Lions Roar: 6 Buddhist Leaders Reflect on the US Midterms and What Comes Next

Bridging Dharma and Political Action

Pablo Das

As the midterms come to an end and we turn to the 2020 presidential election cycle, I encounter a familiar internal tension between dharma practice and what it means to engage with representative democracy. Three dharma concepts frame my political engagement. They are: the first noble truth, responsiveness, and peace. I try to hold them my mind simultaneously.

  1. The first noble truth asserts that life, including politics, does not do what we want. I can mitigate my suffering by expecting not to get my way. The suffering we seek to end in Buddhist practice is that which we self-generate out of resistance to life on its own terms.

  2. Dharma practice is not passive, it’s responsive. It’s a path of wise communication, compassionate action, and principled engagement with the marketplace. Some feel politics should be left out of dharma. For me, political engagement, because it is so consequential, is an obvious extension of Buddhist ethics. I’m not so interested in a dharma that can’t respond to attacks on transgender people, the mainstreaming of white supremacy, and the pervasive trauma of sexual assault.

  3. Refusing to dehumanize those who are different from me. As a gay man who feels threatened in the Trump era, this is really hard. I fail all the time. But we are at war with each other in this country. I fear it could get much worse. Someone has to take a stand for peace. If not Buddhists, then who?

See full post here


You are the Authority

When I was studying at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in 2006, they had a sort of mantra which was “One person’s food is another person’s poison”. What that mantra pointed to is an often overlooked truth that where food is concerned, there is no one right way that works universally for all. There isn’t even one right way for a single individual over the course of their life. What a person needs when they’re 20 isn’t what they need when they’re 45 or 65. What they need in the summer isn’t what they need in the winter. Etc...

Similarly, in the process of getting sober and navigating the dogmatic world of recovery, I had a similar revelation. 12 steps work for some people. Therapy works for others. For me, 12 step was a totally unintelligible system but a combination of practical dharma and trauma work has kept me sober for many years. There is no one right way to get sober.

It’s taken me much longer to realize that the same is true for spirituality and religion. There is no one system that works for everyone. Not Buddhism, not theism, not yoga, not atheism. 

There is no one right way!

These days, I keep some distance from those who think their teachings are “perfect” and above honest critical analysis. I stay away from those who think their path is the “right” one for everyone.

While engagement with wisdom holders is a necessary part of the process of spiritual growth and healing, be careful not to put them on a pedestal. I know many of them. Trust me, they’re just humans a little further along (sometimes) than you are. Don’t live in deference to your religion, your particular tradition or your teachers. Ultimately, you have to arrive at an understanding that YOU are the only authority for what supports your own deepest wellbeing! That authority is established by paying attention to the results of your engagement with your practices in the laboratory of your own body, heart and mind. Claim your authority! Take what works and let go of the rest. Make your path fully yours. Make yourself “independent of others” in your dharma!

One person’s food is another person’s poison.
One person’s recovery is another person’s dogma.
One person’s dharma is another person’s prison.

Thanks for listening.

Pablo Das

Three types of trauma

By Pablo Das

I define trauma as that which arises when an event or a set of ongoing conditions overwhelms one's capacity for presence and an empowered response. Trauma leaves feeling victimized and unable to respond. It overwhelms. If it doesn't overwhelm, it's probably not trauma. Trauma leaves us with a vast array of possible symptoms which effect us on many levels. Trauma effects self regulatory abilities, the way we view ourselves and our relational capacities. 

In my work, I recognize three general categories of trauma. 

1.  Single event or "shock" trauma.

2.  Developmental trauma.

3. The trauma of social oppression.

Shock trauma occurs when an event like a sexual assault, an attack or an accident overwhelms or leaves us feeling disempowered or victimized. One interesting thing about single event trauma is that different people will have different experiences with the same event. For example, two people can be in an accident but only one of them may experience trauma symptoms. This means trauma isn't just about the event. It's about an individual person's experience with an event which might be determined by the state of their particular nervous system.

This brings us to the type of trauma that's related to our development and early childhood. Our brains and nervous systems develop in relationship to our environment growing up. Especially in relationship to our primary caregivers. What happens in our childhood environment has a big impact on our capacity to meet adverse experiences later in life. As adults, those of us with nervous systems that have been impacted by developmental trauma, may have less resilience or capacity than others and be more vulnerable to potentially traumatizing experiences. 

