Thursday, 31 January 2013

Singapore's Need for Population Growth (or How To Make More Babies Faster)

I am going to make a suggested solution to Singapore's need for population growth that could not be met by its citizen's birth rate. My suggestion is inspired from a good post on this population issue, found in the blog Yawning Bread

Before I make my suggestion, here is an extract from the long and good analysis in the blog Yawning Bread to give part of the context (for a fuller context, please read the original full post at Yawning Bread):
The point here is that we have to do something — and drastic — about TFR [Total Fertility Rate].
Starting NOW, we have to insist that every adult citizen (male and female) reaching age 30, raise 1.5 children before age 40. Marriage should not be a pre-condition. Married or single, everybody has to raise 1.5 children. We may have to re-shape our taxation policies to ensure that taxes are so heavy that it becomes plain that the only way to neutralise the penalty is to have children and claw back the tax and subsidy incentives related to child-rearing. Make it obvious that it is better to raise children and take the incentives than to do without kids and pay the penalties.
Of course, it is easier said than done. It means a massive reshaping of values and economic expectations.
It’s time we recognise that to expect a two-parent household to raise 3 children, one parent shouldn’t be expected to work in the formal sector for about ten years. That means the family has to be able to live on only one income for ten years.
A one-parent household, expected to raise 1.5 children, has to be allowed to opt out of the workforce for about five to six years.
Either we chop down the cost of living to allow this to happen or the state therefore has to come in with a replacement income stream to keep all these families afloat. Alas, I do not see the government willing to confront this reality.
Quite the opposite: Page 38 of the White Paper still speaks of “helping more Singaporeans join the workforce”. No, that’s the opposite of what should be done.
If we do what is needed — i.e. at any given time, a number of people leave the workforce temporarily to raise children — then our citizen workforce between now and 2030 will fall even more than the 100,000 to 200,000 mentioned at the start of the essay. A “child-raising sabbatical” of ten years per couple, equivalent to five years per person, is approximately 15% of one’s working life. This means a further reduction of about 150,000 in the citizen workforce.
It will have a huge effect on our economy. Whereas I spoke above of settling for 1% GDP growth over the next half-generation, if we want also to fix the TFR, it really means negative GDP growth.
But if for our long-term good, we make rectifying the TFR the top priority, then we have little choice. We must (a) pull people out from the formal workforce to do child rearing, and (b) completely restructure or taxes and incentives. If we, at the same time, cannot stomach more immigration to make up the shortfall in the workforce that results, then Singaporeans should be told that we have to pay the price of economic shrinkage for say 10 – 15 years while we re-adjust the moorings and foundations of our economy and society.
The author of Yawning Bread has basically said that a drastic measure to improve the TFR has to be taken as soon as possible. He suggested to use both positive and negative incentives to make virtually every Singapore citizen between the age of 30 and 40 to want to raise 1.5 children, regardless whether or not they are married. And Singapore must be prepared to sacrifice positive GDP growth for years (e.g. letting people take some years away from work to care for their children, which would reduce the workforce, and which can in turn ultimately lead to negative GDP growth).

My suggestion is to take it seemingly even further, more drastic or more radical (depending on what perspective/background you are coming from). My suggestion is to build mass production factories. Not the production factories of products and components, but mass production factories of... babies!!! Yes babies. Please read on before you throw mental stones at me. You may find that it is actually nothing radical or drastic if you read on. In fact Singapore has already a number of such production factories. I am referring to orphanages. (Sorry I was expressing it in a dramatic way). What Singapore can consider is to have more institutionalised orphanages and systematically bring in many orphans from other  countries which have insufficient resources to take care of their orphans, especially when some of these countries are struggling with both poverty and overpopulation. This would thus be a win-win solution for both these struggling countries and Singapore. 

We can bring in such orphaned babies and then raise them up as Singapore citizens. Some of these babies can be adopted by interested Singaporeans who meet the necessary adoption criteria, whether or not they are married. From what I have heard from academics, researches showed that children raised by unmarried persons generally do not fair worse than those from heterosexually married families. Those babies not adopted would be raised in the orphanages. 

One side-advantage is that over a longer term, these children  these children coming from different geographical locations would give us mixed gene pool which may give us better minds (whether or not they would be of better characters would, to a large extent, depend on how we nurture them). 

