Gay Zen Buddhist Web Site
This site's purpose is to introduce interested persons to the teachings of Zen; and to how a non-sexist and non-homophobic spiritual practice can enhance one's life.
What is Zen?
Zen is a thirteen hundred year old spiritual system which teaches:
1.That all things come into existence interdependently. Everything is both the creator and the creation of everything else. 2.That there is no separate, independent or isolated self. There is only an interdependent beingness. 3.That interdependent beingness is the source of our innate perfection and unconditional worth or Buddha nature here and now. 4.That by living neither in the past nor future, but in the immediate present we can realize our Buddha nature. This realization is called an enlightenment experience (kenshoo or satori).
Zen & Sexuality.
How does a person’s sexuality relate to his or her practice? Zen teaches that everything is a part of universal inter-connected and inter-dependent beingness. This beingness is complete and perfect just as it is. Furthermore, it teaches that all of us share in this perfection, right here, right now. If I accept this I must believe that I have complete and unconditional worth. Unconditional means not accepting any ‘ifs’ (conditions). It is not that I am worthy only if my Mommy says so, if people like me, if I do not get angry, if I do not have sexual desires, much less unconventional sexual practices, etc. It is that I am worthy no matter what I think or even do. Regardless of everything else, my fundamental beingness is already Buddha (an Enlightened One). My practice is to awaken to this. In other words, practice is realizing my present wholeness or non-dual Buddha nature, and thereby becoming free from self-alienation or the painful duality called samsara. To practice constructively one must do so with one’s whole being. If I am alienated from or feel negative about my sexuality, I am not giving my whole self to my practice, much less accepting my unconditional, Buddha worth. It is not who I am, or am not, making love to that is important in my striving for truth, but that I am always acknowledging my partner’s unconditional worth as much as my own. Unconditional acceptance is perfect love and morality.
The Zen tradition deals with sexuality within the broader category of sensual indulgence. The general rule is to avoid abuse of sensuality. This covers both over-indulgence in, and extreme deprivation of, the senses. Most people live by extremes. We make ourselves fat by excessive eating; we get sick from overly rich foods; we shorten our lives with alcohol, drugs and tobacco; we deafen ourselves with loud music; we dull our minds with moronic entertainment; and we often exhaust ourselves working at jobs we hate so we can dress in the latest fashions, drive a new car and have the best house on the block. We do all of this, Zen teaches, because we think it makes us feel more valuable or real. We think it will take away that barely conscious fact that nothing, especially ourselves, is permanent. We think that if we can keep our bodies and minds occupied enough, we will not have to deal with the pain of getting old, getting sick, and dying. On the other hand, depriving the body or mind of things needed to retain health and alertness is also an abuse of the senses. Both hedonism and ascetic masochism can be violations of the Middle Path.
Truly realizing that we already have the unconditional worth of Buddhahood means that we recognize that our most essential need and want (passion) is already fully satisfied. Thus all other wants are recognized as merely auxiliary and so we should be able to partake of them without attachment to them. Too often, however, this teaching that one can have passions and still be enlightened has been misinterpreted or willfully distorted into the teaching that passions or desires in and of themselves are enlightenment. This distortion is called Mad or Wild Cat Zen, and is guaranteed to ultimately lead to the increasing of our pain.
The great mistake of hedonism is that it is usually very selective. It generally elevates sex to a sacred status, but rejects all the other bodily functions as equally worshipful. Zen says that all these are equally sacred, and thus no one of them should be treated in more than a normally casual manner. Life as a whole may be worshipped, but making more out of sex than it deserves is false spirituality. Also, most cultic hedonism arises as a reaction against societal or individual Puritanism and hence an attitude of sexual guilt or shame. A spirituality based on such a reaction is unhealthy. One of the reasons Zen continued to hold on to the monastic tradition was to counter Wild Cat tendencies which lead to the further delusion that I am my conditioned passions rather than the unconditional Buddha-Nature beyond them. An enlightenment experience is a profound and long term relieving of our pain. Hedonism at best is just a superficial and very temporary anesthetizing of the pain.
When it comes to specifics about sexuality, Zen follows the traditional Buddhist rule for lay people which states that a person should avoid sexual intercourse with minors, with persons who are betrothed or married to another, and with those institutionalized, such as in a mental institution. Aside from this, lay peoples’ sexuality is their own business.
