July 20, 2009

Homosexuality, Marriage, and Religion in Tibet: An Endlessly Complicated Situation

Jeff Wilson

A post which Tricycle editor James Shaheen recently wrote at the Huffington Post blog has picked up a good bit of attention around the internet.  James's subject was the Dalai Lama's views on gay marriage, which, as he rightly discussed, are quite a complicated matter.  In part this stems from the utterly different cultural and religious assumptions about sexuality that monks raised in traditional Tibetan culture bring to the discussion, vs. the cultural and religious assumptions of Western gay rights advocates (or, for that matter, Western opponents of gay marriage).

These differences aren't just around same-sex relations, but also include differing ideas about what marriage is, why one enters into it, what role (if any) religion plays in defining or sanctioning marriage, and so on. For example, polygamy was common and accepted in traditional Tibet, often taking the form of polyandry--marriage by a woman to two or more men, especially brothers within the same family.  This form of marriage still persists today in Tibetan cultural areas less directly touched by official Chinese policies.  One could argue that the Dalai Lama has as much right to demand that gay rights advocates get over their "polyphobia" and start explicitly agitating for American government legal recognition of polygamy as they have to demand he get rid of his "homophobia."  Meanwhile, Buddhism had very little to do with marriage in Tibet--there was no standard wedding ceremony officiated by monks, for instance, or indeed any ceremony at all in many cases.  And those ceremonies that did exist were not white dresses and organ music.  In one Tibetan ethnic group, for example, the wedding consisted of the groom's friends suddenly abducting the bride against her will and without her foreknowledge, and physically holding her captive in his house during the ritual (if her parents objected to the match--often to a man the bride had never met--they could sue for her return).  When we use the word "marriage" we must recognize that whole universes of unspoken and unshared meaning contextualize its use in different parts of the West and different parts of the Tibetan cultural area.

And the situation is further complicated by Western misunderstandings about the role and power of the Dalai Lama, who (despite persistent media representations to the contrary) is very much less than the "pope" of Buddhism, or even Tibetan Buddhism, or even, technically, his own sect of Tibetan Buddhism.  Few Westerners even understand that the Dalai Lama is a relatively recent innovation in Tibetan Buddhism, and that his power and authority (and often even his identity) have always been contested.  Wars have been repeatedly fought between the Dalai Lamas and competing monastic lineages, with armed monks as major combatants.  Coercive armed force was always a significant factor in the Dalai Lama maintaining his status within Tibet.  While the current Dalai Lama is a man of genuinely impressive charisma and wisdom, and rightly deserves the attention as a spiritual figure that he widely receives, it seems worthwhile to bear these historical facts in mind.

But for now let's just stick to the issue of homosexual relations and religion.  These are certainly complicated enough in themselves, and Western lack of access to the sources makes it even harder.  Most people assume that the rules come from the Vinaya, the code of monastic regulations allegedly laid down by the Buddha himself.  However, there are many multiple sets of these Vinaya, with differences between them.  Virtually all commentators in English refer to the Theravada Vinaya when discussing these rules, but they hold no authority in Tibet.  Rather, the Tibetan sangha is based on the Vinaya of the Mulasarvastivada school, which almost no Westerner has ever encountered.  Even this isn't a particularly reliable source for sussing out the root of the Dalai Lama's or other monk's notions about proper sexual conduct, because actually most of these ideas come not from Vinaya directly but from later (sometimes much, much later) commentaries by authorative monks of the Indo-Tibetan tradition.  Few of these texts are available in English.  Furthermore, monks as a practical matter don't typically follow the Vinaya itself, but focus instead on the codes of conduct of their particular monasteries, which not only diverge significantly from the Vinaya but are different from monastery to monastery. And to top it all off, much of your average Tibetan's attitudes are derived from general cultural wisdom about such things, in the same manner that your average Westerner is influenced not merely by ancient religious texts but a whole stew of culturally-conditioned "common sense" notions, pop culture trends, regional orientations, and so on.

But what can we say about monks and homosexuality?  Gay monks were common in traditional Tibet (and every other Buddhist culture) and were an accepted part of society, without there being any legal form of "gay marriage" or indeed any modern concept of "homosexual orientation."  We can see this for instance in the public popularity of drombos.  Drombo is a Tibetan term for a passive homosexual partner, often someone in a close relationship with a monk.  Tibetan socio-religious attitudes considered penetration to be unacceptable violation of monastic celibacy rules, whether or not the persons involved were same or opposite gender.  So the commonly-accepted workaround was for a monk to form a relationship with a drombo, who might be a younger monk or someone from the society at large (the dancers of the Dalai Lama's personal troupe were considered especially desirable as drombo).  Instead of oral or anal sex in the usual Western mode, drombo and their monastic patrons engaged in a modified form of the missionary position--the drombo lay on his back with his thighs crossed, and the monk ejaculated by moving his penis back and forth between them.  No penetration, hence no violation of the rules.