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A Pastor's Jorney On Homosexuality

Someone passed me a mainstream church pastor's letter and I received permission to put it up here. In the light of the uncompassionate, unChristlike and unChristian behaviour of the two pastors mentioned in the media, it is refreshing to see this letter from another pastor whose words reflect the spirit of Christ. See the letter below.


A Pastor’s Journey……..

Thank you for asking for my views about our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. 

I have thought and prayed about this a long time. I have changed my views over the years. I try to keep an open heart and mind going forward realizing that I am still learning and that I may be wrong. Here is where I am right now.

I don’t believe that people choose to be gay or lesbian. 

I believe that is the orientation that people bring with them into the world. Because of that I believe that God has created them that way. What God creates is good. It is not my way but my way is not the only way. What follows from that for me is that although I do not understand their orientation I do not condemn it.

I believe that sexuality, heterosexuality or homosexuality, is a gift from God and must be lived responsibly. Promiscuity or infidelity is an abuse of the gift. Abuse, manipulation or compulsion involving anyone who is not able to make a free and adult choice is wrong, gay or straight.

I know gays and lesbians whose Christian life inspires me. I cannot condemn them to live a life without the loving companionship of people who share their orientation. All human beings need and deserve love while we draw breath.

I am aware of the biblical teaching. But I also remember that our understanding of the Scriptures has changed over the centuries as most of us do not take St Paul literally about women and slaves. Perhaps we are also growing in our understanding of sexuality.

And, then, there is what I deeply feel is the Spirit of Jesus and the universal love which He showed us was the heart of God. I cannot picture Jesus condemning loving and faithful human relationships. I may be wrong but I would rather face Jesus at the day of judgement explaining how I offered love rather than explain how I denied it.

S377A - Open Letter To Law Minister By Humanist Society

In my previous post, I mentioned that Singapore is not a Christian society but a pluralistic one of which members include atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Muslims, and so on. My previous blog-post pointed out a Buddhist Perspective on homosexuality. Below is an open letter to Singapore's Law Minister written by The Humanist Society (Singapore) comprising mostly atheists and agnostics. It shows the perspective of The Humanist Society (Singapore) towards homosexuality and S377A which criminalises sex between men.

In short, Singapore's Humanist Society finds no moral problem with homosexuality and supports the repeal of S377A.

From the previous post on Buddhism's support of homosexuality and from this post on Humanism's embrace of the same issue, this means that the views of those Christians who finds homosexuality immoral is not the only mainstream view of the issue in Singapore.

The Humanist Society (Singapore)

Mr K Shanmugam
Minister for Foreign Affairs
Minister for Law
21 Jan 2013

Dear Minister K Shanmugam,

The Humanist Society (Singapore) was heartened to hear about your meeting with members of Sayoni, (a Singapore-based community of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women) on 27th November 2012. We support your decision to connect with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) citizens as a constituent part of our society who contribute to our economy, protect our citizens and serve our country.

The Humanist Society (Singapore)(HSS) is a registered society in Singapore for humanists, freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and other like-minded people. Humanism is a non-theistic ethical life stance affirming the human right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. As part of our objectives, we seek to uphold the importance of maintaining secular space in the interest of social harmony, and we encourage respect for all men and women to be free from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, class, disability, gender, sexual orientation, age, or nationality.

Over the last decade, an increasing body of scientific evidence has demonstrated that sexual orientation is part of the human biological make-up that an individual has no conscious choice over. The legalization of homosexuality and same sex/gender unions in many countries has also demonstrated that homosexual relationships are as healthy and normal as any heterosexual relationship. Consequently, many countries, including ASEAN countries and international bodies like the United Nations, are calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality and the removal of policies discriminatory to LGBT persons. The HSS supports the review and repeal of Section 377a of the Penal Code, as a move that would put Singapore in line with international progress and standards.

We recognize that there are fellow citizens who continue to object to homosexuality based solely on their personal religious beliefs. While we recognize their right to do so, Section 377a criminalizes a significant proportion of gay men whose own religious beliefs do not conflict with homosexuality, or who are non-religious. We would like to highlight that Section 377a also applies to LGBT Humanists and free-thinkers, whose community and beliefs are supportive of their relationships. We applaud our Government’s efforts in maintaining Singapore as a secular state that respects people of all religions. Therefore, we call on the Government to repeal Section 377a. Legislation based on religious beliefs that are not shared by many Singaporeans should not have any place in our secular state. DPM Teo Chee Hean addressed Parliament recently in Oct 2012 that the government accepts the need to keep religion and politics separate in Singapore and the HSS agrees with that principle.

