In Search of Zen

Proselytizing from a queer perspective, academic Michael Sweet, ponders the draw to Buddhist principals that LGBT people feel when searching for serenity and a spiritual path.

Proselytizing from a queer perspective, academic Michael Sweet, ponders the draw to Buddhist principals that LGBT people feel when searching for serenity and a spiritual path.

So, how did a nice Jewish gay boy become a Buddhist of all things?” This is a question that new friends and acquaintances have asked me many times over the years (well, not always with that exact phraseology). I’d like to turn that into a question of more general interest: “What does Buddhism in particular have to offer queer persons as a path to spiritual and psychological growth?” The need for religious or spiritual experience is universal, as the great psychologist William James pointed out, and the means used to find it are varied: through fasting, exercise, prayer, meditation, yoga, psychotropic substances and being in nature, to name only a few. One common way to access spiritual experience is through participation in a religious community, which in this country has meant primarily Christian churches, Jewish temples, and more recently Muslim mosques. Unfortunately, due to deeply ingrained homophobic beliefs and attitudes, LBGT people have encountered many obstacles to full participation in the majority of churches and synagogues; in many cases we are relegated to toleration and second-class status at best, condemnation and expulsion in the worst cases. Given this background, I’ve found it perplexing that the focus in most workshops, seminars and lectures on the subject of queer spirituality is exclusively on the Judeo-Christian traditions, dealing with topics such as how churches can become more queer-friendly, why the Bible really isn’t really anti-gay, how God or Jesus loves us equally, etc. Such events can be highly positive for those LGBT people who feel a strong bond with the faith traditions they were raised in and want to remain in them in a healthier way. But to talk only about Judeo-Christian views does not at all address the needs of the very large numbers of queer folks who have turned away from the monotheistic religions once and for all, but continue to search for a belief system and structure that will help them create a more meaningful life. Buddhism and other non-Western spiritualities (Hinduism, Daoism and others) offer some alternatives. I will only discuss Buddhism here, since that is the teaching that I know best and the one which has had a profound impact on my life; hopefully others will share their experiences with other religious and spiritual paths in future issues of Our Lives.

We are raised to think of religion as being about worshipping God, or gods—however, Buddhism is a non-theistic “religion” (itself a modern Western concept; a Buddhist would use the term “Dharma,” meaning both way of life and teaching). There is no creator-god in Buddhism. The universe comes into being and functions according to natural laws; living creatures are psychobiological systems, and our lives are governed by our actions (karma) and their effects. It’s basically “what goes around comes around”—our actions produce good or bad effects without any divine judgment or demonic intervention. The aim of Buddhist practice is to develop inner calmness and stability, awareness of oneself and the nature of reality, and to respond to other living beings with compassion and loving-kindness. The more real empathy we feel toward others, even those who may be hostile to us out of ignorance or prejudice, the less we will think and behave in selfish or angry ways that in the long run are self-destructive as well as harmful to others. There are many types of Buddhist teaching (Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism), but all of them are directed to these basic goals. As a psychotherapist trained in Western psychology, I see these Buddhist ideas and techniques as one method we can use to become more emotionally and socially mature, to be able to live reasonably happy and productive lives, coping more effectively with life’s joys and pressures, and with the illness, old age and death that will eventually come to all of us. These are worthy but modest objectives from the Buddhist perspective—Buddhism as a religion ultimately aims for total freedom from the pain of the human condition, the state of nirvana. Few have the capacity and dedication for this however, just as few Christians, however sincere and committed, can attain the spiritual heights of a St. Francis or St. Theresa.

To return to our initial question: Why are so many gay, lesbian and transgender people active in Buddhism centers and groups, not to speak of the probably much larger number who have incorporated aspects of Buddhism into their personal spirituality, without any formal Buddhist affiliation? Absent any research on this topic, I can only offer some tentative speculations, based on my almost 40 years of involvement in American Buddhism. When I was a confused and anxious 19 year-old gay boy, discovering Buddhism was an inspiration and a revelation to me; many of my gay and lesbian Buddhist friends have talked of similar experiences. In the first place, there is no institutional homophobia in Buddhism—sexual orientation and gender difference are totally irrelevant from a Buddhist perspective. Whether one loves a person of the same or the other gender (or both), wears a dress, a suit, denim or leathers, the essential thing is to act lovingly toward others and not to do harm. Buddhist monks and nuns, leading celibate lives themselves, have never been involved in sanctioning marriage, which was considered a purely secular matter. Buddhist societies (Tibet, Thailand, Sri Lanka, China, Japan and other Asian cultures) accommodate a wide variety of lifestyles among laypeople: monogamy, polygamy, polyandry (woman with multiple spouses, especially in Tibet and the Himalayas), as well as same-sex relationships. For myself and Len, my partner of now 42 years, it was a deeply moving experience when our Buddhist teacher, the late Geshe Wangyal, was sitting with us and some other students once and simply said, “You two stay together and care for each other.” Those few affirming words from a wise and loving teacher were more than enough for us.

The second reason for queer folks’ interest in Buddhism, in my opinion, stems from our tendency to more readily question accepted beliefs, compared to our non-queer counterparts. I attribute this to the fact that most of us feel a sense of difference as kids, knowing we aren’t going to fit into the heterosexual, nuclear family mold. Growing up different can cause painful loneliness and alienation, but it can also have positive effects, providing an outsider perspective that can foster independent and critical thinking. As a pre-teen going to after-school religious instruction, I found Judaism interesting but illogical, and often questioned my teachers (to their great distress): Why shouldn’t all good people go to heaven, regardless of their religion? How does the biblical account of creation fit in with the findings of geology and evolution? And that key unanswerable question: Why does an all-powerful, compassionate deity allow innocent people to suffer terrible illnesses, violence, injustices and natural disasters? Jewish and Christian theology just did not make sense to me; on the contrary, I found most of Buddhism perfectly in accordance with logic, scientific and psychological knowledge, and my own perceptions. There are certain important Buddhist beliefs that cannot be verified scientifically: notably, that living beings are reborn again and again, with karma operating across many lives. Thus, most orthodox Buddhists believe that bad things happening to them in the present are the “ripening” of some misdeed they committed in a previous body. This theory may be correct, and I think it is good to act as if it is, but it is just as much a matter of faith as the belief in a creator, or the Trinity. Nevertheless, one can remain agnostic on such issues and still derive immense benefit from Buddhist practice; kindness, compassion, self-awareness, living in a helpful way to others and oneself—all of these things are good in themselves and can be methodically cultivated through study, meditation and action. The Dalai Lama often says that people don’t need to change their religion; one can remain a good Christian, Jew, Muslim or Hindu, and despite very significant theological differences, strive toward the same objectives as Buddhists: inner peace, empathy, non-violence, insight—none of which are the property of any particular religion or philosophy. I’ve known many devoted Christians and Jews, including clergy, who consider themselves part-Buddhist.

For people interested in exploring Buddhist perspectives, Madison presents a goldmine of opportunity. There are many excellent introductory books about Buddhism in our libraries and bookstores, and the Madison area has numerous Buddhist teachers and groups from many different traditions, including Zen, several varieties of Tibetan Buddhism and Insight/Mindfulness training (derived from Theravada Buddhism, prevalent in Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka and elsewhere). To paraphrase the Buddha’s advice as he was leaving this life—don’t believe anything just because it’s in a holy book or some authority figure tells you so, but do keep an open mind, explore and experiment, see what makes sense and is helpful to you, and create your own path.