Shambhala Rainbows: Gay in Shambhala
In 1995 I was a 24-year old club kid working for a vintage clothing store called “Flashy Trash” in Boystown, Chicago. When, in the midst of some temper tantrum, the woman I worked with joked that I should learn how to meditate, that moment, triggered something in me – I thought, “Hey that sounds helpful!” I did some research and decided to find a place that taught meditation. So I called 411 (directory service) and they gave the number for the Shambhala Center, which was right down the street from my work.
I naively waltzed in with my bright green hair, a hope and a dream. Surely this place would be a more helpful alternative to going out to the clubs and bars that gay guys like myself were so accustomed to. I had recently stopped partying and was looking to sober up a bit, and learn how to meditate. My previous life had been one of VIP entrances, the coolest clothing, lots of friends, sex, being in magazines, knowing people everywhere and so on. But there also came with that a point of revulsion: the hangovers, being constantly broke, and ultimately a loneliness that brought me to want something different.
So, after my first meditation instruction in the shrine room, I sat, somewhat nervous and clumsy. But it was good. And then sure enough, I was instantly connected and in just a few weeks I was helping to paint the walls of the renovated building that the Shambhala Center had just purchased. Meeting people was gradual; for some reason I thought there would be more gay guys my age. In fact, there was what seemed to be a general ambiguousness of sexuality. People asked about my girlfriend and I assumed that the guy interested in talking with me was gay. But I soon found out that I most likely would have a separate spiritual life from my social life. But my inspiration – which kept me going back – also kept me very lonely. Were there no younger gay guys interested in the dharma?
During my “renaissance” I started film school, practiced two hours a day every, and biked every Sunday from the near south side up to Rogers Park (15 miles) for morning nynthun. The following summer, in 1997, I decided to go to dathun in Colorado. “Make sure you pack blankets and not a sleeping bag…you never know who you might meet!” someone advised me as they winked. To make it brief: I brought a sleeping bag and didn’t regret it. There were cute guys, but they were not interested in meeting other guys. But the retreat was so unforgettable that I promised to return to volunteer the next summer. And I kept that promise.
After three months of being in Colorado, back in Chicago I started hanging out with a couple of old friends again. We would go out and party for the weekend, but nothing more. The whole gay party scene changed from a few years earlier. Everyone was working out, being tan. It wasn’t my cup of tea. We said to ourselves, we don’t want to be these 40-to-50-year old guys still doing drugs on the dance floor. And because of my meditation practice, it all seemed futile. But that was my alternative and the only way I could meet other guys. In the summer of 1999, just a day before I left for seminary, at my going-away party we were surrounded by hundreds of good-looking shirtless guys all having a blissful drug induced time.
Then it was on the road to seminary the next day.
Surely there would be someone I would meet among 450 people at seminary? My hopes perked up a bit as there was going to be a queer bonfire, but that ended up being mostly females and a couple of older guys. Instead, working on the stupa documentary and Kasung practice became my refuge instead from pursuit of carnal love. At the end of seminary I did takedown and ended up borrowing a vehicle a couple times, taking some straight friends to the gay bar in Fort Collins. We had a blast and it felt good to be out in the open, and free, and getting a little bit of the attention that I realized I craved.
On returning, after a few years, I met with some other sangha folks and we put together a queer dharma group in Chicago. It really showed how diverse the gay community is. Some people had been married; others didn’t come out until 40. It was odd, but I really didn’t feel like I fit in very much. I wasn’t seeking acceptance of my sexuality.
Again back in Chicago, I ended up in a couple of long-term relationships, the last one lasting four years. They were very difficult, considering that I was practicing ngöndro while trying to maintain my sanity with an unsympathetic boyfriend. I all but quit practicing and instead concentrated on my career, the relationship, and the American dream of a home with a white picket fence. Although I had hopes of living near a practice center, because of the feelings of my “other half” that would not happen. Finally, dissatisfaction broke through and I said good-bye – I was once again single and felt free.
Practice didn’t instantly motivate me but my inspiration was a list of desired accomplishments, as my way of connecting to myself. One by one, I checked them off: I trained and ran a marathon, visited some places that I had wanted to go visit, and attempted to sell my home, which I could not afford alone; but since my ex and I were not legally bound, I was pretty much screwed.
There were some other goals, but I reached the big one: to move out of the United States. Chicago had long ago worn out its freshness for me and I felt destined to either go to San Francisco or to move to Europe. I had had the idea of living in a practice center for some time, where I could reconnect with that aspect of my life. With no prospects in San Francisco, and several job openings at Dechen Choling, the obvious decision was to move to France.
Living in a rural practice center in the middle of a foreign country has it pluses and minuses. One example is that it is a great place to live somewhat undistracted by the conventional world and where one can purify lifetimes of karma. But it can also be very, very lonely: even living with dozens of people, participants come and go, many of whom one just may say “hello” to in passing. And there are even more ambiguously sexual people. It has been really difficult to go from life where one could meet guys walking down the street or wherever, and to have sex or a relationship with them, to living where absolutely nothing happens like that. Going from “instant companionship” that even my mother recognizes when we are in the city together to a place where suddenly I am receiving no recognition at all is a difficult practice.
In my experience, being gay in Shambhala is not just an adornment but also really a unique opportunity for deeper connection with oneself. My experience of gay culture has become more distant as I become sadder about the lack of spiritual connection that people have to things other than sex and entertainment. But I keep practicing, remembering Jane Hope addressing a seminary at which I served as garsung: As Shambhala warriors, we need to go out into the world. My memory recalled something to the effect that we use what we have, our beauty and intelligence to magnetize others in the vision of Shambhala. Hell yeah, I though, this is what I have wanted to do all along!
I am now making my plans to leave my post as Dechen Choling’s rusung after three years of service. The list of things to do next has multiplied and I think, Where to go? Most likely I will move to San Francisco, like I had planned to do before. Not to find love or anything like that; that will surely come. My hopes are to take what I have learned over the past dozen or so years and go out and meet people. And maybe just might be able to bring Shambhala to yet another part of the world.