Buddhism and the Discourse on AIDS in America
Jose Ignacio Cabezon
The discourse on religion and AIDS in America has tended to construct itself in a way that makes the key terms into images of the ideals or anti-ideals of the hegemonic culture. Not terribly surprising. Hence, AIDS becomes, monolithically, a (perhaps the)"gay disease," religion is equated with Christianity, and America is portrayed as the culture of white, straight, married, middle-class men and women. The logic that manipulates the now monolithic terms would make the conclusion seem inevitable: real Americans who have the right religion have nothing to fear. AIDS is the disease of the other. It "happens" to those who are not white (whether there in "darkest Africa" or here in the false, penumbral, America of the shooting gallery, the ghetto, or the barrio).(1) When forced to admit that being white is no guarantor of immunity, it is the "Americanness" or the true religiosity of the victim which is challenged. Gay men and intravenous drug-users, being neither true Americans nor real Christians, thus become susceptible (and in the view of the Christian right, justly susceptible) to the disease. Thus, eschewing the slothful life of the drug addict, having sex only in the context of marriage, in short, leading a "clean, Christian life," becomes the cure, the salvific vaccine- substitute.
In this way AIDS comes to be constructed as the disease of the other. It is something that happens to them, not us. Whether or not this is the best strategy for dealing with the reality of AIDS, it should certainly by now be an understandable one. As Mary Douglas pointed out more than two decades ago: to identify what is foreign to the body with what is foreign as a body is a strategy that is prevalent under certain social conditions, our present one among them.(2)
It is one of the virtues of the present conference that it has attempted to avoid the simplistic logic I have just described. For in actuality, of course, AIDS is not "a gay disease,"
religion in this country is not coterminous with Christianity, and America is less white, monogamously married and middle class than it was a few decades ago, and far less than it will be a few decades hence. The attempt to appropriately complexify issues related to AIDS by awareness of crender, race and class as factors, and by attention to the religious diversity of North America is something to be lauded.
Why should Buddhism be a voice in the present discussion? (1) Simply in terms of the number of adherents, Buddhism ranks as one of the major religious traditions in the United States today, and as the number of Western converts to Buddhism and of East and Southeast Asian immigrants to this country (and their offspring) increase, so too will Buddhism's importance. Increasingly, Buddhist voices will have to be included in any attempt to treat social issues like the HIV/AIDS pandemi in a way that is reflective of the religious diversity of North America.
(1) Consider the etiological discourse that sought to identify Africa as the origin of AIDS (see Patton) or the present-day statistics that show a diminution in the rate of seroconversion in White America, as it increases in Latino and African-American communities, or an overall decrease in the United States and Western Europe as it increases in the developing world. My purpose here is not to challenge the numbers, but only to point out that there are judgments involved in deciding which numbers to report, and that such judgments reflect, just as they are reflected in, the ideology that constructs AIDS in the image of the other.
Buddhists, of course, are as susceptible to HIV infection as anyone else, and given the linguistic and cultural obstacles that impede attempts to educate the immigrant Buddhist communities in the United States, it is clear that many Buddhists are at far greater risk for infection than the population at large.
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That religious views affects sexual behavior is arguably an observation so banal as to be hardly worth making. Any systemic attempt to deal with AIDS, therefore, cannot overlook religion, and any morally well-founded approach to religion and AIDS cannot overlook the fact of religious pluralism. If for no other reason than the ones just outlined, it is fitting to invite Buddhist voices into the present conversation.
(2) HIV/AIDS is of course not only a national problem but an international one. What is more, the problem at the national level can be isolated from the international crisis only in theory. The proportion of the problem in Buddhist Asia, especially in Thailand, is by now well known. Hence, Buddhism, as the religion of a vast number of infected and at-risk individuals worldwide, must be considered in any discussion that would attempt to assess the systemic relationship of religion to AIDS, even if that conversation is ostensibly a national rather than a global one.