What Zen does ask is that we examine carefully our relationships in the context of the teachings on suffering and impermanence. Sex can easily be used to increase suffering. From its beginning Buddhism has pointed out, in its teachings on desire, that if we desire and do not get what we want, we experience misery. If we desire and get what we want, at first we experience joy, but then we become anxious about holding on to this. And when we lose it, as we must do, due to impermanence, we experience even more misery. It is not sex that creates suffering, but our over attachment to it. Only by being able to gain and lose with equanimity can we at peace with our sexuality. Zen asks us to keep this in mind at all times.
Promiscuity is another activity which Zen calls us to look at carefully. It encourages us to see whether we are trying to find and establish a relationship, even if only for a single night, or are we trying to avoid commitment to another? Is our activity a genuine searching for the right partner or is it a disguised attempt just to use another to make ourselves feel more complete, but actually caring little, or nothing, for the other person’s needs?
Prostitution is, in itself, not condemned in Zen. What a person does with her or his body is that person’s own affair. But what is to be condemned is the harming or exploiting of another person, even if it is seemingly voluntary on the part of the exploited. Compassion toward others must not be abandoned for the sake of sexual desires.
Recreational versus reproductive sex is not something on which Zen makes a moral judgment either. Nor does it make a distinction between heterosexual and homosexual, or so called natural or unnatural sexuality. Why should it, since ultimately the Zen goal is to get the person to realize a non-dual, hence non-judgmental awareness of Self, in which case all of the differentiation’s above are meaningless. Zen recognizes that lay life, in general, and sexuality in particular, can often interfere with achieving the above goal, which is why it encourages a monastic lifestyle for those who wish to make achieving that goal a full-time activity. But it also recognizes that the decision to give up lay-life is neither practical nor even necessary for most people. Therefore, Zen says that whatever sexual relationship we have should be totally one that is mutually loving and supportive.
HOMOPHOBIA in Buddhism?
Over the years I have met numerous gay men and women whose interest in Buddhism was initiated by the belief that Buddhism is a non-homophobic alternative to homophobic Judaeo-Christianity. Unfortunately, personal experience has taught me that while Buddhism may not have the overtly violent, homophobia of Western religion, homophobia does exist in Buddhism.
My earliest formal encounter with Buddhism was through heterosexual male Asian teachers whose sexism and homophobia surprise me. Since, unlike Western religious traditions, there are no strongly explicit homophobic statements in the Buddhist canons, it took me awhile to understand the origin of Buddhist homophobia. While I realized immediately that some of this was due to the extremely strong desire on the part of Asian families to have a long line of descendants this could not account for the homophobia I found in the Buddhist clergy, especially its celibate members.
Exploring this issue more deeply, I discovered that Buddhist homophobia like Western religious homophobia was directly related to their misogynous attitudes. In Buddhism this misogyny has been justified by certain statements attributed to the Buddha in both the Theravada and Mahayana texts. Misogyny is not only a dislike of women but a fear of anything feminine. Since gay men take on a feminine-like quality in the eyes of the heterosexual and patriarchal world, such men are perceived to be as inferior and as much a threat as are women.
I came to realize the major problem which Buddhism has with sex is that having originated in a monastic environment it never had any way of validating the sexual lives of the laity. The best it could do was to tolerate sex in the lay community. This, in turn, made me understand that no religious tradition, Eastern or Western, can be genuinely gay-friendly, unless it can accept sex, in and of itself, as having value. If sex is only valued as a means to an end, for example, reproduction, then sex can never really be viewed as inherently good. This means that those who participate in sexual activities, heterosexually or homosexually, for its own inherent pleasures, must be viewed as either sinners as in Christianity, or ignorant prisoners of lust as in Buddhism.
All this misogyny and homophobia almost turned me off from Buddhism, especially since I found that if I too openly advertise my gayness I would not be accepted by many Buddhist teachers. However, before abandoning Buddhism I was fortunate enough to meet my future Preceptor, the Zen abbess Venerable Karuna Dharma, and the Venerable Sarika Dharma. From these two women I not only learned about their own struggles against patriarchal and sexist attitudes in Buddhism, but realized that here were Buddhist teachers who had an open and accepting attitude towards my sexuality. Furthermore, it was these two venerable women who continued to be my main support as I advanced in the Buddhist hierarchy. If it had not been for them the homophobic feelings of some influential male teachers would have denied me my higher ordination as a Zen Dharma Teacher, and finally as a Zen master.
A Personal Spiritual Breakthrough.
