Trans* inclusiveness as an innovation to Buddhism

On his American Buddhist Perspective blog, my friend Justin Whitaker recently posted an interesting interview on the experience of trans* people in American Buddhism. Justin uses “trans*” as a shorthand for “transgender”, “transsexual”, “transvestite” and similar terms – to denote people who have become or attempted to become, in some respect, a gender different from the one associated with their biology at birth. It is clear to me that trans* people in the US face various forms of unjust discrimination. Where the tricky questions get raised is when the struggle against that injustice intersects with Buddhism – as, for that matter, when the struggle against any injustice intersects with Buddhism. Justin and I began a conversation about this in the comments to that post, and I’d like to continue that conversation in more detail here.

Let me recap the conversation so far. (If you’ve seen the original comment thread, you can skip down several paragraphs without missing anything.) The creators of, interviewed in Justin’s article, identified many specific problems they face: “Insurance companies who won’t cover our medical needs because we’re trans*, families who have a hard time accepting us, people calling us the wrong pronoun, navigating finding and holding a job where we are treated respectfully…” By the standards of a normal concern with justice, these problems matter. My comment responded, as I have noted before, that Buddhist texts often urge a revaluation of many of our deepest concerns, and the concern for justice is not exempt.

So too, the interviewee claimed:

Equanimity, or acceptance, is another teaching that may have particular implications for trans* folks, being that many of us are at odds with the body, name, gender categorization that we were given at birth and go to lengths to change them in order to be more at peace with ourselves as we walk in the world.

And my comment continued:

As I understand the dharma, if you need to change something outside of your mind in order to be more at peace with yourself, you’re doin’ it wrong.

None of this is intended to deny that the slights faced daily by trans* people are injustices. Rather, it’s to point out that Buddhism is supposed to be about things that are more important than justice.

From there, the conversation began in earnest. Justin replied, in part:

it sounds like you are jumping to the ultimate truth in Buddhism as a response to people’s conventional suffering. If so, that would be like the sort of “spiritual bypassing” discussed elsewhere in cases such as racism and gender inequality in Buddhism. Of course, in the ultimate level there is no injustice, there is no gender, there is no race, sex, class, etc, but in our conventional reality these things need to be addressed to help remove the structures that bring suffering to those who fall outside “our” group.

I then asked Justin whether there were any premodern Buddhist texts that applied the rubric of ultimate and conventional truth to suffering in this way – the terms are usually not used that way, in my experience. I added the caveat that I’ve defended such innovation a number of times before – but that I think it’s important to acknowledge that it is innovation.)

In response Justin cited the Sigālovāda Sutta and the Five Precepts as premodern texts that deal with conduct toward others:

All of these set up a social framework for a just society; not with justice as an end in itself, but with justice as a natural result of people living rightly. My argument is that we can extend this model to trans*people today even though it wasn’t specifically covered in the Buddhist texts without doing much disservice to our understanding of premodern Buddhist philosophy/ethics.

And he added:

At the same time, I would challenge anyone to find cases of the Buddha urging discrimination against certain classes of people that might be extended to trans*people. My guess is that cases of the Buddha discriminating are going to be against people who actively, knowingly commit harm to a person/community; and adding trans*people to this group is obviously incorrect.

Here is my response. First, if I’m reading Justin correctly, I am now more convinced than before that the answer to my first question “are there any premodern Buddhist texts that apply the rubric of ultimate and conventional truth to suffering in this way?” is actually no. Certainly it’s not in the Sigālovāda Sutta, if that’s the paradigmatic text. There’s nothing about ultimate and conventional in that text; the words don’t even appear. There is suffering, but it appears in subordinate clauses (the warm-hearted friend friend is one who is the same in sukha and in dukkha); it is not theorized here, and not given as a reason to perform these actions. And the text is certainly not describing anything as “conventional as opposed to ultimate suffering”, any application of that distinction to suffering. This matters if we’re trying to understand what the premodern texts said, and learn from them as they were rather than reading our own prejudices back into them.

Regarding more the substantive claims about treatment of others: those rules are typically in the context of self-care. The five precepts are not all about the treatment of others; one is about refraining from alcohol. The Sigālovāda does spell out the treatment of others in more detail, and it is somewhat unusual within the Pali canon in that regard. The rationales it gives are also about the care of the self at the beginning. By the end its concerns turn toward an ordered and well functioning society at the end – but, as Justin noted, justice as such does not appear as a rationale. And that makes a difference. The Sigālovāda’s concerns look more like the conservative functionalism of Confucius or the Bhagavad Gītā: in the Access to Insight translation, “These four winning ways make the world go round, as the linchpin in a moving car. If these in the world exist not, neither mother nor father will receive respect and honor from their children.” One is not trying to achieve justice, but to preserve the established and harmonious social order of things. It seems to me that that’s not the kind of thing one extends to marginalized groups that break out of established social categories; indeed it’s in many respects the opposite, sustaining those categories as they are.

