Tuesday, August 26, 2008

How do GLBT folks fit into Buddhism?

Rainbow Buddha by Elaine (http://www.artbyelaine.co.uk/7029.html)

A lesbian Buddhist friend recently asked me for tips on how to “fill the void” between Buddhists and lesbian and gay people when she gave a speech at a Buddhist conference. Her impression was that the Buddhists had little connection to GLBT folks. It's true that GLBT Buddhists are not as visible as gay, lesbian, bi and trans folks who follow Christ. GLBT Christians have had to come together and speak out because conservative Christians are directly attacking us, singling us out as the worst sinners, using the issue of homosexuality to raise money, etc. It appears, at least within American Buddhism, that Buddhists are more tolerant about homosexuality. However, reality is more complex. I shared the following four concepts with my friend, and I will post them here for discussion. I want to emphasize that I honor Buddhism and its followers, even though I consider myself Christian. Comments from all perspectives are welcome. 1. Like Christianity, Buddhism can be used to support homophobia There are definitely GLBT Buddhists in America, and some tend to have an idealized view of Buddhism. In our conversations, some blame Christianity for patriarchy, male dominance, and war. (Discrimination against lesbians and gays is part of sexism and patriarchy.) They're surprised when I say that in Japan I heard Buddhism used to justify male dominance and war. Maybe the critical experience is conversion -- if you were raised Christian or in a Christian culture, converting to Buddhism is a fresh start and a chance to build your own spirituality. If you were raised Buddhist, then Christianity can set you free. Here is an excerpt from an email on this subject that I sent to Toby Johnson, a gay author, activist and friend. He's a follower of Buddhism, although he once told me he is "as much a heretic to Buddhism as I am to Christianity." *** In Japan Buddhism was and is used to support male dominance. Their native animistic, goddess-oriented spirituality, Shinto, was used to justify World War II aggression against Korea and China (maybe Thailand, too). The horrors equaled some of those perpetrated in the name of Christ. My point is that any religion can be abused. It's not that any particular religion is "good." All religions have the potential to benefit society if they are practiced with "good" intentions…. I do think that Buddhism has a special role to play in America now. It seems to have a very positive effect on some people who grew up Christian or Jewish, and became disillusioned with their original religion. For example, some people can't access Jesus' message of love if they were saturated from birth with destructive Christian dogma. Buddhism gives them a fresh start with God. In Japan, I found that the opposite was true. I met quite a few Japanese feminists who rejected Buddhism because of its history of patriarchal oppression in their society and in their own personal experience. They found Christianity to be fresh and liberating. That was the atmosphere in which I chose to be baptized into Christianity in 1983 at an interdenominational English-speaking church in Kobe, Japan. Our church had members from all over the world. *** 2. Gay consciousness can be integrated with Buddhism Great info on how to integrate gay consciousness with Buddhism can be found at Toby Johnson’s website. Toby is a psychologist and former monk who studied myth with Joseph Campbell. Here's an excerpt from his site: "Johnson champions the Mahayana Buddhist World-savior myth of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara which portrays a lovely, androgynous (gay-like) young man, usually shown barechested in a relaxed meditation pose, who saves the world by willingly taking upon himself, out of compassion and kindness, all the incarnations of all sentient beings to free those beings from suffering. All human beings are incarnations of this one single Being (a mythological version of the planetary mind Gaia)." 3. Affirmation vs. tolerance of GLBT experience I'm sure that there are many varieties of Buddhism, but do most of them actually affirm GLBT people? I haven't found much pro-active affirmation for GLBT people in Buddhist teachings or teachers. A case in point is a lecture that I attended at the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles a few years ago. Lesbian pop singer k.d. lang introduced her Tibetan lama Chödak Gyatso Nubpa to discuss GLBT sexuality. His basic message was: We're all sinners, and the sin of homosexuality is no worse than other sins. This is the same message preached by many Christians. The lama also emphasized that he had taken a vow of celibacy, so for him all sex was bad. If a Catholic priest had given the same speech at the Center, there would have been a riot, but somehow it was acceptable to hear it from a Tibetan lama. 4. Buddhism may focus on oneness more than on unique GLBT gifts Gay and lesbian Buddhists tend to focus on oneness and see the particularity of their sexual orientation as largely irrelevant. At least that’s my experience. On the other hand, people who pursue "gay spirituality" emphasize that GLBT people have a unique experience and/or role that is valuable to the greater whole. A debate about "gay spirituality" versus "everybody spirituality" has generated a flood of comments at the Jesus in Love Blog. Here are excerpts that relate it to Buddhism from Toby Johnson's comments at the blog: *** "Having a different kind of consciousness of sexual attraction and living differently from the "norm" encourages certain talents and skills. One of those skills is the ability to see through the assumptions of conventional society. This shows up in "camp" humor and irony. Gay people tend to be able to step outside what everybody else takes for granted and see through it. That can also be understood as seeing from a broader perspective, i.e., seeing the "bigger picture." … What I think "gay spirituality" means is bringing our "gay talents" to the area of religion…. It is a great skill--one pleasing to "God," I think--to be able to rise above your religious opinions and see through to something higher and more subtle (this is what the Buddhists call Enlightenment). It is a "gift from God" that gay people get to be skilled at this. *** In closing, I repeat that I honor Buddhists and the Buddhist path. Perhaps surprisingly, GLBT Buddhists seem to be some of the most enthusiastic supporters of my gay-Jesus books and websites. I am writing from my limited perspective as an appreciative outsider to Buddhism, and I welcome comments from others with different viewpoints. May the discussion enlighten everyone!