We also wish to highlight that LGBT persons, including children, are often subject to arbitrary discrimination, bullying and harassment, because of personal prejudices and ignorance. We appeal to the Government for greater space to raise awareness of and respect for LGBT persons through public education. The impact of LGBT discrimination is also greatly felt by the friends and family of LGBT persons, who share in their struggle for acceptance. As long as Section 377a exists, those of us who love and support our LGBT family and friends could even be found guilty of abetting their criminal activities.

We have been encouraged by the Government’s strong stance against racial and religious intolerance, whether at an institutional level, or as a result of personal prejudice. We hope that such a stance against intolerance can also be extended to the LGBT community. LGBT persons are only seeking to live their lives without the fear of persecution just as non-LGBT persons do.

In the recent National Day 2012 Message, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the need for Singaporeans to work together to build an inclusive society with a heart. In line with PM Lee’s message, we hope that this is the first step to achieving our goal of inclusiveness and non-discrimination.

Mark Kwan
Humanist Society (Singapore)

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A Buddhist Perspective: Why Homosexuality Is Not Immoral

In the past week until today, in Singapore's newspapers and online media, a debate has been going on regarding homosexuality. One pastor asked a government minister to ensure that S377A, a law against male-to-male sex, remains in the law books. Another pastor from another church said:

"We must sound the trumpet because the church must get herself into battle footing, and be battle-ready. The first salvo was fired by the Senior Pastor of FCBC this week on the LGBT issue and the churches are beginning to mobilise themselves not just for this battle, but for the many battles ahead of us. The LGBT bloc will of course be outraged, but that is to be expected. We must make a stand for righteousness in this nation. This war is winnable and the church will arise victorious. We are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus who loved us. Be ready for a sharp polarising of our society over the gay and lesbian issue and when it happens, you better make sure you know which side you are on." He has since removed some such statements from his church's website. 
(see the report at

As Singapore is not a Christian society but a multi-worldview society of which members include atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Muslims and so on, it would be good to contrast the views of those two pastors with the views shared by three well-known Buddhist monks below.

Venerable Dhammika

Spiritual Advisor to the Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society in Singapore

With its emphasis on psychology and cause and effect, Buddhism judges acts, including sexual acts, primarily by the intention (cetana) behind them and the effect they have. A sexual act motivated by love, mutuality and the desire to give and share would be judged positive no matter what the gender of the two persons involved. Therefore, homosexuality as such is not considered immoral in Buddhism or against the third Precept…

Occasionally someone, usually a young man but sometimes a young women or an older man or women, will approach me and after a few minuets of hesitation or beating around the bush, ask me what the Buddhist position on homosexuality is. When they do I tell then that intentional actions (kamma) modify consciousness and that our kamma conditions our future. Positive intentional acts have positive effects (vipaka) and negative intentional acts have a negative effect. Sexual acts motivated by the usual intentions, feelings and emotions which exist between two people who love each other, would have a positive effect and would not infringe the third Precept, whether they be homosexual or heterosexual. I underline this point by saying that Buddhist ethics about sex are primarily concerned with the motives behind our sexual behavior, rather than the gender of our partner. This being so, if two people of the same gender express their love for each other physically there is no good reason why the kamma this creates should be any different from when two people of the opposite gender do the same.

Venerable Ajahn Brahmavamso

Spiritual Patron of the Buddhist Fellowship in Singapore
Abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery
the Spiritual Director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia.

First of all, on the topic of homosexuality and queerness, I would like to raise a point that people should never address these questions from a position of fear and many times that we are afraid to confront this issue deeply, is simply because of fear.

The first thing I would like to say from the Buddhist perspective is that, whenever we have a hard decision to make or hard choice to make, we must look at our minds to see if we have, what the Buddha calls, “perversions of thought”; that we should not make our decisions or actions out of fear, out of desire, out of ill-will and stupidity. And particularly attitudes to homosexuals, whether its your friends or children or other people in society, should not be thought of from the position of fear.

Having confronted homosexuality just by being in a Western country, this subject has to come up, which monks and nuns and everyone has to confront. Because there are some people who will become your disciples and even want to become monks or nuns and join the Sangha, some of them are homosexuals, or some of your disciples’ children are homosexuals.

