Buddhist group offers support for gays

By Rich Barlow, The Boston Globe, June 25, 2005

Boston, MA (USA) -- Twenty people mill around the room in circles, silent and eyes staring straight ahead. If you didn't know better, you might think you were watching a rehearsal for ''Dawn of the Dead."

But the tables covered with candles, water bowls, and photos of Buddhist teachers testify to the spiritual intent. On the command of their leader, Craig Smith, the crowd splits into pairs who stare intently at each other's faces to detect pain, wisdom, anything to like or dislike.

Later, as the group sits on floor cushions in a circle, Smith asks them to describe what they felt during the exercise, meant to demonstrate how our minds clutch perceptions and ideas that separate us from others and our environment. One young man describes his discomfort: ''As a gay guy, to make eye contact with another guy means a certain thing. It's a completely sort of different thing that I'm trying to do here."

''Here" is the monthly meeting of the seven-month-old Queer Buddhist Fellowship at the Boston Shambhala Center in Brookline. Smith, who flew overnight from his home in Seattle to teach the class, is an evangelist for the view that Buddhist meditation can help young gay people on the cusp of coming out, by helping them let go of emotional weight and accept themselves as they are.

Next weekend, he and other gay, bisexual, and transgender Buddhists will celebrate American independence with a retreat over the first four days of July in Barnet, Vt. Meditation, talks, and sensory exercises will explore the Buddhist/gay connection. (Information on the event is available at queerdharma.org.)

That connection is best shown by the life examples of some who attended Smith's presentation last weekend.

Linda Monko says she was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family that has ostracized her since she told them she was gay. The Framingham woman discovered Buddhism in California in the 1970s.

''When you're aware of the fact that you're homosexual from an early age, which I was, you obviously feel different," she says. ''Part of that difference was that I was always looking underneath the surface of things. So that in religion also, I wouldn't just look at what was being said or told to me; I was looking at how do people actually live."

Buddhist meditation encourages such searching, with its emphasis on freeing the mind of encumbering constructs.

''As a young lesbian, I felt . . . like there was no place for me spiritually, to be a spiritual being, in the religion that I was raised in. Buddhism offered that to me," Monko says.

She says it taught her an empathy that might be beyond her family: When her mother was dying of Alzheimer's disease several years ago, Monko sang Christian hymns to her, because, ''I knew that that would comfort her. And yet my siblings will sit in judgment of me simply because I am a lesbian. Now to me, what I did was very Christian. . . . That is my Buddhist practice is, responding to what is so in the moment."

For all her positive experiences, Buddhism, like other spiritual traditions, has no monolithic position on homosexuality. The world's best-known Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, has called for equal rights for gay people, but he also told Newsweek six years ago that homosexual acts were contrary to Buddhist ethics.

''No matter what community you go to, you're going to find people whose acculturation leads to intolerance," says Karen Schiff, an organizer of the Vermont retreat. ''But in a meditation community, the orientation is towards releasing fixation of mind."

Schiff grew up Jewish. But her experience in temple was of ''the rote recitation of liturgy without the sense of commitment, energy, engagement." Buddhism, which doesn't worship God in Western culture's sense of the word, has taught her to approach Judaism from a ''nontheistic perspective," meaning ''what if God is synonymous with everything that is" rather than existing as a separate being.

''I've never taken a Buddhist vow, because Buddhist vows require you to forsake all other paths. But I practice meditation and gain from the contemplative practice and study."

She has since found contemplative Jewish communities with the vitality she craved, and she still considers herself Jewish -- ''born that way, and I'll die that way."