This month at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, we wish to celebrate gay 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. Read our introduction to this special collection here.
For our first Pride month essay, Gesshin Greenwood talks with Chaplaincy Program Director Rev. Doctor Daijaku Kinst about gay pride, and how queer identity informs Buddhist practice, scholarship, and ministry.
Gesshin: As I sit down to write this, what immediately comes up for me is a kind of preemptive defensiveness about the topic of “pride” and “Buddhism.” So that seems like a good place to start. Why do you think pride is important? Why do we still need to talk about this within Buddhist spaces?
Daijaku: The word “pride” has many implications, and is understood in different ways. It can indicate arrogance, self inflation, conceit. Or it can indicate a feeling of self respect and self worth – a kind of dignity and appropriate regard for oneself. This latter understanding is an essential characteristic for everyone – but particularly marginalized people – to develop.
We live in systems and those systems habitually categorize and demean people (and other beings) in some of those categories. This is delusion. To act to undo that delusion and reclaim ones own (and other’s) dignity is completely in line with Buddhist teachings and practice. In fact it is an expression of it. This is not a liberal interpretation of the dharma it is an accurate one. To support the growth of an accurate understanding of what it means to be is central.
There is much that can be said about this and how practice environments can support or subvert this for any given individual. We need to talk about it because we still live in a deluded system, the saha world, and we need to stay committed to a way of living that is life-giving and respectful of all beings.
The teachings of emptiness and no-self do not negate the very real experience of suffering due to delusion and systemic oppression. We simultaneously regard all beings (animate and inanimate) with respect and care and also understand that they, and we, are empty of inherent existence. Being empty of inherent existence does not mean non-existence. Ethical teachings and practice guidance are an expression of this reality.
As far as practice is concerned, I know you know that Dogen and others repeat over and over that we regard all as Buddha. So how does that not include all the myriad manifestations of beings?
Gesshin: I appreciate you highlighting that learning how to “be” is essential, and that Buddhist teachings should help support people being okay with themselves. Just “being” is hard enough for any human, let alone a person whose identity is constantly being invalidated and shamed! I’m curious, how does being queer impact your teaching of Buddhism?
Daijaku: I suppose it has made me more aware of delusion in a particular way. I came to Soto Zen from a time of vigorous political action on queer and women’s issues. A basic respect and acceptance of me as a feminist and a lesbian was a requirement of mine for any involvement. My initial question when I encountered Soto Zen was “I am a feminist and and lesbian and I do not intend to leave anything at the door. Is there room for me in Soto Zen?” The answer (from a woman priest) was, “Zen practice is about being completely who you are.”
That is a koan I have studied all these years. Who are we fundamentally and how do we live together with all beings in a way that reduces suffering? To see and respond to delusion in its many forms – racism, sexism, homo/transphobia, classism, environmental collapse due to our human stupidity, that people are hungry and unhoused, that we can be so very foolish in so many ways. How do we grant dignity to all, do what we can to address delusion effectively in healthy and vigorous ways, and live with peace of mind, and some measure of joy, and gratitude? Buddhist teachings and Soto Zen practice are the basis of my life in responding as best I can to these questions and the reality of the saha world.
Gesshin: How do you see LGBTQ issues being taken up at IBS and by IBS students?
Daijaku: In my classes and with my students, sexual orientation and gender identity, along with all aspects of our lives, is included. I am grateful when people use their experience, whatever it is, to build understanding and effective response to our world in need. I see students growing in their ability to do that, questioning deeply, wrestling with hard truths, asking penetrating questions of the dharma, of themselves, or each other, of our community and our world. We build trust together. Good hard work that bears fruit and is inclusive.
In general, I see some students finding their way in their lives with regards to queerness and the expression of it in many ways. That is a part of our life together. Some have or are actively (and courageously) wrestling with the reality and impact of homo/transphobia in our world. Our job as a community is to support that process and continue to wake up to and transform delusion.
Gesshin: I do appreciate how you are tying together the threads of Buddhism and queer identity, illuminating how the former can be supportive to the latter. But it seems to me that there is often an ambivalence in Buddhism about queerness, because of how Buddhism relates to the body and to desire. Buddhism began as a monastic, celibate discipline, and so that ascetic bias sort of permeates to this day. Do you have any insights into this ambivalence? What is the path forward?
Hmm, yes it is there in the wider Buddhist world I suppose, but I don’t see ambivalence. Desire, like pride, can be seen in multiple ways. Desire is not toxic craving – it is a fact of life. We desire food, we desire peace, kindness, health, companionship, love in some form – many things. Most of us desire sex. No problem.
What we do with those desires, internally in our own minds and hearts, or externally with others, is the point. Do they lead to wholesome actions (understanding, compassion, mutuality and respect) or unwholesome actions (domination, hatred, disregard, the fog of ignorance) or or not? Kusala or akusala – wholesome or unwholesome, which is it? Do they lead to a deepening of wisdom and compassion and skillful means or not? If we take that as our fundamental question, desire of any kind becomes a teacher. As for the body – according to my tradition the body and mind are inextricably linked, not separate. The “body” is not the enemy of some supposedly separate mind.