Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara on how to move past our discomfort and old ideas and make Buddhist communities welcoming to people of all gender identities and sexual orientations.
Consider for a moment: How welcoming are you to people of different sexual orientations and gender identities? How welcoming is your Buddhist community? How welcoming is the larger Buddhist world?
At this historical moment, when people of different sexual and gender orientations and identities are emerging from the shadows, we must ask ourselves deeply and honestly if we meet these differences with an open heart, or if we step back, close off, and shut down our fellowship.
We are fortunate to be living at a time when people of conscience are called to pay attention to the subtle ways we harm others through our unconscious biases, our lack of awareness, and our stubborn clinging to received ideas buried in our culture.
It reminds me of Ryokan’s haiku, translated here by Kaz Tanahashi:
lack coordination to catch
Our minds can be like noisy kids. And the fireflies that we fail to catch? I think of the very ground of Buddhist teachings—the interrelated interconnection of all realities, all peoples, all times and places. This is the marvelous diversity of all of life. Fireflies light up our lives with the realization of our common bond. The lights these fireflies give out are sparks of wisdom, compassion, and loving-kindness.
So what blinds us to these aspects of dharma when we meet someone different from what we have known? Often, without realizing it, our noisy minds automatically go to old, broken, and mistaken ideas—inherited views of the “right way” for the “other” to look, to love, to express, to be. And so we let our facial expressions, our body language, and our rules give notice to anyone “different” that they are not really welcome, that they are not really a part of our communities, our families, and our lives.
How does this happen, even in the most openhearted Buddhist communities? How is it that we unconsciously create an “other”—someone who does not fit into our idea of what’s acceptable? How can we become aware enough in order to examine our ideas of “other” so we contribute to co-creating a world without an “other” at all?
Our noisy minds can be activated when we are confronted with unconventional pronouns or with requests for accommodation to unfamiliar ways of being. We can easily become confused and reactive, falling back on old, received ideas from a society that has upheld discrimination and prejudice—a society that abhors difference from the norm. It’s almost as if the voices of the past are speaking in our minds, saying, “This is other, this is wrong,” or “You’re not doing gender the way I’ve always thought about it,” or “That’s not a real marriage.”
And yet, if we can quiet that noisy reactivity it’s likely we’ll recognize the irrationality of our unconscious bias—that we’ll remember that all beings are of the nature of waking up, of buddha. The trick is to stop for a moment and listen to our whole being, our fireflies, and then look at the one we think of as “other.”
Emmanuel Levinas, the Lithuanian-Jewish French Philosopher, wrote so poignantly on encountering the face of another: “The first word of the face is the ‘thou shalt not kill.’ It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face…at the same time, the face of the other is destitute; it is the poor for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all.”
When we look into the actual face of the other—not our received ideas or our fears, but simply the human face of the other—we recognize our common humanity.
When we drop our noisy thinking and simply stop and behold the other, however we may perceive that other as different, we recognize our relationship as fellow beings in this world at this time. We recognize not just our relationship, but our interrelationship—our sharing in the world of life itself. Or, as Buddhist teachings have it, the interconnected reality of the web of life.
Simply put, we must wake up! It is not difficult, once we recognize the hidden bias and sense of privilege that hovers below the surface of our minds. As Buddhist practitioners, we can use our techniques of meditation, study, and chanting to help us open our understanding. And we can share the wisdom of these times—studies in diversity—to educate ourselves and our communities in such a way that we can recognize and examine the received ideas, the implicit biases, that have stopped the flow of compassion and understanding.
But be careful, though. Even our desire to open our minds, to find a teaching that enlightens us, can be a re-visiting of our old notions of acceptable and not acceptable. There’s a beloved Zen story about a monk who went to visit Joshu, an eminent Zen master of the time.
Joshu got his name from Joshu province where he was living, where there was a world-famous single span stone bridge, the first of its kind in China. When the monk came to Joshu’s shabby little temple, he said, “I’ve heard of the Great Stone Bridge of Joshu but now that I’ve come here, I just see an old log bridge.”
Joshu replied, “Oh, you only see the log bridge! You don’t see the Stone Bridge.” The monk replied, “So, what is the Stone Bridge?” And Joshu said, “It lets asses cross, it lets horses cross.”
It’s the bridge that welcomes all. But the monk could not see that, blinded as he was by his idea of how Joshu and his temple should look. He could not see beyond his preconceptions, and he missed the profound teachings of this great teacher who compassionately allowed all manner of seekers—horses and asses! Hopefully, the monk eventually sat quietly enough to stop the noise in his mind, and finally benefited from the teachings of the old log bridge.
Here, in this time, we can benefit from the work of many in the diversity field. We can find where it is we “stick” in terms of culture, skin color, abilities, sexual preference, and gender diversity. We can see how often we are imagining a stone bridge of whiteness, able-bodiedness, heterosexuality, and gender normativity. In doing so, we miss the deep and profound teachings of difference, of fireflies, and of log bridges.