The Way of Joyful Participation

in the Sorrows of the World

Presented by
Toby Johnson, GSV Fall Conference 2002

For info about ordering Toby's books

Toby's GSV 2004  presentation "It's Always About You"

Brief History of Buddhism:

Theravada/Hinayana, dating from Buddha’s time 566-486 BC, was strictly monastic; only monks could achieve nirvana (which meant being burned out, like a fire that has exhausted its fuel). Others could only hope to be reincarnated as monks – and they earned that by giving alms to the monks (good self-serving myth there!) Emphasis was on wisdom gained thru meditation—and the wisdom was about seeing beyond the phenomenal world by visualizing a kind of atomistic structure of the world in which all was illusion. The meditation technique was a vehicle to cross the waters to nirvana on the other side.

Buddha said "my teaching is like a raft which can help you cross to the other shore beyond birth and death. Use the raft to cross to the other shore, but don’t hang onto it as your property. Do not become caught in the teaching. You must let it go."

Around the time of Jesus was the reformation of Mahayana Buddhism. A popular religion that included all people began to supplant – or at least complement – the monastic. Nagarjuna and others developed the story of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara to characterize the central idea of the new religion: that compassion for sentient beings was the religious goal (rather than understanding the atomistic theory). Also developing at this time is the notion -- so characteristically Buddhistic -- of “emptiness.” What emptiness really means is beyond speech, beyond explanation in rational thought, because so wonderful (like “being born of a virgin”)

The story of Avalokiteshvara

Avalokiteshvara was the earnest soul who thru lifetimes beyond number had meditated to achieve nirvana. Now he was reincarnated as a lovely young boy, gentle, sweet, attractive—usually shown barechested sitting on a rock in a garden by a stream—kind and lovable, and loved by everyone.

As he was about to achieve nirvana and pass beyond all possibility of rebirth, he heard a groan go up. He came out of his meditation to ask what’s that?

All nature answers: We are happy for you that you are about to achieve your goal of lifetime upon lifetime. But life is hard. And we all love you so. Your presence is what’s given us the strength to go on. And so we’re happy for you. It for ourselves that we groan.

Well, then I won’t go. I’ll stay in the round of creation and reincarnation until all sentient beings achieve nirvana. Indeed, I’ll renounce enlightenment till all are enlightened. Better than one should suffer than that all.

So in one interpretation, all sentient beings were saved at that moment by Avalokiteshvara’s generosity and the merit gained by his self-sacrifice. And all beings went into nirvana, leaving Avalokiteshvara alone behind to live out their karmic debts for them.

And Avalokiteshvara himself realized that everything is empty; there’s no basis for distinguishing between samsara and nirvana, between time and eternity.

So the bodhisattva is the ONLY BEING who is reincarnating.

2) Implications:

We’re all incarnations of Avalokiteshvara. Though we may think of ourselves as separate, competing individuals, we’re really all the one One Being.

Buddhists repeat the vows daily to remember who they are:
However countless sentient beings are,
I vow to save them.

However inexhaustible the resistance,

I vow to relinquish it.

However many the doors of incarnation,

I vow to enter them all.

However incomparable the highest perspective,

I vow to attain it.

 Notice that “However countless the sentient beings are” is also “However the countless sentient beings are,” i.e. “Whatever they’re like” – this is unconditional positive regard, goodwill toward all whatever their behavior or whoever they are.

Mahayana Buddhism proposes Four Immeasurable Virtues: Compassion, Loving Kindness, Joy in the Joy of Others, Equanimity. If you could all live with such attitudes of Noble Sympathy, the world would clearly be saved.

Bodhisattva from Hero with a Thousand Faces

Statue of Avalokiteshvara in
Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces


The Way To Get To Get To Heaven

    French existentialist playwright Jean Anouilh proposed a scenario for the last judgment.

   The good are densely clustered at the gate of heaven, eager to march in, sure of their reserved seats, keyed up and bursting with impatience.

All at once, a rumor starts spreading: “It seems He’s going to forgive those others, too!”

   For a minute, everybody’s dumbfounded. They look at one another in disbelief, gasping and sputtering, “After all the trouble I went through!” “If only I’d known this…” “I just cannot get over it!”

   Exasperated, they work themselves into a fury and start cursing God; and at that very instant they’re damned. That was the final judgment. (cited in Louis Evely, That Man is You)

   The way to get into heaven is to want other people to get in too. The tragedy of the anti-homosexual stance of most religions is not so much what it does to the gay people. (We can wake up and leave, after all!) It is what it does to the faithful.
   If you take Jesus’s prediction of the Last Judgment seriously, he is going to have to say to the Fundamentalists: “Behold, when I was thrown out of the military or was fired from my job or evicted from my apartment, you didn’t care. When I was sick, you didn’t visit me or lobby Congress for research funds. When I wanted to sacramentalize my relationship, you passed laws to prevent me. When I needed civil rights, you vilified me and misrepresented my claims. When I complained about injustice and demonstrated politically, you sensationalized my cause as a fund-raising tactic to gather more wealth into your coffers. When I died, you picketed my funeral. Behold, what you didn’t do for the least of these, my lesbian and gay sisters and brothers, that you didn’t do for me. Because you were not hospitable to these strangers in your midst, heaven holds no hospitality for you. Get thee into everlasting damnation.” (Matthew 25: 45)
   Perhaps the reason spiritually-oriented gay people have to work for the transformation of religion is to save the Christians from their own hell-fire!