Zen, like all spiritual traditions, seeks to bring spiritual health to its practitioners which is to say to give people a deeper insight into their oneness with self, others and the world; and above all to enable them to creatively cope with, and perhaps even enjoy, the turmoil of life. For the light aches and pains of life an easy to swallow, and not too unpleasant tasting, medicine will work well, and simple Zen meditational practices are appropriate for this. But for persons with deep-seated spiritual pains, something stronger is necessary. In Zen this stronger medicine is called the breakthrough, kenshoo or satori. It is my personal experience with this stronger medicine on which I wish to focus.
In Dec. 1981 I discovered the International Buddhist Meditation Center of Los Angeles (I. B. M.C.) and through it rediscovered Zen. I say rediscovered, because as a teenager I had watched Alan Watts on TV and had read all of his books, but short of this, Zen had been faceless to me until I met Rev. Karuna Dharma. It was she who made me aware that Zen was accepting of my human nature, just as it was. This, I believe, was at least an intellectual breakthrough, though not yet the deep emotional one I would later experience.
After a few years of my attending I.B.M.C. my partner of sixteen years became ill and, over the next couple of years, I spent most of my time caring for him until he died. It was at that point that my years of spiritual searching bore full fruit. For the first few days immediately after my lover’s death most of my existence was so much taken up with the practical details of his death that I did not have time to mourn. But then came the day after his memorial service when all that had needed to be done was finished. I awoke that morning in what I can only describe as a sanity-threatening panic attack. The walls, the ceiling, even the floor, I was convinced were closing in and would crush me. I felt I had to escape from everything familiar, and in desperation I drove over to my travel agent in the hope she could get me on a plane going anywhere.
By the time I got to the travel agency my panic had reached its most intense level. I was physically and emotionally exhausted from the months of trying to care for the dying at night, while at the same time teaching elementary school during the day. In short my controlling ego was bankrupt. I thought nothing mattered, not even my very existence. I experienced what I can only describe as a temporary death of selfhood. This state lasted no longer than three or four minutes, when suddenly I sensed that the entire universe opened up to me and was acknowledging me as pure unconditional beingness and value. Never before had I felt such an absolute sense of freedom and total connectedness to all that exists. All the years of intense struggle with my existential doubt, with my anger and alienation from others and the world suddenly vanished. All the on-going and intense effort to find an answer to overcome my constant questioning, as well as all the certainty or faith that an answer was available, reach culmination. In Zen terms, what I was experiencing was the great death of the ego followed by the great liberation into egolessness; in short, kenshoo.
I did not immediately acknowledge it as kenshoo; I was too well trained in Zen for this. All too often euphoric experiences happen to Zen practitioners, which may at first seem like the satori, but turn out to be only an intense, but short-term, peak experience. The proof of a genuine kenshoo is that the former alienated ego-self does not return. If it does then all one has experienced is at best a temporary ecstatic respite. It was in fact, only after being ordained as a Zen priest in Dec.1992 that I realized that my experience was more than a short-term, peak experience. Even then I felt that this breakthrough was not yet so complete that it did not need to a great deal of refining and reinforcement which could only come with much diligent practice. This continued practice led to subsequent, less profound, follow-up kenshoo experiences.
In Dec. of 1997 Rev. Karuna Dharma decided I was ready for the next stage of ordination, that of a Dharma Teacher. Five years later I received at her hands the red robe of the Zen patriarch which allowed me to become a fully qualified independent teacher. This past Dec. (2008) Rev. Karuna Dharma made me her first Dharma heir, in short a Zen master.
Zen and Basic Buddhism
Zen is a school of Buddhism that developed in China as the result of a merging of Indian Mahayana Buddhism with the native Chinese traditions of Taoism and Confucianism. This sinified Buddhism abandoned some of the more pessimistic or world- rejecting elements of Indian Buddhism and adopted in their place a number of the more optimistic or world-accepting elements of Chinese. Among the Buddhist teachings that were affected by this sinification were the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path and the Three Marks of Existence.
Four Noble Truths and Zen. In early Buddhism the Buddha’s teachings are said to be summed up into a simple formula called then Four Noble Truths. The First Truth is that life is mostly characterized by various forms of dissatisfaction or sufferings. The Second Truth is that this suffering has as cause, and this cause is either having desires that can never really be satisfied or by believing in a real soul or self. The Third Truth is that there is a way out of this misery. The Fourth Truth declares that there is a way out of this misery. This way out is called the Middle Path, and this is most commonly identified with the Eight-Fold Path.
