|Excerpt from Queer Dharma|
Grief and the Path to Awakening:
Appreciating What a Gay Sangha Offers
Hope can neither be affirmed or denied.
Hope is like a path in the countryside.
Originally there was no path.
Yet, as people walk all the time in the same spot, a way appears.
In Tibet there is the story of Krisha Gotami, a young woman who had the good fortune to live at the time of the Buddha. When her first child was about a year old, it fell ill and died. Grief stricken and clutching its little body, Krisha Gotami roamed the streets begging anyone she met for a medicine that would restore her child to life.
Some ignored her, others laughed at her, and some thought her mad. But finally she met a wise man who told her that the only person in the world who could perform the miracle she was looking for was the Buddha. So she went to the Buddha, lay the body of her child at his feet, and told him her story.
The Buddha listened with infinite compassion, and then said gently, "There is only one way to heal your affliction. Go down to the city and bring me back a mustard seed from any house in which there has never been a death."
Krisha Gotami felt elated and set off at once for the city. She stopped at the first house she saw and said, "I've been told by the Buddha to fetch a mustard seed from a house that has never known death." "Many people have died in this house," she was told. She went on to the next house. There have been countless deaths in our family," they said. And so to a third and a fourth house, until she had been all around the city and real- that the Buddha's condition could not be fulfilled.
So she took the body of her child to the burial ground and said good-bye to him for the last time, and then returned to the Buddha. "Did you bring the mustard seed?" he asked. "No," she said, "I'm beginning to understand the lesson you are trying to teach me. Grief made me blind and I thought that only I had suffered at the hands of death." "Why have you come back?" asked the Buddha. "To ask you to teach me the truth," she replied, "of what death is, what might lie behind and beyond death, and what in me, if anything, will not die." The Buddha began to teach her, saying, "If you want to know the truth of life and death, you must reflect continually on this: there is only one law in the universe that never changes --that all things change and that all things are impermanent.... Because pain has now made you ready to learn and your heart is opening to the truth, I will show it to you."
The first time I came across the story of Krisha Gotami, I felt the whole of my mind and body becoming still, as only happens when I am hearing something that all my experience tells me is true. I had listened to parts of this story many times before from friends, family, and people I worked with, but I had never truly heard it. But in exploring the meaning of sangha --of a gay sangha--my mind keeps returning to this story again and again.
There is a legacy that we all share as gay men, of separation and of loss, that I believe gives us an affinity for Buddhist practice. A gay sangha is a natural result of this affinity, and offers the opportunity to join with other gay men on a spiritual path. Together we can discover that our life experiences of separation and loss, this shared legacy, is no longer an impediment to fulfillment. It is, instead, a doorway to awakening to fulfillment. Of all the many meanings of the word "sangha," my favorite is simply, working together to discover our true nature" (thanks to GBF member David Sunseri).
Finding Buddhist practice and a gay sangha has been a lifesaver for me that I would not have pursued if not for the separation and loss in my own life. There was a time, about six years ago, when the bottom fell out of my life. Very quickly, dearly held assumptions about who I was and what life was about (in which I had invested my security and sanity) began to crumble.
I was working part-time as the HIV/AIDS counselor/advocate at an East Bay agency. My job was to provide crisis counseling for people with HIV and their family, friends, and lovers. I was also coordinating an HIV antibody test site and supervising support groups. In addition to all of this, I was maintaining a private practice.
This schedule was demanding, but I thought I was doing OK. I became used to dealing with illness and death in my work, and depended upon my private sense of spirituality to keep things in perspective. I thought that was enough.
But then a sequence of events happened that began to erode what I thought was solid ground. First, I became ill with hepatitis, but since it was not casually contagious, I continued working. My joke about it was that, since I was now jaundiced to a vivid orange from my toes to my eyeballs, I could finally wear all those fashionable earth-tone colors that had previously clashed with my waspish white pallor.
Lame humor only provided me with temporary relief, however, because in the weeks that followed, key members of my biological as well as my "gay family" began dying. Between cancer, heart disease, and AIDS several people who had been emotional anchors for me were suddenly gone. Although I had lost people before who were close to me, the relentlessness and timing of these deaths cut to the core.