(3) Finally, despite its penetration into Euro-American society, Buddhism still represents for North America the culturally other. From this vantage point, it can serve the function of mirror in the process of cultural critique. By providing alternative formulations to both questions where there is a concern to protect both (body and society) from foreign influence. The importance of and answers related to HIV/AIDS, it can allow us to gain new perspectives on the issues. For example, making the overly familiar seem less so, it becomes possible, by considering the Buddhist viewpoint, to gain a certain distance from habitual ways of approaching HIV/AIDS, and from this distance, it is possible to glean insights that would not otherwise be possible.
Given that sex is one of the principal modes of transmission of HIV, and given as well that religions have a great deal to say about what constitutes proper and improper sexual conduct, it should not be surprising that sexual ethics will be a major topic for discussion in this gathering. In what remains of this brief paper, I would like to provide you with a very brief overview of one classical Buddhist formulation of what constitutes improper sexual behavior, I would like to relate to you how Buddhist theologians like myself are critically engaging the classical texts to formulate a sexual ethic that is at once Buddhist and relevant to men and women in this country at this point in time, and finally, I will conclude with some remarks concerning the relationship of this work to HIV/AIDS.
Like most premodern traditions, the Buddhist doctrine of what constitutes sexual misconduct (log par gyem pa)(3) for lay men and women(4) seems anachronistic by contemporary standards. First, it presumes men as its sole audience. Women are considered only as potential objects for intercourse (jugpar bya ba), and not as independent subjects, making the doctrine androcentric (5) to the extreme. The doctrine is also infused with
2) More specifically, Douglas (197) has observed that in the condition of what she cal Is "strong group and weak grid" - a condition in which there is a strong sense of group identity vis a vis other groups, but a weak sense of internal structure within the group, a condition which is arguably definitional of American society - there is a prevalence of body-symbolism, where society comes to be equated with the body, and where there is a concern to protect both (body and society) from foreign influence. The importance for Douglas’s work to the discourse of AIDS and religion has yet to be fully realized.
an ethos of homophobia. For example, whereas female prostitutes paid for directly by a male "customer" (6) are considered "suitable (bkrodpar bya ba) objects," no man (skyespa) or hermaphrodite (ma ning)'(7)is considered a suitable sexual partner for a man. Moreover, as regards the actual act of sexual intercourse, only the vagina is considered a suitable "point of entry." This implies that all forms of oral and anal intercourse, as well as masturbation, are proscribed. There are also prohibitions regarding place (e.g., not in public, not on rough ground etc.) and time (e.g., not during certain auspicious days, not during daylight hours, no more than a certain number of times in an evening, etc.). Though exhibiting a good dose of adrocentrism, homophobia and simply seeming anachronistic by today's standards, I do not wish to imply that the Buddhist doctrine of sexual misconduct is without its virtues. For example, the prohibitions against underage sex, against infidelity, and the attempts to create boundaries for sexual activity generally are certainly positive aspects of the doctrine. Equally noteworthy is what is not prohibited. (1) There are no restrictions against sexual relations between consenting unmarried adults; (2) there is no appeal to "nature" or "the natural" in attempts to formulate what constitutes a proper sexual act, and (3) there is no notion that procreation is the sole purpose of sex. The first of these facts implies that from a Buddhist viewpoint premarital sex is permissible, the second that a theoretical construct -the natural - that has been so exploited to condemn alternative sexual practices and lifestyles in the West is never relied upon for similar purposes in the Buddhist sources, and the third that sex simply for pleasure is recognized as ethically valid.
