Meet Rev. CJ Dunford

Gesshin Claire Greenwood  |  November 12, 2020

CJ Dunford is a recent IBS alum and Jodo Shinshu minister. Back from a year in Japan, they share how they arrived at Buddhism, and their passion for practical Buddhist theology centering liberation for queer folk. 

Gesshin: Where are you from? Tell us about yourself.

CJ: I’m CJ, and I’m from a tiny town in Southwestern Virginia called Pembroke. You might know about Blacksburg which is where Virginia Tech is located. I grew up there, and my parents are both Pentecostal very conservative Christian ministers. At nineteen I came out to them as gay and that went over… swimmingly [laughter] so I decided that was a good time for me to live on my own. So I left my family’s house and I studied geology. I finished my BA in geology cum laude in 2007 and started at San Francisco State University in their graduate program for earth sciences. I don’t know what I thought I was doing! But I liked geology and science. So I was following my whimsical twenty year old heart. Mostly I just wanted to be in San Francisco. I’ve lived in the Bay Area since then.

Gesshin: How did you encounter Buddhism?

CJ: After I moved to the Bay Area I worked as a makeup artist for a while, for Sephora.

Gesshin: No way!

CJ: Yeah, it was fun for a while, until I started to get into management and I started to see the nasty side of corporate retail in the U.S. I felt really dissatisfied with what I was doing with my life, with how people were treated. It was just all about money, and I discovered I cared much more about people, their growth, and my own growth. I just didn’t want to contribute to that part of society. I went through a hard breakup and I was watching a lot of Ajahn Brahm videos and youtube. Then I went to the IBS bookstore and I was just looking for books. Gayle was working there and I asked her about Buddhist temples, because I was only watching youtube videos and doing reading, and I thought it would be cool to visit a Buddhist temple. So she recommended BCSF and BBT… I went to BBT just to try it out, and I met Judy Kono. She introduced me to every single person, and made me talk to everyone and have tea with everyone. I consider myself kind of weird, but I felt like everyone was cool and wanted to be my friend. So after going there for a while, I started to volunteer and do more community work with the temple. I was still working for Sephora at the time, but I started to feel like something was shifting, that my life had purpose. I realized I just wanted to be in temple all the time. I wanted that to be my job. That was when I decided I wanted to be a minister.

Gesshin: So you felt like you fit in, like you were comfortable, and so you wanted to do that with your life.

CJ: Yeah. And even though we are very different people, and our ideologies are very different, I’m still in contact with my family, and I think them being ministers was influential on that decision too. It influenced my calling you could say.

Gesshin: That makes sense. You could readily see being a minister as a viable path foreword. So what was your thesis about?

CJ: It’s a social and historical examination of Shinran Shonin’s life, and how he viewed social discrimination and classism. I applied that to understanding how queer people are treated in contemporary society, to put together my own take on a Jodo Shinshu theology of liberation for queer folks. In a lot of conventional discussion of Jodo Shinshu doctrine, generally we see ourselves as corrupted or evil or foolish, inherently, unable to attain salvation for ourselves. And we have to rely on Amida Buddha to save us from samsara. Shinran and his master Honin spent a lot of time outside of the temple complexes speaking with common folks like prostitutes, samurai, and farmers, people who were really important to society but were looked down upon by the aristocrats or the wealthy or the educated. I think the time Shinran spent around common folk really influenced his theology… He doesn’t talk about homosexuality or queerness [explicitly], because those notions are not really a part of the conversation at the time. Even now, some of those concepts are foreign to Japan. Even though people still feel those attractions and those feelings, and different expressions of gender, it’s just talked about in a different way.

Gesshin: I’m imagining you’re seeing a parallel between the prostitutes and samurai, and queerness. Is that right?

CJ: Yeah, because generally speaking, the societal evaluation of queer folk is that we are weird, and aberrant, corrupted, evil, vile. All of those Christian moral values that are projected upon us in this society. So I tried to make that parallel.

Gesshin: It sounds like you’re making an argument that there is a place for queerness within Jodo Shinshu, even though it’s not explicitly written down.

CJ: Definitely, and I want to research this more. I’ve really enjoyed school, and I’m hoping that one day I can teach at IBS. I’d like to teach practical aspects of ministry, so I’d like to apply to the Doctorate of Ministry program at Pacific School of Religion (PSR). I feel like that’s where my heart is taking me, and as part of that research I’d like to expand on my thesis research, and go in a more pastoral care kind of direction, with understanding the theology and actually applying it to queer folks.

I’d also like to go back to Japan at some point. I made hella awesome queer friends in Osaka! I feel like they are my family. I wanna go back and talk to them more. I didn’t tell them I was a Jodo Shinshu priest initially. We formed our friendships first, and then when they found out I’m a priest we had some really great conversations about our religious lives, and spirituality, and how being queer intersects with those things. In Japan I think it’s so different. In general, pastoral care is a newish thing in Japan, and there’s a lot of interesting research happening. I think being queer in Japan doesn’t have the same moral judgment that it does here, and so I’d like to learn more about what that means and how we can learn from that experience.