Far from being an underground practice, this was a socially accepted form of interaction between males, and had no relationship to sexual or personal identity as such. While the monks in the active roles were frequently gay in the sense that Westerners now understand the term, the drombo himself often had no sexual attraction to men.  Rather, the drombo received patronage from the monk, something very important in the heirarchical society of traditional Tibet.  A drombo became the ward of his patron and would often receive substantial benefit to his career and status through this association (i.e. a "heterosexual" male drombo serving as a passive homosexual partner received not stigma but overt social benefit).  That drombos were steered through Tibetan social circles by their patrons demonstrates the entirely above-the-board nature of these same-sex relationships: everyone knew that the drombo was being supported by monk so-and-so precisely because he was a drombo, and this was seen as perfectly natural.  In fact, sometimes a drombo would become so well-known as a lover that various high-placed monks would fight over him, even sending subordinate warrior monks (dobdobs) out to kidnap him in order to force the drombo to switch to a new patron.

To understand this situation, let us try a thought experiment.  Imagine, if you will, that a prominent religious figure--such as, say, Rev. Jerry Falwell--is also the Secretary of the Treasury.  His religious commitments prevent him from having penetrative sex with another person, so he makes an offer to one of Britney Spears's male back-up dancers, Marvin Smith.  Smith and his brothers are already married to a woman and have a son (and no one knows or cares who the "actual" father is), but accepts Falwell's offer and starts having modified sex with him in order to get introduced to important figures in the Washington political scene, which will benefit the whole family.  The two of them are often seen together at public functions and word gets around that the dancer is a great lover, so Rev. Jim Banks--who is serving as the Secretary of State--orders some martial arts-trained deacons from his church to abduct Smith to become his sex-slave, an act that takes place in broad daylight on the streets in front of the White House, and which is soon the talk of the town, with no political or religious repercussions for anyone involved.  Meanwhile, all of this takes place quite publicly in a society at the social and material level of approximately 14th century Europe.

Does this scenario seem difficult to comprehend to you?  If so, you may want to withhold from making knee-jerk judgements (pro or con) about the Dalai Lama's views on gay marriage, as this is the type of situation he is coming from when he talks about the matter.  In other words, his context for talking about religion, sex, homosexuality, morality, codes of conduct, identity, and gender relations is not the same as that of his Western interviewers, nor is there any reason to expect that it would be--and it is different in ways that few Westerners, including Buddhist practitioners, have even the slightest inkling of, and has absolutely no original connection to concepts of "rights."

And just to prove that homosexuality, marriage, and religion in Tibet are endlessly complicated: the Sixth Dalai Lama, who is believed to have been reborn as the current Dalai Lama, was widely known to be flamboyantly bisexual.  All of this points to a basic truth: trying to understand where someone else from another culture is coming from (both for gay rights advocates and the Dalai Lama himself) can be a truly daunting task, requiring much humility and willingness to continually reflect on how little one actually knows about the details of the other's background circumstances.  There's really only one statement we can make with full accuracy about studying Buddhism and its traditional cultures, whether it be political protests by monks in Burma, same-sex relations in Tibet, or Japanese priests chanting sutras in a bar: things are always more complex than we realize them to be.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
AnonJ's picture

Well at least there exists somebody out there who knows "things are more complex than they seem to be", while so many western people only know to blindly follow the sheer propaganda and "condemn Chinese violation of human rights" when they themselves don't have the slightest notion of what the whole thing is about. Traditional Tibetan society is as inhumane and as discriminatory as any other society at ancient times, just as you quite rightfully depicted here. It only serves the interest of a very few bunch of people, and the majority are treated less worthwhile than grass. I genuinely don't understand what these people perceive the original Tibet to be. A Shangri-la? If they want the "independence" of Tibet, do they want to see the majority of Tibetan people's regression to serfdom?("serfdom" is a light word. The true situation was far worse) I can't believe you Americans who rant everything about "liberty" and "equality" would second that. I can say with 100% certainty that Chinese government treats Tibetan much much better than US government treats "Indians". All those rant and noise about Tibet are truly beyond my comprehension. I understand those guys who propose the separation of Tibet have their own agendas. But the people, the blind followers of western propaganda who can't seem to think independently, they are totally farcical. In time they will see more truths, this I believe.

Jeff Wilson's picture

I haven't been checking this thread anymore, my apologies to people who wrote in more recently. I've moved on to other projects but thought I ought to make one last reply here.

Rinchen Gyatso: yours is a question I've thought a lot about myself. I have seen no evidence that the drombo and dobdob/dobdop/dabdop (there are a million ways to Romanize this term, as with so many Tibetan words!) practices survive today. They seem not to have been resorted to in the exile community (one can speculate about reasons), and certainly have never existed in the West (just yet another example of how our views based on the Buddhism we get in, say, America, are not reflective of Buddhist practice or organization in Buddhist history). They likewise seem to have been casualties of the Communization of Tibet and Tibetan-cultural regions within China proper. However I do suspect that on a much looser organizational level something analogous exists in some places. After all, there are still enfranchised senior monks who desire relationships with other males, and there is still a need for discipline within monasteries. So while drombo as a category and dobdob as a significant portion of monks may be things of the (recent) past, these patterns may persist in some form in certain places today.

