Someone in another online forum sent me a personal message recently, saying that he’d run into a inordinate number (his words) of gays & lesbians who practice, study, or are drawn towards Buddhism. He wondered if I had any explanation for why this was, and I could only offer my personal experience of how I became interested in Buddhism what my orientation has to do with it. I can’t remember if I’ve shared this here before, but I thought it would be interesting to post.
It actually happened by accident, several years ago while I was out on what was an otherwise forgettable date. After dinner we took a walk around Dupont Circle, and we passed a used book store. I wanted to go in, because I usually can’t resist wandering around book stores. We browsed a bit, and on the way out I glanced at the bulletin board by the door, where various community notices were posted, and saw a flier announcing a series of lectures on Buddhism at a local gallery. I’d always been interested in Buddhism but had never looked into it, so I decided to check it out.
Later that week, as I listened during the first lecture it just made sense to me in a way that little else had done. At the time, I guess I was without a defined spirituality. I was raised in a southern baptist home, where the bible was taken pretty much literally. I began separating from that when I hit puberty and realized I was gay. To be honest, I was already having trouble swallowing all that I was brought up to believe. Realizing I was gay also meant realizing that I wouldn’t find acceptance in the religious community I grew up in. Besides, I knew the scriptures about homosexuality — or at least the scriptures I was told addressed it — and I also knew that even if I tried to switch to more liberal branch of that faith, I’d have to continue dealing with those writings and probably argue about them over and over again.
When I went to college, I just dropped out of any religious practice at first. I tried becoming an episcopalian, but I still found myself still dealing with the problem I mentioned above. Besides, the believing in a literal heaven and a literal hell seemed to me much like believing in Never-Never Land, and by the time I reinterpreted the stuff I had trouble with I wasn’t sure how much of the original was left. I felt like I was making it up as I went along. So, I started exploring other beliefs. I read up on Wicca, but it wasn’t quite for me. I read up on ancient Yoruba beliefs and earth magic. Again, not for me. I delved into New Age, wore crystals, etc., but again felt like I was making it up as I went along.
Eventually, I just stopped. I gathered bits and pieces that made sense to me from the various beliefs I’d studied and just left it at that. When I started reading about the basics of Buddhism (the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the five precepts, etc.) it all seemed to me like something I could try to practice more as an ethical path than a religion. In now it seems like I’ll be doing well to just get most, or even some of the basics, down in this lifetime. I stumble a lot. There are probably more than a few examples of that on this blog, and being embroiled in politics makes it easy to do that. In fact, I think that political blogging and right speech may be somewhat diametrically opposed to each other. What I’ve found is that I tend to drift away from the practice for a while, and then return to it. But, at least it’s something I can return to.
When I first encountered it, I was going through a rough patch professionally and personally, and I found that just the little I’d learned about Buddhism helped me put what was going on into a context, to look compassionately at my role in it, and learn something from it. The notion of having compassion for myself, rather than blaming or seeing myself as "bad" or "evil," made a big difference at the time. Extending it to others is something I continue to work on with varying degrees of success, and I still have trouble with it when it comes to politics and extending the same to people I see as being on "the other side" because of a lingering tendency to see things in black-and-white, through a lens still clouded with a kind fundamentalism. But, like I said above, I keep returning to the practice and I hope I continue to grow in it, if only incrementally.
My only question in the beginning what whether there was anything in Buddhism condemning homosexuality, given my past experience. I guess you could say I took a similar approach to a conservative columnist I read recently, who chose a christian denomination based on how anti-gay it is. Fortunately, I couldn’t find anything that the Buddha himself said about homosexuality, or any prohibitions against it in Buddhist writing. I did come across an interview with the Dalai Lama in which he said it was basically "unnatural," but even he couldn’t point out where Buddha said anything about it. (I know some folks say Jesus never said anything about it either, but down that road lies more debates over sripture with christans and humanists, as well as some rather bizarre contortions to fit homosexuality into christianity.) and while he’s probably the most influential person in contemporary buddhism, he’s not infallible or setting doctrine like the Pope in catholoicism. Much of his views can be laid at the door of cultural mores more so than Buddhist ethics.
But I still wondered how my sexuality would fit into Buddhism, particularly the precept about refraining from sexual misconduct. Fortunately, I found a definition of that which made sense to me.
Some Buddhists conclude that sexual misconduct would include adultery, child molestation, incest, rape, sexual abuse in any form, and sexual harassment. Further, consensual sexual activity by a committed couple is not misconduct (whether engaged in by a heterosexual or homosexual couple). From the Theravada Buddhist standpoint, all relationships: gay, lesbian or straight, are often considered personal matters of mutual consent. If a relationship promotes the happiness and well-being of both parties, then it is positive and acceptable.
And here’s another .
As homosexuality is not explicitly mentioned in any of the Buddha’s discourses (more than 20 volumes in the Pali Text Society’s English translation), we can only assume that it is meant to be evaluated in the same way that heterosexuality is. And indeed it seems that this is why it is not specifically mentioned. In the case of the lay man and woman where there is mutual consent, where adultery is not involved and where the sexual act is an expression of love, respect, loyalty and warmth, it would not be breaking the third Precept. And it is the same when the two people are of the same gender. Likewise promiscuity, license and the disregard for the feelings of others would make a sexual act unskillful whether it be heterosexual or homosexual. All the principles we would use to evaluate a heterosexual relationship we would also use to evaluate a homosexual one. In Buddhism we could say that it is not the object of one’s sexual desire that determines whether a sexual act is unskillful or not, but rather the quality of the emotions and intentions involved.
However, the Buddha sometimes advised against certain behaviour not because it is wrong from the point of view of ethics but because it would put one at odds with social norms or because its is subject to legal sanctions. In these cases, the Buddha says that refraining from such behaviour will free one from the anxiety and embarrassment caused by social disapproval or the fear of punitive action. Homosexuality would certainly come under this type of behaviour. In this case, the homosexual has to decide whether she or he is going to acquiesce to what society expects or to try to change public attitudes. In Western societies where attitudes towards sex in general have been strongly influenced by the tribal taboos of the Old Testament and, in the New Testament, by the ideas of highly neurotic people like St. Paul, there is a strong case for changing public attitudes. [emphasis added]
So my sexuality, as I understand it in the context of Buddhism, was’t inherently bad. In fact, it didn’t matter at all. What matters is how I used it, and whether I used it to bring harm to myself or others. Here was an approach to spirituality that I could approach with my whole self, that didn’t require me to first deny or condemn a part of myself. That, for me, was the last piece of the puzzle. The rest already made sense to me and seemed like an ethical path I could try to follow and apply to my life without necessarily having to deal with mystical religious beliefs that seemed odd to me or having to constantly defend problematic bits of ancient writing.
I can only speak for myself, but I can imagine that other gays & lesbians who’ve had similar experiences were probably also coming from spiritual traditions that probably equated their love with theft, murder, etc., and required them to not only condemn part of themselves, but also offered rather limited choices on how to live — either live a lie or live alone, without the hope or option of having a mate and/or a family; an option not denied to anyone merely for being heterosexual. I can imagine that, at least to some, the affirmation that spirituality didn’t necessarily mean having to amputate part of themselves might either attract them to Buddhism or — as it was for me — be the final piece of the puzzle that opens the door to a non-toxic spiritual path.