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Buddhism 101: The Tibetan Wheel of Life

The Bhavachakra is a Tibetan Buddhist representation of the “wheel of life,” or cycle of existence. MarenYumi/Flickr

The rich iconography of the Wheel of Life can be interpreted on several levels. The six major sections represent the Six Realms. These realms can be understood as forms of existence, or states of mind, into which beings are born according to their karma. The realms also can be viewed as situations in life or even personality types—hungry ghosts are addicts; devas are privileged; hell beings have anger issues.

In each of the realms, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara appears to show the way to liberation from the Wheel. But liberation is possible only in the human realm. From there, those who realize enlightenment find their way out of the Wheel to Nirvana.

The gallery shows sections of the Wheel and explains them in more detail.

The Wheel of Life is one of the most common subjects of Buddhist art. The detailed symbolism of the Wheel can be interpreted on many levels.

The Wheel of Life (called the Bhavachakra in Sanskrit) represents the cycle of birth and rebirth and existence in samsara.

This gallery looks at different parts of the Wheel and explains what they mean. The main sections are the hub and the six “pie wedges” depicting the Six Realms. The gallery also looks at the Buddha figures in the corners and at Yama, the fearsome creature holding the Wheel in his hooves.

Many Buddhists understand the Wheel in an allegorical, not literal, way. As you examine the parts of the wheel you might find yourself relating to some of it personally or recognizing people you know as Jealous Gods or Hell Beings or Hungry Ghosts.

The outer circle of the Wheel (not shown in detail in this gallery) is the Paticca Samuppada, the Links of Dependent Origination. Traditionally, the outer wheel depicts a blind man or woman (representing ignorance); potters (formation); a monkey (consciousness); two men in a boat (mind and body); a house with six windows (the senses); an embracing couple (contact); an eye pierced by an arrow (sensation); a person drinking (thirst); a man gathering fruit (grasping); a couple making love (becoming); a woman giving birth (birth); and a man carrying a corpse (death).

Yama, Lord of the Underworld

The Wrathful Dharmapala of Hell Yama, Lord of the Underworld, represents death and holds the wheel in his hooves. MarenYumi/Flickr

The creature holding the Wheel of Life in his hooves is Yama, the wrathful dharmapala who is Lord of the Hell Realm.

The terrible face of Yama, who represents impermanence, peers over the top of the Wheel. In spite of his appearance, Yama is not evil. He is a wrathful dharmapala, a creature devoted to protecting Buddhism and Buddhists. Although we may be frightened of death, it is not evil; just inevitable.

In legend, Yama was a holy man who believed he would realize enlightenment if he meditated in a cave for 50 years. In the 11th month of the 49th year, robbers entered the cave with a stolen bull and cut off the bull’s head. When they realized the holy man had seen them, the robbers cut off his head also.

But the holy man put on the bull’s head and assumed the terrible form of Yama. He killed the robbers, drank their blood, and threatened all of Tibet. He could not be stopped until Manjushri, Bodhisattva of Wisdom, manifested as the even more terrible dharmapala Yamantaka and defeated Yama. Yama then became a protector of Buddhism.

The Realm of the Gods

Being a God Isn’t Perfect The Realm of the Gods of the Bhavachakra. MarenYumi/Flickr

The Realm of the Gods (Devas) is the highest realm of the Wheel of Life and is always depicted at the top of the Wheel.

The Realm of the Gods (Devas) sounds like a nice place to live. And, no question, you can do a lot worse. But even the Realm of the Gods isn’t perfect. Those born in the God Realm live long and pleasure-filled lives. They have wealth and power and happiness. So what’s the catch?

The catch is that because the Devas have such rich and happy lives they don’t recognize the truth of suffering. Their happiness is, in a way, a curse, because they have no motivation to seek liberation from the Wheel. Eventually, their happy lives end, and they must face rebirth in another, less happy, realm.

The Devas are perpetually at war with their neighbors on the Wheel, the Asuras. This depiction of the Wheel shows the Devas charging the Asuras.

The Realm of Asuras

Jealous Gods and Paranoia The Realm of Asuras, also called Jealous Gods or Titans. MarenYumi/Flickr

The Asura (Jealous God) Realm is marked by paranoia.

Asuras are hyper-competitive and paranoid. They are driven by a desire to beat their competition, and everyone is competition. They have power and resources and sometimes accomplish good things with them. But, always, their first priority is getting to the top. I think of powerful politicians or corporate leaders when I think of Asuras.

Chih-i (538-597), a patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school, described the Asura this way: “Always desiring to be superior to others, having no patience for inferiors and belittling strangers; like a hawk, flying high above and looking down on others, and yet outwardly displaying justice, worship, wisdom, and faith — this is raising up the lowest order of good and walking the way of the Asuras.”

Asuras, who are also called “anti-gods,” are perpetually at war with the Devas of the God Realm. Asuras think they belong in the God Realm and fight to get in, although here it seems the Asuras have formed a line of defense and are fighting the attacking Devas with bows and arrows. Some depictions of the Wheel of Life combine the Asura and God realms into one.

Sometimes there is a beautiful tree growing between the two realms, with its roots and trunk in the Asura Realm. But its branches and fruit are in the God Realm.

The Realm of Hungry Ghosts

Craving That Can Never Be Satisfied The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. MarenYumi/Flickr

Hungry Ghosts have huge, empty stomachs, but their thin necks don’t allow nourishment to pass. Food turns to fire and ash in their mouths.

Hungry Ghosts (Pretas) are pitable things. They are wasted creatures with huge, empty stomachs. Their necks are too thin to allow food to pass. So, they are constantly hungry.

Greed and jealousy lead to rebirth as a Hungry Ghost. The Hungry Ghost Realm often, but not always, is depicted between the Asura Realm and the Hell Realm. It is thought the karma of their lives was not quite bad enough for a rebirth in the Hell Realm but not good enough for the Asura Realm.

Psychologically, Hungry Ghosts are associated with addictions, compulsions and obsessions. People who have everything but always want more may be Hungry Ghosts.

The Hell Realm

Fire and Ice The Hell Realm of the Wheel of Life. MarenYumi/Flickr

The Hell Realm is marked by anger, terror and claustrophobia.

The Hell Realm is depicted as a place partly of fire and partly of ice. In the fiery part of the realm, Hell Beings (Narakas) are subjected to pain and torment. In the icy part, they are frozen.

Interpreted psychologically, Hell Beings are recognized by their acute aggression. Fiery Hell Beings are angry and abusive, and they drive away anyone who would befriend or love them. Icy Hell Beings shove others away with their unfeeling coldness. Then, in the torment of their isolation, their aggression increasingly turns inward, and they become self-destructive.

The Animal Realm

No Sense of Humor The Animal Realm of the Wheel of Life. MarenYumi/Flickr

Animal Beings (Tiryakas) are solid, regular and predictable. They cling to what is familiar and are disinterested, even fearful, of anything unfamiliar.

The Animal Realm is marked by ignorance and complacency. Animal Beings are stolidly un-curious and are repelled by anything unfamiliar. They go through life seeking comfort and avoiding discomfort. They have no sense of humor.

Animal Beings may find contentment, but they easily become fearful when placed in a new situation. Naturally, they are bigoted and likely to remain so. At the same time, they are subject to oppression by other beings — animals do devour each other, you know.

The Human Realm

The Hope of Liberation The human realm of the Wheel of Life. MarenYumi/Flickr

Liberation from the Wheel is possible only from the Human Realm.

The Human Realm is marked by questioning and curiosity. It is also a realm of passion; human beings (Manushyas) want to strive, consume, acquire, enjoy, explore. Here the Dharma is openly available, yet only a few seek it. The rest become caught up in striving, consuming and acquiring, and miss the opportunity.

The Center

What Makes the Wheel Turn The center of the Wheel of Life. MarenYumi/Flickr

At the center of the Wheel of Life are the forces that keep it turning — greed, anger and ignorance.

At the center of every Wheel of Life are a cock, a snake and a pig, which represent greed, anger and ignorance. In Buddhism, greed, anger (or hate) and ignorance are called the “Three Poisons” because they poison whoever harbors them. These are the forces that keep the Wheel of Life turning, according to the Buddha’s teaching of the Second Noble Truth.

