One night in the late 1970s, I
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.
I watched TV awhile, delaying in case somebody else might
up. I wondered why I'd come. Earlier I'd been feeling lonely. I
really need to be touched, I'd said to myself. I could still feel the
neediness all through my chest and shoulders. I wasn't ready to leave
I went into one of the common rooms upstairs. It was a
dark space with cushioned platforms around the walls. 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 some unattractive troll?
Well, no wonder you're lonely, I said to myself. If
chooses you, you reflexively assume you wouldn't want them. You're
caught in the webs of karma: getting rejected because you reject
As my eyes adjusted, I saw it was
young man 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. Innocently
violating the stolid silence, the young man introduced himself to me
as Jim. He said, "You seem sad," and asked how I was doing.
Surprised by the opportunity for communication, wanting
from this meeting than just an ejaculation--and sensing the openness
on Jim's part, I told him about my earlier loneliness and about my
disappointment with the baths as any sort of remedy. Jim listened
carefully. Occasionally he murmured or squeezed me warmly to let me
know he was paying attention.
Surprising myself with the depth of honesty I displayed,
started talking about my spiritual life. 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 recounted several
major spiritual experiences in my life, acknowleding that I found the
clash between my spirituality and my liberated gay sexuality somewhat
We lay together in an embrace that was not entirely
was not unsexual either. We occasionally shifted in one another's
arms sliding slowly against each other to renew the touch. I felt his
flesh, warm and slightly electric, against my chest. I felt our cocks
lying full but not hard between us against our bellies.
He said he was a switchboard operator at Langley Porter,
psych hospital at U.C. San Francisco, but didn't say much else 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 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, inspite of my good efforts, instead of joy.
Almost lecturing him, assuming he wouldn't know about
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, 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
"So many men, so little time," he rejoined jokingly with
the war cries of the Sexual Revolution.
"Yes, but on a much deeper level," I replied. "It's like
to be everybody and know their lives from inside, feel their flesh as
I told Jim about my obsession with
particular Mahayana Buddhist myth. "The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara
was this enlightened being who chose to renounce nirvana and remain
within the cycles of reincarnation," I explained. "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." I cited the John and Mimi Fariña folk song "Pack
Up Your Sorrows" as an example of this myth: "If somehow you could
pack up your sorrows and give them all to me, you would lose them; I
know how to use them, give them all to me."
"When I first came across this story, maybe without
what I was doing," I confided, "in a burst of fervor I committed
myself to this myth. I mean 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
in the 1970s, before AIDS, and the metaphysical suffering of the gay
community had not yet become physically manifest in sorrowful deaths
all around us as it would a few years later.)
"Is this a holy way to live?" I asked plaintively.
"That's a pretty dismal interpretation of the story," Jim
answered. "Isn't a better interpretation of that myth 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.
"The Bodhisattva took on the suffering of the world in
transform it and save sentient beings from suffering, not to glorify
suffering and 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 quzzically.
"Yes, I know," Jim said, smiling enigmatically in the
light of the orgy room.
"You mean you know about Buddhism?"
"I mean, I know about accepting everyone's incarnations."
"You know about Avalokitesvara?"
Jim looked into my eyes with an oddly profound gaze. "I
am Avalokitesvara," he said.
"You mean like we all are?" I answered.
"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 Avalokitesvara, 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
of one of my most beloved of gods--right there in the flesh:
Avalokitesvara holding me close, in the orgy room at the 21st Street
Baths. A thrill of excitement, mystical wonder, bewilderment, and
consolation coursed through me.
I experienced intentionally linking my soul with that of
other man, chakra by chakra. I felt an enormous rush of energy
pouring through me--body and soul. In a certain way you could say I
was falling in love and feeling love's joy.
My head was spinning. I seemed to have entered into some
"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? I asked myself. Whatever was
certainly 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?
Almost as if addressing my bewilderment, Jim said, "Have
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"Faith that things are never totally true or totally
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."
Then abruptly he announced, "It's time for me to be going
"Can I see you again?" I asked, already feeling bereft.
"Don't cling," he replied, in a way that sounded more
wisdom teaching than rejection.
A pang of loss struck me, but I understood the spiritual
to live in the present and not to be attached, to enjoy the joy I was
feeling without trying to possess it.
The incident changed me. It
belief in a healthy spiritual life lived in the styles of modern gay
culture. It caused me afterwards to take time in gay settings to
bless the other men and women, wishing grace for them, perceiving
them as manifestations of the One Being, intending for them that they
also discover their god manifesting to them in the form of another
gay person to show them love and bring them joy.