Seasonal/greetings to you all! I know I’ve been missing (again) from the blogosphere and I apologize for it. I don’t write when I am either too sick (physically or mentally) or too angry. And I’ve been having episode after episode of those. But it’s break from college and I’m finally getting some rest, so I’m back!
Tis the season … The HOLIDAYS! And most of us are back home with immediate family and extended family to celebrate and especially queer folks – whether or not they are out – speaking from a Judea-Christian perspective will be more or less criticized and scrutinized for their sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity, especially by use of The Book, the scriptures. The one that is claimed to have been written by God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” [John 1:1] … and all the cheesy stuff. (Hey look, I’m getting into the scripture coz I’m spending my break with a Catholic family again!) Ok, nobody knows who actually wrote that book, whatever they claim. Here’s the thing: You don’t need to follow the “teachings” verbatim or literally. I’ll tell you why. That’s why I’m writing. I wanted to tell you about how I reconciled my sexuality and gender expression with my religious/spiritual background – and somewhat with my cultural background.
I am Buddhist and, although I don’t discuss my own faith much, I am pretty serious about it. (I consider it an atheist spiritual path, and I find it very practical but I don’t discuss it for now.) Buddhism is one thing and how my community (the Burmese) practises it is another. I have become increasingly aware of it over the years. Burmese culture is male dominant, like most other societies, but it is not misogynistic or womanthropic either. There was a prominent queen in the 12th or 13th Century – and I believe there must’ve been more that went unrecorded. My hometown boasts a large number of women successful in business; about half of the people who built the town were women, founding mothers, of sorts. There were women who managed large businesses and remained unmarried throughout their lives. The first home for the aged was built by a woman from my town and she later became a Buddhist nun. A woman cigarette/cigar factory owner native to my town once used to be the richest person in Burma.
But men were always the privileged. We have latched on to the theory that only the male gender can attain the status of the Buddha. (Background info: The Buddha is not a deity of sorts. Instead, he was human, a teacher who showed people a spiritual path.) We don’t know if that theory is true or not, but we also have forgotten the fact we cannot attain the “Buddha” status in one life and a person’s gender/sex may change as they reincarnate. There is no reason to treat women like they are a lower form of beings. Yet, some areas in religious institutions are limited only to men. After all, even in the scriptures – in the lifetime of the Buddha and in times of his past lives – there were vague mentions of individuals who are either in between genders or genderless. They didn’t have significant roles, but the casualness in which they are mentioned implies either acceptance or a neutral attitude toward them. With women, though, the Buddha did hesitate to initiate them into the Sasana (the institution of Buddhism). His stepmother was the first one to request. She was denied initially, but she decided to go on and prove that she could live the life of a monk as a woman, and she went on to become a monk/nun unofficially. She was consequently approved to join monkhood coz she managed to prove herself. And more women followed suit, and the women did found enlightenment – the state of mind called Nirvana. (Ok, NOTE: In Buddhism, there is a difference between female monks and nuns. They have different rules and regulation to live by. In days of the Buddha, we didn’t have nuns. We don’t have female monks anymore today. I don’t know how one kind disappeared and another came to be. I’m not that educated in history.)
Back to Burmese culture, we have become too focused on the “maleness” in religious rituals, procedures and traditions – even though there isn’t supposed to be anything sexual (or gendered) in religion. I’m assuming that is also how the female monks disappeared and nuns with a different set of codes of conduct appeared. Anyway, let’s move on to sex and sexuality …
So there are these things called the “5 precepts” that everybody/every human being has to live by in Buddhism. They’re like the 10 commandments. Here they are, paraphrased and very much shortened:
- Do not kill.
- Do not steal.
- Do not engage in sexual misconduct.
- Do not lie.
- Do not drink – or do drugs. (Adults like to mention drugs in particular.)
They’re all very general – VERY! What counts as killing? What counts as stealing? What counts as sexual misconduct? What counts as lying? What counts as getting wasted? (Because #5 was about being responsible and in control of yourself.) Let’s go back to #3: the sex issue. The direct translation actually talks about “sensual misconduct”, rather than sexual. But of course, sex is a sensual pleasure. So we could argue that Precept #3 includes gluttony, besides lust, but let’s focus in on sex. The Burmese like to interpret it as abstaining from adultery, rape and pre-marital sex. Fucking hell! The scriptures has stories about prostitutes making agreements (like terms and conditions) with the people who hire them, so there’s a green light for regulated prostitution. And I have read a scholarly monk explain in a book how consensual premarital sex does not violate Precept #3. So, since prostitution already has a green light, I’ll take a step further and say, “Yay for NSA fun and FWBs!”
But you know, traditionalists like to dismiss homosexual conduct as sexual deviance. I’m talking mainly in the context of Burmese culture. The Buddha did have a wife and had a son, but there is no evidence to suggest that he was straight. Here’s why it makes it even more debatable: he was a prince before he departed on his spiritual journey. And his culture – or at least his status as aristocracy and royalty – was such that he could afford and did enjoy all the worldly luxuries there was possible. The scripture says he left his luxurious life behind on the night his son was born. (If I remember correctly, the son was born at midnight and he left at dawn or he arrived on the bank of a river at dawn.) There was a wild party going on that night also and the wife wasn’t there. There was an emphasis on luxury and pleasure in the texts, so there was probably sex. And you know who accompanied him out of the palace? A childhood friend who shared the same birthday as him – a guy, a minister in the palace. The horse he was riding on also shared the same birthday as them. Know how the guy accompanied the Buddha-to-be. He followed the tail of the horse. No idea why he didn’t get another horse but the whole thing is odd. He was either a Bro or a lover, given the affinity/loyalty was pretty strong. He was never mentioned again in the scriptures once the Buddha entered the woods for meditation. So there’s that.
On another case … Like all societies, we Burmese place an odd value on virginity. Monks also get asked if a virgin male can attain the Buddha status. The answer’s NO. A scholar explains it like this: The Buddha is one who seeks the ultimate wisdom in all the universe and finds it. He has to have experienced all worldly pleasures and have abandoned it – and that includes sex. So, yeah, having sex is ok! Go on our and be a slut; just make sure it’s safe and consensual.
I personally believe sex is a physical activity like eating and sleeping, or even sports or art – and it can be spiritual, too, just like eating and sleeping, or even sports or art. It can be just you alone or with other people (one or more). And like all other activities, you should be careful and considerate when it involves other people. Religions may teach you how to and how not to do sex depending on the cultural context in which it (the religion) came to be. BUT you gotta know when it becomes intrusive of your personal freedoms. Remember: your body, your mind, your choices!
Um, tying back to how I started this post out. I don’t think I’m helping queer folks from the Judea-Christian/theistic faiths, although I had intended to. I’m translate the scripture quite literally – mainly because the original texts work for me, and how people have tweaked it over the years doesn’t. You just have to understand the social and cultural context of whatever text you’re looking at. You can’t have men and women not reproducing/procreating when infant mortality rate is very high and life expectancy is very low – which makes sense – but stoning/burning people for being gay, hmm … that’s just not right.
Again, I’ve gone into ramble mode but hopefully it helped more or less. Really, think of the essence of your religion. What is it? Mine is about finding your own way and maybe help others find theirs if you’re able, but it is not about showing others your way.
NOTE: I did not have anything scholarly to cite writing this, so you are welcome to debate.