Avalokitesvara at The 21st Street Baths

by Toby Johnson


One night in the late 1970s, I checked into the 21st Street Baths a few blocks from my San Francisco Noe Valley apartment. Within five minutes I felt I'd made a mistake. Nobody looked attractive to me and nobody seemed to find me attractive. There was only one young man I was interested in and he didn't pay any notice of me.

I watched TV awhile, delaying in case somebody else might show up. I wondered why I'd come. Earlier I'd been feeling lonely. I really need to be touched, I'd said to myself. I could still feel the neediness all through my chest and shoulders. I wasn't ready to leave yet.

I went into one of the common rooms upstairs. It was a large dark space with cushioned platforms around the walls. As I made my way into the darkness, a hand reached out and touched me on the thigh. I looked, but could not see who was there. I automatically resisted. What if I were being groped by some unattractive troll?

Well, no wonder you're lonely, I said to myself. If anybody chooses you, you reflexively assume you wouldn't want them. You're caught in the webs of karma: getting rejected because you reject others.

As my eyes adjusted, I saw it was the young man I'd noticed earlier. I moved closer. We started in on the kind of impersonal play that goes on in the orgy room at a bathhouse, but then soon changed tempo. We lay down on the platform, side by side, facing each other, holding one another tenderly. Innocently violating the stolid silence, the young man introduced himself to me as Jim. He said, "You seem sad," and asked how I was doing.

Surprised by the opportunity for communication, wanting more from this meeting than just an ejaculation--and sensing the openness on Jim's part, I told him about my earlier loneliness and about my disappointment with the baths as any sort of remedy. Jim listened carefully. Occasionally he murmured or squeezed me warmly to let me know he was paying attention.

Surprising myself with the depth of honesty I displayed, I started talking about my spiritual life. I told him about my past as a Catholic seminarian and my conversion, by way of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell to a kind of New Age Buddhism. I recounted several major spiritual experiences in my life, acknowleding that I found the clash between my spirituality and my liberated gay sexuality somewhat confusing.

We lay together in an embrace that was not entirely sexual, but was not unsexual either. We occasionally shifted in one another's arms sliding slowly against each other to renew the touch. I felt his flesh, warm and slightly electric, against my chest. I felt our cocks lying full but not hard between us against our bellies.

He said he was a switchboard operator at Langley Porter, the psych hospital at U.C. San Francisco, but didn't say much else about himself--other than that he too struggled with joining his spirituality and his sexuality. He commended me on being spiritually inclined and coaxed me to talk some more.

I told him of my effort to live a good life, to be compassionate and sensitive to other people, to participate in my culture and in my society, to pursue a right livelihood as a gay counselor, to be politically and ecologically aware, to live responsibly, and not to cause harm or pain--to discover how to be a saint as a modern gay man. I told him about the sorrow that seemed to come to me, inspite of my good efforts, instead of joy.

Almost lecturing him, assuming he wouldn't know about such things, I explained how Buddhism teaches that all existence is sorrowful. I lamented the pang of sorrow I found in being gay--not from guilt, but from the frustration of seeing such sexual beauty all around me and feeling--on the ego level--inadequate to participate, but beyond that--on some metaphysical level--simply unable to possess it all.

"So many men, so little time," he rejoined jokingly with one of the war cries of the Sexual Revolution.

"Yes, but on a much deeper level," I replied. "It's like I want to be everybody and know their lives from inside, feel their flesh as my own."

I told Jim about my obsession with a particular Mahayana Buddhist myth. "The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was this enlightened being who chose to renounce nirvana and remain within the cycles of reincarnation," I explained. "Out of generosity, he vowed to take upon himself the suffering of the world in order to bring all beings to nirvana with him. He's a world savior, a little like Jesus." I cited the John and Mimi Fariña folk song "Pack Up Your Sorrows" as an example of this myth: "If somehow you could pack up your sorrows and give them all to me, you would lose them; I know how to use them, give them all to me."

