I’ve been reading Out of the Ordinary, Lobzang Jivaka’s (Michael Dillon) autobiography, the first trans man to get bottom surgery. In it, within the last ten pages of the book, he discusses some of the conditions which exclude people from higher ordination (past novice) within Buddhism. In one part he was discussing loss of limbs which historically would signify having committed some crime “but today when war or traffic accidents and not crime produces mutilations, the reason for the ban had gone and the upholding of it in many cases might be a gross injustice to a worthy individual”. Then goes on to say that in Theravada Buddhism the letter of the law is prized over the spirit of the thing whereas in Mahayana Buddhism the opposite is true. This strikes me as not understanding, for even in his own life the Dalai Lama says essentially to wait until ‘a more opportune time’ given the recent scandal of Jivaka being outed by a monk he had confided in. He was promised full ordination later, yet died before that date so it’s hard to be certain what would’ve happened if he had lived.
Yet I’ll contrast that with the reality of the current situation, that trans people petitioning for full ordination are disallowed in all schools of Buddhism at present. The closest that exists is a trans woman allowed to teach within Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition. Yet she’s not a nun. One trans man was ordained while in the closet, in the Drikung Kagyu tradition and left the sangha before undergoing HRT and surgery. Someone on Reddit told me a nun in their local Thien (Pure Land) temple is trans, although I’ve never been able to find any other information to corroborate this.
I’ve been listening to talks by Ajahn Sumedho recently, in one he talks about how being ordained is an expedient means, an effective way to practice. Ordination in a lot of Buddhist majority societies is seen as praiseworthy. This praiseworthy and expedient path is denied to trans people. It feels like shit. There’s an anxiety that comes up most every time I go to Buddhist spaces. Before my first visit to the nearest monastery I went through a Cope Ahead for what would happen, had to remind myself that it’s pretty unlikely a monk would grab a stick and start beating me up. Even if few people have been mean to me, there’s this tension that I don’t belong, that it would be better if I wasn’t there. Even in the Unitarian Universalist church I’ve been going to for near two years now, I feel provisionally accepted but never understood. In Buddhist spaces that aren’t explicitly queer, I feel tolerated.
Maybe that’s more my fear than the reality, there’s one monk at Temple Forest who remembered me despite me not going for months, instantly saying hello. I really appreciate that. Maybe if I tolerate the feeling of being an outsider, I will eventually feel like an insider. Or maybe someone will try to beat me up with a stick, I’m not sure. There’s a tiny fantasy I have that in my travels if I spend enough time at a given monastery they might come to accept me and I might be able to ordain. Having a tiny home already would eliminate gender based housing issues. The reality of this is unlikely, transphobia seems to run bizarrely deep in some people and especially within institutions.
My mom urged me at some point recently to just “make my own thing” which is something I’ve heard before and I always find it weird. I’m not qualified to be an abbot of anything and besides I have not the land nor money to setup any kind of physical space to call a monastery. I have no dedicated teachers and no followers. The number of trans people interested in such a thing in the US runs in the single digits, or else very small. Then further figuring out theological disagreements and the whole thing becomes a nightmare. I don’t want to make something I want to join something. I don’t want to spend my life reforming a system I want to practice as a monastic.