What Do Buddhist LGBTQ, Vegetarians, and Monks Have in Common?
In December 2017, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche gave this interview in a Taipei coffee shop. Here Rinpoche answers several questions from his point of view as a Buddhist teacher, on some of today’s hot button topics.
Q: From the Buddhist perspective, what is your view on LGBTQ?
Rinpoche: I can’t speak for all Buddhists, but what I understand is that desire is our basic emotion in this realm where we live. We all have desires regarding just about everything from smartphones to partners to our parents. So desire’s naturally going to be a part of our being. And sexual identity is part of this expression of our desire, this heart of passion. So from the point of view of passion itself, desire itself, the experience is the same, whatever one’s orientation may be. There’s no difference.
But what do you do with that desire? Where do you take that desire? It can be problematic for both homosexuals or heterosexuals or for whomever, you know. Even parental relations can become a problem in this regard. So the question here is what you do with the desire. It is not about the desire itself, and it’s not about one’s partner. The question is where you go with that. So it can be problematic or not, for all of us. If we choose to work with this heart of desire, and practice wisdom and compassion with our partners, then whatever one’s sexual identity, it’s the same kind of effort we’re making. Whoever our partner is, the challenge and the practice is the same.
Q: I’m interested in seeing if you could explain, from the point of view of Buddhist philosophy, how someone might be born as transgender?
Rinpoche: Well, you know, we talk about the masculine energy or power in our minds, as well as the feminine principle, the feminine quality and power there. And we have to be clear about having those energy levels balanced in certain ways. This is true for both males and females. So I don’t see how we can judge another person’s mental feelings as to who they might be in terms of gender.
Imagine someone judging you, saying, “You’re not really male, you should be female!” You know, how would you feel? If you’re a female and someone comes to you and says, “Look you’re not really female, you should be male. You look like a man,” how would you feel? It’s the same thing. When we go to someone and say, “Oh you shouldn’t feel that way. You are actually blah blah blah. I think that’s really creating difficulty when we enter in that way, being judgmental and trying to classify people in boxes. Our psyche, both body and mind, is more fluid than that––it’s really clear that we don’t really belong in only two boxes. There are more than two boxes. We can see this with someone who has a split personality, psychologically speaking. Some people have two personalities, not just one. You can ask Steve Martin––in his movie “All of Me,” you can see an example of that. So I think it’s really not for us to judge and tell someone who they are. Just as we don’t want to be judged and told what gender we are. I am who I am, you know?
And we all feel the same way — that we know best about who we are, we ourselves.
Q: Is it possible to be a legitimate, heartfelt Buddhist practitioner and not be a vegetarian?
Rinpoche: Just my own understanding is that Buddha Shakyamuni and all the Buddhists and bodhisattvas in the world are so compassionate. And I don’t think they will leave out anyone an say, “You’re not good enough to be Buddhist.” At the same time, from the ultimate point of view every sentient being possesses Buddha nature, every sentient being has the potential to wake up in a state of total awakening, anytime. And so from the point of view of the basic potential and basic human nature of sentient beings, from that point of view, no one––no one––is disqualified to practice dharma or be on the path. Regardless of what you eat, what you wear, you know? Do you need to wear red robes to be enlightened? Or, can you still get enlightened if you drink coffee? Yes, you’ll get enlightened faster if you drink coffee! 🙂
Q: So that leads into another question. Do you feel that monasticism is key for the Buddhist path?
Rinpoche: I have a great devotion for monasticism. And when I was young I had so much enthusiasm! And so much longing to be a real monastic as taught in the Vinaya, as taught by the Buddha in the sutras. A real life of monasticism is so beautiful and there’s so much potential just by being in that situation.
There’s so much opportunity to actually practice dharma and be awakened. So I have great enthusiasm and desire for that. And I have great respect.
And I think maintaining the lineage of true monasticism in the world is a very precious gift, a great blessing, and that we must do our best to support true monastics. But at the same time, as in any culture of spiritual practice, any spiritual tradition, or even a mundane tradition, they may get a little bit lazy and a little loose and you know, then then there’s not much difference between a monastic or a lay practitioner.
Q: But would you say, though, that vegetarianism is a positive thing?
Rinpoche: Oh vegetarianism is definitely. . . green. You know, green is good, right? Everything’s going green, right? Green energy and everything. So vegetarianism is really good. It’s wonderful, you know.
I feel sometimes people forget that no one is excluded. No one is excluded from practicing dharma, from practicing the path of awakening, just because of what you eat or wear, or where you belong––race, sex, culture. No, there’s no teaching like that from the Buddha. From the point of view of the nature of the mind, no one is excluded.
So therefore I don’t see why people who cannot be vegetarian, or are not prone to be vegetarian, should be excluded from the path. We can do that institutionally, but in terms of reality, that’s not the truth of what Buddha taught.
Being Who You Are: An Exercise
As you consider each question below, you may find it helpful to write or sketch your answers.
1. Who are you? What are the first words or labels that come to your mind?
2. Does your sense of who you are stay the same throughout the course of the day? For example, do you ever feel like a “different person” depending on where you are, or who you are with?
3. How or when have you noticed changes in your sense of yourself? Was there ever a time when you became aware, “I’m not myself right now”? If so, what was different then?
4. If you feel that “who you are” does not change, what is it like to be who you are?
5. Say to yourself, “I am who I am” and just sit with that for a few moments. What does that feel like in your mind and body?
No One Is Excluded: An Exercise
No matter what we may think, there’s no need to leave anyone out of our heart of kindness. It can be helpful to look at our mental habit patterns in regard to different people or groups who don’t share our values or choices. Consider the following questions.
1. Was there ever a time in your life when you felt excluded? What was happening then? What do you wish had been different?
2. Think of someone you disagree with or even dislike. Do you avoid listening to them or being around them? Do you think they notice?
3. Can you think of something positive about them?
4. If it is hard to find something positive, try to see or at least remember this person’s buddha nature. Do you notice any change?
Even if it is not practical to agree with others or their choices, even if we need to take action to protect ourselves from certain people, we can work with our mind to keep our heart soft toward them. Remembering what it feels like to be excluded can help motivate us to maintain a gentle point of view toward those we disagree with.