In twelve stanzas,
Shinen Wong explores the many influences on his development of a spiritual
consciousness from childhood until now, particularly in his Buddhist studies
and practice, along with his relationships with friends and loved ones of many
different religious and non-religious backgrounds.
name is Shinen. I was born in Malaysia, and I grew up in Singapore.
background is Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese and Peranakan.
All of these are ethnically and linguistically distinct dialect groups.
family and I moved to Singapore when I was three years old. I grew up with a
sense of myself as being both lumped into, as well as belonging to a racial
majority (Chinese), with all the privileges and sense of entitlement that
implied, in a nation whose founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was himself
knew I was gay from when I was a boy. We had just got the internet, and,
bleary-eyed and curious, I found myself typing in “penis” into the Lycos search
engine to find pictures of blue eyes and hard-ons and blonde hair, staring into
the camera and inviting me to hate my own body.
father is a lawyer and my mother is a scientist, both of whom were university-educated
in the United States of America. Both of them are atheists and rationalists. I
thought Christians were moronic, and that “God” was a ludicrous fairy tale
concept intended to keep people stupid, homophobic and hypocritical.
all, too many of the supposedly Christian boys in the all-boys Methodist school
were espousing values like love and forgiveness, while shoving me into lockers
and calling me faggot.
beyond victimhood, I started to sense myself as a Pariah, almost as if I were
Jesus Himself, amidst fools. I started having fantasies of submission, where
all the boys in my school would strip me naked in the canteen, spit on me, call
me horrible names, and I would be in a perfect state of equanimity, knowing
up in Singapore, I found Buddhist literature especially compelling… I would
read those free Buddhist booklets at Chinese vegetarian hawker stalls,
providing pithy words of advice for daily living. I found the words in these
booklets almost medicinal, grounding me in my own burgeoning and confusing
booklets also provided me with an alternative sense of my own “Chinese-ness.”
It was one which was linked to a trans-national consciousness… Buddhism: Beyond
borders, beyond the boundaries of my parochial, racist island-nation, far away
from the sense of guilt I would feel from never living up to Confucian
sensibilities of being filial.
might never have children.
university, I took a class on Mahayana Buddhist texts, which was taught by my
exceptional Japanese American professor Reiko Ohnuma, at Dartmouth College. It
was easily the only course at university where I did every single assigned
reading, skipping not one word, sometimes reading them twice over, with
extraordinarily detailed notes that I've held on to this day.
a scholarly perspective, Buddhism fascinated me, from its origins in India,
sprouting out of Vedic cosmology and concerns, with a quintessentially Indian
religious pedagogy: Lots of lists: The Four Sights of the Buddha (an old man, a
sick man, a corpse, a wandering mendicant), the Four Noble Truths, the Noble
Eightfold Path, the Eight Worldly Winds, and so on. All the way through its
various permutations through Tibet, China, Japan and Korea, and through Sri
Lanka and across the seas to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam...
Indeed, even in its so-called "Western" incarnations, often casting
Buddhism as a "science" or a "psychology" in order to
secularise it andcast it as distinct from “religion” per se, and to make it
more palatable to the atheist, rationalist West.
lists in Buddhism make a lot of sense in the transmission of Buddhism through
the ages as an originally oral tradition, only later becoming more textual…
There is a beautiful rhythm to remembering the details of the teachings of the
Buddha and his followers in this way.
I studied some of the early Sutras and Shastras, I would sometimes find myself
feeling subtle, strange, and pleasant energetic convulsions. Like something was
being unlocked in me... like some primordial, reptilian ancestor was awakening
in my body with a furious yawn.
started sitting with a Zen meditation group on campus, chasing after this sense
of relaxation and energy... but I soon became weary of how I was the only Asian
person in the group, with all the other White folks seeming a lot more at ease
than I was at chanting the Heart Sutra in old Japanese.
would smirk, and feel jealous at the same time.
