Thesis: Introduction

May 5th, 2017

Image copyright: Daria Nepriakhina

I will post some parts of my thesis here.  If you want to see the entire thing just contact me.  Because of the nature of the writing these are likely to be longer posts and very academic sounding.  I do hope you will make comments or let me know what you think.  I will try to follow up each part with a post expanding on the ideas.


From my childhood I have been on the scent of the tie that binds life at a level so deep that the final privacy of the individual would be reinforced rather than threatened. I have always wanted to be “me” without making it difficult for you to be “you”. – Howard Thurman[1]

This paper will investigate the role of interrelatedness and community in healing. I will develop an inquiry into the healing capacity of community within the ongoing culture of oppression, using the lessons and experiences of the East Bay Meditation Center. I begin with clarifying my working definitions of oppression, community and healing, and then, I will use Paula Arai’s work on healing and interrelatedness to understand Buddhist teachings on healing more completely. I will consider the ways that East Bay Meditation Center is a healing community using systems and structures designed to respond to oppression and how this healing can be replicated in other communities of all types.

When I began graduate studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies and the Graduate Theological Union in the fall of 2011, I was convinced that my thesis would seek to finally answer this question for me: How is there queer identity (or any other marginalized identity for that matter) in a non-abiding, impermanent, and constantly changing self? Little did I know that in the spring of 2015 I would take a class with Paula Arai that shifted my perspective to such a degree that I was able to see I had been looking in the wrong place for the answer to the wrong question. I was already familiar with Arai’s work through her first book Women Living Zen: Japanese Soto Buddhist Nuns[2]. Being in class and learning Arai’s way of studying her subjects was inspiring to my own developing ideas about academic pursuits. Rather than the typical way of studying people and their history, Arai used her personal social location to develop and explore what her subjects were saying about themselves. This combination of personal embodiment coupled with academic, theoretical exploration began to shift my own pursuits and practices. I had long felt that academic pursuits were meaningless outside of lived embodiment, and that the only way to consider that embodiment was to allow those living it to express what it meant. My experience with Arai helped to shape this feeling into a methodology of inquiry.

The combination of skillful teaching, the readings and in class dialogues that took place in Topics in Buddhist Thought: Buddhist Women Throughout History began to shift my focus onto living fully in an embodiment that may be subject to oppression, but without the lived experience of oppression. This class offered me a chance to see women living in times and situations of oppression, but when speaking for themselves showed a lived experience that wasn’t one of being oppressed. I found a shifting in my practice of healing from asking for clarity to participating in a new understanding of the relationship to the oppression I experienced in my life, and that others told me they experienced in their lives, the communities we found ourselves in, and what it means to advocate for justice in a way that leaves no one outside. This class fundamentally changed my understanding of what it meant to practice Zen, be a chaplain, be an advocate and an activist, to be a queer man, to be a teacher, and to be a person of conscience.

What I learned from these Buddhist women throughout history was that to truly heal in oppressive situations, to fully engage in communities of healing, there first had to be a settled, upright, clear relationship to our own embodied experience of the world. I saw that in order for me to understand what it meant to be queer, Buddhist, and have no-self, I had to “take my place.” To stand firmly, unapologetic, and committed to the dharma of my embodied, lived experience, not as opposition to something else, but simply, in the words of Eihei Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan, as the “Dharma-gate of repose and bliss.”[3] The more I take my place in the world as a queer, white, cisgender, disabled, educated, middle class, Buddhist male over fifty, the deeper I am able to understand the perceptions of the world that arise from this location, the less I need to concretize and reify the self around these constructions, and the more I am able to create space and community with those who are embodied differently. It is as if I more completely live out the interdependent interpenetrating nature of reality, by more completely taking my individuated and uniquely “me” space of my direct experience of the world.

In 1995 I found myself unable to work, deeply grieving the multiple losses of friends and family to AIDS and despite long term participation in a spiritually based twelve step program of recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism, I was unable to reconcile my queerness and a sense of the divine that was able to overcome the trauma of the spiritual abuse from a variety of religious communities around my queerness. I found my way to a Buddhist meditation group, and despite my initial resistance, found a practice and place that I could use to start to explore a way of life that provided healing and wholeness in the midst of the my suffering. This was probably the first lesson in healing for me; healing only can happened in the midst of my suffering, not by eliminating it. This understanding was the start of a journey to this paper. From the very beginning I attempted to make sense of what felt like an innate ongoing identity as a queer person, and the concepts of no self that was being presented by teachers and others I would come across, including other queer identified people.

I have been providing spiritual care to those who are dying since before I knew that there was such a thing. As an out gay man, living through the  1980 and 1990’s, I found myself at the bedside providing care to dying men in the thousands: some total strangers, with only a small cadre of friends to act as family, some lovers, friends, comrades and companions. As the holocaust subsided in the mid-to-late 1990’s, my grief and suffering led me to a Buddhist practice, then to formal training as a volunteer at a hospice that used Buddhist meditation as a foundation for  its caregiving, and finally to the beginnings of awareness of this thing called Chaplaincy that I have been doing all along, but had no language for. In this way, I see the “work” of a chaplain to be one of being available to accompany, assist, facilitate and encourage healing and wholeness.

Like all people, I have places in my life in which oppression and privilege play out in intersecting and complex ways. I also operate on the world according to my own levels of learned oppressions and privileges. What assumptions I make about what I deserve, what I “earned”, and/or what I should expect from the world are all shaped by these concepts and ideas. Some of these are conscious and some are unconscious. I have begun to investigate oppression due to my own experiences of it as both the oppressed and the oppressor. I have no experience of any other human who is only the oppressor or only the oppressed. I also have no experience of anyone who has escaped from this double-edged sword of oppression and privilege. This leads me to believe that we all suffer at the hands of oppression and that we all create suffering from our, often unconscious, enactment of privilege. It also leads me to believe that we do not heal FROM oppression, but must begin to practice healing IN oppression.

The investigation of oppression, community and healing comes not from some theoretical basis, but in an effort to understand the healing in my own life and how to facilitate this in those I serve. As both oppressor and oppressed, as both healer and the healed, as an individual and as an interdependent part of community, the investigation of how to facilitate healing has to be as transgressive as it is theoretical and just like healing has to involve community and individuals, I can’t discuss this without it being as personal as it is academic.

[1] Thurman, Howard. The Search for Common Ground: An Inquiry Into the Basis of Man’s Experience of Community. A Howard Thurman Book. Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1986.

[2] Paula Kane Robinson Arai, Women Living Zen: Japanese Sōtō Buddhist Nuns (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[3] Eihei Dogen, Fukazazengi, San Francisco Zen Center Translation.


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