Social marginalization and oppression is potentially very traumatizing. Social oppression like racism, homophobia and transphobia are pervasive and ever present.  This kind of trauma might precipitate symptoms that look a lot like both developmental and single event trauma, but it's worthy of a distinction because it's a much more personal kind of trauma. The ever present threat is connected to who you are or who you might be perceived to be. Also social trauma is an ongoing experience. While single event trauma, like an accident, is contained within a definable period of time, oppression isn't. It creates a threat that endures on many levels and operates in subtle and profound ways every day throughout the duration of one's life. Furthermore, a person who is a member of an oppressed social group may experience intergenerational trauma which manifests as traumatic symptoms that are connected to a legacy of oppression from earlier generations. This type of trauma is transmitted at the genetic level. 

Many people in our society have all three of these types of trauma occurring at once. 

The management and resolution of trauma can be a complex matter. It's usually long term work. Some level of mindful presence is required for the resolution of trauma. But mindfulness can also become counterproductive if not integrated in a trauma informed way. Traumatic content is very powerful and the traumatized psychology can be very sensitive. Traditional mindfulness practice needs to be balanced with an understanding of how trauma operates. In my view, mindfulness itself is not a path to healing trauma, but people with a background in mindfulness practice are well positioned to do the work of trauma management and resolution.

Holistic wellness principles are also helpful because they create a context in which one can be conscious of how they build capacity and resilience. Sometimes when clients get dysregulated or experience what some of my clients call being "in the trauma vortex" It's helpful to have a map for restoring resilience. And coming back from the vortex. This is where being conscious of a more holistic approach to wellness can be very useful. They allow us to identify variables we can engage to support self regulation and resilience in the system. 

Somatic experiencing is my preferred method for mapping the trauma healing process and supporting management and ultimate resolution. In somatic experiencing we think of trauma symptoms as manifestations of incomplete self protective responses. We work with the system to support a process of moving towards resolution of those symptoms by bringing them to completion in a safe and turreted way, without overwhelming the system again.The work happens in phases. At first the client may find themselves in a chaotic place where there's no real agency and a sense of being out of control. Building capacity and learning certain skill sets, including mindfulness and self regulatory practices, brings us into a sense of more control over our experience. In the begin from we cultivate more presence and a capacity for self regulation. It is in the context of that second phase of capacity and skill building that we can finally move to completion of incomplete self protective responses. All of this influences and requires a reframing of how we view ourselves and helps to shift relational patterns as well replacing deference to others anddisempowerment with more boundaries, a sense of self respect and an ability to defend oneself physically and emotionally. 

Don't they know who we are? 

By Pablo Das

Yesterday Donald Trump joined, rather predictably, with the other republican presidents of my lifetime in using the queer community as a wedge for his own political gain. Just like Reagan who had a top down mandate in his administration not to address the AIDS crisis, or anything else concerning the wellbeing of gay people, for that matter.

I will forever resist any historical revision that frames Reagan as anything other than one of the cruelest men in American history...and not just to queer people. 

Just like Bush Jr, who used his state of the union address to propose a constitutional amendment (take that in) to insure that queer relationships would never be validated and protected by marriage equality. 

And who lied to the American people to propagate a war with Iraq which killed hundreds of thousands of people. 

And now here we are again, back on that old chestnut of using the military (yawn!) to try to deny us our dignity and to destroy lives. Doesn't he know that we have been fighting that battle since Frank Kameny took on the military in 1958? Doesn't he know we win these battles over and over?

I guess he thought that if he singled out our trans friends that he could get away with it? Doesn't he know he's picking on the bravest most resilient people on the fucking planet? These people endure even when the L,G and B don't have their back. 

And dignity? Mine doesn't come from some association with or affirmation from the military. It comes from knowing the history of my people. Once you know who you are, nothing that they can throw at you can disrupt the sense of dignity one has when they discover the history that was erased. The history they didn't teach you. 

Let's get something "straight" about our history. If you want to understand bravery you need to look to queer people! We have always flourished in the face of great danger. Every one of us cooked in the fire of a rite of passage that requires us to dig down deep inside, find out who we are, stand in our truth and "come out" despite the danger to our bodies and psyches. We endure the losses. We create our own families when ours have rejected us and then somehow still create the most beautiful things on earth. Think Hockney. Think Ginsberg. Think Tchaikovsky! Think Sondheim. Don't they know who we are?

