Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Zen Master looks at Same-Gender Marriage

Today I have a sense that the prejudice surrounding total equality for lesbians, gays, and other sexual minorities is breaking up at an accellerated rate. The vote in the New York Senate last Friday might be the tipping point.

In October of 1995, Robert Aitken Roshi gave testimony before the special commission set up in Hawaii to recommend changes in that state's recognition of same sex relationships. In 2008 I asked Bob if I could take his testimony and rework it into an op-ed piece that could be used in the fight against Prop 8. He agreed -- he was a teacher who loved to bring dharma combat into any arena where it might make a difference. To honor Bob and to mark Friday's vote in NY, I am going to post "A Zen Master looks at Same Gender Marriage." I'll also include a link to a Spanish translation I prepared for the Spanish language press. 

A Zen Master looks at Same-Gender Marriage
by Robert Aitken with Ken Ireland

Robert Aitken Roshi was one of the most widely respected American Zen teachers. In 1959 he and his wife, Anne Hopkins Aitken, founded a Zen Meditation community in Hawaii, the Honolulu Diamond Sangha. Today there are Diamond Sangha affiliated centers in North and South America, Australia and New Zealand. He was also co-founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He died on August 5th, 2010 in Honolulu. He was 93 years old.

The word Zen means "exacting meditation," which describes the central practice of the Zen Buddhist and from which emerge certain quite profound realizations that can be applied in daily life. Most practitioners come to a deep understanding that all life is connected and that we are each a boundless container that includes all other beings. The application of this kind of intimacy can be framed in the classic Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Abodes: loving kindness, compassion, joy in the attainment of others, and equanimity.

Applying these Four Noble Abodes to the issue of same-sex marriage, I find it clear that encouragement is my recommendation. Over my long career of teaching, I have had students who were gay, lesbian, trans-sexual and bisexual, as well as heterosexual. These orientations have seemed to me to be quite specific, much akin to the innate proclivities which lead people to varied careers or take paths in life that are uniquely their own. We are all human, and within my own container, I find compassion—not just for—but with the gay or lesbian couple who wish to confirm their love in a legal marriage.

Although historically Zen has been a monastic tradition, there have always been prominent lay adherents. Those who enter the state of marriage vow to live their lives according to the same sixteen precepts that ground the Buddhist monk's and nun's life in the world. This way of living opens our path into life. Like life itself, marriage is absolutely non-discriminatory and open to all.

Buddhist teaching regarding sexuality is expressed in the precept of "taking up the way of not misusing sex." I understand this precept to mean that any self-centered sexual conduct is exploitative, non-consensual—sex that harms others. In the context of young men or young women confined within monastery walls for periods of years, one might expect rules and teachings relating to homosexuality, but they don't appear. Homosexuality seems to be overlooked in Zen teachings, and indeed in classical Buddhist texts. However, my own monastic experience leads me to believe that homosexuality was not taken as an aberration, and so did not receive comment.

All societies have from earliest times across the world formalized sexual love in marriage ceremonies that give the new couple standing and rights in the community. Currently both rights and standing are denied to gays and lesbians who wish to marry in all but three of the United Sates. If every State acknowledged the basic married rights of gay and lesbian couples, young men and women just beginning their lives together, as well as those who have shared their lives for decades, a long-standing injustice would be corrected, and these fellow citizens would feel accepted in the way they deserve to be. This would stabilize a significant segment of our society, and we would all of us be better able to acknowledge our diversity. I urge the voters of California to keep gay and lesbian marriages legal. This is the most humane course of action and in keeping with perennial principles of decency and mutual encouragement.