I should also point out that this can be delinked from homosexuality--there are plenty of ostensibly celibate monks who have sexual relations with female consorts. Indeed, there is a widespread folk belief in Tibet that sex with a 16 year old girl can restore an old man's life powers, even allowing him to live longer. Monks as well as laymen have tested this theory, including in the post-1959 period. We should also remember that for most of Tibetan Buddhist history there have been important lineages of married lay lamas. So sexual activity among the clergy is a more complicated phenomenon than just same-sex or celibate or whatever. We are always best off doing our utmost to educate ourselves about the actual situations of living Buddhism in Tibet, rather than merely resorting to prescriptive texts that embody ideals, not necessarily practice. After all, ancient Indian texts don't necessarily address the actual social situation of gender relations in pre-Communist (or even contemporary) Tibet, where celibacy, monogamy, polygamy, and even group marriage (simultaneous marriage of two or more women to two of more men) were legal and practiced forms of relationship.

On monastic abuse: sexual exploitation of male children and junior monks absolutely does occur within some exile monasteries. This is not a particular feature of Tibetan Buddhism, but a sad fact about the universal human tendency of predatory behavior toward the weak, even within religious contexts. It also occurs in Western Buddhist contexts: I know of cases of sexual exploitation of children by Vietnamese-American monks, for example. We see similar atrocities in the Irish Catholic system, and you can bet that it happens in many other religions. In my discussions here I have NOT considered this as part of "homosexual activity in Tibet," as I see it as only superficially to be same-sex: it is mainly about power, not sexual orientation. It is more analogous to exploitation of girls and women in society than it is to consensual same-sex activity.

You brought up nuns. We should be careful, because this is yet another messy can of worms that draws on all sorts of other precedents. Full ordination for women never made it to Tibet--Tibetan "nuns" of the premodern period were 5, 8, or 10 precept "novices" by the standards of other Buddhist communities. So they were not officially bound by the Vinaya of any order. Based on the vows they did take, nonetheless, they were expected to be celibate. In most cases, we can presume they were indeed celibate, although we should also note that a much larger percentage of nuns than monks lived at home, not in group monasteries, and thus continued to live in close proximity to their families--sometimes including their husbands and children, as well as male servants and neighbors. You can be sure this complicated things. Or maybe your question was about same-sex behavior among nuns? There are so many fewer documents by nuns, so it is hard to get a full grasp on the range of their situations. There is good evidence of homosexual activity among monastery-based nuns in other countries, such as Japan, so I think we can suggest with some confidence that it likely existed in some form in Tibet.

X-monk: I think your personal experiences in Kham are valid and important sources of information for contemporary Buddhism in that area, thank you for sharing. However, unless you are at least 70 years old and originally from the Lhasa area, I don't think they are as reliable as guides to what was taking place far away in central Tibet 50+ years ago. Tibetan society, and therefore Tibetan Buddhism, is very different today than what it was like pre-Communism. And Buddhism in eastern Tibetan cultural areas was always different in significant ways from that in central Tibet. Your note actually brings up a caution that everyone should keep in mind: we should not simply use Lhasa-area Buddhism as the standard by which all Tibetan Buddhism is judged. Phenomena that were common in one area (such as U) were sometimes entirely absent in other major areas (such as Kham). In the end, it is hard to ever say anything that is entirely accurate about all Buddhism in all of Tibet! Still, I, at least, think it is worth trying to learn as much as possible, and put it into historical and cultural (and regional!) context.

Since I probably won't be returning to this thread, let me just take this opportunity to thank everyone for a stimulating discussion. Best wishes to you all.

mr_e38's picture

In the end Homosexuality is normal but the way that people see, and the way the law are is basted on Catholic and Christian religious views and dominance, personal feeling’s, and not knowing what it is, human sexuality researchers, religious liberals, gays and lesbians generally agree that a person's sexual orientation is determined before reaching school age. Once established, sexual feelings are unchangeable. Follow the link and read the news article talking about Homosexuality.


James Shaheen's picture


Thanks for your thoughts. I'd like to point out two things:

First, Jeff is indeed a scholar. But he is responding to a blog post, not presenting work for peer review. Still, what he writes is the result of his own research and study. You can make--and try to support--a claim that what he writes is untrue, but it is not gossip.

Second, the Dalai Lama does not claim that the Vinaya prohibits same-sex relationships for lay people. According to Buddhism scholar Jose Cabezon, who has studied the texts for many years, the Dalai Lama draws from Tsongkhapa and other Tibetan scholar-monks (Tsongkhapa also believed that sex during daylight is sexual misconduct). For monks, however, any form of sexual activity is considered misconduct.

These texts were written long after the Buddha's time, and certainly long after the Vinaya was formulated. Tsongkhapa's understanding is not shared by all Buddhist schools; in fact, Tsongkhapa does not figure into non-Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

Thanks again,


x-monk's picture

My question is- is your article just or gossip or a scholarly work? To me your work doesn't look like a scholarly work. To me your article does not look like a scholarly work specially when discussing this kind of sensitive issue. Let me express my opinions.
"Rather, the Tibetan sangha is based on the Vinaya of the Mulasarvastivada school, which almost no Westerner has ever encountered."

