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On Tour in the USA: The Dalai Lama

On May 25, the Tibetan leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama took part in the dedication ceremony for the Great Buddha Hall at the Chuang-Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York. The hall houses the largest Buddha statue in the Western hemisphere—a thirty-seven-foot statue of the Buddha Vairochana. His Holiness also gave teachings on emptiness and the Thirty-seven Practices of the Bodhisattva, and offered an Avalokiteshvara initiation at the Chinese Pure Land sect monastery. About 5,000 people turned out for the three-day event.

On the evening of May 29, the Tibetan leader gave a public talk at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The exiled leader spoke about harmony in diversity and encouraged peace and tolerance, especially in matters of race and religion. The crowd of 4,000 applauded when His Holiness predicted that the twenty-first century would be the “century of dialogue.” Before the talk, the Dalai Lama joined other Nobel Laureates, including Elie Wiesel and Oscar Arias, in signing The International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfer.

On May 31 the Dalai Lama was warmly greeted in Boulder and Denver, Colorado, where he gave public talks and attended ceremonies in his honor. He also attended the Naropa Institute’s “Spirituality in Education” conference.

June 2 found His Holiness in Santa Barbara, California, where he gave the inaugural lecture for an academic chair named in his honor, the XIV Dalai Lama Endowment for Tibetan Buddhism and Culture at the University of California. His activities in the Los Angeles area included a conversation with the religious scholar Huston Smith, a public talk, teachings, and initiations at UCLA and the Thubten Dhargye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Center.

In San Francisco he attended a three-day conference called “Peacemaking: The Power of Nonviolence,” co-convened by Professor Robert Thurman, Tibet House, and the author Daniel Goleman. His Holiness, recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, also participated in a public talk with fellow Laureates Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala and Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor.

For the first time ever, during his recent United States visit the Dalai Lama discussed issues of homosexuality, human rights, and Buddhism with a small group of gay and lesbian Buddhists and human rights activists. At the June 11 meeting in San Francisco, the Dalai Lama expressed his strong opposition to discrimination and any form of violence against gay and lesbian people and voiced support for full human rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation. He encouraged gay activists to rely on Buddhist principals of rigorous investigation and nonviolence as the foundation for their struggle for full equality. Participants were also heartened by the Buddhist leader’s willingness to re-examine traditional Buddhist teachings on sexual misconduct and homosexual behavior in light of modern scientific research, psychology, and changing social mores.

The Dalai Lama proposed the private meeting in response to a letter from Steve Peskind, a San Francisco–based writer and coordinator of the Buddhist AIDS Project, requesting clarification of teachings in two recent books by the Dalai Lama, Beyond Dogma (North Atlantic Books, 1996) and The Way to Freedom (HarperCollins, 1994).

The Dalai Lama opened the meeting by saying “Thank you for trusting me in coming here.” Reading the Tibetan text of Lam Rim ethics, he noted that the traditional teachings, dating back to the Indian Buddhist philosopher Ashvaghosha, assert that sexual misconduct for all Buddhists, heterosexual and homosexual, is determined by “inappropriate partner, organ, time, or place.” Inappropriate partners include men for men, women for women, women who are menstruating or in the early stages of nursing, men or women who are married to another, monks or nuns, and prostitutes “paid for by a third party and not oneself.” Sex with the “inappropriate organs” of the mouth, anus, and “using one’s hand” also constitute sexual misconduct for all Buddhists. Inappropriate places include Buddhist temples and places of devotion. Proscribed times are “sex during daylight hours” and “sex more than five consecutive times” for heterosexual partners.

In his recent publications, Peskind noted, the Dalai Lama reiterated these teachings “with no qualification for cultural context or for modern scientific findings and social history.” In the letter sent to the Dalai Lama, Peskind expressed concern about the implications of these teachings, saying their presentation “supports the climate of international psychological, spiritual, physical, social, and political discrimination, violence, and human rights violations against gay people and others.”

In the meeting, the Dalai Lama made it clear that violation of any of the moral precepts, including killing, does not and cannot disqualify someone from being a Buddhist. But some participants were eager for more discussion of the teachings. According to Peskind, His Holiness “did not clarify how sex as an expression of emotional intimacy, moderate recreational sex, or gay tantric sex impedes the path to full awakening, freedom, and peace of heart.” Buddhist writer Scott Hunt observed that while the Dalai Lama noted that the teachings in question may be culturally specific to ancient India, he “did not substantiate the positive effects of the teachings for Buddhists of this time.”

Among those attending the meeting were Steve Peskind; Eva Herzer, president of the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet; José Cabezón, writer and Buddhist scholar; K. T. Shedrup Gyatso, an ordained gay Tibetan Buddhist monk and director of the San Jose Tibetan Temple; and Rabbi Yoel Kahn, a leader in the lesbian and gay Jewish community.

Following the meeting, José Cabezón said, “It is wonderful to see a religious thinker of the caliber of His Holiness the Dalai Lama grappling with the issues of sexual ethics and especially the rights and responsibilities of gay and lesbian people in such an open, empathetic, and rigorous fashion.”

Image set 1: Susan Stava (top, center and fourth from top); Sally Boon (second from bottom).
Image set 2: From left to right: Joseph Goldstein, Maggie Newman, Pat Enkyo O'Hara, Gelek Rinpoche with Michael Roach, and Venerable Kurunegoda Piyatissa with monks. Courtesy E.G. Burkhart.
Image 3: His Holiness and the Great Buddha at Carmel, NY. Courtesy Buddhist Association of the United States.

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