Recently, author Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche wrote a great article in the Huffington Post called “Letting Go of Labels and Seeing the World Anew.” In it, he says, “Our labeling mind—this one, and that one … our mind’s tendency to divide up the world into pairs of opposites—is the root of so much of our suffering.”
With that in mind, I’d like to explore a crazy little thing called sin.
In light of the current maltreatment of gays in America, it seems quite timely that we explore the concepts of wrongdoing, labeling, and the suffering that lie at its root. I’m talking about all that lead up to the recent LGBT youth suicides, and lead to even further hatred-spewing (Clint McCance, an Arkansas School Board member, went as far as to post a status update on his Facebook page after the tragedies, calling all gays sinners and encouraging them all to kill themselves).
Growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, the son of a preacher man, I constantly heard that being gay was a sin—that homosexuality is, somehow, a moral evil. And though I’m not a celebrated bible-quoter, I do recall many sermons in which my father preached about the temptation, disgrace, malice, and the evil that human beings are capable of, presenting it regularly as the “word of God”—as if God had nothing else to say.
Don’t get me wrong, there were times in Sunday school when we did contemplate the virtues of the Christian path. When I look back at those, I respect Jesus and the way he lived his life—but those contemplations were few and far between. For the most part, it seemed to me that the Christian path was more focused on sin than on virtue, that it was extra-concentrated on correcting the wrongs in the world rather than simply living life meritoriously. Eventually I decided I could no longer afford to live that way. If I’d kept trying, I might’ve gone down the suicide highway too.
Luckily, I chose I different path. I wanted to be kinder in the world, more compassionate than I was being taught to be. I wanted to focus on the goodness in others and myself. I know that non-virtuous speech and cruel actions are going on in the world, but I somehow understood that focusing on them didn’t make things better, that actually it made things worse. Those who did focus on faults seemed to become equally malicious, and even hypocritical—not very Jesus-like in my opinion. I realized this at a very early age.
So was I being rebellious? Yes! I didn’t want to believe in a God I had to fear. If I had to do that, I would not believe in a God at all. And since my feelings of attraction toward the same sex developed at a young age, I thought, Why would God make me, a young child, have these feelings—and then condemn me for having them? It was all very confusing. But this dilemma was also the catalyst that fueled me down the spiritual trail that led me to Buddhism.
I am particularly drawn to Buddhism because it lacks the concept of original sin. Actually, at the core of our experience, according to Buddhology, is basic goodness. This notion was so freeing, yet simultaneously shocking—a newfound revelation. Though at my core it felt right, it took me a while to wrap my head around it. Yet, for the first time in my life I felt I could fully connect to a sacred path. I didn’t have to ignore any part of, nor renounce any aspect of Buddha’s teachings, in order to feel fine about my sexual attraction. A great Zen teacher in New York City, Roshi Enkyo O’Hara of the Village Zendo, was once asked, “What does Buddhism say about homosexuality?” She answered, “Nothing. Isn’t that wonderful?”
So when I mull over the recent suicides and the prejudices surrounding the LGBT communities in America, it breaks my heart. I can also empathize; I understand. But I’d also like to challenge the labeling that’s behind it all. What if we—those of us from Abrahamic religious backgrounds—wholly, entirely, and totally decided to adopt the notion that everyone is basically good, instead of assuming we’re all fundamentally wrongdoers? What if we were to simply let go of the idea of sin? How would that world look? How would we, as a society treat each other then?