Friday, July 31, 2009

The issue of kamma

The issue of kamma (in Pali, in Sanskrit it’s karma) frequently comes up during discussions of both race and homosexuality; it’s a subject within the larger discourse that cannot be ignored. But what is kamma? And why does it have anything to do with me being gay? And if it does, why is it presumed that my kamma is negative?

I was prompted to think about this by a couple links I found at Angry Asian Buddhist. One link is to a post by GK Sandoval, a Navaho from Arizona who found Buddhism. At the blog The Drums of Dharma, Sandoval explains that his unlikely finding of Buddhism most probably had to do with the seeds of kamma planted in previous lives. Through some good deeds, gestures, acts, or even thoughts, Sandoval found the Dhamma in this life.

There was another link to a 2008 Tricycle article by David Loy titled “Rethinking Karma.” Loy writes about how kamma (remember, I tend to prefer to use Pali terms rather than the Sanskrit terms) is used by others, particularly in terms of race, to justify not doing anything to correct injustices, because the fruition of one’s kamma is already bringing on the necessary consequences.

These are, to me, very peculiar perspectives, and I don’t just mean the perspectives presented by the two authors. I also mean the larger perspective held by the large culture that asserts, in my case anyway, that being gay must be a negative consequence brought on by my personal kamma, which results from past misbehavior in previous lives.

But that would presume homosexuality is necessarily inferior from heterosexuality. It can’t be a punishment unless being gay is inferior to being straight. It can’t be a punishment unless being poor is inferior to being wealthy. It can’t be a punishment unless being black is inferior to being white.

What kind of presumption is that? I will be returning to this subject.

Buddhism by the book

The discussion about “white privilege” has been continuing, and given current events with the “beer summit” at the White House, it’s an opportune time to investigate this gnarled subject. Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist has some links to some satirical sites that reveal with considerable accuracy how people dismiss and demean those who attempt to either initiate discussion about racism in general or white privilege in particular. Like Arun, I must admit I have used some of the mentioned tactics myself; one I’ve uttered in the past is, “I’m not racist, I’ve dated black guys.”

In terms of Buddhism, both Arun and I share a favorite dismissive comment made by other Buddhists, which is rendered in many forms, but usually in some manner stating, “Don’t you know that in an enlightened mind, there is no such thing as race?” There are other notions I’ve encountered in Buddhism that irritate me, such as superficial understandings of the concept of impermanence, or a misunderstanding about things being “real.” I’ve been in many debates during which I take the side that there are constant things, physical laws, for example, that don’t change, like gravity. You climb a tree and a limb breaks, you will fall to the ground. That’s real. It’s not an illusion. And I have yet to find where the Buddha states that such physical laws, including the law of kamma, are illusions.

It’s been my observation that most of those who show such superficial understanding of Dhamma are white (I know some may interpret what I say here as being “all whites have superficial understandings of Buddhism, I’m the only white guy who really knows it,” when in fact it should be clear I am saying that of those who have a superficial understanding of Buddhism, it’s been my experience most of them have been white. I’ve encountered Asians as well with similar, superficial understandings. But what can you do when even well-recognized news people have continued to misstate what President Obama said about the Henry Gates incident: news folk have continued to incorrectly report that Obama said the police were stupid, when in fact he said that the officer acted stupidly. I thought Obama had been very skillful with that comment.) And it’s my guess this results from some whites thinking they can get an understanding of what Buddhism entails by simply reading a book; they read Thich Nhat Hanh or something by the Dalai Lama and then proclaim they know what the Buddha said. They’ve heard about the Kalama Sutta (AN 65) and think that the Buddha said it’s ok to disregard a societal norm if it doesn’t suit you. They meditate every day, but never study any Dhamma, or if they do study Dhamma, they become enamored with the intellectually heavy suttas, or the ones in which the Buddha speaks of devas or other deities.

I mean, you would never read a book about surgery and call yourself a doctor, would you?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Regret is a lonely place

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it was hearing an Anglo monk in a Thai temple in the Lansing, Mich., area that first connected me with Buddhism. But I did not begin a practice at that time. No, I had to suffer more.

What prompted me to visit that monastery in 2000 to begin with was a bit of lust. I was dating a Thai man at the time who was an ardent practitioner of Buddhism. It was May, and he suggested I go with him to a ceremony honoring the Buddha’s birthday. Long story short, it was during the Dhamma talk at that celebration I first heard the Buddha’s words. The seed was planted. But proper germination required some real suffering. That was later.

