National Library of New Zealand
Harvested by the National Library of New Zealand on: Oct 11 2008 at 18:34:57 GMT
Search boxes and external links may not function. Having trouble viewing this page? Click here
Close Minimize Help
Wayback Machine
GayNZ Logo & Link
Sunday 12 October 2008

Buddhism: Traversing the Mountain Path

Posted in: Features
By Craig Young - 1st August 2007

Buddhism is now the second largest organised faith in New Zealand behind Christianity. How receptive and inclusive is it when it comes to LGBT participants?

Around 300 BCE, Prince Siddharta Gautama was born in India. At thirty five, he is said to achieved spiritual enlightenment, and spent the next forty five years of his life discussing the principles of his teaching, or dharma. Although there are several variant schools, most agree that the central objective of Buddhism is right conduct leading to dukkha, or the end of 'craving' for something that one desires. Virtuous Buddhists are supposed to pursue a path of right speech, right actions toward others, and right livelihood, which can be achieved through effort, awareness and meditation. What distinguishes Buddhists from those who follow more generic paths to such enlightenment is that they centre their lives on the person of the Buddha, his teachings or dharma, and the precepts of the community or sangha.

What does this have to do with homosexuality? Buddhism has its own sila or moral code, under which one is enjoined not to take life, not to steal, not to lie, not to take intoxicants... and not to engage in sexual misconduct. Therein lies the problem, for what is therefore classified as 'sexual misconduct?' Is it association with sex workers, participation in nonmonogamous sex (regardless of sexual orientation), or rape and child sexual abuse?

LGBT Buddhist opinions on this differ. Some argue that it suggests that monogamy should be the preferred sexual option, although some Buddhist feminists have major difficulties with the prohibition on "taking life" as it applies to women's reproductive choice. Not surprisingly, some LGBT vegetarians like the religious sanction for their chosen dietary ethic.

In one case though, San Fransisco's Zen Buddhist community provided an extraordinary story of not only an ordained minister of their faith, but an abbot. Tom Dorsey (1933-1990) was like most other San Francisco gay hippies in the late sixties, doing pot, doing drag and doing men. Then, he found the fledgeling Zen Buddhist community and realised that he had found a spiritual home. Over time, he stopped doing drugs and began to live the life of a Zen Buddhist monk, although they weren't as insistent on sexual monogamy in that context.

However, Tom applied himself rigorously to virtually every other precept of the faith, and in time, moved up the emergent spiritual hierarchy. Unfortunately for the Zen community, it went through some upheavals after it was found that its first leader, Richard Baker Roshi, had engaged in some questionable financial dealings and sexual conduct toward female disciples. Issan Thomas Dorsey was ordained abbot or roshi, and his piety helped to reunify his community. Tragically though, HIV/AIDS was emergent at this time, and Dorsey had unsafe sex once too often. As a result of his nobility of dying though, Hartford Street Zen Center discovered the importance of Buddhist practices of social service to its spiritual life, which continues.

Therefore, we have not only an out gay man in this religious context, but an out gay religious leader- something which Wicca alone has managed to parallel. Given continuing East Asian immigration to this country, and the rise of western Buddhist interest as well, this great faith is likely to play a significant role in New Zealand's future. We could do a lot worse.


Winston Leyland: Queer Dharma: Voices of Gay Buddhists, Volumes 1 and 2: San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press: 1998, 2000.

David Schneider: Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey: New York: Marlowe: 2000.

The Lone Mountain Path: AIDS in the Life and Death of Issan Dorsey Roshi:

Craig Young - 1st August 2007