One night in
the late 1970s,
(July 14, 1978 to be exact),
into the 21st Street Baths a few blocks from my San Francisco Noe
Valley apartment. Within five minutes I felt I'd made a mistake.
Nobody looked attractive to me and nobody seemed to find me
attractive. There was only one young man I was interested in and he
didn't pay any notice of me.
He was boyish-looking, with short-cropped,
dusty blond hair, a round face, not really pretty but appealing in a
wholesome way; he was thin, but with solid shoulders and a tight
abdomen. He wasn’t exactly my type, but cute. I passed him coming out
of the locker room area, then saw him again walking the long hall of
mostly empty cubicles. He didn’t seem to even acknowledge I was there.
That’s the way the baths are, I told myself.
I watched TV awhile, delaying departure in
case somebody else showed up. In night-life time, the evening was just
starting. I wondered why I’d come. Earlier I’d been feeling lonely. I
really need to be touched, I told myself as I’d headed out down the
backstairs and into the dark night when everybody in the building
should be asleep. I could still feel that neediness all through my
chest; my heart still burned with longing. It had led me here. I wasn’t
ready to go back home yet.
I wandered around the place, checking out the
wet area, then the hall of cubicles again and back through the TV room.
Interesting, the different smells. I wasn’t sure I liked them all. I
went upstairs and into one of the common rooms. A red spotlight
illuminated the entrance, but otherwise the large space with cushioned
platforms around the walls was pitch dark. It was impossible to tell
just how big—or how small—the room really was. Of if there was anybody
in there. As I made my way into the darkness, a hand reached out and
touched me on the thigh. I looked, but could not see who was there. I
automatically resisted. What if I were being groped by somebody
Well, no wonder you’re lonely, I said to
myself. If anybody chooses you, you assume you wouldn’t want them.
You’re caught in those webs of karma: getting rejected because you
As my eyes adjusted, I saw it was the guy I’d
noticed earlier. I moved closer. We started in on the kind of
impersonal play that goes on in the orgy room at a bathhouse, but then
soon changed tempo. We lay down on the platform, side by side, facing
each other, holding one another tenderly. Violating the stolid silence,
the young man introduced himself to me as Jim. “You seem sad,” he said.
Realizing the opportunity for communication,
sensing the openness on Jim’s part, and wanting more from this meeting
than just sex, I told him about my earlier loneliness, my longing for
love and my disappointment with the baths as any sort of remedy. Jim
Occasionally he murmured or squeezed me to let me
know he was paying attention.
I surprised myself talking out loud in such a place. There wasn’t
anyone else in the room, so we weren’t disturbing anybody, but still…
Wasn’t this a breach of bathhouse etiquette? Though wasn’t it
wonderful? And I surprised myself with the depth of honesty I
displayed. I started talking about my interior life. I recounted
several major spiritual experiences in my life, acknowledging that I
found the clash between my spirituality and my liberated gay sexuality
We lay together in an embrace that was not
entirely sexual, but was not unsexual either. His body felt so good in
my arms. His skin was soft and smelled slightly sweet. His chest felt
supple and warm as we pressed together. We shifted in one another’s
arms sliding slowly against each other, gently belly-frotting to keep
renewing our arousal. I was vividly aware of his flesh, slightly
electric, against my chest and of our cocks lying full but not quite
hard between us.
He said he was a switchboard operator at
Langley Porter, the psych hospital at U.C. San Francisco. But otherwise
didn’t say much about himself—other than that he too struggled with
joining his spirituality and his sexuality. He commended me on being
spiritually inclined and coaxed me to talk some more.
I told him about my past as a Catholic
seminarian and my conversion, by way of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell,
to a kind of New Age Buddhism. I told him of my effort to live a good
life, to be compassionate and sensitive to other people, to participate
in my culture and in my society, to pursue a right livelihood as a gay
counselor, to be politically and ecologically aware, to live
responsibly, and not to cause harm or pain—to discover how to be a
saint as a modern gay man. I told him about the sorrow that seemed to
come to me, in spite of my good efforts, instead of joy.
Almost lecturing him, assuming he wouldn’t
know about such things, I explained how Buddhism teaches that all
existence is sorrowful. I lamented the pang of sorrow I found in being
gay—not from guilt or negativity, but from the frustration of seeing
such sexual beauty all around me and feeling—on the ego
level—inadequate to participate, but beyond that—on some metaphysical
level—simply unable to possess it all.
“So many men, so little time,” he joked with one of the war cries of the Sexual Revolution.
“But on a much deeper level,” I replied. “It’s
like I want to be everybody and know their lives from inside and feel
their flesh as my own.”
I told Jim about my fascination with that
particular Mahayana Buddhist myth. “The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara was
this enlightened being who chose to renounce nirvana and remain within
the cycles of reincarnation. Out of generosity, he vowed to take upon
himself the suffering of the world in order to bring all beings to
nirvana with him. He’s a world savior—a little like Jesus.
“When I first came across this myth, maybe
without realizing what I was doing,” I said, “in a burst of fervor I
committed myself to this story. I made the bodhisattva’s vow. Does that
mean I’m doomed to suffer? And is the suffering a gay man gets these
days the loneliness and isolation that comes with living in a sexually
active environment, maybe getting sex but never quite finding the love,
just the frustration and disappointment?”
