Dr. Jose Cabezon on Gay Buddhist Ethics & Gender Identity

Amy EdelsteinBlog, Cultural Development, Diversity Podcast, Philosophers & Mystics, Social Activism

Buddhist views on gender

This article was originally printed in EnlightenNext magazine.

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 bookBeyond 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 What Is Enlightenment? magazine. A respected scholar, he was often referred to me as someone who could answer my questions about Buddhist doctrine and scripture. Cabezon 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 Cabezon 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?

AE: What is your definition of spiritual liberation?

JOSÉ CABEZÓN: According to Mahayana Buddhism, spiritual liberation is a state of complete, total, and irreversible personal transformation, where a person goes from living in suffering to living without suffering. And once you reach this state, you never fall back to suffering again. Another essential aspect of liberation, or, more accurately, of enlightenment, is a dedication to helping others achieve that same state. Now, even though I think that this kind of radical, uncompromising view is important, it can be unrealistic to set one’s sights on that, at the beginning anyway. So I prefer to view liberation in a less radical fashion and to stress an incremental view, which is simply that we make progress, we become better people—more insightful, more compassionate, more loving—and we help others become better people. And this occurs one step at a time by following a spiritual path. 

AE: How would you define gay liberation?

JC: While spiritual liberation is principally an internal shift in the way one perceives oneself, the world, and others, gay liberation has a more external focus in that it usually refers to the liberation of gay people in a society that tends to oppress them. This doesn’t mean that the two spheres are completely divorced from each other. For example, spiritual liberation has social implications and gay liberation has internal implications. It has been argued, and I think rightfully, that it’s impossible for gay people to achieve external social liberation without first achieving some kind of internal liberation as a gay person, for example, acceptance of one’s sexual orientation. 

AE: Can you say more about the ways gay liberation and spiritual liberation relate to each other?

JC: Someone who is committed to the Mahayana Buddhist path is committed to ending the suffering of others. One aspect of that is ending oppression and inequality wherever they exist. It seems to me that anyone who is seriously following the Mahayana Buddhist path would have to be committed to various forms of social liberation, including gay liberation, as a natural corollary of the Mahayana path, whether or not one is gay. I think that following a spiritual path naturally commits one to things like gay liberation, women’s liberation, and men’s liberation. 

AE: Our identification with being a man or woman seems to be our most primary identification. Freud went so far as to assert that the core of our personality rests on these gender distinctions. In your anthology Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, you wrote, “Our nature as sexual and gendered beings is a crucial factor that must be taken into account in the analysis of all areas of human concern.” On the other hand, the Buddhist teachings of liberation seem to point to a condition in which we are not referring to any fixed ideas about who we are, and where we are living in what could be described as a state of nonduality. How does the seemingly inescapable fact of our gender identity go together with the Buddhist goal of freedom from all fixed and limited views?

JC: It’s one thing to say that the Buddhist path ultimately requires atranscendence of gender distinctions and another to say that it requires ignoring gender distinctions. There’s a difference between those two things, and I think that the latter is not the case. Buddhism makes a distinction between two levels of reality: the conventional level and the ultimate level. At the conventional level, the distinctions that we normally encounter in the world—male/female, Buddhist/non-Buddhist, self/other—are operative. They are valid and useful distinctions at the conventional level. But, like all distinctions, they tend to limit our way of understanding the world. They can become reified and breed ignorance. In the traditional Mahayana texts, there are arguments put forward for breaking up these dualisms and thereby achieving greater levels of insight. But even when one engages in these types of analyses that eventually give rise to what’s known as nondual awareness, it does not imply that the dualities themselves are invalid at the conventional level. The conventional world is never annihilated. 

AE: There are many men and women who view their experience of gender and sexual orientation as the basis of their spiritual identity. John Giorno, for example, who has been a practicing Buddhist for over three decades, says his deepest wish is that there would be a Buddhist teaching that specifically addresses the needs of gay people. How do gay Buddhists reconcile the seeming paradox between, on one hand, a belief in and focus on the significance of difference based on our gender and sexual orientation and, on the other, the Buddhist teaching of nonduality, or the essential sameness of our experience of ignorance and suffering?

