Saturday, October 09, 2010


Here's an excerpt from my new book which Shambhala Sun Space has kindly put up. The book is, of course, Sex, Sin and Zen and it's out now at fine book stores everywhere.

You'll note that the excerpt is followed by a discussion of my use of the term "sexual preferences." One of the readers takes issue with this stating:

"The term "sexual preference" belittles the agony that gays and lesbians often must go through in order to become honest with themselves and others about who they are. Many don't make it that far, and they lose their lives. Others lose their lives through murder, at the hands of psychopaths who cannot tolerate their honesty. If sexual orientation were a simple matter of preference, and if people could just choose to "be without preference," as Brad suggests, then we wouldn't see a suicide rate among gay teens that's up to four times higher than that among heterosexual teens. Most of those kids, I assure you, aren't at peace with their "preferences" -- and they would probably choose differently, at that stage, if they had the power. They have "preferences" about the kinds of clothes they wear and the music they listen to and the movies they see and the places they hang out, but sexual identity is on another order of magnitude in terms of complexity. Its causes and conditions, as far as we understand (which, frankly, isn't very far), encompass both biology and psychology, nature and nurture."

There's lots more to the discussion than that, including some comments by Rod Meade-Sperry who put the excerpt up clarifying that I do not take the view in the book that sexual orientation is simply a matter of preference. But you can jump over there and read the rest if you want. Here's my answer:

An interesting discussion! The word "preference" here is indeed unfortunate. In the portion of the book excepted above I was trying to look at the Buddhist idea of "avoiding preferences." And so I was riffing on this word. I don't believe that one chooses to be gay rather than straight the same way one chooses to order strawberry ice cream instead of vanilla. And Dennis is correct, far too many people in our culture today seem to think it's something like that.

One of the many interesting aspects of Zen practice for me personally has been the discovery that there is a tremendous amount of variety in the thoughts and desires that arise in my mind once I stop working so hard at defining myself to myself. Among the many things I discovered was the fact that my own personal sexual orientation was not a fixed and rigid thing. Since I'm the kind of person I am, the idea that I could occasionally find men sexually appealing was not really a big shock. Some of the other stuff I recognized about myself was truly disturbing. That I could be attracted to men was no big deal, especially by comparison.

The point I'm clumsily trying to get at here is that sexual orientation -- hetero, homo, bi, trans, queer, etc. -- seems to me to be just one of a big stew of things we use to constantly define and reinforce our provisional sense of self. Ultimately it's all delusion, even when it's a provisionally useful delusion. Some of it may even be true as far as it goes. But it still falls short of who we really are.

I was trained in the Zen school where we are taught not to draw a hard line between ultimate and relative truth. The party line in Zen is that ultimate and relative truth are one and the same. Dennis is right about the orders of magnitude between preferring the Ramones to Air Supply as compared to one's sexual orientation. Still, as a Zen convert I'm stuck with having to make the point that it's all relative no matter how real it seems. But then again even the undeniable fact that I am a human being living on planet Earth is, too, just relative truth (and, as such, is also absolute truth). So this is a very big topic, far more than you could possibly do justice to in the comments section of a Shambhala Sun Space blog.

In the end, though, I'm still as hetero as I ever was. As Dennis points out, it's part of my personal karma. In spite of what I found through my practice, I can't just flip to the other side through an act of will. In my own case I'm lucky that there is no societal pressure to do so. It must be really horrible when there is.

But I find I'm more personally at ease with myself because I've been able to drop some of the very hard clinging I did to my sexual identity -- among many other aspects of identity. I imagine a lot of people could do with discovering these things about themselves. This is especially true for hetero folks like me, I think. And here's why.

We need to treat everyone we meet with respect and dignity regardless of their orientation. That's for sure! I believe that the Buddhist practice can help establish that by allowing more people to see how fluid their own identity -- sexual or otherwise -- actually is. Then we cease to view others as eternally different from ourselves.


Again, a plug for the two events I'm doing in New York next week. The first is a book signing at 7 pm on October 15th at the Iinterdependence Project in the East Village. Be there!

The following two days, October 16th and 17th, we're having a two-day non-residential retreat at the Interdependence Project in the East Village. This is a terrific opportunity for anyone who wants to get a real taste of what zazen is all about. The retreat is open to beginners, no experience necessary. It will be focused on shikantaza style zazen as taught by Dogen Zenji. It's non-residential, which means you get to go out and have a night on the town in Manhattan afterward instead of being cooped up with a bunch of Zen nerds all night.


And I would like to thank everyone who has been making use of the donation button up on the top left corner of this page. Every little bit helps a lot. Thanks!


Harry said...


anon #108 said...


(Time flows in all directions, geddit?)

anon #108 said...

It all kinda ties in, don't it Brad? Causes and conditions, sexual "preferences", sense of self, provisional truths, the Universe...Hmm. Nice.