Turning to Justin’s point that “I would challenge anyone to find cases of the Buddha urging discrimination against certain classes of people that might be extended to trans*people.” I actually wasn’t intending to go there, since I was intending on making a more general point about political concern, but since he asked: the Pali Vinaya monastic code has many references to paṇḍakas, who are people with unusual gender status – putting eunuchs in the same category as men who give oral sex to other men. Peter Harvey’s Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, in an extensive discussion of related topics, suggests that in other texts the paṇḍakas also cross-dressed. That’s about as close as you can get in ancient India to the modern category of “trans*”. Not exactly the same thing, no, but definitely in the category of “might be extended to”. And what does the vinaya say about paṇḍakas? They’re not allowed to enter the saṅgha, and if a paṇḍaka has been admitted accidentally, s/he is supposed to be expelled. That’s discrimination. And I see little reason to believe that any of it has to do with the paṇḍakas knowingly causing harm. I suppose one could say that the vinaya is not actually the Buddha’s words, but establishing what the historical Buddha said is not exactly a piece of cake; the tradition has always considered the Vinaya to be buddhavacana.

So challenge accepted, I suppose. I should add again that I am all for innovation on this sort of issue – I would hate to see transgender people excluded from the saṅgha today on the grounds of these texts. (Or for to see women subjected to the eight heavy rules – another discrimination against a class of people that might easily be extended to trans* people, incidentally.) But when I say that I am disagreeing with buddhavacana, as I disagree with it on cosmology. And I think it’s important to make that disagreement with open eyes.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

9 thoughts on “Trans* inclusiveness as an innovation to Buddhism

  1. Interesting post, Amod. As a complete outsider, I wonder whether one could not think of the Vinaya’s condemnation of paṇḍakas as a condemnation of one’s lack of restraint of whimsical desires. I am here thinking of the parallel of the Old Testament, in which the condemnation of homosexuality (e.g, in the famous episode of Gomorrah) has been shown (see, e.g., the work by S.G. Kochuthara) to be a condemnation of bisexuality exerted at one’s whim, and not of homosexuality as one’s unborn condition.

    • It’s an interesting question. You could be right. I haven’t examined the texts on paṇḍakas in great detail, so I’m not sure.

  2. In general, Buddhist morality is not a rights based morality. There is no sense of a demand for justice or to be treated fairly. Buddhist “justice”, as in almost all pre-modern religions, is handled post-mortem. In Buddhism, karma does the job of Anubis and weighs up the deeds of the recently dead, sending them on to heaven or hell or somewhere in-between as their deeds warrant. The concept almost certainly comes into Buddhism from Zoroastrianism (good/bad deeds of body, speech and mind are common to both). But justice in this life is not something one can reasonably expect in saṃsāra. The world is duḥkha.

    The case of Laurence Michael Dillon (aka Jivaka, born Laura Maud Dillon) is interesting in terms of “case law”:
    Dillon was refused ordination in the Theravāda Bhikkhu Saṅgha, because Sangharakshita informed the officiating bhikkhus that Dillon was born a woman and was therefore not qualified for ordination according to the Vinaya. Dillon was later ordained as a śramaṇera by a Gelugpa sect in Ladakh, though whether they knew the circumstances of his birth I am uncertain. Discrimination is, as Amod says, built into the Vinaya. Indeed one cannot be a Theravāda bhikkhu if one is obviously physically deformed either.

    It is interesting that modern Buddhists do not accept this aspect of karma, even when they cling to other aspects of it (such as rebirth). That more fatalistic side of Buddhism does not suit the socio-political agenda of modern liberals. And thus we must innovate, but it does tend to create further doctrinal tensions.

  3. Very interesting points, indeed, Amod.

    To reiterate and/or clarify my points a bit, I was hoping to give examples of the early Buddhist tradition concerned very clearly with conventional, this-worldly issues, i.e. how one should treat others. That was to show that Buddhism is/was always concerned with these issues – *in addition to* the further ultimate concern of individual awakening. And in fact the Buddha ethicizes a Brahmanic ritual, turning from a solitary action meant to align the micro/macrocosm into simply treating people around you well. The Buddha crucially didn’t say, “forget all of that and seek out liberation.” The Buddhist reevaluation here is actually toward a juster society, not a status quo or an avoidance of issues of proper conduct toward others. We could, albeit liberally, re-state the Buddha’s teaching here as, “doing justice to your dead father doesn’t come through this ritual, it comes through moral treatment of people still living around you.”