JC: In the West, in large part as a result of Freud’s influence, we tend to see the development of our identity as intimately linked to sexuality and to sexual desire. Buddhism would question that. From a Buddhist point of view, our conventional sense of self, our ordinary notion of who we are, does not depend upon gender or sexual differentiation. Our sense of self is more basic than, and arises prior to, our identification as male or female, straight or gay. It arises as a result of the distinction between self and other. 

AE: But many modern Buddhists, men and women, seem to view their experience of gender and sexual orientation as fundamentally relevant to their spirituality, even as being the factor that defines the spiritual path appropriate for them. It seems that in some gay Buddhist writings there is a paradox between this belief in the significance of difference and the goal of the realization of nondifference.

JC: Yes, that’s right. 

AE: How is that paradox addressed?

JC: As I mentioned, I think that many Westerners tend to overidentify with their gender and sexual orientation. We tend to think that our true self is intimately linked to who we are as gendered and sexual beings, and so we tend to think that the answer to our spiritual quest must be grounded in our gender and our sexuality. I don’t hold this view. 

AE: Would you go so far as to say that this would be a limited or erroneous point of view from the perspective of ultimate awakening?

JC: Yes, I would go so far as to say that. Whatever the case at the conventional level, ultimately one’s identity as male or female and one’s sexual orientation are irrelevant to the spiritual path because, at the ultimate level, those distinctions have to be left behind. They have to be transcended. Now, as I mentioned before, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for these distinctions at the conventional level. For example, sexual orientation can act as a catalyst for bringing people together in mutually supportive spiritual communities. 

AE: In some of the writings in the gay liberation movement, it is implicitly and even at times explicitly stated that gay men enjoy particular advantages on the spiritual path. Some say that it is because of their familiarity with suffering due to the discrimination and rejection they experience in heterosexual culture, or as a result of their intimate contact with death through the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, or because of their willingness to break out of stereotypical roles. Andrew Harvey writes that in many traditions, homosexuals have been especially revered as shamans, priests, oracles, healers, and diviners. “Homosexuals,” he states, “were seen as sacred—people who, by virtue of a mysterious fusion of feminine and masculine traits, participated with particular intensity in the life of the Source.” Do you believe that gay men are more spiritual?

JC: I don’t think that one can generalize. So I suppose my answer is no. Certain cultures have tended to revere gay men and women, especially gay men, in this way. But ultimately, I don’t think that there is any real reason for doing so. I don’t believe that there’s anything intrinsically spiritual or antispiritual where sexual identity is concerned. So I don’t think that gay people are in a privileged position with regard to their spirituality. That doesn’t mean that in particular situations at particular historical moments the experiences of gay men and gay women may not make them perhaps more prone to entering a spiritual path or more insightful with regard to certain aspects of the spiritual path, like suffering. For example, some Native American cultures have created the conditions whereby gay men, in particular, are thrown into positions of spiritual leadership in which they thrive. 

AE: Why especially gay men as opposed to gay women?

JC: On the one hand, one could attribute it to misogyny—yet another instance of privileging men over women. But I think it’s more complex than that, and I don’t think that it’s anything intrinsic to gay men. In some Native American cultures and also in certain Afro-Brazilian religions, it’s mostly gay men who have been sought out as shamans and as having special spiritual power. If we wanted to speculate, we could say that maybe the kinds of sexual acts that gay men engage in are considered more transgressive. For example, anal penetration of a man in most cultures is considered an extremely transgressive act. It goes against the ultimate social taboos regarding sexuality. So if a community is looking for a kind of locus of radical difference, it makes sense to look to someone who engages in these extremely transgressive practices. 

 The Buddha prescribed celibacy as one of the essential practices for both monks and nuns in his ordained community. Some modern scholars seem to imply that many Buddhist monks, both historically and in present times, in fact actively engage in homosexuality. John Giorno describes his experience of Buddhist monasteries in contemporary Asia by saying that “homosexuality in Tibetan monasteries is rampant.” He says, “Almost every one of the monasteries in all the four traditions, Gelugpa, Kargyupa, Sakya, and Nyingma, are totally gay in heart, if not sexually active,” and then goes on to describe that the monks actually do engage in sexual acts. He comments that one of his Tibetan teachers told him that this behavior is condoned. You were a Buddhist monk in one of the most respected Tibetan monasteries in the Gelugpa tradition. Would you say that Giorno’s depiction of the monastic environment is accurate?

