The Buddhist Nun that Supports Same-Sex Marriage
From animal rights protection to defending same-sex marriage, Buddhist Nun Shih Chao-hwei says we should “put ourselves lower, and open ourselves more”, just like in the Diamond Sutra: “No self, no person, and no life.”
By Chen Qian-er & Chen Qi-wen
Translation by Daigengna Duoer
This article originally appeared in the Initium on January 25th, 2017, and was translated and reposted with the permission of the author and publisher.
As a Buddhist lesbian, Cheung Bing-zit had felt depressed for a long period of time. In Hong Kong’s Buddhist circles, the topic of homosexuality is avoided by almost everyone. Chang was unable to find any Buddhist masters to confess her sufferings to, until she met Shih Chao-hwei (釋昭慧), a Taiwanese Buddhist master. Finally, Cheung had the opportunity to speak about the pressures of being a sexual minority without any reservations.
At age 56, Shih Chao-hwei is not your typical nun. She is straightforward, outspoken, and enjoys heated debates on Facebook. In the face of inequality, she never stays quiet. She is one of Taiwan’s most famous bhiksuni (Buddhist nun), second only to master Cheng Yen (證嚴).
Over the past 20 years, Shih has continuously devoted herself to social movements. Her recent “outrageous” comments in support of LGBT rights have surprised many in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
At a public hearing about Taiwan’s same-sex marriage equality bill, Shih’s comments shocked listeners. “A family has many functions. It is not always for the sake of combining a sperm and an egg, alright?” said Shih.
After the bill passed its first reading, Shih flew to Hong Kong to take part in the “Cross-Strait Marriage Equality Forum” hosted by the Big Love Alliance, Covenant of Rainbow, LEZS, and the Taiwan Lobby Alliance for LGBT Human Rights Declaration. At the forum, she shared her tips on how to refute homophobic statements:
A Buddhist in Taiwan said, “Two men or two women hugging is disgusting.” Master Shih retorted, “You are oppressing gay people with your own feelings. I also feel disgusted when I see a man and a woman hugging.”
Another Buddhist scholar in Taiwan said, “All things should have a yin and a yang.” Master Shih retorted, “When did you change your occupation and become a Daoist?”
The audience in Hong Kong roared with laughter. Packing in 140 people, the attendees filled the forum with thunderous applause.
In Hong Kong, same-sex marriage is still very far from reality. An anti-discrimination bill has been brewing since 1990, but still awaits discussion in the Hong Kong legislative council.
Wong Mei-fong (黃美鳳), one of the organizers of the forum, says that whenever she organizes a forum on the “International Day Against Homophobia,” she invites various Buddhist masters in Hong Kong to speak. However, these masters participate only once, and then never participate again. In one particular encounter, a Buddhist master told Wong: “the head of the Buddhist institution I’m a part of does not allow us to talk about these things in public. Please do not approach me next time you see me.”
In fact, master Shih Chao-hwei is a rarity in Taiwan as well. Shih has devoted herself to a number of social movements, and is fully engaged in the front-lines of worldly affairs.
Many ask Shih suspiciously, “master, do you not meditate and practice Buddhism?” When asked in such a way, Shih smiles and replies, “Social movements are an excellent way to practice. To tread on a mountain top adjacent to a steep cliff, every single step requires the heart to be pure and focused. If the heart is not pure, if you take pity on yourself or if you hold grudges against others, you would immediately fall off the cliff.”
Only families are valuable? Then what about monks and nuns?
Dressed in a grey robe, Shih Chao-hwei has a round face and big eyes. When she smiles, her eyebrows and eyes bend into a soft curve. But when she opens her mouth, her sharpness and fierceness cannot be concealed.
“If I hadn’t seen the situation on the 17th, maybe I wouldn't have returned to the battlefield,” said Shih. As a religious studies professor at Hsuan Chuang University’s graduate school, Shih is busy with teaching and was planning to retire from participating in social movements. She wants to let “young people in social movements march forward.”
On November 17th 2016, the Legislative Yuan’s Judiciary and Organic Laws and Statutes Committee began to review potential amendments to the civil code that would protect same-sex marriage. However, the Alliance of Religious Groups for the Love of Families in Taiwan (台灣宗教團體愛護家庭大聯盟) organized protests and surrounded the Legislative Yuan. The review of the amendment was temporarily halted.
“Intolerable,” was Shih’s response, kindled by the events on that day.
Shih has followed the same-sex equality movement in Taiwan for many years. In 2012, she performed a Buddhist wedding ceremony for a lesbian couple, the first in Taiwan’s history.
“The road for same-sex marriage is difficult, and now it’s suddenly being blocked at the last mile,” said Shih. “The power of individual members of the LGBT community can sometimes be weak, and they do not have the collective energy of a religious authority. I think I should help them out on this arduous journey.” As such, she accepted the invitation of the LGBT community and attended the public hearing.
A week later, Shih’s speech at the public hearing made her an unforgettable figure, a “fierce” nun, in both Taiwan and Hong Kong. In under 1000 words, she refuted homophobic statements from the perspective of Buddhism, traditional culture, and naturalism. At the core of her speech was refuting the Family Alliance’s definition of “family”.
“The value of family has never been absolute. In Europe, in India, there has been many ‘homeless’ individuals who have created the most glorious cultures of human civilization…” says Shih. “If you require everyone to enter this family based on a single value, and if this family is defined only by you, then … I really feel that this is a bit obsessive-compulsive.”