Many Mahayana sutras regard these Four Noble Truths as merely provincial truths taught to monks whose spiritual development was not mature enough to comprehend the truths later associated with Mahayana Buddhism. This, however, seem to be a very unproductive sectarian approach to the matter. Instead, a more positive approach is to see how these truths can be harmonized with Mahayana teachings, which for our purpose means Zen.
Zen teaches that as human beings we suffer and suffer profoundly. In Zen what makes us human is our dual consciousness, which is to say we have a mind split between subject and object consciousness. We can know ourselves as objects, but never as subjects. Thus we are inherently existential self-alienated and suffering beings. In this regard, Zen is in agreement with the First Noble Truth. Zen, however, does not see the origin of our suffering as due to our desires so much as it does to our failure to be aware of our already present, though unmanifested, Buddhahood which in Zen this means no separate or independent soul or self (anatman).
From this perspective, merely renouncing human desires, as in earlier Buddhism, can not free us from our self-alienation, and in fact may even increase that alienation. Nonetheless, there are ways of liberating ourselves from this misery. The first way is to let go of our identity as a little isolated self and replace this with the greater identity of universal beingness. This allows us to counter suffering with compassion. The second way is to get in touch with our Buddha-nature. This means accessing that aspect of our consciousness that is non-dual, non-judgmental to self and other; and hence non-alienating; and above all having absolute faith in our unconditional Buddha-nature worthiness. The third way is to learn to live fully the Middle Path that Zen defines as living in Here and the Now. This involves getting in touch with our authentic beingness or the beingness that does not live in the extremes of self-alienating past guilt or the equally self-alienating fears of the future, most especially of death. This, in turn, may even lead to being unconcerned about the metaphysics of rebirth, which can easily alienates one from any authentic satisfaction in this life.
Ultimately all three of these ways are a unified path. Indeed it is through this unity that Zen deals with the early Buddhist issue of insatiable desires or wants. When we are able to identify with the fullness of the universe, we eliminate the empty feeling that results from our ego-centric perception of narrowly defined self and its accompanying desires for things to fill our personal void. When we obtain access to our Buddha nature or Buddha mind we automatically have the most valuable possession possible and the desire for everything of lesser consequence is weakened. Finally, by living in the Now we become aware that most of our wants are related to attachments to the past or attempts to build security for the future. In the Now all wants are minimized to easily obtained needs. In this sense it may be said that Zen uses the Here and the Now as a kind of asceticism of time. In an indirect manner Zen, therefore, acknowledges the relationship between our suffering and desires. A link is thus maintained with the early Buddhist advocacy of ascetic abandonment of desire to gain freedom from the existential problem of self.
Eight-fold Path (Early Buddhist). In early Buddhism this path is identified with the last of the Four Noble Truths. It must be understood that this was originally a path meant exclusively for monastics, not the laity. It was only much later on that parts of it were modified to make it of some use to lay persons. The original eight elements of the path are as follows. (1) Right views included understanding the Four Noble Truths and the Three Marks of existence. (2) Right resolve was the determination to become a monk or nun. (3) Right speech was the avoidance of lying, slandering and gossiping. (4) Right conduct meant avoiding killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and taking intoxicants. (5) Right livelihood restricted monks from a number of activities that would bring them into excessive involvement with the lives of the laity. Among these were agriculture, practicing medicine, divination activities, and many more. (6) Right effort was the requirement to avoid impure thoughts while cultivating pure thoughts. (7) Right mindfulness probably originally meant being acutely aware at all times of ones actions. Later it came to be closely associated with a meditation on the impermanence of selfhood. (8) Right concentration was the practice of meditation leading to a profound state of detachment.
Eight-fold Path (Mahayana). In Mahayana Buddhism, which includes Zen, suffering was said to be entirely due to ignorance of the emptiness of all things. This required a major alteration in the nature of the eight components of the path. These became (1) Insight into the cosmic nature of Buddhahood. (2) The cessation of mental projections. (3) The understanding that silence may be the best expression of the truth. (4) Withdrawal from all actions that have karmic consequences. (5) Living in a way that expresses the fact that in emptiness there is no real arising or ceasing of phenomena. (6) Abandoning all intentionality in one’s actions. (7) The abandoning of any reflection on unprofitable (metaphysical) questions. (8) Not holding on to personal opinions that cause ego attachments.