The circle outside the center, which is sometimes missing in depictions of the Wheel, is called the Sidpa Bardo, or intermediate state. It is also sometimes called the White Path and the Dark Path. On one side, bodhisattvas guide beings to rebirths in the higher realms of Devas, Gods and Humans. On the other, demons lead beings to the lower realms of Hungry Ghosts, Hell Beings and Animals.

The Buddha

The Dharmakaya Buddha The Buddha. MarenYumi/Flickr

In the upper right-hand corner of the Wheel of Life, the Buddha appears, representing hope for liberation.

In many depictions of the Wheel of Life, the figure in the upper right-hand corner is a Dharmakaya Buddha. The dharmakaya is sometimes called the Truth Body or the Dharma Body and is identified with shunyata. Dharmakaya is everything, unmanifested, free of characteristics and distinctions.

Often this Buddha is shown pointing to the moon, which represents enlightenment. However, in this version the Buddha stands with his hands raised, as if in blessing.

The Door to Nirvana

The upper left-hand corner of a Bhavachakra is filled with a scene or symbol representing liberation from the Wheel. MarenYumi/Flickr

This depiction of the Wheel of Life shows the entry to Nirvana in the upper left-hand corner.

In the upper left-hand corner of this depiction of the Wheel of Life is a temple with a seated Buddha. A stream of beings rise from the Human Realms toward the temple, which represents Nirvana. Artists creating a Wheel of Life fill this corner in various ways. Sometimes the upper left-hand figure is a Nirmanakaya Buddha, representing bliss. Sometimes the artist paints a moon, which symbolizes liberation.


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “The Wheel of Life.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020,

Gay History: Student Homophile League at Earl Hall, Columbia University


The Student Homophile League, the first gay student organization in the country, was founded at Columbia University in 1966 and held many of its activities in Earl Hall.

In 1970, the group became the more activist Gay People at Columbia (also known as Gay People at Columbia-Barnard), which sponsored a series of popular Friday-night dances in Earl Hall’s auditorium.

In 1971, gay students established a gay lounge in Furnald Hall, which is now known as the Stephen Donaldson Queer Lounge.

Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.


In 1966, Columbia University became the first collegiate institution in the United States, and possibly the first in the world, with an LGBT student group. In the fall of that year, bisexual sophomore Robert Martin (using the pseudonym Stephen Donaldson) founded the Student Homophile League (SHL) following a meeting with Columbia and Barnard representatives, religious advisers, and two of the most important national leaders for gay and lesbian rights, Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

The small student group had the support of the university chaplain and, thus, gained space in Earl Hall, the center of student religious life. The university officially recognized the group in April 1967 with the stipulation that it not organize social events. A subsequent front page article in the New York Times resulted in outrage from hundreds of alumni and negative editorials in many newspapers; one alum wrote “Tolerance has its limits. Let the pansies go elsewhere.” The SHL sponsored lectures, held “rap sessions” about homosexuality on dorm floors, and advocated for the acceptance of homosexuals in society in generally, with specific emphasis on ending discrimination in the military and the psychiatric community.

By 1970, Columbia’s gay student group had become the more activist Gay People at Columbia (also known as Gay People at Columbia-Barnard), which sought to “present as complete a view as possible of the contemporary gay experience: socially, educationally and politically.” Its most popular activity was monthly Friday-night dances, beginning in 1970, held in the auditorium on the third floor of Earl Hall, which welcomed the entire gay and lesbian community of New York. The dances reached their peak popularity in the 1980s and were especially popular with those who enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere that contrasted with the clubs and bars downtown. The group still exists as the Columbia Queer Alliance (CQA) and hosts “First Friday” dance events in Alfred Lerner Hall.

In 1971, gay students, led by Morty Manford (later the head of the Gay Activists Alliance and son of PFLAG founder Jeanne Manford), requested space for a gay lounge. Although denied permission by the university, the group took over an unused space in the basement of the Furnald Hall dormitory. The lounge eventually was recognized by the university and the space is still in use, now known as the Stephen Donaldson Queer Lounge.

In March 2018, the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project successfully nominated Earl Hall to the National Register of Historic Places, following its listing on the New York State Register in January 2018. The nomination is available in the “Read More” section below.


  • Student Homophile League at Earl Hall, Columbia University ,Student Homophile League at Earl Hall, Columbia University,

Weird Tales from My Year on Gay Dating Apps

I learned what “racial play” is and had a rather shitty experience with a “straight” guy who was into having sex with men.


After breaking up with a boyfriend in 2011, I wanted to explore online dating and give being single in Toronto a shot before jumping into anything serious. Unfortunately for me, I soon realized that the gay dating world came with its own set of rules, most of which are pretty weird and somewhat racist. Race, body shaming, identity politics, and masculinity seemed to come up a lot and eventually I just said “fuck it” and deleted every dating site I was on. I needed a break. I needed to hear something other than “looking for whites only” or “straight-acting only.” It got to a point where I felt shitty about wanting to get laid and needed give the online thing a rest.

In 2013, I came out of “online dating retirement” and decided to explore it again. Every so often I’d hear my friends gush about all the great dates and hot sex they were having on Grindr and Scruff. It took a lot of convincing, but I gave a few of these apps a shot. I downloaded both Grindr and Scruff and immediately starting messaging people. 

Throughout that year, there were a few really nice conversations that didn’t really go anywhere, the occasional good ass and/or dick pics, and an older couple in their 80s that always messaged me in Spanish. But aside from that, the string of weird encounters just got worse every time. In January, I finally deleted all the apps and have sworn off online dating and hookups for good. But it wasn’t all for nothing. Below, you’ll find three stories that I’ll probably never forget.

Picture Tag Gone Wrong

Around Thanksgiving last year, I got a message from an Irish guy visiting the city for a few weeks. I chatted him up about all things Ireland and told him about a trip I was planning for spring 2016. The vibe was friendly for the first few days, and then he wanted to see some pics, which I was more than willing to share. I sent a face pic to start and he sent one back. He was a bald, rugged, bearded man with green eyes. Suffice to say the dude was really hot and definitely checked off a few boxes in the “my type” department.

We talked for a week and he eventually asked me if I had a dick pic. I sent the most recent one and waited for him to send something back. Two hours later he sends a pic, but it’s not of a body part or another sexy face pic, it’s a picture of him and his sister with the caption “hot pic.” I wasn’t sure if this was a mistake or a joke, but I decided to just brush it off and send another dick pic. He then responded with a picture of him smiling with his grandmother, saying nothing else. 

Two days later he messaged me to ask what I was doing. I told him I was just enjoying my day off and asked him what he had planned for the day. He then sent a picture of his spread asshole dripping with cum, a picture of him and his dog, and then a picture of him having family dinner, again saying nothing else. At this point, I wasn’t even mad or upset. The dude clearly wasn’t serious. That or he had a fucked-up sense of humor. 

As funny as the whole thing was, I decided to stop communicating with him entirely. I often wonder what a dripping asshole, playing with your dog, and eating dinner with your family could be code for, but I guess I’ll ever know.

“Racial Play”
I messaged a guy after work one day just to see if he’d reply. He messaged me back and said he comes to Toronto for work every day and wondered if we could hook up later that evening. I told him we should drink a few beers at my place and see where it goes. He came over around 10:30 PM, and made a few weird comments about the beer we were drinking, calling it “hipster beer.” That sort of turned me off, but I decided not to read too much into it. 

I wasn’t expecting things to heat up after the weird beer comment, but after six beers we just went for it and started making out. Before things escalated, he stopped me and said he needed to tell me something. I remember being puzzled and asking what was wrong. He told me he was into a few kinks, but didn’t know how to talk about them. Fetish is always an awkward subject for people, but I assured him I wasn’t easily weirded out. He looked extremely flustered and scared to say it, but after about five minutes of circling around the big confession, he sheepishly blurted out that he was into “racial play.”

