Seminar traces roots of Buddhists’ support for LGBTQ rights

BEING GAY AND BUDDHIST – Keynote speaker George Takei.  photo by Keith Daigo Uyemura

BEING GAY AND BUDDHIST – Keynote speaker George Takei.
photo by Keith Daigo Uyemura

BERKELEY, Calif. — In the national dialogue surrounding gay rights, the question “What is the Christian view of homosexuality?” often arises. This can be attributed to that fact that the vast majority of Americans identify as Christian, (some 77 percent according to a Gallup poll). However, in the Japanese Americans community (according to the Pew Research Center), Christians make up only 38 percent of the population and Buddhists account for a quarter. So for a substantial number of Nikkei, another question is just as important when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues: “What is the Buddhist view of homosexuality?”

On June 28, in Berkeley, Calif., the Buddhist Churches of America, the largest Japanese American Buddhist organization in the country, held a seminar entitled “Being Gay, Being Buddhist – The LGBTQ Community and Shin Buddhism” to publicly discuss this question. 

The event featured a session on “Parenting our LGBTQ Children,” by Pieper and Lois Toyama from Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii, and an overview of Jodo Shinshu doctrinal views relevant to the LGBTQ community by Center for Buddhist Education Co-Director Kiyonobu Kuwahara. George Takei, perhaps the most prominent gay Japanese American, delivered the keynote address. 

Takei grew up a Buddhist, he shared at the event. His father was Zen Buddhist, his mother was Jodo Shinshu, and they sometimes attended Senshin Buddhist Temple and the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. (Takei did some of his first acting in temple plays). In his keynote, Takei recalled a Sunday school talk that was particularly memorable for him. 

“(The teacher) used a metaphor of the vastness of the ocean: We’re all part of the ocean, and the currents and forces create (for a brief moment in time) a wave,” he said. “And we are that wave, saying ‘I am me, I am an individual, I am ego.’ And after that brief moment when we are asserting ourselves as a wave, we fade back into the oneness of this vast ocean. That made a lot of sense to me and it comforted me at times when there were stresses — that I am really one with the whole.”

Takei added that this informed his attitude toward social justice and inclusiveness. 

“We have artificial barriers to becoming one with the whole … (the desire to reconcile this) has been what’s guided me. We can play a part in being a whole that is understanding… We live in a diverse society and we have a mission in making that diverse society one which shares common ground.”

Buddhist Church of San Francisco Resident Minister Rev. Ronald Kobata praised Takei for “set(ting) a wonderful tone for the day by sharing his journey from his recollections of being a young boy in camp, attending the Senshin Buddhist Temple, and then his eventual ‘coming out’ that inspires his sense of integrity in respecting and protecting the rights of an inclusive society.”

The actor and rights activist is a member of the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. He told the Nichi Bei Weekly that it was at the suggestion of the temple’s minister, the Rev. Bill Briones, that he became a speaker at the event in Berkeley. 

Decades of Dialogue

In reflecting on the seminar, Richard Okiuye, a Buddhist Church of San Francisco board member, expressed his gratitude for the diversity of the audience, both at the seminar, and in the BCSF’s participation in the SF Pride Parade the following day. “I saw all of the colors of the rainbow at the seminar and marching side by side as a BCSF contingent … straights, lesbian, bi, transgender, queer,” Okiuye told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

This latest seminar is part of an ongoing dialogue within the BCA that has accelerated in the past several years, with the BCA Ministers Association unanimously passing a resolution supporting same-sex marriages in 2004, Takei’s high profile Shin Buddhist wedding in 2008 (officiated by Briones), 2013’s “Over the Rainbow – The LGBT Community and Shin Buddhism” conference, and an article about the seminar published in “Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly” entitled “Let’s Talk: Is My Sangha Inclusive?” by Kuwahara. However, while these instances have been highly visible, BCA ministers have been performing same-sex marriages since the 1970s, not long after the 1969 Stonewall uprising, which is commonly regarded as the origin of the Gay Rights Movement.

According to All Beings Are Equally Embraced By Amida Buddha: Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Same-Sex Marriage in the United States,” by Jeff Wilson of the University of Waterloo, they were “among the first clergy-led religious ceremonies for same-sex couples performed in the modern era, regardless of location or religion… the first such marriages conducted in the history of Buddhism, as well as the first by a predominantly Asian American organization.”