I went on a “Diversity” retreat with a bunch of other students, to explore the
intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, and so on… I found
myself very attracted to a bisexual Episcopalian pastor who was also on the
retreat. He was barely a few years older than I was, and he had the most loving
smile… He was also the first Christian I’d ever met who didn’t either bore or
offend me with his theology. He was open about his sexuality, and was radiant
remember little of the details of our conversations during that retreat. But I
remember that smile, and the breath of his hefty body… I remember the love I
felt for him when I leaned on his shoulder on the bus for a nap on the way back
university, I tried to find work in San Francisco, but I found nothing that
would last… The life I had built for myself in the USA crumbled when I couldn’t
get an employment visa to stay. I arrived in Australia in June 2008 on my
permanent residency that my father had had the foresight to help me procure when
I was younger. When I landed, I was in a state of shock and dislocation, from a
San Francisco summer to a Melbourne winter.
I met one of my best friends in a Melbourne queer youth group. We bonded over
our shared explorations of sexual identity, spirituality, and religion.
Frankly, I had never really had many close Muslim friends before him growing up,
except mostly polite acquaintances and those who were a part of the gang of
kids who bullied me at school.
many of us in the English-speaking world today think of Buddhism and Islam, we
may hold in our minds images of the Dalai Lama and Osama bin Laden.
Buddhists I know are not like the Dalai Lama. And most Muslims I know are not
like Osama bin Laden.
especially violent nor especially enlightened, my friend and I saw in each
other an admittedly exoticised, yet common humanity and spiritual curiosity,
which could not be boxed into our religious identities. Co-sojourners, rooted
in our religious heritage, and yet fully aware of needing to move beyond their
limitations, we have asked: How might we grow together?
I am 28, and I feel pensive.
here my fingers go, typing away at my keyboard in arrogant, amateur
speculation, wondering: Where is heaven? Enlightenment? Where is Buddha, where
is Jesus, where is Rumi? Where are they now, all these lost prophets of eons
whisper ancient wisdom and poetry to my hungry, tired ears… my mind blitzed out
by gay personals and Facebook profiles, reeking of chronic loneliness and
creative potential. My story is but one story; neither Divinely-inspired nor
apart from what has already been ordained… it is a story never completed, wary
of being bogged down by the fetter of dogmatic Certainty.
day brings with it new discoveries, new opportunities for adventure, learning
and grace. My journey through spirituality has simultaneously been an
exploration of nationality, ethnicity, and support in my sexuality; all these,
Beloved, now: A sweet, gorgeous, Catholic bear of a man. Outspoken in his
criticism of the abuses of the Church, and yet deeply connected to his sense of
God, ever-present in his life in community. He works for the Melbourne branch
of an international, originally Catholic organisation where people with and
without intellectual and developmental disabilities share a communal life.
I will not tell his story, for his is not mine, here, to tell...
will share only what he has taught me: That in the glorious and hard work of
relationship with others and in community, we may find grace, or God, our
deepest wellsprings of Love, our capacity for forgiveness, sorrow, learning, or
indeed, our own Enlightened nature...
am no different from the bullies at school, in my own lust to punish those I've
seen more vulnerable than me.
am no different from my professor at university, in my own capacity to teach
what I have been taught to those who may want to learn.
am no different from the Episcopalian pastor, when I have lent my own shoulder
to others to rest upon.
am no different from the White kids in meditation group, in my own sense of
entitlement to my body, space, and walking in the world, my own entitlement to
learning and meditation, and in my own yearning that this be available to all.
am no different from the Dalai Lama, in my capacity for humility and wisdom,
nor from Osama bin Laden, in my capacity for vengeance, and wrathful victimhood.
am no different from my own Beloved, in my own capacity to love my body, to
hold myself accountable for wrongdoing or my insensitivities, to forgive, to see
myself with fresh eyes, to want the best for my life, to wish myself and others
the ending of our pain and suffering, and in my own capacity for grace in
are my dozen stanzas, in prose, of a story still being written.
Shinen Wong is a
health educator and writer. He has a B.A. in Gender Studies from Dartmouth
College and a Graduate Diploma in Buddhist Studies from the University of
Sydney. He has written informally and professionally on sexuality, gender,
race, social justice, health, comparative religion, adult development and
politics for a variety of different online and analog publications. He loves
bicycles, tattoos, and hot chocolate. Shinen lives in Melbourne, Australia.