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Our blogger series went on a brief hiatus, but now it's back! Today we have an interview with Richard Harrold, the blogger behind My Buddha Is Pink. I'm a big fan of the blog because I love the way Harrold seriously contemplates texts from the Pali Canon in almost every post but gives them his own twist at the same time. In a post called "Are You Too Sexy for Your Body?" for example, Harrold cites the Majjhima Nikaya Atthakatha:
"While Rahula was following the Buddha, he noted with admiration the physical perfection of the Master and reflected that he himself was of similar appearance, thinking: ‘I too am handsome like my father the Blessed One. The Buddha’s form is beautiful and so too is mine.’ The Buddha read Rahula’s thought and decided to admonish him at once, before such vain thoughts led him into greater difficulties. Hence the Buddha framed his advice in terms of contemplating the body as neither a self nor the possession of a self.”
And then writes, "So dang! Rahula was a hottie twink thinking he had it goin’ on, but the Buddha was wise to that nonsense and immediately re-directed his son before he started wearing Daisy Dukes and dancing on a box at a backwoods discotheque."
It's nuggets like these, as well as the truly contemplative approach that Harrold brings to his blogging, that make My Buddha Is Pink such a reward to read. Enjoy his thoughts on LGBTQ-identifying practitioners, his opinions on the Vinaya, and other topics below.
You’ve alluded to your journey to Buddhism on your blog but so far we haven’t heard the whole story. Could you tell it to us?
Yeah, you’re right, I have alluded to this a few times, and I’ve also suggested that I might reveal more detail. But I don’t think I will, at least not in this forum. And the reason is a sense of respect for the other people involved in my journey. I will stick to my general explanation of events, that I returned to that first dhammasala I had visited after going through a very painful betrayal with my then boyfriend, a betrayal of trust in which I was the betrayer, not the betrayed. Immersing into Buddhism and the Dhamma saved me from an overwhelming feeling of despair, as well as showed me how this one precipitating incident wasn’t isolated.
We may have a flashpoint experience in our lives, an event or act that pushes us over the edge, and at first that event acts like a focal point; it’s the event we point to and say, “This is what brought me here.” But when our practice develops more fully, we learn that what we thought was the catalyst event was really the culmination of other, prior events. Realizing that and dealing with that can be just as difficult—perhaps more so—as when the proverbial bottom fell out of our bucket.
But Buddhism isn’t any good to anyone unless we use the tools the Buddha gave us to critically evaluate why we are here in this present moment—what got us here—and then seriously consider how we will act now so that our future becomes more rewarding and pleasant. Sometimes that means we squarely face negative consequences and accept them as not just uncomfortable and unpleasant, but also temporary.
You’ve written that “to seriously consider the complexity of our identity scares the shit out of most people. And fear, it is important to be aware of, often leads to unskillful—even irrational—behavior.” What did you have in mind while you were writing this, and have you had experience with this in your own life?
I wrote that in a post about race and privilege, but the idea I was conveying is applicable in many ways.
Buddhism is about self-examination and developing the skill to see things as they really are. We get caught up in this notion that we are victims of circumstance, that we don’t have a lot of control over what happens to us. Even folks we would generally agree are responsible people fall easily into this mental trap.
Going through that self-examination can be very unnerving, even scary, particularly when we take a close look at our notion of self. Without even realizing it, we accept common “definitions” of whom we are without questioning them or who created them. For example, in the common vernacular, the terms “homosexual” and “gay” are often interchanged, but they’re not truly synonymous. “Homosexual” refers to one’s sexual orientation, a fixed state of being. But “gay” refers to the way we interpret ourselves as homosexuals. We “gays” like to say that we are much more than who we like to sleep with, that being gay is more than just about sex, which is true. Yet so many of us, myself included, operate daily with a self-identity that is centered on sexuality.
Who are we really? The Buddha says that we are a combination of the Five Aggregates, and that’s as far as he wanted to go because he knew that trying to pinpoint what self is was a distraction to the path. But when we follow the Buddha’s guidance on meditation, for example, to see “body” as “body,” that’s a really difficult task. “What, I’m just a bag of bones, blood, and goo?” (Even the way that question is asked is misleading.) And then the idea that we are not our mind is really difficult to grasp, even though many of us casually say these things because we identify as “Buddhist” and know we’re supposed to say it.
As I see it, the critical examination of the Five Aggregates is designed to destroy our closely-held sense of self, and for most people that means giving up sacred notions of who we are in terms of our sex, our age, our sexuality, our race, our education level—everything about us. How do you do that and continue to function?
