Gautama Buddha’s early teachings offered the Way to all members of his society, including women and members of various castes and social classes. The Bodhisattva vow “My intention is to awaken with (or save) all beings” is the earliest manifestation of Engaged Buddhism. These teachings, especially through the modern interpretation of Thich Nhat Hanh, remind us the practice of Buddhism occurs through every day actions and in facing the issues of everyday life. Whereas sweeping floors, cooking rice and chopping wood are part of the daily life of monastics, for the rest of us, our opportunities of engaging our practice come from the environment in which we live.
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel is a self-described African-American, lesbian, disabled Zen priest living in Oakland, California. When I came across the paragraph from book, The Way of Tenderness, cited above, I was struck by its wisdom and clarity. Not only does her vision provide us with one of the best explanations of Engaged Buddhism, but she opened my eyes to how discrimination and exclusion can be dharma gates to compassion, enlightenment and social change.
Any identity, such as sexual orientation, place of birth, ethnicity, race, gender, and class, can provide pathways to awakening. While my queer male cisgender identity is at the forefront, I recognize that my upbringing in a Ukrainian immigrant family, my parent’s working-class background and the opportunities I have had as a white person in the US have also shaped me. As Buddhists, we understand that humans will have a sense of self-identity, while we are inter-connected with all beings. Our delusion comes from believing the story that each of us is completely separate from others.
It is common to view inter-connection as existing only when we perceive it as good or beneficial to us. However, any friction that arises between individuals or groups of people is also part of inter-connection. Zenju’s observation is key—when hate occurs, we are all part of the hate as much as the hater or one who is hated. This was not easy for me to accept. I blamed others for problems that arose and used my Buddhist practice as a shield to say I was not involved. By disavowing those I do not like, did not understand and who seemed to be fundamentally different, I was denying inter-connection.
So how can we engage with hate and discrimination?
The first step to awakening as an engaged Buddhist asks us to step back and view our world as clearly as we are able by dispassionately viewing the causes and conditions that confront us. By reading about and listening to the experiences of people with different identities than mine, such as women, those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds or gender identities, I began to see the world from multiple perspectives. I could begin to acknowledge how views shaped by my experience as a white cisgender, gay man were incomplete.
The next step in practice is to understand our role in the creation of our reality. Even though I am gay, I have contributed to homophobia by not speaking up and by adopting heteronormative behaviors so I could fit in at school, work or just walking down the street. I unconsciously accepted stereotypes based on ethnicity or characteristics of people from different parts of the world. And I discovered the privileges I have in society as a white cisgender male that others do not.
Seeing and experiencing is but one step on the path. I am self-aware enough not to want to hate and create separation, but how can I, along with others, assure that our actions are creating the society we say we want? Some theories of social change assert that an individual needs to change before society can change, while others place the focus on group efforts leading to individual changes. Buddhism supports both theories. I have made it part of my practice to seek out and learn from others whose voices have been marginalized, so that I can be an ally and join them in their struggle for human rights. And in the last year I have participated in vigils and demonstrations against the rise of violence against Blacks and Asians in the U.S and advocated for legal and policy changes.
The Bodhisattva vow asks us to accept awakening only when all beings are included. This seemingly impossible vow acknowledges our inter-connection through our distinct identities. We commit ourselves to this practice without end. Over our lifetimes, how we do this and what this means will change. As Buddhists we know that everything changes. Our solutions to hate in the 2020’s must be quite different than those used to meet the conditions of the 1920s.
Engaging in Buddhism over the Rainbow makes our vows explicit. As queer people, we experience inter-connection daily in its positive and negative forms. We enter the dharma gates that open from our individual and collective experiences and through those gates discover the next one and the next one as we confront our delusions and recognize our own collective awakening.
This post is a translation of my article, “Queer-Dharma als engagierter Buddhismus” published in Ursache \ Wirkung, Special Edition #1, Buddhismus unter dem Regenbogen (Buddhism Under the Rainbow), August 2021 .