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Rev. Gary Jaskula Describes Closeted Past, Finding Shin Buddhism

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

There’s no questioning Rev. Gary Jaskula’s devotion to Shin Buddhism — judging by the amount of time and expense he literally spends as a Minister’s Assistant every Sunday at the New York Buddhist Church (NYBC).


On Sunday mornings, Rev. Jaskula boards the train from Albany, New York, where he lives, to take the two-and-a-half-hour ride into New York.


“It costs $60 train fare one way. How many of us would spend $120 to go to our local temple every Sunday?” Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada said. “I have to think about it myself. But that’s the kind of dedication we have from members on the East Coast.” (FYI: NYBC has reimbursed Rev. Jaskula for his train fares since former Resident Minister Rev. Earl Ikeda retired in September 2021.)


LGBTQ+ Community


Rev. Harada introduced Rev. Jaskula at the BCA National Council Meeting’s Town Hall on “The Benefits of Following the Shin Buddhist Path” on Feb. 18. Rev. Jaskula followed Rev. Maribeth “Smitty” Smith from the Buddhist Temple of San Diego in speaking about the benefits of a teaching that embraces all and forsakes none from the perspective of two Minister’s Assistants who are from the LGBTQ+ community.


Rev. Jaskula’s path to becoming such a devoted follower of Shin Buddhism has been a long, sometimes tortuous, road. In an unvarnished and emotional talk, he covered several topics and issues he experienced before he ever encountered the Nembutsu teaching. He spoke about battling negative feelings and thoughts as a closeted gay man as he navigated his way in mainstream society, decades before there was much discussion about the LGBTQ+ community. He detailed his coming out of the closet, and also talked about studying all sorts of religions and philosophies.


“I’d like to start off by saying that I personally came into Buddhism in midlife, not as a young person,” said Rev. Jaskula, who also serves the Albany Buddhist Sangha. He discovered Shin Buddhism through the local lay teacher program begun by the late Rev. Dr. Taitetsu Unno in 2001 at the New York Buddhist Church. Rev. Jaskula became a certified MA in 2007, and received Tokudo in 2012.


“When I’m talking to people about Shin (Buddhism), I often say that while it truly is a path for everyone, and I am really envious of those of you who were brought up going to temple, the teaching has a particular resonance for those who have been around a religious block — that’s the term I use. And, as Rev. Smitty told us, part of that experience of being around a religious block might have been encountering some really negative things.


“Over the years,” Rev. Jaskula said, “there is not a form of God that I have not worshipped or a philosophy that I have not at least entertained — trying to find something for myself.


“I did not come to Shin Buddhism, speaking for myself, looking for permission to be gay or even a place to be gay without any obstacles,” he said.


Life in ‘the Closet’


When he was young, he lived “in the closet … and closet is a rough place, but it was the only choice at that time in the context in which I grew up, which was the lower middle-class in the Tri-State area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut). It was working class and you didn’t have ‘gay’ people — that word didn’t even exist. ‘Perverts’ existed and some other nasty words and you didn’t want to be one of those. But that closet, from personal experience, is a very rough place. It really warps the mind … that’s the world I grew up in.”


He said he was always drawn to religion, to philosophy, to abstract thought, particularly the mystical expressions of religion.


Rev. Jaskula said he didn’t accept himself and wasn’t accepted by others. Eventually, he became monastic, a seminary student — but at one crucial point in his life, he “stopped believing. I just stopped. I don’t know why. It was very weird … I still sort of believed in prayer, but I didn’t believe any more that anyone was listening. There was this real chasm, and I was devastated.”

He came to the realization at the time that “I never really deeply accepted myself nor would it have been greeted favorably.


“Without belief, if you really didn’t think there was actually something there, what was the point of fooling yourself and suppressing yourself? — this was the question that was in my mind,” he said.


Rev. Jaskula decided to go out into the mainstream workaday world — and out of the closet, too.


