We Must Not Accept Crumbs
Looking back on the Dalai Lama’s historic 1997 meeting with the LGBTQ community and why a secular approach to the dharma might be the wisest and safest approach for queer and marginalized people.
by Pablo Das
This pride month marks the 20th anniversary of a historic meeting the Dalai Lama had with members of the LGBTQ+ community regarding his comments on gay male sexuality as sexual misconduct. In looking back on what his comments meant to me, I see the way it conditioned how I approach the dharma as a gay man. This piece was inspired by and is in some ways, a response to an article by Jose Cabezon’s piece "Revisiting the Traditional Buddhist Views on Sex and Sexuality” published by Lions Roar earlier this month and references guidelines on sexual conduct outlined there. Mostly, I offer my own experience with the Dalai Lama's comments then and now.
"We are not crumbs, we must not accept crumbs" - Larry Kramer, 2007
I remember when the Dalai Lama made his infamous comment that sex between men would be considered "sexual misconduct" in his tradition. It was published widely enough in the Buddhist press that year (1996) that I had seen it written up several times even without the internet. I remember the impact that comment had on me. It touched the part of me that, as a young gay man, was always primed to be rejected or put out of the tribe. It touched the part of me that avoided relationships with religious people in my own life, usually Christians, in whom I often perceived a barely papered over tension between their disapproval and their "tolerance" for gay people. I wasn't willing to subject myself to either.
I had initially gravitated towards Buddhism at age 19 in the existential crisis that followed the deaths of my mother to cancer and a younger family friend who was killed in a bus accident. These deaths disturbed me. They were the first significant deaths of my life. Having been raised in an atheist household, I had none of the consolatory beliefs that might have come with a religious upbringing. I needed some framework in which I could come to terms with a life where my beloved ones (whether 60 years old or 16) could be alive one day and gone the next. These are the kinds of experiences that inspire people to turn to religion but I harbored a profound distrust towards the dominant theistic traditions of my own culture. Christianity was undeniably a primary source of the cruelty I had seen towards the gay community as I came of age during the AIDS crisis of the early 90's. I never once considered seeking "refuge" there. Instead, I looked to the east and eventually found Buddhism. I resonated very deeply with the myth of the Buddha's life story and the existential issues that motivated his quest. I shared what I understood to be his urgency to find peace with birth, aging, sickness and death.
While I had entered into my exploration cautiously, my earliest encounters with Buddhism felt very safe. Buddhism seemed to present itself at very least, as non dogmatic, and at best (for my constitution) as not a religion at all. I had heard many times in those early years that "the Buddha wasn't a Buddhist" and I found safety in the notion that The Dharma wasn't originally presented as a religion. When I read the Dalai Lama's comments, however, my experience shifted to one of "the other shoe dropping" confirmation that despite my hope that Buddhism would be different, it could in fact, manifest as a dogmatic "religion" with some of the same oppressive messages found in Christianity. For me, his comments were clarifying. They were (along with all of the Gods and demons stuff I also found off putting in Tibetan Buddhism) a signal that his particular tradition was not a fit for me and I was drawn towards the more pragmatic sensibilities of the modern insight tradition.
There is an age old debate within the queer movement about whether we are just like everyone else or whether we are inherently or by virtue of our particular distinct experience in the world, not like everyone else. I'm mostly in the "not like everyone else" camp. This is obvious to me in so many ways, including the role sexuality plays between gay men, the roles we assume within it and the types of intimate relationships we form. My queerness is the most important and impactful identity I hold in terms of how it conditions the way I experience and navigate the world. This is meaningful when interfacing with spiritual, religious or healing traditions.
To be fair, the Buddhist world at large, at least as I experience it, remains a relatively safe place. I have rarely encountered explicit homophobia. But even the modern insight tradition is not free from more subtle forms of oppression, suppression, and marginalization. Blind spots within the tradition and biases of it’s teachers are plenty. Heteronormative presentations of sexuality are standard and there are still highly regarded and powerful senior teachers who present themselves as having transcended their queer sexuality (not a goal of mine) or who are unwilling or unable to integrate the truth of their queerness into their public dharma. I left a spiritual community I had been a longtime member of, in part, because of dismissive and marginalizing views on queer sexuality expressed by one its senior teachers. I can see now that all of this has conditioned and reinforced in me a healthy and necessary “arms length" relationship with Buddhism.
I know I’m talking about something that happened 20 years ago, but in my opinion, if reports about the meeting are true, The Dalai Lama was engaging in the worst kind of deference to tradition. He was, on one hand, acknowledging quite clearly that there were no negative consequences for a society that embraced gay male sexuality and yet he was unable or unwilling to break with his tradition, choosing instead to affirm the party line view that it was a moral evil "for Buddhists" no matter the cost for its queer practitioners. This strikes me as odd, considering the famous statement the Dalai Lama made about Buddhism and science saying "If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims."
All of this might have been ok if one could simply dismiss the guidelines as consistent within the cultural context of the time. But here, in our own time, we had the most powerful and visible figurehead in all of Buddhism affirming these guidelines. This is precisely the problem with religion. It is so often unmovable in the face of new information and the evolution of our understanding as a culture. This runs so counter to what I feel to be the true adaptive spirit of the dharma. This rigidity has consequences.