Very often, they ask the question, “Is homosexuality breaking the 5 precepts?” Particularly, this concerns the 3rd precept, which concerns sexual misconduct. However, the studies of Buddhist meaning of the term sexual misconduct certainly does not include homosexual activities. And its fascinating that the Buddha was certainly aware about homosexuality in his time. There were many cases mentioned in old scriptures, especially the Vinaya (the code of ethics for monks and nuns) of homosexual acts and those who were that way inclined and he certainly never included it under the 5 precepts.

When we talk about the 3rd precept, of sexual misconduct, it literally concerns adultery or illicit sex, especially between a man or a woman who were not married and that concern sexual relations that were considered inappropriate at that time, but it certainly does not include homosexual and lesbian activities.
So when we look at the ethical issues of homosexuality, we cannot use the 5 precepts as they don’t apply. The fact that it was not mentioned was an indication that the Buddha did not think that it was that bad after all an activity to be included in the 5 precepts. And so we have to logically treat homosexual and lesbian relationships to the same category as heterosexual relationship. In other words, the law of karma, the understanding of goodness and that which brings forth happiness in future lives and happiness in this life… which mean we have to look at homosexuality in the same light as heterosexuality, in other words if its a loving, caring, non-exploitative relationship, with consenting adults at appropriate age, there seems to be nothing morally wrong with it.

And indeed there are nothing in the sutras, or the Vinaya of the Buddhist Theravada tradition that there is anything wrong with it, nor in the commentaries. 

Venerable Ajahn Sujato 

Abbot of Santi Forest Monastery, Australia

Marriage equality is one of the key social and legal issues of our time. I’d like to offer a Buddhist perspective.

As with so many ethical and social questions, especially those that involve sexuality, we find that religion wants to be at the core of things. The conservative Christian churches are leading the opposition to marriage equality. We can’t generalise on the basis of religion, though. Many Christians believe that Christ’s message of compassion and love, and the fact that he never made any statement on homosexuality, provide a basis for support of marriage equality.

In Australia there was an interesting exchange between the highly conservative Catholic leader Cardinal George Pell and the group Australian Marriage Equality. The AME asked to meet Cardinal Pell, and he consented to do so as long as the AME agreed that not all opposition to same-sex marriage was a result of homophobia or discrimination. The AME agreed, and came out with the following statement:

‘Just as we acknowledge that it is possible to oppose marriage equality without hating homosexuals, so we ask those who differ with us on this important issue to acknowledge that it is possible to support marriage equality without seeking to undermine, marriage, family, or religion.’

That’s a great starting point, and an all-too-rare example of dialogue as it should be.

But what of Buddhism? As with any issue, you’ll find a variety of positions; and as with any issue – and I apologise if this sounds cynical – most of those positions have little to do with anything the Buddha himself said or did.

In some cases we find Buddhist leaders who state the ethical case plainly. Ajahn Brahm has been very forward in supporting the gay community for many years, both in Australia and overseas. Master Hsin Yun, the leader of the international Fo Guang Shan order, said:
‘People often ask me what I think about homosexuality. They wonder, is it right, is it wrong? The answer is, it is neither right nor wrong. It is just something that people do. If people are not harming each other, their private lives are their own business; we should be tolerant of them and not reject them.’
Venerable Master Hsing Yun
On the other hand, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly maintained that homosexual acts are a violation against the precepts. At the same time, he insists on compassion and full human rights for all. His stance is solely concerned with what is appropriate behaviour for a Buddhist practitioner, not what should be made law.

His argument is that the sexual organs are designed for procreation and should be used solely for that purpose. So any form of sex that is not for procreation is out.

This is, to my mind, an extreme and unrealistic position. The Dalai Lama says it is based on certain medieval Indian scholars (Vasubandhu, Asanga – but I have never seen the passages myself). It certainly has no basis in the Suttas. On the contrary, the Suttas freely acknowledge that sex is for pleasure, and they never make a problem out of that. Buddhism is not a fertility religion, so why we should insist that sex be for procreation is beyond me.