The Thai man and I stopped dating. I can remember the circumstances clearly. He laid down some conditions that at the time I was unwilling to accept. I would explain those conditions, but all that would reveal was how those conditions played in my head. And that would not be fair to him. Suffice it to say that I stood up, said goodbye to him, and walked away.

About a month later, I met someone else, a Chinese man from Indonesia who was studying for an advanced degree in the U.S. We began to see each other regularly, and I can still picture the moment when, while riding in his car to our favorite sushi restaurant, I had the clear thought that someday, this man was going to leave me; I must not fall in love with him.

But it could not be helped; I fell deeply in love with him. And sure enough, when he graduated the program in May of 2001, the U.S. economy had tanked and the job outlook looked bleak. His student visa expired and he had to leave.

The Buddha said that separation from one’s beloved is dukkha. What an understatement.

I took it so badly that I behaved like a cad and ruined what had made me so happy. There had been moments when I had felt despair, but this was unbelievable. Yes, it is true, I do not handle separation well. The sadness I felt at the time was the blackest feeling that I could ever conjure. And it wasn’t a simple sadness; no, it was quite complex. Remember, I had not only been separated from my beloved, but I had behaved very badly in response. I have wept in my life, but never had I cried like this.

A couple months after his departure, after I had screwed things up beyond belief, and was given some hope because he had been willing to stand by me through all this (although he was 12,000 miles away), a thought occurred to me: why not pay a visit to that Buddhist monastery you visited a year ago?

I made the one-hour drive on a Saturday afternoon, a hot day in August, and managed to find my way easily enough. I’m pretty good at finding my way back to a place I’ve been before, even with a long period of time separating the trips. I headed toward the main house, but saw some people out in a field working on a wooden structure. The monk was with two other men working on the structure, so I walked out to it. I said hello; the monk remembered me from the visit a year earlier, even though I hadn’t had any conversation with him at the time. And then the monk went on speaking with the other two men. I stood awkwardly by in silence. Someone handed me a hammer, some wood, and directed me with a task. I sat on the ground and began working on a gazebo they were building.

The others continued talking, but I said nothing. I just listened while I worked. As evening approached, we walked back to the main house where we sat on the floor and the monk just went on talking about things. At first, it all seemed rather random, unconnected. But then I began to notice how he would interject comments about what the Buddha had taught about things relevant to the conversation.

Inside me it still ached; there was a part of me that wanted to blurt out and demand attention, but something new inside me told me to shut up and listen. Some other people began to drift in, and just before sunset, the monk began to explicitly instruct us on meditation techniques, which was followed by us all meditating quietly for about 30 minutes. After that, someone handed me a sheet of paper, and we began to chant together.

Aham avero homi
Aham abyapajjho homi
Aham anigho homi
Sukhi attanam Pariharami
Aham sukhito homi
Sabbe satta avera hontu
Sabbe satta abyapajja hontu
Sabbe satta anigha hontu
Sabbe satte sabba dukkha pamuccantu
Sabbe satta sukhita hontu

May I be free from hatred
May I be free from oppression
May I be free from troubles
May my happiness be protected
May I be happy
May all beings be free from hatred
May all beings be free from oppression
May all beings be free from troubles
May all beings be free from suffering
May all beings be happy.

After that, people chatted some more, made some tea, then went home. I returned every week for the next five years.

The Third Precept

There were many things that attracted me to Buddhism, but perhaps none was more persuasive than the Third Precept.

The Third Precept states: Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, (in Pali) “I undertake the course of training in refraining from wrong-doing in respect of sensuality.”

More simply put, it guides one to refrain from wrongful sexual conduct. However, let’s not lose sight of the issue of ‘sensuality” as this involves much more than just sex. That may be discussed another day.

I have a much fuller understanding now of what those five words mean – refrain from wrongful sexual conduct – than when I first heard them, but even upon my first inkling of what was entailed in the notion of “wrongful sexual conduct,” I felt like I had finally found a home. Of course, while the meaning of these words was and remains crystal clear to me, it is nonetheless the focus of an endless debate within the Buddhist community. And comments by the Dalai Lama have perplexed what might be described as the more liberal, Western, element of Buddhism. As James Shaheen writes in his blog for The Huffington Post:

“At a conference some 12 years ago, when gay leaders met with him (the Dalai Lama) in San Francisco to discuss the Tibetan Buddhist proscriptions against gay sex, he reiterated the traditional view that gay sex was ‘sexual misconduct.’ This view was based on restrictions found in Tibetan texts that he could not and would not change. He did, however, advise gay Buddhist leaders to investigate further, discuss the issue, and suggested that change might come through some sort of theological consensus.”

