25 Jun 2009

Is it okay to be Buddhist and gay?

'Reflections of a gay Buddhist' is a new column by Sharon Saw in which she shares her tumultuous journey through life, love and the bits in between; and tries to make sense of it all with the Dharma as her unfailing compass.

My girlfriend and I work for a Buddhist publishing company in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Our young and growing publishing house has 11 full and part time staff, and while 10 are female, most are straight women. However, we are out to everyone at our Buddhist centre and all are our friends and openly supportive of our relationship. Within the Buddhist organisation, we are accepted and it’s not a big deal. But recently, I heard someone belonging to another Buddhist organisation mention rather excitedly that our Buddhist organisation was full of gays! Full of gays? I was at first taken aback which turned to amusement. Our Buddhist organisation is unconventional but I had never heard that we had a rainbow flag waving above our roof. Yes, like every organisation, there are a few gays and lesbians (some still firmly in their closet but we can seeeee you!) but full of gays?!

Perhaps it was due to one of the taglines which our Buddhist organisation had come up with about 10 years ago. The tagline was... “Alternative Buddhism for Alternative People”. The ‘alternative’ in the tagline was referring to modern day individuals who think out of the box and possibly the least likely people to be spiritual. The spirituality as presented by my Guru, His Eminence Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, is deeply traditional but very creative, humorous and contemporary in approach, hence ‘alternative’.  His Eminence and was blissfully unaware of the rainbow connotations behind the word ‘alternative’.

Apparently, at that time, His Eminence did innocently ask some of his students why there was a stream of gay people who came to the centre at that time! We no longer use the tagline, not because His Eminence or anyone in the centre wanted to discourage gay students, far from it, as we are very inclusive, but because our Buddhist centre offers Buddhism for all and we did not want a misconception that it is aimed at any particular group. For the record, our centre is merely a sample of the world at large, with a majority straight crowd but with a lively sprinkle of pink.

My girlfriend was previously a Christian and she went through a lot of angst over whether her sexuality was a sin, to the extent of even contemplating suicide. And she is by no means the only gay person to do so. I had previously been a spiritual seeker and had not committed myself to any particular religion until a few years ago, just a little more recently than when I had discovered my love for women, so conversely, I had no spiritual guilt over my previous relationships.

After I had known my Guru and spiritual guide for awhile, I was convinced of the consistency of his good qualities and I wanted to ‘officially’ become a Buddhist under his guidance. I wanted to take refuge from this erudite Master. However, when I read the refuge vows, I had stopped short at the vow of no sexual misconduct. My life up until about seven years ago had pretty much been all about sexual misconduct. However, I have been in a monogamous relationship for seven years now so I thought I was pretty good. But it did nag at me a little - was homosexuality considered sexual misconduct?

The best person to ask was my Guru so I did. Different Buddhist Masters may have different points of view regarding this but for me, His Eminence’s perspective was simply logical. He explained that we have all been male, female, cat, dog, insect, hell being, spirit, in our countless lives since beginningless time. What we are today are simply physical manifestations. And when we die, this physical manifestation will decay and disappear. Only our minds will continue to the next life and the form it will manifest will depend on our karma. So our physical body – whether male or female - is actually transient and inconsequential in the macro view.

Sex is actually just friction, H.E. said candidly. It doesn’t really matter who you do it with, so long as you don’t hurt the person you are with. It is more important that you love, support and care for your partner than who your partner is. It is more important that you are loyal and faithful to your partner, than whether your partner is of the same sex as you.

There’s no need to beat yourself up over who you’re sleeping with. Sex is such a small part of a relationship – especially the longer term relationships (I’ll talk about lesbian bed death another time). Why get worked up over a physical act which is proportionately minor in our lives? Isn’t it better to focus on what we do for the rest of the day – whether we’re kind, caring, bitchy or lying.

Heterosexual or homosexual, lust is lust. From a Buddhist perspective, it is better not to over indulge in lust, but since we are lay practitioners and not ready to renounce (yet), my Guru is compassionate and kind and simply tells me to respect each other’s lifestyle and make sure we don’t hurt anyone.

It’s that simple.

Sharon Saw is a writer / editor at Kechara Media & Publications, which focuses on publishing the teachings of H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, a high incarnate Lama of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. A selection of Buddhist and non-Buddhist related books from Kechara Publications is now available on Fridae Shop. You can follow Sharon on Twitter. This column will appear every other Friday.