I have been at a conference in Albania for the last 5 days, the theme of which was LGBT Rights are Human Rights. It was a regional workshop of LGBT activists from around Eastern Europe and the Balkans hosted by the U.S. Government, the Open Society Institute and the Albanian Government. I have attended many conferences, but this one was without a doubt the best conference I have ever attended. I came away with many very useful spiritual lessons.
First some background: A lot of the societies of Eastern Europe and the Balkans are very homophobic for a variety of historical reasons. People are routinely beat up just for being gay, families will kick you out of the house, your family members will be shunned by the community, employers will fire you, landlords will deny you housing, the police will do little to protect you, friends will make fun of you and the Church will condemn you. In such societies, information is even scarce, with the popular understanding being that homosexuality is a disease from which you need to be cured, either by a pyschiatric hospital or by the Church. The social cost of being “out” is enormously high, so people quite obviously stay in the closet.
- “Things do not get better all by themselves, but they do get better when people fearlessly stand up for what is right.” One of the things we did at the conference was make a “it gets better video”, which is a common and true slogan within the LGBT community. But this saying is not entirely correct because things do not get better all by themselves, rather they only do so when people fearlessly stand up for what is right. Samsara will never end on its own, but it will end when we fearlessly refuse to cooperate with it anymore. What impressed me more than anything at the conference was how fearlessness sets you and others free. It is fear of the social penalty that keeps people hidden and allows prejudice to continue. But it only takes a few courageous and dedicated individuals to change everything. Freedom depends on people who are willing to take all that prejudice and hate can throw at them, but still not bow down to ignorance. By fearlessly being willing to absorb the social cost without backing down, you not only free yourself but you make it easier for all others after you. Venerable Geshe-la once said “the truth will never be defeated.” But it takes fearlessness, a willingness and ability to transform mental and physical pain, for there to be victory for ourselves and for others. Ghandi showed the way in this world for bringing about political change in any civil rights movement.
- There is no difference between civil rights movements and the work of a bodhisattva. In general, as Kadampas, we do not mix politics and religion – very dangerous combination. But as Kadampas we are definitely activists of a different kind. Our civil rights struggle is against delusion. Like any traditional activist, we have to overcome our own assenting to oppression (by assenting to our delusion) to be able to help others overcome theirs. Just as homophobic societies keep people in the clost out of fear, so too our delusions keep us unfree out of fear. Saying no to our delusions requires an equal fearlessness to be willing to accept the mental and sometimes physical suffering associated with no longer cooperating with our delusions. For example, to say no to our attachment can be very painful and to give in so much easier. Just like any oppressor, our delusions control us through fear of all that we would lose by saying no to them. Just like a traditional activist, we have to be willing to absorb that cost as a small price to pay for freedom. And just like with traditional activists, our willingness to stand up for what is right (internally in this case), we make it easier for everyone else by showing the example of somebody free (or somebody freeing themseves) from delusion’s choke-hold, and more profoundly by understanding that others are a projection of our mind. And while it is true we do not mix religion and politics as Kadampas, this does not mean we are apolitical. Any form of discrimination, oppression, willingness to sacrifice the majority for the few, etc., is all driven by delusion, and we oppose delusion in all of its forms. Of course we must do so skilfully and not become distracted by pursuing political causes at the expense of our spiritual training. But there is no contradiction between being a Kadampa and having political views – we are the anti-delusion party! Any political views or activities are merely a part of and a natural extension of our larger mission in this world to free all beings from their delusions in the greatest freedom movement of all time!
- Shared suffering and common purpose make for robust and festive communities. The LGBT activists all had a shared suffering and a common purpose, and what made this conference very unique was the incredible sense of family and togetherness among the participants – many of whom did not know each other beforehand. It was actually festive, as people felt free to be themselves without having to hide anything, they naturally understood each other’s struggles and effortlessly sought to support and encourage one another. The subject matter was one of extreme suffering and oppression, but the atmosphere was one of liberating joy and definite emergence. Sound familiar? Our Kadampa “festivals” are well-named and are no different than this weekend’s conference. As Kadampas from around the world, we have a shared suffering (of being controlled by our delusions and being trapped in samsara) and a common purpose (of cultivating the courage and strength within ourselves to free both ourselves and others from delusion and samsara). We come together, talk about our shared suffering of samsara, have a common purpose and mutually support one another. Feeling free and bound together we abide in a festive atmosphere of definite emergence. We should likewise carry this feeling back to our home countries and recreate it within our local sanghas.
- When somebody unassailable makes a declaration of manifest truth and emancipation, it empowers people to have the courage to stand up and bring about change in the world. Hillary Clinton, on her own initiative, gave a landmark speech back in December somewhat akin to the Emancipation Proclamation in which she declared for all LGBT people around the world that LGBT rights are human rights. The fight is not her own, but she understands that if any one person is unfree anywhere, we are all unfree everywhere. While just words, because of who they come from they gave courage to LGBT activists around the world that their cause is just and that if they perservere they will eventually succeed. In the same way, the Buddhas come to us and declare that we all have the right to be free from delusion and that if we perservere in our struggle, we too shall be free.