I kind of giggled and then looked at him again. At that moment I realized he was being serious and took a deep breath because, as a black man and a human being, the whole thing had just thrown me off. Solely based on curiosity, I asked him exactly what this type of roleplay scene would entail. It scared me to imagine where this conversation was going to go, but I still couldn’t quite process what I just heard. I’ve done some weird shit, but this whole thing was fucked up and I didn’t understand what turned him on about it exactly. He asked me if I was mad that he was into that. I told him no because I actually wasn’t pissed at all. After having another beer he got into the finer details of how a “racial play” scene would go down.

According to him, a play scene would involve me in a cage, getting choked with his dick, while he spits on me and calls me nigger a few times. He assured me that while it was a lot to handle, it was actually a pretty popular fetish. It’s just something that nobody talks about. I looked at him, extremely puzzled after that statement. He stood, confident in his belief that was an acceptable thing to get off to, and it took a minute for me to figure out the best way to respond. Wanting to end this interaction on a peaceful note, I told him that while I respect his honesty, the thought of a man getting off to calling me racial slurs and performing violent sex acts on me was enough to make me want to commit murder.

When I said that he laughed it off, but once he saw the expression on my face, I could tell he knew it was probably in his best interest to call it a night. After he left I Googled “racial play” and found a lot of crazy shit, most of which I wish I could unsee. There are certain thoughts and images that linger in the subconscious and lead us to the fetishes we have. I think most things are fair game, but if me picking cotton gets you horny, there probably won’t be a second date.

Runaway Cucumber
One of the first guys I met on Grindr was a university student who had just moved to Toronto for school. During our first hangout we drank a few beers and talked about Toronto, which was a nice change from the usual in-and-out hook up. We immediately hit it off and it turned into an ongoing thing. We met up for sex about twice a month for a couple of months. It was really low-key, which has awesome because I wasn’t after anything serious at the time.

One night he came over and dropped a bomb on me. Apparently he had a girlfriend, which was news to me. He said he wasn’t gay—he just met up with guys because his girlfriend wasn’t into anal play. This all seemed messy and complicated, so I told him we should cool it on the sex until he and his girlfriend had a serious conversation. It would be one thing if they were in an open relationship, but it seemed more like their lack of communication had led to him sneaking out to get fucked by guys behind her back. It just didn’t seem healthy for me to continue sleeping with him if that was the case.

He texted me out of the blue three months later, asking if we could meet. I had my reservations about it, but I decided to let him stop by and get an update on what was going on with him and his situation. He came over and immediately went for my crotch, but before I could let it go any further, I needed to ask what the status of his relationship was. Apparently he had broken up with his girlfriend and was exclusively fucking guys. The way he talked about these new relationships was very strange. He maintained that he was still straight, but just really loved bottoming and couldn’t get enough.

We proceeded to play around a bit and eventually I was fucking him. I don’t know if fate was punishing me for allowing my thirst to blind me from the obvious mess of a situation this was, but ten minutes into it I’d felt something wet go down my leg. Let’s just say that he wasn’t ready to bottom and by the time I stopped the evidence of that was all over my bed.

When you’re having butt sex, there’s always the slight possibility of a little shit, but this was literally a shit storm. He felt really bad and I didn’t want to make a big deal about it, so I said we should just shower and call it a night. I let him go first so I could throw away the sheets and after he got out I went in to get myself cleaned up. When I walked out of the shower, what I saw him doing brought new meaning to the phrase “by any means necessary.” I stood quietly by the door and watched as he began squatting down on a cucumber from my fridge, trying to fuck himself with it. He was jerking off and heavily breathing as he attempted to fit the entire cucumber up his ass.

After a minute or so, I purposely slammed the bathroom door and he freaked out when he saw me standing there. He could tell I was pissed and he kept trying to avoid eye contact. I asked him what he was doing still naked, which left him stuttering as he tried to make up a good excuse. I snatched the cucumber out of his hand and asked him to put on his clothes while I finished getting dressed in the bathroom. 

After we were both dressed I walked him out of my apartment and told him he shouldn’t contact me again. I didn’t want to be an asshole, but between his first lie about the girlfriend and the shit-stained bed I had to throw out, I felt like the universe was trying to tell me this needed to end.

To make matters worse, when I went back into the house, I checked the fridge and the fucking cucumber was gone. I was short an ingredient for my next lunch. I ordered a new bed and went to buy groceries the next day. Thank you universe! I definitely got the message.


The Origin Of Humpty Dumpty

As you seem to have noticed, in the “Humpty Dumpty” nursery rhyme, nowhere does it say that Humpty is an egg, yet he is often presented as such in pictures and stories. The version of the rhyme that most children learn today goes like this:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

The first known publication of Humpty Dumpty was included in Juvenile Amusements by Samuel Arnold in 1797. In that version, the last lines read “Fourscore men and fourscore more / could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.” Over the next century, the rhyme appeared in numerous books with variations on the lyrics.

These publications did not include the first use of the term “humpty dumpty,” though. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “humpty dumpty” was first used in the 17th century and referred to brandy boiled with ale. In the 1700s, it was also a term used to describe a short, clumsy person. It has also been a nickname attributed to someone who has had too much alcohol (perhaps imbibing the drink of the same name).

As the popular nursery rhyme is neither a bottle of alcohol nor a person, it is most likely that the nursery rhyme was intended as a riddle. The answer to the riddle, of course, is “an egg”—something that, if it rolled off a wall, could not be mended by any number of people. Today, the answer is so well known that the character of Humpty Dumpty has taken on the appearance of an egg and the rhyme is not considered to be a riddle at all, but a story.

Because of this switch from “riddle” to “story”, many people today believe that there is more meaning to the nursery rhyme than is given in the lyrics. Perhaps, in this instance, we could take advice from Humpty Dumpty himself, as seen in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” People will always attribute more meaning to nursery rhymes than was initially intended.

Nursery rhymes are commonly linked to historical events, but it is difficult to prove that imagery in the nursery rhymes represents historical places and figures. Most modern rhymes, after all, are created with the intent of being silly, repetitive, and enjoyable for children to repeat rather than for their historical significance (think “Miss Mary Mack” and other clapping games).

Two of the most popular theories link Humpty Dumpty to two separate historical events. The first is the Fall of Colchester. During the English Civil War in 1648, the town of Colchester was under siege. Supposedly, a man named Jack Thompson was stationed on the walls with a cannon nicknamed “Humpty Dumpty.” Thompson and the cannon managed to do a lot of damage to the advancing Parliamentarian troops, until the cannon eventually tumbled to the ground. Given the size and weight of the cannon, the dozens of men who attempted to lift it back to its place on the wall were unable to do so. Eventually, Colchester was forced to open its gates and surrender. While the siege of Colchester did happen, it is unlikely that Humpty Dumpty refers to anything in the siege as it happened over a century before Humpty Dumpty was recorded and there is no documented connection between the two.

The other popular theory is that Humpty Dumpty represented King Richard III. , called the “humpbacked king”. (He supposedly was a hunchback, though recent evidence seems to indicate Shakespeare was wildly exaggerating on this point, with Richard actually apparently having scoliosis which made his right shoulder higher than the left, but otherwise no hunch).  In 1485, Richard III fought at the Battle of Bosworth. In this “humpty dumpty” origin story, it was said that either his horse was named “Wall” or his men, who abandoned him, were representative of the “wall.” Either way, the king fell off his horse and was supposedly hacked to pieces on the field—thus no one could put him together again. Several problems exist with this theory, the least of which being that the term “humpbacked” didn’t exist in King Richard’s day, nor for several centuries after. (The term “hunchback” also didn’t first pop up until the 18th century). Much more importantly was that the king’s remains were recently found largely intact save for a bludgeon to the head which probably killed him. Additionally, other than pure speculation, as in the previous “siege of Colchester” theory, no solid historical evidence has been found that shows that King Richard III was the inspiration for Humpty Dumpty.  And, indeed, one of the reasons it’s so often connected, because of the “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” bit, as noted, wasn’t even in the original version, being the more generic “fourscore men and fourscore more”.