We are the ones who walked through our public schools alone being beat up, spit on and harassed and often with no allies, sometimes with the authority figures joining in! And fuck it! Many of us flourished anyway!

We are the ones who rose up against the armed insurgent police at the battles of Gene Compton's cafe, Coopers, the Black Cat and Stonewall. We are Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P and Alexei Romanov! 

We persevered against the threat of state mental hospitals where by the thousands, we were castrated, lobotomized and electro-shocked. Where we faced great state sanctioned cruelty. We came out anyway! 

We came out while they blackmailed us, published our names in the paper, evicted us and disowned us!

Don't they know who we are? 

We are the ones who walked through the war of the AIDS epidemic even as we were betrayed by our own governments and families. We stood among our dead. We stood up to the president. We stood up to the pharmaceutical industry. We took on Wall Street. We took on the church! And we got the life saving medications. Against all odds. No one did that for us! WE did that. We saved ourselves! We are Larry Kramer and Cleve Jones and Ken Jones and Cecilia Chung. 

You want to understand what bravery is? Look at the legacy of trans people. For whom any day can be a stroll through a virtual war zone which we call American society. Especially in the trump era. And yet, we as a people, continue to challenge gender norms and present ourselves any way we fucking feel like presenting ourselves! 

Donald Trump and now, Jeff Sessions with his claim that we are not worthy of protection as "homosexuals" (we know you chose that word carefully, to reduce us to sex acts!) are picking on people who thrived when we had nothing going for us. But guess what? Now, we have real power. We have the hearts of the majority of the American people, not given to us by politicians, but gained at great personal risk by our brave and resilient queer pioneers and in coalition with the other great movements for civil rights and our straight allies. We are not going to give an inch of it away. Not an inch.

In the name of Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin, Harry Hay, Phylis Lyon, Del Martin, Christine Jorgensen, Larry Kramer, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P Johnson, Luke Sissyfag, Allen Ginsberg, Frank Kameny, Barbara Giddings, Act-up, Queer Nation, the GAA, STAR, Lesbian Avengers, Stonewall, Compton's, Black Cat, the GLA. And in the name of the women's liberation movement, and the black civil rights movement, the anti war movement and the labor movement! In the name of the countless members of our community that didn't make it. Especially the kids. 

We will not stop fighting until we have achieved full equality and protection under the law for all people. ALL people! 

Thanks for listening.

Bye Felicia!

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Actions Bring Results

By Pablo Das


What we think, what we pay attention to, what we say and what we do all have an impact on our sense of wellbeing both personally and interpersonally. This is a simple way of understanding Karma. Karma is a word that basically means action. In the dharma, one simple way of understanding karma is to acknowledge that our actions bring results. In this case "action" means anything you do. Thinking, paying attention, speaking, acting and otherwise engaging with the world all brings results. Those results can either condition a sense of wellbeing in life or something like suffering or harm. 

If you were to bring to mind the most beautiful place you've ever been, that would have one kind of impact on your experience. If you were to bring to mind something that concerns you, that would have another kind of impact. Something as simple as what we pay attention to brings results. (You might notice the impact on your nervous system of whatever you pay attention to next in your Facebook feed) This is just an insight into the way things are. Really integrating this knowing into your moment to moment life can have a major impact on you and those around you. 

The opening lines of a popular collection of Buddhist teachings called the Dhammapada contains a useful image. "Speak or act with a corrupted mind and suffering will follow like the cart follows the ox that pulls it. Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow like a never departing shadow." 

At first glance, what is illustrated here is a clear relationship between what we do and what we experience as a result of what we do. In this case either happiness or suffering. (Actions bring results). But there's something else going on here. 

Along with actions and results were asked to pay attention to another variable. The quality of mind that precedes and informs the action. We could think of this as intention or motivation. The dharma places a lot of attention on the cultivation of certain types of intentions, namely kindness and compassion. We end up with the following equation. 

Intention (motivation) + action = results.

This is not hard to understand in the real world. If you speak and act from hatred or with an intention to to do harm, you will get a certain kind of result. If you speak or act from kindness and compassion, you will get another kind of result. This is clear.

Results = wellbeing or suffering. 

The core underlying principle in all of this is cause and effect. There's a chain of events unfolding in every moment which we can all wake up to. What we wake up to is that we are constantly playing a role in the creation of the next set of conditions in our lives and that in every moment we can make our thoughts, what we tend to with awareness, our speech and actions as well as our intentions, conscious. This awareness can be the difference between a life of wellbeing and one of suffering and harm. 


