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Coming Out Buddhist

When I came out to my parents in my early 20’s, it was not a big deal. I’d known I liked guys for a while, and had mainly waited because A) I was still sleeping with girls AND guys  and B) I didn’t want to tell them I was gay if I was single, because I knew that my good Jewish mother would think I was going to get AIDS and die.  So I waited until I was dating David, a sweet actor in Los Angles whose main source of income was as David Spade’s stand-in on the initial season of Just Shoot Me (yes, he did look a lot like him). At the time I was helping setup a theatrical production unit at the Walt Disney Company, and I remember calling my parents from my masouleum-quiet office on the Disney lot, with lovely downtown Burbank spread out below.

Now, in my mid-to-late 30’s, I have had to come out to a number of people again, this time as  a Buddhist. It’s true, I have not taken refuge vows or identified myself as religiously Buddhist, because I haven’t learned enough yet about which elements of these actions are core to the practice, and which are “add-ons” that helped solidify a traditional religious structure around the Buddha’s teachings. I am only just learning the teachings of the Buddha and yet I do feel compelled to tell people that I am Buddhist.  Considering my limited understanding of what I thought that meant as recently as two years ago, it is no surprise when people are surprised or have many questions.  It’s very much like coming out, again, though without the fear of rejection that hovered around the edges of telling people that I was gay.

I noticed in the news the other day that there is a crackdown on gay Buddhist monks in one area of Thailand. Specifically, they are asking the male monks to stop carrying pink handbags, wearing lipstick, and curling their eyelashes. This was universally reported as a crackdown on “Gay Buddhist Monks” so let me be the first to say that this is actually a crackdown on Buddhist Monk Drag Queens.  Not to say that MiniMoFo hasn’t considered shaking things up by dressing him and Ethan in taupe robes, pink handbags, and fire-engine red lipstick, but now I’ll have to think twice.  Personally I’m disappointed that now I cannot visit Thailand and receive Dharma teachings followed by an incredible rendition of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Hunts, in Thai. Or maybe they would be more partial to early 60’s Streisand.  Either way, it’s a sad day for the swishy queens just trying to be who they are during their time in the monastery.
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Chris Sullivan

posted May 13, 2009 at 4:44 pm

… posting I will read on this site. Juvenile, completely non-humorous, utterly uninteresting and just palin tedious.
I mean, I expect a site called “Beliefnet” to be filled with brainwshed cultists… you know, Chritians et al., but this writing was just annoying.

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posted May 13, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Wow, Chris Sullivan woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.
You managed to diss a lot of different people in just two sentences. Well done.

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posted May 13, 2009 at 6:57 pm

I don’t understand why you felt you had to “come out” as a Buddhist.
Why the need to label yourself? That is, to me, what Buddhism is NOT about.

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posted May 13, 2009 at 10:32 pm

I liked the post Jerry. Especially the bit about Buddhist monk drag queens :) If they’ve had to crack down on monks carrying pink handbags and wearing lipstick things must’ve been pretty relaxed out there.

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posted May 13, 2009 at 10:42 pm

I disagree with GA. The only way to live in a world without labels is to move to the moon. And even your moon gear will still have manufacturer’s labels on it. Labels are useful. The Buddha was advocating a) examining how and why you apply certain labels and b) becoming more skillful in the labels you use and how.
Buddhism is still seen by many (most?) people as something of an esoteric spiritual path, and consequently the space for misunderstanding is broad when you’re trying to explain to someone why you meditate or read Jack Kornfield or have a Tibetan singing bowl. After a couple years of casual study and meditation, I began to notice that my perspective on the world was changing. Buddhism was informing my way of being in the world, and like Jer I felt the need to “out” myself. And why not? It was becoming a part of my identity. It was awkward at first. I was very afraid of how people might misunderstand me/my practice. I tended to dive right in to a fairly technical discussion of what Buddhism meant to me.
These days I’m pretty comfortable with the Buddhist label. People still bring misconceptions, but mostly they’re just curious. And if they’re incurious or hostile, that’s fine too. I’m glad Jer brought this up – it’s something we should talk about as a community.

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posted May 14, 2009 at 8:44 am

If you’re a monk rockin’ a pink handbag, you’re prolly in violation of the 8th Precept. (Not that there’s anything wrong with a sporty pink bag.)
8. Mala ganda vilepana dharana mandana vibhusanatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami.
(I undertake to abstain from the use of garlands, perfumes, unguents and adornments).