The historical events that have been linked to “Humpty Dumpty” provide excellent stories, but are based on pure speculation. Given the actual evidence at hand, it is far more likely that Humpty Dumpty was not intended to be a story, but rather just a riddle posed to children for their amusement.  The answer to the riddle, as stated, is “an egg”, which is why Humpty Dumpty today is nearly always depicted as such.


Buddhism 101: The Five Dhyani Buddhas

Heavenly Guides to Spiritual Transformation

The Five Dhyani Buddhas are icons of Mahayana Buddhism. These transcendent Buddhas are visualized in tantric meditation and appear in Buddhist iconography.

The five Buddhas are Aksobhya, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi, Ratnasaṃbhava, and Vairocana. Each represents a different aspect of enlightened consciousness to aid in spiritual transformation.

Often in Vajrayana art, they are arranged in a mandala, with Vairocana in the center. The other Buddhas are depicted in each of the four directions (north, south, east, and west).

Each Dhyani Buddha has a specific color and symbol which represent his meanings and the purpose for meditating on him. Mudras, or hand gestures, are also used in Buddhist art to distinguish one Buddha from another and convey the appropriate teaching.

1. Akshobhya Buddha: “Immovable One”

The Immovable Buddha Akshobhya Buddha. MarenYumi /, Creative Commons License

Akshobhya was a monk who vowed never to feel anger or disgust toward another being. He was immovable in keeping this vow. After striving for a long period, he became a Buddha.

Akshobhya is a heavenly Buddha who reigns over the Eastern paradise, Abhirati. Those who fulfill Akshobhya’s vow are reborn in Abhirati and cannot fall back into lower states of consciousness.

It’s important to note that the directional ‘paradises’ are understood to be a state of mind, not physical places.

Depictions of Akshobhya

In Buddhist iconography, Akshobhya is usually blue though sometimes gold. He is most often pictured touching the earth with his right hand. This is the earth-touching mudra, which is the gesture used by the historical Buddha when he asked the earth to bear witness to his enlightenment.

In his left hand, Akshobhya holds a vajra, the symbol of shunyata — an absolute reality that is all things and beings, unmanifested. Akshobhya is also associated with the fifth skandha, consciousness.

In Buddhist tantra, evoking Akshobhya in meditation helps overcome anger and hatred.

2. Amitabha Buddha: “Infinite Light”

Buddha of Boundless Light Amitabha Buddha. MarenYumi /, Creative Commons License

Amitabha Buddha, who is also called Amita or Amida Buddha, is probably the best known of the Dhyani Buddhas. In particular, devotion to Amitabha is at the center of Pure Land Buddhism, one of the largest schools of Mahayana Buddhism in Asia.

In a long-ago time, Amitabha was a king who renounced his kingdom to become a monk. Called Dharmakara Bodhisattva, the monk practiced diligently for five eons and realized enlightenment and became a buddha.

Amitabha Buddha reigns over Sukhavati (the Western paradise) which is also called the Pure Land. Those reborn in the Pure Land experience the joy of hearing Amitabha teach the dharma until they are ready to enter Nirvana.

Depictions of Amitabha

Amitabha symbolizes mercy and wisdom. He is associated with the third skandha, that of perception. Tantric meditation on Amitabha is an antidote to desire. He is sometimes pictured in between the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta.

In Buddhist iconography, Amitabha’s hands are most often in a meditation mudra: fingers barely touching and gently folded over the lap with palms facing upward. His red color symbolizes love and compassion and his symbol is the lotus, representing gentleness and purity.

3. Amoghasiddhi Buddha: “Almighty Conqueror”

The Buddha Who Unerringly Achieves His Goal Amoghasiddhi Buddha. MarenYumi /, Creative Commons License

In the “Bardo Thodol” — the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” — Amoghasiddhi Buddha appears to represent the accomplishment of all action. His name means ‘Infalliable Success” and his consort is the well-known Green Tara, in the ‘Noble Deliverer.’

Amoghasiddhi Buddha reigns in the North and is associated with the fourth skandha, volition or mental formations. This can also be interpreted as impulses, which is strongly associated with action. Meditation on Amoghasiddhi Buddha vanquishes envy and jealousy, two often impulsive actions. 

Depictions of Amoghasiddhi

Amoghasiddhi is most often depicted in Buddhist iconography as radiating a green light, which is the light of accomplishing wisdom and promoting peace. His hand gesture is the mudra of fearlessness: his right hand in front of his chest and palm facing outward as if to say ‘stop.’

He holds a crossed vajra, also called a double dorje or the thunderbolt. This represents accomplishment and fulfillment in all directions.

4. Ratnasambhava Buddha: “Jewel-Born One”

The Jewel-Born One Ratnasambhava Buddha. MarenYumi /, Creative Commons License

Ratnasambhava Buddha represents richness. His name translates to “Origin of Jewel” or the “Jewel-Born One.” In Buddhism, the Three Jewels are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha and Ratnasambhava is often thought of as the giving Buddha.

He reigns in the South and is associated with the second skandha, sensation. Meditation on Ratnasambhava Buddha vanquishes pride and greed, focusing instead on equality.

Depictions of Ratnasambhava

Ratnasambhava Buddha has a yellow color which symbolizes earth and fertility in Buddhist iconography. He often holds a wish-fulfilling jewel.  

He holds his hands in the wish-fulfilling mudra: his right hand facing down and the palm outward and his left in the mudra of meditation. This symbolizes generosity.

5. Vairocana Buddha: “Embodiment of Light”

He Who Is Like the Sun Vairocana Buddha. MarenYumi /, Creative Commons License

Vairocana Buddha is sometimes called the primordial Buddha or Supreme Buddha. He is thought to be the embodiment of all the Dhyani Buddhas; also everything and everywhere, omnipresent and omniscient.

He represents the wisdom of shunyata, or emptiness. Vairocana is considered a personification of the dharmakaya — everything, unmanifested, free of characteristics and distinctions.

He is associated with the first skandha, form. Meditation on Vairocana vanquishes ignorance and delusion, leading to wisdom.

Depictions of Vairocana

When the Dhyani Buddhas are pictured together in a mandala, Vairocana is at the center. 

Vairocana is white, representing all colors of light and all the Buddhas. His symbol is the Dharma wheel, which, at its most basic, represents the study of the dharma, practice through meditation, and moral discipline.

His hand gesture is known as the Dharmachakra mudra and is often reserved for the iconography of either Vairocana or the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. The mudra represents the turning of the wheel and places the hands so that the thumbs and index fingers touch at the tips to form a wheel.


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “The Five Dhyani Buddhas.” Learn Religions, Jan. 29, 2020,

Gay History: More Than Words: Gay Pt. 1 — We’re Going Gay

“Gay” was the first queer word I ever learned, and the first queer thing I ever called myself.  Something about “lesbian” didn’t sit right with me, and I wasn’t yet aware of reclamation, of the bright side of pejoratives — the spark that happens when you turn a weapon on itself. Plus I liked the sneakiness. Gay meant happy, right? You could claim it while admitting nothing. It was a rainbow dream mask.

But even before it got the rest of its colors, this word blushed. Pleasure, joy, and other gaieties are perpetually societally fraught, and gay has the scars to prove it — it’s been punned on, leaned on, worn proudly, hidden behind, argued over, and ping-ponged across the net of respectability ever since it was invented. If words could break, gay might have a long time ago. Luckily it bent instead. Here’s the beginning of how it happened.

The most common etymology of the word “gay” has it rooted in the Proto-Indo-European root *gey- (“to go”). This evolved into *gheng- (“to stride”) which became the Proto-Germanic *ganhaz/*ganhwaz (“sudden”), and then the Old High German gahi (“quick, impulsive”). The move to Old French jai (“merry”) brought the recognizable definition and a nice modern jauntiness. Jai became gai likely due to the influence of Gothic gaheis (“impetuous”), and soon we had the Middle English gay, direct ancestor of the word we use today.