Compassion, Pain and Joy.

by Pablo Das


One of my earliest spiritual insights was that the development of compassion had something to do with a willingness to be present for pain. Over the years, I've picked up some good lines from my teachers on the subject. One teacher would say "compassion is what kindness morphs into when it encounters suffering". Another said "compassion is the appropriate response to pain". That same teacher would point out that compassion was only necessary when pain was present. It only made sense in relationship to pain. The message was that compassion and pain are intertwined. They are connected. One conditions the need for (or development of) the other. 

A human being can have lots of responses to pain. We can deny it, choose not to deal with it, we can numb it, we can rage against it or channel it into violence. Pain can harden us. We can construct narratives about ourselves, others and the world in response to it. We can, in a sense, become it. It can make us bitter, addicted and dangerous to others.

Or... we can do something totally different with it.

The dharma has what I believe to be a unique and perhaps defining relationship to pain. Often one of the first teachings we hear in dharma circles is an acknowledgement that pain is a non negotiable fact of life. We hear right away that pain and suffering are of primary concern in the dharma. We hear that to live with more freedom requires more  presence for pain. 

When I was younger, I found this to be so helpful. I first encountered the dharma when I was 19 after the deaths of my mother and a family friend. I was struggling with coming out as a gay man in the middle of the AIDS crisis and had experienced a couple significant traumatic episodes connected to random gun violence as a young person. I was in a lot of pain. 

Hearing that pain was a normal part of life was very affirming. It made me feel less alone and gave me hope that through something called "practice", I could find a balanced relationship to my pain. So I started meditating. 

Around that same time, I also started drinking. Years later, when the cost benefit analysis of the drinking swung too much in the direction of "cost", I stopped. When I did, I was amazed to see that I had somehow, through "practice", developed a new skill set that allowed me to relate to my pain differently. Good thing, because, despite my attempts at running from the pain with alcohol, it was all waiting for me on the other end of my run. But I was prepared this time in a way that I hadn't been earlier in my life. I could stay more present and more importantly, meet the pain with kindness, patience, acceptance and, yes, compassion. This was how I was trained in the dharma.

The possibility of a compassionate life begins with the acknowledgement of pain in ourselves and others and a willingness to turn towards it and be present with it. To be compassionate means to acknowledge pain with acceptance, as just a part of what it means to be alive. If you're a human you're going to experience pain. Your body will hurt, you will experience loss and disappointment. Life will not always do what you want.  Perhaps you'll even experience trauma. When we start to be present with it, we get a sense of a whole new way of living opening up. A more responsive way. When we aren't so afraid of pain and discomfort we can begin to find new ways of being with ourselves and with others and we can think, speak and act in ways that support wellbeing and minimize harm.

It's important to remember, especially in these times, that pain is not the whole story. Life is always some balance of pleasure and pain. Sometimes we get so caught up in what's difficult that we forget to orient to the beauty and joy that's right in front of us. 

One of my teaching colleagues once said "no matter what your heart and mind get contracted around there's always something else that's true". Life is never just pain. If it were, none of us would make it. We all have resources that keep us resilient. We could benefit from making them conscious. 

Staying connected to the joy and beauty in this life makes acknowledgement of that which is not preferable to us possible. It makes the work of presence with pain manageable. Life is never all pleasure and no pain. It is also never all pain and no pleasure. Our practice is a call to orient to both. Our practice is to cultivate more presence for the full range of human experience. In this way you become whole. In this way you begin to heal.


What is the point of dharma practice?


by Pablo Das

This Thursday night in Los Angeles, I begin teaching a 4 week class series called “Living the Four Noble Truths” which is really a course about a style of engagement with the world. As you may or may not know, the fourth of the 4 truths is about cultivation of a way of living. Central to this path is the idea of karma. One simple way of talking about Karma is to say that what we do brings results. By “do” I mean thinking, speaking and acting. There’s a rather simple equation at the heart of the concept of karma which is this: Intention (motivation) + action = results.  This I believe is why we see that 4 of the “8 folds” of the path are concerned with intention and conduct. What I’ve learned through dharma study and practice, is that what precedes our speech and action is more important than the conduct itself. It’s very clear that when we speak and act with an intention to be kind and compassionate, that we get a different result than when we speak or act just from anger or frustration. I’m not one to pathologize anger. Anger is fine. It’s even useful sometimes. But we can be angry and still try to respond to a situation in a way that doesn’t cause more harm, that makes space for more insight and creates or restores interpersonal harmony. How do we do that? That’s what the other three truths are all about.


