"If you ask me what we do with people who come in the door, the people who live with chronic hopelessness and fear, I'll tell you that we try to live comfortably in their darkness. And that's the hardest thing of all."
On January 8, 1945, my birthday, I asked the priest at La Iglesia del Perpetuo Socorro in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, if I could become an altar boy. I had just turned six. I was turned down outright. Too young, I was told: I had to wait until I was eight. The tall, pale, lanky Irish priest with the kind eyes was firm. But I would not take no for an answer and continued to ask even though I continued to be turned down. One day, after one of my entreaties, Father Keegan turned to me and said: "En tu inocencia esta la sabiduria"-in your innocence lies your wisdom. I had worn down Father Keegan and he agreed to make an exception and let me serve. Once I was to assist Father Keegan at mass by myself. The moment came when I had to move the huge prayer book from the Epistle side to the Gospel side behind and around the priest. I went up the three steps to the right side of the altar, picked up the book, descended the steps, turned at the middle of the altar, genuflected and attempted the climb of the three steps to bring the book up to the Gospel side. The waiting priest, who had his back to the congregation, turned upon hearing their laughter to see that the book was so heavy that little Paco could not make it up the three steps. Every persistent attempt at stepping up brought me to the edge of being toppled back by the weight of the big book. The priest rescued me by taking the weight off the book as he lifted it slightly, allowing me to complete my mission with recovered dignity. Six months later, my very close friend, Juan, was killed by Father Keegan as the priest was backing up his car and did not see the small child who was waiting for him. Juan was trying to talk to Father about he, too, becoming an altar boy. From then on, whenever I saw Father Keegan, I was impressed by the fact that his face and neck had become beet red, a permanent mark of his deep grief. All he could do was hug me and cry-no words. Soon after the accident he told me I could not continue my altar boy training. I felt wounded; my heart was broken. But something had happened in the brief days I was allowed to serve. I had learned everything I ever needed to know about being a priest, even though I would forget lots of it and would have to relearn it. I believe it was in that period long ago that the seeds for my life's work were germinated. I have now been living and working in The Bronx, New York for fifty-one years. What I have relearned in these many years working in the second poorest Congressional District of the United States (second only to one in Mississippi) is that in order to serve one must have the openness and innocence of a child. That compassion and love for oneself and others is essential, and that being always mindful of the moment you are breathing is the way to heal yourself and others. My mission is to work with people whom I call "wounded healers" and their organizations in the South Bronx, to build sustainable neighborhoods with a sound, spiritual underpinning. In light of the many years I've spent as a businessman, I teach that doing well should not be seen as evil or an obstacle to spiritual transformation. My bedrock foundation is meditation and prayer. The challenge is that people are very cynical, very scared, very hungry, and very wounded. Most of all, they are feeling very tired and uncared for. A friend once told me that wounded humans do not care what you know; they want to know that you care, and only then they might be interested in what you know. If you ask me what we really do with people who come in the door, the people who live with chronic hopelessness and fear, I'll tell you that we try to live comfortably in their darkness. And that's the hardest thing of all. Somebody comes into the employment program. "Tell me what you can do," I ask her. "I can't do nothing. I got no skills, no diploma, no job. I'm on welfare, my mother's been on welfare, don't fuck with me!" I enter her darkness. The hardest thing is being with people who are hurting, with no agenda of their own, no answers. You need to stay with them in this place and help them find the light within this darkness. So I continue my interview. "Tell me, do your kids get fed?" "Course they get fed." "Who feeds them?" "I feed them." "How do you do that?" "I go to the fucking refrigerator. I look inside, I make a list, I go to the store." "You know what you're telling me? You're telling me that you do inventory, you do planning, and then you get the job done. People go to college and get a BA to do what you did." As Father Keegan had done with me, I intervene only enough to lighten the weight so they can move to the next objective with a whole change of perspective. A wounded mother begins to mend. The Latino Pastoral Action Center (LPAC) is a living experiment testing these premises on a daily basis. LPAC was founded by Reverend Raymond Rivera in 1992, and it is where I established my first Peacemaker Village soon after my ordination in July, 1997. Raymond has struggled with the dichotomy between the sacred and the secular and the personal and the structural, while responding both to those who want to save the soul and those who want to change the system. He founded LPAC because he found it difficult to integrate these two perspectives within the church and the social activist communities. Since I have also found myself in similar struggles, the LPAC Peacemaker Village is his and my heartfelt attempt to respond to this challenge. The work that our village carries out is to bring peace to these wounded healers and their organizations. We also teach alternatives to violence-particularly to parish youth, but also to gang members. We accomplish this by teaching people to sit and just be quiet; we dialogue and even teach Aikido, not necessarily as a defense mechanism but rather as a state of mind. At our weekend workshops for young people, we even use some of Thich Nhat Hanh's mindfulness practices. That's when I can tell them about myself, that I have brailled my way through life. That feeling my way through long periods of darkness, I've learned that the darkness and the light come from the same source, and that for too many of us, getting through the darkness is our only road to getting to the light. For many of the youngsters we work with, La Aldea de Paz del Sur del Bronx (The South Bronx Peace Village at LPAC) is the gateway out of darkness and the back to dreaming, imagining and creating hope under circumstances that appear hopeless to them. Our approach is to meet them where they are.
Meeting in the Darkness, Francisco Lugovina, Shambhala Sun, May 1998.
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"According to Buddhist Tradition": Gays, Lesbians and the Definition of Sexual Misconduct
By Steve Peskind
Leaving the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, having just met with the Dalai Lama, the words, "according to Buddhist tradition" reverberated in my head. Stepping out into the June sunlight, I felt tired, calm, enormously grateful-and disappointed.
I was grateful for the Dalai Lama's willingness to meet with gays and lesbians to discuss their concerns about Buddhist teachings on sexual misconduct, and for the press release from the Office of Tibet supporting human rights regardless of sexual orientation. But I was disappointed that he chose not to speak personally and directly, beyond Buddhist tradition, to the real harm of some of these misconduct teachings, and their irrelevance for modern Buddhists and others. I wondered, does the Dalai Lama, whom many consider the embodiment of Avalokiteshvara, who "hears the cries of all sentient beings and responds skillfully," really hear the cries of sexual minority Buddhists?
The story of our meeting with the Dalai Lama begins with an article in the February/March, 1994 issue of OUT magazine, which quoted the Dalai Lama as saying: "If someone comes to me and asks whether it is okay or not, I will first ask if you have some religious vows to uphold. Then my next question is, What is your companion's opinion? If you both agree, then I think I would say, if two males or two females voluntarily agree to have mutual satisfaction without further implication of harming others, then it is okay."
Gay men, lesbians, and others reveled in reading the OUT article. We copied the article, sent it home, sent it...everywhere! We reprinted it in community newsletters that made their way around the world. A major spiritual leader, "the favorite lama of the world" as a friend referred to him, had finally told it like it is. We thought.
But in 1996, North Atlantic Books published Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses, a collection of talks and discussions from the Dalai Lama's 1993 visit to France. On page 46 he responds to the questions, "What are proper sexual attitudes? What do you think of homosexuality, for example?" The Dalai Lama replies: "A sexual act is deemed proper when the couples use the organs intended for sexual intercourse and nothing else....Homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself. What is improper is the use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact. Is this clear?"
My immediate reaction on reading this was: "No. This is not clear!" Was the natural behavior of my sexual orientation a violation of the moral precepts of Tibetan Buddhism and consequently negative karma in itself? As a sexually active gay man, a longtime Buddhist practitioner, and an AIDS services provider for the last 16 years, I asked myself, "What happens when `new' Buddhists, often refugees from harshly judgmental Divine Revelatory religions, read this? What about men and women around the world living and dying with AIDS? How will they feel?"
Although the proscriptions were not discriminatory against "homosexuality" per se, they were clearly discriminatory in their impact on homosexual men and women (and even prohibited most of the AIDS safe sex guidelines). Stating that homosexual orientation is okay, but that homosexual behavior is not, creates a terrible double bind for any gay Buddhist who believes the Dalai Lama's teachings.
On the basis of the discrepancy between the OUT article and Beyond Dogma, I wrote an open, public letter to the Dalai Lama in January of 1997, noting that many of us who so admired him were confused and distressed by the inconsistency of his statements and their worldwide ramifications. I respectfully requested that he "in whatever manner and venue he chooses, speak to the Buddhadharma, the truth of homosexuality and homosexual behavior." That letter resulted, through the agency of the Office of Tibet, in the June 11 private meeting between the Dalai Lama and seven gay and lesbian leaders in San Francisco.
At the meeting I asked the Dalai Lama about a statement he had made at a press conference the day before. A reporter had asked him to comment on the morality of homosexual behavior, and he replied: "We have to make a distinction between believers and unbelievers. From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct. From society's point of view, mutually agreeable homosexual relations can be of mutual benefit, enjoyable and harmless."
The Dalai Lama went on to say that the same Buddhist scripture that advises against gay and lesbian sex urges the same for heterosexuals. "Even with your wife, using one's mouth or the other hole is sexual misconduct. Using one's hand, that is sexual misconduct." He added, "The Buddha is our Teacher," the historical reference for all Buddhists.
The next morning in his diplomatic suite in the Fairmount, I asked him, "If the Buddha is our teacher, where and when did he teach that homosexual partners are inappropriate, that homosexual behavior is sexual misconduct?" The Dalai Lama candidly responded, "I don't know." During the meeting the Dalai Lama confirmed for us another sexual proscription according to Buddhist tradition: heterosexuals are prohibited from having sex more than five consecutive times with a partner. Jose Cabezon, a gay Buddhist scholar, promptly asked him, "If the purpose of the proscriptions is to reduce sexual activity, how does it make sense to allow a man to have sex with his wife up to five times a night, while saying that it is sexual misconduct for a man to have sex with another man even once in his life?"
