12/06/2012 03:35 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

America's Bad Karma: Homophobia and Racism

The most important tenet of Buddhism is that you, and only you, are responsible for your own happiness. Today, between the sad state of our schools and the growing dragon of poverty, many wonder if our society is beginning a long decline. There are so many we can blame: the Republicans or the Democrats, the bigoted pastors or the plummet in family values, the unions or the big corporate tycoons. I think it's time to look at ourselves.

The truth is that we have yet to reckon with our national karma, and until we do we are stuck in an endless cycle of suffering. Homophobia and racism are spiritual vermin, eating us from the inside. Despite what we may think, it will damage us more than it hurts our enemies. To understand and solve it, we must look at our past.

Segregation, racial anger and apathy have been lashing the backs of the African-American community from the moment they were freed. Don't believe me? Come to Detroit. We are all witness to crumbling buildings, a losing war on poverty and youth frittered away by drugs, debt and the absence of opportunity.

Now our generation faces the new orphan of hate who, rather than flogging our cities, is beating our children. It's all too clear that our kids are paying the price for homophobia as the word "faggot" is thrown with the punches. Violence, depression and suicide are the three heads of this chimera.

And while I am certain that we will win equality, we need to think about how we're winning. We cannot win the battle for gay rights just to lose the war on gay dignity. Even if gay marriage were legalized, discrimination outlawed and all the freedoms of one enjoyed by all, our problems would linger. To truly win, we must win the right way. We need to set a good example for gay youth, and we need to display the dignity our enemies deny us.

History validates the effort. In 1961 the civil rights movement had been fighting lunch-counter segregation in Nashville for years, but Diane Nash, a young girl of 22 years, won the battle in a single day. Diane asked the mayor, on the steps of City Hall, "Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?" The mayor, after years of opposition, said that he did. As he and Diane tell it, it was the first time he had been confronted with the question. Thus began the end of segregation in Nashville. No one can explain that moment without realizing the power of respect. Many believe that if the African-American community had continued to follow Diane and Martin Luther King's example in its quest for equality, the bad fruit of race riots would have never ripened.

Metro Detroit is a national symbol of why method matters. We need to stop looking the other way as young gays are turning to drugs, prostitution and a life devoid of meaningful relationships. As leaders in the gay community, we need to stop the glitter bombing and the nasty personal statements about our enemies. We need to appeal to their dignity and sense of justice.

Skeptical? It's worked already. Look at how New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo broke the tide of Catholic Church opposition to the state's marriage equality law by talking to Archbishop Timothy Dolan about respect in the fight over marriage equality. Look at how, over the long years, support for gay marriage has grown as more people are introduced to gays on TV, at work and in their communities.

Daisaku Ikeda, my mentor in faith, once said, "An inner revolution is the most fundamental and ... most ultimate, revolution for engendering change in all things." We can choose to end this cycle of suffering, but we must make a commitment to change the way we fight. We can't keep looking the other way at ourselves, or responding to the other side with anger. We must start with ourselves.