“If the family is defined to exist for the creation of the next generations, then I would like to ask, aren’t those who suffer from infertility also victims of your attack?” she adds.
Her comebacks come one after another, but she always carries a smile. As a nun who has renounced family life, Shih says that she has always been critical of society’s stiff definition of “family values”.
When Shih first got involved in social movements in the 1990s, she started a movement in defense of Buddhism. The movement’s outcry was simple. She asked the public not to discriminate against monks and nuns, not to disrespect Buddhist masters, and not to call them “nigu” (尼姑) or “heshang” (和尚).
She believes that this kind of disrespect comes from the fact that Chinese culture over-emphasizes the value of family. “There are three ways to be unfilial, and not having offspring is the worst. Traditional Chinese culture believes that we as monks and nuns do not keep the value of family,” says Shih.
Recently, whenever she sees a monk or nun “reciting scriptures” from the Alliance of Religious Groups for the Love of Families, she becomes enraged. “If only families are valuable, then what about monks and nuns? Everything you say is against your identity as a renunciated one, why would your logic be so confused?”
Going back to Buddhist dharma, Shih believes that there is no Buddhist law that encourages people to discriminate against homosexuality. Whether it’s a romantic affair between two men, two women, or between a woman and a man, Buddhist dharma understands all of these cases as “desire”. Desire arises from sensual needs. The senses are ever-changing, prone to desensitization, and need constant stimulation. If the desires of the senses are not fulfilled, suffering arises.
“The reality of desire is suffering,” says Shih, the suffering of all beings should be treated with a compassionate mind, and not moral standards. “You can see that some people have very strong desires – they would have many needs. Most people might be satisfied with a monogamous heterosexual relationship; some might not be satisfied with less than ten women. In the latter case, they would also have more intense sufferings.”
“The Buddha says, ‘Rejoice in merits.’ If others are made happy, I would be happy too. I would never imagine that there is a power that does not rejoice in merits – it oppresses others; it believes that some things cannot be shared; it says that you cannot also rejoice in happiness and safety. They do so in the name of love. This really shocks me.” says Shih. For this reason, she puts on her battle armor to continue in her fight with this oppressive power.
Joining a movement because of irresistible compassion for all sentient beings
When Shih Chao-hwei first joined the monastic order, she had never thought about taking part in social movements. She had wanted to be an undisturbed Buddhist scholar.
She formed an affinity with Buddhism at an early age. In 1977, she was a second-year undergraduate student in the Department of Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University. In the same year, she participated in a summer camp organized by the Fo Guang organization and became attracted to Buddhism. In the next year, she became a nun at the age of 21 under master Xiang Yun (祥雲). She vowed to study Buddhism and tread a path “without the obstacles of family life.”
Many years later, Shih met master Yin Shun (印順), Taiwan’s first Doctor of Buddhist studies, and a respected scholar who pushed for “humanistic Buddhism” throughout his life. Shih was inspired, and devoted herself wholly into learning. At the time, her life plan was to “write paper after paper to disseminate Buddhist scholarship.”
However, she was born with curiosity and a sense of justice. When she was only in elementary school, she was called a “show-off” by her teacher. Many years later, faced with society’s many voices insulting monks and nuns, she could not stay silent and stood up in protest. It was her first time leaving the solitude of religious practice in direct conflict with the secular world.
Throughout the years, Shih took on many challenges, from the abolishment of the death penalty, to the protection of animal rights, to the women’s rights movements. She helped push the “Animal Protection Bill” through its third reading at Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. She’s also stormed the Buddhist world with her proposal to abolish the sexist “Eight Garudhammas (The Eight Heavy Rules).”
In an autobiographical text, Shih reminisces that when she first joined social movements, it was all based on a sense of courage. Later she realized that this sense of courage “could be transformed into an irresistible compassionate heart for all sentient beings.”
No Self, No Person, No Life
From a discreet scholar to a public figure, Shih Chao-hwei is attacked on a daily basis for her work in social movements. At the beginning, faced with attacks and even insulting language, even as a Buddhist, Shih felt “very hurt, very uncomfortable.”
For Shih, religious practice is very specific – it is a training of “will-power” – eliminate insults and focus on the targets of struggle. It is also a training of “wisdom” – practice inward reflection when mixed voices flood in. The goal is to “get in touch with those voices and not punishment one’s self.”
The most basic is the training of “no self”. In social movements one should “put down ourselves lower and open ourselves more”, says Shih. Do not be obsessed with oneself, or pity oneself. Do not lean on others. Just as it’s said in the Diamond Sutra, “No self, no person, no life”.
Although she’s participated in dozens of causes over many years, Shih has no plans to enter politics. Shih’s views do not fit nicely into “left” or “right” categories, and describes her situation as “never getting warmth together with others.”
“The benefits of getting warmth is that you can fire up courage in others, because many people walk this path together with you. However, some people also fear that this warmth would disappear, therefore they hesitate, says Shih. “There are too many issues in Taiwan. Some people agree with me on the issue of anti-gambling, but they are homophobic. Some people support same-sex marriage in certain ways, but hate Buddhism. If you can only get warmth from one another in a virtual space but do not get honest with each other later, it would be pointless. We should be honest to ourselves with regard to every single issue.”
(Out of respect for the interviewee, the name Zhang Bing-zhe is invented)