Now the purpose in bringing up the classical doctrine of sexual misconduct is not to rehearse the traditional line, but to point out that this is for Buddhists today the starting point for theological reflection. On June I I of last year His Holiness the Dalai Lama met with a group of gay and lesbian Buddhist leaders to discuss Buddhist sexual morality and its implications for the gay community(8) At this meeting, the Dalai Lama brought up the portion of the text that sanctions prostitution as a way of making the point that a good deal of the classical doctrine may be specific to a certain place and time, and that it may therefore have to be reinterpreted so as to make it relevant to contemporary culture. After stating that the purpose of the doctrine is to lessen attachment, he saw the absurdity in the
tradition that claims that it is permissible for a man and a wife to have sexual intercourse up to five consecutive times in an evening, while prohibiting men and women to have sexual contact of any kind with a person of the same sex even once in their lifetime. The Dalai
Lama stressed that he was not in a position to unilaterally reformulate the doctrine on his own - that in Buddhism this must be done through consensus. Nonetheless, he urged those of us present to work at the scientific, social and theological levels to bring about such change.
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(3) My remarks here are based on one of the most complete accounts of the doctrine of sexual misconduct in all of Buddhist literature: that found in the fourteenth century text of the great Tibetan scholar Tsong kha pa bLo bzang 'grags pa, the Lam rim chen mo (Mi rigs dpe skrun khang ed., pp. 166-168).
(4) Of course, the Buddhist clerg (monks and nuns) take vows of complete celibacy, so that for them no form of sexual expression is considered permissible.
(5)' On androcentrism in Buddhism see Rita Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993).
(6) As opposed to prostitutes whose services are obtained through an intermediary, e.g., a pimp.
(7) Leonard Zwilling has argued that the category ma ning (sanskrit pandaka) is not coterm inous with that of hermaphrodite, but his argument is based mostly on the Sanskrit sources, and thus applies principally in the context of Indian culture. In a Tibetan context, it seems clear that the term is understood as referring to hermaphrodites. See Zwilling's article in J. 1. Cabez6n ed., Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993)
(8) For a report of this meeting see Eva Herzer, "The Dalai Lama meets with gay and lesbian Buddhists," Shambhala Sun, September, 1997, pp. 11, 13; and Bryan Burch, "Dalai Lama Meets with Gay and Lesbian Leaders," Turning Wheel, Fall 1997, pp. 25, 26, 29.
Speaking personally now, this meeting opened up for me the possibility of doing theology in a new key: one which is ever willing to confront, and in no instance to give way to, the evils of androcentrism and homophobia. There are, I believe, several key principles that must undergird a Buddhist sexual theology, and these are principles that have a direct impact on issues related to HIV and AIDS. These principles are more fundamental than the legalistic, rule-defined formulations found in the classical treatments of proper sexual conduct: more fundamental in that they constitute the very foundations for Buddhist ethics. While responsible Buddhist theologians cannot afford to simply dismiss the traditional textual material, neither can they fail to ask themselves whether, in our present context, the classical proscriptions are consistent with these more fundamental principles. In crafting a Buddhist sexual ethic that is relevant to today's world it is these principles that must serve as the theologian's guide. What are these, and what are their implications to HIV and AIDS?
First is the general Buddhist commitment to confronting reality. A Buddhist sexual ethic must be constructed in response to actual human desires and behaviors, and it must take into account the actual state of the world as the environment in which human action takes place. We live in a world where the vast majority of human beings are sexually active, where sexual desires and acts are as diverse as human beings themselves, and where a virus that can be transmitted during sex can lead to illness and eventually to death. Buddhist sexual ethics must confront these facts. It cannot proceed as if we lived in a world where celibacy - or even heterosexual penilevaginal intercourse - was the norm, nor can it proceed as if we lived in an AIDS-free world. For example, in this age of AIDS it is unconscionable for a contemporary Buddhist theologian to simply tout the traditional line that unprotected penile-vaginal intercourse with prostitutes is permissible. It represents a violation of the first fundamental principle: that we take the reality of human beings and their surroundings into account in ethical reflection. This is especially true when failure to take HIV and AIDS into account in moral decision-making could lead to an even greater evil: the infection of one's sexual partner.