According to the article, these first weddings were performed by the Rev. Koshin Ogui, at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco between 1970 to 1976, with little controversy. Of the people he married in those years, only one couple was of Japanese descent. This would become a trend in the decades that followed. Many non-Nikkei (and non-Shin Buddhist), gay couples have sought marriage ceremonies from BCA ministers, to the point where they make up a significant percentage of the gay marriage the BCA has performed. 

In 1977 a BCA minister, the Rev. Joren MacDonald, performed a ceremony for a couple who was not Buddhist, but, according to Wilson, “felt they had nowhere else to go, and they wanted some sort of religious recognition of their union. In the 1980s, Taitetsu Unno, a former BCA minister serving as a professor of Buddhist Studies at Smith College, who generally turns down requests to perform marriages, performed a ceremony for a white American HIV-positive Buddhist couple, because “they had no one else to do it.”

Wilson’s article, (which was distributed at the event), includes several other notable examples. For instance, a marriage ceremony for two women, one of whom was a transgender person, performed by the Rev. Mas Kodani at the Senshin temple in Los Angeles, with the approval of the “Kangaku” (the highest doctrinal experts) of Nishi Honganji (the headquarters for more than 10,000 affiliated Shin temples throughout the world) in Kyoto. And a ceremony performed by Unno for a couple who “formulated their wedding vows in such a manner that the marriage was ‘open,’ allowing the spouses to potentially be involved with additional persons.” A survey of references to homosexuality in BCA publications found mentions to be “neutral or, most often, affirming” and the BCA made a financial grant in 1988 to help establish the first Buddhist AIDS hospice.

Roots of Shin Buddhist Support for LGBTQ Equality

In general, Buddhist doctrinal attitudes toward homosexuality are largely neutral. According to José Ignacio Cabezón, professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, views are more likely to be shaped by the larger cultural environments Buddhists live in. 

While contemporary Japan has official laws that restrict the rights of LGBTQ people, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Throughout much of the country’s history, the contemporary western categories of sexual identity (gay, straight, bi-sexual) did not exist in Japan. 

In contemporary Japan, Buddhism has very little to do with love and marriage (wedding ceremonies are largely secular, Shinto, or Christian). Japanese Buddhist marriage ceremonies are, largely, a Nikkei invention, created in the absence of significant Shinto institutions to officiate marriages. 

In 2008, a majority of Japanese American voters chose Barack Obama over John McCain and today, 68 percent of Japanese Americans surveyed by Pew say “homosexuality should be accepted.” 

According to Wilson’s article, many BCA members and ministers connect their support of LGBTQ rights with the discrimination Nikkei encountered during the Second World War. However, Wilson asserts that BCA attitudes cannot be attributed to political views alone. While the BCA Ministers’ resolution supporting same-sex marriage (introduced by the Rev. Gregory Gibbs in 2004), was passed unanimously after 10 minutes, the previous year, Gibbs introduced a resolution that was much more controversial. That resolution opposed the invasion of Iraq by the United States, and it passed only after hours of debate (“with two senior ministers supporting the invasion and a number of other ministers opposing any political stand by the BCA”), and a change in the wording to oppose “preemptive attacks in general.” 

At the seminar in Berkeley, Kuwahara asserted that BCA support for LGBT equality did, indeed, have its roots in Shin Buddhism itself. 

He said that Jodo Shinshu, as Takei explained earlier, has a perspective of universal oneness and that the Buddha’s teachings “open to all sentient beings just as they are” and noted that the Buddha had rejected the caste system that existed in his era.

(These views are echoed in the many interviews Wilson conducted for his article and in BCA texts). 

Kuwahara warned, though, that there still remained work for Shin Buddhists to do. He cautioned against self-righteousness, citing, in particular, the potential to not extend compassion to those with discriminatory attitudes or to be blind to one’s own discriminatory attitudes. He stressed that the lack of overt discrimination is not the same as creating a truly inclusive environment. 

“The basis of Buddhist inclusiveness is self reflection,” Kuwahara said at the seminar. “We must humbly (examine our biases)… it’s only when we truly know ourselves that we can change our behavior.”

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