The first truth asks us to wake up to the fact that life will always be some balance of pleasant and unpleasant conditions. The second truth tells us that we are wired to react to pleasant and unpleasant experience in rather predictable ways. We want to get rid of pain and maintain pleasure. The third truth reminds us that if we have an objective relationship with reactivity, we can experience it’s impermanent nature which opens the possibility of a totally different way of responding. This brings us back to the cultivation of the 8 fold way of living. This way of living is organized around very practical matters. Speaking, acting and particpating in the marketplace in a way that embodies kindness and compassion. This for me, is the point of practice.


I hope you’ll consider joining me Thursday night for this series.


You are the authority on your own wellbeing. 

by Pablo Das.

You are the ultimate authority on your own wellbeing. That might seem like a strange thing for a teacher and a wellness coach to say, but it's true.

Years ago, I was training in a holistic health program where I learned about all the major dietary theories. The school I went to did something interesting. They encouraged us to have the direct experience of trying out the various diets instead of just accepting them uncritically, even though our faculty was full of experts who each "wrote the book" on their respective dietary systems. So for the time between our monthly sessions we tried everything from macrobiotics to raw vegan diets to Atkins. We tried diets meant to cleanse, diets designed to support the immune system and diets rooted in ethical conviction.

Every presenter compellingly sold us on why their diet was the most heath supportive, disease reversing and longevity producing diet ever conceived. After a few months, confusion began to set in as each new "expert" contradicted what seemed like sacred dogmas of the one before. Turns out this was an intentional part of the program. Every new doctor, researcher and nutritional scientist presented their way as "THE" way.  But because we each were having direct experiences trying out the diets, and communicating with each other, we started to see that there actually was no universally “right” way of eating that supported the health and well-being of all people uniformly. I remember, for example, trying the raw foods diet and feeling terrible while another person in my cohort suddenly found the energy to run marathons. I started that training as an ethical (but wildly imbalanced) vegetarian and finished the training as a person who understood, experientially not theoretically, that animal based fat and protein sources were what were right for my body. I've said many times to clients that where food is concerned, that any conflicts between a theory and what the body actually needs must always be decided in favor of the body.

The recurring mantra of the training program was "one person's food is another person's poison". What I learned is that while it's important to have the guidance of teachers and wisdom holders, nobody would have all the answers for me. They actually couldn't. We're all so different. Even within the course of our own lives we can see what we need at one point in life is not what we need at another. What works in the summer doesn't work in the winter.

What I discovered was that the authority was me. That authority was established through trial and error and by paying attention to the results of what I consumed in the laboratory of my own body, heart and mind. It meant I had to be present and it meant that I had to take responsibility for my life. 

What I didn’t realize then is that this truth would be affirmed for me in different ways, over and over throughout my life. As a gay man, raised in an atheist household, I would not get sober in the traditional way, like everyone else. As a person whose nervous system has been impacted by trauma, I would not practice mindfulness like everyone else. As a person with sugar and wheat sensitivities, I would not eat like everyone else. So many times, I’ve had to critically analyze, test and sometimes reject the dietary, spiritual, healing and recovery authorities and find my own path. I'm not saying we can do it all alone. You need help and your teachers have so much to offer you. But ultimately, as your practices mature, there will be times when you must find the strength to reject dogma and reclaim the authority to walk your own path to a fulfilling, healthy and authentic life.

As a teacher and coach, I seek to support my clients in reclaiming that sense of agency and authority in their own wellness and healing practices. I seek to be a "guide on the side" not an authoritarian expert. 

May you find within yourself the capacity to trust your own heart and your own inner knowing and walk your own path with wisdom and without apology.  You don't need permission.

For more information on my coaching practice please visit my coaching page. 

Please see this page for a special offer on coaching.

What Does it Mean to “Awaken” in the Dharma?

By Pablo Das.


We talk a lot in dharma circles about awakening. But what does that mean? There are probably as many answers to this question as there are practitioners and teachers. For me, as a person who’s always been drawn to the more pragmatic expressions of dharma, the teaching on the four noble truths offers one possible answer.

The four noble truths could be understood as an attempt at articulating what it is that constitutes awakening. The text, in this case assumed to represent the voice of the Buddha as he teaches, reads “If I had not had insight into these four truths, I would not have claimed to have had an awakening”. So what then are we awakening to? 