Anonymous said...

"We need to treat everyone we meet with respect and dignity regardless of their orientation."

Just out of curiosity, how would you treat
Genpo if you met him in person? (As for
me, I don't think I would treat him with
respect and dignity.)

Anonymous said...

"a suicide rate among gay teens that's up to four times higher than that among heterosexual teens"

Why does everybody think that suicide is such
a bad thing? It seems a far more effective
way to end one's suffering than zazen. (So
far, zazen has only increased my suffering
-- but then maybe I'm doing it wrong, or
maybe I haven't done it long enough, or
maybe blah-blah-blah-yada-yada-yada.) Anyhow,
as time goes on, suicide becomes more and
more attractive.

Anonymous said...

Do it with Chi!

Anonymous said...

this is why you might not choose suicide...

Hell Realm

The hell realm is full of beings undergoing intense physical and mental suffering. There are vivid descriptions in the mythology of the numerous and various kinds of hells and torments that can be found in this realm, and the major theme is the absence of any hope for escape (that is, until one’s karma is exhausted). There are hot hells, cold hells, occasional hells and neighboring hells (classically, there are eighteen in all). In the Reviving Hell, its denizens are tied to each other and fight each other to painful deaths, only to have a cold wind come along, revive them, and allow the process to start over. Inhabitants of the Black Thread Hell are cut into pieces with flaming knives and saws along black lines that have been drawn on their bodies, after which their bodies miraculously reassemble only to be cut up again. Residents of the Crushing Hell are repeatedly crushed between two mountains or iron plates and revived. In other hells beings are burnt with molten metal and pierced with spikes. In the cold hells, beings are tormented with blisters, endlessly chattering teeth, and their skin splitting open. Surrounding the hot and cold hells are the neighboring hells, through which beings must pass on their way out of hell: a pit of hot embers that appears from afar to be a shady trench; a swamp full of corpses that appears from afar to be a cool river; a plain of razors that appears to be a pleasant meadow, and a forest of swords that appears to be a protective grove of trees.

Anonymous said...

Does a dog have Buddha-nature?

Whatever the case,
I want to die like a dog.

Anonymous said...

"Hell Realm"???

Sounds like your typical Christian
fire-and-brimstone bullshit.

Anonymous said...

Was the Buddha wrong about
inevitability of aging?

Seagal Rinpoche said...

Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.

Chris D said...

One of the things we go through with zazen is becoming aware of our own suffering: the First Noble Truth, "The truth of suffering is to be engaged with," as Stephen Batchelor says.

Honestly, though, zazen isn't the right thing for each person at every moment in our lives. If you feel like zazen is really pushing you closer to suicide, talk to your teacher and probably talk to a therapist. Genuinely contemplating suicide is a pretty serious negative state to be in, and it's possible that at this moment in your life it would be better to stop doing zazen and start working with a therapist.

disabled account said...

i'm bisexual and it took me years to come to a comfortable place with it. i used to be heterosexual and often confused because i liked women, and then i came to terms with the fact that i was gay, but confused that i still liked men. when i realized i didn't need to have a preference (there's that word) i was much more comfortable with my own attraction to people in general, regardless of gender.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing how much of my adolescence I spent worrying about whether or not I was gay, only to decide later that it was the wrong question..

Awakened Yeti said...

In the north they call us Rebels,
In the south they call us Yankees,
Because every other sucker's born to do the hokey pokey
With the skillet lickin' time keepers,
The grinning reapers
Of a missionary rock star.

Now you can rock it like Sir Sisyphus,
But even in it's genesis
It's really quite ridiculous,
'Lectric hobo, so now you know
Not to clock the Weeble Wobble hot rod gang,
Revelator big bang.

Dr. Matthew said...

We discussed this topic about a year ago at a monthly "Queer Dharma" group I attend in my city.

One of the main topics, as best I can recall, is that while many of the LGBT practitioners there were open to the idea that it's one more aspect of a contingent self that holds no ultimate reality, a major thread or no, all LGBT people are forced to think about what it means and how it relates to identity by virtue of our minority sexual orientations. Straight people are truly priveleged here - they get a pass on considering if this major aspect that organizes so much of life has any concrete reality. Queer kids are thrust into considering this around the time of puberty, and rarely with any sort of zen training to back them up. I think that's part of why it's so hard and so many kids aren't sure what to do.... this thing, this sexuality, is so real and unchanging, and there's still a strong cultural message that it should either be changeable or, if not, a source of great shame.

Anyway, I'm rambling, but.... great you covered this.

john e mumbles said...

Again, I enjoyed the sunspace excerpt, and your comment in responsel, Brad.

I was left scratching my head over this, though:

"But it still falls short of who we really are."

Is "who we really are" something we can "know?"