Jeff Wilson from Tricycle (Shaheen is Tricycle’s editor) writes an excellent follow-up blog that I strongly recommend you read. But suffice it to say that, unlike what many Westerners think (particularly Westerners who only have a passing knowledge of Buddhism), the Dalai Lama’s word on Buddhist doctrine is hardly the last. I’m frequently asked about this when I reveal that I practice Buddhism, and each time I reply that the Dalai Lama is an important Buddhist leader, but he does not lead all Buddhists.

But I digress.

When I first learned of the Third Precept, the words were spoken by an Anglo-American monk at a dhammasala near Lansing, Mich., during a Dhamma talk for the celebration of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. He laid things out quite simply; that sex is sex, regardless of whether it involves two men, two women, or a man and a woman. Buddhist doctrine does not prohibit sex for lay people. What matters is whether the behavior, and the motive, was skillful.

Skillful? Does that mean only good sex is OK, and bad sex is not? As silly as that may sound, it seemed an odd way to speak about this. Yet, the choice of the word “skillful,” I soon learned, was both deliberate and correct. In fact, the precept could be read to say, “To refrain from unskillful sexual conduct.” Because use of the English word “wrongful” in most Buddhist references has nothing to do with some moral code (although Buddhism does promote living by a moral code).

What confuses many people, I think, is that the Third Precept is also occasionally presented with these words: “To refrain from sexual misconduct.” As a gay man who grew up under an oppressive Christian doctrine and Catholic hegemony that portrayed homosexuals as sinners doomed to eternal damnation, I really needed to understand the nuances of how this precept was being presented. Because the more you study the Dhamma, the more it becomes apparent that nuance is very important.

As I soon learned from that monk I first heard speak about the Third Precept, it often helps to ask the question, “What did the Buddha say about this?” Because many Buddhists have much to say about homosexuality and sex, but not every Buddhist has his or her opinion well-grounded in what the Buddha actually said.

For example, in the Sammaditthi Sutta: The Discourse on Right View, from the Majjhima Nikaya (MN9), the Buddha explains what is skillful and unskillful, identifying sexual misconduct as unskillful, refraining from such conduct as skillful. And in the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith, from the Anguttara Nikaya (AN 10.176), the Buddha is more explicit in his description of sexual misconduct. Speaking of a skillful man, the Buddha says:

“He does not get sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man.”

As I learned through attending Dhamma classes, the Third Precept is very closely linked with the Second Precept: To refrain from taking what is not given. Obviously, forced sex was very unskillful – it’s rape. But even having willing sex with someone married or “attached” with someone else was unskillful. As was sex with minors; minors were still under the protection of “their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters,” etc. And someone betrothed to another was off limits as well.

So it became clear to me that having sex, per se, was not the problem, nor was the gender of my partner: the issue was whether the sexual activity was a form of taking something that was not freely given. This was all basic common sense, really, when you think about it.

I started to think that I was going to like this Buddhism thing. But there was a point that bothered me. I could understand the relationship between the Second and Third precepts, but did that mean I could have all the sex I wanted, with whomever I wanted, as long as it was freely given? Of course, I quickly learned that unrestrained sexual activity was just as unskillful as having sex with the wrong person.

Those peculiar words again, skillful and unskillful. Promiscuity was not a sin, or wrong, in a Buddhist sense, but it was unskillful. And thinking about my past activities and the consequences they brought, I began to understand what this skillful and unskillful meant.

Buddhist talk about wrong actions, but an action is not wrong because it offends a law laid down by some deity. An action can be wrong if it’s unskillful, and an action is unskillful if it brings you pain, suffering, loneliness, depression, anxiety, any of these negative feelings. And it’s unskillful when the consequences also include pursuit by the police, the courts, a jealous boyfriend, or contracting a disease.

And there it was; something very important was arising within me. I began to realize that any pain and suffering, loneliness and self-pity I had experienced in life was largely my own responsibility. I created all this through my unskillful acts, it wasn’t the outside world against me. And if all the times that I felt bad were the result of my unskillful acts, then I could reduce my bad feelings, my suffering, by choosing to act more skillfully.

What a novel idea.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

White privilege and homophobia

There’s a very fascinating discussion going on at Angry Asian Buddhist and Dharma Folk regarding the notion of “white privilege” within the Buddhist community. It’s fascinating because there have apparently been some white readers of this discussion who have reacted with hostility to the idea that they may harbor a bias against Asian culture and Asian Americans in general. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have observed a similar reaction within the Buddhist community, based on cultural and ethnic differences, with reaction to homosexuality and a temple’s gay members.