The Dalai Lama roared with laughter, saying,"You have a point there!" Earlier he had asked all of us, "Sex is for procreation, right?" Our collective silence was our response. When I asked, "Which of the proscribed behaviors regarding partner, organ, or excessive frequency do you personally consider most important?" he responded with a thoughtful look, not saying anything.
In preparation for the meeting the Dalai Lama had traced the sexual misconduct teachings back to the Indian Buddhist scholar Ashvaghosha, and said they may reflect the moral codes of India at the time, "which stress moral purity." He was open to the possibility of Buddhist tradition changing eventually in response to science, modern social history, and discussion within the various Buddhist sanghas. He urged all of us to go forth and advocate our interests, basing our action on Buddhist principles of "rigorous investigation and non-violence." He noted that he is not unilaterally empowered to change tradition: "Change can only come on the collective level," he said.
Religious teachings on sex-make that "wrong sex"-are well known to be a principal cause of violence and discrimination against sexual minorities and a primary cause of self-destructive behavior among them. This is true in the West and it is true in the East. Clearly, some of the traditional Buddhist teachings are violent to the truth and lives of Buddhist sexual minorities. It's still questionable whether the Dalai Lama, whose words carry much weight in the court of world opinion, really "gets" the impact of Buddhist tradition labeling the way we make love as "sexual misconduct." My partner of twenty-one years and I don't appreciate it. And the Buddha didn't say it at all, according to the evidence.
According to the oldest Buddhist teachings, the Buddha cautioned against "misconduct of sensual desire." He warned of mental stains from "drowning in sensual pleasure-harmful and disturbing intentions and actions arising from wrong perception and the dualistic fixation on self and other. He did not mention sex, inappropriate organs and partners. During the June 11 meeting the Dalai Lama clearly stated that "the goal for all Buddhists is Nirvana"-complete freedom of mind free of wrong perception, dualistic fixation, defilements and hindrances. He did not clarify, however, how sex as an expression of emotional intimacy, or moderate and respectful recreational sex, or gay tantric sex for that matter, in any way impedes full awakening, freedom and peace of heart. The meeting was warm, serious and much too hurried. The 45 minutes was a 15 minute extension to the 30 minutes which the Office of Tibet originally allotted for "this historic meeting." The Dalai Lama encouraged the seven of us and others to hold conferences on Buddhism and sexuality and other pressing concerns, including Tibetan Buddhist full-ordination of women as nuns. Although the Dalai Lama opposed violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation, he did not commit himself to helping correct harmful Buddhist teachings still on the books-including the conduct codes which can fuel homophobic behavior among Buddhist teachers and students. Famous for saying, "When science points to or proves a truth contrary to Buddhist teaching, then Buddhist teaching must change," he said as we were leaving his suite, "Changing Buddhist traditions will be much harder than advocating for your human rights."
So it's up to us to affect change, with lots of help from Buddhist teachers who are quite awake on the subject of sexual right action, teachers such as Khandro Rinpoche, Drukchen Rinpoche, the late Dudjom Rinpoche, Lama Tarchin Rinpoche, Robert Aitken Roshi and others. We must continue to insist that the tradition change. Three years ago I asked Khandro Rinpoche, the gifted young Tibetan teacher, about her views on homosexual behavior and the dharma. This eldest daughter of Mindroling Rinpoche, and Kagyu and Nyingma lineage holder, offered the following response as part of her public teaching in San Francisco on "AIDS: Compassion and Skillful Means":
"One can grow spiritually by being a monk, through getting married, through homosexual relations. If you really love another man as a man, no problem. Within the Buddha's doctrine itself homosexuality is nothing special, nothing new. Such a thing as realization means being free from attachment to whomever it may be-a man to a man, a man to a woman, a woman to a woman, or whomever it may be. Each person is responsible for his or her own mind, own thoughts, emotions, understanding, awakening, realization. It's possible for a homosexual person. It's possible for all sentient beings."
We cannot control tradition and politics. We cannot control psychological and physical violence born of delusion. But Buddha's way is not about the "control" of suffering; it's about responding with open awareness to the whole display of our experience, including suffering. The Dalai Lama accurately observed that he is not unilaterally empowered to change Buddhist tradition. But he is empowered to speak for himself. His speaking to the irrelevant, false aspects of sexual misconduct teachings will certainly help the cause.
A Buddhist's responsibility is to insist that Buddhist oppression of sexual minorities, women and others, including heterosexual couples, end. The San Francisco-based Buddhist AIDS Project is formulating "A Respectful Request to the Dalai Lama," in the form of a petition asking him to speak directly to the irrelevance and harm of some traditional misconduct codes found in all lineages of Tibetan Buddhism.
Steve Peskind is coordinator of the Buddhist AIDS Project in San Francisco. He is the editor of the anthology, Heart Lessons From an Epidemic: Buddhist Practice and Living with HIV, to be published by Parallax Press. He can be contacted at
"According to Buddhist Tradition", Steve Peskind, Shambhala Sun, March 1998.
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Queer Spirit: On Sexual Identity as Help and Hindrance
Shambhala Sun | March 1998
Queer Spirit: On Sexual Identity as Help and Hindrance
Homosexuality and spirituality do not seem, at first sight, particularly compatible. Gay people are still routinely condemned by prominent religious figures. Many Jewish and Christian organizations see homophobia as proof of orthodoxy, while fundamentalists generally believe that the more you love Jesus, the more you should hate faggots. Some religious groups have gradually adopted more liberal views-but their acceptance of queers is often hedged with qualifications, such as refusing to acknowledge gay marriages. The majority of western Buddhist groups take a more positive line, although, as the Dalai Lama controversially pointed out recently, they are going against some Buddhist cultural traditions in doing so. Just as religion rejects queers, so queers reject religion. Angry people, wanting to fight back after suffering years of oppression, find an obvious enemy in religion, which so brazenly proclaims its prejudice. For many queers, religion is seen as "a straight thing"-you may have had it when you were younger, but after coming out it should be left behind. Now you're out and proud, and the only pilgrimage you should make is to Ikea. To come out is to join people with well-established beliefs and traditions, spaces and rituals, culture and community. Being lesbian, gay or bisexual becomes a way of life in itself, fulfilling many of the roles traditionally played by religion. Who needs "spirituality" when you've got lifestyle, fashionable celebrity icons, the best nightclubs, and lots of beautiful people to have sex with? Or, for the more earnestly inclined, when there's equality to win, a health crisis to survive, and homoculture to consume? And yet, in spite of this mutual hostility, and in spite of the virtual taboo around spirituality in most queer contexts, there are many lesbian, gay and bisexual people for whom both spirituality and sexuality are sources of strength and joy. There are queer Buddhists, Jews, Quakers, Episcopalians, Catholics, Neo-Pagans, Sikhs, Hindus, Taoists, and New-Agers of every complexion. Some of these people practice in predominantly heterosexual organizations; others join lesbian and gay synagogues and churches, or groups dedicated to gay spirituality, like the Radical Faeries. There are people who draw on a number of these and other spiritual traditions without fully belonging to any of them; and there are still more who identify themselves as "spiritual" but would have reservations about anything resembling organized religion. Some turn elsewhere for their spiritual sustenance, perhaps to nature, art, drugs or sex. How do these people manage to integrate their sexual and spiritual identities when there is so much pressure from both sides to choose one over the other? Why do they bother to do so? How does their sexuality affect their understanding of spirituality -and vice versa? I put these questions to a large number of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, from a variety of different spiritual traditions, while I was researching my book From Queer to Eternity (Cassell, 1997). In their answers, there was a lot of agreement about some key ways in which being queer can affect your spiritual journey. Some people told me that their sexuality, far from disqualifying them from spiritual involvement or causing them to reject it, was actually what caused them to set out on their journey, and that it has been helpful for their spiritual growth. Queerness may be a spiritual advantage even if it is a religious handicap, even though some religious groups will close their doors to you. Queer people are very quick to make a distinction between spirituality and religion. Elizabeth Sarah, a lesbian rabbi, explains that "when people think of religion they think of institutions, hierarchies, things that are fixed and try to control them. The word spirituality seems more autonomous, about where people are coming from in their own lives. It's about what it is to be human, what it is to be alive, what it is to be part of creation." Chris Ferguson, a gay man and Buddhist, makes a similar distinction: "Religion is trying to make you what you're not. Spirituality is trying to make you who you are." Chris, Elizabeth and many other gay people emphasize the inner life over external dogma. This is partly a distinction that queers are forced to make, because the public aspects of religion have so often been hostile to us. Turning inwards is more than a defensive response, however; it is an inevitable part of realizing you are lesbian, gay or bisexual. Spirituality arises from the ultimate questions: why am I here, how do I live? To realize that you are other-than-heterosexual in this society is to initiate a process of self-analysis that can include, or eventually lead to, those same Big Questions. To be queer is an existential condition; at least for that time when people are in the closet and thus locked inside themselves, they are forced to ask: if I am not like others that I see around me, what am I about? What do I want out of life? Who am I? "Because we're told that we're not meant to be here," says Jason Oliver, a Pagan, "gay people go out of their way to find out what they are really here for." Once you've started asking those big questions, it's difficult to stop. As a result of this process, we fall out of innocence; queers come across the big existential questions much sooner than many other people may have to. As Diana, a Christian priest, said to me, "When you're confronting your own sexuality, you're confronting yourself at the very deepest level of your being-and it's in that deepest level of your being that your spirituality dwells as well. A lot of straight people think they're `normal'; they never actually look at who they are because they don't think they need to, they just get on with life. So because they don't go through that process of delving deep inside themselves, they may never get to that level of looking at their spirituality either, or even realize that they have a spirituality." The catalyst for this crucial process of questioning and turning within is the feeling of not being able to identify fully with the surrounding world, the experience of not fitting in: "queerness." David Philbedge, now a Buddhist, told me of how, from an early age, he'd felt like an outsider. "If you have a sense that you're different from what's around you, you're not going to get sucked in without thinking, you're not going to accept received wisdom. All worthwhile spiritual paths involve asking questions: it's that sense of being an outsider that begins that process." Another Buddhist, Fernando Guasch, agrees: "This radical form of dislocation is fundamentally the core of the