The precept as found in the early Buddhist texts mentions nothing about whether sex is for procreation or not. What it talks about, solely, is whether the sexual relation involves the betrayal of a social contract. Here’s the text. It’s a stock passage, found for example in Majjhima Nikaya 41, and Anguttara Nikaya 10.176 and 10.211:

‘One is a person who misconducts himself in sexual pleasures. One has intercourse with a woman who is protected by mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, family, clan, law (or custom, ‘dhamma’), or one who has a husband, who is punishable, or even with one garlanded for betrothal.’
Kāmesu micchācārī hoti, yā tā māturakkhitā piturakkhitā mātāpiturakkhitā bhāturakkhitā bhaginirakkhitā ñātirakkhitā gottarakkhitā dhammarakkhitā sasāmikā saparidaṇḍā antamaso mālāguaparikkhittāpi, tathārūpāsu cāritta āpajjitā hoti.

Most of these are straightforward. They refer to women who are not ‘independent’ women in our modern sense, but who live under the authority of others. Typically, of course, this would have been young girls living at home, then in a family with a husband. There are significant variations, though, so arrangements were flexible.

It’s noteworthy that, while the Hindu texts say that a woman must always be under the authority of a man, here we find that living under the authority of a mother is next to father, and a sister is next to brother, with no implication that one of the other is preferable.

In some cases, it seems, women lived under the protection of the wider family. The one ‘guarded by dhamma’ is probably adopted, orphaned, or in some other way taken care of. The one who is ‘punishable’ is ambiguous: does it mean that the woman is to be punished (as a criminal)? Or does it mean that having intercourse with her is punishable? The text doesn’t make it clear. The woman ‘garlanded for betrothal’ refers to a woman who is, in our modern sense, ‘engaged’ but not yet married.

Obviously, the passage as stated above only refers to the man as agent. That doesn’t mean that women can’t break this precept! Like so many of the Buddhist texts, it is phrased from a male point of view (andocentric), and would apply equally to both genders. The assumption of the passage is that it is women who are under protection. This reflects the social reality of the Buddha’s time; it doesn’t endorse this situation, nor does it say that women can’t or shouldn’t live independently. It just says that if a woman (and presumably a man) is living in a committed relationship then one should not betray that.

This much is clear: the precept against sexual misconduct has nothing to do with homosexuality (or any other form of sexual activity as such.) It is concerned with breaking the bonds of trust with those that we love, and nothing else. While the specifics of the social relations in the Buddha’s time are different than today, it is not problematic to work out how to apply this in our own context, at least in most cases.

So if the precept does not concern homosexuality, what did the Buddha say on the topic? We are very lucky in Buddhism to have thousands of discourses, with the Buddha making observations or criticisms regarding many kinds of ethical issues. Rape, paedophilia, adultery: these and many other problems are clearly mentioned in the early texts, and the Buddha made it clear that he didn’t approve of them. In the case of homosexuality, however, we have nothing in the Suttas. In all the thousands of discourses, not a single one regarded homosexuality as a significant issue.

There is one passage in the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta, which is sometimes cited by those who are trying to prove that the Buddha was anti-gay. The text discusses various examples of moral decay in society. One of the practices it mentions is, in the Pali, micchā-dhamma. This is about the most generic term for wrong doing that it’s possible to make in Pali. You could translate it as ‘wrong teachings’, ‘bad practices’, ‘misguided actions’, and so on. The commentary, compiled nearly 1000 years later in Sri Lanka, however, says it means, ‘Lustful desire of men for men, and women for women.’ (Micchādhammoti purisāna purisesu itthīnañca itthīsu chandarāgo.) Since this has no basis in the text, it stands as a record of the attitude of a medieval commentator. There’s no evidence, so far as I am aware, that this attitude was representative of ancient Theravadin or Sri Lankan culture in general.

The Suttas essentially ignore any issues around homosexuality. Now, arguments from absence are always difficult. But the presence of thousands of discourses detailing lists of many kinds of ethical violations, strongly suggests that the Buddha tried to be reasonably comprehensive in addressing ethical concerns, and homosexuality was not one of them.

The picture in the Vinaya is a little different. The Vinaya is a legal code for monastics, and since it regulates the conduct of a celibate order, it deals with all kinds of possible sexual behaviours. It does so with a degree of frankness and candour that so shocked the early European translators that they simply omitted large chunks of text, or, with a quaint regard for the delicate sensibilities of young readers, translated them into Latin.

