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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

Is there a "uniquely gay perspective"?

The purpose of homosexuality

The Reincarnation of Edward Carpenter

The Gay Succession

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

Buddha's father was right

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


Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

Thousand Armed Chenresig Avalokiteshvara

The Bodhisattva as Thousand Armed Chenresig
"Thousand-armed" because he is everybody.
Courtesy of Osel Shen Phen Ling

from The Myth of the Great Secret: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell (Celestial Arts, 1990)

This article has 4 parts. This is the second part

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 heroes of Mahayana Buddhism are Siddhartha Gautama, who entered nirvana and became the Lord Buddha, and the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, who renounced nirvana to save all sentient beings. Compared to early Buddhism, which taught that life was all suffering and that each individual had to work to escape from life into a nirvana that was simply extinction, as we have observed earlier, the Mahayanist reinterpretation of the Buddha's teachings several hundred years after his death was relatively life-affirming.

Mahayana sages, like Nagarjuna, taught that the world arises through a process of "mutual coorigination" in which nothing is known individually or independently but only relatively in its interacting with everything else in a great cosmic unity. Since nothing is absolute, nothing can be known of Absolute Truth. All knowledge is empty. Even the teachings of the Buddha are not absolute, but only hints at a greater, unknowable, ineffable Truth. The denial of all absolute distinctions implies that there is no ascertainable difference between samsara, the world of change and apparent suffering, and nirvana, the state beyond change and suffering. Samsara is nirvana The world is no different from heaven. They taught a radical monism in which all beings are manifestations of the One Being. The illusion from which all must be saved is that individual existence is real. The Mahayanists recommended compassion for others as the "skillful means" of attaining enlightenment and escaping rebirth. They accepted life in the world, not just in the monastery, as an exercise in gaining enlightenment.

bodhisattva with flowers

To communicate the emptiness of Absolute Truth, radical monism, and compassion as the means to salvation, the Mahayanists told the story of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The myth tells that the lovely, androgynous saint, Avalokitesvara, was on the verge of entering into nirvana, thus leaving behind forever the world of samsara. Just as his meditation was deepening and his insight into the transience of all phenomena growing, he was distracted by a great groaning, rising up all about him in the world. He came out of his trance and, looking around him, asked: What is this groaning I hear? All the birds and trees and grass and all sentient beings replied to him: O Avalokitesvara, our lives are times of suffering and pain; we live in a delusion from which we cannot seem to escape. You are so beautiful and so kind. Your presence here among us has given us joy and a reason for living. We all love you so, and we are saddened by the prospect of your leaving us. And so we groan.

At that the young saint was filled with compassion and chose not to enter nirvana, but to remain in the cycle of birth and death so that the others would not have to suffer. And he vowed to renounce nirvana until all sentient beings were equally enlightened. He saw that it was better that one should suffer than that all should. And he took upon himself their suffering, so that he alone would wander the cycles of karma, far from the homeland.


Avalokitesvara, whose name means "The Lord Looking Down in Pity," agreed to take upon himself the suffering of the world. And he willed that the merit for this selfless act should go out from him to all beings, so that all should be saved. I will not enter nirvana, he vowed, until all beings have entered nirvana. By the generosity of Avalokitesvara all the rest have already gone home.

The Bodhisattva's vow is expressed ritually in a litany all Mahayanists are urged to repeat:

However innumerable beings are,
I vow to save them;

however inexhaustible the passions are,
I vow to extinguish them;

however immeasurable the Dharmas are,
I vow to master them;

however incomparable the Buddha-truth is,
I vow to attain it. (
For a more modern version)

His name also means "The Lord Who is Seen Within." For, of course, what the myth means is that at the essence of every person is the Lord Savior. Salvation comes from recognizing who we really are. And from that perspective then everything that happens to us is but an experience of our true essence.

In the Japanese story of the bodhisattva Amida there is a variation on Avalokitesvara's vow. As Amida was about to enter nirvana, he too felt compassion for all beings. He declared that he would not complete his entry into nirvana unless it were guaranteed that all beings who had called upon his help, saying his name as few as ten times in their lives, would at death gain immediate admission to the Pure Land. He subsequently entered nirvana, becoming Amida, the Sun Buddha.

To followers of Shin Buddhism, called the Pure Land Sect, his departure was a sure sign that salvation awaits those who honor the name of Amida and reverently chant his mantra: Namo Amida Butsu (Honor to the Buddha Amida). Perhaps soon after dawn on the sixth of August 1945, when citizens of Hiroshima observed the noonday sun descending upon them several hours early, some of them saw not the wrath of America annihilating them in an act of war but the face of Amida the Sun Buddha welcoming them into the Pure Land, making them one with the sun.