gay experience. Jung says consciousness comes out of friction: where you clash with the rest of things. It makes you very aware. Being gay allows you to `read the world differently,' as the native American say. Gay people can see through many of the `god-given truths' that so many straight people seem to believe are moral/ethical facts about the world-they're good myth busters. Gay people have always been able to point at the emperor and say he has no clothes." When people realize that they are not heterosexual, they may also realize the illusory nature of so much of what they are told life is about. They begin to awaken. Most humans get a wake-up call sooner or later-when someone they love dies, perhaps, or when achieving material goals fails to bring the happiness they expected-but queer people, if they are to have the chance of living honest and fulfilling lives, are forced to act on this call earlier in life than most. Coming out involves rejecting social programming and expectations, and asserting that they will live by the truth of their experience instead. And in refusing to keep up any sort of pretense (about this aspect of their lives, at least), they are laying the groundwork for a healthy, open spirituality. They are learning something about who they really are instead of who they are told they should be, and as a consequence, the act of coming out can be a source of spiritual insight. "When I allowed in the `truth' that I am gay," says Philip Joyce, a father of three, "it was an overwhelming insight, enabling me to make sense of so many of my previous feelings and experiences. It released an enormous amount of energy. I experienced a powerful sense of self, and a human warmth towards other people, which were new to me. I was illuminated and exhilarated, and it changed the course of my life. It was a new truth by which I had to live. It was so inspirational that I would say this was a major stage in my spiritual growth." A lesbian called Kate told me that when she came out, "I felt `born again,' or rather that I had finally found who I really was. From being monochrome, life had become glorious Technicolor." Kate is not the only person to use religious terminology in describing coming out. Realizing you are gay can cause a kind of death-of the former, ill-fitting heterosexual identity and expectations-but it leads to the experience of new life. Spiritual growth similarly involves a shedding of old assumptions and illusions, ideas about who you are and what your life will be like, in order to make space for a greater truth or liberation. Perhaps it is no coincidence that when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he uses the words "come out" (John 11:43). Lazarus is often depicted as being reluctant to come out, since the tomb, like the closet, has the apparent comfort of a certain security. It's a risk that has to be taken, however; in the words of Harvey Fierstein's anthem to gay pride, "Life's not worth a damn till you can say, I am what I am." That song provides another interesting cross-over with religious terminology. "I am what I am" is a classic statement of spiritual truth as well as gay identity. In the Old Testament, these words are how God is identified: when Moses asks the voice in the burning bush to name itself, it replies "I am what I am." To be oneself, to be aware, to be conscious, to be; awareness, consciousness, being: these things have been the concerns of spiritual traditions throughout history, and they are signified by "I am what I am." Having admitted and asserted this much truth, queer people are unlikely to surrender their hard-won insight into the way things are. If the existential questions provoked by being queer cause them to look to religion for answers, they have a yardstick with which to judge what they are told. If they're told that they should not exist, or that their sexuality is wrong, they have reason to doubt the veracity of anything else that religion may say. Queer people are skeptical of anything that will not acknowledge or allow the truth of their experience. They have a built-in-some might say God-given-bullshit detector. This is valuable, since there's a lot of bullshit in religion, as well as a lot of good. Any spirituality worth its salt survives skepticism; a lot of conventional religion does not. Being queer may force them to throw out the bathwater, but that doesn't mean they can't keep hold of the baby. This confidence in the authority of personal experience is a marked trait of spiritual queers, and is important whether the individual concerned is following an orthodox tradition or a looser, more individualistic path. To people with a paternalistic concept of religion (God commands, we obey), it may sound heretical to value personal experience over the supposed authority of religious institutions and scriptures. I would argue that, as well as being the only rational course, it is crucial for psychological survival and spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity requires growing from childish dependence to adult independence (or interdependence), from external religion (with all the fear, conformism and habit that may involve) to the freedom of internal spirituality. As part of this process of spiritual growth, queer people who had some sort of faith before they came out often find themselves renegotiating their relationship with religious authority. Rabbi Mark Solomon told me of how, when he was Orthodox and in the closet, he saw religion as a matter of "fitting in to patterns that had already been established." When he came out, he realized that "there are no answers that are identically suitable for everybody...each person has a personal relationship with God which is different, because no two people are precisely the same. God is beyond all the narrow concepts and systems to which we confine God and confine religion." Another gay man, Peter Ashby-Saracen, was formerly involved with fundamentalist Christians. "Christianity was something I wanted to protect me from the hurts of life and to take away certain things I couldn't handle at the time, like my sexuality." After coming out, he began to practice the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin. "Nowadays I look on life as a voyage of discovery. I've always thought of Buddhism as a tool-rather than a prop, which is something one leans on for support, something I see as static. I like the emphasis on the practice serving the individual, rather than the individual serving the religion. It is a liberating experience to know that there is a non-restrictive practice aimed primarily at encouraging you to be what you are. Being able to become the real me is of immense importance. If I ever felt that Buddhism wasn't serving my purposes any longer I would reject it without hesitation." He believes because he chooses to; because it is beneficial for him to do so. He is not disempowered by his faith. In this, he is typical of queer believers. One of the more common objections to any notion of spirituality or religion is that it's a crutch, a sign of weakness, something for feeble people who can't accept life as it really is. The lesbian, gay and bisexual people I spoke with would reject this claim. Since queers are not encouraged to acknowledge their spirituality, those who nonetheless persist, and overcome all the hurdles put in their way (by their own community as well as certain religions), must do so out of genuine desire. Queer people who follow spiritual traditions are not doing so because of social convention; nor do they surrender their intelligence. They are well aware of the routine and obvious objections; their spirituality has been fiercely tested-by themselves as well as others-and survived. As Rabbi Lionel Blue has said, spirituality in the lives of lesbian and gay people tends to be "honest, not rhetoric. It does not avoid or evade. In a packaged society, such plain and simple truth is rare and valuable." Religion is frequently guilty of sentimentality and escapism, but I saw very little of either quality among the queer people I came into contact with. Jonathon Andrew, a Christian who has lived with HIV for over a decade, said to me: "I don't think by having a spiritual practice you can exclude yourself from the hard reality. If your spirituality doesn't work on the ward at the AIDS hospice, it's not worth it. What the spiritual practice is about is coming to terms with the reality. And transforming it, somehow." Another gay man, Steve Hope, is a Quaker; he finds "the freedom lies in being as open as possible to ever more realities and experiences, and to share and be enriched by other people's experience. Being open to God is being open to more and more reality."If your spirituality doesn't work on the ward at the AIDS hospice, it's not worth it. What the spiritual practice is about is coming to terms with the reality. And transforming it, somehow." Another gay man, Steve Hope, is a Quaker; he finds "the freedom lies in being as open as possible to ever more realities and experiences, and to share and be enriched by other people's experience. Being open to God is being open to more and more reality." Being truly open to reality means letting go of certain ideas about ourselves and the world. So far I've suggested that the potential advantage of being queer is that it can encourage people to do precisely this-to feel less restricted by what society decrees to be "normal," and to be freed to follow their own truth instead of obeying social or religious orthodoxies. However, there is always a strong temptation to substitute the discarded orthodoxies with new illusions of your own invention-more appealing and subtle than the ones they replace, perhaps, but illusions nonetheless. Queers, for all the potential spiritual insight of their experience, are as susceptible to this temptation as anybody else. One way in which gay people have responded to so many years of being marginalized by mainstream society is to create a very strong cultural identity of their own. If you read any of the lesbian or gay magazines or books now available, or watch some of the numerous lesbian and gay movies that have been released in the last few years, or go to the pride marches and festivals which take place in most major Western cities, you'll quickly pick up how gay men and lesbians dress, what music they listen to, what they do with their leisure time, and much else besides. This process is strongly consumerist-there are few items which you can't buy emblazoned with the colors of the rainbow "freedom flag," symbol of lesbian and gay pride. These are just the superficial trappings of two very deep-rooted beliefs: that sexual orientation is centrally important to your life, and that there are defining characteristics of gay men and of lesbians beyond their sexual preferences. It's not just what they do and how they look, it's what they're like inside. Gay men, for instance, are assumed to be sensitive, witty, creative, caring, have good taste (in clothes, interior design, etc.), and get on famously with straight women. Crucial to their definition is that they are the opposite of straight men-who are emotionally inarticulate, obsessed with sport, money and cars, and intrinsically violent. Similar logic can be found underlying a lot of lesbian discourse (although there it is tempered by the feminist imperative to identify with all women). I am over-simplifying and generalizing here, but one way queer people have reacted to being told for so long that they are worse than everyone else, is to end up thinking that they are fundamentally, innately different-and sometimes, even, that they are better. The world can be divided into two camps of people, Us and Them, and the gulf between these groups is caused by sexual orientation. Modern lesbian and gay people are happy to divide themselves off like this because they understand their differences from heterosexuals as being positively to their advantage-and because queers are the ones making this distinction, not the victims of it. Some queer explorations of spirituality reflect this us-and-them division. Mark Thompson, author of Gay Spirit and Gay Soul, sees the role of queer people as "carriers of soul to a world that prefers to dwell on surfaces." Along with gay anthropologists like Will Roscoe and Randy P. Conner, he argues that queers have played this role throughout history. The "Gay Spirituality" movement that they are involved in takes as its role models people from earlier cultures who deviated from the dominant gender and sexual norms, and undertook spiritual work and leadership-most famously, shamans and Native American berdache. Modern queer people, like the berdache, can provide a bridge between men and women because they have characteristics