The line between the reality I experienced at work and at home began to blur. Although I recognized I was still one of the lucky ones (my losses paled in comparison to those of most of the people I was working with), still, the cumulative impact was immobilizing.
On the surface, I was handling it well. I mapped out my own grieving process and focused on the positives in my life. For one thing, my lover and I were forging a deeper bond as we went through these losses together. Also, the slowness of my recovery from jaundice brought numerous compliments from surviving friends and family about my "fabulous tan" at one memorial service after another.
But underneath, living had stopped for me. The expanding universe suddenly began contracting, collapsing under the weight of its own gravity, shutting out the light. I wanted my friends and family back. I wanted my life to return to the way it had been. More than anything, I wanted to escape the powerlessness and the lack of control I felt, the sense that the world was no longer a safe or friendly place. Somehow I also wanted to be able to protect my friends and myself from the pain and death that seemed to be everywhere. Like Krisha Gotami, I refused to accept the truth; I was searching for something that would restore life to the way it had been.
It is ironic that loss--while being perhaps the most universal experience of the human condition--can still make each of us feel alone, separate, and uniquely wronged. And like Cleopatra, queen of denial, my royal decree was that the people I loved and needed were not permitted to die and leave me behind.
As a therapist, I frequently reminded my clients that separation and withdrawal are natural ways we react to loss or trauma. They serve as the psyche's internal circuit-breaker, shutting down the power when feelings of loss overwhelm us. But what is a temporary survival instinct can become a permanent condition. Then it ultimately becomes a refusal of life itself.
Somewhere in my own withdrawal and depression, sentiments along the lines of "Physician, heal thyself!" must have pointed me toward Buddhism and GBF. I think I was attracted to Buddhist practice because it deals so honestly with the truth of suffering. There was no sidestepping or sugar coating. There was no running away, but instead, opening to the truth of impermanence. I was not interested in going on the spiritual journey alone--I'd already done enough of that. Nor was I interested in being a part of a community where being gay was spiritually questionable or even just plain different. (I'd done enough of that, too.) So GBF felt like home.
In the time that has passed since the bottom fell out of my life, living for me has been a practice in finding the courage to open to the grief of unacceptable loss. Sometimes I fear the absolute nakedness of it. At such times, I experience a slowing down and contraction. At other times, I feel myself opening up and expanding into the vast emptiness of it. Then I experience a "letting go." In the silence of meditation, I hear the words of the Buddha to Krisha Gotami: "Because pain has now made you ready to learn and your heart is opening to the truth, I will show it to you ... there is one way and one way only out of Samsara's ceaseless round of birth and death, which is the path of liberation." In either case, to practice together with other gay men who have suffered separation and loss just like me has helped me to rediscover a sense of meaning and hope that I couldn't have found alone.
For me, a gay Sangha unites two of the most important components of lasting meaning and genuine hope. One is the sharing of the experiences, gifts, and challenges that come with being gay. The other is practicing together and supporting each other in awakening, and discovering our true nature. In GBF, both of these components are present.
A gay Sangha provides us with a home where we can rediscover and deepen our acceptance of ourselves and our ability to trust others. It is also a place where we can use the grief and alienation that have been part of our lives to deepen our practice, and to stimulate questions that can lead us back to our own true nature, questions such as: "What can bring a lasting self acceptance and belonging?" "What, if anything, is real?" "What in me, if anything, will not die?"
As a beginning practitioner I'm not yet at the point where I can view the suffering that happens in my own, or someone else's life, as a wonderful opportunity for spiritual growth. As I heard another GBF member concisely (if politically incorrectly) put it, "Samsara sucks." Especially in the form of AIDS, it is infuriating and horrifying. With more than a decade of unprecedented grief and loss, many of us are very weary. Facing ongoing loss seems to leave few options, for sanity's sake, except either denial or despair.
Buddha offered to Krisha Gotami an alternative, and in the Dharma we are also offered this alternative. What allowed Krisha Gotami to see the alternative was opening to the truth of suffering. For myself, I take the alternative begrudgingly. Even after getting whacked relentlessly over the head by the sledgehammer of suffering, illness, and death, my ego shows itself to be remarkably resilient, and still wanting control.