What this does for a gay practitioner is creates a dynamic where the power and authority of the establishment was in a sense, leveraged against the psyche of anyone unwilling to suppress a fundamental part of their queer nature, lest you be in poor standing with the tradition. This, for me, is a non-starter. This dynamic of having to suppress our nature to be accepted into the tribe is our core collective trauma as a people. Many of us have had to do this to avoid physical or emotional violence or being thrown out of our families. Furthermore, most of us are already managing an internalized sense that something is wrong with us, which for many, was originally installed by religion.
One of my queer heroes, Larry Kramer, the founder of Act up and award winning playwright and author of the Normal Heart, wrote an article published in 2007 by the LA times about the failure of the democratic presidential candidates to publicly affirm and assert our right to marry (which they believed was not politically expedient at the time). He urged gay people not to vote for any candidate that did not affirm our relationships. The article began with the words "We are not crumbs. We must not accept crumbs." Larry, in a way unlike any other voice in the gay movement, asserts an uncompromising hardline expectation that we should achieve full equality and be allowed to live with total dignity. Anything short of that is unacceptable for him. For me, his "we must not accept crumbs" philosophy became a kind of guiding principle in my life. While I have some space and patience for the growth of people around me (I certainly have benefitted from the patience afforded me by transgender friends, women and people of color around my own bias and blindness) I don't stay long in circles where there isn't a ground level positive affirmation of queerness or where I cannot be received fully and without shame. My own psychological safety as a gay man is a prerequisite for engaging with just about anything, particularly spiritual or healing communities which require periods of such profound vulnerability.
Years ago I realized something about the relationship I needed to have with Buddhism. I began to locate myself somewhere outside of Buddhism in a space free from obligation to accept any teaching uncritically or hold the party line views of my tradition. In some sense, I traded my Buddhist identity for a freestanding relationship with the Dharma that allowed me to vett the teachings in the laboratory of my own body, heart and mind and through the filter of my distinct experience as a gay person. Later, I'd understand that affirmations for such an approach were central to the original teachings of the Buddha with his teaching to the Kalamas and his encouragements to find oneself "independent of others in the dharma".
At some point it occurred to me that there is an argument to be made that the wisest approach to the dharma for queer people (and perhaps members of other marginalized communities) is actually not to give our hearts and minds wholesale over to traditions or institutions that don't affirm us, but rather to approach the dharma in a way consistent with what has come to be known as a "secular" approach.
Proponents of a secular approach to dharma (and here I join them) argue for an approach that is free of the dogma and baggage of the "religion" of Buddhism. We want a dharma to be informed by and cleanly interface with the particular world view and cultural norms of our own time and place. We want a dharma free from a bias for metaphysics and instead, pragmatic and useful in daily life. And most importantly to me, as a gay man, we want a dharma that is free from blind deference to authority.
At the end of the day, I am only interested in engaging with Buddhist tradition in so much as I am spared having to entertain things like a "dialogue" with ancient monastic men about what I can do with my dick. I've been around the Buddhist block enough to see the folly and danger of projecting too much onto our Buddhist authorities. As dedicated, wise and lovely as they are, they are often simply human beings every bit as fucked up and wounded as I am. I have to be honest, though I have great respect for monastics, it's hard for me to see these particular guidelines on sexuality as anything more than the product of straight (albeit ancient) authoritarian male bias. I can't have sex with my boyfriend, but they can have prostitutes?
As I have spoken about this with gay friends, more than one of them responded with a comment like "are we really expected to believe that all of these hot young guys who've chosen to lives in colonies of wise and sensitive men were never ever having sex with one another?" Indeed. My mind goes to the many stories of anti-gay republicans or Christian pastors who advocate or legislate against gay sexuality but who are found later sucking off their staffers or alter boys in men’s bathrooms. This “do as I say, while I blow the pool boy” thing is such a known phenomenon in politics and religion (We forget the Dalai Lama is both a politician and a religious leader) that the human rights campaign took out an ad on Grindr (the gay male hookup app) during last year's conservative political action conference which said "you can't be with us in the hotel room and against us in the CPAC ballroom".
For better or worse (and while I acknowledge the potential wisdom of "baby with the bath water" counter arguments) I'm clear with myself that I'm willing to forego whatever benefits I may derive from engagement with any particular non-affirming tradition, community or teacher to preserve my psychological wellbeing and retain a basic sense of human dignity. Moreover, in this particular case, I don't feel it is necessary for me to wade (for years, perhaps) through the swamp of "cultural context" and "dominant paradigms" of ancient texts from a tradition that I determined long ago wasn't a fit for me, only to arrive at a very simple ethical standard; that our actions should support wellbeing and not cause harm. This, after all, is what's at the heart of all Buddhist ethical teachings.
For me, a secular approach to Dharma is one that frees me to engage with the teachings without submitting to unhealthy psychological spaces or with a non-critical deference to the wisdom of non queer people. It gives me back an agency to determine what teachings are worth my consideration and which are not without an authoritarian overlay of tradition and religion. This journey from deference to unhealthy authoritarian cultural paradigms into trusting and honoring oneself IS the movement of liberation for queer people throughout time. As a people we have always had to innovate and make things our own. We have had to refuse and resist what doesn't support our particular "not like everyone else" wellbeing. It should be no different in our spiritual pursuits.
Recently, I've been mulling over a very striking statement that one of my most beloved teachers made to me recently when he said "The dharma is too Important to leave in the hands of Buddhists". As I look back on the Dalai Lama's comments 20 years ago, I see the wisdom of that statement.