Sexual Orientation – Effects of Kamma and Gati (Saṅkhāra)

This post will be helpful in not only clarifying Buddha’s teachings on sexual orientation but also that there can be wide varieties of saṅkhāra, viññāṇa, and corresponding bhava and jāti arising according to Paṭicca Samuppāda.

January 14, 2017; revised December 3, 2022

1. In this beginning-less rebirth process, we all had likely switched back and forth between male and female many times, just as we are likely to have been born in most of the 31 realms in the past.

  • It is said that the Bodhisatta — before becoming Buddha Gotama — was a female when the pāramitā process to become a Buddha was initiated.
  • However, once the pāramitā process progressed and the Bodhisatta (Bodhisattva) became a male, it never switched to female.
  • Only a male can be a Buddha. See, “Bahudhātuka Sutta (MN 115).” Also, see “Did the Buddha Discriminate Against Women?

2. Whether one is male or female is predominantly determined by one’s saṅkhāra and not due to a past kamma.

  • But in some cases, kamma could be the direct cause. For example, if one intentionally severed or mutilated another’s sexual organs, one may be born without a sexual organ. Such a person is called a “napunsaka” in Sinhala (paṇḍaka in Pāli), but I am not aware of a corresponding English word.
  • A eunuch is a person who is castrated. But few are born without a sex organ, possibly due to a kamma vipāka of a past kamma.

3. Male/female distinction is there only in the kāma loka. There is no distinction in the Brahma realms (higher 20 realms). Brahmās do not have dense physical bodies or sexual organs; they all have purisa bhāva dasaka.

  • One is born in either the 16 rupa loka realms or the four arupa loka realms (Brahma realms) because one has given up all desires for bodily pleasures, including sex, i.e., one has seen the value of niramisa sukha (and jhānic pleasures) that can be achieved by giving up bodily (sensory) pleasures.

4. One is born in kāma loka because one likes bodily pleasures, especially those associated with taste, smell, and sex. Of course, vision and sound that help satisfy those three bodily pleasures also come into play here.

  • One is born in human or deva realms in the kāma loka because one has done meritorious deeds (puñña kamma). Female Devas have attained those births because of their puñña kamma, just like male Devas. One is born a female Deva because one has cultivated “itthi saṅkhāra“; see #5 below.
  • One is born in the four apāya realms in the kāma loka because one has done immoral deeds (päpa kamma). Here the corresponding saṅkhāra are apuññābhi saṅkhāra.

5. One is born male or female due to whether one cultivates “purisa saṅkhāra” or “itthi saṅkhāra” by thinking, speaking, and doing things accordingly. One does not do either puñña abhisaṅkhāra or apuñña abhisaṅkhāra here.

  • Such saṅkhāra (kaya, vaci, and mano) are not necessarily meritorious (puññābhi saṅkhāra) or immoral (apuññābhi saṅkhāra). Those align with pure habits based on “purisa gati” and  “itthi gati.”
  • This can be compared to cultivating habits for playing a particular musical instrument. They are called “vāsana keles,” keles that do not have good or bad kamma vipāka but are more like ingrained habits.

6. Purisa is the Pāli or Sinhala word for a male, which comes from “piri” or “full.” A male is likely to give more (especially to the wife) than to take from the wife. Itthi is the Pāli (and old Sinhala) word for female and means “itiri” (pronounced “ithiri”) or “leftover space to be filled.” For example, if a cup is full, that is “piri.” If it is not filled to the brim, it needs more to become whole; it has “itiri.

  • So, a male is likely to buy things for his wife willingly but does not care much about his appearance. Most wives expect gifts and sustenance.
  • However, these “purisa gati” and  “itthi gati” can vary significantly. A male has more “purisa gati” than  “itthi gati.”  But we do see “alpha males” with close to 100% “purisa gati” as well as females with very high “itthi gati.”
  • On the other hand, we also see females who like to act and dress more like males and males who want to act and dress more femininely. If they cultivate those gati more, a sex change is possible in future lives (in rare cases, even in this life).

7. In most families, if one examines the wardrobes of the husband and wife, one is likely to find many more items in the wife’s wardrobe (in particular, the man may have a couple of pairs of shoes, but the wife will have many!). Females wear much more jewelry, too.

  • Furthermore, a female is more concerned about the appearance of her (and her husband). A guy usually grabs something to wear, but a woman will likely pay much more attention. I know by experience that I have been “asked politely” to change into something better when going out.
  • Thus, females constantly think about their (and their spouse’s and children’s) appearance. This is not necessarily due to greed but mainly due to sansaric habits.

8. Therefore, as far as attaining Nibbāna, it does not matter whether one is a male, female, or somewhere in between (with mixed gati).

