Engaged Buddhism / The Rainbow Family: Engaging with Suffering in the Present Moment

Building the Rainbow community has been a work in progress for several years in Plum Village and we are now slowly harvesting the fruits. In this article from the Plum Village Newsletter, Brother Chan Troi Bao Tang explains the value and benefit of the Rainbow Family: communities of LGBTQIA+ people within the Plum Village tradition.

I feel privileged to have Thay as my teacher and to have the opportunity to be fully trained as a monastic in the Plum Village Monastic order. I have learned a lot since I arrived in Plum Village in October 2009. This was the period of time when I left behind my professional life in Indonesia and aspired to live a contemplative life with a very inspiring teacher and a very engaged practice community. I have been learning and relearning a lot of things in Plum Village such as meditation, the way to love and to reconcile with myself and my blood family, community living, monastic training, applied Buddhism, and how to practice engaging with the world outside of the monastery.

I am happy for my community in its 40th anniversary because the community is capable of continuing the legacy of our teacher, Thay, and continues to engage in creating peace through the path of understanding and love in many aspects of life: young people, families, leaders, teachers, health, science, climate and social injustice. I have been enjoying the many teachings given by our elder monastic siblings and I am also inspired by how many of them bring their deep insight into engaging with society.

The Rainbow Family of Plum Village

Since the Wake Up Retreat in 2016, I have been engaged in a Plum Village practice community who calls themselves the “Rainbow Family”. This is a community that consists of people with diverse gender indentities and sexual orientations, LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning, Intersex, Asexual and also includes the diverse spectrums of gender and orientation). Among much suffering that is happening in the world, people who are identifed as LGBTQIA+, until today, still live with many different degrees of suffering and discrimination; from unconscious judgements of family and society to living under a death threat by law in many countries. This suffering is simply because they are doing their best to be beautiful, to be themselves, and because of the way they love each other. As a rainbow monastic, at the beginning, it was also very hard for me to practice “to be beautiful, to be myself” because this has not yet been accepted fully in the collective consciousness of humans. Seeing all the suffering happening in the rainbow community, I felt the urge to come out and engage with the community, to offer my practice, my presence, with my aspiration to learn together and to understand more deeply. 

An online Rainbow gathering of Plum Village practitioners

Joyfully together as a Rainbow Family

Today we have many “Rainbow Families” around the world, such as France (Sangha Queer Paris and Marseille) , Rainbow UK, Rainbow Ireland, Rainbow Sangha Indonesia, Germany (Berlin and Freiburg), US (Chrysanthemum and Cosmic Body), International LGBTQIA+ Sangha and the PlumVillage App. All of these communities are spaces for practicing mindfulness in the Plum Village tradition and a for refuge for our lay and monastics practitioners that identify as LGBTQIA+. Some monastic siblings and I have participated in many of these sanghas’ activities. It is very inspiring to see many people of all ages with very diverse gender and sexual orientations come together to share the practice, enjoy each other’s transformation and nourish each other whether it is an in-person or online retreat.

Rainbow lay practitioners, Order of interbeing members, and monastics work hand in hand to build a spiritual family. Family is a safe space and a refuge. There are many allies who also come and help to build the community, because they have been supporting their loved ones, their father, their mother, their son, their daughter, their cousins, their friends, who might be suffering because they identify themselves as LGBTQIA+ and face discrimination and other difficulties.

I have been able to participate in multiple LGBTQIA+ retreats in Plum Village Tradition, in Dharma sharings, in EIAB, in Mountagne du Dharma, in online retreats. Every retreat or Dharma sharing always brings healing to people, lay or monastics. This is because everyone of us faces more or less the same difficulty in being ourselves and being happy. 

Watering the seeds of awareness in the monastic community

For me, continuous right diligence is necessary to water the seeds of understanding, compassion, and awareness, so that there is more understanding in our engaged monastic community about LGBTQIA+ concerns. I really hope we shall continue to be a refuge for this community.      

The Plum Village Monastic order is a real engaged Buddhist community, I was invited, on a Rains Retreat 2021 monastic day, to offer a workshop on “Understanding LGBTQIA+”. It was a very joyful moment, there were more than 60 monastics that came together with their open hearts, with the aspiration to understand and to find ways to support the LGBTQIA+ practitioners. I felt so touched by the presence and the curiosity of my monastic siblings, monks and nuns.