of both. They can also, as shamans did, bridge the profane and sacred. Queer people are inheritors of spiritual skills (healing and divination, for instance) and, although scattered across the world, are all part of one special tribe-if only they would realize it. As a gay man, I have in the past found these ideas deeply appealing. Of course I would love to believe that I am spiritually gifted and have a crucial role to play in saving the souls of the world-and that this comes to me without effort, simply because I was born queer. However, ultimately I must reject this Gay Spirituality for the same reason that I reject homophobic religion-because it does not acknowledge the vastness of reality, nor does it correspond to my experience. You only need to listen to the conversation going on in your average gay bar to realize that queers don't, automatically, represent a higher order of consciousness. Gay men, for instance, can be just-if not more-macho, objectifying, emotionally inarticulate and misogynist as the next (straight) man (and I know many straight men who display none of those characteristics). True, there have been some remarkable homosexual visionaries and artists throughout history, but there have been some remarkable heterosexual visionaries and artists too. If we believe it is up to the queer tribe to save the world, we write off the majority of humanity. If queers are destined to play this spiritual role, what's left for straight men and women to do? The idea that only queer people can have easy access to both "masculine" and "feminine"characteristics traps the majority of human beings in the restrictive gender roles that, following the lead of feminism, we have finally begun to deconstruct. The spiritual gift of queerness is a certain freedom from social and religious norms. But the notion of queers as intrinsically enlightened-or, more basically, the notion that we're fundamentally different-could easily become another "norm" that disguises the full complexity of who any of us is; or another distraction from reality. The dualistic division it creates between queer and straight limits our ability to identify with all others as human creatures like ourselves, and so could hinder that most basic of spiritual virtues, compassion. Of course queer people want and deserve equal rights, but do we have no concern with the world beyond the way it treats us? Will we not act on the (noble) truth that all people are suffering? "You've got to keep away from elitist attitudes," warns Rabbi Lionel Blue, who is much-loved in Britain for his regular radio and television appearances, and came out in his sixties. Although homosexuality was illegal for much of his life, and caused him a great deal of personal conflict, he says "Everything that gays go through a straight person goes through too. The scenery is somewhat different, but the same dramas are played out. It is easy to escape from a ghetto imposed on you, and then to build one of your own because it seems safe and cozy. The aim of gay liberation is to make people whole, not to increase their divisions." Being queer does not automatically make you "special," any more than it automatically makes you evil or sick. It has no inherent, objective meaning. There is nothing about feeling sexually attracted to people of the same gender that predetermines your spirituality; spirituality grows out of our experience. There is some experience that most queer people at this time have in common-some of which I outlined earlier in this article-and that experience can be very valuable to work with. That experience is not innate, however. In a future society that freely acknowledges the whole spectrum of human sexuality, homosexual people will no longer be "queer" outsiders and coming out will no longer be the same catalyst for self-realization that it is currently. Such a society is still some way off. But even here and now, some queer people-in the light of their spiritual beliefs-argue that sexual identity is given undue emphasis. "You limit yourself by over-identification first of all with your own sexuality, and secondly with the group of people that you belong to," says Maitreyabandhu, a Buddhist. "Your sexuality is only a part of you. It doesn't have to be that big a part of your life even. It's not a problem, but neither is it a status-or a career." Someone once told Maitreyabandhu that their sexuality was the foundation of their life, like a chair that they sit on. "I said, well it will break. It's not big enough to contain what life is about. To try to understand life from the basis of being gay drastically restricts human potential." Peter Ashby-Saracen agrees, while clearly valuing the experience his sexual orientation has brought him: "Being gay is one manifestation of being human, and being human is, among other things, to be aware of our place in the wider `scheme of things.' Being gay doesn't satisfy everything in my life, though it's probably the thing that affects it most. I need some expression for my feeling of the infinite and where I fit into it, and my spirituality does this for me." However big a part sexuality may play in our lives, infinity is, obviously, bigger. Spiritual traditions aspire to encompass the whole of reality-the breadth of human experience, the mystery of existence, the immensity and variety of the cosmos-which is not something lesbian and gay identity, however proud, can do. Coming to this realization can be a continuation of the process that starts with coming out. "You've got to bring more than your sexuality out of the closet," advises Nagaraja, a gay Buddhist. Spiritual growth, like coming out, requires you to "know thyself," to keep asking that central question, who am I? "A queer person" is a good answer, because it is honest and shows some self-knowledge-but it is still only part of the answer. There's a temptation to think that "a lesbian" or "a gay man" is "who I really am." But we are mistaken if we think what we have found on coming out is our ultimate identity. Instead it is a signpost that points to the greater truth: the fact that, in many further ways, we are more than the culture around us would have us believe. Coming out is not the final destination; it is just the beginning of the spiritual journey. By starting with what we know -that we are lesbian, gay or bisexual-we may be led to universal human issues of mortality and meaning, of justice and suffering, of our place in the universe. "If we are not careful," warns Maitreyabandhu, "our gay liberation will become gay limitation. We need to rediscover our radical roots and reconnect with the urge to change ourselves and the world." For me, that means queer people should not be putting so much energy into building a permanent, fixed identity, and instead should be questioning why we are categorizing ourselves by our sexuality anyway. We will not change ourselves or the world if we remain content with roles based on who we have sex with, whether we feel good about playing those roles or not. As Maitreyabandhu suggests, being queer in itself is no longer the radical challenge it once was. "Lesbian and gay" has gone mainstream; spiritual traditions, however, remain revolutionary. The Buddha and Jesus invite us to look beyond how the world seems to be organized at the moment, and the place we are assigned within it. In arguing that sexual orientation should not be our ultimate concern, I am not for a moment suggesting that it is not important, or that we should deny who we are. Being open about our sexuality, while seeing it as just one facet of our complex humanity, is very different from staying silent about our sexuality because other people force us to. For political reasons, it is still crucial in many situations to identify publicly as queer. And for queer individuals, without the crucial act of honesty and self-realization that coming out represents, any sort of spiritual growth (or fulfilling life, for that matter) is impossible. Our journey can only start when we know where we are coming from. We can only understand other people when we begin to understand ourselves; we cannot comprehend universals until we acknowledge our own particulars. There will be many things that make us different from other people-sexual identity is one, but national identity is also important, and so are gender, race, class, education, age and many other characteristics. All of these are significant; they are the material we have to work with, the fuel for our spiritual journey, the grist for our mill. And yet we must avoid clinging too tightly to any of them, in case our ideas about who we are get in the way of our spiritual task-which is simply being who we are. The final irony is that this sexual identity some of us have fought so hard for becomes, in the silence of meditation or prayer, just another part of the psychological baggage that we need to leave behind. In the words of Lev, a man I spoke to who belongs to the Jewish havur'a movement and Radical Faeries, as well as drawing on Eastern traditions, "When I've felt most spiritually connected is when I've had the strongest and clearest sense of my core being, rather than being a Jew, being a gay man, being a professional, being white, whatever. It's what's underneath all that."
Queer Spirit: On Sexual Identity as Help and Hindrance, Peter Sweasey, Shambhala Sun, March 1998.
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dear friends, suppose someone is holding a pebble and throws it in the
air and the pebble begins to fall down into a river. After the pebble
touches the surface of the water, it allows itself to sink slowly into
It will reach the bed of the river without any
effort. Once the pebble is at the bottom of the river, it continues to
rest. It allows the water to pass by.
I think the pebble reaches
the bed of the river by the shortest path because it allows itself to
fall without making any effort. During our sitting meditation we can
allow ourselves to rest like a pebble. We can allow ourselves to sink
naturally without effort to the position of sitting, the position of
Resting is a very important practice; we have to learn the
art of resting. Resting is the first part of Buddhist meditation. You
should allow your body and your mind to rest. Our mind as well as our
body needs to rest.
The problem is that not many of us know how
to allow our body and mind to rest. We are always struggling;
struggling has become a kind of habit. We cannot resist being active,
struggling all the time. We struggle even during our sleep.
is very important to realize that we have the habit energy of
struggling. We have to be able to recognize a habit when it manifests
itself because if we know how to recognize our habit, it will lose its
energy and will not be able to push us anymore.
Ten years ago I
was in India visiting the ex-untouchable community of Buddhists. A
friend who belonged to the caste organized the trip for me. I was
sitting on the bus, enjoying the landscape outside, contemplating the
palm trees and the vegetation. Suddenly I turned and I saw him looking
very tense. There was no reason why he had to be tense like that. I
thought that he was trying to make my visit pleasant and maybe that was
the reason he was so tense. I told him, "Dear friend, I know that you
want to make my trip pleasant, but I am already very happy. I've
already enjoyed the trip. So why don't you sit back, smile, and relax?"
He said, "Okay," and he sat back and he tried to relax.
pleased and I turned my face toward the window again and I enjoyed the
palm trees and other things. But just a few minutes after when I looked
back at him he was as tense as before. He was not able to relax, to
allow himself to relax. I knew that he belonged to that section of the
population that had been struggling for many thousand years. He was
discriminated against. He had suffered so much, his ancestors and
himself and his children. So the tendency to struggle has been there
for many thousand years. That is why it was very difficult for him to
allow himself to rest.
We have to practice in order to be able
to transform this habit in us. The habit of struggle has become a
powerful source of energy that is shaping our behavior, our actions and
When an animal in the jungle is wounded, it knows
how to find a quiet place, lie down and do nothing. The animal knows
that is the only way to get healed—to lay down and just rest, not
thinking of anything, including hunting and eating. Not eating is a
very wonderful way of allowing your body to rest. We are so concerned
about how to get nutrition that we are afraid of resting, of allowing
our body to rest and to fast. The animal knows that it does not need to
eat. What it needs is to rest, to do nothing, and that is why its
health is restored.