But this is starting to change for me. A spaciousness is almost imperceptibly opening up around my ego's grasping. It's like the answer a friend gave me when I asked him how life was going for him. He replied, "Considering the enormity of my expectations and the depths of my ingratitude, I have to admit, I'm doing OK. " Sometimes I can smile at the ego's expectations and ingratitude. Through heart-felt dharma talks and discussions at GBF sittings, I am slowly opening to whatever is happening, including aloneness or grief, as well as surrender and joy. I find courage, inspiration, and support within the practice and fellowship of a gay sangha.
Before finding GBF, I often felt like a solo explorer on the spiritual path. Facing the truth of suffering and death alone sometimes was like staring into a dark, bottomless abyss. But in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, I discover what amounts to a new set of eyes with which to gaze into that abyss--a new vision that is radiant, boundless, deathless.
Everything in experience--including the most unpleasant--can be turned back toward our practice. We can allow it to propel us together toward the discovery of our true nature.
MARK MARION (San Francisco) is a psychotherapist, whose Buddhist practice is in the Vipassana tradition. He has written a chapter about coping with multiple loss in the gay community for the book Gay and Lesbian Mental Health: A Sourcebook for Practitioners New York: Haworth Press, 1996). He also participates in the Bay Area's Gay Buddhist Fellowship.
*The story of Krisha Gotami is paraphrased from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche (Santa Cruz, CA: Rigpa Fellowship, 1992).
See also the website of the Gay Buddhist Fellowship
MAKE MY BOYFRIEND A BUDDHA
I keep thinkin' about the day you die
And I gotta believe in reincarnation
I can't live with the thought that you'll never be again
Oh the gods will not know what to do with you
As you sure as hell never knew what to do with yourself
They'll probably make you one of the 10,000 buddhas
confounded by your beauty and your fury
He's so fucking sexy they'll conclude
He'll inspire devotion in millions
Let's give him a pure land
Let's give him a deva realm
with his cock dorje
and his scrotum bell
All his joints are mala beads
and his skin like milk and saffron
Mandalas for eyes
His words are sacred koans
and his ass is one fine lotus seat
Back cover of Queer Dharma.
Collage by Stevee Postman.
Poet Trebor is on the right.
Oh I keep thinkin' about the day you die|
Oh my buddha boyfriend
I could make an altar to you then
keep you here within my arms
But what relics have you left me?
I've not an ounce of your piss or spit,
your fine smooth cum
And I keep thinkin' about the day you die
I know that rainbows will arch up across the sky
like how your back used to do
when you'd spurt
and devas will cry out
in your white rain
falling lotus-petaled gift
Let Manjushri circumcise me then
I'm lost in the sandy unsure ground of grief
the colored pathways of the palace of the Kalachakra
all leading toward destruction with a Tibetan laugh
Oh make my boyfriend a buddha!
| Surviving High School|
A Gay Buddhist Graduates in the Heartland
I can hardly believe I'm finally graduating. As I think back over the past four years, I can vividly remember my experiences of being a young gay Buddhist in a homophobic Christian community. There is wisdom one can gain through being a practicing gay Buddhist in a closed Christian community.
The most memorable aspect of my life was the loneliness. The only contact I had with other Buddhists was through the mail, and the only contact had with other homosexuals was slim also. I knew one "open" homosexual whom I dated for awhile; however, since being gay is strictly prohibited here, he felt forced to stay in the closet. I came out as a Buddhist before I came out as gay. A few of my close friends told me a major advantage of my being Buddhist was that I was totally trustworthy.
So before I was criticized for being gay, I was constantly criticized for being Buddhist. I was often attacked verbally and once physically. On one occasion, as I sat in class, someone asked who I prayed to; but before I could respond the teacher jumped in and said, "Those Buddhists worship wooden statues! We Americans should go overseas where they come from and teach them who the real GOD is!!!" Suddenly the whole class burst out in laughter and were yelling, "You're going to Hell, stupid! If you don't believe in God you're crazy! You had better never come around me, or I'll knock your teeth down your neck! You Buddha boy!!!"
