Meditating under the rainbow:
why queer dharma can refresh and transform your practice
The roots of queer dharma date back to California in the 1970s and ‘80s, where a Western Buddhist revolution crossed a Western social revolution.
Out of the Closet & Out of the Cloister
Fifty years ago, people who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans no longer accepted being pushed into ‘the closet’ where they were invisible, and thus vulnerable to abuse. The Stonewall Riots of June 1969 were an uproar against the systematic bullying of queer people by the New York Police. Stonewall was the culmination of a decade of such protests across the USA. It was also the start of thePride parades, advocating equal rights for LGBT+ people.Together with the anti-racist and feminist movements, the Gay-Rights movement condemned discrimination within a society that presented itself as neutral, while de facto it was white, patriarchal andheteronormative. LGBT+ people came ‘out of the closet’ and became visible within their neighbourhoods and social networks. They also started looking for spiritual homes that would accept them the way they are. The dominant response within Christian churches was one of firm rejection.The dominant response within Buddhist communities however, was one of gradual acceptance.
Meanwhile, a silent revolution took place within Buddhism itself. Buddhism has been practiced in Europe and America for well over a century now. So far, the most visible difference from Asian cultures is that meditation in the West is mainly practiced by lay Buddhists. Lay practitioners often have a job and a family. They are also mostly sexually active. As a result, Western Buddhists look for spiritual guidance on life as a Buddhist in a busy buzzing society, rather than on life as a celibate in a secluded quiet cloister.
Sex & Silence
In the Buddhist canons, most references to sexual activity can be found in the vinaya(monastic rules). As these are all about maintaining a celibate life, they are not really relevant to lay practitioners. So other parts of the canons get renewed attention in the West. The (Mahayana)AvatamsakaSutrafor example, tells us about a woman who was a sex-worker at the time of the Buddha, suitably (nick)named Pass-a-Million.She was the 36th of 53 great Masters of Skillful Means who all reached Awakening. Pass-a-Million however, continued working as a sex-worker, now using her skills to help others on their path towards Awakening. Her story proves that – at least for Mahayana – Awakening and having sex are not mutually exclusive.
Buddhologists also pointed out that the vinayanever condemns sex as such (including same-sex). In fact, the Buddha never usedanyhomo-negativevocabulary. But the impact of silence is not independent of its context. The West has a long history of demonising and prosecuting its gay communities, often motivated on religious grounds. Today, millions of people hate LGBT+ people for who they are. That was even more so in 1969, when being ‘homosexual’ was still considered a psychiatric illness and discrimination was legal. But heterosexual Buddhists were rarely confronted with, or even aware of, queer discrimination. If you are a heterosexual person in a heteronormative society, you will of course not be reminded every day of your sexual orientation. Gay and lesbian Buddhists therefore felt the need to have their own comfort zone from time to time.
Rise of the Posture Queens
In 1980 an ad was published in a local San Franciscan paper calling for a meeting of Buddhist meditators who were alsogay. It was the start of the Gay Buddhist Fellowship (GBF), one of the oldest groups to debateand meditate on what it means to be fully gay and fully Buddhist. Zen priest Issan Dorsey, became the group’s‘spiritual adviser’:
“A surprisingly large meeting of concerned men coalesced in April 1980, including Issan (…) The group called itself the Gay Buddhist Club and later changed the name to Maitri, the Buddhist word for friendliness. Issan called it the Posture Queens: “At first we’d just sit around and smoke cigarettes and complain about how hard it was to practice and be gay. Gradually, we began to meditate for a while before our discussions, and pretty soon there was a Buddha and incense and flowers.” Issan put Zen Center’s facilities at the disposal of the group. He also showed them, with his own integration of homosexuality and Buddhism, that the two were not incompatible” (David Schneider, Street Zen – The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey, Shambhala, Boston & London, 1993, pp 128-129). The GBF is not Zen nor a new tradition but an ecumenical Buddhist movement. The name ‘Gay Buddhist Fellowship’ was adopted in the early 1990s (GBF newsletters can be downloaded at gaybuddhist.org).
Rainbow Buddha on the altar of the Hartford Street Zen Center (HSZC) in San Francisco’s gay Castro district. To the ultimate right you can see the picture of abbot Issan Dorsey (1933-1990). Issan was gay and a popular drag queen before he became a Soto Zen priest. When asked how Zen had changed his life, he replied with his distinctive sense of witty humor: “Well, I no longer wear heels.” The first regular meetings of the GBF took place at this venue. In 1987 Issan took in a homeless student dying of AIDS. This was the incentive for the group to open the Maitri Hospice; the first Buddhist hospice in the West and probably the first in the world for people dying from AIDS.
( © HSZC – our thanks to HSZC for allowing us to use this picture)
At present, almost all major Buddhist traditions in Europe and America host events, meditations, and retreats specifically for LGBT+ practitioners. Many have queer teachers too. The success of these groups shows there is still a need for LGBT+ Buddhists to have their own space. They find inspiration in the dharma to heal from the wounds inflicted by a hostile environment. But they also function as a spiritual mirror, and make the broader Buddhist communities aware of their own cultural prejudices on sex, sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Our mind is tempted to use binary pigeonholes all the time. The urge to push people into male or female gender roles for example is so strong that the Buddhist feminist Rita Gross identified this as ‘the prison of gender roles.’The patriarchal worldview divides people into rational, logical, self-controlled male subjects and emotional, unpredictable, chaotic female objects. It is therefore ‘unnatural’ for women to seek positions of responsibility and power in society. Similar arguments were used based on race: it was ‘natural’ for blacks to be slaves and serve (white) masters. American psychiatrists even invented ‘drapetomania’ (the ‘madness‘ of slaves running to freedom). Buddhist history is not free of binary divisions either: some monks for example consider themselves at the doorstep of Awakening, while they believe other Buddhists can only hope for a ‘better’ rebirth (as a lookalike of themselves, i.e. a male heterosexual monastic).
