"All Beings Are Equally Embraced by Amida Buddha": Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Same-Sex Marriage in the United States

By Wilson, Jeff | Journal of Global Buddhism, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

"All Beings Are Equally Embraced by Amida Buddha": Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Same-Sex Marriage in the United States


Wilson, Jeff, Journal of Global Buddhism


Abstract

Ministers in the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) began performing same-sex marriages approximately forty years ago. These were among the first clergy-led religious ceremonies for same-sex couples performed in the modern era, and were apparently the first such marriages conducted in the history of Buddhism. In this article, I seek to explain why Jodo Shinshu Buddhists in America widely and easily affirmed same-sex weddings in the later 20th and early 21st centuries. My argument is that there are three factors in particular-institutional, historical, and theological elements of American Shin Buddhism-that must be attended to as contributing reasons why ministers were supportive of same-sex marriage.

Introduction

While same-sex marriage has become a topic of major dispute in many American denominations, Jodo Shinshu Buddhists have handled the matter quietly and easily, without rancor or even much in the way of debate, for nearly forty years. Ministers in the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) began performing same-sex marriages approximately forty years ago, not long after the June 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York City (often cited as the origins of the gay liberation movement). These were among the first clergy-led religious ceremonies for same-sex couples performed in the modern era, regardless of location or religion; furthermore, they were apparently the first such marriages conducted in the history of Buddhism, as well as the first by a predominantly Asian-American organization, Buddhist, Christian, or otherwise. Since that time, the BCA and its Hawaiian sister organization the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii (HHMH) have become increasingly willing to not only conduct same-sex ceremonies in their own temples, but also to take prominent public stands on behalf of such relationships/ceremonies.

In this article, I seek to explain why this particular Buddhist tradition, among all the other religious groups in the United States, widely and easily affirmed same-sex weddings in the later 20th and early 21st centuries. I begin by offering context through a brief discussion of the historical relationship between Buddhism and homosexuality, followed by a survey of American Buddhist same-sex ceremonies. I then proceed to an extended record of same-sex unions performed by BCA ministers specifically, most of which have never before been documented, and discuss two important resolutions related to same-sex marriage issued by the BCA and HHMH. My argument is that there are three factors in particular-institutional, historical, and theological elements of Jodo Shinshu in America-that must be attended to as fundamental contributing reasons why ministers were supportive of same-sex marriage.

Buddhism and Homosexuality

To contextualize the American Buddhist situation, it is necessary to begin with some brief background information about Buddhist attitudes toward homosexuality. As Buddhologist José Ignacio Cabezón has noted:

Buddhism has been for the most part neutral on the question of homosexuality. The principle question for Buddhism has not been one of heterosexuality vs. homosexuality but one of sexuality vs. celibacy... The fact that Buddhism has been essentially neutral in this regard does not imply that the cultures in which Buddhism arose and flourished have always been neutral. Some, at certain times, have been tolerant of same-sex relations; others have not. However, because of the essential neutrality of the Buddhist tradition in this regard, it has adapted to particular sociocultural norms, so that throughout its history we find a wide gamut of opinions concerning homosexual activity, ranging from condemnation (never to the point of active persecution) to praise. (Cabezón, 1998: 30)

Contemporary scholars sometimes differentiate between two approaches to Buddhism, the monastic and lay orientations. Monks (both male and female) live by a large number of traditional rules of conduct that minutely govern their behavior. …

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