In our consciousness there are wounds also,
lots of pains. Our consciousness also needs to rest in order to restore
itself. Our consciousness is just like our body. Our body knows how to
heal itself if we allow it the chance to do so. When we get a cut on
our finger we don't have to do anything except to clean it and to allow
it the time to heal, because our body knows how to heal itself. The
same thing is true with our consciousness; our consciousness knows how
to heal itself if we know how to allow it to do so. But we don't allow
it. We always try to do something. We worry so much about healing,
which is why we do not get the healing we need. Only if we know how to
allow them to rest can our body and our soul heal themselves.
there is in us what we call the energy of restlessness. We cannot be at
peace with ourselves. We cannot be peaceful. We cannot sit; we cannot
lie down. There is some energy in us to do this, to do that, to think
of this, to think of that, and that kind of restlessness makes us
unhappy. That is why it is so important for us to learn first of all to
allow our body to rest. We have to learn how to deal with all our
energy of restlessness. That is why we have to learn these techniques
of allowing our body and our consciousness to rest.
I would like
to offer you some instructions about walking meditation. The first
thing we shall do early tomorrow morning is to practice walking
together, which we call walking meditation. Walking meditation means to
enjoy walking without any intention to arrive. We don't need to arrive
anywhere. We just walk. We enjoy walking. That means walking is already
stopping, and that needs some training.
Usually in our daily life we
walk because we want to go somewhere. Walking is only a means to an
end, and that is why we do not enjoy every step we take. Walking
meditation is different. Walking is only for walking. You enjoy every
step you take. So this is a kind of revolution in walking. You allow
yourself to enjoy every step you take.
The Zen master Ling Chi
said that the miracle is not to walk on burning charcoal or in the thin
air or on the water; the miracle is just to walk on earth. You breathe
in. You become aware of the fact that you are alive. You are still
alive and you are walking on this beautiful planet. That is already
performing a miracle. The greatest of all miracles is to be alive. We
have to awaken ourselves to the truth that we are here, alive. We are
here making steps on this beautiful planet. This is already performing
But we have to be here in order for the miracle to be
possible. We have to bring ourselves back to the here and the now.
Therefore each step we take becomes a miracle. If you are able to walk
like that, each step will be very nourishing and healing. You walk as
if you kiss the earth with your feet, as if you massage the earth with
your feet. There is a lot of love in that practice of walking
The Buddha said that the past is gone and the future
is not yet here. Let us not regret the past. Let us not worry about the
future. Go back to the present moment and live deeply the present
moment. Because the present moment is the only moment where you can
touch life. Life is available only in the present moment. That is why
walking meditation is to go back to the present moment, in order to be
alive again and to touch life deeply in that moment. In order to be
able to touch the earth with our feet and enjoy walking, we have to
establish ourselves firmly in the present moment, in the here and the
In walking meditation, we walk like a free person. This is
not political freedom. This is freedom from afflictions, from sorrow,
from fear. Unless you are free you cannot enjoy walking. I would like
to propose to you a short poem that you might like to use for walking
I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now. I am solid. I am free. In the ultimate I dwell.
might like to take two steps and breathe in and say, I have arrived, I
have arrived. And when you breathe out, you take another two steps and
say silently, I am home, I am home. Our true home is really in the here
and in the now. Because only in the here and the now can we touch life.
As the Buddha said, life is available only in the here and the now, so
going back to the present moment is going home. That is why you take
one step or two steps and you awaken to the fact that you have arrived.
You have arrived in the present moment.
If you are able to
arrive, then you will stop running—running within and running without.
There is a belief in us that happiness cannot be possible in the here
and the now. We have to go somewhere. We have to go to the future in
order to be able to really be happy.
That kind of thinking has
been there for a long time. Maybe that feeling has been transmitted to
us from our ancestors and our parents. That is why we have to wake up
to the presence of that habit energy in us and to do the reverse. The
Buddha said that it is possible for us to be peaceful and happy in the
present moment. That is the teaching of trista dharma sadha vihara. It
means living happily right in the present moment. When you are there,
body and mind united, you have an opportunity to touch the conditions
of your happiness. If you are able to touch these conditions of
happiness that are already available in the here and the now, you can
be happy right away. You don't have to run anywhere, especially into
When we practice walking, we might be aware that
we have strong feet. Our feet are strong enough for us to enjoy running
and walking. That is one condition for happiness that is available.
When I breathe in and I become aware of my eyes, I encounter another
condition for my happiness. Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes.
Breathing out, I smile to my eyes. This is an exercise, a very simple
exercise to help you realize that you have eyes which are still in good
condition. You need only to open your eyes to see the blue sky, the
white cloud, the luxurious vegetation. You can see all kinds of forms
and colors just because you have eyes still in good condition. Your
eyes are another condition for your happiness. We have so many
conditions like that for our happiness and yet we are still unhappy. We
still want to run away from the present moment, hoping we'll find some
happiness in the future.
Breathing in, I'm aware of my heart.
Breathing out, I smile to my heart. That is another exercise. When you
practice like that you touch your heart with your mindfulness. If you
continue a minute, you realize that you still have a heart that
functions normally. It is wonderful to have a heart that still
functions normally. There are people who don't have a heart like that
and their deepest desire is to have a heart like you. So conditions for
happiness may be more than enough for us to be happy, but we are not
able to be happy because of that tendency to run away from the present
To take an in-breath, to smile, and to touch the
conditions of happiness that are available, is something that all of us
can do. Because of that we can stop and establish ourselves in the
present moment. That is the teaching of living happily in the present
moment. Please train yourself to make the present moment, the here and
the now, into your true home. That is the only home that we have. That
is the only place where we can touch life. Everything we are looking
for must be found in the here and the now. In that way walking
meditation can be a great pleasure and can be very healing.
you have to make any effort to practice walking meditation? I don't
think so. It is like when you drink a glass of orange juice. Do you
think that you have to make an effort in order to enjoy the orange
juice? No. Walking is like that. To really enjoy a glass of orange
juice, you have to be there one hundred per cent mind and body
together. If you are there, mind and body firmly established in the
present moment, then a glass of orange juice will become a real thing
for you. You are real; therefore, the juice is real. And there life is
real. Life exists. Life is deep during the time you drink your orange
When you contemplate a beautiful sunset, do you have to make
any effort? I don't think so. You don't have to make any effort in
order to enjoy a beautiful sunset. You need only to be there, to be
there mind and body together. But if your body is there and your mind
is in the past or in the future, then the beautiful sunset will not be
there for you.
There is a kind of energy that helps you to be
there body and mind together. That energy is called mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the capacity of being there body and mind united. When
you drink your orange juice, drink mindfully and you will enjoy your
juice because you are really there one hundred per cent. If your body
and mind are united when you contemplate the beautiful sunset, it means
that you are mindful. Mindfulness helps you to be there in order for
the beautiful sunset to be there too. While you walk, if you allow
yourself to be there mind and body together, then walking will become
mindful walking; it will be healing, refreshing and nourishing.
meditate means first of all to be there, to be on your cushion, to be
on your walking meditation path. Eating also is a meditation if you are
really there, present one hundred per cent with your food. The
essential is to be there. So please when you practice walking
meditation, don't make any effort. Allow yourself to be like that
pebble at rest. The pebble is resting at the bottom of the river and
the pebble does not have to do anything. While you are walking, you are
resting. While you are sitting, you are resting.
struggle during your sitting meditation or walking meditation, you are
not doing it right. The Buddha said, "My practice is the practice of
non-practice." That means a lot. Give up all struggle. Allow yourself
to be, to rest.
I sit on my meditation cushion. I consider it
to be something very pleasant. I don't struggle at all on my cushion. I
allow myself to be, to rest. I don't make any effort and that is why I
do not get any trouble while sitting. While sitting I do not struggle
and that is why all my muscles are relaxed. If you struggle during your
sitting meditation, you will very soon have pain in your shoulders and
back and things like that. But if you allow yourself to be rested on
your cushion you can sit very long, and each minute is light,
refreshing, nourishing and healing.
It is not sitting in
order to struggle to get enlightenment. No. Sitting first of all is for
the pleasure of sitting. Walking first of all is for the pleasure of
walking. And eating is for the pleasure of eating. And the art is to be
there one hundred per cent.
When I was a novice I learned how
to light a stick of incense in mindfulness. You see, when you light
incense you think that the purpose of lighting incense is to have the
incense pervading the Buddha's home. But lighting the incense is just
for lighting the incense. You pick up a stick of incense mindfully and
you enjoy that, because it is by itself an act of meditation. During
the time you pick up the stick of incense you are mindful, you are
concentrated, you are real, because your body and your mind are
together. And the stick of incense is real. When you strike a match,
you do the same thing. During the time you strike a match, you only
strike a match. You don't do anything else. You don't think of other
things. You are perfectly mindful of striking a match. You are
concentrated on it, and you enjoy the act of lighting the incense.
you hold a stick of incense, it is the same. When I stick it into the
incense burner, I put my left hand on my right hand. That is the
tradition. Everyone in the Buddhist tradition lights incense in that
way. The stick of incense is very light; one hand is enough in order to
hold it. Why do you have to put your left hand on your right hand?
Because it means that you are doing it with one hundred per cent of
your body and your mind.
Be there truly. Be there one hundred
per cent of yourself. In every moment of your daily life. That is the
essence of true Buddhist meditation. Each of us knows that we can do
that, so let us train to live each moment of our daily life deeply.
That is why I like to define mindfulness as the energy that helps us to
be there one hundred per cent. The energy of your true presence.
in—in the here, in the here. Breathing out—in the now, in the now.
Although these are different words they mean exactly the same thing. I
have arrived in the here. I have arrived in the now. I am home in the
here. I am home in the now.
When you practice like that, you
practice stopping. Stopping is the basic Buddhist practice of
meditation. You stop running. You stop struggling. You allow yourself
to rest, to heal, to calm.
And after a few minutes of
practice you might switch into doing the third line—I am solid, I am
free. This is not auto-suggestion. Why? Because if you have succeeded
in arriving in the here and in the now you are much freer. You are free
from the past, from the future, from your worries, from your fear. And
you become much more solid; your steps become more solid and you become
more solid in your body and in your mind. Solidity becomes a reality
after a few minutes of arriving, of being home.
freedom are two characteristics of nirvana. Nirvana is not something
abstract. The Buddha said we can touch nirvana with our own body. So
while you practice walking meditation you can begin to touch nirvana
already with your body and your spirit.