As you agree definitely westerners do not have access to the Vinaya and your writing is a living proof of it.

"Even this isn’t a particularly reliable source for sussing out the root of the Dalai Lama’s or other monk’s notions about proper sexual conduct, because actually most of these ideas come not from Vinaya directly but from later (sometimes much, much later) commentaries by authorative monks of the Indo-Tibetan tradition. Few of these texts are available in English. "
Could you point of some of the rules that didn't come directly from Vinaya and was added by later authoritative monks? To my knowledge all these commentators are clarifying the Vinaya and don't claim to change the words of Buddha.

" Furthermore, monks as a practical matter don’t typically follow the Vinaya itself, but focus instead on the codes of conduct of their particular monasteries, which not only diverge significantly from the Vinaya but are different from monastery to monastery."

If you are referring this to monastery of celibacy monks, keeping the root downfalls must be the main rules. No monastery, to my knowledge lay down rules with diverge significantly from Vinaya. Could you give me one example of such rules that was or is practiced by the monastery?

" We can see this for instance in the public popularity of drombos."

May be it was popular in Lhasa area but not in Kham,

"Drombo is a Tibetan term for a passive homosexual partner, often someone in a close relationship with a monk."
I don't think that it is a drombo is a tibetan term. It can be a code world. I'm hearing this word for the first time. So may be each monastery have their cod word for it. This shows that it is not socially accepted.
By the way I'm a Khampa xmonk.

"Instead of oral or anal sex in the usual Western mode, drombo and their monastic patrons engaged in a modified form of the missionary position–the drombo lay on his back with his thighs crossed, and the monk ejaculated by moving his penis back and forth between them. No penetration, hence no violation of the rules."
It is not the violation of the root rules. It is a violation of the rules- ejaculation with your limbs or limbs of others is breaking the breaking the rule but not breaking your vows. May be good example is in US like killing someone in an car accident cannot be convicted of murder, but charged for carelessness. So the above form of sex is chargeable and must be confessed.

"Far from being an underground practice, this was a socially accepted form of interaction between males, and had no relationship to sexual or personal identity as such"

I think that it an undergound practice and not socially accepted by Tibetan in general. I would say that such monks are considered as bad monks, at least in the monastery that I'm familiar with.

In short I'm writing this just to let the readers know that "such things' are considered as mal-practice which is not socially accepted but goes on- and people just ignore it.
I'm writing this just because not all monks do such things. There are good monks who don't engage in such sexual act. So do not generalize my just knowing the situation of one monastery or few monks!

Rinchen Gyatso's picture


It seems that this drombo and dobdop culture existed before 1959. What's the case now, to the best of your knowledge, in Chinese-occupied Tibet and in the diaspora? I've heard of sexual abuse of child-monks in the monasteries (even in exile), but I have no first-hand knowledge of the subject...or second-hand knowledge for that matter. A friend at a monastery/nunnery in India told me she saw a rather effeminate monk openly leaning against another monk in a way suggestive of a sexual relationship, but is such non-penetrative homosexual activity still engaged in openly by monks? What of nuns?

Thank you for your post. It was quite informative.

Jeff Wilson's picture

John: no problem, apology accepted--how many times have I hit "send" too soon and come to regret it. . . surely more than I could hope to count. By the way I haven't seen the film yet but have had it recommended to me, I ought to put it on my "to do" list. Thank you for your work.

Kdorje: come to think of it, Jose Cabezon is definitely among the best sources around for this sort of info, certainly better than me. If you contact him he'll be able to not only recommend any resources I would, but a whole slew of things I'm not aware of. Thanks for bringing his name up, I probably should've done so myself right away.

John Bush's picture

Hello Jeff, my post went up before I read your subsequent writing and after perusing all you have stated I do apologize for misunderstanding what you have so eloquently put forth. It is more nuanced than I first realized.

With a 35 year relationship to the Kagyu tradition, I am painfully aware of the intrigues and rivalries inherent
in Vajrayana history. However as a westerner, I always felt this to be a little too "inside baseball" for a willing ingenue like myself. The preoccupation with the institutional faith and its inevitable failings seems an impediment to a deeper personal relationship with its splendid Dharma.

Whatever the history, this Dalai Lama is the reverenced leader for nearly all Tibetans now. When shooting VAJRA SKY OVER TIBET, the longing devotion
for him by the Sangha there was deeply humbling for me. Some have faulted this in the film as naive given the corruption of medieval Tibet, yet this paradox is also what animates the evolution of a deeper faith.

I understand the need to dispel the "supreme leader" heresy, yet there is an undeniable spiritual authority many
around the world feel for him outside of Buddhist hierarchies. I know you agree.

I do feel that to focus too much on the contradictions in Vajrayana history, while perhaps satisfying to Bookstore Buddhists, may allow us to overlook the magnificent gifts its teachings bring to a hurting world.

Whatever Vajrayana Buddhism was before, it is something new now - both here and in Tibet.

kdorje's picture

Jeff, I would very much like to know about other resources on same sex sexuality(ies) in Tibetan Buddhism, and Tibetan culture. I read a few languages, and what I don't read I can probably get translated. I have read that Jose Cabezon will soon publish a monograph on it. Work in this area is long overdue.This is a field of study that has barely been touched, authoritatively, and there is much interest in it in the West, where uninformed projection, fantasy, and gossip are running amok.