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posted May 14, 2009 at 8:49 am

Stillman are you meditating in the middle of the subway platform? and the Tibetan singing bowl is it hanging around you neck?
Most interactions we have with people don’t require that kind of information exchange. That is unless we feel its so important that we have to add it so that people know.
“I am a BUUUUUUUUUDhist.”
If you only knew the thoughts that run through my mind when I see a person with the buddhist lingo,the buddhist accouterments, the tattoos, etc…etc. and when the first sign of difficulty rises and the need for the teaching is vital they throw it under a bus.
Who’s interested in your lineage, your guru if you act like its’ high school still searching for the cool clique.
I understand really I do. The desire to share it because it’s new. It’s exciting. But we have to consider that our egos are very strong and wether we like to admit it, we are very materialistic. So it means we have to examine why we need another title. Why do we have to impress?????? because really that’s the only reason why we are bringing up.
Most people on the street don’t need to know and don’t give a !@#*. What they need is your compassion and your wisdom. Everything else is just vanity.
It’s like the people in Thailand. Does it ultimately matter that the Queens want to shine brightly? NO.
What ultimately matters is are they compassionate? Are they wise? and if they want to do with red lipstick then so be it.

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posted May 14, 2009 at 8:57 am

oh and btw.
Jerry the red lipstick will look great on you. Ethan needs a nude; …. the red lipstick will make him look like a guppy……we don’t want that.

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posted May 14, 2009 at 10:07 am

Damaris, yes, I agree the spiritual materialism part of “coming out buddhist” can be an issue. It’s always interesting to me what labels, or as Chogyam Trungpa said, “credentials,” I produce first when interacting with people.
In the never-ending effort to investigate the fluid, not fixed nature of my identity, and to stay present in the moment and just be open to whatever is going on right then and there, I tend to identify in context of the situation. If someone’s talking about MetroNorth or the LIRR, I might come out with, “Yeah, I’m from Connecticut. MetroNorth is SO far superior to the LIRR”; if someone’s talking about yoga, and whether they should try it or not, I might say, “Yes, I do yoga, and it helps me a lot.” Same with buddhism. If someone asks, what are you doing this weekend, I might say,”Going to a meditation and dharma class.” And if they ask more, I can get into the “I’m a buddhist” part.
It’s interesting to see when it is that I feel I HAVE to tell people “WHO I AM!!” and when I can be more open and relaxed.
And mysterious. Mysterious works, too, LOL.

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posted May 14, 2009 at 12:07 pm

For me it was never a question of formally ‘coming out’ to people, it was always just something that came up naturally. ‘I’m going to meditation today’ was the most direct way the question came about, but with my friends it was the subtle changes in my behavior that made them realize I was trying something different. My husband was initially a little wary, but once he realized I hadn’t run off and joined a cult, he got on board, and now HE tells everyone that I’m a Buddhist. He happily paid for my first Shambhala training retreat, I catch him going through my growing Buddhist library from time to time, and one day I’m hoping he will come to a Monday night talk with me.
My parents are another story. I love my parents, but to say they have communication problems is putting it mildly. I grew up in a very WASPy/military family, and feelings are not something you talk about. I’ve learned to not talk too much about going to meditation and dharma study, because in the past they have responded with derision and at best, indifference. It used to upset me, but now…its ok. They don’t HAVE to approve, and I know that they don’t really mean to hurt me, its just how they cope with the unfamiliar. Eventually, they will come around.
Being Buddhist was never about the external trappings for me, I don’t feel the need for people to know, and sometimes I still get uncomfortable when people label me, but I’ve found the more I log the hours in mediation and put the teachings into practice, the more it becomes apparent that I am.

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posted May 14, 2009 at 1:02 pm

DMC writes: “Being Buddhist was never about the external trappings for me, I don’t feel the need for people to know, and sometimes I still get uncomfortable when people label me, but I’ve found the more I log the hours in mediation and put the teachings into practice, the more it becomes apparent that I am.”
I find my Buddhism pops up often in conversations over politics, diet, consumerism. It just becomes apparent as my inner view shifts and I interact with others. When I was younger and dabbled in Neo-Paganism, I felt like I had to confront Christians and others and wear the outward symbols. That’s not how my Buddhism emerges in my daily life. It’s not a “coming out” so much as it becomes obvious and the questions from others become unavoidable.

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posted May 14, 2009 at 2:36 pm

I usually just say I am interested in Buddhism or apply a Buddhist philosophy, if someone asks or if the conversation turns that way.
I may mention that I practice meditation.
I feel very uncomfortable identifying myself as a Buddhist…Not that it isn’t important to me, but echoing the comments on spiritual materialism. It doesn’t feel right to me.

