Whaddya Mean,"We"?

Helen Tworkov

So far we have received some fifty responses to the anti-gay letters published in the previous issue. To provide a brief synopsis: in issue number 20 we published an interview with Tibetan scholar Jeffrey Hopkins and excerpts from his revision of a famous text, The Tibetan Arts of Love, into a manual for gay practitioners. In issue number 21, we published a sampling of the anti-gay letters that we received, in which the Hopkins material was referred to as “trash,” “toilet paper,” “garbage.” Half a dozen people asked that their subscriptions be canceled, one writer said that “gays have no right to live in the United States,” and several letters stated that homosexuality was an inappropriate subject for a Buddhist magazine.

Then came the letters denouncing homophobia, insisting that intolerance and prejudice were “unBuddhist.” By identifying another person as “unBuddhist,” the accusers imply that they themselves are “better” Buddhists, or “true” Buddhists—a dubious tack. Open-mindedness was implied, but what struck me was that intolerance was precisely what the homophobes and the politically correct had in common. 

I deplore homophobia. But I cannot say that my own views have been honed by Buddhism. I can interpret, redefine, and contextualize Buddhist teachings in ways that complement deeply held social values that I share with my family, friends, and colleagues. Yet in so doing I simply have followed the same path as homophobic and sexist Buddhists.

What provoked the most shock in the second round of letters was not just raw bigotry, but that “they”—the homophobes—existed among “us”—the politically correct, mostly white, mostly liberal, so-called Buddhist community. The same erroneous identification of the Buddhist community has been made by liberal Buddhists, Democrat Buddhists, anti-nuclear Buddhists, Green Buddhists. There is an assumption—on the part of many white Buddhists—that they are fighting the good fight and that other Buddhists are—or should be—fighting alongside them.

But wait a second. These same politically correct Anglo-Buddhists have apparently forgotten about the Asian Buddhists and the Asian-American Buddhists, who, by and large, have not acquired a reputation for being liberal, Green, against nuclear arms, etc. And now middle-class Anglo-Buddhism harbors Republicans, National Rifle Association members, and homophobes. So what exactly is this Buddhist community that we speak of with such confidence?

The history of Buddhism in Asia does not argue for any inherent bond between Buddhism and democratic values. The association between liberalism and Buddhism in this country was forged with the first big wave of Western converts who shared a moral, political, and spiritual sensibility that embraced the counterculture and rejected the Vietnam War. Buddhism was an extension of radical experiments, not a vehicle that informed liberal thinking. With its dissemination—promoted by the energy and idealism of that first wave—Buddhism seemed to be fulfilling the glorified vision that so many Americans have had for it: its integration with American society. But all along, this assumption rested with values that support democracy, equality, and self-reliance.

And yet. This is America. Homophobic, racist, sexist America. Before American Buddhism can offer equality for all, America first has to become America. How much longer can Anglo-Americans pretend that the America of American Buddhism refers to only the best—if not the most liberal—qualities of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?

Tolerance is a quality of being, it's not a by-product of liberalism. But dharma can help cultivate ways of working with the intolerable without exacerbating prejudice, anger, and hatred.

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