When you feel you are
a little bit more solid, a little bit more free, then you begin to
touch nirvana with your body and spirit. Solidity and freedom are the
true base for your happiness and well being. No happiness, no well
being, is possible without solidity and freedom.
The last line of
the poem is wonderful. In the ultimate I dwell. In the ultimate. In the
ultimate. I dwell. I dwell. The ultimate here is the true foundation of
Let us visualize the waves on the ocean, several
waves appearing on the surface of the ocean. Some waves are big, there
are those that are small, and each wave seems to have its own life. A
wave may have ideas like, "I am a wave. I am only a wave among many
waves. I am smaller than the other wave. I am less beautiful. I last
less than the other wave." Ideas like that. A wave can be caught in
jealousy, in fear, in discrimination.
But if the wave is able
to bend down and touch the water within herself, it will realize that
while it is a wave, it is at the same time water. Water is the
foundation of the wave. While waves can be high and low, more and less
beautiful, the water is free from all these notions. That is why if we
are able to touch the foundation of our being, we can release our fear
and our suffering.
Touching the foundation of our being means
touching nirvana. Our foundation is not subjected to birth and death,
being and non-being. A wave can live the life of a wave, but a wave can
do much better than that. While living the life of a wave, a wave can
live a life of the water. The more our solidity and our freedom grows,
the deeper we touch the ground of our own being. That is the door for
emancipation, for the greatest relief.
his tour, Thich Nhat Hanh addressed the specific issues of Americans in
a series of question and answer periods. Here is a selection of his
responses to questions on leading a spiritual life in the modern world.
Stress and Work
How do you maintain mindfulness in a busy work environment?At times it seems there is not even enough time to breathe mindfully.
is not a personal problem only; this is a problem of the whole
civilization. That is why we have to practice not only as individuals;
we have to practice as a society. We have to make a revolution in the
way we organize our society and our daily life, so we will be able to
enjoy the work we do every day.
Meanwhile, we can incorporate a
number of things that we have learned in this retreat in order to
lessen our stress. When you drive around the city and come to a red
light or a stop sign, you can just sit back and make use of these
twenty or thirty seconds to relax-to breathe in, breathe out, and enjoy
arriving in the present moment. There are many things like that we can
do. Years ago I was in Montreal on the way to a retreat, and I noticed
that the license plates said Je me souviens—"I remember." I did not
know what they wanted to remember, but to me it means that I remember
to breathe and to smile (laughter). So I told a friend who was driving
the car that I had a gift for the sangha in Montreal: every time you
see Je me souviens, you remember to breathe and smile and go back to
the present moment. Many of our friends in the Montreal sangha have
been practicing that for more than ten years.
I think we can
enjoy the red light; we can also enjoy the stop sign. Every time we see
it we profit: instead of being angry at the red light, of being burned
by impatience, we just practice breathing in, breathing out, smiling.
That helps a lot. And when you hear the telephone ringing you can
consider it to be the sound of the mindfulness bell. You practice
telephone meditation. Every time you hear the telephone ringing you
stay exactly where you are (laughter). You breathe in and breathe out
and enjoy your breathing. Listen, listen—this wonderful sound brings
you back to your true home. Then when you hear the second ring you
stand up and you go to the telephone with dignity (laughter). That
means in the style of walking meditation (laughter). You know that you
can afford to do that, because if the other person has something really
important to tell you, she will not hang up before the third ring. That
is what we call telephone meditation. We use the sound as the bell of
And waiting at the bus stop you might like to
try mindful breathing, and waiting in line to go into a bank, you can
always practice mindful breathing. Walking from one building to another
building, why don't you use walking meditation, because that improves
the quality of our life. That brings more peace and serenity, and the
quality of the work we do will be improved just by that kind of
practice. So it is possible to integrate the practice into our daily
life. We just need a little bit of creative imagination to do so.
The Benefits of Silence
Could tell us about the benefits of silence and how we could bring that home with us from this retreat?
of us have realized in the last few days that silence can be enjoyable.
We realize that there are many things that we do not have to say, and
that then we can reserve the time and energy to do other things that
can help us to look more deeply into ourselves and things around us.
you are pushed by your habit energy to say something, don't say it.
Instead, take a notebook and write it down. A day or two later, read
what you wrote, and you might find out that it would have been an awful
thing to say. So slowly you become master of yourself, and you know
what to say and what not to say.
I remember one time I
proposed to a sister that she practice silence. She was an elder nun
and she had a few negative seeds in her that prevented her from being
happy. She was just a little bit too hard on the other sisters. I
proposed to her that she was a very talented person, very skillful in
many things, and she could make many people happy if only she knew how
to be silent and to say only things that needed to be said.
proposed to her that she use only three sentences for three months. She
could repeat these three sentences as many times as she wanted
(laughter) and I told her that if she practiced that for a week, she
would feel happiness right away. The first sentence was, "Dear sister,
is there anything I can do to help you?" (laughter) The second sentence
was, "Did you like what I did to help you?" The third was, "Would you
have any suggestion that I can do it better?" (laughter) If she could
say that, she would make many people happy and the happiness would go
back to herself very quickly.
In the family we can practice
silence. We can ask the other members of the family to agree that we
will practice silence for three days or for a week. It is very
beneficial. There will be a transformation after the period of
Letting Go of Suffering
Why do we cling to our suffering?
of us are not capable of releasing the past, of releasing the suffering
of the past. We want to cling to our own suffering. But the Buddha said
very clearly, do not cling to the past, the past is already gone. Do
not wait for future, the future is not yet there. The wise people
establish themselves in the present moment and they practice living
deeply in the present moment. That is our practice. By living deeply in
the present moment we can understand the past better and we can prepare
for a better future.
Today I attended a Vietnam war veterans'
discussion, and my heart is still heavy. The condition of the war
veterans—their heart, their mind, their body—do you think that they
will ever be emotionally healed in this lifetime? I think if they
practice with all their heart and they are determined to relieve the
past, they will be healed.
We cling too much to the past; we
have to face the future. We have to stand on the ground of the present
moment. The war in Vietnam was just a war. There are many wars still
going on and we continue to create victims of war and war veterans. The
number of American soldiers who died in Vietnam was something like
55,000. Every year the number of people who die in car accidents in
America is exactly that number, 55,000. So there is the equivalent
number of dead people caused by alcoholism and unmindful driving. This
is another war. The toll is as huge as the damage inflicted by war, and
every time a person dies because of a car accident, it creates many war
veterans in the children who lose their mother, the mothers who lose
If we stick to our suffering we can never stand up
for healing and prepare the future for our children and their children.
I would say to the Vietnam war veteran, okay, you did kill five
children. We know that. But here you are, alive in the present moment.
Do you know that you have the power to save five children today? You
don't have to go to Vietnam or southeast Asia. There are American
children who are dying every day; they may need only one pill to be
saved from their illness.
If you know how, every day you can
save five children from dying. Why do you let yourself get caught in
guilt and become paralyzed year after year? Why don't you make a
bodhisattva vow to use your life to work for the safety of many
children? Did you know that 40,000 children die in the world every day
just because of the lack of food and nutrition? You are here; you can
do something. Why do you let yourself get caught in the past? You can
save children in the here and now. You can use your life in a very
useful and intelligent way. You can very well transform that negative
energy into a positive energy that empowers you and makes life
I go home, I return to my husband who is a hunter. He goes into our
beautiful woods to shoot birds. He brings them home to show our
seven-year-old twins, who want to be like daddy. What can I do to stop
him from this habit of killing?
If you do not know how to
be patient, how to care, how to use loving speech, you cannot help
other people to change. But if we have the energy of compassion and
loving kindness in us, the people around us will be influenced by our
way of being and living. Reproaching them, shouting at them, blaming
them, can never help them. Only our love, our patience and our loving
speech can help. And if we are in a situation where our own
skillfulness, our own compassion, is not strong enough, we could need
the support of our dharma brothers and sisters in order to do the job.
What are your views on abortion?
am inclined to devote more of my time and energy to preventing the
situation from happening than to what happens when you have to decide
whether you have to do it or not to do it. If we prepare ourselves in
such a way, then the problem will not present itself to us, and we
don't have to make a decision between abortion or not abortion. In the
last 2,500 years we monks and nuns have helped a lot in limiting the
population of the planet (laughter). And if you'd like to join us
(laughter), it's never too late.
In regard to television news and newspapers, how can we balance not taking in toxins with not closing our eyes to suffering?
I want to be informed about what is going on in the world. I want to be
informed, but that does not mean that I have to listen to the news
three times a day. I think there is some kind of vacuum in us we want
to fill up; that is why we buy so many newspapers and magazines and why
we view so much television. We do not need that much information. I
think maybe five minutes daily is enough. Sometime we can survive
several months without any news bulletins. And you have friends who can
tell you what is important that has happened.
Space and Freedom
you please elaborate on what is space inside of us? Why is this good? I
feel lonely sometimes. This feels like emptiness or space inside, but
it does not feel good.
here does not mean loneliness. Space here means freedom because you are
not busy inside—you don't have a lot of worries, fears, projects,
things to think about. That is space. Space here is the basic condition
for you to enjoy life. If you are preoccupied with so many things, you
don't have that condition.
One day the Buddha was sitting in
the wood with thirty or forty monks. They had an excellent lunch and
they were enjoying the company of each other. There was a farmer
passing by and the farmer was very unhappy. He asked the Buddha and the
monks whether they had seen his cows passing by. The Buddha said they
had not seen any cows passing by.
The farmer said, "Monks,
I'm so unhappy. I have twelve cows and I don't know why they all ran
away. I have also a few acres of a sesame seed plantation and the
insects have eaten up everything. I suffer so much I think I am going
to kill myself.