Peace is at the heart of all:

[The bodhisattva] is filled with compassion for the self-terrorized beings who live in fright of their own nightmare. He rises, returns to them, and dwells with them as an egoless center, through whom the principle of emptiness is made manifest in its own simplicity. And this is his great "compassionate act"; for by it the truth is revealed that in the understanding of one in whom the Threefold Fire of Desire, Hostility, and Delusion is dead, this world is Nirvana. "Gift waves" go out from such a one for the liberation of us all. "This our worldly life is an activity of Nirvana itself, not the slightest distinction exists between them."

This is a variation on the so-called “Gaia Hypothesis,” that the earth is a single organism and we’re all its organs of perception.

 Gay men as bodhisattvas. “The Story of Georgie” song by Rod Stewart (available on YouTube:

Blending/transcending gender distinctions is part of seeing “heaven” now: no competition, no struggle

The Three Wonders
1) The Bodhisattva is simultaneously male and female
2) To the Bodhisattva, there is no difference between Time and Eternity (samsara and nirvana)
3) The first two wonders are the same

As gay, we don’t experience the polarities as intensely as straight people. We really could live in a world of all gay men. (And, of course, were that unlikely thing to happen, we WOULD figure out how to reproduce.) This is NOT anti-feminist: it’s sort of understanding women simply as other persons we’re not sexually interested in, just the way there are gay men we’re not interested in.

Campbell’s story about the tiger face

   Joe had a slight stutter which came out, paradoxically, as part of his eloquence, as part of the drama in his voice. It was occasionally noticeable in words beginning with the letter “G.” I can hear him saying, “People ask me. ‘What about all the evil and suffering in the world?’ And I say, ‘It’s great just the way it is.” That slight stutter of his on the word “great,” and the force with which he spoke behind it, have the word sound almost like the cartoon advertising character Tony the Tiger. And that’s precisely the meaning of Joe’s spirituality of joyful participation.
   As the epilogue of Philip Cousineau’s book, The Hero’s Journey, his honorific to Campbell, he cites the story of the Tiger and the Goat. Says Joe:
   There’s a moral here, of course. It is that we’re all really tigers living here as goats. The function of sociology and most of our religious education is to teach us to be goats. But the function of the proper interpretation of mythological symbols and meditation discipline is to introduce you to your tiger face. (Hero’s Journey, pp. 230-231)
   When you look at the world with all its suffering and pain and lashing about, what you say is “Yes, it’s great just the way it is.” And you throw yourself into life like a tiger going after its prey.

   When Joe drew the moral of the story of the tiger raised as a goat whose hero quest was to discover his true tiger identity, he added, only partly tongue-in-cheek: …don’t let them know that you are a tiger!

   When Hallaj or Jesus let the orthodox community know that they were tigers, they were crucified. And so the Sufis learned the lesson at that time with the death of Hallaj, around 900 A.D. And it is: You wear the outer garments of the law; you behave like everyone else. And you wear the inner garments of the mystic way. Now that’s the great secret of life. (Hero’s Journey, p. 231)

How to live like a tiger-faced bodhisattva: The Four Immeasurables

Compassion, lovingkindness, joy in the joy of others, equanimity

See that all is “empty”

Live Now – Participate in the process

Kabir’s poem: “The Time before Death” (Robert Bly version)

Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!

Think . . . and think . . . while you are alive.

What you call "salvation" belongs to the time before death.

If you don't break your ropes while you're alive,

do you think ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic

just because the body is rotten--that is all fantasy.

What is found now is found then.

If you find nothing now,

you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.

If you make love with the divine now, in the next life you will

     have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is,

     Believe in the Great Sound!

Kabir says this:  When the Guest is being searched for, it is

     the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work.

Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.

Why gay men reincarnate

Tibetan Buddhism has all these elaborate myths about reincarnation. They tell about the Bardo state, i.e. the space between lives. The myth envisions people floating around in the bardo, unable to communicate or connect with the living. They can only watch. And they’re particularly likely to watch people having sex. It’s when a soul is watching while a man and woman are making love and the sperm fertilizes the egg that the soul gets pulled into incarnation as that embryo.

 Homosexuals can watch all the sex we want in the Bardo without ever getting pulled into incarnation.

So, in the myth, we float around—getting bored of the whole thing—and getting “enlightened” about the process. We come into incarnation only when we want to, and we want to not out
of sex urge but out of compassion for suffering beings.

"Gift waves" go out from such a one for the liberation of us all.

Tolstoy quote:

The most difficult thing, but an essential one, is to love life, to love it even while one suffers. Because life is all. Life is God. And to love life is to love God.

Bodhisattva from Sri Lanka exhibit

Bodhisattva as golden youth
(from Sri Lankan exhibit at Smithsonian 1993)

Meditation practice

1) Breathing exercise. Pay attention to the breath. 10 mins.

2) Now consider that story of Avalokiteshvara. In your mythic imagination remember being Avalokiteshvara.

3) Remember making the vows

However countless sentient beings are, I vow to save them.
However inexhaustible the resistance, I vow to relinquish it.

However many the doors of incarnation, I vow to enter them all.

However incomparable the highest perspective, I vow to attain it.

Remember the two different, cognate, meanings of “however”/”whatever”

4) Remember who you really are – beyond the ego. The ego’s like the cursor on the computer screen, but that’s all. Who you really are is consciousness itself, the mind of Gaia, the incarnation of the bodhisattva energy of compassion

5) This is heaven now. So to realize that go thru the induction of heavenly afterlife:

a. In the Particular Judgment: You’re the Defendant. Think about your behavior and how you can live in a way that makes life better for everybody around you – “The love you take is equal to the love you make.”

b. In the General Judgment: You’re the Judge.  Forgive the world. That’s what you’re here for.

6) Now begin to come back to your normal consciousness

More about the Story of Avalokiteshvara from Toby Johnson's The Myth of the Great Secret

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