Photo/IllutrationPriests of the Chisan school of the Shingon sect learn about LGBT issues at a workshop held in Tokyo in November. (Takumi Okada)

  • Photo/Illustraion

For sexual minorities who are Buddhist, the struggles they face in their daily lives over their identity extend right up to the time of their death.

Buddhism, like other religious teachings, promises a posthumous life that is all about happiness and free of suffering.

But here's the rub.

In Buddhist tradition, when a person dies, a Dharma name called “kaimyo” is given by a priest, proof that the individual has become a disciple of Buddha in the Pure Land. The deceased is then known by that name beyond the grave.

The name comes with an honorific title that implies gender and age, and sometimes social and religious status. For example, “koji” and “doji” are given to adult males and males who are minors, respectively. Likewise, “daishi” and “dojo” are reserved for females. In some cases, “shinji” for male and “shinnyo” for female are used.

Kaimyo is usually pronounced in a priest’s chants at the funeral, and written with a calligraphy brush on the deceased’s mortuary tablet and stupa.

But what if your sex and gender identity don’t match? What should a priest do when a person was born a male but lived as a female, or when a person did not come out publicly as a sexual minority? Which box do you tick for, male or female?

This has resulted in a conundrum that Buddhist denominations are trying to address as they come face to face with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people confounded by the kaimyo practice.

Traditionally conservative-minded Buddhist priests are rising to the challenge.

The Chisan school of the Shingon sect hosted a workshop devoted to LGBT issues last November at a temple in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. Fifty or so priests attended to listen to Hideki Sunagawa, a 52-year-old anthropologist who makes no secret about being gay.

Sunagawa talked about the current state of LGBT people in the context of death and described the inconsolable grief that partners often experience:

When the love of your life is on the deathbed at a hospital, you refrain from entering the room out of consideration for your partner’s family and relatives. You attend the partner’s funeral as a "friend." You cannot be a pallbearer and carry the coffin, nor can you enter the crematorium and place your partner’s ashes in an urn.

“They have loved each other for a long time. Yet, they cannot spend that final moment of life together. Many people voluntarily step aside, not knowing what else to do,” Sunagawa said.

One priest asked at the workshop, “What should I do if someone says no to a kaimyo that can signify gender just by looking?”

Sunagawa advised the priest to give a kaimyo corresponding to the gender that the deceased chose to live by, rather than the one he or she was born with.

He also suggested that the priest should consult the family beforehand.

“There is no right answer,” Sunagawa told the priests in attendance. “I want you to deliver a message to LGBT people about how Buddhism offers support to them.”

Twenty or so priests of the Jodo sect of Buddhism, or Pure Land Buddhism, discussed LGBT issues at a workshop held in Kyoto Prefecture in 2017.

The priests exchanged opinions over a hypothetical situation as follows:

A person passes away. Only immediate family members are told that the person’s biological sex and self-identified gender did not match. Now the surviving family is uncertain which of the two genders should be chosen for the kaimyo. If the family respects the deceased’s gender identification and chooses it, relatives and friends would know about the long-held secret. Then, the afterlife name would become a source of new prejudice.

The priests could not reach a consensus on what to do.

In the Jodo Shinshu sect, or True Pure Land Buddhism, a Dharma name is called “homyo,” not kaimyo.

At the national congress of the sect’s Otani school held in June 2017, one priest expressed the view: “It’s time to reconsider the modality of homyo. The time is long gone when we apply the male-female binary way of thinking about it.”

Jodo Shu Research Institute published the results of research on LGBT issues in Buddhism in March 2018. According to the document, gender-specific names and titles have existed since the early days of Buddhism. For example, male live-in followers were called “biku” and female counterparts “bikuni.”

Female followers were obliged to follow stricter rules and restrictions than their male counterparts. It is not known exactly when it started, but kaimyo also became gender-specific.

The publication introduced new ideas and proposals, such as conducting a funeral service using an antemortem name, and creating a form of unisex kaimyo.

The Jodo and Soto sects remain undecided about what to do as a denomination. Some supporters of their temples have expressed the desire to receive the same honorary title as their parents. Others were concerned that as a kaimyo remains visible on the mortuary tablet and grave, they don't want to be the ones to make changes.

“There are LGBT people who have struggled with prejudice against sexual orientation and turn to Buddhism and temples for salvation,” said Kanae Kawamoto, an affiliated researcher in Buddhist studies at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.

“Each and every priest’s attitude is being put to the test to sincerely confront their sufferings,” said Kawamoto.

Shodo Koshima, an official involved with human rights in the Jodo sect, said: “In the teachings of Buddhism, each life is saved equally, regardless of gender. Feelings of one’s own and family members are important, and kaimyo should not be a source of renewed discrimination and prejudice. The world of Buddhism as a whole needs to ponder this issue.”