Same-Sex Marriage and Buddhism

A Brief History of Gay Marriage and Buddhism in the West

Marriage Equality Buttons
Buttons celebrating the Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage in the US are for sale at the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, June 28, 2015 in San Francisco, California. © Max Whittaker / Getty Images

In light of the June 2015 United States Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide, how are American Buddhist institutions responding? 

The answer is, it varies. But some American Buddhist clergy have been performing wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples going back several years before same-sex marriage was legal anywhere in the United States. 

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

For example, the Rev.

Koshin Ogui of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco is known to have performed several public weddings for same-sex couples, all male, during the years 1970 to 1976. This is according to Jeff Wilson of Renison University College, in "'All Beings Are Equally Embraced By Amida Buddha': Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Same-Sex Marriage in the United States" (Journal of Global Buddhism Vol. 13 [2012]: 31-59).

Wilson says that the men in these relationships were regular attendees of the temple, and the Rev. Ogui conducted the weddings in the temple's main sanctuary as he would any other. 

The Buddhist Church of San Francisco is part of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA). The BCA is an organization of Jodo Shinshu, a Pure Land school that is the largest school of Buddhism in Japan and the most common form of Buddhism found in Japanese ethnic communities everywhere. Originally named the Buddhist Missions of North America, the organization adopted the name Buddhist Churches of America during the Japanese Internment during World War II.

They hoped "Buddhist Churches" would seem less threatening to other Americans than "Buddhist Missions." 

Read More: Jodo Shinshu in North America

In the 1980s a few other Jodo Shinshu ministers publiclly performed same-sex wedding ceremonies. The Rev. Taitetsu Unno (1929-2014) was a greatly respected minister and author as well as the foremost scholar of Pure Land Buddhism in the West.

In the 1980s he was serving as a professor of Buddhist Studies at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, when an HIV-positive male couple asked if he would marry them. "Unno often turned down marriage requests by heterosexual couples," Jeff Wilson wrote, "but he agreed to perform the ceremony in this instance because they had no one else to do it." Both men died within a year of their wedding.

By the 1990s several Jodo Shinshu ministers were performing same-sex weddings, often for couples who had no where else to go. In April 2000, the Rev. Masao Kodani of Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles was asked to marry two women, one of whom was a male-to-female transsexual. The Rev. Kodani took the precaution of asking the highest doctrinal experts of the head Jodo Shinshu temple in Kyoto it this was a problem. The doctrinal experts responded that there was no problem, as long as the couple was sincere and the wedding was not just a publicity stunt. 

Other Buddhist Schools 

In the 1990s other Buddhist organizations in America expressed approval for same-sex marriage. These included the lay Nichiren Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International, which announced in 1995 that same-sex wedding ceremonies  could be performed in their community centers.

By 1995 several American Zen temples and monasteries were hosting same-sex weddings also. Indeed, by then there were openly gay monastics and teachers in American Zen. 

The Rev. Sarika Dharma, head monastic at the non-denominational International Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles, spoke of same-sex marriage in the Los Angeles Times (John Dart, "U.S. Buddhist Group Approves Marriage-Like Rites for Gays," July 1, 1995), 

"The Buddha said that all human beings have the capacity to become enlightened," she said. "He didn't say that if they were of a certain sexual orientation that they couldn't. There is nothing in Buddhist doctrine to deny their acceptance."

Well, Except for Some Other Buddhist Schools

Buddhism is a hugely diverse tradition with many schools and sects that don't agree on everything.

And one of the things they don't agree on is homosexuality. This is true even though the Buddha said nothing against homosexuality and very little about sex of any sort among laypeople, although monks and nuns were sworn to celibacy.

Read More: Sex and Buddhism

Read More: Why Are Most Buddhist Nuns and Monks Celibate?

As Buddhism spread through Asia, local clergy filled in the gaps of what the Buddha didn't say with their own ideas about sex. So it was that in parts of Asia where homosexuality was frowned upon, Buddhism frowned on it also. But in east Asia, for the most part, homosexuality was not considered anything shameful or remarkable. This seems especially true of Japan. Homophobia entered Japanese culture through western influence, but that was later. There appears to be little to no anti-homosexual teaching in Japanese Buddhism. 

Theravada is the most common form of Buddhism in southeast Asia (Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Cambodia). Theravada Buddhist teachers in the West have said there is no particular Buddhist doctrine against homosexual sex among laypeople. Homosexual sex remains illegal in Sri Lanka and Burma, however, and none of these countries seem currently inclined to accept same-sex marriage. So, while scholars of Theravada doctrine may find no teaching about homosexuality one way or another, there is resistance to it within people of those cultures, including Buddhist monks. 

A side note: It is not traditional for Buddhist clergy in parts of Asia to perform wedding ceremonies at all, although in modern times Buddhist weddings have become more common in some countries. I'm not aware of Theravada monks performing same-sex weddings, but I'm not sure how often they perform opposite sex-weddings. There is no one ecclesiastical authority overseeing Theravada in the West, however, and monks do sometimes make up their own minds about what's right or wrong. 

And then there's Tibetan Buddhism, which is the only school of Buddhism with a canonical text forbidding homosexual sex between men.

This has put His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the spot. He says he doesn't see anything wrong with same-sex relationships, except that they are a violation of the Precepts, so a Buddhist may not have homosexual sex. Otherwise, it's okay. For an attempt at clarification, see Did the Dalai Lama Endorse Gay Marriage?  See also Love, Marriage and Buddhism.