Homosexual acts, like just about any other imaginable sexual act, are depicted many times in the Vinaya, both among monks and nuns. In each case, the Buddha is shown as responding in his usual direct and common sense manner. Obviously, homosexual behaviour, like any sexual behaviour, is inappropriate among the celibate monastic community, so the Buddha prohibits it. However, this is done in a straight, matter-of-fact tone, and there is never a suggestion that there is anything wrong with gay sex per se

In several cases the penalty is actually less in the case of homosexual behaviour. For example, for a monk to erotically touch another man is a less serious offence than the same act with a woman. Sex between women, likewise, is treated less seriously than between a woman and a man. There is one passage where the Buddha’s chief disciple, Venerable Sariputta, is said to have had two novices as students. But they had sex with each other. The Buddha laid down a rule that one should not take two novices as students at the same time! (This rule, like many others, was later relaxed.) 

However, it would be a mistake to read this as implying that the Buddha regarded same-sex sexuality as somehow more permissible in the Sangha. The Vinaya, as a legal code, frequently makes judgements for various technical reasons, and there is no strong correlation between the moral weight of an act and the severity with which it is treated in the Vinaya. For example, building an overly-large hut is a serious offence, while bashing someone within an inch of their life is a minor offence.

So we shouldn’t read too much into the relative leniency of how some homosexual acts are treated in the Vinaya. The main point is simply that homosexuality is treated in pretty much the same way as any other expression of sexuality.

In these accounts there is nothing that really corresponds with our modern notion of sexual orientation. For the most part, same-sex acts are just that, acts. There’s no idea of a person who solely or primarily is attracted to people of the same sex. 

The texts do speak of a certain kind of person, called a paṇḍaka. These are typically male, but there were females too (itthīpaṇḍikā). A paṇḍaka is forbidden to ordain, and is regularly associated with unbridled sexuality. It is, however, unclear exactly what paṇḍaka means. The descriptions of the paṇḍaka are few, and not always consistent, but there seems to have been some physical attribute involved, as well as a set of cultural behaviours. Perhaps they were some form of eunuchs who performed sexual services. In any case, the paṇḍaka is clearly not a homosexual in the modern sense of the word. They may be connected with the modern classes of Hijras and the like, who are considered a ‘third sex’ in India, including transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and eunuchs.

To sum up, early Buddhism is well aware of homosexual acts, and never treats them as an ethical problem. Homosexuality as a sexual orientation is not found.

This is completely in line with the Buddha’s take on ethics. The Buddha did not ethically judge persons, he judged deeds. People are simply people, who do various kinds of things, some good, some bad. If a person does a deed that causes harm, this is what the Buddha considered ‘unskilful’. If the deed causes no harm, it is not unskilful. 

The basic problem in sexual ethics, addressed in the third precept, is betrayal. ‘Sexual misconduct’ is sexual behaviour that causes harm by breaking the trust that a loved one has placed in us. The Buddha was compassionate, and he never laid down ethical rules that caused harm or distress. Making a moral proscription against homosexuality marginalises and harms people who have done no wrong, and it is against the basic principles of Buddhist ethics.

It’s so important to keep this essential ethical question in mind. In discussions on homosexuality, as with just about any other controversial ethical issue, there is a pervasive tendency to confuse the issue. Why do we find it so difficult to look at an ethical question rationally? It is true, there are some issues that are complex and the details can be difficult to work out. But this is not one of them.

Countless times we are told, for example, that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’. Surely a moment’s reflection should show us this is not true, because there’s plenty of homosexuality in the animal world. And anyway, how is gay sex more unnatural than, say, typing on a keyboard, or wrapping food in plastic? But this is all beside the point. Being ‘unnatural’ is not an ethical issue. The issue is whether it causes harm, not whether it is natural or not. That is no more an ethical issue than is the choice, say, to eat organic or non-organic vegetables. 

Homosexuality is also regularly linked with sexual ‘decadence’ in general. Homosexuals are said to be paedophiles, or promiscuous, or to cause diseases such as AIDS. Allowing homosexual relations is to licence all manner of debaucheries. This objection, too, is not valid: gays behave in all sorts of ways, just as do straight people. 

Blaming gays for AIDS is one of the most cruel arguments possible. We feel compelled to look for examples that show the absurdity of these views. What of babies born with AIDS? What of those who get AIDS via blood transfusion? Incidence of malaria is much greater among poor people – are we to blame them, too? And why is incidence of AIDS among lesbians so very low – is lesbianism kammically preferable?