JC: In most forms of Buddhism, monks take a vow of celibacy. Does that mean that there is no homosexual activity in Buddhist monasteries? No. These are communities of human beings, and I think that especially among younger monks, it’s not an infrequent occurrence. At the same time, even when monks engage in sexual acts with each other, they take care not to violate the letter of the law. They take their vow of celibacy seriously, or somewhat seriously. For example, the Vinaya—the rules that monks and nuns must follow#151; prohibits oral intercourse and anal intercourse. So at least in the Tibetan tradition, even when monks, and it’s usually younger monks, engage in homosexual activities, they take care not to violate the letter of the vow of celibacy by refraining from oral and anal intercourse. There’s a real ambivalence there. It’s clear that homosexual activity does take place, but even when it does, celibacy is still held as an ideal. 

AE: What we’ve been very interested in exploring is whether it’s possible for an individual to come to a point in their spiritual evolution when they’re no longer compulsively fixated on gender differences or sexual preferences, while at the same time they are not avoiding or denying whatever differences may actually exist. Do you think that such a condition is attainable?

JC: Yes. But not easily. What we’re really talking about here is the kind of insight that comes from the realization of emptiness or nonduality. Someone who has real insight into the ultimate truth, into emptiness, is capable of seeing beyond gender and sexual orientation distinctions. But until that point is reached, we still live with the social conditioning that we inherit from our culture. 

AE: Traditional Buddhist teachings of liberation emphasize coming to the end of desire and craving. But one of the common themes in the gay liberation movement is the fascination with sexual desire and the assertion of the importance of expressing and fulfilling this desire as a part of coming into one’s own more complete gay identity. Gay psychiatrist Anthony Richardson says, “Sex is of primary importance to us. Insistence on the importance of sex is one of our differences from most straight folks.” Given the Buddha’s teachings on the difficulties of navigating the strong force of sexual desire, do you think it is possible that the celebration of an identity based on one’s sexuality could lead to increased confusion rather than to freedom from the chains of desire and attachment? How do gay Buddhists reconcile the contradiction between what is sometimes called “liberated self-expression” and the Buddha’s injunction to quench the flames of sexual desire?

JC: First of all, let me say that even among gay writers today, there is considerable debate regarding the extent to which sexual expression is a necessary part of gay identity. Many gay writers raise the question of whether the claim that it is necessary has, in fact, had negative consequences, like fueling the fires of AIDS. This is a debated issue even in the North American gay community. There have always been voices in the gay liberation movement that have questioned the essentializing of a “gay identity” in any way. So, for example, to say, “Sexual self-expression is an essential part of gay identity”—that itmust be this way—I find problematic. I don’t believe that sexual self-expression is essential to being a gay person. To say that it is essential is to make celibate gay men and women somehow less gay, which is both logically absurd and ethically problematic, as if to say, “You don’t count as a real gay person.” Now there’s no question that in Buddhism, desire is one of the major problems that human beings face. And sexuality is perhaps the strongest form of desire. Therefore, in order to decrease desire, sexual activity must be diminished or curtailed. I see this as being one of the cornerstones of the Buddhist path and I see no way for Buddhists to interpret their way out of this. My personal belief is that there is a kind of responsible sexuality that Buddhism calls for that commits Buddhists to keeping their sexuality within bounds. And I don’t see that this in any way negatively impinges upon the struggles of gay people, gay men in particular. 

AE: It’s commonly believed that the Buddha had strong views about the inherent inferiority of women on the spiritual path. What were his views on homosexuality?

