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Gay/Straight, Man/Woman, Self/Other

What Would the Buddha Have Had to Say About Gay Liberation?

An interview with Jose Cabezon
by Amy Edelstein



On June 11, 1997, in San Francisco, gay Buddhist activists met with H.H. the Dalai Lama to take the revered Tibetan Buddhist leader to task for his position that gay sexuality was in violation of Buddhist sexual ethics. In his book Beyond Dogma, the Dalai Lama cites Buddhist rules that classify homosexual activity as misconduct. For practicing Buddhists, the indisputable implication of this contemporary publication was that if one were gay and sexually active, one couldn't be a Buddhist in good standing. Faithful gay Buddhists were upset. Among the eight gay and lesbian leaders assembled to discuss this sensitive issue with the eminent celibate monk was José Cabezón, former translator to His Holiness, Professor of Philosophy at Iliff School of Theology, and self-described gay Buddhist. I was intrigued by the furor that had erupted and began to wonder—setting aside the doctrinal debate over the modern interpretation of Buddhist law—how relevant is one's sexual orientation to enlightenment, the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path?

When I thought about gay liberation and Buddhist liberation, I saw technicolor. Loud, flamboyant images, evocative poetry, outrageous creative escapades . . . Allen Ginsberg, John Giorno, the beatniks. Adventurous men who, from the Bowery to San Francisco to the banks of the Ganges and the hilltops of Darjeeling, brought us mixed metaphors of uninhibited male love and Eastern spiritual pursuit. These unusual men brought these metaphors into the public arena, out of the privacy of the bedroom and the silence of the meditation hall. Over one million people called in to hear Giorno's passionate and often provocative dial-a-poems. In the 1970s, in places as conservative as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Allen Ginsberg chanted verses about nirvana, satori [enlightenment experiences], and male sexual ecstasy while his lover droned in the background on a harmonium, sparking the spirit of the quest in countless young poets, myself among them. I thought of Whitman and the transcendentalists. I thought of a movement associated with an endless crescendo of epiphanies, with an ecstatic celebration of the divine in the human body, a movement propelled by a great energy, fueled by defying convention and breaking boundaries—in search, in search of something beyond, something ecstatic, exalted, something both immanent and transcendent.

As these various images swirled in my mind's eye with all their costume and pageantry, I realized that I really knew very little about the movement called "gay liberation." What were its tenets? The essence of its goal? And why did it seem that so many gay men have taken to Buddhism, a path laid out by a celibate renunciate? For it seemed that the gay men's movement spoke of asserting one's sexuality, of conscious identification with one's difference from others, of finding one's identity as a gay man while the Buddha taught about quenching the fires of desire, realizing one's sameness with all others, and identifying with no-self. If contemporary gay Buddhists are writing about the fundamental importance of their identity and sexual preference to their path, what will the implications be for Buddhism—long criticized by feminists and homosexuals as another homophobic, albeit perhaps more enlightened, patriarchal religion?

José Cabezón's name had crossed my path again and again over the years doing research for WIE. A respected scholar, he was often referred to me as someone who could answer my questions about Buddhist doctrine and scripture. Cabezón has written, translated, and edited numerous books about Buddhist teachings and religion, sexuality, and gender, including an historical analysis of homosexuality in Buddhist cultures. He has also participated in several interfaith dialogues on religion and gender and is one of very few Western monks to have studied at the illustrious Sera Je monastery in Bylakuppe, India, the Princeton University of the Gelugpa monasteries.

I wondered what Cabezón would have to say. He is a vocal advocate of gay rights and has been a disciplined Buddhist monk. He knows the classical Buddhist texts and has met many of the great modern Tibetan teachers. At the same time, he has studied gay history and is involved with the pressing social issues raised by contemporary gay culture. Is our identification with our sexual preference a key element in our spiritual pursuit? Is the liberation of our sexual identity part and parcel of our spiritual liberation? What is the relationship between being gay and enlightenment?


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