The dichotomy of society based on sexual orientation – between gay (exclusively same-sex attracted) and hetero (exclusively opposite-sex attracted) – is a fairly recent Western addition to this list. The concept ‘homosexual’ was only created in late 19th century Europe to describe a psychiatric illness, sharply distinct from the rest of society that was presumed to be healthy (read: heterosexual). As soon as proper research was done on sexual orientation, this dichotomy was proven wrong. We now know that in all cultures of all times, people have expressed a wide variety of sexual appetites. Furthermore, research in biology showed this is the same for other animals. Alfred Kinsey, a pioneer in research on human sexual behaviour in the USA wrote: “Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories (…) The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.” (Kinsey, et. al, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,1948, p 639)
There is no single definition of ‘queer’but in the broadest sense it refers to those buddhists whose sexuality or gender identity does not fit the accepted social models of their time and culture. Throughout history almost all cultures gave some space to sexual & gender diversity within their societies. Today however, the theological model of the Christian Middle Ages (in which sex that is not exclusively opposite-sex & in function of procreation is labelled as ‘unnatural,’ and in which everyone is ‘created’heterosexualandcisgender) has colonised the world. Even in Buddhist cultures (which reject the notion of a creator god). This authoritarian model condemned sexual & gender diversity as abnormal and immoral. It excluded more people than any other in history and pushed queer buddhists into illegality and psychiatry.
Queer theorists warn that identity categories should never be used rigidly, because they will always inevitably exclude some people. As Kinsey said: ‘nature rarely deals with discrete categories’.Our brain on the other hand has limited capacity to absorb the massive stream of data that our senses receive continuously. It has to classify and simplify, and thus creates categories by which itanalyses(but also judges)our world. The problem arises when we confuse our self-created mental taxonomy of the world with reality itself. In other words when we believe that the categories our mind uses as a tool to interact with the world are the real thing. In Buddhist spirituality we call this the untrained mind.
There are clear links between Queer Theory and Buddhist Spirituality. David Halperin’s definition of queer as ‘an identity without an essence’for example resonates strongly with the Buddhists concepts of not-self, interconnectedness and emptiness. In general, queer dharma addresses ourmental prisonsby which we classify sexual orientation and gender identity:
The untrained mind assigns an essence (svabhavaor ‘own-being’) to our mental constructions. But via meditation “they are found to be illusory, and shunyata(emptiness or, as I prefer to translate, transparency), that is, the lack of inherent existence in persons, places, or things, is seen to be the case. (…) Rita Gross has shown that, at least for the Mahayana, there is considerable support for the argument that there is no such thing as inherent femaleness (and, by extension, no support for inherent maleness) (…) From a Buddhist perspective, the most obvious mistake which patriarchal consciousness makes is to split reality into subject and object. This is identified as a serious block to understanding reality and achieving liberation from samsara. (…) Gay (queer) consciousness challenges dualistic thinking and replaces it with non-dual consciousness, and overturns, inverts, turns inside out, consensus reality. This is a stated goal of Buddhism. Ordinary, eluded views about reality are called “upside down” (viparyasa). The Yogachara school teaches that wisdom is obtained when consciousness is reversed – literally turned around or turned inside out (paraviritti). Perfect wisdom appears when the deepest level of consciousness is reversed. If this is true, queer consciousness is more compatible with the Buddha Dharma than the traditional patriarchal consciousness, and we can expect queer thinking to refresh and reform Buddhism.” (Corless, Sex for Queer Buddhists, GBF Newsletter Aug/Sep 2002, pp 3-4)
Theistic religions also often link our mental binary categories to a (divine) moral judgement between good/superior/healthy versus bad/inferior/ill. Queer dharma reminds us that such moral dualism is alien to Buddhist spirituality:“The Buddha’s teaching is an ethical system, but it lacks the moral categories of right and wrong, good and evil, good and bad. (…) The Buddha said that he was only concerned about suffering and the end of suffering (…) He would talk about what is “skillful” and “unskillful,” not about what is “good” or “bad.” (…) So it is really important to be clear that this judgemental perspective doesn’t have any place in the worldview of the dharma. Our gay sexuality is fine, as long as we do not use it in ways that cause suffering to ourselves or to others.” (Eric Kolvig, Gay Sexuality and the Dharma, GBF Newsletter April/May 2006, p 1-2)
Queer dharma specifies thenon-dualnatureof the Awoken mind.This Buddha nature is neither male nor female, neither heterosexual nor gay, neither cisgender nor transgender.
Dividing society into rigid, binary categories and using these for moral judgements are characteristics of the untrained mind. It is a goal of Buddhist spirituality to overcomesuchpreoccupations. Therefore, meditating ‘under the rainbow’ (to become skillful in identifying and conquering these mental, social and moral constructions) is not onlya practice by and for LGBT+people. It can also refresh and transform everyone’s practice.