P.S. After I originally posted this, I discovered that others are also blogging lately about Buddhism and homosexuality. The Buddhist Blog does an excellent job of explaining Buddhist sexual ethics -- including the Dalai Lama’s less-than-enlightened statements on gay and lesbian sexuality. Don’t miss the great comments! The Saint Sinner Shiksa Blog offers a more personal account on “Is there something in particular that attracts homosexual women to Buddhism?” Thanks, Riverwolf, for introducing these blogs!


Scott Hankins said...

OTOH, I did a sabbatical at McGill a Montreal. The marginal Hindi just re-shape the stories. I found that rather convincing.

Riverwolf said...

I'm no expert on Buddhism but my friend James over at The Buddhist Blog recently posted a very brief item on this topic, contrasting a few of the various opinions on homosexuality within Buddhism. The Dalai Lama himself doesn't appear as "enlightened" on the subject as one might assume.


KittKatt said...

Thanks Scott and Riverwolf!

I checked the link recommended by Riverwolf and found it so valuable that I updated my post to include it at the end. I also left a comment at the Buddhist Blog. It’s an interesting “coincidence” that several of us are all blogging about Buddhism and homosexuality this week!

Modern Girl said...

Thanks Kittkatt for linking to Sinner, Saint, Shiksa in this blog entry.

I do find it really coincedental and this topic was blogged about by several of us at once.

I'm going to add a link to your blog on my "Other Religious Blogs" list on mine.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

A high level official in the National Council of Churches had an audience with the Dalai Lama, and while they were all waiting in the lobby to meet him, she was trying to think of what she would say to him. "Hello Dalai" came to mind, even though she didn't say it out loud! I still laugh over this story.

But more seriously, I can't fathom the lesbian love affair with his royal highness the sexist Dalai. He believes that women can only achieve Nirvana if they are reincarnated as men, and women have no role in his monestary.

His comments are just as sexist and woman hating as the Pope's, and yet lesbians have glowed over being in "his presence." Ugh.

We all know the partriarchy of our home country, but go abroad, and lesbians lose their minds sometimes.

Either that, or perhaps lesbians failed to create their own religion, which I sometimes advocate. I have two statues of Kali in my office. The big bronze statue has her holding a long handled spear and stabbing a patriarch through the head. So I'd have to say for me, it's not Hello Dalai, it's Goodbye Dalai!

eacosta@opposingviews.com said...

Hello. My name is Edgar and I'm an editor at OpposingViews.com, the debate website. Since we both cover homosexuality, I thought I'd drop you a note. I would've e-mailed you but I couldn't find an address.
See, we're currently having a discussion about whether or not homosexuality is a sin. You can see it here:
Although vetted experts are the ones doing the debating, anyone can contribute by choosing a side and posting comments about the experts' arguments.
Check it out and, if you have the time, send me your thoughts via e-mail.

fokion said...

A couple points I want to make.

For me, I think, in the larger-picture, to consider the history of the oppressive force that Christianity has been. Christianity was, for the last five hundred years, the backbone of racism and imperialism. It was used to legitimate colonialism, genocide, and slavery. Furthermore, the identity of Christianity was, in no small part, what helped define Europe and eventually whiteness. The last five hundred years of colonialism and imperialism have amounted to the single largest and most extensive genocide in the history of the world.

You might say, hold on a second, I hear that, but that has nothing to do with my belief system. And I would agree with you. The problem is, however, what we call cultural imperialism. Christianity is perhaps the most evangelical religion in the world- sending missionaries out into other countries in order to convert people away from their culture, away from their native religions and spiritual practices, into Christianity.

I have faced this first hand with many conversations I have had with Christians. Personally, I try to see validity in all spiritual paths. I am a polytheist, and I have been able to have many wonderful conversations sharing my spiritual experiences with people of many different faiths and spiritualities. But for whatever reason, I have never been able to do this with christians. Every time I try to have a spiritual conversation with a christian they refuse to respect my beliefs and my experiences and they try to convert me.

So, I think it's really important for christians to recognize the legacy of what their religion has symbolized and done to other people, and what it continues to do today. Heterosexism is just one example out of many.

Secondly, I want to point out, again, that your article, although it contains the term "GLBT", does not address any trans issues. Homophobia is not the same thing as transphobia. Trans and genderqueer people face a whole load of different kinds of marginalization. (Check out my earlier comments) This is especially true when it comes to spirituality.

Trans, genderqueer, and third gender people (and I want to emphasize that there is a difference between the three), face specific issues when it comes to embodiment. I attended a really interesting workshop about a year about about astral projection and gender identity- seeing what anatomical sex your astral body appeared to be, and practicing sexual shapeshifting.

On a different note again, I want to point out the dangerous dynamic of white people in the west critiquing sexual and gender mores in other cultures. While I think this issue is complicated, it is important to recognize that there can be an imperialist dynamic to those in the west critiquing culture in the east. In particular, Gayatri Spivak calls this "white men saving brown women from brown men."

That's it for now.