Among Buddhists there is a wide diversity of opinion about homosexuality. Buddhism teaches that sensual enjoyment and desire in general, and sexual pleasure in particular, are hindrances to enlightenment. Buddhist monks and nuns of most traditions are expected to refrain from all sexual activity and take vows of celibacy. Some Buddhist orders may specifically prohibit transgender, homosexually active, or homosexually oriented people from ordination but accept homosexuality among laypersons.
Within the earliest monastic texts such as the Vinaya (c. 4th century BCE), male monks are explicitly forbidden from having sexual relations with any of the four genders: male, female, ubhatovyanjañaka and paṇḍaka. These latter two encompass a range of sexual and gender variations of male-bodied, female-bodied, and intersex people. Later, Buddha allowed the ordination of women, but forbade ordination to these other types of people on sexual grounds.
The word ubhatovyanjañaka is usually thought to describe people who have both male and female sexual characteristics. Some interpret this as including those who are not physical hermaphrodites, but display behavioral and psychological characteristics of both sexes, such as a woman who is attracted to other women. 5th century Buddhist writer Buddhaghosa describes ubhatobyanjanaka as people with the body of one gender but the "power" of the other. Leonard Zwilling argues that in this account Buddhaghosa does not in fact describe hermaphroditism but rather bisexuality or homosexuality; other writers dispute this.
The paṇḍaka, is a complex category that is variously defined in different Buddhist texts as including those born sexually indeterminate or with no sex, eunuchs, those whose sexuality changes every half month, males who gain sexual satisfaction by performing fellatio on other men, and voyeurs. It sometimes includes males or females with any sexual dysfunction, such as impotence or irregular menstrual cycles. The common element seems to be those whose sexuality is either limited physiologically, or those who have "perverse" or extra sexuality. Together these "third sex" types are almost always portrayed negatively as a pariah class, especially in the earliest texts. As the Vinaya tradition develops, paṇḍaka becomes the term of choice that most often stands for the excluded third sex category as a whole. In modern contexts, paṇḍaka is often interpreted to include lesbians, gay men, and transgender and intersex people, although in ancient times, a man who sexually penetrated another man or a paṇḍaka was not himself considered a paṇḍaka.
Paṇḍaka are categorised with others who are also excluded from ordination; either those with physical abnormalities such as deafness or dwarfism, or those who have committed crimes. "The Story of the Prohibition of the Ordination of Pandaka" from the Vinaya justifies the ban by giving an example of a monk with an insatiable desire to be sexually penetrated by men, thus bringing shame upon the Buddhist community. In Buddhaghosa's Samantapasadika, paṇḍaka are described as being filled with defiling passions (ussanakilesa), unquenchable lusts (avapasantaparilaha) and are dominated by their libido (parilahavegabhibhuta). Fourth century Buddhist writer Vasubandhu contends that the paṇḍaka has no discipline for spiritual practice, due to their defiling passions of both male and female sexes. They lack the moral fortitude to counter these passions because they lack modesty and shame. Incapable of showing restraint, such a being is abandoned by their parents and lacking such ties are unable to hold strong views.
The Abhidharma states that a paṇḍaka cannot achieve enlightenment in their own life time, but must wait for reincarnation as a normal man or woman. Ananda — Buddha's cousin and disciple — was said to be a paṇḍaka in one of his many previous lives, as was the Buddhist nun Isidāsī (from the Therigatha). In both cases birth as a paṇḍaka was a result of poor karma, and the idea that being a paṇḍaka stems from bad behaviour in a previous life is common in Buddhist literature.
Buddha's proscriptions against certain types of people joining the monastic sangha (ordained community) are often understood to reflect his concern with upholding the public image of the sangha as virtuous. Thus, sexually active people, especially those with unusual sexual tastes, and people of a third gender — along with criminals and disabled people — run the risk of bringing the order into disrepute. Peter Jackson, scholar of sexual politics and Buddhism in Thailand, speculates that the Buddha was initially reluctant to allow women to join the sangha for this reason. Jackson explains:
"Buddhism, the middle path, has always been concerned with the maintenance of social order and since the Buddha's time the sangha has never claimed to provide a universal vehicle for the spiritual liberation of all individuals in society, explicitly excluding those who are considered to reflect badly on the monkhood in terms of prevailing social norms and attitudes.
The third sex are excluded from a variety of Buddhist practices (in addition to ordination):
In contrast, later texts, particularly Tibetan Buddhist writings, occasionally value paṇḍaka positively for their "middleness" and balance. The paṇḍaka in these Tibetan works is translated with the term ma ning — "genderless" or "without genitals". The 13th century Tibetan monk Gyalwa Yang Gönpa, who was one of the significant figures in the early Drukpa Kagyu sect, writes about ma ning as a balanced state between maleness and femaleness. Yang Gönpa describes ma ning as "the abiding breath between male exhalation and female inhalation" and "the balanced yogic channel, as opposed to the too tight male channel, and the too loose female one".