I urge you to follow the link at Angry Asian Buddhist to take the Asian Implicit Association Test, because it is instructive on a number of levels. However, I am somewhat dubious about this test because I am unclear on how it was developed, or how it purports to measure what it intends to measure (many years ago I studied psychological testing at university, and I am aware that the bias of the individual constructing a test can also influence how the test operates). Still, take the test, as its results may surprise you.

And at Dharma Folk, I suggest you begin with this post, as it will also provide information on other sources of information on this discussion of “white privilege.” It is a phenomenon I have observed and experienced at a Thai temple operated by a white abbot in central Michigan (I live in Chicago now).

This temple has a large white membership, although it remains a minority to the Thai majority. And a recurring complaint among the Thai members was that the white members seldom helped out with the day-to-day functions at the temple. While I was attending this temple, only the Thai members took turns preparing and bringing the monk’s their daily meals. I would have assisted in this, except that I lived 50 miles away and had a day job. But there were plenty of white members that lived within close proximity to the temple.

I found ways to help by showing up on weekends to assist building a new meditation hall (during which I observed very few Thai members helping out), and re-building a porch on the monk’s residence that had collapsed (again, none of the Thai members helped with this). During festivals when the Thai women were busy setting up food tables and cooking their delicious dishes to sell to raise money for the temple, only a few of the white members persisted in finding ways to help, such as moving tables, carrying supplies out of the monk’s residence to the pole barn, collecting trash. And even fewer stuck around at the end of the festivities to help clean up.

Interestingly, I have experienced and observed the reverse situation when it came to the congregation’s attitude toward homosexuality and its acceptance of those members who were perceived to be gay – again the difference following ethnic lines. White members of the congregation were more willing to accept the idea that the Third Precept did not proscribe homosexual activity, while the Thai members – particularly the older, married members – had a very hard time accepting this. And I have found this attitude among most all the various East Asian ethnicities: I have known both Chinese and Thai men who lived dual lives; one discreetly within the gay community, and the other in the more traditional Asian family system. Some of these men expressed no concern that they would eventually marry a woman, because it was expected of them. And they also expressed no qualms that they would never come out to their families.

The fear of a hostile reaction by their parents was that great. One told me that he would never tell his parents that he was gay because he had seen how they reacted to news that a cousin of his was gay. Ironically, his parents knew gay men and associated with them on a very limited basis. The point being subtly made was, “I can be friendly to a gay man as long as it’s not my son.”

That’s not to say that white American parents have not had their own share of struggles in dealing with revelations that one or more of their children are gay. But it has been my experience that the issue is handled differently within Asian families and Asian society. And that struggle continues as well in the Buddhist community. Does that reveal a potential of my own bias against Asian American families and culture? Perhaps. If so, that would be a very difficult mental knot for me to explain, given that in dating men, I have a decided preference for East Asian men.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Coming out and Buddhism

We gays are a perfect match with Buddhism at the time we come out: however, many of us do not follow through on what drove us to come out to find spiritual bliss in something like Buddhism, and instead, we end up becoming again part of something we were desperate to leave behind.

Maitreyabandhu will help me explain this with words from an article of his printed in the book "Queer Dharma: Voices of Gay Buddhists," published by the Gay Sunshine Press of San Francisco.

In his article, "Coming out into Dharma bliss," Maitreyabandhu explains that we as gays feel confined and locked by the various groups around us: family, church, school, friends, work. We feel trapped because of the closet as we are constantly aware that "I don't fit in, there doesn't seem to be a place for me." In reaction, we become very introspective (sometimes also very depressed!), but through this introspection, we begin to define who we are: we must do this because we recognize that society at large will not define us as it will with its hetero children. Consider this passage from Maitreyabandhu's article:

"A true individual is committed to developing self-awareness. Usually we are not very self-aware. We may think that we are individuals, that we think and feel for ourselves, but in fact we are very much determined by the expectations and assumptions of those around us."

Many of us "knew" at some level that we were gay when we were very small children. In vague ways, we reached out to those in our families for recognition, but our families didn't recognize our out-stretched hands and as a result, we got ignored. From the beginning, we felt out of place. And as we grew older, sex became extremely important to replace the affection we missed out on as children. We did not learn about love because there was no one to model love for us, so it was all about sex. But we felt restrained by being in the closet, being hidden from the world; we were hiding from ourselves. Maitreyabandhu continues:

"We can see this very clearly in our experience of coming out. When we come out we realize that we do not fit in the expectations of the group, whether it be the group of our immediate family, the church, our peers or our work colleagues ... In coming out we have to define ourselves as distinct from the group. For me this was a very frightening and isolating experience. I so wanted to fit in. I so wanted to conform to the group. But I couldn't. I was gay. Coming out is a special feat of self-awareness and as such can be the beginning of a truly spiritual life, a life devoted to developing our individual self-awareness."