Easy enough — except that etymology is an inexact science based on barely traceable exchanges that took place thousands of years ago, so not everyone agrees on what happened. Anatoly Liberman has an alternate theory that roots gay in Old High German wahi (“shining”/”beautiful”), based on a g/w interchangibility that we see borne out in word pairs like “guardian” and “warden,” or “guerrilla” and “war.” But he’s even more attached to a different explanation from the 19th century master Frank Chance. An “excellent etymologist, now almost forgotten,” Chance used to publish almost exclusively in Notes and Queries, a quarterly where scholars and hobbyists traded notes and asked each other questions — kind of like an early Formspring, but for linguistics and lexicography. In an 1861 Note, Chance took on “gay” via an analogy to the French gaîne, or “sheath,” which comes from the Latin vagina, also “sheath” (and also your bonus etymology-of-the-day).


“The g in gaîne,” Chance explains, “corresponds to the v in vagina… In a similar way, I think, our adjective “gay” might be readily deduced from the Latin vagus, or perhaps from the corresponding Italian vago, which means both wandering, roaming, and pleasant, agreeable.” About a century and a third later, German linguist Harri Meier added some evidence to the pile, listing Italian cognates like svagarsi (“amuse oneself”) and svago (“diversion”).

I have also become attached to this theory, not only because it’s more fun, but also because it means that the start of  gay’s backstory involves a gradual influx of positive feeling — what semantician Stephen Ullman calls an “amelioration of meaning.”  As Liberman points out, the Latin vagus often meant “flighty” or “frivolous,” which, though not the worst possible things to call someone, aren’t as sunshiney as the merriment and joie de vivre implied by “gay” — see, for example, Propertius’s Elegy V, in which a “vagis puellis” is compared negatively to Cynthia, a “docta puella” or “learned girl,” and Propertius’s perpetual muse.  So somewhere over the course of its initial leap into English, gay enjoyed a rise in reputation — a fine beginning for a word that would spend the rest of its life undergoing a roller coaster ride of semantic shifts.

“Gay” first hit paper in 1325, in a transcription of a Middle English song called “Blow, Northerne Wynd.” When I started reading it, I thought it was about how the narrator would brave the northern wind to get to his beloved, who is described as semly and menskful and lossom (“seemly,” “worshipful,” and “lovely,” if you prefer boring new English words). But in the end, he’s actually asking the wind to blow his suetyng (“sweetheart”) to him, which honestly sounds kind of mean and lazy. Dave Wilton found the relevant stanza:

“Heo is dereworþe in day
graciouse, stout, ant gay
gentil, iolyf so þe iay
worhliche when heo wakeþ.
Maiden murgest of mouþ;
bi est, bi west, by norþ ant souþ,
þer nis fiele ne crouþ
þat such murþes makeþ.
Blow northerne wynd!
Send thou me my suetyng!
Blow northerne wynd! blow, blow, blow!”

(TRANSLATION: “She is precious in day / gracious, stout, and gay / gentle, jolly as the jay/ noble when she wakes. / Maiden merriest of mouth / by East, West, North and South / Neither fiddle nor crowd / Makes such abundance. / Blow northern wind! / Send me my sweetheart! / Blow northern wind! Blow, blow, blow!”)

Gay is a nice-sounding, one-syllable word that rhymes with a lot of things — all the makings of a poetic mainstay. To the delight of decades of middle school English students, no one could get enough of it for centuries and centuries. Chaucer used it in 1385. Robert Mannyng used it in his “story of England,” in the late 14th century. The lyrics of “Deck The Halls” are from 1862. Shakespeare used it thirteen times in total. Here’s Iago, in Othello, written in 1603: “She that was ever fair and never proud / Had tongue at will and yet was never loud / Never lack’d gold and yet went never gay.” I’m trying to be mature here but Shakespeare makes it hard.


Over this time, though, “gay” began experiencing a “pejoration of meaning” — it’s the opposite of the aforementioned amelioration, and you use it when a word’s reputation starts going downhill. Some think this started as far back as the 14th century, but it was definitely established by the 17th, when, according to the OED, it was generally used to describe those “addicted to pleasures and dissipations.” Carefreeness had flipped back to frivolity. You can even see it in the above Shakespeare, as Iago uses “gay” to mean “flashy” and sets it in parallel with pride and loudness, two then-undesirable traits). This frivolity developed into a general lack of inhibitions, and often referred to sexual carefreeness — by at least 1799, a “gay man” was a womanizer, a “gay woman” a prostitute, and a “gay house” a brothel.


In a nice return to its roots, “to go gay” was to live a life of hedonism. For proper usage, see this sentence, from Edward Montague Compton MacKenzie’s Carnival, that was far ahead of its time:

“After dinner Jenny went back to Hagworth Street, and had a flaming quarrel with her mother, who accused her of “going gay”; demanded to know how she dared put in an appearance dressed in another woman’s clothes; insisted she was to come home immediately after dinner; forbade a hundred things, and had the door slammed in her face for the advice.”

While this meaning became more prevalent, another now-familiar one snuck up alongside it. Next time we’ll talk about when gay started meaning what it does now — and take another few dips up and down the semantic roller coaster.


Buddhism 101: Eleven Legendary Buddhist Temples

1. Taktsang: The Tiger’s Nest

The Tiger’s Nest or Taktsang Monastery in Paro, Bhutan. © Albino Chua / Getty Image

Taktsang Palphug Monastery, also called Paro Taktsang or The Tiger’s Nest, clings to a sheer cliff more than 10 thousand feet above sea level in the Himalayas of Bhutan. From this monastery there is about a 3,000 foot drop to the Paro Valley, below. The original temple complex was built in 1692, but the legends surrounding Taktsang are much older.

Taktsang marks the entrance of a cave where Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. Padmasambhava is credited with bringing Buddhist teachings to Tibet and Bhutan in the 8th century. 

2. Sri Dalada Maligawa: The Temple of the Tooth

Elephants on display at the entrance of the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka. © Andrea Thompson Photography / Getty Images

The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy was built in 1595 to hold the single most sacred object in all of Sri Lanka — a tooth of the Buddha.  The tooth is said to have reached Sri Lanka in the 4th century, and in its complex history was moved several times and even stolen (but returned).

The tooth has not left the temple or been displayed to the public for a very long time. However, every summer it is celebrated in an elaborate festival, and a replica of the tooth is placed in a golden casket and carried through the streets of Kandy on the back of a large and elaborately decorated elephant, festooned with lights.

3. Angkor Wat: A Long-Hidden Treasure

The famous temple of Ta Prohm at Angkor Wat, Cambodia where the roots of the jungle trees intertwine with these ancient structures. © Stewart Atkins (visualSA) / Getty Images

When construction began in the 12th century Cambodia’s Angkor Wat was intended to be a Hindu temple, but it was rededicated to Buddhism in the 13th century. At that time it was in the heart of the Khmer empire. But by the 15th century water shortages forced the Khmer to relocate, and the beautiful temple was abandoned except by a few Buddhist monks. In time much of the temple was reclaimed by the jungle.

It is renowned today for its exquisite beauty and for being the largest religious monument in the world. However, until the mid-19th century it was known only to Cambodians. The French were so astonished at the beauty and sophistication of the ruined temple that they refused to believe it had been built by the Khmer. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and work to restore the temple is ongoing.

4. Borobudur: A Massive Temple Lost and Found

Sunrise at Borobudur, Indonesia. © Alexander Ipfelkofer / Getty Images

This massive temple was built on the Indonesian island of Java in the 9th century, and to this day it is considered the largest entirely Buddhist temple in the world (Angkor Wat is Hindu and Buddhist). Borobudur covers 203 acres and consists of six square and three circular platforms, topped by a dome. It is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and hundreds of Buddha statues. The meaning of the name “Borobudur” has been lost to time.

The entire temple almost was lost to time as well. It was abandoned in the 14th century and the magnificent temple was reclaimed by the jungle and forgotten. All that seemed to remain was a local legend of a mountain of a thousand statues. In 1814 the British governor of Java heard the story of the mountain and, intrigued, arranged for an expedition to find it.

Today Borobudur is a United Nation World Heritage Site and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists.

5. Shwedagon Pagoda: An Inspirer of Legend

The Great Golden Stupa towers over the Shwedagon Pagoda complex. © Peter Adams / Getty Images

The great Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) is a kind of reliquary, or stupa, as well as a temple. It is believed to contain relics not only of the historical Buddha but also of three Buddhas who preceded him. The pagoda is 99 feet fall and plated with gold.