- Within Buddhism we have a clear explanation as to how and why there would be a wide variety of sexual orientations, none of which are any more wrong or right than any other. To be born a male or a female is a function of the ripened effect of our karma. The ripened effect determines what type of rebirth we take – male or female. Who we are attracted to is a function of the tendencies similar to the cause we have created – if we have generated the mind of being attracted to women frequently in the past, for example, this creates tendencies on our mind to find women attractive. If a female ripened effect ripens and the tendencies similar to the cause of being attracted to women also ripen, then we will be a lesbian. Likewise, if a male ripened effect ripens and the tendencies similar to the cause of being attracted to men also ripen, then we will be gay. Regardless of the ripened effect if the tendencies to be attracted to both women and men ripen, we will be bi. It is also possible to have a dual ripened effect where the ripened effect of our aggregate of form is for example male, but the ripened effect of our aggregates of feeling and discrimination are female (or vice versa). In such a situation we would be transgender (or as they sometimes describe their experience, “a woman trapped in a man’s body”). The different permutations of the ripening of karma are infinite, so it stands to reason that the spectrum of sexual orientations will likewise be infinite. Upon what basis can we say one is correct and another is incorrect. From one perspective they are all equally correct in that it is just different karma that ripens. From another perspective, they are all equally incorrect in that why on earth should anybody find any contaminated aggregates attractive! So there is no valid basis within Buddhism for even the slightest form of homophobia.
- Love is the greatest of all. While I try to never judge any other religion, it is unfortunate when cultural forces and ignorance warp and misconstrue pure spiritual teachings. Jesus is all about love thy neighbor. This is his highest teaching. Surely love and commitment to our fellow human beings is the highest virtue, regardless of what combination of aggregates are involved. It is inconceivable that Jesus was a bigot and a hater, and he never said anything about homosexuality at all. The sin in the tales of Sodom are not the homosexuality, but rather the gluttony and heedless indulgence in sensoral pleasures. What is more sinful, a heterosexual playboy or a committed gay couple? The spiritual value of marriage is an unconditional commitment to choose to love another without end, and such virtue can be shared between any two beings no matter their gender or sexual orientation. Any religious teacher who teaches otherwise has unfortunately become confused about the real meaning of their own spiritual teachings.
- Since people do not read anymore, the key to getting one’s message out these days is by having a good YouTube video. The ability to put a good video together is the modern equivalent of the ability to write a good article in the past. As Kadampas, we need to keep this in mind and develop these skills.
Finally, I had two observations more related to my trip to Albania itself than the LGBT conference.
- Be happy with what you have, not unhappy about what you don’t have. I visited with some very close friends from graduate school. And by all measures, they had a great life – good jobs, great kids, a nice life. But because they had previously been in Geneva, Albania was no longer good enough for them and they wanted to get out. Because their karma does not allow for that for a variety of reasons, there was a layer of frustration and dissatisfaction with their lives. If we check, we are all like this just in different ways. This is a big mistake and ultimately is self-torture. Because all situations are equally empty, all places and all circumstances are equally good (or bad) depending upon how we mentally relate to them. No matter what our circumstance, we can always be dissatisfied and frustrated by what we don’t have or we can choose to be happy and content with what we do have. It is this mental attitude that determines whether we are happy or not, regardless of our external situation.
- If you want to grow and develop in a sustainable way, invest in the infrastructure first. After the fall of communism, everybody wanted to own their own apartments, etc. So everybody started building new apartment buildings and assuming the trappings of Western life. But because the government had not put the infrastructure in beforehand, such as waste water treatment facilities and adequte roads, the apartments were built but nobody could enjoy them. Sewage poured out into the sea making it unusable and a lack of roads made access difficult. Many projects then wound up not being started, but not completed; or many things were built, but never maintained properly. This has lead to a considerable waste of resources. By analogy, this is an important lesson for the development of Dharma centers and spiritual communities. A center’s management should not focus on just increasing the numbers of the people who frequent the center, but rather they should focus on building the infrastructure to support their arrival and staying. Externally, this means safe and clean facilities that are comfortable, accessible, aesthetically pleasing and conducive to spiritual practice. Internally, which is far more important, this means creating a center culture that is free from any judgement, joyful, mutually supportive, free from guilt-tripping and is built on pure spiritual friendships and a shared feeling of community. It is the internal realizations of the practitioners and the joyful social harmony between them that are the essential inner infrastructure of a successful center. If you develop quality external and internal infrastructure, the center will naturally grow. Without them, even if you have a flash growth, it will not last and ultimately will prove a waste.
Sorry for the long post, but it was a really great conference and I wanted to share what I learned.