First, that life is a balance of pleasure and pain and that it can never be just pleasure and no pain. Life is full of experiences that are not preferable to us. Pain and difficulty are part of the package. The beauty, joy and pleasure of life are balanced with pain, disappointment and loss. Human connection, community and love is contrasted with hetero-supremacy, transphobia, misogyny, racism and more. In small and profound ways, we don’t always get what we’d prefer in this life. It is possible to wake up to this and change our relationship to life on its own terms in a way that supports wellbeing and minimizes unnecessary suffering and harm.

Second, that our minds are wired to react to the balance of pleasant and unpleasant experience. This is key! The mind wants to get rid of what's unpleasant and obtain or maintain that which we prefer. I prefer to call this habit of mind “reactivity”. Sometimes it's appropriate to consciously heed that sense of liking or disliking things and take a stand against injustice or get to safety when there's a threat. But it's usually not wise to follow the prompts of reactivity uncritically. Sometimes trying to get rid of what's unpleasant only compounds suffering. Addiction is a good example of this. Waking up to reactivity of mind means cultivating equal presence for pleasant and unpleasant experience without being unconsciously compelled by reactivity all the time. This reactivity is identified in the teachings as a hinderance to the cultivation of a wise way of living in the world.

Third, when we leave reactivity alone we can experience its impermanent nature. As a result of what we might call “non-reactive presence” we free ourselves from the suffering that often arises from blindly following the reactivity of mind.

Finally, in that space of non-reactive presence, we awaken to the possibility of a very different way of living. When we free ourselves from the cycles of reactivity, we open up a space of conscious choice. We can respond in an empowered way to whatever is going on whether it’s personal or political. The dharma teaches us how to cultivate a way of being in the world that is informed by the cultivation of kindness and compassion and rooted in the wisdom of knowing how life really is.

For me, non reactivity is not an end in and of itself. There is an argument to be made that the four truths suggest that the real objective is the cultivation of a style of engagement with the world through speech, action and participation in the marketplace. One rooted in wisdom and empowerment. What non reactive presence does is awakens us to the possibility of responding in kind, compassionate and empowered ways. I see “the path” as one of engagement with the world not just one of personal growth. One that considers the health, wellbeing, safety and protection of all people. Especially the most vulnerable. 

Awakening, therefore, is about accepting the inevitable balance of preferable and not so preferable experiences in life and freeing oneself from the prompts of reactivity so that one can cultivate a life which is responsive instead of reactive.  


Join me for a 4 week series in Los Angeles beginning next week called "Living the Four Noble Truths". Beginning July 13th. Register here.

We Must Not Accept Crumbs by Pablo Das

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.

Conditionality and Wellness.

by Pablo Das

Years ago I heard a Buddhist teacher talking about the principle of conditionality. He explained it by saying that nothing exists independent of it's causes. Which is to say that everything you can perceive with your senses, exists because of a set of conditions which brought it into being. This is easy to understand in the physical world. Trees, for example,  exist because of a set of causes which have come together. Among these causes are sun, soil, water and an acorn. No tree! No sun... no tree! This is also true of our non-physical experiences. We might feel loneliness as a result of isolation or joy when we behold natural beauty. Whatever we are experiencing, it has a set of causes which preceded it and conditioned it's existence.   

The experience of wellbeing is no different.  It arises due to it's causes. If one is interested in experiencing a higher level of wellbeing in this lifetime, then that work necessarily involves   identifying the variables in our lives which have an impact on how we feel. Furthermore, we have to engage those variables in an appropriate and effective way to get the outcomes we seek. The best way I can explain the work I do is to say that I help my clients identify and engage the causes of human wellbeing. This may necessitate addressing whatever barriers there may be as well. Dealing with what gets in the way is as necessary as doing what is required of us to be well. The work of creating and maintaining wellbeing always entails some set of renunciations as well as disciplines.

The experience of wellbeing is not mysterious, and we don't have to get too cerebral about it.  We know it when we feel it. What we do have to do is get present. Mindful presence enables the entire process. This is why the practice of mindfulness is at the heart of all of my work .

