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U.S. Buddhist Group Approves Marriage-Like Rites for Gays

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gay and lesbian couples seeking a marriage-like ceremony to solemnize their commitment may find American-style Buddhism more responsive than most churches and synagogues, especially with the decision of the largest U.S. Buddhist organization to permit such religious rites.

Biblical admonitions against homosexual activity have inhibited most Christian and Jewish clergy from conducting same-sex ceremonies--which have no legal standing but hold religious significance for some couples.

“Buddhism is not particularly uptight about sexuality,” said the Rev. Koren Baker, a gay priest at the Los Angeles Zen Center, which has run many retreats for gay, lesbian and bisexual practitioners.

The head monk at the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Koreatown, who is a lesbian herself, says she has performed about 10 same-sex ceremonies.

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Now, the practice may gain in popularity with an announcement by the large Soka Gakkai International-USA, based in Santa Monica, that its officials will allow same-sex weddings at their 64 community centers.

The Soka Gakkai decision to “support the couple in expressing their commitment” was briefly noted in the newspaper of the tightly disciplined, sometimes controversial Buddhist sect, which claims 300,000 followers in this country.

The laymen-led Soka Gakkai--embroiled at times in political controversies in Japan--broke with its priestly wing four years ago in a bitter dispute over religious authority. And the affiliated Soka University, which has campuses worldwide, has fought environmentalists for years over proposed campus expansion in the Santa Monica Mountains; only this week it announced the purchase of a second campus site in Orange County.

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Although its claim of representing “true Buddhism” tends to irk other Buddhist groups, Soka Gakkai has appealed to many American-born converts, including singer Tina Turner, as a path to happiness and prosperity.

In expanding its wedding policy to include gay and lesbian couples, U.S. General Director Fred Zaitsu told the organization’s newspaper: “I believe we have made great progress toward making our organization more humanistic.”

Al Albergate, headquarters spokesman, said that Buddhism emphasizes equality and that “no doctrinal basis held us back from doing it.”

The decision was praised by the Rev. Sarika Dharma, the head monk at the International Buddhist Meditation Center, a multiethnic organization unrelated to Soka Gakkai.

“It think it’s wonderful,” said the 57-year-old monk, who grew up as Renee Richmond in Van Nuys and earned a master’s degree in speech communication at Cal State Northridge before training in the Vietnamese Zen monastic tradition.

“The Buddha said that all human beings have the capacity to become enlightened,” she said. “He didn’t say that if they were of a certain sexual orientation that they couldn’t. There is nothing in Buddhist doctrine to deny their acceptance.”

At the same time, the Rev. Sarika, as she is known, said that Buddhist views on marriage and other social situations may vary according to a country’s adaptations of the 2,500-year-old meditative religion founded by Gautama Buddha.

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In certain cultures, gay and lesbian activity is not acceptable, she said. Indeed, at the Wat Thai Temple in North Hollywood, a spokesman for the Thai immigrant congregation said that the subject of same-sex ceremonies does not come up.

But in Buddhist centers where U.S.-born converts have been active, “we find a lot of them reaching out to provide special opportunities for gays and lesbians to come into a safe environment,” she said.

“They don’t have to do anything to explain themselves,” she said.

She is a member of the Lesbian and Gay Interfaith Clergy of Greater Los Angeles, which is watching legal developments in Hawaii, where the state’s Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that prohibiting gays and lesbians from marrying amounts to sex discrimination under the Hawaiian constitution. The case has been returned to the lower court and comes to trial again this fall.

Proponents and critics have speculated that if Hawaiian courts validate same-sex marriages, licenses obtained in that state might provide legal rights for couples in other states as well.

At the Los Angeles Zen Center, despite the openness to gay and lesbian practitioners, Baker said that he has not performed any same-sex wedding ceremonies.

In contrast to Western views that religion should provide ceremonies for all the passages of life, Buddhism has not traditionally dealt with marriage relationships, said Richard K. Payne, dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley.

“The fundamental issue for Buddhism here is whether anybody is harmed directly or indirectly by one’s actions,” he said.

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