If we are to accept ourselves as is, and not try to "go from where you really are to some idealized state" (from excerpt), one would assume that it is impossible to "fall short" of this presently realized state of who we are already right here and now.

This should also hold true whether we are imagining ourselves to be otherwise or not...

Mumon K said...

The party line in Zen is that ultimate and relative truth are one and the same.

I don't think in Zen that's absolutely nor relatively true nor false.

That said, thank you for such a compassionate and honest and true post.

So it is with so many, many, many other things.

Awakened Yeti said...

Jesus said, "The kingdom of the father is like a certain woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking on the road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her on the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty."

- gospel of thomas, part 97

anon #108 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
anon #108 said...

Good point, mumbs.

That bit confused me too, Mumon.

Certainly Nagarjuna thought a distinction between relative truth (samvrti-satya) - the conventional, dualistic conceptual world, and ultimate truth (paramārtha-satya)- things as they 'really' are, empty of conceptualisation - was worth making. And it says here, in my Zen Party Manifesto, that I gotta swear allegiance to Nags as founding father Bossman #2.

Mind you, the Manifesto also says that samsara and nirnava are the same thing. Is that the same same, the same difference, or a different difference? Of course, the whole shmear is beyond sameness and difference, it says here in the appendix. Is that what you're getting at, Brad?

BTW my subs have lapsed...

anon #108 said...

Ewan MacColl's little girl Kirsty was killed in a freak boating accident 10 years ago. She would have been 51 today.

R said...

I really loved ginger's comment @ 20:28 pm: - “i'm bisexual and it took me years to come to a comfortable place with it. i used to be heterosexual and often confused because i liked women, and then i came to terms with the fact that i was gay, but confused that i still liked men. when i realized i didn't need to have a preference (there's that word) i was much more comfortable with my own attraction to people in general, regardless of gender.”. - I'm attracted to all sentient beings without regard to any special discrimination. - [Mysterion wo nozoite, possibly] Years of Zazen inevitably lead to advance in all fields. The experience knows no limits.

P.S. [i.e. - R still] said...

I hope it's OK I'm putting this up here,- but the merciless has also let me know that he was of similar tendencies, [regarding immature sentient being far below the possibly seemingly relevant stage of puberty - I may be slightly hesitative [- or - in the least - reluctant] to fully identify “tendency” with “preference”, - but actually, - wtf] though he has not so far yet found it appropriate [or necessary] to make a full statement in front of audience of this blog hereby read in its entirety.

Anonymous said...

in front of the audience

(sometimes a few limits)

Jack said...

I’m really glad enlightenment is finding humanity.

The truth is always bound to win.

Do not deny your true identity, my fellowmen and women.



[aka “the ripper”]

Anonymous said...

sexual healing

Pukuphan said...

The party line in Zen is that ultimate and relative truth are one and the same.

I see others have already commented on this. I think it's a poor choice of words on Brad's part or maybe he was in a hurry. Saying something is 'the same' is slightly different than saying they aren't two or aren't separate. For example, a finger is not 'the same' as the hand, but it's not apart or separate either. Heads and tails of a coin are not 'the same' but they are still one coin.

Same and different are an old teaching device in zen. As in; "Is this stick different than or the same as this table?.....If you say they are different you get 30 blows. If you say they are the same you still get 30 blows of the stick."

Relative and absolute truth are not the same. At least not in my zen politburo.

Anonymous said...

I do prefer sex to many things, that is, when it's an option.

Jundo said...

Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

So you guys can bite me!

Graydancer said...

I just finished this section of the book, which I found pretty interesting since my own "queer" identity is heavily involved in BDSM, especially rope bondage.

I wrote about my own thoughts about identity and sexuality as part of the "reading group" I'm leading online for listeners of my podcast (still hopin' for that interview, Brad!). It's at .

But I think the most relevant thing was something I learned when I was a mentor for a teen LGBT theater group. A young man was being quizzed: Are you gay? Straight? Bi?

He just looked back at the group and said, "Um, I'm not any of those things. I'm just Dave."

As the saying goes, and my eyes were opened...

Anonymous said...

I am gay, and the issue of how to "deal" with this in the context of Zen was an issue for me for a long time. In many ways, I took Zen as a way of annihilating the sense of identity that comes with accepting oneself as gay — in this way, I avoided actually coming to terms with it.

On the other hand, besides misusing Zen as a way to suppress the things we don't like about ourselves, we can make exceptions. We can say that I'll put my sexual identity aside, still cling to it and identify with it as "my group," my minority status, my lifestyle, my whatever. I see a lot of people do this. Because sexuality is so interconnected with things that we talk about and do, we don't want to put our sexuality in the sometimes harsh light of mindful practice. We want to carve out some comfortable section of ourselves that can stay unexposed.