Those of us who are out can remember the feelings of freedom and bliss we experienced through the simple act of telling people "I am gay." Even when their response was not supportive, knowing that we had separated ourselves from these groups that had been confining us was an epiphany that changed our lives significantly. As closeted gays, we eventually came to realize through our own experience that these groups were empty. There was nothing internal with these groups to give them identity and cohesion: it all came from the outside. We, as gays, saw something else driving our being and that came from within. So we liberated ourselves by coming out and separating ourselves from the emptiness of the groups around us.

But what did most of us do (including myself!) after coming out, after experiencing this epiphany, this spiritual peace? We joined another group! We joined the group called the "gay culture," and some of us, after separating ourselves from the confines of the identity labels the straight world imposed on us, willingly placed new labels on ourselves to fit whatever empty personality we decided to adopt: some of us became drag queens, others became leather men, others became the "cute boys next door," others became butch (the moniker “butch” in some variation was the first name I used on the gay chat sites) or fem or flamboyant or reserved -- we all had to have our own bars, we had to dress a certain way to identify with our group, we had our signs and labels. After freeing ourselves, we willingly trapped ourselves once again. Maitreyabandhu continues.

"The gay scene seemed to me increasingly characterized by sexual competitiveness, vapid small talk and endless wanting. Its obsession with the body beautiful, with the pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself, with youth and style seemed to trap gay men like myself in either painful superficiality or isolation. The alternative, however, seemed to be an increasingly domesticated 'straight-acting' conventionality."

The very thing, Maitreyabandhu suggests, that freed us, our self-identification as being not with the group and our identification with others like us to find succor and support, can become a trap to ensnare us in the very confinement that we so desperately sought to escape. Identifying with others as gay can be a tremendous positive influence for us, but as Maitreyabandhu goes on to say ...

"We must also be aware of its limitations. In other words, we need to be aware that it is a group, that the gay scene is a collection of groups, all with their accepted ways of behaving, of talking and of acting. If we are not careful, we will move from one set of constricting assumptions to another, our gay liberation will become a gay limitation."

The Dhamma is a natural next step for those of us after coming out, if we stick with that striving to self-identify as being separate from the emptiness of groups. Unfortunately, most young gays are swept away by the sensual pleasures of the gay scene. I think it comes back to love. We, in general, as gays do not understand love. We missed as children the physical affection and affirmation we desired and as a result we missed out on the lesson of love that straight children acquire as they grow older. We tell ourselves, "I want to find a man to love and be with for the rest of my life," but we struggle with this because no one truly taught us about love. We have to find out on our own, and many of us fall into the pits of despair created by the traps of sensuality: alcoholism, drug addiction, and for many of us disease. We become faced with the question "How can I love someone else when I don't even know how to love myself?"

Gays are coming out much younger these days. And what is there to welcome them? Circuit parties, mass consumerism, Ecstacy and sex without commitment. The situation has improved over the recent years, with schools becoming more receptive to gay-straight alliance groups. But more always is needed to be done. Perhaps we gays who are Buddhist need to reach out and attempt to redirect that wonderful experience we had at the time we come out and take advantage of that desire to be free of group identification. The Dhamma provides this, and the Dhamma can teach us about love when no one else did. It is a path of peace that we older gays can document because we have travelled it ourselves.

Remember how many of us willingly had sex while we were teens with men twice our age? We did it for two reasons: one we just wanted to have sex with someone and it was too difficult to risk finding someone our own age, but the second reason was we were seeking the affection and direction of a male father figure, we were seeking the father we didn't have. An entire cultural response to this developed with older gay men becoming the “mothers” to younger gay men; the mother’s role being the introduction of the acolyte to the world of the gay subculture. Once that introduction was complete, the acolyte was set free; the mother no longer held any authority over the younger man. Because of this, the issue of intergenerational sex will continue to be with us despite the discomfort it creates with many of us.

But as gay Buddhists, we can fill that need provided we can show the restraint to resist any sensual temptation; we can show how younger gays can not only love themselves, but others in healthy ways AND open to them a spiritual path that is simple to follow and easily self-verified.

Remember the bliss of coming out? Remember the bliss of finding the Dhamma? Is there any need for these two blissful experiences to be separated by years of more suffering?

Final note: Dharmachari Maitreyabandhu was born in 1961 in Warwickshire, England. He was ordained in the Western Buddhist Order in 1990. I believe he is still affiliated with the London Buddhist Centre in the East End, one of the many worldwide centers of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. If this has changed, please let me know and I will correct this post.