What is Buddhism?

I encourage you to read this neat little article about Buddhism and sexuality. That said, there’s an interesting conundrum embedded in it that didn’t hit me until days later. The main thrust of the piece is that 3rd century Tibetan monks codified proper sexual morality for lay people in very restrictive ways (no oral sex, anal sex, gay sex, or sex during daylight hours). But these rules actually come from the rules for monks (along with Tibetan cultural norms). The only rules about sex laid down by the Buddha for lay people was: 1.) no rape and 2.) no affairs. There are of course other precepts that can relate to sex like lying or doing harm.

All of this is quite straightforward. What threw me for a loop was the way the article was worded. The article says in effect, “Buddhism says homosexuality etc. is wrong, but the ancient texts don’t teach it that way.” Now this is interesting. In the author’s understanding, “Buddhism” is the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The early texts are just early texts. I understand the perspective (especially for an academic like José Cabezón), but my instinct is to think of “Buddhism” as being what the Buddha taught (or as near as we can figure), and the Tibetan tradition is just the Tibetan tradition.

So what is Buddhism?

If you accept that Buddhism is whatever a living Buddhist tradition says it is, then there is no final answer to the question. If you believe that Buddhism is what the Buddha taught, then as Buddhists we should work hard to find out what that was. And be willing to let go of cherished cultural norms if necessary.

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