So, sexuality has its place and it is "important" in our day-to-day lives. But is is just as impermanent, unsatisfactory, and empty as anything else. In many ways, Zen is constant game of "gotcha" to see what else you're going to hide behind. We can't have sacred bits of our identity that are not subject to practice, and unfortunately, our sexuality is one of those areas that is just ripe for that kind of status.

So I fully accept being gay, and certainly in the conventional world, this has implications and such and so forth ... but, I don't get to rest in the definition of myself as a "gay person." This juicy bit of self-image must be seen through just as every other.

Kate said...

I don't think the word preference actually is that horrible of a thing.

As a heterosexual woman, I prefer men to women. Am I physically capable of being intimate with a woman? Sure, why not. All the parts still work. Am I attracted to women? No. That's my preference. I don't choose to prefer men, I just do.

It's not the same, but it's similar to people who are only attracted to one race, or are specifically not attracted to a certain race. Does that make them racist? No, it just means their attractions lie elsewhere and there's nothing we can do about it.

Gender is a great dividing line, but at the end of the day everyone is attracted to the people they are attracted to, and we're all just people.

I can't force myself to be attracted to men who are shorter than me (I'm 5'4"). Am I mean? Am I judgmental? No, I just can't control what I am and am not attracted to.

I think preference works, so long as you don't confuse preference with choice.

Anonymous said...

Trans as a sexual preference?
Where did you get that from?

108 the merciless said...


No ambivalence there at all.. A clearly stated preference.

kigen said...

Hi Kate,
I think the problem with using the word "preference" is that it can be used correctly to describe things that fall within the category of "whim" or completely conscious choices. This broadness of definition causes tremendous misunderstanding about homosexuality and these, in turn lead to tremendous suffering for those who are the recipients of this misunderstanding.

For instance, its totally correct to say "I usually take a left hand turn at the stop sign but it was my preference on this day to go right".
Contrarily, you can't say "Usually, am sexually aroused by beautiful, female breasts and not by a man's erect penis, but today its my preference not to be aroused by breast but instead to be aroused by a man's erect penis". That's not to say that there may be, at sometime, a person with whom you might have this reaction but I don't think its possible (except for the true bisexual) to wake up some random morning and exercise this "preference".
Believe me, as a young man who grew up seeing and struggling with the lack of respect for homosexuality (to put it mildly) that pervades our culture I woke up thousands of mornings consciously trying to make the very choice described above and failing (if you want to call it that) every doesn't work...not even a little.

To be perfectly honest: Would I "prefer" to be straight?...yeah, I guess i would. Who wouldn't "prefer" to not have the sexual orientation that we are taught as children to make fun of and that the vast, vast, majority of the world's population (including most members of ones own family) treats as disgusting, evil, perverted, and even worthy of death?? It reminds me a little of that scene in "The Life of Brian" when the Roman solders are asking the convicted to choose whether they are to be crucified or set free. "Freedom for me, please!"...chides our hero who admits that he'd only been kidding when his freedom is actually granted.
Does my "preference" matter at all to the fact of my sexual orientation...nope.

On the other hand, I feel as a gay man that I've been given a tremendous gift that has afforded me a unique perspective and has formed me as a person in so many subtle and profound ways that I know that, if my teenage wish were granted and I was made "straight" that I would be a totally and completely different person. Does the word "preference" speak to that potentially all-pervading shift in perspective and relationship to society/culture and myself...nah, it don't.

Bottom line, (no pun intended) I think that "orientation" is a much better term for describing our sexual desires and that it is really important to choose our words very carefully.

Anonymous said...

If it was just a matter of preferring one gender over another sexually, there would be no serious societal problems. But bottom line, there are other taboos involved in homosexuality that are are difficult to swallow.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

You people don't know what dirty really is. I'm from the Bronx.


Warner back on Shambhala Sunspace

*MUST credit TREELEAF FAG for this discovery*

Harry said...

"No ambivalence there at all.. A clearly stated preference."

I've been caught on the hop yet again .



CAPTCHA: rooloful [....!]

Kate said...

Hey Kigen,

I don't think that "preference" really covers it adequately... I just also don't think that, when looked at for it's true definition, it's all that horrible of a term.

I think part of the problem also is that people don't see sexual orientation as preferring one gender or another. When people (read: closed-minded assholes) throw around preference in a derogatory way, it seems as though they mean that the orientation itself is the preference, follow me?

While I prefer to sleep with men, I don't prefer to prefer men, if that makes any sense at all.

Preference also does not denote consistency or variation, although it can have the connotation of being an arbitrary thing. You're right, I could say that while I normally love french fries, today I preferred to go out for sushi. On the same token though, I could also tell you that as I consistently hate broccoli I have a deep, ingrained, permanent preference of cake over broccoli that I can't change or do anything about.

As an aside, your "Life of Brian" reference just had to make me think of Eddie Izzard...

"Cake or death???"
"Um, cake please..."