  • One is born in the deva realms due to good kamma vipāka, and there are male and female devas, just like in the human and animal realms. The type of sex is not determined by kamma vipāka.
  • All Brahma realms are “unisex.” They all have the purisa bhāva dasaka. Brahmās do not have dense bodies to experience the touch, the taste of foods, or smells. They have very fine/subtle bodies with just the hadaya vatthu, bhāva, kaya, cakkhu, and sota dasaka.
  • Therefore, a Brahma “body” has only five suddhāṭṭhaka (much smaller than an atom in modern science.) So, it is clear why sensory pleasures are absent in Brahma loka.

9. It is essential to realize that there are moral gati due to puññābhisaṅkhāra (puñña abhisaṅkhāra), immoral gati due to apuññābhisaṅkhāra (apuñña abhisaṅkhāra), and “kammically neutral” gati due to saṅkhāra that are not abhisaṅkhāra.

  • While one is born in the human bhava, one would also have an “itthi bhava” (as a female) or “purisa bhava” (as a male).
  • Also, one could be born in an “angry bhava” for a given period triggered by a sensory event such as seeing an enemy — if one has cultivated angry gati by thinking, speaking, and acting with an angry mindset.
  • One could be born in a “greedy bhava” the same way. If we start thinking mindfully, thinking, speaking, and acting with less greed, those greedy gati will reduce over time.
  • The more one thinks, speaks, and acts in a “female way,” one will cultivate “female gati,” but these are not moral or immoral saṅkhāra, as discussed above.

10. In any of these cases, the more saṅkhāra one makes, the more one builds up the corresponding viññāṇa (saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa) and so on until it gets to strengthening upādāna and thus strengthening bhava (upādāna paccayā bhava).

  • Therefore, Paṭicca Samuppāda explains how bhava is in the rebirth process and in bhava that lasts only for short periods, like getting into an “angry state of mind” or “angry bhava.”

11. Another possibility that may come into play in a transgender person (a person whose sex is changed during their lifetime) can be understood if one understands the role of the gandhabba (mental body) that dictates the functioning of the physical body. Gandhabba is not a Mahāyāna concept:  “Gandhabba State – Evidence from Tipiṭaka. “

  • When a gandhabba goes into a womb, it is not firmly attached to the zygote (the cell formed by the union of the father and the mother) during the first several weeks.
  • Sometimes, the gandhabba leaves the womb if it turns out to be not a good match with the parents. This is the reason for a miscarriage.
  • If a gandhabba leaves the womb within such a short period, in some cases, another gandhabba can enter the womb and take possession of the partially formed physical body abandoned by the previous gandhabba. Now, the second gandhabba may be of the opposite sex.
  • For example, suppose the first gandhabba was a male and the second a female. So, this female is thus taking hold of a physical body that was taking shape to be a male and thus continues to form a male body. Once born as a male baby and while growing, the female character may start to convert the physical body to that of a female. This is what happens to a transgender person.

12. One is bound to the kāma loka because one craves sensory pleasures, whether tasting good food, watching movies, listening to music, smelling lovely fragrances, or engaging in sexual activities. If one does those activities without engaging in immoral activities, then the only harm done is to be eligible to be born in the kāma loka.

  • If one desires such bodily pleasures, one cannot be freed from even the higher realms in the kāma loka (human and Deva realms). However, it becomes relevant only at the Anāgāmi stage. A Sotāpanna or a Sakadāgāmi has not given up desires for sensual pleasures.
  • I have not seen anything in the Tipiṭaka that distinguishes between sexual activities based on who the partners are. So, it seems that homosexual or bisexual activities are not that different from heterosexual activities regarding kammic consequences. They are all done to achieve bodily pleasures.
  • However, if one engages in immoral activities — in particular, breaking the five precepts — then one would be eligible to be born in the lowest four realms of the kāma loka, the apāyā.
  • I specifically commented on homosexuality in answering a specific question by a reader. The main point is to ensure that any pleasurable activity at the expense of hurting someone will have harmful consequences. Depending on the nature, it could make one eligible to be born in the apāyā.

13. One way to understand the anicca nature is to look at the transient nature of our physical body and that it can provide only temporary bodily pleasures, even though they are enjoyable.

  • The gandhabba is the more long-lasting entity; a human bhava can last many thousands of years; a physical body is a temporary shell used by the gandhabba for about 100 years.
  • The bodily pleasures one experiences with this “physical shell” can last only the early part of 100 years. With age, those pleasures weaken, and there is no way to keep them the same.
  • On the other hand, jhānic pleasures — or at least niramisa sukha —  can be enjoyed even in old age, as long as one keeps steps to maintain the brain in good condition. The gandhabba — since it is trapped inside the physical body — needs the brain to be mindful and to cultivate good vaci and mano saṅkhāra; this is what is emphasized in the earlier posts in this section and analyzed in detail (for those who need to go deeper) in the Abhidhamma section.

14. Finally, it is essential to emphasize the point that it will take a concerted effort to understand these concepts fully. The more one reads, the more one will understand. It is not possible to gain insight by reading a few posts. One has to spend time and read relevant posts to “fill in the gaps.”

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