Widely reported as having recently “thrown his moral weight behind gay marriage”, the Dalai Lama’s actual words to talk show host Larry King were not quite so compelling. He described sexual morality for the non-religious as a “personal matter”, but noted that same-sex marriage was “up to the country’s law”. When pressed further on his personal opinion, he replied “That’s okay. I think individual business”.

Westerners have confused and contradictory impressions of Eastern religions and philosophies. On the one hand, fantasies of the mysterious and enigmatic Orient are nothing new: Omar Khayyam was as popular in Victorian England as Jalalladin Rumi is in America today. Nor need we watch Madam Butterfly to understand how Asia has continued to serve as a canvas for weird Western dreams, projections, and insecurities.

Some compassion for the Dalai Lama is duly warranted. The poor guy is, at face value, a perfect vehicle for the Western ideal of a tremendously wise, compassionate, yet safely foreign master – the nearest living equivalent to Yoda from Star Wars. But at the same time he’s the serious head of a serious sect of Buddhism, the spiritual leader of a dispossessed people, and a living manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, roles he must somehow balance against the neediness of Westerners anxious to find a convincing spiritual counterpoint to the stifling moral authority of their own religious heritage.

Progressive Westerners look to the Dalai Lama for enlightened moral guidance, expecting to find a safe, comforting affirmation of their own values reflected in his compassionate eyes. Buddhism is not, after all, like those nasty Biblical religions with their dogmatic intolerance and weird sexual hang-ups.

Things looked positive in 1994, when the Dalai Lama was quoted as saying:

“If someone comes to me and asks whether it is okay or not, I will first ask if you have some religious vows to uphold. Then my next question is, what is your companion’s opinion? If you both agree, then I think I would say, if two males or two females voluntarily agree to have mutual satisfaction without further implication of harming others, then it is okay.”

But in a 1996 book, ironically entitled “Beyond Dogma” the Dalai Lama gave a seemingly contradictory account:

“A sexual act is deemed proper when the couples use the organs intended for sexual intercourse and nothing else…. Homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself. What is improper is the use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact.”

The real difference between the two comments is that the latter is addressed to Buddhists, while the former is not. As he told ‘The Age’ in a 1999 interview:

“They [his Californian followers] want me to condone homosexuality. But I am a Buddhist and, for a Buddhist, a relationship between two men is wrong. Some sexual conduct in marriage is also wrong,” he says. “For example, using one’s mouth and the other hole.” “This too is wrong,” he adds, shaking his hand up and down vigorously. I look at the translator, perplexed. “Masturbation, madam,” he says. The Dalai Lama laughs as I blush. “If an individual has no faith, that is a different matter,” he says. “If two men really love each other and are not religious, then that is OK by me.”

Much to the dismay of flaky Westerners, it turns out that the Dalai Lama’s religious beliefs are just as sexually limiting as those of pretty much any other major religious sect. The real difference between the Pope and the Dalai Lama is that, for reasons of pragmatism or of doctrine, the Dalai Lama maintains a sharp distinction between morality for Buddhists, and morality for the rest of us. His latest comments show that the Dalai Lama still maintains this double-standard for believers, stating that:

“People who have belief or who have special traditions, then you should follow according to your own tradition. Like Buddhism, there are different kinds of sexual misconduct, so you should follow properly.”

While non-believers are no doubt happy to be left to their own devices, the logic of this double-standard raises questions about the Dalai Lama’s broader view of Buddhism, humanity, and ethics. The goal of Buddhism is freedom from suffering, and indeed the ‘compassion’ promoted by the Dalai Lama is epitomised in the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara’s vow to defer his own enlightenment until all sentient beings have been liberated. Presuming that the rules of Buddhism are oriented directly or indirectly towards this liberation, the implication is that the rules against sexual misconduct exist because sexual misconduct is somehow harmful, or an obstacle, to individual enlightenment.

So what does the Dalai Lama really mean when he says that for the non-religious, acts of sexual misconduct are “OK by me”? He can’t mean that sexual misconduct is only harmful to professed Buddhists. Sexual misconduct is either harmful to enlightenment, or it is not. The Dalai Lama is not a moral relativist.

Perhaps his “OK by me” means that the actions of non-Buddhists don’t really matter to him? Not Buddhist? Not my problem. Yet this answer is not concomitant with the compassion he espouses. The Dalai Lama’s vow to liberate all sentient beings won’t allow him to simply abandon people to their fate; so “OK by me” can’t mean “I don’t care what you do”.

The fact is that the Dalai Lama’s double-standard in moral teaching is both pragmatic and doctrinal. Unlike Christianity with its ‘straight and narrow’ path, ‘no do-overs’ policy, and extremely low threshold for salvation, Buddhism of the Dalai Lama’s school envisages a ‘graded path’, a system of rebirth, and a very high threshold for attaining enlightenment.

This ‘graded path’ explains not only the Dalai Lama’s “OK by me”, but also his curious injunctions to non-Buddhists to stay within their own religious tradition. The ‘graded path’ recognises three stages of spiritual maturity within Buddhism, with the bare minimum being a desire to improve one’s future lives, and the highest attainment being the desire to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment. Some have argued that non-Buddhist religions which focus on an after-life in heaven in fact belong to this first stage of the Buddhist path. The Dalai Lama encourages people to stay in their own religion because it is good enough for the purposes of this stage, that Christians, Muslims and Jews seek or at least desire a ‘future life’ in heaven.

The problem for many non-religious Westerners who flock to the Dalai Lama is that they tend not to put much stock in either the ‘heaven’ of the Abrahamic religions, nor in the rebirth of Buddhism. Without the desire to improve their future lives, most people aren’t at any stage of the path, and are concerned only with obtaining happiness in their present lifetime. In such cases the Dalai Lama’s priority is to at least encourage them to avoid the kinds of beliefs and actions that would cause them to create bad karma and be reborn in a worse state. Pragmatic, yet doctrinal. “OK by me” really means: if you’re only interested in the happiness of the present life, then at least don’t hurt anyone, ok?

In light of this context, perhaps it is easier to understand the Dalai Lama’s chuckling evasiveness in the face of Western fans and interviewers who approach and sometimes reproach him in search of unequivocal affirmations of their own sexual choices and values. On various online fora one can find a range of responses to the cognitive dissonance of having a cherished spiritual celebrity fail to live up to expectation. Some believe that the Dalai Lama is bound by tradition to pay lip service to the rules of sexual misconduct, while he personally couldn’t care less. Others hasten to point out that the Dalai Lama doesn’t speak for all of Buddhism, his views are not binding on Buddhists, and one can shop around for a more satisfactory answer. A minority become fully disillusioned, and harsh words usually reserved for contemned Christians start to fly: ‘theocratic’, ‘medieval’, ‘hypocritical’, and ‘corrupt’.

The great British writer G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “If Christianity were only a new oriental fashion, it would never be reproached with being an old oriental faith.” The same can be said of Tibetan Buddhism, which, as it becomes less and less a novelty, loses the safety, distance, and mystery that made it such a perfect conduit for Western escapism in the first place.

Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia. 

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...