LGBT-friendly Bud­dhist cen­ters flower through­out At­lanta

Mem­bers turn to dif­fer­ent teach­ings af­ter ex­pe­ri­ences with Chris­tian­ity

GA Voice - - Photogallery -

By PATRICK SAUN­DERS

psaun­ders@the­gavoice.com

One re­cent Satur­day morn­ing, as shop­pers wor­shiped the ready-to-as­sem­ble fur­ni­ture and Swedish meat­balls at the IKEA in Mid­town, a dif­fer­ent kind of wor­ship­ing was go­ing on across 17th Street at the Soka Gakkai In­ter­na­tional (SGI) At­lanta Bud­dhist Cen­ter. One per­son af­ter the other in the di­verse crowd stood up and spoke about their tribu­la­tions – loss of loved ones, job­less­ness, home­less­ness, de­pres­sion, sui­ci­dal thoughts – and how the teach­ings of Bud­dhism helped them over­come.

Sit­ting in the crowd ea­gerly lis­ten­ing, clap­ping and show­ing sup­port for each speaker was Rocky Car­roll, a gay At­lanta man and man­ager at Boy Next Door. He’s fully em­braced the Bud­dhist teach­ings since join­ing SGI last April, but he had to get through an awk­ward first im­pres­sion af­ter wit­ness­ing the chant­ing that be­gins and ends each ser­vice.

“At first I was like wow, this is su­per alien. What is hap­pen­ing?” Car­roll said, laugh­ing. “I grew up Methodist so it’s kind of like to­tally op­po­site from what I had grow­ing up.”

But, like many LGBT peo­ple, he needed some­thing dif­fer­ent af­ter sour­ing on Chris­tian­ity.

“To me, it was hard to grow up LGBT and then still be with that be­cause I never felt ac­cepted,” he said.

Ac­cep­tance came quickly at SGI, when on his third visit, Car­roll was asked in a group meet­ing what he did for a liv­ing.

“I told them that I worked at Boy Next Door and that it’s a gay store,” he said. “And every­one was like ‘ oh cool!’ They didn’t even blink twice. No big deal.”

He stuck with it and con­tin­ued to go, learn­ing more and more about Bud­dhist

Jan­uary 20, 2017

“I knew that God was love. I be­lieve that you can only be­lieve the short verses in the Bi­ble be­cause there’s less room for a lie or a mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion to fit it. So I took that line. As I grew older, I just couldn’t rec­on­cile the rest of it. But love, com­pas­sion, em­pa­thy – that’s what al­ways rang true to me.” teach­ings and how they could be ap­plied to his daily life.

“It helps me to step back and look at ev­ery­thing log­i­cally so that I can make the right de­ci­sions and don’t get stressed out over things that aren’t nec­es­sary,” he said. “[SGI is] one of the first places that I’ve been to where they don’t ever make me feel sep­a­rate or dif­fer­ent than other peo­ple, like maybe I need to work on some­thing to get to some other level. They don’t ever do that.”

SGI sup­ports prac­ti­tion­ers of Nichiren Bud­dhism, a type fo­cused on chant­ing and de­vo­tion to the Lo­tus Su­tra, a kind of Bud­dhist Bi­ble. SGI claims more than 12 mil­lion mem­bers in about 190 coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries world­wide.

Bud­dhism is the fourth-largest re­li­gion in the world with over 500 mil­lion mem­bers, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, and, like Car­roll, many LGBT peo­ple turn to the re­li­gion and its teach­ings af­ter a fall­ing out with Chris­tian­ity.

Monthly LGBT group at De­catur Bud­dhist cen­ter

SGI isn’t the only af­firm­ing Bud­dhist cen­ter in At­lanta. The Shamb­hala Cen­ter of At­lanta in De­catur has a monthly LGBT Sangha (or com­mu­nity) where mem­bers med­i­tate and have a read­ing and dis­cus­sion Rocky Car­roll, a man­ager at Boy Next Door, has been go­ing to the SGI-USA At­lanta Bud­dhist Cen­ter since last April. (Photo by Patrick Saun­ders) on the dharma (or teach­ings of Buddha).

Edwin Ashurst, a gay At­lanta re­al­tor, co-founded the group about five years ago. It’s not that LGBT peo­ple aren’t wel­come in the main Shamb­hala Sangha, he’s quick to point out.

“It’s be­cause there is just some­times when you want to talk with some­body that’s been through it and has seen things through a sim­i­lar lens of ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “I think it’s more of a safe en­try for peo­ple that aren’t sure in many cases, and in many cases they just ab­sorb them­selves into the Shamb­hala Sangha at large.”

Ashurst says that they’ll con­tinue to have the LGBT Sangha es­pe­cially now be­cause, as he says, “Things are go­ing to get rough again” un­der a Don­ald Trump pres­i­dency.

He said things were rough for him grow­ing up in the South­ern Bap­tist church as a gay kid, and that he felt “to­tally re­jected” by Chris­tian­ity.

“My per­sonal jour­ney was through try­ing to rec­on­cile Chris­tian­ity through who I knew I was,” he ex­plained. “I knew that God was love. I be­lieve that you can only be­lieve the short verses in the Bi­ble be­cause there’s less room for a lie or a mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion to fit it. So I took that line. As I grew older, I just couldn’t rec­on­cile the rest of it. But love, com­pas­sion, em­pa­thy – that’s what al­ways rang true to me.”

Ashurst said Bud­dhism “fit all the things that made sense to me along those lines. We’re all con­nected by love and we’re all con­nected.”

The Shamb­hala Cen­ter of­fered an in­clu­sive en­vi­ron­ment for him to ex­plore Bud­dhist teach­ings. Sally Lar­rick, as­sis­tant to the di­rec­tor at the Cen­ter, said the non­judg­men­tal na­ture of Shamb­hala Bud­dhism is prob­a­bly one of the things that at­tracts their many LGBT mem­bers.

“We don’t judge our thoughts,” she said. “By sit­ting on the cush­ion and do­ing this tech­nique of let­ting our thoughts go, it makes it eas­ier to do that in our ev­ery­day life. It gives more space around re­lat­ing to other peo­ple and also how we talk to our­selves in our heads. This com­mu­nity is very wel­com­ing to any­body. There are many LGBTQ peo­ple who be­long to this com­mu­nity and it’s no big deal.”

But both Lar­rick and Ashurst point out that not ev­ery­body at the Shamb­hala Cen­ter is Bud­dhist, nor are they re­quired to be. There are Chris­tians, Mus­lims and athe­ists among the mem­bers, Ashurst said.

“It’s just a huge com­bi­na­tion of peo­ple and we just sub­scribe to the same ba­sic tenet of hu­man­ity that we’re all ba­si­cally good as we are, as we’re born,” he said. “We started out ba­si­cally good and we’ll al­ways have that with us no mat­ter what hap­pens.”

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