The Buddha said, "My friend, we have not seen any cows passing by here. You might like to look for them in the other direction."
the farmer thanked him and ran away, and the Buddha turned to his monks
and said, "My dear friends, you are the happiest people in the world.
You don't have any cows to lose. If you have too many cows to take care
of, you will be very busy.
"That is why, in order to be happy,
you have to learn the art of cow releasing (laughter). You release the
cows one by one. In the beginning you thought that those cows were
essential to your happiness, and you tried to get more and more cows.
But now you realize that cows are not really conditions for your
happiness; they constitute an obstacle for your happiness. That is why
you are determined to release your cows."
We have to ask what is
really essential to our happiness. We believe that things are essential
to our happiness, but we have to look again. Many of us have cows, many
cows that prevent us from being happy. That is why we have to learn to
release our cows. Also there are many cows inside, so many
preoccupations! Many things to worry about, to be angry about, and
there's no space at all inside.
How can you be happy in such a state
of being? That is why to release the cows around us and to let go of
these preoccupations inside is a very essential condition for
happiness. That is the space we are talking about when we practice. I
am space; within and out. I feel free. Freedom is the real foundation
of happiness. Sometimes if you don't know how to love, love will
deprive you of your freedom and deprive the person you love of her
freedom. That is why space is so essential in relationship.
is a beautiful poem praising the Buddha: "The Buddha is like the full
moon/traveling in the vast sky of emptiness." Because of that freedom,
the happiness of the Buddha cannot be measured by our mind.
The Lone Mountain Path: The Example of Issan Dorsey
The Lone Mountain Path: The Example of Issan Dorsey
By Kobai Scott Whitney
Issan (Lone Mountain) Dorsey was not a Buddhist scholar, nor was he a saint. But for those of us who knew him, this drag-queen-turned-Zen-abbot was, without question, a bodhisattva alive in our midst.
Before the lore surrounding Issan and the founding of Hartford Street Zen Center becomes an unmanageable apocrypha, it is important that gay and lesbian Buddhists look at his life and death with some care, with attention to his failings and conflicts, as well as to his immense compassion and his wacky insight.
Born Tommy Dorsey in Santa Barbara, California in 1933, he was the oldest of ten children and raised Catholic. Although he contemplated studying for the priesthood, he ended up joining the U.S. Navy, from which he was eventually expelled for homosexual conduct. In the 1950's he then began a long career as a performer in drag shows in San Francisco's North Beach-a district which served as the Castro Street of its era and also hosted such fringy populations as the Beat poets, drug dealers, coffeehouse anarchists and jazz musicians.
In his shows he was billed as "Tommy Dee, the boy who looks like the girl next door." In the 1960's Tommy deepened his use of alcohol and drugs while joining the hippie movement as founder of a large, still well-remembered commune. In his North Beach years, Tommy Dee shot heroin with Lenny Bruce, partied with the late Carmen McRae and claims to have "discovered" Johnny Mathis (McRae used to argue with him about this, claiming that she was the one who discovered the young singer).
During these years he had frequent injuries, overdoses and run-ins with the police. He once said, "Sometimes I'd wake up hung over in jail. The first thing I'd do was feel to see if I had my tits on. This would tell me whether they had locked me up on the men's side or with the hookers on the women's side."
In the late 1960's, he began to sit zazen with Suzuki-roshi and his life began to change. He was eventually ordained as a Buddhist priest by Richard Baker, Suzuki-roshi's successor, and given the name Issan. A full account of Issan's life can be found in David Schneider's Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey (Shambhala Publications).
The Shaman as Mother
Issan claimed never to have read a single book from cover to cover, except for one: Suzuki Roshi's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Through-out the late 1970's and 1980's, he moved through the world of the San Francisco Zen Center like an angel in tabi socks, as graceful and outrageous as the stage-wise drag queen he had been before meeting Suzuki Roshi.
Unafraid to acknowledge his long history of drug use, cross-dressing and prostitution, Issan Tommy Dorsey served as a kind of fringy shaman to the uptight and elitist Zen Center community of those years-a community with an atmosphere that actor and writer Peter Coyote once called "high Episcopal." Tommy had always been comfortable in the borderlands of respectability and could serve to welcome anyone to Zen Center, no matter how odd they seemed to the broader sangha. This benefited individual beginners whom Issan could usher through the sometimes unwelcoming veneer of the Page Street City Center. It also helped the sangha, since Tommy's success in adjusting to the rigors of Zen training proved to them that meditation practice could benefit anyone.
Like a shaman, Issan served in the capacity of healer and what ethnographers call a "stranger handler." He acted as clown, as mediator and, generally, in the archetypal role that Robert Bly has dubbed the Male Mother. Many of his students saw him as an embodiment of Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion. Like this female manifestation of the Buddha, he learned to hear "the cries of the world" and to respond to them in his own unique way.
Issan Dorsey, as Zen priest at Tassajara and the San Francisco city center, did not see himself as any kind of Buddhist missionary to the gay community: in fact, he made fun of the macho, middle class, consumer values of gay San Francisco. Those were the years when jeans and lumberjack flannel shirts were the official uniform for gay men, when doing drag or using "Miss Names" were not politically correct activities.
Years before the founding of Hartford Street Zendo, when the first meeting of a "Gay Buddhist Club" was announced, Issan scoffed at the idea. "Buddhism is Buddhism, practice is practice," might be a summary of his response. At that time, in those last, pre-AIDS years, his major preoccupation was starting a soup kitchen in San Francisco's Tenderloin district.
Although he made fun of white middle class American culture in all its forms-gay or straight-he never judged or rejected a person because of their social class or values. He had wealthy friends and he had friends who lived on the streets. He spent most of his social time in the seventies with the predominantly straight men and women who practiced at Zen Center. In his role as male mother, Issan had many straight men who were deeply devoted to him as friend and mentor.
"Sometimes," he told fellow priest Shunko Michael Jamvold, "I like to go out with straight men because they treat me like a lady."
It may only have been after his death that many people who spent time with Issan realized how he had taught them. While many remember his wacky one-liners, it was with his wordless demeanor that he actually taught us.
In his book, David Schneider comments on Issan's fondness for his beads, his Buddhist rosary. His care for what western culture views as non-animate objects was a form of teaching to many around him. Issan dressed impeccably and meticulously. Whether in monk's robes or street attire, he adjusted every piece of fabric lovingly. He often spent quiet time in his room mending clothing. The careful, sensuous way he applied Oil of Olay to his face and his shaved scalp each day reminded one of his friends of a retired actress intent on preserving her aging countenance.
Every corner of his room at Zen Center, and later at Hartford Street Zendo, was always dusted and adjusted; bedding was folded and there were always fresh flowers around. Many Zen students remember his tenure as director of the building at Page Street, when the polished floors shone as they never have since.
His long study of tea ceremony under Suzuki-sensei, the wife of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, was another way he perfected the aesthetics of movement in the world of space and time and matter. As often as he reminded us of the importance of taking care of people, he also insisted on the importance of taking care of buildings, gardens or tea cups.
When leaving to go somewhere in the city, he always took his black Danish school bag, a finely made canvas bag that had pockets for everything in it. This bag, which he fondly called his Life Support System, contained: a handkerchief, a plastic case filled with tooth picks, pens and pencils, an address book, medications, chapstick, matches, a notebook with reminders to himself, breath mints and, among many other things, his famous Sears Charge Card, the only "plastic" he ever owned.
So, one of his teachings to others was contained in this reverence for his physical space and for his few worldly possessions. In a 1987 interview with a now-defunct gay newspaper, he said, speaking of the zendo at Hartford Street, "All you do here is come sit. It's hard to do. But there's no end to it. You can sit all kinds of ways, and you can learn that you can also refine your life endlessly, and that there are endless ways of extending yourself into the larger community. So you come and sit, and then we see what happens from there."
Big Mind and the Epidemic
What happened from there was AIDS. As the health crisis grew in San Francisco, Issan told a friend that, more and more, the epidemic was teaching him what Suzuki-roshi had meant when he talked about Big Mind.
Meditation practice, at least in the Zen tradition of Dogen, is about mind and body dropping away. Small, lively, individual mind and grasping, needful, individual body can recede, if only temporarily, into the background of experience. After twenty years of Zen practice, Issan was able to experience life with Big Mind in the foreground of consciousness; he began to see and express the fact that an individual death, including his own, might not be such a big thing in the light of the steady blossoming of Big Mind experience.
To appreciate Big Mind in the midst of a plague is to know that the seemingly pressing concerns of individual personalities, identities and cravings can fall away in an instant. With mindful practice, the compassion which arises automatically with the experience of Big Mind makes working for the good of all much easier. Big Mind, Issan began to see, presumes that taking care of others is also taking care of self. As co-participants in Big Mind, sufferer and helper are mutually necessary-both help, both suffer. Living and surviving, while someone nearby is dying, becomes like wave and trough on the surface of the sea-each needs the other, both are fleeting.
Regular meditation and mindfulness practice gave Issan the experience of mental balance needed to be with self and others through the losses caused by the epidemic. His street experience added an important dimension in the form of daring, direct action that could get things done, like the founding of Maitri Hospice. Yet he knew that no amount of social action and no amount of time on a meditation cushion could spare us from all suffering and grief. He responded to the needs of survivors in different ways at different times.
Zen Center student George Gayuski remembers going to Issan after the death of a close friend. "I was so upset," Gayuski says, "and I don't remember anything we said at the time. But I do remember that he immediately started doing a small ceremony with me. We both offered incense and then we chanted the Heart Sutra together and somehow that was the right thing to do at that moment."
It is such ability to spontaneously enact "the right thing at the right moment" that is the fruit of advanced practice. Tenryu Steve Allen, Issan's successor at Hartford Street, remembers his friend's ability to deal with the parents and lovers of the dying men at the hospice: "One of the qualities that Issan exemplified was the ability to accept anything. For instance, his capacity to be there in a room filled with fear and denial and to accept everyone there and everything about the situation. When the person dying could not accept their situation, and the friends and family and lovers around them could not accept it, Issan could be there in the midst of it all and accept their non-acceptance. His simple capacity to be with people and accept whatever was happening was what he taught me."