Jeff Wilson's picture

Hi John, you've illustrated a pretty clear phenomenon: no matter how carefully you parse things, people on the internet will always mistake you and attribute all manner of irrelevant motivations. My Chinese students say the same things to me as you: more than one has directly called me an apologist for evil Dalai Lama propaganda and a vindictive China-hater for teaching about the awful history of Chinese invasion, destruction, and oppression in Tibet. In situations as fraught as that of Tibet and China, people on both sides will line up to condemn you no matter what you say or what you mean. As a filmmaker I suspect you too have encountered people who mistook what you were trying to say or why you said it through your work, so you can probably relate. It's just the nature of samsara. All we can do is keep trying to move forward together with as much education as possible.

On the nature of the Dalai Lama's supremacy: any history of Tibet will quickly back up the nature of my remarks in this area. The Dalai Lamas have always been a contested institution that significant numbers of Tibetans opposed. It is naive to imagine that any political figure ever held power, especially in pre-modern situations, without the use or threat of significant martial force. After the Dalai Lamas came to power they carried out a systematic campaign of violent destruction of opponent monasteries and even forbade the reincarnation of competing tulku lineages, all of which helped them consolidate their grip on Tibet. While this history may be inconvenient for those of us who admire the present Dalai Lama and who wish for solidarity in the Tibetan community, these are historical facts that many in the Tibetan community have not forgotten, and whose repercussions continue to reverberate (for example, they play a part in the controversies over Dorje Shugden and the competing Karmapa claims). It is also important to note that while his wisdom is widely respected and often consulted, his monastic authority only holds direct sway within the Gelug order--administratively he cannot make decisions for the many other forms of Tibetan Buddhism, and certainly not for the hundreds of other Buddhist traditions alive in the world today. This is what is meant by cautioning against presenting him as some sort of pope, i.e. a supreme figure with total authority over an entire religion (Catholicism). Surely these are facts worth knowing when we who care about Tibet and Buddhism attempt to understand the fullness of the situation that engulfs this part of the world.

All of that said, lightening up is always a good idea. I'll do my best.

John Bush's picture

I do find the statement that same-sex love is "misconduct" to be an insult to contemporary values and hurtful to the gay community. As a straight male I truly cannot abide this either. However, to respond to this point of view by graphically detailing the supposed sex practices of a bygone medieval theocracy while undermining The Dalai Lama's legitimacy to the Sangha by propaganda seems vindictive.

In an all male monastic environment, sexual involvement is a distraction to practice and a breaking of vows - ie. misconduct. His Holiness has said repeatedly that he inherited a theocracy that had become corrupted, so why the need to explore this dubious history as if it were a legitimate expression of Vajrayana practice and culture.

Whatever the writer feels about this Dalai Lama's supremacy in Tibetan hierarchies - he is the Tibetan's Living Buddha on this earth both in Tibet and in the exile community; not a pope but a Buddha. For western Buddhists, he is an unprecedented bridge between science and mysticism and a conduit for devotional practice. In the world community, he is a true leader for the universal acceptance of the human family.

At another level, he is also an embodiment of traditional social values spanning eight decades. I imagine HHDL would also say that hetero pre-marital sex and harmless teenage promiscuity is also misconduct. Celibate spiritual leaders seem compelled to stake out this conservative view knowing that the lay community will vastly discount this in their own spiritual/sexual lives. Morality is, finally, a personal choice, an inner trust of what is right.

Lighten up a bit friend. Love will find a way.

Jeff Wilson's picture

Hi Kdorje, I admire your quest for further information, I wish my students had your sort of drive to follow-up. Unfortunately, you may have also learned a lesson in the limits of Google in the process and lost some hours of sleep!

Tashi Tsering's autobiography is an important resource for information on pre-Communist Tibet. Have you read it? While it pulls no punches about brutality in old Tibet, the much longer and more detailed descriptions of the unbelievably harsh and even insane tactics of the Communists make it very clear that this book is anything but an apology for the Chinese occupation. In my opinion, it is always best to read a text for oneself and also consider how it has been received by a range of experts before deciding whether it is fair and accurate. Tashi Tsering, by the way, despite everything the Chinese did to him, is still around and many people in Tibetan Studies know him and consider him a friend. Many see him as a hero both for the contributions he has made to Tibetan culture and for his years of resistance to Communist pressure and persecution.

Do you read any languages other than English? If so, I may be able to point you on to other resources for learning about these things. There isn't all that much available in English publication, although you can speak with scholars in the discipline who know about such things but haven't written books on the subject. I was at a lecture the other day where a top Buddhologist (himself a geshe) described how approximately 10% of the Dalai Lama's monastery was made up of warrior monks. He had some wild photos of them, very interesting stuff.

