"Be a Lesbian"

von Shelley Anderson

I’m a Buddhist lesbian, a cis-gender woman, raised in the 1950s in the US American South. Growing up, every evening the television news was full of images African-Americans being beaten by police, dragged and handcuffed, as they protested for their human rights. These images awakened a profound longing for justice in me. I swore that when I grew up I would fight for nonviolent social change, too. The American Civil Rights Movement inspired other American movements, including the women’s rights movement and the LGBTQ+ movements. I have spent most of my adult life contributing to these latter two movements.

In my spiritual search, too, I looked for a practice that espoused nonviolence and social action and that welcomed women and LGBTQ+ people as equals. I found such a home in the Buddhism teachings on liberation, and specifically in the teachings of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH).

My wife introduced me to TNH in 1987. She worked in an international peace organization and had known him for several years, attracted by his insistence on inclusivity and engaged Buddhism. In 1992 we went on the first of many retreats at his monastery in Plum Village, France, and later to his European Institute of Applied Buddhism (Germany) and the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism (Hong Kong).


My wife and I have always been open about our lesbian identities, as individuals and as a couple. We have felt embraced by the sangha around TNH. When my wife first meet TNH in the early 1980s, she explicitly asked him what the Buddhist perspective was on homosexuality. He asked her what she thought about homosexuality, then said that Buddhism was not moralistic, and that there were no proscriptions against homosexuality, something he has repeated in many talks with students. In a public Dharma talk (July 20, 1998) when again asked what Buddhism says about homosexuality, he replied “…when a lesbian thinks of her relationship with God, if she practices deeply, she can find out that God is also a lesbian….God is a lesbian, that is what I think, and God is gay also. God is no less. God is a lesbian, but also a gay, a Black, a White, a chrysanthemum. It is because you don’t understand that, that you discriminate.” In the book Answers from the Heart (2009), he writes “You should be yourself. If God has created me as a rose, then I should accept myself as a rose. If you are a lesbian, then be a lesbian.”

In the late 1980s at Plum Village it was common for lay practitioners to join affinity groups in order to discuss dharma talks. A lesbian and gay affinity group was always announced and usually attended by 10 to 20 practitioners. Thirty years later I heard a younger practitioner proudly announce that she and other LGBTQ+ folk had recently formed the ‘first’ affinity group in Plum Village history. In 2016, gender nonconforming young people spoke about the acceptance they felt when a nun opened a discussion by asking people their names and which pronouns they preferred. The word “they” is increasingly used, along with alternating “he” and “she” pronouns, in dharma talks. However, during a formal ceremony when the community sat separately, women on one side, men on another, at least one nonbinary person said they could not participate. While gender fluidity reflects Buddhist teachings like impermanence, more reflection is needed on how to fully embrace trans, intersex and gender nonconforming practitioners.

Female Equality

Lay women and nuns are the majority in Plum Village and other practice centres, but numbers do not always translate into equality. TNH has initiated many changes to highlight gender equality. There is full ordination for nuns, and monks and nuns share all tasks, from giving dharma talks to housekeeping, as do lay practitioners. During formal ceremonies, rather than following behind the monks, the nuns walked side by side. In a practice called Touching the Earth, when prostrations are made to ancestors, the first bhiksuni Mahagotami is included, as is Mother Earth. TNH has also created 8 “Gurudharmas” for monks, to compliment the 8 guidelines for nuns on interacting with monks. While traditionally, nuns and lay people cannot read the precepts of fully ordained monks, both bhikshu and bhikshuni precepts are public. Also traditionally, a monk may disrobe seven times. If a nun disrobes, she must return as a novice and cannot again receive full ordination. In the Plum Village tradition, nuns can re-ordain as bhikshunis.

The Order of Interbeing (OI)

The OI began in the midst of war. In 1966 in Vietnam TNH ordained six lay followers. The six young people, three women and three men, were all leaders in the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), a (then) new training program for Vietnamese youth who wanted to work for rural development and social change. The OI was organized explicitly around ‘engaged Buddhism’, or the modernization of Buddhism to address social problems. At the core of the Order were 14 Precepts, a reworking of monastic precepts and specifically of the Bodhisattva Vows.

Members vowed to practice at least 60 days of mindfulness a year. Secondly, they agreed to practice with a community of friends. One of the original ordained members, Cao Ngoc Phuong, (now Ven. Chan Khong) followed TNH to the West when he was exiled from Vietnam and played a major role in establishing Plum Village.

Today over 2,000 OI members work on issues such as racism, climate change, poverty and intolerance. I have found a home among them, bringing the ancient insights of Buddhism into a world that sorely needs compassion and right action.

Shelley Anderson (she/her) lives in the Netherlands. She has been a member of the Order of Interbeing since 1994. She is the founder of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Women Peacemakers Program and worked for several years with the International Lesbian Information Service.

This text was published in Ursache und Wirkung, 2021, "Buddhism under the rainbow"

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