According to Burmese legend, the original pagoda was built 26 centuries ago by a king who had faith a new Buddha had been born.  During his reign two merchant brothers met the Buddha in India and told him about the pagoda built in his honor. The Buddha then pulled out eight of his own hairs to be housed in the pagoda. When the casket containing the hairs was opened in Burma, many miraculous things happened.

Historians believe the original pagoda actually was built some time between the 6th and 10th centuries. It has been rebuilt several times; the current structure was built after an earthquake brought down the previous one in 1768.

6. Jokhang, the Holiest Temple of Tibet

Monks debate at Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. © Feng Li / Getty Images

According to legend, Jokhang Temple in Lhasa was built in the 7th century by a King of Tibet to please two of his wives, a princess of China and a princess of Nepal, who were Buddhists. Today historians tell us the princess of Nepal probably never existed. Even so, Jokhang remains a monument to the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet.

The Chinese princess, Wenchen, brought with her a statue said to have been blessed by the Buddha. The statue, called the Jowo Shakyamuni or Jowo Rinpoche, is considered the most sacred object in Tibet and remains enshrined in Jokhang to this day.

7. Sensoji and the Mysterious Golden Statue

Historic Asakusa Senso-ji, Tokyo, at dusk. © Future Light / Getty Images

Long ago, about 628 CE, two brothers fishing in the Sumida River netted a tiny golden statue of Kanzeon, or Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy. Some versions of this story say the brothers repeatedly put the statue back into the river, only to net it again.

Sensoji was built in honor of the bodhisattva, and the tiny golden statue is said to be enshrined there, although the statue the public may view is acknowledged to be a replica. The original temple was completed in 645, which makes it Tokyo’s oldest temple.

In 1945, during World War II, bombs dropped from American B-29s destroyed much of Tokyo, including Sensoji. The present structure was built after the war with donations from the Japanese people. On the temple grounds there is a tree growing from the remains of a tree hit by a bomb. The tree is cherished as a symbol of the undying spirit of Sensoji.

8. Nalanda: A Lost Center of Learning

The ruins of Nalanda. © De Agostini / G. Nimatallah

Eight centuries after its tragic destruction, Nalanda remains the most famous learning center in Buddhist history. Located in the present-day Bihar state of India, in Nalanda’s heyday the quality of its teachers attracted students from all over the Buddhist world.

It’s not clear when the first monastery was built at Nalanda, but one appears to have been there by the 3rd century CE. By the 5th century it had become a magnet for Buddhist scholars and had grown into something like a modern-day university. Students there not only studied Buddhism but also medicine, astrology, mathematics, logic and languages. Nalanda remained a dominant learning center until 1193, when it was destroyed by a nomadic army of Muslim Turks of central Asia. It is said that Nalanda’s vast library, full of irreplaceable manuscripts, smoldered for six months. Its destruction also marked the end of Buddhism in India until modern times. 

Today the excavated ruins may be visited by tourists. But the memory of Nalanda still attracts attention. Presently some scholars are raising money to rebuild a new Nalanda near the ruins of the old one. 

9. Shaolin, Home of Zen and Kung Fu

A monk practices kung fu at Shaolin Temple. © China Photos / Getty Images

Yes, China’s Shaolin Temple is a real Buddhist temple, not a fiction created by martial arts movies. The monks there have practiced martial arts for many centuries, and they developed a unique style called Shaolin kung fu. Zen Buddhism was born there, established by Bodhidharma, who had come to China from India early in the 6th century. It doesn’t get more legendary than Shaolin. 

History says Shaolin was first established in 496, a few years before Bodhidharma arrived. The buildings of the monastery complex have been rebuilt many times, most recently after they were gutted during the Cultural Revolution. 

10. Mahabodhi: Where the Buddha Realized Enlightenment

The Mahabodhi Temple marks the place where the Buddha realized enlightenment. © 117 Imagery / Getty Images

Mahabodhi Temple marks the place where the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and realized enlightenment, more than 25 centuries ago. “Mahabodhi” means “great awakening.” Next to the temple is a tree said to have been grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. The tree and temple are located in Bodhgaya, in the Bihar state of India.

The original Mahabodhi Temple was built by the Emperor Ashoka about 260 BCE. In spite of its significance in the Buddha’s life, the site was largely abandoned after the 14th century, but in spite of neglect it remains one of the oldest brick structures in India. It was restored in the 19th century and is protected today as a UN World Heritage Site. 

Buddhist legend says that Mahabodhi sits on the naval of the world; when the world is destroyed at the end of the age it will be the last place to disappear, and when a new world takes the place of this one, this same spot will be the first place to reappear. 

11. Jetavana, or Jeta Grove: The First Buddhist Monastery?

The Anandabodhi Tree at Jetavana is said to have been grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. Bpilgrim, Wikipedia, Creative Commons License

The Anandabodhi Tree at Jetavana is said to have been grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. Bpilgrim, Wikipedia, Creative Commons License

The ruins of Jetavana are what is left of what may have been the first Buddhist monastery. Here the historical Buddha gave many of the sermons recorded in the Sutta-pitaka. 

Jetavana, or Jeta Grove, is where the disciple Anathapindika purchased land more than 25 centuries ago and built a place for the Buddha and his followers to live during the rainy season. The rest of the year the Buddha and his disciples traveled from village to village, teaching (see “The First Buddhist Monks”).

The site today is a historical park, located in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which borders Nepal. The tree in the photograph is the Anandabodhi Tree, believed to have been grown from a sapling of the tree that sheltered the Buddha when he realized enlightenment. 


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “Eleven Legendary Buddhist Temples.” Learn Religions, Jan. 29, 2020,

Gay History: The WWII Nazi Spy Gay Sex Scandal That Rocked the Senate

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast/Getty

In 1942, the exposure of a Brooklyn townhouse where wealthy men had sex with members of the armed services led to an anti-gay witch-hunt and heated political scandal.

n the early part of the 20th century, brothels were commonplace in many neighborhoods in New York City, but in 1942 an inconspicuous two-story redbrick town house at 329 Pacific Street—a run-down block near the border between Brooklyn Heights and downtown Brooklyn—would become the most famous “house of assignation” in the entire country.

The proprietor, a fifty-five-year-old, “moon-faced” Swedish immigrant, Gustave Beekman, specialized in providing wealthy men with members of the armed services.

He had previously run a similar house a few blocks closer to the water at 235 Warren Street, but had relocated after being busted in a police raid in November 1940. At that time, he was charged with running a disorderly house, fined, and quickly released.

However, when the police raided his establishment on Pacific Street on the evening of March 14, 1942 (accompanied by members of the Office of Naval Intelligence), they would uncover a scandal that would rock the nation, consume newspaper headlines for months, and get hotly debated on the floor of the US Senate.

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they would invent one. It would be Walter Winchell, then the gossip columnist for the New York Daily Mirror, who would give this strange episode in Brooklyn history its enduring name: “The Swastika Swishery.”

This was one of the stories I’d heard about early in my research for my new book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, but I never suspected that I would uncover new information that would answer many of the lingering questions about this so-called scandal.

The initial story, which was primarily reported in the New York Post, went something like this: Beekman ran a “house of degradation” where German spies hired American servicemen to pump them over pillow talk for information about troop movements.

From there, the story quickly spiraled. Not only were there spies at Beekman’s house, a notorious “Senator X,” who was well known as a closeted gay man and opposed America’s entry into World War II, was also a regular habitué of Beekman’s. By early May, Beekman wasn’t just accused of hosting any old spy; rather, he was catering to “one of Hitler’s chief espionage agents in this country.”

For all of April and May, papers kept readers riveted with headlines such as “Service Men Lured to ‘Den’ Called Spy Nest,” “Senator Linked to Spy Nest Which Lured Service Men,” “Den Keeper Withholds Source of Cash,” and “Leibowitz Pushes Spy Ring Probe: Tells Convicted Morals Offender to Talk or Get 20-Year Term.”