The work also requires that we trust ourselves as the authority on our own wellbeing. The path to a higher level of wellbeing is different for everyone. I witnessed this very clearly in my training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition where we were trained in all of the dominant nutritional systems. During our training we were encouraged to try each system out for ourselves. It was amazing to watch each different person's experience with different dietary systems. I remember that when we tried the vegan raw foods diet, I personally felt terrible while another person in my group was literally running marathons on a raw foods diet.  The motto of the training program was "one person's food is another person's poison". Turns out it's the same with exercise, trauma resolution. spiritual practice and just about everything else. There is no one right way that works for all people and there is no unassailable external authority. In some ways my job is to help people let go of dogmatic beliefs imposed by gurus, healers and the people who write the diet or spiritual books and encourage them realize the authority is actually oneself. That authority is established in the laboratory of your own body, heart and mind. When you attune deeply with yourself, are mindfully present and appropriately responsive and engage the variables that support wellbeing and let go of those which inhibit it,  you will heal and and flourish. You just need the right maps and the right support. As one of my teachers used to say; "give your body and mind half a chance and you'll heal". Thats what bodies, hearts and minds do. 

For more information on Pablo Das' coaching practice, Please visit Causes of Wellbeing.


Lion's Roar Commentary: Why this gay Buddhist teacher is dubious about Buddhist refuge in the Trump Era. - By Pablo Das


I love you, Western Buddhism, but as a gay man, I find your privileged lack of urgency in the wake of the election of Donald Trump disturbing. This is not a new feeling for me.

Last week, someone sent me a link to the article, “Buddhist Teachers Respond to Trump’s Presidential Win.” Several Buddhist teachers had written a paragraph or two offering their wisdom. As I read, I felt a very familiar disappointment and anger arising in me. While some of the entries were good enough (invariably the ones from people of color), most left me feeling that these were the words of people who don’t know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of oppression under a conservative government. People with no skin in the game. Certainly, these are not the words I’m hearing from my black female best friend, my Mexican American niece, or my trans friend.

I had an experience a few years ago which transformed me as a Buddhist teacher: a non-white male student of mine told me about coming to our center during the week that news of Trayvon Martin’s murder broke in the national media. He spoke of how no one in our mostly white sangha seemed to know that it had happened and how the teachers didn’t mention it. For him, Trayvon’s murder was monumental, the only thing on his mind. As a white teacher, I wondered if I had been one who dropped the ball. As a gay person, I know what it’s like to not see the weight of your grief reflected or honored in the places where you seek refuge.

As I read the Lions Roar piece, that feeling of not being seen came up when I read statements like one that said if we could get through Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, we could get through this too. I thought to myself: who’s the “we” that got through Reagan and Bush? The Reagan/Bush era was an absolute horror for my community. An entire generation of intellectuals, artists, friends, and lovers didn’t “make it” through Reagan and Bush. Two decades later, I worked on a suicide prevention line for gay teens during the George W. Bush administration. Lots of them didn’t “make it,” either. Such a sentiment, however encouraging, erases queer history. By “we” the author appears to signify only people who aren’t the targets of explicitly racist, sexist, and homophobic policies of historically Republican governments. Those who weren’t moved by desperation to dump the ashes of their dead lovers on the White House lawn (as AIDS activists did in 1992 under President Bush) in a vain attempt to get the government to give a shit that we were dying.

Those of us who are members of marginalized populations are experiencing this election as a trauma. A legitimate threat! It provokes our very real traumatic histories.

My own community’s collective history includes physical violence, social ostracizing, the wholesale abandonment of our families, and a lack of safety in just about every institution that matters. Police, enforcing the state’s (historically conservative anti-gay) laws have for decades brutalized gay and transgender people. In our schools, most of us feel or have felt unsafe, often without any advocates, while curricula taught us nothing of our own our history. The medical establishment pathologized our sexuality and brutalized us with electro-shock, “drowning” medication, castration, and lobotomy. By and large the religious right has been THE driving force of hatred towards LGBTQ people. In the 1980’s, the government, under Reagan, had a top-down mandate that nothing having to do with gay people (including AIDS!) would make any Republican agenda. That cruel mandate held for all eight years of his administration. You can go on YouTube and listen to audio of Reagan’s press secretary repeatedly mocking us while our people died.

Many of us are living with socially conditioned shame and internalized homophobia (if not outright self-hatred) as we navigate a society engaged in a constant debate about whether we are worthwhile human beings or not. Even today, staying safe means we must police our speech, our words, our voices, our clothes, what we express interest in or excitement about. The oppression gets at us from every angle. I have never had a public moment of affection for another man, gay or straight, without assessing my surroundings for safety. That is trauma. Women, transgender folks, people of color, Mexican Americans, immigrants, native people, differently abled people, and those with intersectional identities (and the list goes on) all have their own distinct trauma histories which are being triggered this week.