To give you a very personal example of both how liberating and frightening such self-examination can be, I’ll share a personal experience.
While meditating on the breath one time, this sense of sadness, anger, and fear suddenly consumed me. I directed my mind to ask, “Wow, where did this come from?” Normally, such self-directed questioning is enough to let such feelings or thoughts go and they disappear like all phenomenon: it breaks the desire to cling to them. But my question didn’t do that for me that time. Instead, I started getting answers, and images from my past began coalescing in my mind.
I was 4 years old, hospitalized with pneumonia. I was taken by wheelchair to have a chest X-ray. I was alone, my mother nowhere to be seen. I didn’t quite know what was going on. They stripped me and put me on this platform, like sitting on a windowsill. The technician slid down a board that had the film inside, the bottom of the board resting firmly on my naked thighs. I was told to hold my chest very close to the board and not move. Then I was left alone. I was cold and naked and frightened. I started crying, where was my mother? Why wasn’t she there? Who was this bitch nurse and why did she leave me here?
I stopped meditating and wept for about 30 minutes. As awful as re-living that experience was, I got as close as I could to what was probably the origin of my issues with anger: a fear of abandonment, a fear of helplessness. While I haven’t entirely let go of this memory, and though I continue to have issues with flashes of anger over petty things, just knowing I am not that frightened little boy any more allows me to let these moments pass, like a knife passing through water leaves only the briefest trace.
What attracted you to the Thai forest tradition of Theravada? Do you think that a common idea—that Theravada (and the Thai tradition of it) is the least accepting of LGBTQ practitioners—is true?
That’s an interesting question because I’ve never thought of Theravada as being the “least accepting of LGBTQ practitioners.” In fact, when I first visited a dhammasala I felt an immediate sense of acceptance by the congregation and the head monk. I was welcomed. Even during the first Dhamma talk I heard, the monk explained that the Third Precept had nothing to do with gay or straight sex.
Granted, there are Theravada commentators who are blatant homophobes and because of their stature, what they’ve written in the past is accepted without question (ah, if folks only really grasped what the Kalama Sutta was about!). But all religious traditions face this. All religious traditions have clerics and commentators who use the doctrine for political purposes. And because most people are sheep, few people are aware they’re being swindled.
However, while it has not been my personal experience, I would agree that the Thai tradition is the most uptight about sex in general.
I can’t say that anything particular “attracted” me to the Thai forest tradition. It’s just my first exposure to Buddhism, and that experience was so positive that I continued to go to the dhammasala for Dhamma and meditation classes, as well as to help build the congregation’s new meditation hall.
You’ve written on your blog, “But the circumstance of our present life is the result of what has happened before and probably reflects our growing ability to ‘hear’ the Dhamma with the right ears.” On that point, how do you think you might hear the Dhamma differently than someone who identifies hetero-normatively?
As I wrote in my very first blog post, I think gay people are uniquely suited for accepting Buddhism because of the coming-out process. When a homosexual comes out as gay, it is a hugely transforming experience. By the time it occurs, we’ve already been through a very thorough introspective process. We intuitively knew we were different, and eventually we all come to recognize what it is about ourselves that creates that difference. Next comes the self-acceptance part, a process that varies from person to person. And then after this self-acceptance comes the decision to tell others and make real our separation from hetero society. I didn’t come out until I was 35.
I can’t think of a similar process that straight people experience that is also unique to heterosexuality.
But once we come out, as I pointed out in my first blog post, many of us, if not all of us for a time, fall back into creating new tribes for self-identification. We are swept away just like everyone else by things that don’t matter and which continue to distract us from reality.
Do you think Buddhism is easier or more difficult for LGBTQ-identifying practitioners to immerse themselves in?
While I believe that LGBTQ individuals are probably more “ready” for the Dhamma than straight people, I won’t go so far as to say that it’s easier or more difficult for gays to immerse themselves in it. It still requires the same diligent practice, the unrelenting willingness to dive into self-examination, and the unflappable ability to wholly accept personal responsibility. That, I believe, is equally difficult or easy for everyone, regardless of sexuality. I say both easy and difficult because how ready we are for the Dhamma is, I believe, largely the result not only of our current life, but also influenced by the kamma we created in previous lives.
Even when faced with overt discrimination by others within the Buddhist community, either by fellow practitioners or by the clergy, our practice is our own—no one else is responsible.
Tell us about your idea that Buddhism in America needs to be reformed, especially in regards to the Vinaya.
