I spoke for the first time at San Francisco’s LGBTQ Sangha on January 25, 2021 via Zoom.
In Lama Rod’s practice, he invites in four additional sources of support. I think many of these were obvious supports during the time and cultural context of the Buddha, but I’m finding them to be very helpful reminders in my hyper-individualized context. These are refuge in: Ancestors/Lineage, Earth, Silence/Space, and Ourselves.
In my dharma talk, I focused in on taking refuge in the dharma, or taking refuge in truth. Have a listen!
Dharma talk notes / Loose transcript:
As we practiced tonight, we can find support and liberation, we can take refuge in many things. Tonight, we’ll talk about Taking Refuge in Dharma or Taking Refuge in Truth.
Talking about truth feels especially poignant as our national political conditions change. I had minimized my own memory of just how distorted truth had gotten under our last President, until I watched President Biden’s administration hold their first formal press conference on Inauguration Day last Wednesday. Press Secretary Jen Psaki began her remarks, “When the President asked me to serve in this role, we talked about the importance of bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room, and he asked me to ensure we are communicating about the policies across the Biden-Harris administration and the work his team is doing every single day on behalf of all American people. There will be times when we see things differently in this room – I mean, among all of us. That’s okay. That’s part of our democracy. And rebuilding trust with the American people will be central to our focus in the Press Office and in the White House every single day.”
So, Jen Psaki is talking about a kind of truth that’s about facts, being in accordance with reality.
This gives us a guidepost to what the Buddha is talking about when he talks about dharma or truth as something we can take refuge in. We’re being invited to take refuge in the way things really are.
What does that mean, and how do we find out how things really are?
So, there are a couple of very direct ways to find out how things really are, from a Buddhist perspective. One, there are some specific wisdom texts that have been passed down for 2600 years since the time of the Buddha, that share his insights about reality. I’ll share a little bit of that with you tonight. But a second way to find out how things really are is to explore through our own experience. Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Dharma books and tapes are valuable, but the true Dharma is revealed through our life and our practice.” So I invite you, even as I share wisdom from the Buddha with you tonight, how can you take that in, in a receptive mode of practice? Whatever words I share, how do they land in your own embodied experience?
As a queer person who has experienced some deep spiritual wounding from Christianity, it can be hard for me to sit up here and just tell you that Buddhism is true and expect that you should just believe me.
A little about my own wounding: I had really developed a love for Christianity and the kind of community it could offer me in middle and high school. And that’s mostly thanks to one great pastor who could create the kind of safety that my parents could not.
So when I went off to college, I expected all churches to feel that welcoming. I tried out a few different churches and youth groups, and landed at the one that sang the best songs. And to be honest, it was real close to my dorm, so I liked not needing to go very far on Sunday morning.
I was just getting to know this church community when they put a sign out front about “healing the sins of gay people.” OUCH. Now to be clear, at 18 I was so incredibly disembodied from growing up in a family filed with secrecy and trauma, that I was not yet out to myself, much less the world.
But if we would have had Gay-Straight Alliances when I was a kid, I would have been the fucking president. I knew with passion that gay and lesbian folks were not sinners, were not people who needed healed or changed. And I was all night for a whole week feeling abhorrent that I had spent even 1 minute of time enjoying a church that believed such things.
I spent that whole week lost in shame. I never went back to that church again. And I actually never went back to *church* again. Because I couldn’t trust the reliability of what this tradition was trying to teach me, when it was so obviously steeped in oppression.
When I first started dipping my toes back into spiritual practice and wisdom through meditation and Buddhism, one of the things that most held me was the Buddha’s deep invitation to not just believe in things because he said so — but to try things on for myself. In the language his words were first written down in, this is called ehipassiko, this idea that you can ‘see for yourself’ as the greatest tool for developing spiritual insight.