Second, the primary goal of Buddhism is the eradication of suffering, not only for oneself, but for others as well, and the primary purpose of ethics is to minimize the amount of harm we do to ourselves and to others. Attachment or craving is considered one of the major sources of human suffering.. Any pleasurable action breeds attachment, and sex is considered the most pleasurable action in which human beings can engage. Thus, one of the functions of Buddhist ethics is to limit human sexual activity so as to diminish the amount of sexual craving, and therefore the self- and other-harm that we do in the pursuit of such craving.(9) Some men and women, it is clear, are capable of strict vows of celibacy, and this is considered by most Buddhists the most effective means of curbing sexual desire, allowing, monks and nuns an extraordinary foundation on which to make great spiritual progress. But even the Buddha, who was himself a celibate monk, was cognizant of the fact that not everyone would be called to a celibate life. How then can lay Buddhists, who, it is recognized, will not be celibate, diminish sexual attachment? This is clearly one of the chief concerns of lay Buddhist sexual ethics: to allow for sex while seeking to minimize it and the
(9)Thus, the Buddhist position is in contradistinction to that of Paul Abramson and Steven Pinkerton; who, in with Pleasure: Thoughts on the Nature of Human Sexuality (NY: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 54 believe that "regulating sex is a no-win situation. It is neither easy, nor virtuous, nor likely to win one friends." Buddhism, by contrast, is clearly of the opinion that it is both possible and virtuous to limit sex, and therefore sexual desire. " See my "Meditation on HIV and AIDS," forthcoming in the J. Hopkins festschrift.
attachment that it breeds. How should this be accomplished? Clearly not by proscribing homosexual relationships or by prohibiting certain non-harmful sexual acts. If a person finds sexual fulfillment only with a partner of his or her own sex, or is only sexually fulfilled by engaging in certain types of non-harming sexual acts (e.g., oral or anal intercourse or masturbation) with a consenting partner, then to prohibit such types of sexual expression is to dejacto condemn such a person to involuntary celibacy, which, far from reducing sexual attachment, engenders a frustration that increases both sexual desire and sexual action itself. The negative implications of this to the spread of HIV and AIDS should be obvious.
The true Buddhist solution, then, is not the blanket condemnation of homosexuality or specific forms of sex, but the encouragement of relationships that have the capacity to keep sexuality within bounds, that diminish promiscuity, and that reduce attachment to a minimum. Relationships that, while satisfying sexual desire, help to control it by providing such boundaries, can serve as the basis for human spiritual flourishing. As such, they must be supported, both at the theological and at the institutional level.
The Buddhist principle of ahimsa, or "non-harming," must also be a cornerstone of its sexual ethic. In today's world this requires, as I have argued elsewhere,(10) that in most cases, those of us who are sexually active make ourselves aware of whether or not we are HIV positive, and that in all instances we exhibit a commitment to safer sexual practices.
Third, and finally, Mahayana Buddhists believe that they have a responsibility not only not to harm, but also to help others. The Mahayana commitment to love and compassion requires Buddhists to work to eradicate the suffering of others. This means, among other things, working to eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation and on HIV status. The Mahayana commitment to love requires Buddhists to give others happiness, especially those who are sick and marginalized, e.g., due to AIDS. These dual principles - compassion and love - I see as being the basis for the tremendously important hospice work that is being done by Buddhists chiefly, though not exclusively, in the San Francisco Bay Area.(11)
I have attempted to give a brief overview of the principles that I believe form the foundation for a Buddhist sexual ethic that is relevant to the contemporary world, and I have attempted to give some real examples of their application, especially as regards issues related to HIV and AIDS. Of course it is impossible to deal with such complex matters in the context of a short position-paper like the present one. But it is my hope that at the very least this brief statement will give the reader a sense of the way Buddhists are dealing with the issues, and of the advantages of taking a more religiously and culturally inclusive approach to religion and AIDS in America.
(10) See my :meditation on HIV/AIDS," forthcoming in the J. Hopkins festschrift.
(11) One of the earliest AIDS hospices in the country is the Maitri Project (maitri is the Sanskrit word for love), which is associated with the Hartford Street Zen Center. Another, now more extensive, undertaking started in the same year (1987) is the Zen Hospice Project, which was originally established as a project of the San Francisco Zen Center.