But we shouldn’t have to look for such examples. Like the arguments mentioned above, the whole thing is missing the point. Take the ‘worst case’ scenario, the cliché of the promiscuous, irresponsible, drug-taking, careless gay man. We might not think his behaviour is praiseworthy or wise, but does it deserve a slow, lingering, and painful death? Are we really comfortable to righteously proclaim the justice of destroying a human life, because we think that the way they have sought pleasure is irresponsible? This whole argument is inhuman and unworthy.

If there are behaviours that gay people do that increase transmission of HIV, for example, then we can try to change those behaviours, just as we would try to help any people who were inadvertently causing harm. What the marriage equality movement wants is to enable people of various sexual orientations to live in an accepted, recognised, and legal framework which supports the development of loving, committed relationships. Banning gay marriage is the very best way to ensure gays remain marginalised.

Another red herring, in my view, is the ‘born this way’ argument, which is often used by those who support marriage equality. Homosexuality, so the argument goes, is not a choice, some people are just like that and can’t change. While this is an important, if contested, fact, it misses the ethical issue. What if some gay people don’t feel like they were ‘born this way’? What if they feel like they have made a conscious choice? Whether this is the case or not, or whether there are in fact hidden biological factors involved, so what? Having sex with someone of the same gender is not a harmful deed, nor is marrying someone of the same gender. Whether it’s by biological determinism or free will, nothing harmful is done, so there’s no ethical problem.

Perhaps the single most fallacious argument against gay marriage is simply that it upsets the customs of society. Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, therefore it will damage society to do it any other way. 

This argument, favoured by conservatives, once again completely misses the point. The damage is already here. Violence, trauma, and abuse is a part of the living reality of millions of perfectly good people all over the world, simply because they have, or want to have, sex with persons of their own gender. Part of society is broken, and it needs fixing. 

This is the same argument that was used to oppose abolishing slavery, votes for women, property rights for all, and so on. In each case, those in the position of privilege strive to keep others from getting the same rights. And since the cost of inequality is borne by the ‘others’, it does not exist for the privileged. 

When we introduce compassion into the equation, however, we recognise that society has always been imperfect. Just because something was done in the past does not make it right. Perhaps it was the case that in certain times and places our marriage customs made more sense than they do now. But that’s not the point. The point is, what is the right thing to do now? To continue to exclude, marginalise, and discriminate? Or to broaden our moral horizons, to fully accept and include all people?

If homosexuality as such is not a problem, what then of same-sex marriages? In this area we find that the Buddha had even less to say. In fact, there is no such thing as a Buddhist marriage. Buddhists have simply adopted the marriage customs of the culture they find themselves in. The most basic model, therefore, was the customs of ancient India. These have been the basis for Buddhist family customs, adapted in each society that Buddhism has gone to.

In ancient India, there were several forms of marriage. As with all things Indian, there is no insistence on one true, correct way of doing things. Some Hindu texts list a whole range of marriage possibilities, which are correlated with the levels of Indian cosmology. The highest form of marriage is the ‘Brahma wedding’, where the bride and groom, each pure in lineage and caste, is united in the most perfect of ceremonies. If the marriage is lacking in some perfections of detail, it is reckoned as pertaining to the lower classes of deities. The lowest of the auspicious weddings is the gandharva wedding, where the bride and groom simply elope. Then there are the various inauspicious unions, those of the yakkhas or rakkhasas, where, for example, the woman is abducted by force.

Along with this diversity in wedding style, there were different marital arrangements. Monogamy seems to have been common, and of course these were often arranged marriages – but ancient Buddhist texts also record a strong struggle by women for autonomy in the marriage choices. Polygamy is also common, and was the norm for kings. Polyandry is less common, but is central to the most famous of all Hindu texts, the Mahabharata. Apparently polyandry is common in Tibet.

I’m not trying to uphold the Indian marriage system as superior to that in the West. It has its own problems with inter-caste marriages, arranged marriages, domestic violence, and so on. I’m merely making the point that there has traditionally been an adaptive diversity of living arrangements that were considered to be valid forms of marriage, and that this can be seen in some ways as a precedent for the modern idea of same-sex marriages.

So there has always been a flexibility and diversity in marriage customs in the Indian sphere that stands in clear contrast with the ‘one and only’ correct form of marriage that is, in the main, endorsed by the contemporary monotheistic religions. Same-sex marriages were not, so far as I’m aware, historically acknowledged within the Indian cultural sphere. Nor am I aware of any laws against them, such as we find in the modern day. Given the wide variations in marriage customs, including many forms of marriage that would not be considered valid in modern times, it would seem that the typical Indian approach was that of tolerance and inclusion. Accordingly, when the British law that made gay sex a crime was repealed in India in 2009, some Hindu authorities applauded the move, saying homosexuality was part of the divine order.

