by Finn Enke
“It’s fine if we’re the only ones here this evening” Sid, Annie and I say to each other as we set up the meditation hall for each monthly gathering of the Madison LGBTQI Buddhist Meditation Group. And then people start streaming through the door, more than we ever imagined. I’ve had to adjust to the fact that we don’t keep noble silence prior to our sit, nor after. It’s more like the noble cacophony of strangers who can’t contain their relief at finding themselves in a Buddhist space that is also a queer space. “I’m so glad this is here,” we hear people say as they greet and introduce themselves to each other.
Young people, old people, white and people of color, disabled, some new to meditation, some longtime practitioners, some “out” and some not, we arrive with all manner of life stuff. We ring the bell, share names and pronouns. We practice sitting, walking, dharma discussing (we’ve been reflecting on Larry Yang’s Awakening Together: The Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community); we meditate a bit more and adjourn, no longer strangers. We encourage people to attend sanghas like SnowFlower, Madison Insight, Madison Zen Center, Heart of Recovery, and Tergar, where we can deepen our practice through more frequent meetings in established communities of practitioners. Already we are talking about meeting twice monthly, and we look forward to opening up meditation leadership to more people, in the way of SnowFlower.
This story might start with Cheri Maples and two of her practices: the first, her way of drawing people together across disparate social milieux; the second, her integration of engaged practice with diversity work, teaching ways we might stretch beyond ourselves to connect with others across apparent differences, rooted in the cultivation of insight and compassion.
Or, maybe the story starts on a sailboat heeling in a stiff tac across sparkling Lake Mendota and the bliss on Cheri’s face as she watched her friends—Sid Richards, my partner Nan, and I—introduce ourselves to each other. After all, how often do you get 4 transgender-aware Buddhists sailing across a lake on a spectacular summer day?
Or, the story could start with the various moments each of us heard Cheri’s friend, La Sarmiento from Washington, DC, use the phrase “LGBTQ Sangha” and “People of Color Sangha.” Yet none of us were looking for another sangha to join, much less to create one. At least, I didn’t think we were until Sid prompted me at Cheri’s memorial service, “Finn, did you hear La mention their LGBTQ Sangha again? We should open this possibility here, as a continuation.”
Maybe the story starts with people from all walks of life wondering how we will each individually and in various collectivities live in to the voids left to us when people in our lives pass on. And it starts with the innumerable beings everywhere who ask, “How will we stretch ourselves into new arenas of learning and growing—including paths that may at first glance seem distant or unconnected to our own lives? How can we become better allies and advocates for justice, both within our own communities and across the communities of all beings, everywhere, without exception?”
Sid, who practices with Madison Insight and Heart of Recovery, knew an LGBTQI sangha might tap some unmet needs in Madison. He consulted with La Sarmiento about how to nourish the seeds for a responsive and responsible sangha. He secured space at Shambala for a once-monthly meeting. The generous people at Shambala asked in return only that the LGBTQI Sangha have three experienced practitioners who would take on nominal leadership to ensure accountability to the space and Buddhist practice. Sid’s friend Annie Kalson (Madison Zen Center and Buddhist chaplain trained at Chicago Divinity School) joined on. We chose an evening that wouldn’t conflict with other local sangha meetings. We created a website. We opened the doors.
I’ve been surprised at the extraordinary quality of ease in this brand new sangha, and equally surprised to find that I myself needed a Buddhist meditation group like this. I didn’t anticipate how illuminating it would be to practice with queer folks in all our queerness: to acknowledge but not be stuck with the sometimes catastrophic discriminations and violences; to practice with the resilience and creativities we bring to everyday life. For me, my numerous unearned privileges make it possible for me to integrate into communities such as UW and SnowFlower, in which many among us are LGBTQI but the qualities of LGBTQI engagement are regarded as incidental rather than integral to the fabric of the community. I’m also used to being the only out transgender person in almost any room. I work perhaps too hard in such places as educator, ambassador, non-obvious guy with apparently confusing pronouns. What might I learn when I’m not doing that work? As one person in the LGBTQI Sangha put it, “it’s transformative to be in an honest space.”
Being transgender informs my Buddhist practice in countless ways, including how, over the years, I bring my trans experience into discussions at SnowFlower. Sometimes I do so because transness is inextricable from my insight into compassion, interbeing, transformation, and the nonlinearity of time. But equally often, I put the word “transgender” into the airwaves because I want to open up a space for someone else to come out or at least know that it would theoretically be ok to do so. I do this, too, in hopes that some days I won’t be the only one in the room to use that word.
And then one day, I wasn’t. When Cheri first brought transgender into a dharma talk at a Thaypassana retreat, she not only used the word transgender as a point of diversity, but she also spoke about transgender within her own experience. A year or so later at a SnowFlower Retreat, I was again profoundly moved when someone sitting far behind me dedicated the merit of the chanting of the Heart Sutra to his transgender son. It was the second time I had heard anyone else in a Buddhist context relate themselves to transgender existence. This is one form of diversity work: to open up spaces so they might take shape around the experiences and insights of otherwise marginalized people. Sometimes a little bit goes a long way.
In a Buddhist context that recognizes LGBTQI experience across race, age, class, ability, and other vectors of social differences, I wonder how I and we might incline into new kinds of engaged practice in the larger worlds around us. What can I learn about my own habits of communication and the ways my defenses may create unintentional and unnecessary barriers to connecting with others and working for justice with compassion and clarity?
The LGBTQI Buddhist Meditation Group, like any other, took root from seeds already sewn, watered and nourished. We sit together with our various histories of loss, trauma, transformation, self-not-self, and brilliance as people learning to be present to ourselves and life. I suspect we have barely an inkling of the contours and potential of our practice and all that brings us to this moment as it is.
The webpage for the Madison LGBTQI Buddhist Meditation Group may be found here:
*LGBTQIA stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual. Transgender (including nonbinary) refers to gender identities; intersex refers to identities related to physiological variations; Asexual, Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual are sexual identities; Queer may be sexual and/or gender identities.