    I’m perhaps not understanding what you are looking for in terms of a “rubric of ultimate and conventional truth to suffering.” The early texts, including much Mahayana, isn’t big on ‘rubrics’ to begin with, and ultimate/conventional discussions usually focus on what happens if you mistake one for the other, such as the Buddha’s admonishing the monk Arittha in the Alagaddupama Sutta or Nagarjuna’s similar injunctions around the wrong understanding of emptiness.

    I probably shouldn’t have extended the topic so broadly with my challenge, but it’s a discussion worth continuing. I haven’t the time now, unfortunately, to dig through the Vinaya texts (and yes, some were certainly later developments that can be looked at in their changing/changed contexts), but I would urge something like a hermeneutic of generosity here, asking why a thinker would at some times universalize his ethics and at other times pick out specific exceptions – as I do with thinkers such as Aristotle and Kant. My guess is that the exceptions represent the Buddha bending to societal norms, perhaps against his better wishes but within his understanding of pragmatic needs.

    So in a society that discriminated against paṇḍakas and women, Buddhism could only do so much to include them in its system. I agree that making necessary changes here, and with regard to trans*people, is an innovation of sorts; but it is not one that is at odds with the universalistic character of (at least many of) the early texts.

    • What I mean by “rubric” is simply this: the suttas that you are using as examples of the ultimate/conventional distinction, including the Alagaddūpama as well as the Sigālovāda, do not talk about the ultimate/conventional distinction! They don’t mention it, not even once. They are not about it. At all. We are projecting that distinction, which is not in these suttas, on to them. If you were somehow able to ask Buddhaghosa, or the suttas’ original authors, to explain the significance of any of these suttas, I don’t think you would hear anything about ultimate vs. conventional. If you were to ask them specifically about it, I think at best you would get a “well, I suppose you could think about it in those terms if you wanted to…” You might even get active opposition.

      There’s a fair bit in the vinaya about the Buddha bending to social norms, for sure – many, perhaps even most, vinaya rules are justified on the grounds that they made the saṅgha look bad. But I don’t think that that’s all there is. In possibly the most famous discussion of women and the saṅgha, the Buddha initially refuses to let women in at all until Ānanda pressures him to, and that’s when he implements the eight heavy rules. It’s hard to imagine the Buddha being the recalcitrant one out of social pressure.

      And yes, the Buddha in the Sigālovāda does speak of conduct to others – but it seems largely addressed to the householder, on a path that the suttas usually consider to be lower than that of a monk. And even in that context, I’m not quite sure we can say it’s “toward a juster society, not a status quo” – to the extent that it’s not about self-care, it’s about a preservation of harmony in the existing familial order.

      We are, of course, moving well away from trans* issues here, but that was kind of my intention – the trans* issues are an interesting window onto bigger concerns in Buddhist ethics.

      • Amod – going back to the original post, I took it to be you that was introducing the ultimate/conventional split by suggesting that “Buddhism is supposed to be about things that are more important than justice.”

        My suggestion was that if you’re only looking at this “supposed to be” then you’re probably ignoring all of the conventional aspects of Buddhism, which is “about” a lot of things that we could call mundane or conventional.

        I keep pointing to instances of Buddhism being about “conventional” life and I’m not sure this should need to be spelled out in the suttas, i.e. “now I’m going to talk about conventional things, oh monks…” My point is that Buddhism isn’t just about awakening, or seeing beyond all duality, or getting past one’s problems in the external world. This (if I’m interpreting your above quoted sentence correctly) would be more of the modern projection I’d be worried about. Buddhism is also about dealing skillfully in society (or historically at least Buddhists did attempt this where ever they went) .
        So Buddhism also seems to be about a lot of things less important than justice, and, at times, it seems to be about justice. It was in this sense that I suggested you might be “spiritually bypassing” an important issue by saying “As I understand the dharma, if you need to change something outside of your mind in order to be more at peace with yourself, you’re doin’ it wrong.”

        I suppose I could be more direct and say that if you look at Buddhist history and don’t see a lot of Buddhists trying to change the outside world in one way or another, you’re not looking hard enough.

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