Unfortunately, this tolerant attitude is not always the case today. One sometimes finds Hindutva polemics against homosexuality. Such discourse, sadly enough, often rails against the supposed debauched influence of ‘Western’ morals, oblivious to the fact that anti-gay attitudes were themselves imported into India by the monotheistic religions. This ambiguity has been expressed by the highest authorities in India. Goolam Vahanvati, then solicitor-general and current attorney-general, stated to the UN Human Rights Council:

‘Around the early 19th Century, you probably know that in England they frowned on homosexuality, and therefore there are historical reports that various people came to India to take advantage of its more liberal atmosphere with regard to different kinds of sexual conduct.

‘As a result, in 1860 when we got the Indian Penal Code, which was drafted by Lord Macaulay, they inserted Section 377 which brought in the concept of “sexual offences against the order of nature”.

‘Now in India we didn’t have this concept of something being “against the order of nature”. It was essentially a Western concept, which has remained over the years. Now homosexuality as such is not defined in the IPC, and it will be a matter of great argument whether it is “against the order of nature”.’

A similar situation prevails in other Buddhist countries, too. In Japan, China, and elsewhere, the early generations of Christian missionaries were shocked at the casual acceptance of homosexual behaviour among the Buddhists. They immediately set about trying to persuade the world that their own version of sexual propriety was the right one for everyone.

Sadly enough, modern generations of Buddhists and Hindus are now doing this work for them, oblivious to their own more accepting and compassionate past. When a Thai monk like Thattajiwo, one of the leaders of Dhammakaya, rails against the ‘sexual perverts’, who have called down the kammic justice of AIDS (‘the executioner of the sex-mad’) upon them, oblivious of the pit of sin they have fallen into, and the even greater sufferings that await them in future disease-ridden hells of torment, he is merely parroting the frothing excesses of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. (Phra Thattajiwo Bhikku. Waksiin Porng-kan Rook Eet (A Vaccine to Protect Against AIDS). Pathumthani: Thammakay Foundation.) Such apocalyptic and condemnatory ‘ethics’ have no basis in the Buddha’s teaching.

So in today’s climate, what are we to do? For the Buddha, homosexuality was clearly not an issue. Nor was making laws proscribing valid forms of marriage. What was an issue, on the other hand, was compassion. The very essence of compassion is to reach out to those who are suffering, those who are marginalised. and persecuted. People whose sexual orientation varies from the majority suffer discrimination, bullying at school, violence, and emotional trauma. As Buddhists we should recognise a clear moral imperative to help wherever we can.

One might object that since the Buddha made no statement on the legalities of gay marriage, we should do the same. But the problem is a little more subtle than that. We are living in a culture where, based on certain religious and cultural ideas, certain ways of living one’s life have been made illegal. This is an artefact of the conditioned and always arbitrary course of history, not a timeless feature of the human landscape. In Australia, for example, there was no clear Federal law that prohibited same-sex marriage until 2004.

Supporting marriage equality is not to introduce something new, but simply to abolish laws that discriminate. The injustice is already in place. The harm is being done. The change is merely to remove the harmful influence of discriminatory laws, which should never have been there in the first place.

People are people, regardless of their gender, colour, nationality, or sexual orientation. The Buddha taught ‘for one who feels’. That’s the only requirement for Buddhist practice: one who feels. In the past our society decreed that marriage should not be between people of a different race, or a different colour, or a different religion, or a different nationality. Over time, we decided that these rules were harmful, and we abolished them.

Catastrophes were predicted: they didn’t come true.

What has happened, rather, is that we have become a little more open minded, and a little more aware of the suffering of others. The test of our generation is whether we can continue this move towards a more accepting and loving way of living, or whether we are to regress to a meaner, hard-hearted place.

My society, my culture, the one that I’m proud of and want to belong to, is this one. The society that is kind, questioning, accepting. Let us take up the best aspects of our own cultures, whether they be Buddhist or modern cultures, and discard all that is unjust, discriminatory, and harmful. Let us give our full support for marriage equality, for if we do not we are betraying the best part of our humanity.