A queer critique of Buddhist renunciation

This article was originally published in the website Queer Buddhism. Thanks to Bernat for his kind permission to publish the article in SBN.

The LGBTQ+ community is known for its parades. While there are quiet gays too, as Hannah Gadsby rightly spotted, the celebration is there to balance the shaming and repression. Celebrating our bodies and queerness, I believe, affirms that ‘this is worth it’. It sends the message that one is not willing to be defined by the pain. This sounds good and brave, but less obviously, it sounds un-Buddhist. Or to be more specific, it doesn’t fit with renunciation-based Buddhism, which is a lot of the contemporary dharma available today, even that which does not present—or sometimes conceive—itself as renunciant.

​Queer practitioners may not know how to reconcile that celebration with the quiet moderation of retreat centres, modeled after a Protestant sensibility as well as the earliest Buddhist texts. Or they may see their sexual habits as inherently undharmic, thereby preventing themselves from applying the practice in that domain of their lives—as if traditional straight monogamy were inherently wholesome.

The noble truth of dukkha (pain, suffering, unsatisfactoriness), on the contrary, implies that ‘this is not worth it’. The first noble truth chooses to label the mixture of pleasures and pains that is life as ‘pain’, it takes experiences that contain both satisfaction and dissatisfaction and evaluates them negatively as a whole as ‘unsatisfactory’; either because good things end (everything impermanent is dukkha) or because the structure of human experience always has the potential for failure (everything conditioned is dukkha). Whatever the reasoning, the two doctrines I put into brackets are not facts but judgements, and they are necessarily renunciant. For in using ‘dukkha’, the everyday word for pain, they transfer the natural rejection of felt pain to experience as a whole. The implication is that it’s better to get out of experience (life) altogether, which according to 5th century BCE Indian metaphysics can only be achieved through liberation from the cycle of birth, death, rebirth.

This critique is not exclusively queer, since many people of all identities and orientations will resonate with it. It is secular and not too far from things later forms of Buddhism argued. But queer practitioners may find the ‘this is not worth it’ outlook particularly inadequate to make sense of their lives, lives that almost invariably include having to assert an okayness of one’s being which others take for granted. We just cannot afford to hold such an outlook that is not only defeatist but simplistically moralistic about bodies and desire, and binary.

The renunciant perspective is reflected in meditation practices like the contemplation of the unattractive parts of the body (asubha), unpopular in modern Vipassanā. Of course there is a place for dissolving our vanity and acquire a different perspective on our embodiment—we breath in a toxic atmosphere of superficial and judgemental physical beauty in our societies. But to approach this through the asubha practices as traditionally understood might be inadequate and myopic, particularly for women, who have been disproportionately targeted both by beauty ideals and religious condemnation, including Buddhist. (Not to speak of those whose bodies do not fit into unrealistically neat categories.) We need to address the trauma related to such atmosphere, the hurt underneath any apparent vanity, the internalised judgementalism towards our bodies.

Visualising bones and guts touches on the fundamental nature of us as organisms, and that has value in its own place, but it bypasses the named issues and is originally underlied by the ethos of producing disgust towards embodiment. We need a ‘subha contemplation’, a contemplation of the beautiful body, sweeping it with mettā—kindness, love, acceptance. That would be the skilful, internalised ritual of the Pride parades’ spirit. Then, after the wounds have been taken care of, the subha and asubha contemplations could become complementary, helping bring home the point that the body is neither inherently attractive nor inherently unattractive, that such absolute opinions are in the end unnecessary.

The perspective encapsulated in the first noble truth is not easily acceptable to a community not willing to be defined by pain. However, the task of fully embracing dukkha offers a door to resignifying and repurposing that suffering into love and a commitment to not harming. The renunciant attitude underlying the noble truths and some meditation practices has to be examined with care and fully acknowledged; we may need to look beyond the early texts into how later Buddhisms addressed desire and embodiment, or into more contemporary perspectives. The richness of these teachings is vast: there are many ways to sit and celebrate.

1. ​Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon (Seattle: BPS Pariyatti Editions, 2001), p.



One Reply to “A queer critique of Buddhist renunciation”


For further exploration, I’d recommend this piece by David Chapman:
‘Reunciation is the engine for most of Buddhism’ https://vividness.live/renunciation-in-buddhism

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