In the Bhikshu community, there have been several sharings on this topic with the same spirit of openness, to find ways to support LGBTQIA+ practitioners. Upper Hamlet, where I live now, has been very supportive in allowing a Rainbow Dharma sharing once a month. This is with the full support of the Upper Hamlet Dharma Teacher Council, who has witnessed what we sometimes have had to struggle with to make a Rainbow Dharma sharing possible. 

Deep Looking

Human beings, when they find themselves different from the majority and on the top of it all, see that people in their environment do not show acceptance and understanding, can find life very tough. This is especially so for young people (children and teenagers) who have never received any information that they are fine to be different. They have to figure out what is happening to them alone, and at the same time they have to face their family and society, where most of the time are not very kind to them. Many out of despair and pain take their own lives or suffer by themselves on a daily basis for a very long time. I, myself, went through that kind of shock when I discovered that I was not heterosexual until my school teachers told me that it was fine and that I still had a chance to love and to be loved like everybody else and that I would be fine. Without these people, I would not have been able to find peace in myself, especially since I am from Indonesia.

I have been asking myself why I want to be engaged in the Rainbow community, and I have not been able to find the exact answer, as I am not a LGBTQIA+ activist. However, one thing is clear to me and that is that I have the aspiration to relieve suffering and contribute to the growth of humanity. The Plum Village Rainbow Family is a very safe space for Rainbow practitioners, lay and monastic. It is a space where we can share who we are and how we are without external pressures. The community provides a space where we can look deeply into ourselves and also into what is happening in society. 

LGBTQIA+ people are not enemies to anyone but we are just unfamiliar friends to family and society. This is the insight that I have in my practice. This has given me freedom to allow people to be homophobic, to allow people to have prejudice against Rainbow people, and to allow them to take their time to transform. The existence of the Rainbow family will help to transform homophobia and prejudice, especially in the Plum Village Community worldwide. Our Teacher always teaches us to take care of ourselves first, so the Plum Village community needs to transform itself first before we can reach out fully. The existence of the Rainbow Family also makes the Rainbow Family become familiar friends to as many people as possible. This will bring peace and happiness to oneself, family and society.

Planting seeds for future generations

My aspiration, as a Rainbow monk, is first of all to live a life of freedom and to help people to live in freedom too, including the LGBTQIA+ siblings, lay and monastic. We all have Buddha-nature, we all have beauty in us. I would like to see Rainbow people live happily and free and love according to who they are. I also would like to support my Rainbow monastic siblings to live happily and free as monastics, to be able to practice the precepts, and cultivate merit and virtue so that we can continue the legacy of the Buddha and our teacher, Thay.

In Plum Village I have had a chance to study the classical Vinaya, both Pali and Chinese translated into English, and surprisingly I discovered that in the time of the Buddha, the topic of gender had been part of the Buddha’s sangha life. When I read the paragraph in the VinayaDharmaguptaka Vinaya 
Ordination Skandhaka, part5 
Taisho(CBETA edition) Vol.22 pp. 812-816 Translated by the Bodhi Translation Committee 
Published by the Bodhi Foundation for Culture and Education 
©2015 Bodhi Foundation for Culture and Education
Website: http://dharmaguptakavinaya.wordpress.com
stating that when a monk who had been ordained as a bhikshu for some time became a woman, and the Buddha said that she should join the bhikshuni sangha and keep her place in order of ordination. The same happened for a bhikshuni who became a man, I felt light at heart because I felt that a man can be female and a woman can be male and it does not mean that that person has to be expelled from the sangha. These accounts give me a lot of confidence in the Buddha’s teaching and His community and also in the inclusiveness of the Plum Village monastic community.

When I contemplate the future Plum Village Monastic Community, I would love to see that we all will continue to practice the Monastic Mindfulness Trainings (pratikmoksha), mindful breathing and walking, to build togetherness, brotherhood, sisterhood, and siblinghood. A community that continues to contribute peace and healing to society, transforming suffering. A community that has more diversity in the monastic and lay community such as more nationalities, more ethnicities, more people of color, more diversity in gender and diverse sexual orientations.

And one-day LGBTQIA+ people will be familiar friends to themselves, family, society, nation and the world and in the end we will not need the LGBTQIA+ community or Rainbow Family anymore because we are just part of human beings who are not seen to be different from anyone else. This is the deep aspiration that I have.

The Plum Village Newsletter

This article originally appeared in the Plum Village Newsletter, if you would like to order a physical or pdf copy, they are available by donation on the Parallax Press website.

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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