Written by: Eileen Fulache Tupaz
Dedication: This is for Pema Chödrön and all the other teachers whose wisdom has been of immeasurable benefit.
Note: An earlier version of this piece was first published in the online journal YogaPoetica on November 2017.
It began, as all beginnings do, with an end.
After the dust had settled, after all the pieces had fallen, after all that was left was a pain that was as bewildering as it was debilitating, I stumbled onto the words of an American Tibetan Buddhist nun.
The lucidity of the teaching was so astonishing that it was enough to startle me out of my grief. Years of being raised in a Catholicism that took refuge in the ineffability of the divine had not prepared me for the possibility that religion could possess so much common sense.
It also hadn’t prepared me for the possibility that I could actually—beyond my wildest spiritual imaginings—be fine just the way I was.
I was raised—as many Filipino Catholics are—to believe that being gay was a sin.
If you happened to be Catholic and gay, you had the following options:
You could stop being Catholic.
You could stop being gay.
And if you didn’t have the fortitude to do either, then you could just stop being honest.
Although I was gay and therefore a sinner, I couldn’t fully betray my inclination to be honest. This led to all manner of (retrospectively) hilarious evasions when people asked me about who I was seeing.
My favorite strategy was to resort to linguistic sleight-of-hand. Filipino, unlike English, doesn’t make use of gendered pronouns. So when asked about how things were with a significant other, I would answer in English if I had a boyfriend—and in Filipino if I had a girlfriend.
Other gay Filipino Catholics would have noticed the trick immediately.
It was just one of many I had up my sleeve.
I didn’t begin by being a trickster of course.
I tried hard for years to make it work.
The first few years of my adolescence passed in a fog of preoccupied androgyny. If you can’t confront the truth about your sexuality, you suppress your sexuality altogether and divert the energy to all manner of non-sexual things.
(It’s one of the best ways to be happy without being gay.)
So while my peers collected romantic escapades, I stockpiled curricular achievements and extracurricular pursuits.
That strategy lasted until college—only because even Filipino Catholic universities have underground cultures of their own.
(I was still in a closet, but it was a vastly larger closet—one that was filled with all manner of fabulously glittery things.)
Those years were freer in a sense, but also the cause of a soul-deep fissuring.
Because it’s one thing to be gay and to not do gay things; it’s another to be gay and to do gay things.
That was when the existential schizophrenia began. I alternated between the wild exhilaration of having girlfriends, the utter terror of being discovered, and the profound shame of being corrupted.
Towards the end of my college career, after completing twelve units of theology class, the shame finally won over the exhilaration (the terror wasn’t too far behind).
(I remember kneeling at the feet of a Jesuit priest, sobbing in repentance, remorse and regret: Never again, Father, never again…)
I got a job after that—and a boyfriend—and it seemed that everything was fine.
Until I switched jobs and met her.
She was Filipino too.
But not gay.
(You can already tell how this is going to end.)
(Basically, it’s going to end.)
Anyway, even sinners are granted miracles and for two years we were happy.
It was all terribly secret of course—this was when I acquired a laudable stockpile of tricks up my sleeve—but in spite of the claustrophobic confines of our closeted little world, we actually managed to imagine a future.
Now when you’re young and earnest and confused, all you need is a future. It’s enough to redeem the past. It’s more than enough to mortgage the present.
It was a future audacious (or delusional) enough to include the standard accoutrements of a house, a dog and a cat—all closeted in by yards and yards of immaculate picket fencing.
But the shame won out in the end for her too (with the terror not too far behind) as the conditioning from years of catechism classes finally (belatedly) kicked into gear.
Don’t EVER tell anyone, were her parting words to me.
That was when I discovered that grief was a terrible thing.
And that the only thing worse was a grief that could not be shared.
Because the problem when you live a terribly secret life is that you have to maintain the secrecy even when it ends.
(Are you alright? my friends would ask in bewilderment as they sensed the agony that was seeping like blood from my crucified heart. Smashing, I’d lie through gritted teeth as the dust swirled and as the pieces of my life rained around me.)
And because our realities are real only insofar as they’re expressed and embedded in the world (even a closet of a world with just two inhabitants still functions as a world), my grief was radically compounded by rapidly acquiring the quality of the surreal.
(If a tear falls and there’s no one around to witness what occasioned it, doesn’t that make the grief more grievous?)
It was while I was erecting phantom memorials to my misery that I stumbled onto the words of an American Tibetan Buddhist nun.
Use the poison as the antidote, she taught.
(I nearly wept with gratitude given all the venom that I’d acquired.)
Turn your vices into virtues, she implied.
(At the rate I was stockpiling vices I was bound to have virtues galore.)
All that was demanded was for me to sit.
It’s been more than 15 years since I read those words and I can tell you that I’ve sat a lot.
But see, it’s not the sitting that’s the problem.
It’s the “just”-ing.
That part I haven’t gotten pat just yet.
But that’s okay.
More importantly, I’m okay.
Well, truth be told, we’re all okay and it’s all okay.
Even when we’re not and even if it’s not.
That’s the shocking, startling and utterly unnerving beauty of the teaching.
When I look back now on all those years and the needless suffering that was endured, I alternate between a profound sorrow, on the one hand, and a poignant serenity, on the other.
To have been so young once and so earnest and so confused…Strange, how out of such thorny soil the seeds of equanimity have borne fruit.
(Turn arrows into flowers, she said. And so I did.)
I sometimes wonder if the Buddha felt the same as he watched his countless lifetimes unfold. I wonder if he felt that same odd mix of sorrow and serenity—that same strange melding of tenderness and nonchalance.
Every so often, I’ll trace the scars of the wound, mark the edges of the fissure and evoke the memories of a deeply internalized shame and guilt.
And then I’ll marvel at feeling nothing—not even a phantom pain.
It’s possible, I suppose, to measure a life by making a catalogue of what no longer hurts and what can no longer hurt.
Is the indifference a blessed insensitivity granted by scars that have grown too thick?
Or is it a testament to a hard-won forbearance gained from wounds so deep that they never could find shelter in scars?
Many things still rankle, of course, and I find that I need to kill the Buddha as I meet him on the road—again and again and again.
The biggest problem with being a spiritual convert is how it gives rise to an enormous temptation to proselytize and preach.
If I hadn’t obtained refuge in the Dharma, if I didn’t find company in the Sangha, if I didn’t take solace (and inspiration) in the Buddha, I wouldn’t know where I’d be today.
But just because I was lost doesn’t mean that others need to be found.
Blessing doesn’t count as preaching though, so I can end (with good conscience) by offering these words:
May you use poisons as antidotes.
May you turn arrows into flowers.
May you transform vices into virtues.
May you learn to be happy and be gay.
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