Jeff Wilson is a professor of religious studies and East Asian studies at Renison University College, University of Waterloo. His research focuses primarily on Buddhism in the West.
Sometimes advances in LGBTQ rights within religious communities don’t lead to battles, rancor, or schism. Sometimes they even occur without significant activism and soul-searching. It seems strange given the turmoil that has engulfed so many American denominations. But that’s what I learned when I investigated the history of same-sex marriages in the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), the oldest Buddhist organization in North America.
Founded at the end of the nineteenth century, the BCA belongs to Japan’s largest Buddhist school, the Pure Land tradition of Jodo Shinshu. Following intense prejudice and discrimination—culminating in the incarceration of its entire membership during World War II—the BCA temples did their best to tack toward the American mainstream in the post-war period, developing Boy and Girl Scout troops, basketball leagues, and holding dances for their teens. Yet there are certain ways in which the BCA never reflected the mainstream, such as their attitudes toward LGBTQ rights.
The world’s first known Buddhist same-sex marriage was conducted in a San Francisco BCA temple in the early 1970s. Other ministers officiated at same-sex weddings in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Yet they typically did so without advertising the revolutionary nature of these rituals, or even talking to each other about them. They simply responded to requests from members or neighbors, just as they did when opposite-sex couples approached them for wedding rites. There was no debate within the denomination, nor any attempt to stop such ceremonies.
Buddhist ministers began speaking on the record during the 1990s, when same-sex unions became part of the larger public debate. In temple newsletters and sermons, ministers counseled care for LGBTQ persons, promoted respect for human rights, and voiced their opposition to legislation outlawing same-sex unions or marriages. The volume of these messages increased in the 2000s; in 2004 the BCA Ministers Association issued a proclamation decrying anti-same-sex marriage laws. The proclamation was simply accepted by the membership; no internal debate followed.
It would be inaccurate to paint the BCA as some sort of pro-LGBTQ promised land. Understanding of LGBTQ issues and experiences ranges widely, and it is possible (though uncommon) to find individual members who harbor relatively homophobic attitudes. But in extensive interviews carried out on the topic, I was unable to locate a single BCA minister who would refuse to officiate a same-sex marriage, nor have I ever encountered the idea that homosexuality could disqualify someone from the ministry, temple membership, or the embrace of the Buddha. The collective BCA perspective on the LGBTQ issues tearing apart some other American religious communities is essentially a great big shrug.
This placid attitude toward elsewhere-contentious issues can be attributed to three aspects of the Buddhist Churches of America. First, ministers often cite the long experience with racism and religious prejudice in America, especially the 1940s incarceration. As members of a denomination deeply affected by fear and discrimination, they are alert to the dangers of intolerance directed toward any group (similar rhetoric often appears in the many ministerial cautions against Islamophobia).
Second, Jodo Shinshu theology and scriptures carry no homophobic rules or messages (or, really, any mention of homosexuality at all). Furthermore, Jodo Shinshu morality is primarily contextual rather than absolute, and carries a strong sense that all people, without exception, are imperfect and prone to mistakes. Thus, there is no real foundation upon which to build potential objections to same-sex marriage or other LGBTQ issues.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, ministers and laypeople alike consistently reference the all-embracing nature of Amida Buddha, the central icon of Jodo Shinshu. The Buddha acts always and only out of compassion, possessing no judgmental or severe side. All beings are embraced and liberated by the Buddha, good and bad, old and young, male and female, the teachings proclaim—and straight and gay as well, state the ministers unanimously. I have found no difference in this opinion whether my interviewees are American or Japanese, male or female, converts or lifelong Buddhists.
The example of the BCA shows us that LGBTQ issues need not be controversial—indeed, they need not really even be issues at all. Yet the confluence of forces that prevented the BCA from experiencing difficulty as LGBTQ rights became ever more part of the American tapestry is not necessarily replicable. It took a history of oppression, a lack of foundational homophobia, and an all-loving, never-rejecting deity to produce this placid situation. That’s a trifecta that few groups can easily lay claim to.
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