Toward Freedom and Enlightenment Queerly: LGBTQ and Dharma

When we feel assailed in whom we are, we each can invoke the strength of the Buddha and the courage of all peoples who have lived through experiences of suffering and oppression.
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Our stressful and often oppressive world gives frequent messages, both insidiously subtle and explicitly harsh, for us to be someone who we are not, to do things to which we do not feel aligned, to think and feel in ways that do not make sense to us--in ways that even harm ourselves and others. This is especially true of communities outside the mainstream culture, such as LGBTQ folks, whose different life experiences sometimes evoke passive indifference, dismissal, or stereotyping of our lives, our relationships, and our needs--and at worst, can spark the vitriolic shadow of aggressive hostility and homophobic violence that still is present from the bullying in our school yards to the hateful rhetoric of our political playgrounds.

This is the personal and collective unconsciousness that we transform every moment that we, as LGBTQ-identified folks, live with authenticity and a deep knowing of who we truly are. Each moment that we are mindful and openly accepting of who we are--we live a life different than that is proclaimed by the false prophetic messages which seek to portray a unequal, unjust society as a wise and beneficial one. This is what is called in the teachings of the Buddha, 'going upstream'--living our lives fully and totally, in spite of the unconsciousness that surrounds us.

The transformative power of the teachings of the Buddha, along with many other worthy and profound spiritual lineages, guides us to live in this present moment--meeting this very moment of our lives with kindness, compassion and openness. This gentle acceptance is a complete acceptance--not just of this present moment, but also of who we are in this moment. Meeting the present moment as it is with loving attention, is one and the same as meeting the person whom we are with that same kindness. Our direct life experience is an integral part of this present moment of Life. We are indivisible from Life. We are the very expression of Life. And we are an integral part of this web of Life, even if we are told otherwise by others who would judge us or by judgments of ourselves that deny an aspect of our true nature.

What is 'true nature?' Sometimes this term is invoked to point to the experiences of emptiness (shunyata) or non-attachment to a sense of self (anatta) as the goal of spiritual practice. However, I have found that experiencing our 'true nature' is not so much a marker of our spiritual progress, or an answer that we are expected to have in order to achieve Freedom or Enlightenment. Rather, the insight of our 'true nature' emerges from the gentle yet persistent exploration of the questions "Who am I?" and "Who are we?" in this current life experience. And there is nothing outside of this exploration including our sexualities, our gender identities, and our orientations. The path towards freedom is not going around the experience of identity or transcending the experience of identity, but through the experience of identity--however that identity manifests for us.

Of what benefit is this practice of completely accepting who we are? The benefit is the deeper and deeper knowing that regardless of what other people think, do, or say to us--we are fully human, we are fully entitled to all of our human rights, and we are fully entitled to all of our humanity. As this becomes unshakable in our direct experience, there is a Freedom in knowing who we are and how connected we are to this Life and all of our lives. This Freedom is independent of any external circumstances--politically, socially, or culturally.

This is the Freedom that the Buddha himself experienced in the archetypical story of his Enlightenment. After years of searching for a spiritual path, Prince Siddartha, the Buddha-to-be, decided with unwavering resolve to sit in meditation and not rise until he experienced the wisdom of the true nature of his existence. Before his achievement, Mara--the supreme foe who tempts all beings into unconsciousness--was determined to prevent Siddhartha's liberation from occurring. Mara amassed all of his power and armies to force Siddhartha out of his contemplative state. It is said that Mara caused unimaginable forces of destruction to arise and attack the future Buddha.

Mara called upon maelstroms of tornadoes and torrential downpours to wash away and drown the meditating prince, but the floods did not dampen him so much as a dew drop nor the edge of his robes even ruffled. There were showers of rocks the size of mountain peaks, of hot coals, and of every conceivable destructive weapon that assailed Siddhartha--yet, they all were transformed into celestial flowers, cascading at his feet. After nine unsuccessful attempts to unseat the future Buddha from his path towards liberation, an enraged Mara gathered his army of hundreds of thousands. With the roar of their screams in the background, Mara demanded to the Buddha-to-be: "Get out of that seat! You are nothing and nobody! That seat belongs to me! These are my witnesses to this truth!" And there arose a deafening roar from his armies extending in all directions--"Yes, we are his witnesses! You do not belong here!" And Mara continued, "You, Prince, sit alone. Who is your witness?"

Then, the Prince, close to his liberation, undisturbed by any obstacle created by Mara, reached down with the simplest possible gesture, filled with the gentlest of ease, to touch the ground with the middle finger of his right hand. This is the moment represented by so many sculpted images of the Buddha. This is the moment that the Buddha called upon the Earth Mother to witness his inalienable right to his dharma seat--to his place in the world, and to his belonging to this Life. So brilliant was the power of the Mother Goddess when she appeared that Mara and all his armies were dispelled into all corners of the Universe.

When we feel assailed in whom we are, we each can invoke the strength of the Buddha and the courage of all peoples who have lived through experiences of suffering and oppression. And as the Buddha did, anchor in the deep knowledge that we have a choice to stay exactly where we are, as we are. In the choice to stay in that place, is an act of Freedom. Just like Prince Siddhartha, we all have a dharma seat--a place in this Life--that cannot be taken from us. There may be distractions or painful experiences that try to knock us off that seat, but no one can take our seat away. Regardless of how Mara tempts or tortures us, we do not have to relinquish our seat; we don't have to move from a place to which we always belong. And even if we leave that seat, it will be there whenever we choose to return. It is as James Baldwin wrote: "Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be."

That Freedom is what our spiritual practice can bring to our experience as LGBTQ communities in the larger world. In this New Year, there will likely be escalating polarities in an already combative electoral discourse. There are already challenging portents with the political and sanctimonious rants that are equating the LGBTQ experience to Satan and the Ku Klux Klan. Taking the time and space to remember who we really are (a quality of mindfulness), regardless of the messages that are thrown at us, will assist and support our communities going against the torrential stream of any form of oppression.

All LGBTQ-identified folks are invited to practice in spiritual community to renew and support all aspects of our lives at a LGBTQ weekend meditation retreat at the Garrison Institute in New York, April 13-15, 2012. More information can be found at: or


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