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Paul Griffin

posted May 14, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Great post and conversation. The truth is labels come up; conversation is a wily master. For example, when tutoring, if a student asks me, “What religion are you?” I self-identify as Buddhist straight-up. Because I am a Buddhist. Of course, the story of my relationship to the divine is more complex, as all of our stories usually are. And while I’d love to say, “I am at heart a poet-mystic freethinker with a strong devotion to Buddhism and a regular mediation practice,” instead, I just hope it shows.

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posted May 14, 2009 at 6:41 pm

I think some people misunderstood – I was talking about just the sort of conversational situations Ellen brought up, not any sort of self-advertisement.
I dislike over-declarations of spirituality as much as the next critically-minded person. At first, it was awkward for me to say “oh, I’m going to my meditation group tonight,” both for social/personal reasons and because I’ve tried to hard to avoid any kind of spiritual materialism. In that way, it felt (and at times, can still feel) like a “coming out.”

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posted May 14, 2009 at 8:33 pm

Growing up in a Buddhist family, I never had to declare it, although in my late teen years my interest in Buddhism shot through the roof. I do remember having a pretty weird experience at my elementary and Junior High School, which was a small and very diverse place. Everyone had something that made them different, Being Muslim, Being Korean, Being Dominican. I was one of the few plain-old white kids, except for the fact that my parents were Buddhist. It was my “thing” that made me unique in that unique environment, even if no one really knew what it meant and I had a hard time explaining what my parents did when they meditated.

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Patrick Groneman

posted May 14, 2009 at 11:18 pm

It’s hard not to mention the B word when you’re really excited about it and you’re talking to your friends and they say something really casual like:
“how’s it going?” or “what have you been up to?”
And you reply
“Funny you should ask because actually I’m learning how to be happy again and it’s really great! I’ve not felt this chilled out since I was drinking lemonade at my best friend’s pool party in 1994. And it’s all thanks to this 2500 year old philosophy of mind study called (insert noun here).”

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posted May 15, 2009 at 9:28 am

Hi Ellen, glad you understood and what you wrote is what we all do. Isn’t it? It’s quite natural.
I’m no exception to the excitement and the behavior. I often question my motives for adding it in conversations that do fine without it.
Its true the deeper you go the more it becomes a part of our own landscape but that’s different than wanting to use it as armor and being able to recognize that individually and collectively is important.
And as for the ” when it is that I feel I HAVE to tell people “WHO I AM!!” aaarrrgh that comes up when I have disconnects with people due to cultural differences. Instead of walking away grumbling about racism, I’ve learned to stick around and whip out the flags of my cultures communicating (sometimes too much) in order to integrate, integrate, integrate. Praying that somehow having more information about each other will help bridge the separation.
Thanks Ellen, hope to see you tonight at IDP’s “Beyond the Benjamins”

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posted May 15, 2009 at 10:01 am

When I turned your age, I made one of my most important decisions in my life: I do not have to justify my decisions, believes, pleasures, anything to anybody under any situation. Never excuse yoursefl for being what you are at that point of your life.

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Julia May

posted May 15, 2009 at 12:09 pm

aiyaiyai I wrote a big comment then it got deleted.
Anyway, I think sometimes telling people that I took refuge or that I am committed to Buddhism helps confirm my commitment. Not with joe from the coffee shop. But with my family, friends and my boyfriend – because they know it is a part of my life (and also because they know that I’m a sweeter, more present more sparkly Julia when I get to meditate and go to classes) it reminds me of my path.

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posted May 15, 2009 at 4:20 pm

This queer jewish buddhist has sat in monasteries in Asia, and wishes to point out that one reason monks shave their heads is, just as in the US Marines, it strikes at the ego and sense of separate self. And as in Middle Eastern cultures, the hair is considered sexual and alluring, so off it goes.
After all, the point of entering a monastery is, among other things, to learn to give things up, including clinging to an identity, even that of a queer jewish buddhist. So giving up pink handbags is really part of the deal.
Now in San Francisco, if you want to be a monk with a pink handbag, there’s always the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence – consider founding a Buddhist chapter. Now that would be interesting!

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posted May 17, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Thanks for this post!

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posted June 7, 2009 at 10:22 pm

Welcome !!

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posted June 7, 2009 at 10:24 pm

Another GayJudaBu joins the tribe!

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