This was before AIDS. The metaphysical
suffering of the gay community had not yet become physically manifest
in sorrowful deaths all around us, as it would in a few years. I was
later going to see just how appropriate the bodhisattva’s willingness
to take on suffering would prove. If Buddhist monks down through time
had emulated this story by making the bodhisattva vow, a lot of them
were certainly likely to get reincarnated in the nuclear age and as
homosexuals in the days of AIDS.
“Is this a holy way to live?” I asked.
A long silence ensued. We slid against each other and roused the pleasure in our bodies again.
“That’s a pretty dismal interpretation of the
story,” Jim answered finally. “Isn’t a better interpretation that since
the bodhisattva took on everyone’s incarnation, he is the One Being
that is reincarnating? You can rejoice that he accepted your karma. You
are him. You are everybody. The Being in you is the Being in everybody
else. Embracing the suffering of the world doesn’t mean being unhappy.
It means deciding that everything is great just the way it is, that
life is worth choosing—in spite of sorrow. That’ll actually bring
“The Bodhisattva took on the suffering of the
world in order to transform it and save sentient beings from suffering,
not to glorify suffering or get people to feel guilty about being happy
and punish themselves. That sounds more like a Christian
misinterpretation of the story than the bodhisattva wisdom.”
I was surprised by his answer. “You know about the bodhisattva?” I asked.
“Yes, I know,” Jim said and smiled enigmatically in the faint red light of the orgy room.
“You mean you know about Buddhism?”
“I mean, I know about accepting everyone’s incarnations.”
“You know about Avalokiteśvara?”
Jim looked into my eyes with a profound gaze. “I know I am Avalokiteśvara,” he said.
“You mean like we all are?”
“Like I am.”
All of a
sudden, to my dismay, I understood this man to be saying not simply
that, like all beings, he was a manifestation of the Central Self that
in Mahayana Buddhism is mythologized in the story of the Bodhisattva
Avalokiteśvara, but that he was, in a unique way, a specific
incarnation of that divine being.
I felt my world whirling out of control. I was in the presence of one
of my most beloved of gods—right there in the flesh: Avalokiteśvara
holding me close, in the orgy room at the 21st Street Baths. A thrill
of excitement, mystical wonder, bewilderment, and consolation coursed
I experienced linking my soul with that of
this other man, chakra by chakra. In my mind I could perceive a
red-orange light surging back and forth between us, connecting us at
each of the energy centers, brightest and hottest at the level of our
hearts. I felt an enormous rush pouring through me—body and soul. In a
certain way you could say I was falling in love and feeling love’s joy.
I could feel that flame burning in my heart, but now not as longing but
My head spun. I seemed to have entered into
some truly “underworld” state in which the gods took on real flesh. I
wondered if I’d gotten delusional. I wondered if we were both just
playing a game with one another, spinning out the implications of a
mythology we both happened to know about. Maybe he was just another
stoned hippie like me carrying on with all this new age stuff.
What did it matter? Whatever was happening, it
was marvelous. Far more than just having found somebody to have sex
with. This wasn’t even exactly “sex,” but it was fully satisfying of
the loneliness I’d felt earlier. Whoever he was, he was manifesting the
bodhisattva truth. What did it matter?
As if addressing my bewilderment, Jim said, “Have faith.”
“What do you mean?”
“Faith that things are never totally true or
totally false, faith that life won’t destroy us, that nothing really
matters because it’s all okay.” He laughed. “Live in the present. Don’t
try to possess the world, have faith in the world.
“You said you made the bodhisattva’s vow in a
burst of religious fervor. I think that was transcendental memory. In
your soul—in who you really are—you remembered making that vow as
Avalokiteśvara. That’s how you came to be incarnated in this particular
We both breathed deep and rolled over so he
was on top. Squirming together, we rekindled our arousal. It was very
loving. Very affectionate —maybe he kissed me on the neck. And very
intense. Then we both relaxed, pulled apart and looked into each
other’s eyes. He smiled. “Time for me to go.”
“Can I see you again?” I asked, already feeling bereft.
With a tone of gentleness in his voice, “Don’t cling,” he replied. It sounded more like wisdom teaching than rejection.
A pang of loss struck me, but I understood the
spiritual lesson to live in the present and not to be attached, to
enjoy the joy I was feeling without trying to possess and hold onto it.
disappeared into the dark of the bathhouse, I lay there on the platform
with my heart beating like crazy. “Avalokiteśvara’s real,” I kept
saying to myself. The longing and neediness in my chest was gone. The
fire that burned was happiness. What a wonderful night!
How odd that a bathhouse would be the locale
for such a deep spiritual experience. But maybe that was just perfect.
What an important insight: sexuality and spirituality are really just
different faces of the same affirmation of life-force, Úlan vital. In
heterosexual contexts, this life-force reveals and manifests —and
creates— the duality in nature and thereby procreates new life. In
homosexual, it reveals and manifests —and creates— the unity of cosmic
consciousness and empowers us to love the world and each other, and
strive to make it a better place for all our other incarnations. For
all it can be a source of love, joy and affirmation.
We just need to see things differently. There
is no difference between time and eternity. This is heaven here and
now. That’s the secret.