Just to clarify, I don't have any intention of harmonizing 21st century liberalism with traditional Tibetan mores--in fact, I think a re-reading of my various comments will plainly show that my point is that such an attempt is wrong-headed. Drombo and other facts of pre-Communist gender relations in Tibet are neither being valorized or demonized here (I personally have no interest in making judgments on this topic, especially about a culture that no longer exists in the wake of systematic foreign oppression). They are only offered as examples of how Tibet (like any other culture) had its own particular understandings and practices in this area, and therefore we in the West should be cautious about projecting our local mores and cultural assumptions on to it. Homosexuality was common in Buddhist monasteries throughout Asia--not just Tibet--but took particular forms in each culture where Buddhism thrived. For example, we see a similar pattern in Japanese Buddhism, where same-sex love between older and younger monks actually came to be valorized as a "way" in the same manner as the "way of tea" or the "way of flower arrangement" and other such traditional arts. But Tibet and Japan are different too, so while the pattern is somewhat similar, there are important differences of nuance that ought to be taken into account.

kdorje's picture

After Googling too late into the night, I could find only one primary source for "drombo," an "autobiography" of a Tibetan born in 1929, became a drombo for an older monk, went to the US, was educated there, but rejected life under capitalism to return Tibet, where he is now a happy educator, after having spend 7 years in prison during the Cultural Revolution. I use quotes around autobiography because it was written by Melvyn Goldstein, an academic who is a notorious apologist for the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Of course, the internet being what it is, there are dozens of sites that quote the book---actually the Amazon.com review of the book---until factoid becomes fact, propaganda becomes reality.

Goldstein was also the only source for dap dop, monastic policement/militia, often being attracted to men and engaging in exploitative acts with young men and boys, and that was based on hearsay evidence from 5 or so lay Tibetans with no firsthand knowledge, none of whom ever even had met a dap dop. This story made the rounds a few years ago until Goldstein's info was investigated and discredited.

A pattern seems to be emerging: monks engage in same sex behavior, sometimes with a great power differential. Tibet was a theocracy run by monks, therefore was corrupt. Thus the Chinese occupation is a good thing.

It may very well have been that such things occurred as drombo-patron relationships existed, but I doubt they were as normative, institutionalized, or widespread as a bio published by Goldstein and often quoted with approval in PRC governmental websites would have us believe. It just doesn't ring true with me as a gay person (or with what I have observed among Tibetans in exile as well as in Tibet.) There is just too much variety in male same-sex sexuality(ies) to characterize drombo or drombo-like relationships as normative. It would be similar to saying that normative gay male relationships in New York City in the 1960's were like those between Holly Woodlawn and Joe Dallesandro shown in Andy Warhol's movies.

Granted, there are many differences between secular American and Tibetan Buddhist cultures---many more, and more substantive ones than are touched on in the article--- but it requires a great leap in logic to say that , when HH the Dalai Lama speaks of same sex relationships, he speaks as some one coming from a place where drombo-patron relationships were the normative ones. To assert with approval that drombo-patron relationships were a "socially accepted form of interaction between males" is as mistaken---albeit in a mode of attempting to harmonize early 21st Century liberalism with traditional Tibetan mores---as is Goldstein's attempt to demonize pre-occupation Tibet with a different, negative interpretation of the same set of facts.

James Shaheen's picture

All much appreciated, Jeff. Yes, I know your politics and agree that there's little daylight between our views.

Reading over the comments, it occurs to me what a balancing act this is--and what a challenge finding a middle way can be. Discussions like this are helpful in doing just that. Too often they degenerate into senseless recrimination so I hope that more discussions like this take place here.

I learned a lot from your posts--and thank you for steering us away from reductionist views.

Now, I'd better begin writing my next for the Huffington Post!

arunlikhati's picture

The post and these comments are great. Thanks for your thoughtful contribution as always Jeff!

Jeff Wilson's picture

I think we're on the same page here, James. Like I said, I wasn't responding to your post, but to the differing, often ill-informed reactions I saw to your post in various internet forums (both those who agreed with the Dalai Lama because they thought he was the pope of Buddhism and those who disagreed with the Dalai Lama because they took his statements to mean he was a raving, crusading homophobe). My opinions on all these matters are pretty much the same as yours, and probably not surprisingly so since I both admire the Dalai Lama and have several close family members who are married to same-sex spouses.

Off the immediate subject, but since the issue was raised, I can't help pointing out that there are indeed whole groups of Buddhists who oppose race mixing, at least as their societies understand it. Most of the "Tibetan" thangkas and many other "Tibetan" crafts and ritual objects that we encounter are actually the work of Nepalese, not Tibetan, craftsmen--for centuries the Nepalese have been the art specialists whom the Tibetans went to for help building their temples, creating their great art works, producing their various religious implements, and so on. The Nepalese are also a caste society, with the Buddhists organized into several hierarchical castes. Higher-caste Buddhists (Vajrayana) refuse to ordain or give tantric teachings and techniques to lower-caste Buddhists (Mahayana), and most everyone in the various Buddhist castes considers it a serious sin to marry someone from another Buddhist caste (or, heaven forbid, a Hindu caste). It's a situation not totally unlike the old South--until the Maoist victory a few years ago murdering a lower-Buddhist-caste person was a crime, but not nearly as serious as killing a higher-Buddhist-caste person or, for that matter, a cow. Yet I think nearly all Buddhists in the West decry the Maoist insurgency and wish devoutly for Buddhism to flourish in Nepal as it has for many centuries. Likewise, I think most Westerners rooted for the Buddhist majority in the Sri Lankan war with the Tamil Tigers, but I do wonder how many of them are aware that Sri Lankan Buddhists are likewise divided into castes and that their Theravada monasteries traditionally only admit people of the particular caste to which they belong? We (human beings) have a persistent (and, of course, understandable, if also somewhat lamentable) tendency to make judgments about others without really knowing the full story, and to divide them into the good and the bad, without noting the considerable gray on each side.

