I’ve often felt that queer feminist theory and Buddhism are quite similar; they are animated by a wish or hope for liberation. The liberation longed for in both Buddhism and queer theory is one that comes from a recognition that our patterned, conditioned ways of relating to self and others need to change if we are to be released from suffering.
The word “queer” means many things to many people. For some, the word is an umbrella category to describe members of the LGBTQ+ community, but the word “queer,” especially when used as a verb, as in “to queer,” has taken on other meanings as well. A secondary meaning of “queer” is to reclaim what has been left out, to use something in a way in which it was not intended, or as Sara Ahmed explains, to walk “the fainter trail [that] is left behind when you leave the official route” (Ahmed, 2019). Ahmed calls these paths “desire lines… created by not following the official paths laid out by disciplines” (Ahmed, 2013).
I love the word “queer” because it is one of few words that holds its own origin story within its definition; what began as an insult meaning “strange,” “odd” or “disturbing” to describe members of the LGBTQ community has now been taken, reclaimed, and “queered,” used for a purpose that deviates from its origins. I see “queering” as something integral to Buddhist practice.
The desire to upturn, bend, or go against is exemplified by the legend of the Buddha throwing a golden bowl up stream. The Buddha’s ability to defy gravity and the laws of physics in this way was both proof of his enlightenment as well as a teaching itself on how to awaken (“The way forward is not downstream, following the natural course of things. Turn around! Face a different way!”). Anytime we let go of clinging, recognize interconnectedness, or step into a larger, more expansive sense of ourselves, that is queering, or changing, our karma and our conditioning.
In addition to the desire to change or overturn, the liberation longed for in queer theory and Buddhism is a liberation that understands and actualizes the interconnected nature of the self. Take, for example, this quote:
Let’s face it. We are undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.
Here, we see the explicit recognition of inter-being and interconnectedness. Our selves are constituted (and undone) in relationship. The reader may wonder who this quote is by. Perhaps it is Thich Nhat Hanh explaining “inter-being?” Or Pema Chodron, encouraging us to recognize the fragile nature of being alive, the way “things fall apart?” But no, it is the queer theorist Judith Butler. She continues:
Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of another.
Here, the similarities between queer theory and Buddhism are both obvious and tenuous; we see a dissolution of self, a recognition of interconnectedness, but this liberation from narrow self is brought about by desire, by bodies (“by the touch, by the scent, by the feel”), not by renunciation. This is a tension between canonical Buddhism and queerness I don’t know how quite to reconcile. As a queer priest who trained in a conservative, Zen convent, I often feel torn between two allegiances: between the desires of my body and my wild heart, and a spiritual practice that seeks to problematize desire itself.
These competing allegiances are also competing selves within me– a self that grows expansive, more joyous, and more alive through desire, and a self that wishes to not desire, a self that has found peace in the simplicity of the in breath and out breath, in giving up and letting go. My question for myself then becomes, how can I hold all parts of myself with kindness? (How) can I be all of the selves I am at once (not “no self,” then, but “all selves”)? How can they all have a voice? Who will hear them, and how? This article, and this collection of Pride essays, is one attempt at allowing many voices, many selves and people, to speak.
This month at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, we wish to celebrate Pride by highlighting the scholarship of our LGBTQ+ students and faculty, as well as queer theory and queer theology in the wider Buddhist world. We are celebrating both “queerness” in its most basic definition, that is, as a descriptor of people whose sexual orientation or gender identity fall outside of societal norms, but we are also celebrating the act of queering itself. Many of the essays published this month hope to queer Buddhism, by using Buddhist doctrine, iconography, and community in creative ways, in ways that subvert or overturn longstanding patterns in Buddhist ways of thinking.
These essays start with a question: what if Buddhism was for queer people, and not simply accepting or tolerant of them? How would Buddhism actually look? What would our paintings, chants, and songs be? Jodo Shin minister CJ Dunford answers this by writing of the “hope offered by imagination.” They literally reimagine the Pure Land as full of gay rainbows, blooming with lotus flowers in the colors of the trans pride flag. Similarly, trans scholar Ray Buckner takes up the problematic nature of desire, of longing for hardness, and boldly argues for the place of embodied desire in Buddhist practice. We’re also proud to publish writing by Rev. Akiko Rogers, and interviews with Rev. Dr. Daijaku Kinst and Rev. Blayne Higa.
In these essays, queerness and queer desire (the desire for other bodies, or for a certain body, as well as for love, belonging, recognition, respect and dignity) is central. “Queer desire” can look many ways. It can be desire for sex with a member of the same gender, but it can also be the simple desire to be oneself and be safe from bodily harm. I would be remiss if I did not forefront the soaring levels of violence against trans women, in particular trans woman of color, in the last year.
Although we celebrate Pride today and throughout the month of June, it’s important to understand that the original purpose of Pride was a riot against police brutality led by trans women of color. At its most basic, Pride is a demand for bodily autonomy, respect, and safety in a racist, homophobic, and sexist world that does not allow certain kinds of people to exist.
The purpose of these essays, then, is to help make space for marginalized people to exist and have a voice, within Buddhism and without. We hope that these essays, articles and interviews will provide you some of the “hope offered by imagination,” that they help you dream and imagine new ways of being, loving, chanting, and worshiping. We invite you to walk down your own desire lines, wherever that takes you.
Ahmed, S. (2019). What’s the Use?: On the Uses of Use. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Butler, J. (2004). Undoing Gender. NY: Routledge.
Dadlani, M. (2020). “Queer Use of Psychoanalytic Theory as a Path to Decolonization: A Narrative Analysis of Kleinian Object Relations.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality.