Avalokiteshvara at the Baths

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Also on this website:

Toby Johnson's books:

GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness

GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe

SECRET MATTER: updated, revised & expanded edition from Lethe Press with Afterword by Mark Jordan

GETTING LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE: A romance novel set in the 1980s and the 1890s.

THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil

TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams

CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: Reclaiming Our Queer Spirituality Through Story


About ordering

Books on Gay Spirituality:

White Crane Gay Spirituality Series

  Articles and Excerpts:

Read Toby's review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness

Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"

The Simple Answer to the Gay Marriage Debate

Why gay people should NOT Marry

Wedding Cake Liberation

Gay Marriage in Texas

What's ironic

Shame on the American People

The "highest form of love"

Second March on Washington

A Bifurcation of Gay Spirituality

 The cause of homosexuality

The origins of homophobia

Q&A about Jungian ideas in gay consciousness

What is homosexuality?

What is Gay Spirituality?

My three messages

What Jesus said about Gay Rights

Queering religion

Common Experiences Unique to Gay Men

The purpose of homosexuality

Interview on the Nature of Homosexuality

What the Bible Says about Homosexuality

Mesosexual Ideal for Straight Men

Varieties of Gay Spirituality

Waves of Gay Liberation Activity

Why Gay Spirituality: Spirituality as Artistic Medium

Easton Mountain Retreat Center

Andrew Harvey & Spiritual Activism

The Gay Spirituality Summit in May 2004 and the  "Statement of Spirituality"

"It's Always About You"

The myth of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara

Joseph Campbell's description of Avalokiteshvara

Avalokiteshvara at the Baths.

You're Not A Wave

What is Enlightenment?

What is reincarnation?

How many lifetimes in an ego?

Emptiness & Religious Ideas

Experiencing experiencing experiencing

Going into the Light

Meditations for a Funeral

Meditation Practice

The way to get to heaven

Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal

The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika

Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva

John Boswell was Immanuel Kant

The Two Loves

Curious Bodies

What Toby Johnson Believes

The Joseph Campbell Connection

Campbell & The Pre/Trans Fallacy

The Nature of Religion

What's true about Religion

Being Gay is a Blessing

Drawing Long Straws

Freedom of Religion

The Gay Agenda

Gay Saintliness

Gay Spiritual Functions

The subtle workings of the spirit in gay men's lives.

The Sinfulness of Homosexuality

Proposal for a study of gay nondualism

Priestly Sexuality

 "The Evolution of Gay Identity"

"St. John of the Cross &
the Dark Night of the Soul."

 Eckhart's Eye

Let Me Tell You a Secret

Religious Articulations of the Secret

The Collective Unconscious

Driving as Spiritual Practice


Historicity as Myth


No Stealing

Next Step in Evolution

The New Myth

The Moulting of the Holy Ghost

Gaia is a Bodhisattva

The Hero's Journey as archetype

Marian Doctrines: Immaculate Conception & Assumption

Teenage Prostitution and the Nature of Evil

Allah Hu: "God is present here"
Adam and Steve

The Life is in the Blood

Gay retirement and the "freelance monastery"

Seeing with Different Eyes

The mystical experience at the Servites'  Castle in Riverside

The Great Dance according to C.S.Lewis

The Techniques Of The World Saviors

Part 1: Brer Rabbit and the Tar-Baby
Part 2:
The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Part 3:
Jesus and the Resurrection
Part 4:
A Course in Miracles

The Secret of the Clear Light

Understanding the Clear Light

Mobius Strip

Finding Your Tiger Face

How Gay Souls Get Reincarnated

In honor of Sir Arthur C Clarke

Karellen was a homosexual

About Alien Abduction

What are you looking for in a gay science fiction novel?

The D.A.F.O.D.I.L. Alliance

More about Gay Mental Health

Psych Tech Training

The Rainbow Flag

Ideas for gay mythic stories

Kip and Toby, Activists

Toby's friend and nicknamesake Toby Marotta.

Harry Hay, Founder of the gay movement

About Hay and The New Myth

About Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the first man to really "come out"

About Michael Talbot, gay mystic

About Fr. Bernard Lynch

About Richard Baltzell

About Guy Mannheimer

About David Weyrauch

About Dennis Paddie

About Ask the Fire

About Arthur Evans

About Christopher Larkin

About Sterling Houston

About Michael Stevens

Our friend Tom Nash

Book Reviews

Be Done on Earth by Howard E. Cook

Pay Me What I'm Worth by Souldancer

The Way Out by Christopher L  Nutter
The Gay Disciple by John Henson

Art That Dares by Kittredge Cherry

Coming Out, Coming Home by Kennth A. Burr

Extinguishing the Light by B. Alan Bourgeois

Over Coffee: A conversation For Gay Partnership & Conservative Faith by D.a. Thompson