I'll try to tie this back in to the main subject: isn't this, in some way, what many homophobes do? They judge a class of people (which contains the same proportion of good, bad, and ordinary folks as any other class) by criteria based on their ignorant ideas about them. They project heterosexist ideas onto other people they don't really know very well; in a somewhat similar manner Westerners project ethnocentric or ignorant ideas onto other cultures they don't really understand very well. I guess I'm making a plea for better education and understanding all around: better education of homophobic Buddhists, of starry-eyed Orientalists, of caste-bound traditionalists, of ethnocentric rights advocates, of comfortably enfranchised heterosexual scholars on the internet, and all the rest of us trying to make some sense of and improve this world we share. After all, Buddha had it exactly right: in the end, our ultimate enemy isn't one another, but ignorance itself.

James Shaheen's picture

Jeff, I'm sure you understand that I am not likening the Dalai Lama's stance on same-sex couples to that of a fundamentalist Christian. And you're right, he has no power to legislate, and, as you suggest, he doesn't demonstrate any desire to. It's without judgment that I disagree with him on this issue. Like you, I try to understand his position in context. If what you're saying is that he's missing our take on same-sex relationships because his view on this is culture-bound, that's fine, maybe it is; but we cannot know and can respond only to what he says, not what we speculate he might think.

About polygamy and polyandry, which you mention in your earlier post: I don't think the analogy holds. It would hold only if these options were available to heterosexuals but not homosexuals.

The Dalai Lama's rejection of same-sex relationships is not political, it's religious. My dismay comes from the fact not that he has an agenda on this issue (he doesn't) but that his statements hearten those who do. And those for whom what the Dalai Lama says is nonnegotiable, it can cause pain.

Again, I would point out that if he had said (and he never would) that interracial relationships amounted to misconduct, this discussion would not be taking place. People would simply--and vociferously--oppose such statements, openly and in great numbers, without worrying about whether they were missing subtle cultural cues. I would ask why this is any different.

I should mention that the Dalai Lama does not think same-sex relationships are misconduct for non-Buddhists. This makes it clear that he has no political agenda. And he's not campaigning against same-sex marriage; that's clear, too. The point I made was that Buddhism's take on this really depends on the particular tradition, and even differs from individual to individual within traditions, and that the Dalai Lama does not claim to speak for all Buddhists and certainly not for non-Buddhists.

Yes, this is complicated, but for reasons other than those you suggest. Many, many people who are not comfortable with the Dalai Lama's statements wonder why anyone has to bring this up--it's so damned inconvenient. It's not what they'd like the Dalai Lama to say. Many remain silent, hoping that the whole matter will simply go away, while others explain it away.

I responded only because what the Dalai Lama says matters to me and to millions of others. We can admire and respect and even revere him. We can do all of this and disagree with him, too.

scott's picture

Thank you very much for this piece, Jeff. It's always refreshing to read well-thought-out pieces here at Tricycle which take seriously the complex and nuanced nature of these issues.


Jeff Wilson's picture

Just to clarify, I didn't think you were finger-wagging, James. I had in mind other folks who have far less engagement with Buddhism or Tibetan culture than you, but who knee-jerk react to out-of-context statements about the Dalai Lama (usually based on assumptions that he is somehow a liberal Democrat because he says nice things about compassion and has many Hollywood supporters). In reality, the situation is far more complicated than many people understand, but this doesn't stop them from rushing to project their own values and judgments on it. Frankly, this is something I too have been guilty of in the past.

I'm not sure if it is a civil rights issue, since the Dalai Lama is no longer the real head of a substantive functioning government (and here I recognize that I am quibbling about semantics), but I do think it certainly is a human rights issue. I believe we have a right (in some cases, an obligation) to make judgments about practices in other cultures when they negatively affect human beings. I only ask that we make them as informed persons, taking into account as well as possible the many complex factors that produce foreign cultural situations (and the statements used to represent them).

While the Dalai Lama holds views on sexual misconduct that are quite a bit less liberal than my own (I don't stigmatize responsible and consensual non-reproductive sex, nor do I feel there is any value distinction between heterosexual vs. homosexual activity or affection) I don't see the Dalai Lama as an anti-gay crusader, in the way that many Christian and/or conservative figures in the West are (and, arguably, the Pope is). In fact, I get the distinct impression that he has just about nothing to say on the matter, but when asked by others, is willing to respond with his honest opinions. Now, these opinions matter to some extent because he's not just an ordinary person. But at the same time, I think it makes no difference to him at all whether North American societies legalize gay marriage or not--and to me, that itself is a difference worth noting. He was asked by the CBC about the issue--and here in Canada we have legal gay marriage, I'm happy to report--and he answered, but he didn't bring it up himself or claim that anything negative would happen to Canada or Canadians due to their recognition of love between same-sex couples and their respect for the personhood of gay citizens. That's miles away from the rhetoric that I hear coming from the Evanglicals that you mentioned.