Alas, I was venting when I said that. And I don’t really mean that Buddhism needs to be reformed—the Buddha’s teachings are fine as is—but rather the organizational structure of Buddhist institutions within America needs reform. That, however, will likely be difficult. While it’s true that most Christian denominations have an institutional structure with a centralized source of direction, there are still many nondenominational Christian churches and congregations that have no governing body overseeing their activities beyond those within the immediate congregation. This is even more so with Buddhist organizations in America.
Once you get beyond the Buddhist Church in America, there isn’t much in terms of a centrally organized Buddhist “denomination” that I am aware of other than SGI, which is international in scope. While various Zen centers or other similar centers may fall under the guiding doctrine of a particular charismatic teacher, or in the case of Theravada there may be some influence coming from Asia, Buddhist meditation centers, temples, dhammasalas and other organizations are largely independent in the U.S. If the members of these individual organizations aren’t paying attention, who else will? How does a network like that get oversight?
With regards to the Vinaya, I do think that the heart of the Vinaya has been lost and turned into a political tool. This was evident with the ordination of women in Australia by Suhato. The muckity-mucks in Thailand all got in a snit over that, and pointed to the Vinaya as their source for support.
I’m no expert on the Vinaya, but I have started to read material related to it, and what I’ve found so far is that the Vinaya is a living “document” that is open for re-interpretation of rules when situations warrant. What I’ve learned so far is that a rule must be considered in context with the entire Tipitika, and if it doesn’t accord well with the Buddha’s teaching in all his exhortations, then it shouldn’t be a rule. Besides, would some of the rules in the Vinaya still be considered valid today if we merely applied the guidance found in the Kalama Sutta?
The fact that times and cultures change ought to be taken into account, but I don’t see that happening, particularly with what I view as a troglodyte mentality among the Thai monks holding power that they largely bestowed upon themselves. In fact, I will go as far to say that the sentiment that women ought not be ordained because of some technical citation within the Vinaya is a sentiment rooted in delusion and misogyny.
That’s something that desperately needs reformation.
A lot of us at the office were really intrigued by your Four Noble Truths for lesbians and gays. Besides being relatable and funny, how far do you think you could take making a universal message tailored for a particular group?
Interesting question and one I’ve thought about. Because if a message is universal, why would it need “tailoring” to a specific group? It does and it doesn’t.
Frankly, I believe those who criticize efforts to “customize” Buddhism for particular audiences—such as gay or African American or women or children—don’t know much about Buddhism. Because that is what the Buddha did all the time!
The Buddha’s message was universal, and it was always the same. You need look no further than the Four Noble Truths to know what it was. But the Buddha used different metaphors and similes to explain awakening and the road there to different audiences. When speaking to royalty, he used one set of metaphors and logic, and when speaking to fellow monks, he used another. His message is simple and direct regarding kamma when the Buddha speaks to a group of boys in the Udana, and different yet again in the Simile of the Salt Crystal in the Majjhima Nikaya. The description of the Jhanas is specific and nuanced when speaking to monks in the Majjhima Nikaya, but when speaking to a householder, the Buddha is more practical, such as in the Sigalovada Sutta. Despite these “differences,” the message is the same.
What’s the craziest traveling story you’ve got in your arsenal?
I don’t know if it qualifies as crazy, but it’s one I love to share with others.
In March, 2003, I was traveling with a friend in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. We were riding in a van with five other tourists through southern Thailand from Satun to Krabi where we were to catch a bus to Phuket. We drove through small villages, past prawn farms and rice paddies. Along the way, the driver would occasionally exclaim, “Coffee? Coffee?” as he made a gesture as if drinking coffee from a dainty cup. But none of us were interested in coffee, so we said no each time. However, we did reach a time when we wanted to stop and use a restroom.
“Restroom please, could we stop to use the restroom?”
The driver looked at us, uncomprehending. As we approached a gas station, we pointed at it, all saying “Bathroom,” or “toilet.” Still, the driver continued on, looking at us somewhat confused. We were all struggling to think of how to say “bathroom” in Thai when an idea came to me.
As we approached another gas station about 15 minutes later, I said to the driver, “Coffee?” His eyes got wide as he smiled. “Coffee?” he asked back, nodding his head. “Yes,” I said, “coffee.” And he pulled into the gas station, which had both restrooms (well, it was really an outhouse) and some snack food. We bought our driver his coffee and we all relieved ourselves before continuing the trip.
That’s just a small snippet from what was one of the most extraordinary traveling adventures of my life.