"Got that Uji Thing."
Shunko Jamvold remembers Issan in his last years playing with the Japanese Buddhist term Uji (Time-Being or Being-Time). Sometimes he would just yell out the word in the midst of things: "Uji!" Everyone around him would wonder what he meant. At other times he would make up sentences like "Got that Uji thing going," as if it were a jazz lyric off Carmen McRae's latest album. Probably the most profound exposition of the concept of Time-Being is found in Dogen Zenji's fascicle written in 1240. It is a brief document-seven pages in the Tanahashi English version-yet it contains some of the most challenging, obscure, poetic and important statements in all of Japanese Zen literature. Here are some samples:
"...when sentient beings doubt what they do not understand, their doubt is not firmly fixed. Because of that, their past doubts do not necessarily coincide with the present doubt. Yet doubt itself is nothing but time." (Tanahashi translation, pp. 76-77, sec. 2) or: "You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives. Although understanding itself is time, understanding does not depend on its own arrival." (p. 79, sec. 12) or: "As overwhelming is caused by you, there is no overwhelming that is separate from you. Thus you go out and meet someone. Someone meets someone. You meet yourself. Going out meets going out. If these are not the actualization of time, they cannot be thus." (p. 82, sec. 17)
This is Dogen at his most beautiful and most profound- pushing the limits of language, pushing the limits of his readers' ability to understand. So the question is: did Issan understand this difficult concept of time intertwined with, and inseparable from, existence-or did he just like the sound of the word "Uji"?
The answer seems to show itself in the fruit of Issan's practice, rather than in any conceptual framework given, for instance, in a dharma talk. Once he was listening to a gay man who was talking to him at length about what direction he should take in the future. After describing to Issan the various alternatives available to him and the consequences he envisioned for pursuing each of these particular choices, the man finally stopped and asked Issan, "Well, what do you think?"
"I don't know," Issan said, "I just got here."
A gentle, ironic reminder that the only time is "just getting here," that future and past are spun from delusion and that the fullness of time/being can only be got to through the door of present practice. "There is no overwhelming that is separate from you" is another way of saying "I just got here."
"Understanding does not depend on its own arrival," the difficult, but truer-than-true teaching from the Uji fascicle, could have been the motto for Issan's whole life of practice. While he was not an intellectual, he was able to appreciate those, like Richard Baker, who were. His understanding manifested itself in the offhand remark or in the way he entered a room or took care of his tea bowls. Like the best of the Zen masters, his understanding was manifest in his body: in his walking, in his cooking, in his loving application of Oil of Olay to his face and his shiny monk's scalp.
Practice, Not Perfection
If his dharma talks were not intellectual performances, they were not without their own charm and directness. Once at a question and answer tea session at Hartford Street, a young gay man asked him, "I've been studying for six months now and I don't notice any difference in my behavior or thoughts. You've been doing zazen for twenty years, have you noticed any difference in yourself?" After a few minutes of hesitation and puzzled facial expressions, Issan replied, "Well, I don't wear high heels anymore."
And indeed, not all things changed with Issan. He was certainly no model of adherence to the Buddhist precepts. His drinking-although limited in later years mostly to Friday night outings-still could get him in trouble. The poor judgement which led to unsafe sex, and thus to his infecting incident, occurred while he was drunk.
His tolerance for the bizarre led him to allow behavior in James, his addicted sometimes-lover, that strained the tolerance of the communities they lived in, and which sometimes led to violence against Issan. His doctor and fellow Zen student, Rick Levine, recalls:
"I loved Issan. There was a transcendental loveliness about him. But it makes me nervous when people mythologize him or call him a saint. He enjoyed being admired, as most of us do, so he might not object to being thought of in that way. But his dying was exemplary in its ordinariness. Like everyone, he had difficulties. He had a special fondness for, and interest in, his medications. He got anxious and he could get pretty angry."
In other words, Issan experienced all the conflicts of ethics and behavior, of hedonism versus detachment, that many gay men go through when trying to put together a spiritual practice. He went through all the fear and anger and denial that anyone facing death must experience. "There was no posturing with Issan," says Dr. Levine. "He didn't die like a story from the deaths of ancient Zen teachers. But he did die beautifully, cared for by old and loving friends."
AIDS as God
In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when the Christian right was describing AIDS as the wrath of God directed against homosexuals for their sins, Issan was asked to participate in a San Francisco Council of Churches symposium called "Is AIDS the Wrath of God?" He was the only Buddhist representative at the meeting, and he was quite emphatic about removing the reality of AIDS from the dualistic good/bad, sin/salvation paradigm being dealt with at the conference. He ended his short presentation with the astonishing (to Christians, anyway) statement that "AIDS is not the wrath of God. AIDS is God."
As Issan was called upon more and more to make sense of the AIDS pandemic, for himself and for others, he was able to teach Buddhism in the context in which it was surely meant to be taught, that is, within the framework of a life-and-death search. The Buddhist teaching of impermanence began to take on new power and immediacy as Issan's work with the founding of Hartford Street Zendo soon turned into the work of founding a hospice for the people dying of AIDS.
Before there was even any clear name or understanding of the disease, Issan regularly visited a young gay man in San Francisco General Hospital who had what we now know was AIDS. Taking Issan aside after one of his visits, a stern and disapproving charge-nurse commented to him that this particular patient had probably had more than 400 sex partners. Miffed at the woman's moralistic tone, Issan terminated the conversation: "Only 400 partners!" he said loudly, as if on stage again, "Is that ALL?"
Dementia and Delusion
J.D., the first gay man with AIDS to be taken in by Issan, was virtually at the point of death when he arrived, but the good care he received at Hartford Street helped him live for quite some time. At one point J.D. asked Issan if he could give a dharma talk. Issan had no problems granting J.D.'s request, even though many gay people around the zendo reminded Issan that J.D. had a rather severe case of dementia and would probably embarrass himself and everyone attending the talk.
"We all have dementia!" was Issan's gleeful response to the community's reservations, and despite the discomfort of others J.D. gave his best effort at giving a dharma talk. This lecture, however uncomfortable it might have been for his audience, came to be of great benefit to J.D. and was a major spiritual milestone for him prior to his death.
"We all have dementia" was just another way of reminding everyone of the delusions which make up the fabric of our daily lives. While others around the zendo were caught up with ideas about J.D.'s intellectual competence and the protocols of dharma discourse, Issan made his decisions with other criteria in mind. Status in the sangha, the hidden agenda behind opposition to J.D.'s talk, was not a factor in Issan's decision, just compassion and the true expression of the practice of equanimity. In other words, who is capable of saying who else is accomplished enough to speak the dharma? Who among us is not deluded or demented?
Later, expanding on this idea in a dharma talk to the Hartford Street community (which he gleefully referred to as the "posture queens"), Issan said:
"'Don't invite your thoughts to tea' is an expression of Suzuki-roshi's which I've always found useful. Lately, I have been exploring this way of thinking with a friend who has AIDS dementia; the virus is living in his brain. I'm thinking and working on it and talking with him about it because the virus that is now attacking many of us ends up being in the brain.
"So is there some way for us to experience that? I don't know yet. My question is: how to be with people who have dementia and how to experience the dementia that we all have now anyway? It's called delusion." (Quoted in the Gay Buddhist Fellowship Newsletter, January, 1995.)
"AIDS is about living," Issan said more than once. Whatever happens after death, the experience of Big Mind happens in the world of the living. In the Big Mind context which Issan came to realize, pleasure and pain, fear and confidence, denial and acceptance, are all just dip and wave in the ever-changing ocean of change and liberation.
On the Path
If Issan was not a saint, he was at least on the way to becoming a bodhisattva. Perhaps in Issan's case the early Mahayana definition of the arhat needs to be revived. At that point in Buddhist history, an arhat was considered to be one who had attained deep understanding of the dharma, but was not yet completely liberated.
Issan was just that: still a bit addicted, still co-dependent, still subject to anger and fears. Not perfect, but he was solidly on the path, and he helped guide many of us along with him into the world of practice. In his last days, now with the title of Abbot, he had certainly gone beyond what anyone might have expected of the 1960's "boy who looks like the girl next door."
As Buddhism makes its way more thoroughly into the religious history of Europe and North America, Issan will be remembered, I think, as the man/woman, male-mother figure who kicked over the boundary stones of the West's most under-rated god, Terminus. His compassion threw open the high Episcopal church doors of the over-intellectual, self-important Zen community of his time. He let the hungry and the addicted and the demented into his zendo without a second thought. This was his legacy.
His personal history was proof to many of us in those days that maybe we could make a go of Buddhist practice. "If he can do it, then maybe I can too," is a thought that ran through many more minds than just my own. He was sometimes criticized for his continued loyalty to the exiled Richard Baker, and that loyalty did have a traditional, Confucian, unquestioning reverence to it. But it was also another part of his tendency to accept a wide range of people, with all their deluded behaviors. It was part of his non-judging and his automatic identification with anyone in trouble.
There is an old tradition in Chinese Zen of remembering Zen masters by the name of the mountain or monastery where they lived. In Lone Mountain's case this happened in reverse: the Hartford Street Zendo is now called Issan-ji-Lone Mountain Temple. And because of Issan Dorsey it still remains a place, like every proper Buddhist temple, where people-who-are-not-perfect can practice Buddhism together, and see what happens.
Kobai Scott Whitney is a freelance writer in Honolulu, and a student of Robert Aitken-roshi. He practiced at the San Francisco Zen Center throughout the 1970's.
The Lone Mountain Path: The Example of Issan Dorsey, Kobai Scott Whitney, Shambhala Sun, March 1998. To order this copy of the Shambhala Sun, click here.
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