So, to clarify, my point here is that we should try to be well-informed (as I take you to be, James) when we make judgments of others, and that often this is very difficult to do when dealing with cultures and religions different from our own. In such situations we therefore need to be humble about the conclusions we draw (not the same thing as not drawing conclusions), and willing to understand that there may be much we don't fully understand, even as we move forward to state our own opinions (not the same thing as not stating our own opinions). And we of course have a right to state our opinions about others' opinions when they impinge on our own culture, especially where real human suffering is involved, as in the case of American restrictions on gay people's rights--it's just worth noting that based on unacknowledged different cultural assumptions we could be arguing about apples when our "opponent" thinks we're arguing about oranges, which tends to get us nowhere.

James's picture

Hi Jeff and Doug,

There is no finger-wagging here. When someone as prominent as the Dalai Lama publicly states that homosexual sex is "misconduct," it means something. To understand him on his own terms does not make objecting to the statement inappropriate, especially in an environment where gay people are denied full rights. This is not so much a social issue, as much of Jeff's post would seem to suggest, but a civil rights issue. What the Dalai Lama says—as Bob Thurman points out—matters.

If the Dalai Lama had said that people of different races should not have sex with each other, I don't think people would spend this much time trying to understand the statement, however helpful understanding it might be. Conversely, when the pope condemns homosexuality, we could also, as Jeff suggests, try to understand the context in which he is speaking. The fact remains, however, that statements opposing same-sex relations serve— however unwittingly and without malice—to support a very specific political agenda in the West.

The Dalai Lama has every right to express his views as shaped by his religion and culture. Likewise, for proponents of equal rights for gays, public objections make sense.

Understand, the Dalai Lama said this in an interview—among other places—for the CBC. He was talking to a Western audience, not a Tibetan audience. And a Western audience will respond, pro and con. For instance, it isn't lost on the Evangelicals that "even the Dalai Lama knows it's wrong," or on civil rights proponents that it presents a challenge.

If, as you suggest, Jeff, the Dalai Lama is speaking from a cultural context to which we have little access or understanding, must we then take everything he says in that light? For example, his teachings on compassion, which we all benefit from enormously, are not something we in the West—for the most part—question. In fact, we work to promote him and his beliefs.

I am an admirer of the Dalai Lama and attend his teachings. Unlike others who have stopped attending, I plan to continue to do so. I do not think he is "homophobic" (I mention his openly gay students in the post) and have never accused him of that. Of course it's complex. Still, that doesn't make his reference to same-sex relations as "misconduct" any less troubling.

The point is that this is a civil rights issue. I don't think it's just that in Afghanistan the rights of women are for the most part nonexistent, and although I may not understand the context, I can’t imagine a reasonable person defending such inequity. I cite this example not to suggest equivalency but to make a more general point—that there are many reasons for denying people equal rights—and it’s always wrong.

For his part, the Dalai Lama does not advocate discrimination. Still, his statements may encourage those who do, even though that is not his purpose.

And Jeff, as always, I appreciate you sharing your knowledge with us all—I enjoyed your post.

All best,


GK Sandoval's picture

How strange that these monks are indulging in attachment and desire! Wouldn't that constitute as 'sexual misconduct'? Isn't the purpose of engaging in Dharma practices is to learn to uproot those attachments, as well as taming anger and ignorance?

I mean to go as far as kidnapping and inflicting suffering just to satisfy one's desire for sexual contact. That just sounds like its in conflict with the Buddha's teachings. It doesn't matter if it's homosexual, heterosexual or quasi-sexual, overt indulgence in desire and the resulting attachments is just furthering suffering for one's self and the object(s) of attachment.

Don't these monks make a commitment to not bring harm and suffering to ALL sentient beings? Celibacy doesn't work unless one tames the desire within the mind where does attachments originate.

The tests to see if one is participating in sexual misconduct:

Am I bringing suffering to myself by indulging in this act?
Am I bringing suffering to others by indulging in my desires?

This line of contemplation results in questioning of behaviors and second thoughts about one's actions. Armed with the Dharma, one should be able to stop the processes and make a more informed decision to act differently or to even act on those impulses at all.

Doug M's picture

There’s really only one statement we can make with full accuracy about studying Buddhism and its traditional cultures, whether it be political protests by monks in Burma, same-sex relations in Tibet, or Japanese priests chanting sutras in a bar: things are always more complex than we realize them to be.

Man, amen on that last sentence. I really do think Western Buddhists need to get out more and spend enough time in Buddhist countries to get a flavor for how Buddhism really works. Too much reading leads to a lot of finger wagging and dismayed head-shaking. (hope that description made sense)