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Why I Asked for Ordination

Sal Campbell explains a shift in perspective

For most of my adult life, the radical queer community has been home and family.  The trans folk and genderqueers, the sissies, femmes and butches – these are my brothers, others, sisters and lovers. We could see we were not the only ones in need of love and protection in an unjust world. I spent years involved in alternative social movements, most centrally in queer and antiracist activism, but also fighting related systems of power: the excesses of capitalism, immigration border regimes, the prison-industrial complex. I was – and am – trying to build a better world, together with others.

Anger at injustice was our sword and our shield: it motivated us to act, and prevented us sinking into fear and despair. Sometimes we hurt ourselves, and each other. Gradually, as I’ve got older and wiser, I’ve put that  weapon down. I find myself fighting not capitalists, fascists, or police, but more insidious foes: cynicism, complacency, conformity. How to stay engaged with suffering without rage? Anger burns everything it touches.

At the same time, my Buddhist practice had been developing for almost a decade, to the point where it seemed to take on a life of its own. I had come along to the LBC in part to heal personal demons I didn’t know how to combat. It helped, but it felt selfish – abandoning social justice for my own happiness. I thought Buddhism was basically self-serving, but I’d misunderstood what the Buddhist vision really is. The commitment to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings is an ideal that fills me with inspiration and hope. Increasingly I felt drawn – wordlessly, urgently, joyfully – to commit my life to it.

Asking for ordination came at a price. Being ordained currently involves joining the ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ wing of the movement – so what do you do if you’re neither? Gender diverse, transmasculine, non-binary; even the words I could use to describe myself are often lost in translation. I hesitated for a long time. I couldn’t ask to join the order if it meant denying my own identity and experience, and that of so many of my loved ones – to do so would be a betrayal. I had to find a way to bring my whole, authentic self into the Order, or I couldn’t join at all.

In the end I went to Tiratnaloka, the women’s ordination training centre, to see if I could handle it, and if they could handle me. They could. It’s still a bit of a compromise, one I hope won’t compromise me. I found it helps to not take the labels ‘male’ or ‘female’ that seriously, regarding them as an approximation at best. I can hold them lightly, even irreverently, and don’t have to be one or other to belong. The order is made of the people who are in it – and one day, I will be one of them. And so things change.

I was finally able to commit myself when I understood the true nature of the spiritual community. It’s not a homogenous group to which I have to conform to be accepted, but a collective of individuals, united by a common aspiration and ideal.  More and more, it becomes clear that there doesn’t need to be a ‘them’ in order to be an ‘us’, and I have to act accordingly to this insight. We don’t have to agree in order to help each other grow, but knowing we’re interconnected helps us keep talking. There are creative, loving ways to deal with difference, with conflict, both within Triratna and in the world. I need to devote myself to a Buddhist life, with others, if I want to develop the wisdom, energy and positivity it will take to transform myself and the world at the same time – for as long as it takes, for all our sakes. ■

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