 years despite everything that’s been thrown at it: emperors’ persecutions, persecutions by other religions or social marginalization, and even its near-extinction in its own homeland. “I vow not to kill or hurt others. I vow not to lie. I vow to be true to the person I love.” It matters not if the vows being made between two people are of the same gender. We must not forget that in a very real sense, when they enter the monastery monks and nuns make vows to each other too! Yet in both cases, vows unite once isolated individuals into a stronger unit of love and devotion.
Buddhists also believe in taking refuge, and we take refuge only in the things that really matter: Buddha, Dharma, and Sa?gha, but also Beloved. Marriage is that kind of vow. It is the refuge taken by two people in each other. And it shouldn’t matter whether refuge is taken between a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. As cliché as it may sound, two is enough to make a miniature sa?gha, especially when they come together in mutual promises and fidelity.
It matters not if you’re in the US, the UK, Hong Kong or anywhere else. This is no longer an issue of being “conservative” or “progressive.” I support gay rights and gay marriage not in spite of being a Buddhist, but because I am a Buddhist.