Saturday, September 19, 2009

Four Noble Truths for gays

It doesn’t really matter if you’re gay or straight when it comes to practicing Buddhism. The basic elements remain the same. What may need some tweaking, however, is how the basic elements are presented. For example, how I explain the Four Noble Truths to a fellow gay would be different than how I might explain them to someone straight. And the reason I would explain the Four Noble Truths differently is based on my perception that most gay people don’t like to think of themselves as causing their own stress.

“Excuse me? Sorry, but it’s the straight world that is giving us grief. I didn’t bring this upon myself.”

Well, it all depends on what you mean by the term “this.” So when explaining a basic Buddhist concept such as the Four Noble Truths to a fellow mo, I do so something like this.

1. Life is dukkha. OK, so I get the fact that this is a strange term, dukkha; most of the time it gets translated as something like suffering, or unsatisfactory. Which would mean that the Buddha was saying that life is suffering, or life is unsatisfactory, but that doesn’t quite get it, right? I mean, who wants to practice a religion that is basically telling you that life sucks? We get that, right? But we have our moments of happiness; times when we’re with our friends feeling good, safe and secure. So it doesn’t suck all the time. But that’s where the dissatisfaction comes in; the good times don’t last. Add to that we get old, so old that the young handsome guys don’t pay attention to us any more. So a better way to think about dukkha is to think about it meaning impermanence: Life is impermanent, as are the good times and people we like to hang with, which is frustrating.

2. There is a cause of dukkha. The Buddha said that these causes were greed, hatred, and delusion, which sounds kind of esoteric and all, but it’s actually simpler than that. Greed is greed, but greed is also hunger, as in hungry for action, hungry for sex. We don’t get action, we don’t get sex, we feel bummed. We tend to be greedy about material things as well. Hatred is also anger. We get angry. Don’t tell me you don’t know any angry queens. We’re pissed about how people and the larger society dismiss us. And this leads into the more difficult one, delusion. We think that an endless chain of tricks is the way we’re supposed to live, but is it ever satisfying? Are we ever truly satisfied if all we’re doing is searching for the next trick? Which means, if you think about it, all this dissatisfaction is really brought on by us – we do this to ourselves. Yet we think we are these victims. I mean, seriously, you think it’s OK to expect people to just say, “Oh, he’s gay, so it’s OK that he sleeps with as many guys as he wants”?

3. There is a way to end dukkha. But the only way to really understand that is to be sure the fact that we cause our own dissatisfaction is fully understood. When that happens, it becomes clear: end my endless hunger for action, sex, pretty things, brand new Audis, front row Madonna tickets at $500 a pop, a maxed-out credit card, if I stop all that, then I bring an end to all my dissatisfaction. I’ll be able to accept life on life’s terms. But how do I do that?

4. The way to end dukkha is the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. Well now, that sounds a bit elitist, doesn’t it? The Noble Eightfold Path. But if you can get beyond that moniker for the time being, it’s really quite simple. Because there are right ways and wrong ways to live, or perhaps even a better way to say it, there are skillful ways and unskillful ways to live. The skillful ways bring us what we want – less hassle, more happiness, greater peace of mind and contentment. It’s the unskillful things we do that bring us pain, unhappiness, anxiety, fear, and all the other negative feelings we encounter. As we become more skillful in what we think, say and do, we develop a wiser view of things that strengthens our skillful habits, a wisdom that helps us understand that all things have a beginning, middle and end – not just our lives, but our feelings, our thoughts, and our actions. And unpleasant things will continue to happen to us because before we got wise and started being more skillful, we were living very unskillfully: all our past unskillful actions will continue to bring unforeseen consequences that, provided we live skillfully now, we will be better able to accept and deal with when they arise.

No one is ever converted by this explanation, the reason most often being many people’s inability to fully grasp Noble Truth number two – that we are the source of our own suffering.

“What’s wrong with wanting to get a front row seat to see Madonna, even if it does cost $500?”

Nothing, unless you can’t pay the credit card bill when you receive it, because you’ve been using your credit card to buy a lot of things you want, but don’t really need, which has put a huge pinch on your cash flow in terms of paying for the things you do need. And why does it have to be a front row ticket? Is it so you can hear and see Madonna better? Or is it so you can tell others you sat in the front row at the Madonna concert? Or is it because you want to impress the guy you went to the concert with?

We think we want real things, that what we desire is real, but when we look at it with a clear mind, it becomes apparent that most of what motivates us really doesn’t exist. Bragging rights aren’t real; status is not real.


  1. Fantastic post! The presentation of the Dharma should vary with the audience. Good luck with the converts!

  2. "We think we want real things, that what we desire is real, but when we look at it with a clear mind, it becomes apparent that most of what motivates us really doesn’t exist." Man, isn't that the truth. It's easier to believe the fantasies, than to actually swim through the mud, and discover what it is your life is truly calling you to do.

  3. Wow, thank you Jack and Nathan, you guys are very kind. Thank you for the support!

  4. converts? Richard are you going for your 2nd toaster oven?

  5. Wonderful post Richard, thank you for this!

  6. There are a lot of offensive stereotypes in this article. Gay people's experiences, strengths, and weaknesses are more varied than that.

  7. @Chris Bogart: What is the offense and who or what is being offended?

    It seems you are passing judgment after reading one blog post. Do you consider that a skillful move?

  8. I stated an opinion about the blog post, not you or your blog in general. I don't think that was a clumsy move.

    As I said, it is the stereotypes in the article are offensive. It suggests that gay men blame others for their stress more than straight people do, and that gay people will understand the dharma better if framed in terms of promiscuity, overspending, and Madonna concerts. I don't think those generalizations about us are accurate or kind.

    I'm offended by stereotypes because they make it harder for people to be seen as individuals.

  9. @Cris Bogart

    "I'm offended by stereotypes because they make it harder for people to be seen as individuals."

    And what or who is this "individual"? What is this self? And why is it important how you identify "self" be recognized by others? You own the fact you are offended. The offense arises because of how you identify "self" or "individual" and cling to it.

    I know many gay men who fit the descriptions I used in this post. They exist; I think they would be offended if they were referred to as a "stereotype." They think of themselves as normal, and quite frankly, they are normal. And I know others who do not fit these "stereotypes." Rather, they fit other "stereotypes" that exist about gay people.

    But you're right. I shouldn't have used the example of a Madonna concert. That was very unimaginative of me. It shows my age too. I should have used Lady Gaga.

    Today I am off to the Pride Parade here in Chicago where I will enjoy an old-fashioned parade filled with nearly-naked hunky go-go boys dancing to techno, flamboyant queens who over-use eye shadow, couples with children, leather men in assless chaps, dykes on bikes, gay nerds (oh god, I love gay nerds!) - hundreds, thousands of people collectively expressing themselves as individuals and having a wonderful time doing it.