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Rainbow Picnic

By Vicki Frost and Ruth Bigger 

“Rainbow Picnic. 12:30 p.m.” was a message that had been added to the activities list on the white board in Plum Village, France, where Ruth and I were on retreat for the first time in 2019. We were intrigued, but what did it mean? Was it “rainbow” as in LGBTQIA+ community or something else? And where were they meeting? We headed off to the Dharma talk in the hall in anticipation of more information about the picnic. Notices were read out, but there was no mention of any picnics—let alone rainbows. 

Vicki Frost
Ruth Bigger

Disappointed but undaunted, we frantically searched around for something that looked like a Rainbow Picnic. Eventually, before giving up completely, we asked one of the long-term retreatants who told us that the picnic had been postponed, but that there would be an LGBTQIA+ Dharma sharing space later in the day. 

At the designated 3:30 p.m., a few of us gathered in the space allocated: a sort of library that was also a way through to other rooms (essentially a corridor with books). Other groups were outside in the sunshine or in spacious yet private rooms, but this space wasn’t ideal. I felt vulnerable because of the almost constant flow of people. The sharing was consequently inhibited and felt unsafe. Although we were able to express our discomfort, we left feeling unimportant and marginalised. 

The next sharing was totally different. It took place in a yurt in the grounds of the retreat centre, and this space felt comfortable, private, and welcoming. We felt valued. This time, the sharing was deep and raw but felt very safe. We had discovered a whole new layer, a depth and dimension to Plum Village we didn’t know was there. 

As our time went on, we had many conversations: with a parent whose child was transitioning and the joy and sadness that she was experiencing and “losing” a daughter but gaining a son; with a speech therapist who worked with those transitioning as their voices changed; with people with experiences and stories both similar and different from our own. 

Sunflower field near Lower Hamlet, Plum Village; photo by Monica Max West

We were home; we had arrived.

We were no longer searching for our queer space. There were already people working hard in this tradition to make our community visible and welcome. The Dharma sharing, in particular, had planted a seed and made us realise that we were often holding something back in the wider Sangha. We all needed mirroring to see ourselves reflected in others. Seeing a shared identity under that wide LGBTQIA+ umbrella was powerful.

Returning to the United Kingdom, we wondered if a Rainbow Sangha already existed here. In our search, we re-connected with a friend who, having spent more time in Plum Village than we had, had significant experience about Sangha building and knew about the evolution of the Plum Village Rainbow Group. We began to talk seriously about setting up our own Rainbow Sangha, which felt energising and exciting.

Unsure whether we would be allowed to set a group up as none of us were Order of Interbeing members or aspirants, we contacted Plum Village UK, and they gave us the green light. They had trusted our energy and volition, and we felt we could move forward, be supported, and be endorsed by them.

When the pandemic restrictions began, we took the leap and set up Plum Village Rainbow Sangha UK online. At our first meeting at the end of March 2020, a small group—four of us—waited nervously, sure that no one else would come. But when three more practitioners arrived, we knew we had our Sangha. Since that day, we have grown and grown.

Deep within, though, we had some doubts: why, as Buddhists, did we need a separate space? Couldn’t we practise alongside our non-LGBTQIA+ friends? Did we really need to bring gender politics into our practice? Were we perhaps simply too attached to the concept of self?

A talk by our Dharma teacher Dene Donalds shortly after the brutal murder of George Floyd and the emerging Black Lives Matter protests gave us some validity. He spoke of how people of colour, and those from other marginalised communities such as LGBTQIA+, carried wounds and that sometimes, without realising, the wider community touched those wounds. He spoke of how we sometimes need protection, we need safe spaces where people will recognise those wounds, and we know how it feels if they are touched. Dene also spoke of unity and diversity being one and how we could exist within that larger group and as a separate one—rather than being divisive, these separate spaces contributed to the collective energy of oneness. 

In less than a year, our Rainbow Sangha UK moved from being under the radar to being shared in the Plum Village magazine to being supported by senior monastics such as Brother Phap Hai and Brother Treasure, to being welcomed by the Order of Interbeing UK and being communicated throughout all local Sanghas. We were not just accepted by the tradition we practised in—we were welcomed as an important part of that evolving tradition.

We now have members in the United States and Australia, and we have launched a Be Calm Be Happy course specifically for the queer community, set up social media platforms, and begun a study group focused on the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. Now we are connecting with other groups and networks that help us to develop and grow, culminating in our collaboration with Buddhists across traditions.

As we grow, we are constantly co-creating a safe space for our community. In doing so, we have been able to deepen our practice and connect more fully with the wider Plum Village community and beyond.

Our group reflects the full range of the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. The consistent message we get is a feeling of coming home and inclusivity, that members can bring all of themselves to a Sangha wherever they are on their spiritual journey. We found our “Rainbow Picnic.”

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM PLUMVILLAGE.UK

Vicki Frost, Virtuous Action of the Heart, and Ruth Bigger, Radiant Kindness of the Heart, facilitate at Heart of Manchester and Stockport Sanghas in the United Kingdom, and are part of the organising group for Plum Village Rainbow Sangha UK.

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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