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Have a merry (Buddhist) Christmas

How the Buddha came out

This Christmas I’m going to unhook the phone, sit down on a firm pillow, light candles and incense, and gaze at my mind.

That may not sound like a cheery holiday, but believe me there are worse ways to spend it.

Retreating to a meditative cushion this time of year is for me a practical way of avoiding two dismal alternatives that will sound familiar to many queers: either we crank up pathetic cheerfulness among family members we normally avoid, or turn ourselves into Nietzschean iconoclasts, pretending that Christmas is ho-hum, just another day-only to end up sobbing on our pillows by nightfall.

Given those choices, candle gazing seems the perfect answer.

The seeds of my peculiar Christmas custom were planted in 1962 when I was a kid growing up in Whidbey Island, not far south of Vancouver.

I felt very safe in our church youth group, a refuge from teenage brats whose taunts and bravado left me cold and scared. But that was before our minister mentioned in passing that homosexuals were evil.

My locker room hard-ons told me he was talking about me.

Nothing against Christ, but henceforth I did not even consider trusting my spirituality to a Christian church.

My revenge against that minister was to bury myself in books, to become the smart kid whose heart could be touched by no one. The first student from my town to make it into Stanford University, I left home amid the impossibly high expectations of parents and peers. (Yearbook inscriptions predicted that I’d be president of the United States!)

But the day after college graduation, as the Pentagon was bombing Cambodia, my boyfriend and I both got letters from the US Army ordering us to show up at the Oakland Induction Center the following Saturday.

On Friday, we stayed up all night, railed against the unjust Vietnam war, dropped acid, made love, and showed up the next morning in silver lamé gowns and high heels we picked up at the thrift shop on the way to the Induction Center.

My coming out act freed me from the army, of course. And once the folks back home heard about it, it cut me loose from their expectations too.

Ah, so much freedom! That is the queer’s curse. I was depressed. My life lost its forward momentum. Who was I anyway?

I needed a role model and, after a few years of floundering, I found one: Siddhartha Gauthama, the guy who became the Buddha.

His story, explained to me by a Tibetan Buddhist named Trungpa who became my teacher 30 years ago, was the ultimate coming out story. A beautiful, sensitive young princeling born in a royal family, he was indulged by his protective father who expected him to raise a family and live in luxury if he would only take over the reigns of the kingdom. The offer of materialism left Siddhartha cold.

Rather than try to pass as a normal prince, Siddhartha sneaked out of the palace gates one night, leaving normalcy irrevocably behind. Does this story sound familiar?

Of course, coming out is not essentially about sexuality. It means coming out of the cocoon we wrap ourselves within when trying to pass for someone we are not.

The Buddha knew it doesn’t come in one gesture, but is a way of life achieved through continual self-examination.

Once we are out, which lifestyle do we choose? Like ’70s queers, Siddhartha could have had prostitutes, gone to the baths, or pursued some sort of hip-hop equivalency suitable to his era. But his choice was to quietly sit down next to the half-naked older guys he saw meditating on the river bank, using yoga to quell the desires raging inside him.

After a number of years as an ascetic, he rejected the life of denial as just another form of materialism in reverse. Time to come out again.

The only authentic choice that remained for him was to look at his mind directly without crutches: no god, no methods of purifying the flesh, nor even a belief system to guide him. After seven years sitting under a pipal tree, he “got it”-unshakable freedom, the ultimate coming out.

Having conquered his own demons, he was now ready to open his heart to others.

He spent the next 30 years wandering around India. Without trying to create a religion, his very presence touched everyone in his path. They could not resist following him.

Without trying to be a revolutionary, his views upset the powers that be. Thanks to his influence, local Brahmins in the regions where he wandered were unable to justify their oppression of the poor. Untouchables, embraced by the Buddha as equals, yearned to follow his example. Buddha shocked the spiritual establishment by permitting the ordination of women.

Buddha’s example of radical self-examination ricocheted around Asia for the next 2500 years before landing in the West just a few decades ago. That such a person would have such influence in world history is for queers extremely good news.

Buddha is us. When seen from the point of view of the Buddha’s life, the coming out of queers is clearly a first step towards spirituality. But only the first step. We’ve got to work hard not to blow our freedom, but to turn it into a genuine benefit for ourselves and others.

As the days (and years) grow shorter, as the cash registers zing amid hollow retail cheer, it is good to keep this in mind.

So don’t pity me on Christmas day. Lighting candles and incense beats spiked eggnog and smarmy Christmas carols.

Imitating the Buddha as best I can, I’m getting ready to face an even more challenging holiday: New Year’s Eve.