“Now, mind you, I was completely unprepared to make it on my own in the world,” he said. “I had never, ever, considered any career or practical thing, or anything like that, other than living a religious life. Ever since I was 5 or 6. I had no practical skills at all.”


Midlife Crisis


And then — he had a midlife crisis.


“I didn’t know what to do,” Rev. Jaskula said. “It was that (midlife crisis) — that led me to Shin. I thought, like many people coming into the church today, that I wanted some peace of mind, I wanted a little anger management, I would like to have some practical spirituality again, that kind of thing.


“I didn’t know what Shin Buddhism was,” he continued. “My biggest preconception at that time about Buddhists was that they were teetotaling vegetarians and how would I deal with that? Anyway, I found something else entirely (different) at that time. New York Buddhist Church was very, very fortunate to have monthly visits from Rev. Dr. Taitetsu Unno, who I consider my teacher. His teaching really resonated with me very deeply.”


It was a fortuitous encounter. Rev. Jaskula recalled meeting Rev. Dr. Unno on his second day at the NYBC in 2001.


“I started learning about a teaching that spoke about radical acceptance of all beings, not just humans, and that all, without exception, are embraced by Light and Life exactly as they are,” he said. “And, although I wasn’t looking for it, and I was quite bewildered, this was a wonderful teaching and I found myself on a spiritual path again.


“The key thing from this particular talk is that there is no closet in Shin — and that is huge. That is really huge,” he said. “No institutional discrimination — ever. I’ve been around for a while, and I’ve never encountered anyone say anything negative about gay people, or lesbians, or trans, or whatever you are.


“We always say, ‘Come as you are,’” Rev. Jaskula said. “That is the phrase: ‘Come as you are.’ That has been my experience from the get-go. It was incredibly liberating.”


‘The Interior Life’

He then spoke about “the interior life,” an individual’s inner thoughts and perceptions about the world, an inner conversation that each of us has with ourselves.


“Many people see religion or philosophical systems as an alternative to the natural world, which they see as impure or dirty,” Rev. Jaskula said. “But that is not the teaching of Shinran or Buddha. That (other) view, as I’ve learned, is dualistic in an unhealthy sense.


“Not all dualism is unhealthy,” he said. “We live in a conventional world. There’s practical dualism we have to deal with all the time. But in terms of ultimate things, this kind of dualism, where the world is dirty or impure and has to be overcome, that is unhealthy. A person approaching spirituality attempting to escape probably won’t get very far. The body and the natural world are realities that need to be integrated in a healthy spirituality, not denied.”


Siddartha Gautama


Rev. Jaskula said the balance people seek in life can be seen in the life of Siddartha Gautama.


“His father showered him with every sensual pleasure from birth, hoping that this would prevent him from renouncing the world,” he said. “But that plan backfired. And, having experienced all his father had provided him, Siddartha joined the ascetics, the polar opposite of what his life had been up to then. And then he nearly died of starvation.


“But he became a Buddha only when he found the middle way,” he said. “In the same light, Shinran, our master, was advised by his teacher Honen to marry when he could not get his own sexuality out of his head. That’s another teaching of the middle way — balance, the Nembutsu, enlightenment itself calling to us. It shines on everyone — householder, renunciant, lay priest. It’s that balance that counts. Ignorant self, Light and Life, they match perfectly in Shinran’s understanding.


“Shinran didn’t conceptualize LGBTQ in his day, but the tools really are there in his teaching for those doing so now,” Rev. Jaskula said. “Whether straight, LGBTQ, asexual, whatever, all are called without exception.


“If you see this in a healthy way, the bondings of the body and the physicality itself, are an invitation to enlightenment,” he said. “To balance, to integration and ultimate transformation — that’s the spiritual life, that’s the interior life. And this is the chief benefit of the teaching of the school of radical acceptance — accepting self, accepting others is perhaps another way of saying ‘benefiting self, benefiting others.’”


Next: David Correia, a Minister’s Assistant with the Monterey Peninsula Buddhist Temple, will discuss the benefits of being a part of a Sangha.


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