February 25, 2004
The Media is Leaving America's Eastern Religions — 7% of the Country — Out of an Important Democratic Debate Earth to New York Times: "We Live Here Too."
(Boston) - February 25, 2004 - Lama Surya Das, one of the most senior leaders of the 5 million Buddhists in the United States, announced today his support for the gay and lesbian weddings that have taken place over the past few weeks in San Francisco and his hopes that the state of California and the city of San Francisco will take firm action to guard the legality of those civil marriages and protect the civil rights of gay citizens and their families.
"I've been watching the events unfold in San Francisco and what I have seen is that the joy and love that these people are sharing with each other is amazing and it is right," said the Lama, a best selling author and teacher who is also the most highly trained Buddhist lama in the U.S. and has been called "The Western Lama" by the Dalai Lama himself.
"It's really been a transforming experience for myself and many of those in my religion to see such happiness shine from the West Coast here to the East Coast," the Lama said. "There are over three thousand Buddhist centers in North America, and none have any problem with homosexuality."
Since Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco ordered the city to begin providing civil marriage licenses to all applicants without discrimination on Feb. 13th, over 3000 couples have been married in the city. On Feb. 20, over a dozen more couples were married by a county court in New Mexico.
"It has made my heart glad to see it," said the Lama. "The director of my Dzogchen Retreat Center is gay and in a long-term relationship he would like to sanctify as a marriage."
On May 17th—coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education eliminating the "separate but equal" policy for races in America—gay and lesbian civil marriages will begin to take place throughout Massachusetts.
Not a 'Culture War,' a Religious War
Although some have called the battle over gay and lesbian civil marriage equality a "cultural war" in the United States, Lama Das views the dispute as a religious dispute.
"What we're seeing is a religious majority that is trying to take legal rights away from a sexual minority that their religion purportedly doesn't like," he says. "But our nation's laws have always tried to prevent this kind of tyranny of the majority over the minority."
The Lama says that he takes issue with recent statements by President George Bush and his wife Laura Bush saying that Americans ought to vote on whether or not to make a minority within the country a class of second-class citizens as regards to the rights of marriage.
"The idea that we live in a country where a majority can vote on which legal rights they think a minority 'should' have and which rights they 'shouldn't' is a frightening one," he said. "It entirely contradicts what we teach schoolchildren every day in our grade schools, middle schools and high schools. Are the Bushes seriously suggesting that a majority should have the power to 'give' or to 'take away' rights from a group of their fellow citizens on the whim of the majority?"
For the current President to suggest that the Constitution be changed to define marriage in accordance with the definition of his own, personal religion — even if it is the nation's majority religion — shows a shocking lack of understanding of what this country is about and how it was created to protect minority rights, the Lama says. "If our nation were run strictly on a 'majority rules' basis, Mr. Bush wouldn't even be President today. He lost the popular vote in the last election; he wasn't chosen by a majority. Yet we don't hear him saying that the president should be decided by the majority in the next election, do we. That's very ironic."
A Nomination: Laura Bush to Give a "National Civics Lesson"
The Lama suggests that the president's wife, Laura Bush, who has recently spoken out on a trip to California to urge the country to begin a serious discussion on the issue, would as a former schoolteacher be the ideal person to give us all a much-needed National Civics Lesson on what is so wrong about the political processes that are currently going on.
"America has been throughout its glorious history a country of guaranteed human rights and has never been a country of 'majority rule' at the expense of the minority" says the Lama. "Perhaps Laura Bush and Katie Couric could re-read and discuss the Federalist Papers and Tom Paine's classic, 'Common Sense' on 'The Today Show.' Coretta Scott King, a long-time supporter of marriage equality, might also be invited. Throw in Al Roker and Ann Curry and the visual point will be made for certain. Discrimination is not a happy part of our heritage. It has taken much too long to eradicate prejudice in our country, a lingering problem we still have yet to overcome."
The Lama, an American who was raised in the Jewish faith on Long Island and who became a Lama after undergoing decades of monastic and philosophical training in India and the Himalayas and two three-year stints of silent meditation in his teacher's cloistered hermitage retreat, says that both his experience being raised a Jew and his experience as a Buddhist make him wary of attempts by majorities to impose their views on others through the instruments of the state.
History Reminds Us: "No Dogs or Jews"
"In Germany in the 1930s, municipalities using the discriminatory Nuremburg laws posted signs on local swimming pools saying 'No Dogs or Jews'," the Lama said. I'm not sure how the present situation in regards to marriage equality in the United States is any different Why would a country such as the United States, which has been a model of democratic principles to the world for centuries, want to discriminate against some of its citizens. It's bizarre. It's sad. It's frightening."
Events in Tibet, where members of the Buddhist religion have been persecuted since the country was overrun by Communist China in the 1950's, provide further evidence of how important it is to guard the rights of minorities and endangered cultures and peoples. Many Buddhist monks and nuns have been tortured, disrobed, and even murdered by the Communist invaders, and most of Tibet's 6,000 ancient nunneries and monasteries destroyed.
"These were not two of the most admired societies of the last century," says the Lama. "America should take pause before we do anything whatsoever that makes us even a tiny bit like them."
As a resident of Massachusetts, the Lama says he was proud when his state's highest court ruled last fall that the state could not legally make Massachusetts gay and lesbians second-class citizens when it comes to the rights and privileges in marriage.
"The state of Massachusetts has the oldest Constitution on the North American continent," he noted. "And as far as I am concerned, it is also one of the very best." (He is also a Boston Red Sox fan.)
As far as the Buddhist faith in America is concerned, the Lama notes, there is simply nothing wrong with being gay or lesbian. "This is an issue that seems to have been overlooked in this whole high energy debate," he says. "It's just the way some people are created and there's nothing wrong with it.
Every 'Seinfeld' fan knows that! Many highly-respected Buddhist teachers are gay."
The Lama was himself married to his wife Kathy Peterson in 2000.
Neither Buddha Nor Jesus Were Anti-Gay
"Buddha never said anything negative about gays and lesbians," notes the Lama. "Nor did Jesus, for that matter. Both were viewed as social reformers by their contemporaries. They both led their lives promoting love and compassion, and protecting the downtrodden, the underdog, the outcast and the powerless. I think we all could guess what Buddha or Jesus would do in the present situation."
Despite the intense media coverage of the marriage equality debate in Massachusetts and now nationwide, the Lama notes that he has never once seen a member of any minority or Eastern religion quoted on the topic by the mainstream media: "That's puzzling because we live here too." The Lama notes that in our modern day American pluralistic society, at least 7 percent of Americans are of the so-called Eastern faiths. An estimated 30 million Americans practice yoga and mediation.
"It seems as if President Bush is taking a page from the book of Pat Robertson - whenever Robertson attacks gays and lesbians, millions of dollars in contributions flow to his coffers," he says. "For Bush to follow this same path for the same cynical reasons is a mark of shame for the U.S."
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