Three Marks of Existence. Standard Buddhism teaches that life is characterized by impermanence dissatisfaction and no separate or independent soul or self. There is absolutely no problem in Zen with the first and third of these marks. But unlike the more pessimistic Indian view, the more optimistic Chinese view of Zen at times has problems with perceiving life as more dominated by dissatisfaction than by satisfaction. Rather than seeing dissatisfaction as innate to life Zen tends to see it as something learned as we grow up, and hence which can be unlearned. Seeking for awakening is just such an attempt at unlearning or letting go of our paradoxical attachment to our dissatisfaction.
In Zen the usual position recommended for meditation is to sit on a cushion on the Floor. This position has a very practical purpose. The less distractions that can come from the body the better the will be the meditation. If we sit on a chair we are apt to fidget our feet and legs which is obviously distracting. Also, when sitting on a chair we are likely to slouch which compresses our lungs and reduces the full breathing that is so necessary for physical and mental relaxation. Finally, the slouching is detrimental to our spines and we will soon become painfully aware of this. Therefore, unless there is a physical handicap involved some for of floor sitting grounds us for meditation better than chair sitting.
Zen makes no division between body and mind in practice. Both must be part of the practice if it is to be whole. This is one reason Zazen or even some of the non-contact martial arts are such an important part of the meditation. The right posture, right positioning of the hands and feet, and the attention to breathing are all a necessary part of gaining Satori. If the body is not in harmony then the mind can not be either. A person is neither mainly a soul or mind inhabiting a body nor even a person has a body. A person is a body as much as a mind. Failing to realize this is a great impediment to enlightenment.
Koans are the sacred literature of Zen. In many cases they replace the regular Buddhist sutras (canonical writings). The reasons for this complicated, but one of them is that the sutras, like most sacred writings, are written to accommodate the reader’s very logical, non-paradoxical ways of thinking. As far as Zen is concerned, trying to logically think one’s way to enlightenment is a very slow and very uncertain process. To accelerate this process Zen developed the koan system.
What is a koan? A koan is a stated or implied question in a full or abbreviated form, the purpose of which is to try to catapult the student’s mind from normal dual or unenlightened thinking to non-normal non-dual or enlightened thinking. The questions themselves are most often, but not necessarily, logically paradoxical. A large number of koans actually ask totally logical questions, which can make them the trickiest. Whether the question is logical or non-logical, the answer must transcend logic. This is because logical thinking is dual thinking. Dual thinking understands the world in terms of more or less clear-cut absolute opposites. Non-dual or paradoxical thinking realizes that all such opposites are relative, not absolute. For example, standard sutra Buddhism teaches that the disciple must renounce and leave behind the impurity of the profane realm, so that he may be pure enough to enter into the sacred realm. Besides being a duality of impure versus pure, profane versus sacred, this is a duality of the ‘present’ unenlightened self versus the ‘future’ enlightened self.
Zen rejects all of these dualities. Instead Zen teaches that it is holding on to these dualities that make us ignorant or unenlightened beings. Put into specifically Zen terms the logical and dual thinking process can not comprehend that right now each of us is simultaneously a totally profane being and yet a totally sacred being. This paradoxical statement made into a question becomes the root or mother koan which is "How can I be simultaneously a totally ignorant person and yet be a fully enlightened Buddha?" All the other koans should ultimately lead back to this koan.
Note carefully that there is no answering or solving koans. This is because answering and solving are part of dual thinking. The goal is to dissolve the koan and in doing so to transcend the dual thinking that forces you to deny the side of the koan that says "I am a fully enlightened being".
Be aware that anyone can easily say "I already accept that I am a Buddha". This, however, is a self-deluding superficially intellectual statement. It is only when a properly certificated Zen master is willing to authentic your level of spiritual attainment that you should even privately harbor such a thought. Any premature belief that you have transcended dual thinking merely confirms how deeply enthralled in that thinking you are.
Koans come in a variety of forms, but they generally serve one or more of four purposes. They directly point to enlightenment; they confirm enlightenment; they teach important Zen doctrine that enables one to hold on to enlightenment; and they reflect the humor that is so necessary to keep us from taking our selves too serious, which can impede enlightenment. It is very difficult to find one koan that serves all four purposes. This is why the Zen practitioner may need to be given more than one koan over his or her training period.
For more information contact Rev. Vajra Karuna (Thich Tam Thi) at e-mail GayZenLA@aol.com or write to: Zen Center, P.O. Box 29750, Los Angeles Ca 90029.