While many gays are rejecting religion, others are choosing to walk a different path. GSN meets the Tibetan Buddhists who are living a life beyond dogma, intolerance and the very concept of sexuality
Religion has become a dirty word among many in the gay community.
With preachers from a myriad of faiths around the world still condemning homosexuality as a disease, the root of all evil and even the Pope claiming it will lead to the extinction of the human race, it’s understandable.
But despite extremist fire and brimstone, many lesbian, gay and bisexual people still choose to have a belief, finding inspiration, guidance, hope and happiness in their faith.
With its emphasis on tolerance, compassion, peace and equality, it’s no surprise that Buddhism is drawing more and more interest from gay men and women tired of the dogma and institutional homophobia of other religions.
But is Buddhism really that liberal, progressive and gay friendly? Or are followers merely compromising on their sexuality in the hope of Nirvana or a cushy rebirth?
David was a Franciscan Catholic monk before he became disillusioned with the church and left the monastery.
‘I was very happy as a monk but not happy as a Catholic,’ he said.
‘I knew I was gay, not a problem as I was celibate, but obviously I didn’t agree with the Church’s teaching and so I left the Franciscans and came to London.’
After finding a job in the UK capital, he hit the scene before finding his partner Paul, entering a civil union in 2006.
But his passion for religion and philosophy remained and after years of study, he found himself returning again and again to Buddhism.
He explained: ‘What I was searching for, apart from the meaning of life, was insight without prejudice and I wanted to make that journey among a community of equals.
‘Buddhism’s liberal views on being gay certainly made me feel welcome and accepted as an equal.
‘I don’t go for tolerance, you tolerate a bad hair day – acceptance, equality and kindness was what I was looking for and I found that in our Buddhist community.’
Buddhism is a spiritual tradition that was founded over 2,500 years ago in India during the time of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni.
The faith quickly spread throughout Asia and was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century, teaching followers to avoid doing harm, encouraging them to perform ‘wholesome’ actions and emphasizing the importance of training the mind through meditation.
‘I’ve known guys commit suicide because they were gay and Christian,’ Thornton said.
‘I’ve seen guys and girls rejected by their families because they’re gay and their families hold religious views that won’t accept this. That unnecessary suffering is heartbreaking.
‘My experience of Buddhism has been so positive and helpful, but challenging in a constructive way, that I’ve been able to focus on the teachings and the practice, in the company of friends, because ignorance and prejudice don’t get in the way.
‘The values at the heart of Buddhism make it, in my experience, a wonderful religion for all. For gay folk who’ve experienced prejudice and hurt elsewhere, the loving kindness and warmth can also be healing, help you to let go of that pain and to find happiness in your life.’
James, a teacher who asked not to be named because of his job in a London Catholic school, said he became a Buddhist after entering a relationship with a former Tibetan Buddhist monk.
He said sexuality just isn’t an issue in Buddhism.
‘It’s beyond sexuality. In the end, you are a person,’ he said.
James added the onus of responsibility is on the individual. It is self-empowering, rather than dogmatic and judgmental.
‘Buddhism is not a top down religion. It’s bottom up. It’s down to you and the choices you make,’ he explained.
‘There’s a recipe to being Buddhist. Every generation makes their own cake and every cake is slightly different. But the recipe is still the same.’
According to Lama Zangmo, a Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher who runs the Kagyu Samye Dzong center in London, the Buddha was simply not concerned with sexuality.
‘The Buddha was a monk. So the Buddhist view toward sexuality is maybe unique,’ she revealed.
The 59-year-old added: ‘He didn’t really encourage anybody to get together, whether you are homosexual, heterosexual or whatever sexuality you have. It wasn’t really a question.
‘But it’s not as if the Buddha or Buddhism was against marriage either. The Buddha’s choice was renouncing the world and his message is about renunciation.
‘He taught that through grasping we cause ourselves a lot of suffering and distress. We are being pulled between attachment and aversion constantly.
‘So the Buddha meditated and saw the underlying causes of suffering. That was his whole mission, to transcend suffering.
‘Buddhism goes beyond all these dualities in every aspect, male, female, ultimately beyond good and bad. So the result would be ultimate transcendence. That’s where Buddhism comes from.’
However, a set of guidelines on sexual conduct do exist, but are applied to all, whether in a straight or gay relationship.
‘It’s about trying to live in a way that causes the least suffering,’ Lama Zangmo said.
‘The Buddha’s guidelines were, when you’re in a relationship, for example, be faithful. If you are not, it’s going to cause a lot of upset and hurt, a lot of jealousy and mistrust and basic suffering.’
But she claims she has never seen anything which directly talks about the morality of same-sex relationships.
She added: ‘I don’t think there’s anything in the teachings which tell you that because it’s all about the mind. It’s about the emotions.
‘The key thing is dealing with the mind and recognizing what are the causes of suffering and happiness. For that reason, don’t practice sexual misconduct because it causes suffering.
Lama Zangmo explains that the Buddhist teachings are also about overcoming our strong emotions, such as desire, anger, jealousy and pride.
‘If one is completely ruled by one’s desires and emotions, one is not a free person,’ she said.
‘It’s about having a more balanced perspective and seeing that happiness doesn’t equal fulfilling one’s desires.
‘Desire is desire, whether it is for a man or woman, same-sex or opposite sex.’
Despite reverence towards enigmatic teachers such as the Karmapa and Dalai Lama, she insists their role is not to lay down the law.
‘It’s not that there is someone at the top like the Pope dictating that this is the way it is because everybody is following the Buddha’s teaching,’ Lama Zangmo said.
‘Everybody is free to adopt any part of Buddhism which they feel works for them and leave the rest.
‘You can’t be excommunicated in Buddhism. It’s all about you and your mind. It’s your own personal path.’
Tibetan teacher Akong Tulku Rinpoche admits same-sex relationships are an alien concept to many in the roof of the world.
But then again, the reincarnate lama who fled his homeland after the Chinese invasion in 1959 explains many relationship norms in Tibet might seem outrageous to many Westerners.
He said: ‘Tibetan society is very much based on a family unit. But if you have three brothers, you can have the same wife for three brothers. It’s about the unity of two families together, so a big family can have 20 people in one house.
‘That can be very different from other countries too. Although we don’t have a system of same-sex marriage, I don’t think anybody minds.’
In 1967, Rinpoche helped found Kagyu Samye Ling, the West’s first ever Tibetan Buddhist center in Scotland.
He says Buddhism does not exist in a cultural time capsule and when the world changes, so must your ideas.
‘There aren’t many things which do not change when you come from Tibet to Europe,’ he explained on how he has adapted to living in the West.
‘I suppose we take on whatever the European system says. We don’t say that the Tibetan system is better. When you go to another country, there are different beliefs, different languages and ideas. If you want to stay in that country, you have to accept it.’
The Buddhist path, of course, is not for everyone. Indeed, religion is still a turn off for many, no matter how sweet the honey pot at the end of the rainbow may be.
But flippantly dismissing people’s beliefs, no matter how ludicrous they sound, can lead to the same bigoted, narrow mindedness which has blinded the very homophobes who the gay community are fighting to overcome.
Maybe it’s time we all took a leaf out of Buddha’s book and walked our own paths instead of tearing up others.