The current Dalai Lama interprets sexual misconduct to include lesbian and gay sex, and indeed any sex other than penis-vagina intercourse, including oral sex, anal sex, and masturbation. He explained in 1997: "It’s part of what we Buddhists call bad sexual conduct. Sexual organs were created for reproduction between the male element and the female element — and everything that deviates from that is not acceptable from a Buddhist point of view. However, in the same interview he also said that heterosexual non-procreative sex is not considered to be sexual misconduct — he is "for" heterosexual sex with condoms or the pill. The Dalai Lama admitted that there is a difference between the views of believers and unbelievers: "From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct. From society's point of view, mutually agreeable homosexual relations can be of mutual benefit, enjoyable and harmless. He claimed the proscription against sexual misconduct can be traced to the 2nd century Buddhist scholar Ashvaghosha.
Four years earlier, he had been unsure if a mutually agreeable non-abusive same sex relationship would be acceptable. He had difficulty imagining the mechanics of homosexual sex, saying that nature had arranged male and female organs "in such a manner that is very suitable… Same-sex organs cannot manage well.
In an interview with Wikinews, Tashi Wangdi, Representative to the Dalai Lama, further elaborated on these views. If a person was to engage in homosexuality, "a person would not be considered as following all the precepts of Buddhist principles. People don’t follow all the principles. Very few people can claim they follow all the principles. For instance, telling a lie. In any religion, if you ask if telling a lie is a sin—say Christian—they will say yes. But you find very few people who don’t at some point tell a lie. Homosexuality is one act, but you can’t say [a person who is homosexual is] not a Buddhist. Or someone who tells a lie is not a Buddhist. Or someone who kills an insect is not a Buddhist, because there’s a strong injunction against that.
Peter Jackson argues that AIDS in the 1980s brought about a shift of perception in Thailand regarding kathoeys, "placing homosexuality rather than gender at the focus of the concept", which was associated with "a shift in Buddhist attitudes from relative tolerance of homosexuality to condemnation.
In 1989, the supreme governing body of the Thai sangha affirmed that "gays" (here translated from Thai kathoey) are prohibited from being ordained. Their declaration has apparently gone unheeded in some quarters, as Phra Pisarn Thammapatee (AKA Phra Payom Kalayano), one of the most eminent monks in the country, demanded in 2003 that 1,000 gay monks be ousted from the sangha, and that better screening processes are put in place to keep out any gay postulants.
Western Christian travellers to Japan from the 16th century have noted (with distaste) the prevalence and acceptance of forms of homosexuality among Japanese Buddhists — Jesuit priest Francis Cabral wrote in 1596 that ‘abominations of the flesh’ and ‘vicious habits’ were "regarded in Japan as quite honourable; men of standing entrust their sons to the bonzes to be instructed in such things, and at the same time to serve their lust".
A 17th century Japanese Buddhist scholar, Kitamura Kigin, wrote that Buddha advocated homosexuality over heterosexuality for priests:
"It has been the nature of men's hearts to take pleasure in a beautiful woman since the age of male and female gods, but to become intoxicated by the blossom of a handsome youth… would seem to be both wrong and unusual. Nevertheless, the Buddha preached that [Mount] Imose was a place to be avoided and the priests of the law entered this Way as an outlet for their feelings, since their hearts were, after all, made of neither stone nor wood. Like water that plunges from the peak of Tsukubane to form the deep pools of the Minano River, this love has surpassed in depth the love between women and men in these latter days. It plagues the heart not only of courtier and aristocrat but also of brave warriors. Even the mountain dwellers who cut brush for fuel have learned to take pleasure in the shade of young saplings." - Wild Azaleas (1676)
In Chinese Buddhism, homosexuality was a third level sin punishable in one of the nine hells. Marie-Eve Blanc writes that "Mahayana Buddhism (as in China and Vietnam) is less tolerant than Theravada Buddhism (Thailand).
In contrast to Buddhism in Asia, modern Buddhism in the Western world is typically associated with liberal politics and a concern for social equality — partly as a result of its largely middle-class intellectual membership base, and its philosophical roots in freethought and secular humanism. When applying buddhist philosophy to the question of homosexuality, western Buddhists often emphasize the importance the Buddha placed on tolerance, compassion, and seeking answers within one's self. They stress these over-arching values rather than examining specific passages or texts. As a result, western Buddhism is often relatively gay-friendly, especially since the 1990s. As interpretation of what is sexual misconduct is an individual decision and not subject to judgement by any central authority, a view of accepting all peoples, but rejecting certain types of sexual acts is more predominant. LGBT people such as Issan Dorsey, Caitriona Reed, Pat Enkyo O'Hara and Soeng Hyang have been ordained as Buddhist monastics.
The USA branch of Soka Gakkai International, a Japanese-based new religious movement (Shinshūkyō) influenced by Nichiren Buddhism, announced in 1995 that they would start holding wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples, and in 2001 established a conference for LGBT members and their supporters. A Buddhist temple in Salt Lake City connected with Jodo Shinshu, another Japanese school of Buddhism, also holds religious rites for same-sex couples.