The Buddhist View on LGBTQ and Smoking

Published on 26 December 2020

Rinpoche talks to "The Bhutanese" about LGBTQ and smoking within the buddhist context of searching for and seeing the truth.

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The Buddhist View on LGBTQ and Smoking

A LOT has been said, is being said, about how Buddhists perceive LGBTQ and smoking. The debate was reignited after Bhutan temporarily lifted its infamous smoke ban during the Covid-19 national lockdown. With Bhutan becoming the newest country to decriminalize homosexuality, the debate has expanded. The conclusion from the Western media is that both LGBTQ and smoking are the banes of the Buddhist society and regarded as morally bad in Buddhism, even as the restrictions were being eased in Bhutan, a staunch Buddhist nation, indicating that it reflected the core Buddhist view and practice as taught by the Buddha Himself. Nothing could be further from the truth, said Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, the Bhutanese lama, thinker, writer and filmmaker as he weighed in on the debate. Talking to the writer, he said such perceived Buddhist attitudes toward LGBTQ and smoking were a reflection of culture rather than actual Buddhist teachings. But it also doesn’t mean smoking doesn’t kill.

By decriminalizing homosexuality, Bhutan becomes the latest nation to take steps to ease restrictions on same-sex relationships. What is the Buddhist view on LGBTQ, and on sex in general?

As a citizen of Bhutan, I am very proud that Bhutan is taking the great and timely step of decriminalizing homosexuality.

As a Buddhist, our path doesn’t allow sexual misconduct or abuse of any kind, but there is no sutra (collection of teachings that the Buddha gave), shastra or tantra that has ever singled out sex as dirty, sinful or taboo. So that’s just not an issue for us.

Rather, Buddhists look at whatever may lead us to desire, lust and greed with caution and awareness. But that is not just sex. It could be food, any kind of material gain, or power, which corrupts our minds in the most subtle ways.

So sexual orientation should never even have been a fundamental issue for a Buddhist. In fact, as followers of the Mahayana Buddhism, which is what Bhutan officially practices, we should respect and even cherish different lifestyles and ways of thinking. And we should oppose any kind of prejudices, and eradicate the attitude that everything has to be “my way or the highway.” So, coming from a country where most citizens are Buddhist, I am very happy that the government of Bhutan has taken this important step.

At the same time, we know that it’s not easy to get rid of old habits, prejudices and discrimination – not just in Bhutan but, as we’ve seen, in societies in the west that claim to be the most advanced, open and liberal in the world. But we have to do our best.

It’s also worth noting that Bhutan’s penal code was drafted and came into effect in 2004. And like many other things we adopted from India, such as the attitude of bureaucrats and the usage of English, many of our written laws too were based on India’s penal code, which in turn was largely drafted by the British over 200 years ago. So, in fact, seeing sodomy as “unnatural” is rooted in religions quite different from ours.

There is this international perception that Buddhists see smoking as a sin. Some of our own media has claimed Guru Rinpoche himself was against the use of all forms of tobacco. What is the Buddhist view on smoking and tobacco?

Any international perception that Buddhists see smoking and tobacco use as a sin is simply wrong. For a start, Buddhists don’t even have a concept of sin. And in many Theravada countries with large Buddhist populations who practise the most orthodox school of Buddhism, even monks smoke. So, becoming a Buddhist certainly doesn’t mean you have to give up smoking or other tobacco products.

Having said that, Buddhism does discourage consumption of any kind of intoxicants. That’s because we’re concerned about seeing the truth, and anything that deters us from that is regarded as an obscuration. So by choice, a Buddhist may choose to take a precept not to take intoxicants, which includes not only all kinds of drugs but also alcohol.

Unfortunately, moral codes of conduct, which are often based on cultural prejudices, are later misinterpreted as Buddhist codes of conduct. So it’s ironic, for example, that Bhutan condemns tobacco but not alcohol, even though both are intoxicants and cause harm and havoc in our society. Some Bhutanese really look down on puffing substances through a glass water hookah, but such taboos are created by humans and have nothing to do with Buddhism.

Since you asked about Guru Rinpoche’s view on this, it’s important to remember that the Vajrayana is very vast and completely undogmatic. From a strict Vajrayana perspective, therefore, any dualistic distinction, including those embodied in socially accepted norms, can be challenged. So, in order to challenge the traditional Indian Brahmanic contempt for meat and alcohol, for example, the Vajrayana deliberately uses those substances. But that should never be interpreted as meaning the Vajrayana allows or encourages meat and alcohol. It must be seen as a Vajrayana practice of non-differentiation.

From that perspective, it’s true that some ‘treasure teachings,’ which are all very much associated with Guru Rinpoche, do give specific, serious warnings about tobacco and smoking. But many scholars speculate that these warnings were aimed at substances like opium that can really degenerate the channels, chakras and pranas. Aside from that, there is actually no root tantric text that specifically or clearly mentions any prohibition on smoking or tobacco.

By Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)

The writer is a former editor of Kuensel and can be reached at @bonzk on Instagram