Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Why I Would Never Ordain as a Taego Monk
I am deeply concerned about the role of women, gay and lesbian clergy, those over the age of 55, and physically challenged people within the Taego Order and IBS.
When I first inquired last year about entering the IBS seminary program, I was told that openly gay people are welcome to be ordained as monks in this lineage. However, during the protocol retreat at Muddy Water Zen Center in Michigan last April, Bishop Jongmae Park made some statements about this issue that left me confused. When I asked Hae Doh Sunim for clarification via email, I was informed of the following points (some of them extracted and copied below):
The Taego Order hierarchy will not recognize the ordination of gay & lesbian monks, and, in fact, if they discover practicing gay/lesbian full monks, they'll most certainly expel said monk(s) immediately.
In order to protect the growth and development of our parish it is mandated that when in public and wearing grays (informal or formal grays) there will be no behavior suggesting that said monk (samanera, samaneri, bhikkhu or bhikkhuni) is either practicing or promoting gay/lesbian relationships.
If it becomes known in whatever way that a monk is engaging openly in sexual identity behavior while in 'uniform', it then becomes necessary that the Overseas Parish Disciplinary Board will admonish and, possibly, expel said monk, even before headquarters hears of such things.
Bishop Jongmae has chosen a middle path that allows complete participation of practicing gays and lesbians as full monks in the clergy sangha while at the same time necessitating they maintain a cautious boundary in order to protect this allowance
Reading this was extremely upsetting, especially in light of the fact that these same rules do not apply to male heterosexual monks. The parallels between this issue and the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy are very clear.
Recently I’ve also been made aware that while men may ordain as monks and lead a non-celibate life, women who wish to ordain as monks must be celibate. In addition to this, no one over the age of 55 is eligible for ordination, as well as people who are physically challenged.
To his credit, Bishop Park is trying his best to change most if not all of these rules, but progress often happens all too slowly and with much resistance due to cultural and religious biases.
Imagine how devastating it is to know that at any time your dharma family, your temple, your career, your relationships with other parish members, your status as a monk, and all of the time and money you invested in training, practicing, learning, and being ordained in Korea could be instantly stripped away from you simply for being who you are.
In a state of partial denial, I initially brushed off what I learned about the policy with regard to gay and lesbian people. I really tried to forget about it since my calling to serve others as a monk has been very strong for quite some time, and I viewed the Taego Order as a unique and rare opportunity in which I could honor this calling.
So I tried to continue with my seminary studies despite my reservations. However I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot condone such policies by being part of an institution that enforces them. Therefore I have decided to end my seminary training with the Taego Order at this time.
As the founding Director of Open Sky Sangha in New York City (which has a predominantly gay membership), it’s my responsibility to model behavior to sangha members that encourages dignity, equality, fairness, and self-worth.
Most of you reading this have taken the precepts and have vowed not to lie or cause harm to any living beings, yourselves included. Living under the oppressive weight of such policies is harmful to people emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Anyone in a less than wholesome state cannot be a positive force in the lives of others, which is the underlying motivation that informs our Zen training and Buddhist studies.
Buddha nature is unequivocal, as are human rights. There is no “middle path” when it comes to such matters. Just over 50 years ago, African Americans and women in this country were treated egregiously until we collectively realized as a society just how incredibly wrong that was.
Things have changed significantly since then but none of this came about easily--it happened only through dissent, disobedience, protest, and political action. Progress is never made by accepting and condoning discriminatory rules in the hopes that equality will eventually be attained because the people in power feel it’s time to be fair. Injustice is only vanquished when it is recognized, labeled, and resisted.
While I appreciate the fact that some allowances have been made thanks to the efforts of Bishop Park, one can hardly consider it “progress” to allow a woman to ordain as monk but require that she be celibate while a male need not be. It is not “progress” to allow a gay or lesbian person to ordain but to make sure they don’t express affection to their partner while their straight counterparts are free to do so. There is nothing progressive about restricting ordination to those under the age of 55, nor is it ok to tell a physically challenged person that they need not even apply in the first place.
Discrimination, even when cloaked within the trappings of tradition, is still discrimination.
I believe that Bishop Park wishes to include gay and lesbian people into this order because he knows it’s the right thing to do, and in our culture it’s becoming less and less acceptable to do otherwise. However, the compromises he has agreed to with regard to the restrictions on gay and lesbian clergy encourages llying, hiding, and paranoia. I am no way accusing Bishop Park of any kind of malice or ill will--in fact, I think his efforts here have been quite commendable. However, these policies need to be explained clearly to any prospective student from the start to avoid any kind of misunderstanding such as this one.
The Overseas Parish needs to decide whether it ordains openly gay and lesbian people or not. The current position is very murky and rife with inconsistencies. It also needs to consider the consequences of its discriminatory rules with regard to the celibacy requirement for women, it’s exclusion of physically challenged people, and the cut off age of 55. One’s gender, marital status, age, sexual orientation, or physical ability has no bearing on how effective she or he could serve as a monk.
If prospective students are not made clear about these policies from the outset, the parish runs the risk of spending a lot of their time, energy and resources training people who may eventually demand a refund of their tuition. These unfair rules will eventually lead to a negative reputation for the Taego Order within the Western Buddhist community at large. All of the eligibility requirements and behavioral regulations with regard to ordained gay and lesbian clergy, the age limit, the celibacy requirement for women, and the restriction on physically challenged people ought to be stated very clearly up front. A prospective student deserves to know this before they commit their time, enthusiasm, and money to this training. It’s only reasonable and fair to do so.
If there is any hesitation to put these eligibility requirements and behavioral restrictions in writing for all to see on the Overseas Taego Order web site, then that speaks volumes about the very nature of those rules.
A person has the right to be very clear about what they are getting into before they're already in it.
It is our responsibility to move Buddhism full steam ahead into this new century by making the dharma accessible, inclusive, accurate, and relevant to the world we now live in. This is being done brilliantly by the likes of the Interdependence Project here in New York City, the Five Mountain Buddhist Seminary, the Maitreya Buddhist Seminary and many other inclusive, modern dharma centers and schools around the United States. Hopefully the Taego Order will eventually be able to follow their lead.
Many people these days are resistant to any form of spiritual practice because institutional religion has left such a bad taste in our collective mouths. So when things like this crop up, it only serves to reinforce people’s negative views about religion and/or spirituality in general. We need to find a way to move past this and offer people a system of spiritual and ethical practice that makes sense for today’s world; one that is inclusive rather than discriminatory.
As Buddhists, we can and must do better.
I will continue to pursue a path leading to my eventual ordination as a monk or priest so that I may help others in the capacity that resonates so strongly in my heart. I will also continue to speak out against any form of injustice when I see it arise since I truly believe that all beings are deserving of love, compassion, mutual joy, and equanimity. I encourage everyone reading this to do the same.