Western Buddhists, during times like this we need more from you than standard-issue statements admonishing us to “sit with our fear and sadness.” We’re already experts! We need safety. We need to know you see us. We need to know you can receive the enormity of what we are carrying. And we need protection.

Here’s what I would have written for that article:

  • First, a self-centered mindfulness practice is not enough. While non-reactive presence to what’s happening within you and around you is foundational, for me non-reactivity simply creates the conditions for a wise response. Non-reactivity is not the end game. Action is! Please don’t be another privileged person who thinks sitting with YOUR sadness is enough. It’s not!
  • Practitioners of mindfulness are extremely well positioned to dismantle implicit bias. As a gay man, when I look into the depths of my own being I find homophobia. I also find misogyny and white supremacy. If your mindfulness practice is not yet aimed at your own bias, or if you still think bias is not within you, I’m sorry to say, you’re part of the problem.
  • Across traditions, our central commitment is to safety for all beings. When people in trauma feel threatened, they need safety. Buddhists, you must transform your centers into places of explicit safety. That safety doesn’t exist because you sit on your ass and wish for it. It exists in the resonant field of recognition and representation. We need to see and hear ourselves in your teachings. We need you to mention the issues. We need to know you UNDERSTAND the issues. Which means you need to put down your usual dharma book and pick up Ta-Nehisi Coates or Lillian Faderman or Kate Bornstein!
  • We need to know you believe us! Don’t dismiss us with comments about a lack of equanimity. In dharma centers across the nation, people are working overtime simply to stay in a room where they are the only person of color or trans person they see.
  • Your “right speech” practice should include confronting oppressive language in yourself and others in your day-to-day life. Use your words to insert yourself between marginalized people and their aggressors.
  • Don’t engage in spiritual bypassing. Don’t invoke “impermanence” or “the truth of dukkha” or the “ultimate truth of no self” as a way of normalizing Trump, minimizing people’s trauma, regulating your own feelings, or as a justification for inaction or checking out. I don’t get to check out! You shouldn’t either. After all, we’re all against delusion, right?
  • Your generosity practice should include giving to organizations that will sustain and protect those who have the most to lose.
  • While it’s fine to try to “understand” those who voted for Donald Trump, your compassion is, in my opinion, misplaced — or at best, incomplete. Calls for compassion and understanding for Trump supporters without an equally urgent call for the protection of those who are profoundly threatened by this administration have a flavor of bias similar to that which let “Stanford Rapist” Brock Turner off the hook. Can we, who are supposed to be more awake, please not do that thing where we jump right to compassion for the aggressors who voted for an explicitlyhomophobic, sexist, racist, violent president that’s readying an all-out assault on vulnerable people?
  • And for the love of Buddha, stop telling us not to be angry. Anger is an appropriate response. In the trauma world, we see anger is the energy that naturally organizes in a person to support a self-protective response to threat! The very movement of trauma resolution is from disempowered collapse into an empowered, self-protective response. Yes, anger demands mindfulness to relate to it skillfully but I think it is an exquisite fuel for change. That’s what it’s there for! Gay advocacy groups like the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance in the 1970’s, as well as the people who rioted at LA’s Black Cat Tavern and New York’s Stonewall Inn in the late 60’s were justifiably angry and put this culture on notice! Act Up, the AIDS advocacy group so active in the 80’s and 90’s, transformed the AIDS crisis by channeling their appropriate anger into direct action. In my view, Act Up was one of the most effective forces for change the modern world has ever seen.

While I acknowledge many Buddhists are, in fact, engaged in social-justice work, not nearly enough of you understand trauma. Find out. You may be surprised, for example, to learn that meditative interventions which are helpful for a person with a nervous system which has not been impacted by trauma might be counterproductive or even harmful to a person with a trauma history. We in the trauma field are constantly working to repair the harm done by mindfulness teachers who have no education about trauma or who believe the dharma is itself a sufficient path to the resolution of trauma. I can’t say this firmly enough: It isn’t!

What I want to say is this: it’s time to wake the wakeful! If your practice is only about you and you are not really standing in the margins with the most vulnerable members of society for the next four years, then for me, your compassion and wisdom are impotent.

I’m angry, I’m not sorry, and I will resist!

My life and lives of my friends, family, and lovers depend on it.