The second of three segments of the BCA’s National Council Meeting Town Hall on “The Benefits of Following the Shin Buddhist Path” dealt with the benefits of a teaching that embraces all and forsakes none from the perspective of two Minister’s Assistants from the LGBTQ+ community.
For this topic, BCA Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada asked Rev. Maribeth “Smitty” Smith of the Buddhist Temple of San Diego, and Rev. Gary Jaskula of the New York Buddhist Church and the Albany Buddhist Sangha to share their thoughts.
Rev. Smith was born and raised in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and attended the U.S. Naval Academy, and afterward she earned her wings as a naval aviator, and flew both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft during her 27-year career in the military. She retired with the rank of commander.
After retirement, Rev. Smith became involved with the BTSD, first as a Sangha member and then as a BCA certified Minister’s Assistant. She received her Tokudo ordination in 2019, and her Kyoshi certification in 2022.
At the start of her presentation, Rev. Smith recalled being introduced to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism by attending a lecture years ago on the topic of “sesshu fusha,” which literally means to “grasp and never abandon.” That phrase proved powerful and resonated deeply with her.
“That term comes from the ‘Contemplation’ sutra (“Sutra on Contemplation of Amitayus,” which is revered by Pure Land Buddhists), which tells us that the light of Amida illumines all the world and the 10 quarters, grasping and never abandoning sentient beings of the Nembutsu,” Rev. Smith said. “So, being grasped or embraced and never abandoned, even if or when we turn away from the Nembutsu path, is an amazingly valuable gift. And we’re all embraced unconditionally, without discrimination.
“For some, and many of us who identify as LGBTQ, being accepted just as you are without the possibility of being rejected or abandoned, can be very powerful indeed,” Rev. Smith continued. “I know many in the LGBTQ community who have experienced rejection, discrimination and abandonment. And it can be very painful to experience discrimination or rejection when you come out when you reveal who you truly are.”
She said this rejection often comes from friends, coworkers, family members — and from religious leaders, “the very same ones who claim to welcome all people into their church,” who reject “those who identify as gay or queer or trans or non-binary.”
Pew LGBTQ+ Survey
Rev. Smith cited a 2013 Pew Research Center survey that showed that nearly 40% of LGBTQ+ adults reported having been rejected by family or friends because of their sexual orientation. That same survey found that 58% of LGBTQ+ adults have been victims of slurs or jokes targeting their sexual orientation and more than 21% of those surveyed said they’ve been treated unfairly at work.
“Being discriminated against is painful and experiencing rejection or abandonment is even more painful,” she said. “And that’s why encountering a teaching that tells us all are embraced without discrimination, without exception, by the compassion of Amida and never forsaken or abandoned is so very powerful.
“This discrimination and abandonment experienced by so many people who identify as LGBTQ is because of how we’re viewed by other people and an influence of those poisons of greed and anger and ignorance. Enlightenment doesn’t discriminate. Wisdom and Compassion doesn’t abandon.”
Rev. Smith cited Shinran Shonin’s chapter on shinjin in his “Kyōgyōshinshō” in which Shinran describes how sentient beings are viewed in the eyes of the Buddha of infinite light and life.
“In reflecting on the great ocean of great shinjin, I realize that there is no discrimination between noble and humble, or black robed monks or white clothed laity, no differentiation between man and woman, young or old,” she said. “The amount of evil one has committed is not considered, the duration of any performance of religious practices is of no concern. It’s a matter neither of practice nor good acts, neither sudden attainment nor gradual attainment, neither meditative practice nor non-meditative practice, neither right contemplation nor wrong contemplation, neither thought nor no thought, neither … life nor the moment of death, neither many calling nor once calling. It’s simply shinjin that’s inconceivable, inexplicable, and indescribable.” (“Collected Works of Shinran Shonin,” Page 107)
She said Shinran doesn’t explicitly include LGBTQ+ people and he doesn’t acknowledge those who are non-gender binary.
“But in this passage, if we read into it with our modern sensibilities, we realize that Shinran is saying that all beings are equal in the eyes of the Buddha,” Rev. Smith said. “We who are bonbu (foolish beings) or are unenlightened, or just ordinary beings discriminate against each other with our deluded and unenlightened minds. Through the eyes of enlightenment, none are discriminated against and none are rejected.
“Through these and other passages, Shinran Shonin makes it known to us that wisdom and compassion doesn’t discriminate, doesn’t reach out to some people while rejecting others, and at the same time, we’re all equally embraced by the Light of Compassion, grasped and never abandoned and never forsaken,” she continued. “These teachings can enable us to live our lives without suffering, without fear, and without the pain of rejection.”
Symbology in Statues
Rev. Smith recalled being told by one of her teachers that there’s a lot of symbology in the Jodo Shinshu statues of the Buddha. The Buddha is standing, not sitting or resting.
“Standing demonstrates a position of action or activity,” she said. “And if we look at the statue from the side, we notice that Amida isn’t just standing, but leaning forward. This is enlightenment actively coming towards us. You might also notice that Amida’s right hand is raised and left hand is lowered, in a gesture where the index finger touches the thumb — and this is an act of grasping and never abandoning us.
“I asked why one hand was up and one was down and this I was told was an assurance that once we’re grasped, if we should ever slip or try to pull away from the Nembutsu path, we’ll certainly be grasped by the other hand,” Rev. Smith continued. “And that’s what is meant by the aspect of ‘sesshu fusha’ that is the act of unremitting pursuit of all beings, especially those who turn away from Amida.”
Rev. Smith said she feels “fortunate, as a member of the LGBTQ community, to have encountered the Jodo Shinshu teaching of ‘sesshu fusha’ so early in my travels along the Nembutsu path and thanks to some wonderful teachers and many good Dharma friends who have traveled this path with me, I really feel that I’m embraced and have no fear of being rejected or abandoned.
‘Found a Home’
“I feel that I’ve found a home in Jodo Shinshu, but I’m concerned that there’s many others of the LGBTQ community who have a different experience than mine, sometimes negative experiences,” she said. “Perhaps they have yet to really encounter the Nembutsu teachings or perhaps they’ve visited a temple or an online service and aren’t comfortable in expressing who they really are — and this is because they’ve felt the pain of discrimination and rejection in the past.
“I want everyone, particularly those of the LGBTQ community, to have that same feeling of being embraced and the same assurance of never being abandoned,” she said. “But we can’t just point to doctrine of equality and acceptance and say that’s good enough. To me, that’s kind of like that sign on some churches that say, ‘All are welcome.’ If you’ve ever experienced rejection and discrimination because you identify as LGBTQ, then you’re likely to be suspicious of doctrine and mistrustful of those welcome signs because both have been used against you in the past.
“So we need to be more like our statues of Amida and really reflect that meaning of ‘sesshu fusha,’” she continued. “We need to be standing and leaning forward, actively traveling the Nembutsu path together and inviting all to come to travel with us. We need to reach out and not just put out a doormat that says, ‘Welcome.’
“The Primal Vow affirms that we’re all equal and we’re all accepted — just as we are and the great wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha embraces everyone, everywhere, unconditionally.”
Next: LGBTQ+ Minister’s Assistant Rev. Gary Jaskula of the New York Buddhist Church and Albany Buddhist Sangha discusses his Nembutsu path and the power in the phrase, “Come as you are.”