JC: The Buddha was a pragmatist. He realized, I think, that the insights that he had often went against social norms. And I think that the Buddha also realized that it was necessary to sometimes compromise his insights as an upaya, a skillful means, in order to benefit a greater number of beings. For example, although it seems to me that the Buddha could not possibly have seen an essential distinction between homosexual and heterosexual acts, there are portions of the Buddhist texts that seem to come down on homosexuality. On one hand, I think this had to do with the social setting in which the Buddha found himself. On the other, it probably had to do with a pervasive homophobia found even among his followers, followers who were responsible for compiling and editing those texts. If we look at the Buddhist teachings as a whole, there’s no question that singling out homosexuality for special critique is not consistent with the Buddha’s general message. And the same can be said in regard to the position of women. The Buddha lived in a time and place where it would have been impossible for him to advocate radical egalitarianism between the sexes. But if we look at the Buddha’s teachings as a whole, it is quite clear that the Buddha did not believe that women were inferior. On the issues that are most important, namely whether women can attain enlightenment while still being women, the Buddha was quite clear that they can. So if we were to transport the Buddha through time to the present day, given our present circumstances, I think there’s no question that the Buddha would come out in favor of gay liberation and women’s liberation. 

AE: When we think about the Buddha, we think of somebody who is walking this earth as a living example of the fulfillment of our spiritual potential. If you could imagine meeting the Buddha, what do you suppose that his transmission would be, specifically with regard to gender? What do you think we could learn about being a natural man, uninhibited by social convention or by a fixed and limited identification with one’s sexuality or by one’s gender, from one like the Buddha?

JC: That’s a very hard question. I mean, in the Buddhist texts you find cases of enlightened people changing sexes, a man turning into a woman, say, or vice versa, in order to teach people lessons. If the Buddha is, as the texts portray him, a master of skillful means, it’s not inconceivable that he might engage in such acts to completely confound our notions of what is male and what is female—what in contemporary circles is called “gender f—ing”—for the sake of making a spiritual point. That certainly is possible, but I think it’s also quite consistent that the Buddha would simply act as a man or a woman without engaging in these types of actions. The answer to this question is that there’s no predicting what the Buddha would do. Whatever actions would be for the benefit of others, those are the actions that the Buddha would engage in. 

AE: With respect to breaking down our fixed identification with our sexual and gender identity, what was your experience when you went from being a monk to being a layperson?

JC: I don’t know if it’s possible to generalize, but in retrospect, I’m quite convinced that in my own case, the most effective way of sustaining a spiritual program is through celibacy. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m far from being celibate at this stage in my life. But I still hold celibacy as an ideal, and I have tremendous respect for those who can keep to the discipline of celibacy. I have heard some former monks justify their return to lay life by claiming that they needed to gain some new experiences or by claiming that a sexually active life was more conducive to spiritual growth. This is certainly not my experience. With me, it had to do with a number of conditions, for example, finding that living in the West was particularly unconducive to living a celibate lifestyle. 

AE: How did your experience as a monk help you in the pursuit of the transcendence of gender fixation, or identification as a man? Did it help you to leave those ideas behind? Did it help break apart some of your fixed reference points because you set aside the sexual part of your life?

JC: I don’t think that monasticism or celibacy, in and of itself, does that. What does do that is whatever insights you come to by engaging in spiritual practices as a monk or a nun. I don’t believe that the monastic life alone is going to give you the tools for deconstructing gender differences. That comes from elsewhere. 

AE: Are you referring to the realization of emptiness that you brought up earlier?

JC: Right. 

AE: It’s interesting. So if we want to be truly free, if we really want to go beyond—not only as a spiritual experience but to actually manifest that realization in time and space, in our lives, through our humanity—what do you think it would mean to give up this fundamental investment in being a man or a woman?

JC: You know, this might go back again to what I think is almost a Western obsession with sexual identity and gender differences or gender identity. It’s said in the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist texts that an understanding of nonduality, of emptiness, brings about greater compassion. I think that the most tangible result of seeing through gender, of seeing through the distinctions of male and female, gay and straight, manifests itself in a kind of equanimity of compassionate action in regard to all creatures. All distinctions—beautiful, ugly, fat, thin, intelligent, ignorant—not only gender distinctions, form the basis for restricting our compassionate action. I think that a person who has truly seen the empty nature of these distinctions, including male/female, gay/straight, would exhibit the kind of equanimity in their life that does not distinguish between human beings.

(C) 1991-2010 EnlightenNext, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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