Sunday, June 20, 2010

Gay nihilism and wrong view

In 1994, Bruce Bawer wrote a book that split the gay community like none other had before, nor has any done since. With “A Place at the Table,” Bawer not only took shots at the conservative wing of the Republican Party and conservatism in general for using gay stereotypes to foster and continue institutionalized oppression of homosexuals, he lambasted as well the more outspoken wing of the gay movement for its in-your-face and angry polemics. He targeted groups like ACTUP and Queer Nation and their vocal representatives, accusing them of continuing to give the conservative hate mongers the all the evidence they needed to continue their efforts to legislate homophobia.

Bawer’s primary failure of presentation was over tone rather than substance. As many critics of his book point out, Bawer attacked the very elements of the gay movement that allowed people like himself to live more openly and comfortably. While the more mainstream elements of the early gay rights movement during the 1950s and early 1960s had their hearts in the right place with their subdued requests for equal rights, these groups – perhaps best exemplified by the Mattachine Society – had for the most part utterly failed to accomplish any meaningful institutional and societal change.

It wasn’t these suit-and-tie homosexuals that finally brought change, that sparked what became known as the modern gay movement; rather, it was a bunch of drag queens and some poofy, Angora sweater-wearing queers who finally got tired of being pushed around by the New York City police and on June 28, 1969, shouted back “enough!” That resistance sparked three days of protests and rioting in the West Village, which the local media in all its insensitive omniscience headlined as “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Stinging Mad.”

At the risk of sounding like a Bawer apologist, I do believe that the “sex positive” message of a large portion of the gay community holds the potential to reap more harm than good. We gays do need to have a positive attitude toward the way we have sex and the reasons for having sex; but when the phrase “sex positive” becomes a proxy for promiscuity, we are following wrong view.

The Apannaka Sutta is relevant here. The Buddha explained to the householders in the Kosalan village of Sala how they could hedge their bets in determining which doctrine to follow. The Buddha knew that the householders of Sala were aware of the nihilist doctrine, which asserts:

'There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no priests or contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves.'

Or, as The Clash sang: “You can be true, you can be false, you’ll be given the same reward.”

The Buddha also knew that the householders of Sala were aware of other doctrines that taught the opposite of the nihilists, including the Buddha’s Dhamma, which asserts:

'There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits & results of good & bad actions. There is this world & the next world. There is mother & father. There are spontaneously reborn beings; there are priests & contemplatives who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the next after having directly known & realized it for themselves.'

But rather than merely asserting that the latter doctrine is true and the nihilist doctrine is false, the Buddha instead gave these householders some tools by which they themselves could examine each doctrine and determine which is best to follow. He did this by setting aside the issue of whether there was a life after this one, a world after this one. Instead, he noted that those who follow a nihilist doctrine will engage in actions that are widely viewed as “unwholesome,” because they have the wrong view that there are no meaningful or lasting consequences to our actions. As a result, those who believe that there is a life after this one, a world after this one, will avoid them and not trust them. But perhaps even more significant, even among the nihilists they will find no real trust because they will always be viewed as likely to behave “unwholesomely” as they are “wholesomely.” So even if we set aside the notion that there is another life, another world, the nihilists will find only unhappiness and dissatisfaction in this life and when they die, they will die without ease.

By following the second doctrine, which recognizes that there are wholesome actions for us to take and which are rewarded, we live happier lives filled with greater satisfaction because we avoid activities that would lead others to mistrust us or wish to cause us harm or retaliate against us. Because we recognize that there are moral and virtuous ways to live, we are recognized by others as having integrity and our activities are supported by others. And even if there is no other world, no other life, when we die, it is with ease, a mind at rest because we know we lived the good life. And if there is another world, another life? We will be rewarded for our virtuous actions in this world, in this life.

As the Buddha points out, however, there is another world and there is another life, and by holding to this as a core value, one has Right View, and because one has Right View, all actions – verbal, mental, and bodily – will begin with Right Intention.

This logic can be easily adapted to gay culture. Those who believe that because he or she is gay (it’s usually the boys) it is in his or her nature to be sexually promiscuous and, therefore, ought to be allowed to indulge in that nature without consequence are ignoring the real consequences of having such a wrong view. It’s not that sex is wrong per se; the issue is thinking that anything goes and ought to go. Having this wrong view leads to many unhealthy consequences, not the least of which is sexually transmitted diseases. But there are other reasons: others may not trust you when you say you have no STDs, you will not be trusted when it comes to sexual fidelity to one person, you will not trust others nor be able to be emotionally close with them, and you will encounter others who will want to retaliate against you because your nihilistic attitude will lead you to harm them. If you believe there is no right or wrong and no meaningful consequences for doing wrong, you will do wrong.

By no means does this suggest that to be a moral homosexual you must abstain from sex altogether because the larger society will not let you marry a same-sex partner. And it does not mean that you may only have sex with one person and when that fails, your one time allowance is used up. What it does mean, for me, is that I develop a clear understanding that actions have consequences, not just for myself but for others; in other words, I strive to cultivate and develop Right View. And like Rahula, I seek to learn how to anticipate these consequences and learn how to discern whether the consequences – the results – are beneficial or harmful; not just for me and not just for whomever I sleep with as well. How much further will these consequences reach? Are there others not here that will experience consequences from my action? And what will those results be?

It sounds like a lot of work, and initially, if you’ve been operating from the perspective of wrong view, it is a lot of work. But once you have moved yourself to a solid perspective of Right View, then it becomes much easier to begin your actions with Right Intention.


  1. Thank you for weaving Right Intention in a pink way. Many people ask me how I do it? I try to explain you have meet someone with right intention, and between the two of US, whenever we have disagreements we know the core reason was not hurt the other party. We may make errors and of course we do, but it always comes back with what was our intention. I have learned so much from this understanding and continue to.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I've learned that even if we have the best of intentions when relating to others, substances like drugs and alcohol can distort and blur that into something not so wholesome. Your post helps me to see that more clearly, by making the comparison between nihilism and the dharma. Thanks again and namaste :)