News bulletins eagerly broadcast every new tidbit of information in the case, including the four separate (and contradictory) official statements Beekman gave to the police and the FBI.

The senator in question was soon revealed as David Ignatius Walsh, a Catholic “confirmed bachelor” from Boston, who—although liberal on many social issues—was a strong isolationist, believing America had no place in the affairs of Europe.

Time magazine called his connection with the Beekman case “one of the worst scandals that ever affected a member of the Senate.” When the Senate majority leader opened discussion of the issue on the Senate floor, he called the FBI’s report on the case “disgusting and unprintable” and refused to have it entered into the Senate’s official record.

To this day, numerous authors have speculated about what actually happened at Beekman’s house in the middle of World War II, with most concluding that it was ultimately unknowable

Another isolationist senator from Missouri called Dorothy Schiff, the publisher of the New York Post, an “old hussy” and demanded an investigation on the charge that she was part of a secret cabal that was trying to gin up public sentiment in favor of the war by making antiwar politicians look bad.

To this day, numerous authors have speculated about what actually happened at Beekman’s house in the middle of World War II, with most concluding that it was ultimately unknowable.

However, Dorothy Schiff was so concerned that Senator Walsh might sue the Post over its reporting that she secretly commissioned a team of six private investigators and attorneys, led by Daniel A. Doran, to discover the truth.

Their report, which took five months to prepare, ran over 150 pages and included everything from interviews with the major players in the case (including Beekman and all of his lawyers), to a detailed analysis of Senator Walsh’s travel schedule for the times he was supposedly in Brooklyn.

For years, this report has been publicly available, along with the rest of Dorothy Schiff’s papers, at the New York Public Library, but no historians seem to have referenced it. As far as I know, I am the first to read its findings.

Local police had had Beekman under watch at least as far back as January 1942, having noticed an unusual number of sailors and soldiers coming and going from his building. In the two years since they had last busted Beekman, the war had begun, and no one wanted to arrest a bunch of men who might be needed in Europe or to impugn the morality of the military in general.

The police had no plans to raid his house until they were contacted by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), which had secretly set up a spy post on the fourth floor of a nearby hospital, from which they were recording the license plate numbers of everyone who entered the building.

The ONI wasn’t interested in Beekman; rather, it was trailing William Elberfeld, a German national whom it believed to be a spy for Hitler. Together, the police and the ONI raided the establishment, arresting not just Beekman, but some of his clients (including noted composer Virgil Thomson), and some of the men who worked there.

The prosecution seemed convinced that Beekman couldn’t be making much money from running a house of male prostitution, and so he had to have some other source of income—perhaps from Elberfeld or another spy

One of the sex workers arrested was a Brooklyn merchant mariner named Charles Zuber, who was also one of Beekman’s lovers.

The assistant district attorney (ADA) on the case, eager, perhaps, to make a name for himself, questioned Zuber at length about any particularly wealthy clients. The prosecution seemed convinced that Beekman couldn’t be making much money from running a house of male prostitution, and so he had to have some other source of income—perhaps from Elberfeld or another spy.

Zuber furnished the ADA with the name “Walsh,” saying he believed the man to be a doctor. The ADA, aware of the long-standing rumors that Senator David Walsh was gay, jumped to the conclusion that these two men were one and the same. He offered Zuber a deal: if he flipped on Beekman and testified against him on sodomy charges, Zuber would get off scot-free.

The ADA then passed the information about Walsh on to the judge in the case. When Beekman was found guilty on charges of sodomy, largely thanks to Zuber’s testimony, the judge told Beekman that if he came clean about the extent of the spy ring, he would be lenient; otherwise, Beekman was facing a twenty-year sentence.

He seemed willing to say whatever was necessary to avoid going to prison, which for a fifty-five-year-old gay man whom the nation now believed to be a Nazi sympathizer might well have been a death sentence

According to the lead investigator hired by Dorothy Schiff, Beekman was “ingratiating, well-mannered, well spoken and plausible.” He was also terrified and rather loose with the truth. He seemed willing to say whatever was necessary to avoid going to prison, which for a 55-year-old gay man whom the nation now believed to be a Nazi sympathizer might well have been a death sentence.

Elberfeld had been a regular at Beekman’s place, but he also ran a rival brothel in Manhattan and had no need to go to Brooklyn if he wanted to question sailors. Moreover, Beekman had banned him from his house around Thanksgiving of 1941, when Elberfeld told Beekman that Sweden was next on Hitler’s list, and that after it was invaded, Beekman wouldn’t be so “uppity-uppity.”

The police literally tore apart both Beekman’s home and Elberfeld’s apartment and found nothing except a shortwave radio at Elberfeld’s, which was technically contraband when owned by a foreign national.

Elberfeld was placed on indefinite detention on Ellis Island—where he would remain for the rest of the war—but no charges were ever brought against him, and the police and the ONI no longer seemed interested in him at all. Instead, they leaned on Beekman to identify Walsh, once grilling him for over seven hours until he collapsed.

A few of the men arrested in the initial raid were also asked about Walsh, with some saying he was there, others saying he wasn’t, and a few saying they had no idea.

With no evidence other than a series of contradictory statements on whether Walsh had ever been at Beekman’s home, there was no case. Yet the government still believed that Beekman was hiding some source of income, which the judge seemed to believe would have linked Walsh to the story.

When Beekman refused to name his (nonexistent) financial backers, he received a twenty-year sentence to Sing Sing, the maximum-security prison in Ossining, New York.

By making a detailed analysis of Walsh’s travel schedule, investigator Doran conclusively proved that Walsh could not have been at Beekman’s establishment on any of the dates he was supposed to have been present.

No one seemed interested in using that evidence to exonerate Beekman, who would serve out the entirety of his twenty-year sentence before emerging from prison (where he was called ‘Mother Beekman’) and disappearing from public records entirely

Moreover, Doran tracked down a Connecticut doctor, Harry Stone, a regular at Beekman’s who bore a distinct resemblance to Senator Walsh. By presenting photos of Walsh and Stone to various witnesses (including Beekman), Doran concluded that Stone was almost definitely the man mistaken for Walsh.

Yet no one seemed interested in using that evidence to exonerate Beekman, who would serve out the entirety of his twenty-year sentence before emerging from prison (where he was called “Mother Beekman”) and disappearing from public records entirely.

As for Walsh, although his fellow Senate members congratulated him on his aplomb during the entire affair, the airing of his gay laundry (plus, no doubt, his opposition to the war) seemed to sour voters on him. He was ousted from the Senate in 1946 and died the next year.

After months of wild accusations, sting operations, and endless denunciations to the press, all the government got was the pointless destruction of the lives of two gay men and a witch hunt that sent innumerable others into hiding.

Today, the quiet red-brick building still sits at 329 Pacific Street as a private residence, with no trace of its infamous past showing in its innocuous façade.

This is an edited extract from Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer (St Martin’s Press).


Buddhism 101: Overview of the Lotus Sutra

Jeff Miller / Getty Images

Of the countless scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, few are more widely read or revered than the Lotus Sutra. Its teachings thoroughly permeate most schools of Buddhism in China, Korea, and Japan. Yet its origins are shrouded in mystery.

The sutra’s name in Sanskrit is Maha Saddharma-pundarika Sutra, or “Great Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law.” It is a matter of faith in some schools of Buddhism that the sutra contains the words of the historical Buddha. However, most historians believe the Sutra was written in the 1st or 2nd century CE, probably by more than one writer. A translation was made from Sanskrit to Chinese in 255 CE, and this is the earliest historical documentation of its existence.

As with so many of the Mahayana sutras, the original text of the Lotus Sutra is lost. The several early Chinese translations are the oldest versions of the sutra that remain to us. In particular, a translation into Chinese by the monk Kamarajiva in 406 CE is believed to be the most faithful to the original text.

In the 6th century China the Lotus Sutra was promoted as the supreme sutra by the monk Zhiyi (538-597; also spelled Chih-i), founder of the Tiantai school of Mahayana Buddhism, called Tendai in Japan. In part through Tendai influence, the Lotus became the most revered Sutra in Japan. It deeply influenced Japanese Zen and also is an object of devotion of the Nichiren school.