As the teacher sat back and watched, what was I to do or say to defend myself against the ignorance of 20-30 students and a teacher? As time passed, I found myself in more and more situations like that so with all that pressure I sure wasn't going to come out about being gay which I finally did in my junior year. During one of these situations, I couldn't say anything so I got up and walked out. I went to talk to the principal who said, "Son, this country was founded by Christians, for Christians, and it will always be run by Christians. So all I can say is live with the ridicule." Then I decided to propose a multi-cultural class to inform students of the different religions they will encounter throughout life, and his response was, "The parents just wouldn't allow it. We just couldn't teach about anything other than Christianity. This is a Christian town and it's gonna stay that way!"
My first year of high school was also my first year of practice as a Buddhist, and I quickly learned it wasn't going to be easy to practice. I found myself being attacked by people constantly asking questions like, "Do you believe in God? Do you stick pins in dolls to put spells on people?" Here in my town people know so little about Buddhism that my fellow class mates and family thought I practiced "Voodoo." Why else would I light so many candles and incense and meditate? When I would try to explain my classmates, teachers and often family would twist my words to make it sound as though I was some type of psycho. You see here it is a deadly sin to be gay or Buddhist, and I was made aware of that daily by different people who would protest, "It just ain't right fer ya ta be a voodooist!"
Somewhere in this process of practicing in high school I realized that Buddha's dharma of impermanence which is usually thought of as pain causing actually worked both ways. Not only did all comfortable states soon pass away, but so did all the uncomfortable ones. Armed with this inexhaustible truth, I found a certain peace in all my future experiences.
It was not until my junior year that I decided to come out to the small group of friends that I had gained in hope that if one of them were gay knowing that they were not alone would comfort them. To my amazement, this seemingly anti-gay group of friends took it really well. However, soon the word got out and more and more people found out that I was gay. I was faced with a new criticism and I was teased with fag jokes which for some reason didn't bother me as much as Buddha jokes.
Soon a few people came to me and let me know that they were gay, and that it helped to know that they weren't alone. I soon discovered that homosexuality was so forbidden in Christianity that these people were afraid to even think about being gay and wouldn't come out to other gays for two main reasons. First, their parents would kick them out of the house if they ever found out. The actual quote often heard is, "If I ever found out that ya was a gay, I would kick yer ass, kick ya out of da house and disown ya as my child."
Secondly, they would definitely go to Hell if they even thought about this "deadly sin." Nevertheless, knowing that I had brought some comfort to these friends brought a change to my painful state of existence and brought me happiness. As I have read more, I realize that we see our experiences "locally" and feel the ridicule of all homosexuals as our own. However, if we imagine that we were on the moon and could see everything on the Earth all at once we would be able to see all experiences of everyone not just ours alone. Understanding this need for universal compassion also helped me to deal with life in high school.
Despite the dangers of coming out to your family, I decided to come out to my mother just a few months ago. She says she always suspected it even though I had dated girls in the past. But soon she started to deny it by saying things like, "You really do like girls don't you?" Now that stage is over and she can accept it. On occasions she tells me she knew she should have stopped me from being Buddhist and "this wouldn't have happened." Similarly at school the rumor spread that all Buddhists were gay. In a way I believe it is a reassurance to her that she didn't do anything wrong in parenting. Now most of my family knows, but don't comment on it a lot. I think they are still trying to figure out why lighting incense and being kind are so important.
Throughout these past four years of pain and criticism, I have been able use all of these negative experiences to nourish my practice like the lotus and the mud it grows in. I thought I hadn't gained any attachment to high school, and I wished every day to hurry and end so that I would be closer and closer to graduation. But now that it is here I suddenly realize how much I'll miss all the people who have been kind and showed understanding to me.
Throughout it all, my practice has become very strong. As I'm standing here ready to graduate, I feel impermanence settling in. College is just around the corner and I am sure it will provide a more positive environment for me as a homosexual and as a Buddhist. I know I will meet new people who will actually have some things in common with me. As for my loneliness, I have met a beautiful man who, along with the Dharma, is my greatest blessing.
As hard as it has been, all the pain has served as an excellent teacher, and I am sure the pain I am feeling now will soon pass like all other things. May all beings attain peace, happiness and long life! Om Mani Padme Hum!!