At any rate, in spite of the horrors--or, indeed, because of them--Avalokitesvara alone remains, though he soon will follow. And when he does, when, after experiencing all the suffering in every world system whatsoever, he turns to enter the gates of nirvana, he will discover that there is no nirvana and no samsara, that there have never been sentient beings, and there has never been a bodhisattva who has suffered, and that all is empty and has been so from the beginning.


Avalokitesvara is portrayed as bisexual, both male and female, uniting the opposites. In this androgyny he personifies the principle of emptiness: samsara is nirvana, nirvana is samsara: there are no exclusive categories. Today "bisexual" has also come to mean being both heterosexual and homosexual, uniting the opposites.

When the Buddhists imported statues of Avalokiteshvara to China, the Chinese who did not have a tradition of bisexual gods, understood the figure to be female. He/she became the "Goddess of Compassion" Kwan Yin.

Here's a lovely image of Kwan Yin (alternately QuanYin)
by the icon painter William Hart McNichols.

Kwan Yin

When I first learned about Avalokitesvara, I was not worldly enough to distinguish between these two meanings of bisexual. Learning of bisexual gods (of which Avalokitesvara is but one in a crowded pantheon) helped me to reevaluate deeply ingrained--and personally destructive--prejudices about homosexuality. For the myths tell us that from the mystical perspective the distinctions between male and female and between homosexual and heterosexual--as between time and eternity, pluralism and monism--are meaningless.

Even Saint Paul declared that in Christ there is neither male nor female. And the Jesus of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas declared that until one had made the male as female and the female as male, one could not enter the kingdom. Like the myth of the androgynous bodhisattva, this suggests that one has to overcome the tendency of the mind to differentiate and value before one can perceive the unity of life. For what Jesus called the Kingdom was probably not an afterlife, but a mystical realization of the ultimate unity of all beings. In the canonical, but only slightly less gnostic, Gospel of John, Jesus prayed that all may be one, even as he had realized he was one with the Father. ln Buddhist terms, Jesus was a bodhisattva, for he took upon himself the sin--the pain, the brokenness, the blindness, the stupidity and apparent failure--of the world.

Go to the next page

This article has 4 parts. This is the second part
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

See also Toby Johnson's story of
Meeting Avalokiteshvara at the 21st Street Baths

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Here's a more contemporary statement of the vows and understanding of what the bodhisattva identity might mean to us modern Americans today:
"However countless sentient beings, I vow to save them.*
However inexhaustible the resistance, I vow to relinquish it.
However many the doors of incarnation, I vow to enter them all.
However incomparable the highest perspective, I vow to attain it."

The San Francisco-based Gay Buddhist Fellowship issued another "updated" version of the vows in their newsletter in 1998:

I vow to celebrate for all sentient beings.
I vow to enjoy my delusions in vivid and wonderful ways without being attached.
I vow to dance through the Dharma Gates I am presented with
and fully experience them.

I vow to appreciate the fullness and emptiness of all my senses and be with them without attachment as Buddha taught.

*Notice that "However countless sentient beings are" also means "However the countless sentient beings are," meaning less the countlessness of all beings than the non-judgmentalness of the bodhisattva's attitude in making the vow. I vow to save all beings regardless of who they are and what they're like.


French existentialist playwright Jean Anouilh proposed a scenario for the Last Judgment that elucidates this point in Christian mythology.

The good are densely clustered at the gate of heaven, eager to march in, sure of their reserved seats, keyed up and bursting with impatience.

All at once, a rumor starts spreading: "It seems He's going to forgive those others, too!"

For a minute, everybody's dumbfounded. They look at one another in disbelief, gasping and sputtering, "After all the trouble I went through!" "If only I'd known this..." "I just cannot get over it!"

Exasperated, they work themselves into a fury and start cursing God; and at that very instant they're damned. That was the final judgment. (cited in Louis Evely, That Man is You)

The way to get into heaven is to want other people to get in too. The tragedy of the anti-homosexual stance of most religions is not so much what it does to the gay people. (We can wake up and leave, after all!) It is what it does to the faithful.

If you take Jesus's prediction of the Last Judgment seriously, he is going to have to say to the Fundamentalists: "Behold, when I was thrown of the military or was fired from my job or evicted from my apartment, you didn't care. When I was sick, you didn't visit me or lobby Congress for research funds. When I wanted to sacramentalize my relationship, you passed laws to prevent me. When I needed civil rights, you vilified me and misrepresented my claims. When I complained about injustice and demonstrated politically, you sensationalized my cause as a fund-raising tactic to gather more wealth into your coffers. When I died, you picketed my funeral. Behold, what you didn't do for the least of these, my lesbian and gay sisters and brothers, that you didn't do for me. Because you were not hospitable to these strangers in your midst, heaven holds no hospitality for you. Get thee into everlasting damnation." (Matthew 25: 45)

Perhaps the reason spiritually-oriented gay people have to work for the transformation of religion is to save the Christians from their own hell-fire!

back to The Vows of the Bodhisattva

Go on to Part 3: Jesus and the Resurrection

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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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