The Setting of the Sutra

n Buddhism, a sutra is a sermon of the Buddha or one of his principal disciples. Buddhist sutras usually begin with the traditional words, “Thus I have heard.” This is a nod to the story of Ananda, who recited all of the historical Buddha‘s sermons at the First Buddhist Council and was said to have begun each recitation this way.

The Lotus Sutra begins, “Thus I have heard. At one time the Buddha was in Rajagriha, staying on Mount Gridhrakuta.” Rajagriha was a city on the site of present-day Rajgir, in northeastern India, and Gridhrakuta, or “Vulture’s Peak,” is nearby. So, the Lotus Sutra begins by making a connection to a real place associated with the historical Buddha.

However, in a few sentences, the reader will have left the phenomenal world behind. The scene opens to a place outside ordinary time and space. The Buddha is attended by an unimaginable number of beings, both human and nonhuman — monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen, heavenly beings, dragons, garudas, and many others, including bodhisattvas and arhats. In this vast space, eighteen thousand worlds are illuminated by a light reflected by a hair between the Buddha’s eyebrows.

The Sutra is divided into several chapters — 28 in the Kamarajiva translation — in which the Buddha or other beings offer sermons and parables. The text, part prose, and partly verse contains some of the most beautiful passages of the world’s religious literature.

It could take years to absorb all the teachings in such a rich text. However, three principal themes dominate the Lotus Sutra.

All Vehicles Are One Vehicle

In early passages, the Buddha tells the assembly that his earlier teachings were provisional. People were not ready for his highest teaching, he said and had to be brought to enlightenment by expedient means. But the Lotus represents the final, highest teaching, and supersedes all other teachings.

In particular, the Buddha addressed the doctrine of triyana, or “three vehicles” to Nirvana. Very simply, the triyana describes people who realize enlightenment by hearing the Buddha’s sermons, people who realize enlightenment for themselves through their own effort, and the path of the bodhisattva. But the Lotus Sutra says that the three vehicles are one vehicle, the Buddha vehicle, 

All Beings May Become Buddhas

A theme expressed throughout the Sutra is that all beings will attain Buddhahood and attain Nirvana. 

The Buddha is presented in the Lotus Sutra as dharmakaya — the unity of all things and beings, unmanifested, beyond existence or nonexistence, unbound by time and space. Because the dharmakaya is all beings, all beings have the potential to awaken to their true nature and attain Buddhahood.

The Importance of Faith and Devotion

Buddhahood may not be attained through intellect alone. Indeed, the Mahayana view is that absolute teaching cannot be expressed in words or understood by ordinary cognition. The Lotus Sutra stresses the importance of faith and devotion as a means to the realization of enlightenment. Among other significant points, the stress on faith and devotion makes Buddhahood more accessible to laypeople, who do not spend their lives in ascetic monastic practice.

The Parables

A distinctive feature of the Lotus Sutra is the use of parables. The parables contain many layers of metaphor that have inspired many layers of interpretation. This is merely a list of the major parables:

  • The Burning House. A man must lure his playing children out of a burning house (Chapter 3).
  • The Prodigal Son. A poor, self-loathing man gradually learns that he is wealthy beyond measure (Chapter 4).
  • The Medicinal Herbs. Although they grow in the same ground and receive the same rain, plants grow in different ways (Chapter 5).
  • The Phantom City. A man leading people on a difficult journey conjures an illusion of a beautiful city to give them the heart to keep going (Chapter 7).
  • The Gem in the Jacket. A man sews a gem into his friend’s jacket. However, the friend wanders in poverty not knowing that he possesses a gem of great value (Chapter 8).
  • The Gem in the King’s Top-Knot. A king bestows many gifts but reserves his most priceless jewel for a person of exceptional merit (Chapter 14).
  • The Excellent Physician. A physician’s children are dying of poison but lack the sense to take medicine (Chapter 16)


Burton Watson’s translation of The Lotus Sutra (Columbia University Press, 1993) has gained great popularity since its publication for its clarity and readability.

A newer translation of The Lotus Sutra by Gene Reeves (Wisdom Publications, 2008) is also very readable and has been praised by reviewers. 


  • O’Brien, Barbara. “Overview of the Lotus Sutra.” Learn Religions, Jan. 29, 2020,

Gay History: The Mystery Photos Of A 1957 Gay Wedding

ONE Archives at USC

Decades before gay marriage became legal anywhere in the US, same-sex couples were committing themselves to each other in front of friends and loved ones. Few records of these ceremonies existed – until now, writes Jonathan Berr.

In 1957, a man dropped off a roll of film at a pharmacy in Philadelphia. But the developed photos were never returned to their owners.

The pictures appear to depict a gay wedding, nearly 50 years before same-sex marriage was legal anywhere in the US and almost 60 years before it became a federally-recognised right.

Now, a trio of gay producers and writers are trying to identify the grooms to learn their story and to find out whether a pharmacy employee balked at providing the snaps because they objected to their subject.

The writers are documenting their efforts in a reality show The Mystery of the 1957 Gay Wedding Photos.

The programme, which doesn’t yet have a platform to call home, is being produced in conjunction with Endemol Shine Group, whose shows include Big Brother, The Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

ONE Archives at USC

“It’s a passion project for us,” says Michael J. Wolfe, a Los Angeles-based writer. “We are turning over every stone, interviewing dozens of people in the Philadelphia area and beyond, and consulting with investigators, historians, and experts across many different fields.”

The photos were acquired by a collector a few years ago who had bought them at an online auction. He realised their significance and donated them to ONE Archives at the USC Libraries in Los Angeles and at the Wilcox Archives in Philadelphia.

The couple in the pictures appear to be in their 20s or 30s, so they would be in their 80s or 90s if they were alive today. The grooms and their guests are dressed up in dark suits with flowers in their lapels.

The celebration took place in a modest flat with the blinds drawn. It featured a ceremony officiated by someone who appears to be a member of the clergy. The grooms are shown kissing, cutting their wedding cake and opening presents.

ONE Archives at USC

Mr Wolfe and his partners, filmmaker PJ Palmer and TV writer/producer Neal Baer, have not identified the mystery couple yet. 

They request any tipsters to contact them through their website and Facebook page.

ONE Archives at USC

For Palmer, the pictures were especially moving.

“We are recovering amazing, important stories all sorts of them… and more gay history that’s been buried,” he says.

“There is a very rich history that’s been suppressed… I wish as a child [that] I had seen family photos of a marriage like this… I would have felt more normal as a kid. I would have known that I was okay.”

Couples who fell in love sometimes committed themselves to one another in unions that were not acknowledged by either governments or religions.

The US Supreme Court didn’t recognise the right for gay people to marry the person of their choice until 2015, 11 years after Massachusetts did so.

ONE Archives at USC

“We don’t know how common or uncommon it was for couples to hold ceremonies to marry each other [because] there is so little photographic or film record of how people actually lived,” says Eric Marcus, host of the Making Gay History podcast.

“It’s important to remember that people found ways to live their lives quietly away from the prying eyes of the straight world.”

Of course, that was easier said than done.

Wedding guests at the mystery wedding ONE Archives at USC

Several years before the wedding took place, President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order banning gays from working for the federal government.

In 1952, The American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in the first edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the listing of known psychiatric disorders.

After considerable lobbying by activists, the APA removed homosexuality from the second edition of the DSM in 1973.

The Stonewall Riots, considered to be the birth of the modern gay rights movement, had happened a few years before that in 1969 – 12 years after the wedding.

ONE Archives at USC

It’s not just the passage of time that will hinder the search for the grooms. The filmmakers believe the Aids crisis may also be factor – about 700,000 Americans have died since the start of the epidemic in the 1980s, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“We are talking about a generation of people who were decimated by Aids,” Mr Wolfe said. “There are a lot of missing people who otherwise would have made a search like this much easier. All of that happened before social media.”

If the couple is ever identified, they would certainly add another chapter in the history of gay rights for doing something extraordinary that is now becoming increasingly ordinary.