Dark Knowledge by Kenneth Low

Janet Planet by Eleanor Lerman

The Kairos by Paul E. Hartman

Wrestling with Jesus by D.K.Maylor

Kali Rising by Rudolph Ballentine

The Missing Myth by Gilles Herrada

The Secret of the Second Coming by Howard E. Cook

The Scar Letters: A Novel by Richard Alther

The Future is Queer by Labonte & Schimel

Missing Mary by Charlene Spretnak

Gay Spirituality 101 by Joe Perez

Cut Hand: A Nineteeth Century Love Story on the American Frontier by Mark Wildyr

Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman

Nights at Rizzoli by Felice Picano

The Key to Unlocking the Closet Door by Chelsea Griffo

The Door of the Heart by Diana Finfrock Farrar

Occam’s Razor by David Duncan

Grace and Demion by Mel White

Gay Men and The New Way Forward by Raymond L. Rigoglioso

The Dimensional Stucture of Consciousness by Samuel Avery

The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love by Perry Brass

There are said to be Three Wonders of the Bodhisattva


Joseph Campbell--the great light and "wise old man" of Toby Johnson's spiritual journey--wrote glowingly about the myth of the Bodhisattva and the The Way of Joyful Participation inthe Sorrows of the World.

Campbell wrote: "This is the sense of the first wonder of the Bodhisattva: the androgynous character of the presence . . . the initiate learns that male and female are (as paraphrased in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad) 'two halves of a split pea'. . ."

"The second wonder to be noted in the Bodhisattva myth is its annihilation of the distinction between life and release-from-life--which is symbolized . . . in the Bodhisattva's renunciation of Nirvana . . ."

"The third wonder of the Bodhisattva myth is that the first wonder (namely, the bisexual form) is symbolical of the second (the identity of eternity and time)."

Note to readers: if you came upon this webpage through a search on Buddhism or the name Avalokiteshvara, you may be surprised to discover an article on an aspect of gay men's spiritual consciousness. You might even be scandalized to read about a gay man's mystical experience.

Let me invite you to relax your expectations and read on. You may discover something about yourself--and certainly about your gay friends and compatriots in the world of samsara--that will surprise and edify you.

There are several articles on this website about the story of Avalokiteshvara, most of them not quite as "outrageous" as this one. There are links below to several of them including:
The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara and The myth of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara
Especially if the very idea of "gay men's spirituality" seems odd or shocking to you,
please read on and/or look at Toby Johnson's main page


Avalokitesvara at The 21st Street Baths
by Toby Johnson

(An expanded version of this story appears in the Lethe Press anthology Charmed Lives: Gay Spirit in Storytelling, edited by Toby Johnson and Steve Berman.)


One night in the late 1970s, (July 14, 1978 to be exact), I checked 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 show 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 yet.

I went into one of the common rooms upstairs. It was a large 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 anybody chooses you, you reflexively assume you wouldn't want them. You're caught in the webs of karma: getting rejected because you reject others.


As my eyes adjusted, I saw it was the 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 more 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, I 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 confusing.

We lay together in an embrace that was not entirely sexual, but 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, the 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 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, 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 rejoined jokingly with one of the war cries of the Sexual Revolution.

"Yes, but on a much deeper level," I replied. "It's like I want to be everybody and know their lives from inside, feel their flesh as my own."


I told Jim about my obsession with a 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 Fariņa 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 realizing 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 order to 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 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 Avalokitesvara?"

Jim looked into my eyes with an oddly profound gaze. "I know 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 presence 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 this 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 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? I asked myself. Whatever was happening, it 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 faith."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"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."

Then abruptly he announced, "It's time for me to be going now."

"Can I see you again?" I asked, already feeling bereft.

"Don't cling," he replied, in a way that 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 it.


The incident changed me. It affirmed my 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.


Back to main page

More about Avalokiteshvara

More about gay men as bodhisattvas

I Want to Know Them All
Here's a link to a wonderful article by L. Houston Wood
about the nature of the Bodhisattva experience

 "Kuan Yin:  Mirror of the Queer Asian Christ"
Here's an essay by gay spirituality activist Patrick Cheng on the story of the bodhisattva. The article tells several wonderful stories about the bodhisattva appearing in what we'd think of today as gay/queer incarnations.

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Toby Johnson, PhD is author of eight books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, three gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality. In addition to the novels featured elsewhere in this web site, Johnson is author of IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD and THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET (Revised edition): AN APPRECIATION OF JOSEPH CAMPBELL.

Johnson's Lammy Award winning book GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness was published in 2000. His Lammy-nominated book  GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe was published by Alyson in 2003. Both books are available now from Lethe Press.

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