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.
Note: This beautiful image is "Rainbow Buddha" by Elaine, used by permission from https://www.artbyelaine.co.uk/7029.html
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
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!
Cross-posted at the Jesus in Love Blog