"When I first came across this story, maybe without realizing what I was doing," I confided, "in a burst of fervor I committed myself to this myth. I mean I made the bodhisattva's vow. Does that mean I'm doomed to suffer? And is the suffering a gay man gets these days the loneliness and isolation that comes with living in a sexually active environment, maybe getting sex but never quite finding the love, just the frustration and disappointment?" (This was in the 1970s, before AIDS, and the metaphysical suffering of the gay community had not yet become physically manifest in sorrowful deaths all around us as it would a few years later.)

"Is this a holy way to live?" I asked plaintively.

"That's a pretty dismal interpretation of the story," Jim answered. "Isn't a better interpretation of that myth that since the bodhisattva took on everyone's incarnation, he is the One Being that is reincarnating. You can rejoice that he accepted your karma. You are him. You are everybody. The Being in you is the Being in everybody else. Embracing the suffering of the world doesn't mean being unhappy. It means deciding that everything is great just the way it is, that life is worth choosing--in spite of sorrow.

"The Bodhisattva took on the suffering of the world in order to transform it and save sentient beings from suffering, not to glorify suffering and get people to feel guilty about being happy and punish themselves. That sounds more like a Christian misinterpretation of the story than the bodhisattva wisdom."

I was surprised by his answer. "You know about the bodhisattva?" I asked quzzically.

"Yes, I know," Jim said, smiling enigmatically in the faint red light of the orgy room.

"You mean you know about Buddhism?"

"I mean, I know about accepting everyone's incarnations."

"You know about Avalokitesvara?"

Jim looked into my eyes with an oddly profound gaze. "I know I am Avalokitesvara," he said.

"You mean like we all are?" I answered.

"Like I am."

All of a sudden , to my dismay, I understood this man to be saying not simply that, like all beings, he was a manifestation of the Central Self that in Mahayana Buddhism is mythologized in the story of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, but that he was, in a unique way, a specific incarnation of that divine being.

I felt my world whirling out of control. I was in the presence of one of my most beloved of gods--right there in the flesh: Avalokitesvara holding me close, in the orgy room at the 21st Street Baths. A thrill of excitement, mystical wonder, bewilderment, and consolation coursed through me.

I experienced intentionally linking my soul with that of this other man, chakra by chakra. I felt an enormous rush of energy pouring through me--body and soul. In a certain way you could say I was falling in love and feeling love's joy.

My head was spinning. I seemed to have entered into some truly "underworld" state in which the gods took on real flesh. I wondered if I'd gotten delusional. I wondered if we were both just playing a game with one another, spinning out the implications of a mythology we both happened to know about.. Maybe he was just another stoned hippie like me carrying on with all this new age stuff.

What did it matter? I asked myself. Whatever was happening, it certainly was marvelous. Far more than just having found somebody to have sex with. This wasn't even exactly "sex," but it was fully satisfying of the loneliness I'd felt earlier. Whoever he was, he was manifesting the bodhisattva truth. What did it matter?

Almost as if addressing my bewilderment, Jim said, "Have faith."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"Faith that things are never totally true or totally false, faith that life won't destroy us, that nothing really matters because it's all okay." He laughed. "Live in the present. Don't try to possess the world, have faith in the world."

Then abruptly he announced, "It's time for me to be going now."

"Can I see you again?" I asked, already feeling bereft.

"Don't cling," he replied, in a way that sounded more like wisdom teaching than rejection.

A pang of loss struck me, but I understood the spiritual lesson to live in the present and not to be attached, to enjoy the joy I was feeling without trying to possess it.

The incident changed me. It affirmed my belief in a healthy spiritual life lived in the styles of modern gay culture. It caused me afterwards to take time in gay settings to bless the other men and women, wishing grace for them, perceiving them as manifestations of the One Being, intending for them that they also discover their god manifesting to them in the form of another gay person to show them love and bring them joy.


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