Kalama Sutta, the Buddha visiting & teaching the Kalama people:
“Do not believe in something because it is reported. Do not believe in something because it has been practiced by generations or becomes a tradition or part of a culture. Do not believe in something because a scripture says it is so. Do not believe in something believing a god has inspired it. Do not believe in something a teacher tells you to. Do not believe in something because the authorities say it is so. Do not believe in hearsay, rumor, speculative opinion, public opinion, or mere acceptance to logic and inference alone. Help yourself, accept as completely true only that which is praised by the wise and which you test for yourself and know to be good for yourself and others.” – Buddha Weekly
It gives you a sense of how we structure our time together — there’s a real priority on your own practice, really cultivating your capacity to listen to and explore your own experience. And have that coupled with teachers and experienced practitioners pointing to what might be worth checking out for yourself as you continue to develop your practice.
In this way, finding refuge in truth is less about putting all our faith in the wisdom of gurus — or in a political realm about putting all our faith in the wisdom of new presidents. The work we’re doing is about cultivating our own sense of integrity and wisdom, and learning to trust our sense of wisdom. For me, rebuilding this kind of self-trust has been the most important antidotes to shame that undergirds so much suffering in this lifetime.
So, what would I point to as reality that we can take refuge in, as reality that you can check out for yourself and see what is true? The Buddha invites us into a fundamental reframe about how we see the world, and we see ourselves in it. In changing our perspective, it changes how we imagine we can ask for and give support.
There are three fundamental truths about reality, called three characteristics of existence. When we see these truths clearly, and abandon old ways of thinking, we transform how we show up in the world.
Everyone suffers. There’s no magic status as a rich, celebrity, hetero white dude where suddenly all your troubles are gone. Our material privileges and basic safety under white supremacy and heteropatriarchy are very different. And yet despite every effort to achieve utter bliss through privilege, even the rich, celebrity, hetero white dude still suffers. It’s part of the human condition.
Everyone is connected. When you are suffering, you aren’t some individual being alone in that suffering — in fact, your experience emerges from a vast set of causes and conditions. In some small or large way, I can see how I am complicit in your suffering. And I could be equally complicit in your liberation.
Everything is constantly changing. If you are suffering today, I will be suffering tomorrow or the next day.
So, what do these truths about reality look like in real life?
I’m part of a Transformative Justice study group made up of a bunch of queer folks, mostly dharma people. It’s a mixed race, mixed gender group. Last week, we started trying out a mutual aid practice, where everyone who wanted to identified things they wanted to give to members of the group, and things they needed to receive if they were available.
Everyone suffers. Everyone had something they needed help with. People listed things like food, not just for themselves but also for roommates who had extra heavy workloads right now. Also grocery shopping, check-ins, help setting boundaries, sunset walks. I know for me it was a practice just to list the things I needed help with. In an individualist capitalist culture, we suffer with a second arrow of suffering that requires us to believe we are responsible for taking care of our needs all on our own.
Everyone is connected. It was beautiful to watch it evolve into an interconnected community of support. Some people needed to be fed, and other people wanted to offer food. Some people needed help with dog sitting, other people wanted to watch dogs. Some people needed help with an outdoor building project, and other people wanted to offer their manual labor and building skills.
Everything is constantly changing. As part of the project, a friend reached out to talk logistics on a project I needed help with, and halfway through the conversation we switched to supporting them about getting more accountable on getting gender pronouns right. By the end of the conversation, it was clear that we were both helpers, and both people receiving help.
As LGBTQ folks, there is something particularly healing in repairing the cycle of reciprocity, of giving and receiving help. Whether we’ve experienced the ache of being banished from families or communities of origin, or if we’ve internalized a sense of hyper-individualism in our efforts to resist/avoid queer and transphobia, finding small and large opportunities to repair this cycle of reciprocity can deeply repair our wounding.
I offer these reflections on Taking Refuge in Dharma, Taking Refuge in Truth as a real invitation to take refuge in your own practice in relation to the wisdom offered by the Buddha. To explore these reframes that the Buddha offers about how to see and experience the world. What do you find out when you explore this in your own practice — sitting quietly in mindfulness and interacting with your community?
I hope you find greater ease, healing, protection, care, and happiness as you look for yourself.