John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt has a post with a good list of some of the characteristics of Buddhism that demonstrate well the reasons I believe Buddhism is a much easier faith system for gays to immerse themselves in than other doctrines. John’s intention for the list, however, differs from mine (he compiled it as a suggested list of responses to an Evangelical Christian of how Buddhism differs from Christianity); my intention is to extrapolate and present those characteristics that ought to be considered by gays searching for a spiritual path.
- “There is no Omniscient God in Buddhism.” I would add that there is also no omnipresent or omnipotent god in Buddhism. The point is there is no one single god for you to petition to save your ass. The Buddha acknowledged that various gods and spirits exist, some of whom can be helpful to you, and others who are bothersome. But rather than teach others to seek salvation and grace through any of these beings, the Buddha teaches us that the key to our happiness and redemption lies within us and within our control – not outside of us in the hands of someone or something else.
- “Buddhists do not owe any allegiance to a supernatural being.” There is no angry, self-centered god in Buddhism that you must constantly appease to avoid spiritual retribution. There are two “gods” in particular that the Buddha spoke of frequently: Brahma and Mara. Brahma is the “chief” Hindu god with whom the Buddha debated at times. Brahma paid deference to the Buddha, not the other way around. And there is a passage in the Tipitika (Buddhist scriptures) in which Brahma admits that he does not know where the beginning or the end of the universe lies. Mara, for lack of a better term, is Satan, the devil. But Buddhism doesn’t require you to believe that Mara truly exists; because the Buddha uses Mara more often as a metaphor for the deluded mind rather than a real deity. So for us gays, we don’t have to justify or rationalize who we are to fit in.
- “The Buddha is a guide and teacher. Not a savior or incarnation of a God.” We do not worship the Buddha. The Buddha is gone. When we bow to a Buddha statue or image, or burn incense and mutter unintelligible sayings in some cryptic language, we are not praying or making offerings to a god. We are paying respect to what the Buddha left behind after his passing, all his teachings about how to overcome our own suffering and help others to alleviate their suffering. There are sects of Buddhism that come closer to the notion that the Buddha as a god that you can petition, but they are a minority. Despite that, the Buddha did not tell people to not believe in a god or not pray; if doing so helps you to develop kindness for others and better awareness of your own actions and the consequences they bring, then go ahead and believe. It just isn’t required; you can still attain release from the cycle of suffering and not believe in any deity at all.
- “We all have Buddha Nature and can realize that through striving to cut our delusions.” Just as Christians seek to be Christ-like, we Buddhists strive to emulate the Buddha. And despite what others may say or think, realizing our own Buddha nature is not some impossible or even improbable feat. The key is, rather, that successful realization of our Buddha nature is in our hands, not someone else’s. It means seeing things as they really are, rather than what we wish them to be. This does not mean we become doormats and let the larger society wipe their feet on us. It does mean, however, that we remain focused on the present and on what we are doing right now, because out of the present our future is shaped. And while we don’t dwell in the past, we recognize that all we’ve done in the past – good, bad, or indifferent – has consequences that will be eventually revealed, sometimes at inopportune times.
- “Heavens (other realms of existence) may exist, who knows?” The Buddha taught that it is unnecessary to believe in a heaven; you can if you want. What is important is the clear understanding that you can reduce – even eliminate – the suffering you experience in this life right now by taking complete responsibility for all that you think, say or do. If there is no afterlife, you’re fine because by being responsible and living a moral life, you will be happy and content. If there is an afterlife, then by being responsible and living a moral life, you will have secured a happy existence in the afterlife. The point is to stop worrying about what happens next: focus on what is happening now and you don’t have to worry about what happens next. The same is true of a hell. If you live carelessly now, behaving badly toward others, your life right now will be filled with suffering. You don’t need a hell in an afterlife because you’re already responsible for creating one right now.
- “I may or may not be reborn….this has nothing to do with reincarnation.” In Buddhism we talk about rebirth; it is not the same as reincarnation. In reincarnation, the same “person” or “soul” is reborn over and over. With rebirth, it is your actions and intentions that are reborn; what bodily form these actions and intentions – or kamma – take upon rebirth depends on their quality. But that’s all I’m going to say about this rather complex subject, because the fact is you don’t have to accept the concept of rebirth to live your life guided by the Buddha’s teachings. So don’t get hung up on this concept. It’s not important right now. A way to simplify this concept, however, is to think back on some basic science you learned in school: matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but only change in form.
- “A balance of Metta, Wisdom and Compassion are the cornerstones of Buddhism.” Actually, compassion falls under metta; it should be metta, wisdom and concentration. Metta translates best as loving kindness or loving friendliness. Wisdom isn’t just smarts, it’s the quality of being able to see things as they really are. And concentration is the ability to control and direct the mind in appropriate directions so that we think, speak and act in skillful ways; it is developed through meditation. Now think of a three-legged stool. If each of the three legs is the same length, then the stool will be stable; you can sit on it without it wobbling, leading you to fall off. Now think of Buddhist practice as that three-legged stool, with each leg being metta, wisdom and concentration. A lot of people spend too much time on concentration and not enough on metta and wisdom, and as a result, their practice becomes lopsided. They get some of the benefits, but not all the benefits. The key is to develop all three simultaneously, as that creates a stable practice that brings good results. Buddhism is about action, not thinking.
- “Suffering happens. Deal with it. This is not sin.” It is an easy trap to fall into, the idea of blaming others for our woes. It’s a trap because that type of thinking misleads us into a sense of powerlessness. Yes, there are forces – politics – that work against us gays. They will probably always be there because the world will always be filled with greed, hatred and delusion. But I am in charge of my own happiness, and I can be happy despite the presence of greed, hatred and delusion in others. I do that through cultivating the Noble Eightfold Path, a topic for another day.
- No eternal Hell or eternal Heaven. No eternal anything except what is eternal.” And what is eternal? Impermanence; all phenomena have a beginning, middle, and end. Yet, many of us just don’t see this or refuse to accept it. Our refusal to see that nothing is permanent, including emotions, is at the root of most of our suffering. We fall in love with someone and we expect things to remain the same forever. They won’t. And surprise, surprise, we get disappointed about this. How does a couple find each other and remain together for the rest of their lives? By understanding and embracing the fact that their relationship will always be changing, that it will not remain static. That is the key to happiness.
This list is a good place to start with a personal investigation of Buddhism. I do not present this as representative of every school or branch of Buddhism that is out there. But I believe it is a good representation of Buddhism’s essence and why gay people – or anyone searching for a spiritual path – should consider Buddhism and its path to freedom.
I want again to acknowledge my friend Jimmy Huang for the photo used with this post.