This month at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, we wish to celebrate gay pride by highlighting the scholarship of our LGBTQ+ students and faculty, as well as queer theory and queer theology in the wider Buddhist world. We are celebrating both “queerness” in its most basic definition, that is, as a descriptor of people whose sexual orientation or gender identity fall outside of societal norms, but we are also celebrating the act of queering itself. Many of the essays published this month hope to queer Buddhism, by using Buddhist doctrine, iconography, and community in creative ways, in ways that subvert or overturn longstanding patterns in Buddhist ways of thinking. Read our introduction to this special collection here.
I have a recurring dream. Night after night I dream of men. I dream of me touching them. I dream of me wanting them. I dream of me searching for their pants. I search and I search and I feel their bulge and I reach underneath the fabric and it’s…soft. They can’t ever get hard. I can’t ever get hard. It’s never hard. I want it to be hard. I want to be hard.
There’s a profound vulnerability in the desire to get hard. There’s a profound vulnerability in wanting a penis when I don’t have one. And, in what I have come to understand this dream to represent, there is a profound vulnerability in wanting a penis, someday having a penis, and yet still not being able to know if I can get hard, if I will be hard, or if getting hard and being hard will bring the joy and fullness that I yearn to feel in my body and heart.
Though I start with the image and experience of wanting a penis, or yearning for hardness, this is just an entryway. This piece is about yearning for peace. Whether my desire is for internal change or the desire for a flat chest, or a penis, or hair, or no hair, this piece is about being in a body that struggles with its existence. This piece is about exploring how we can relate to our body in new ways. Here I softly think through how the Buddhist teachings can help us to exist with our trans bodies, minds, and paths in ways that bring refuge rather than suffering.
Buddhism and hardness are about the last words that we expect to come together. In the United States, particularly through the Tibetan Buddhist teachings of Pema Chödrön (2006) and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (2009), we often hear that Buddhism is about becoming soft (Chödrön 2006). Buddhism is about getting raw (Trungpa, 2009). Buddhism is about disarmoring our hearts (Chödrön 2006). Buddhism, simply, is about addressing the suffering and obscured views that exist in our outer and inner worlds.
In this piece, I want to offer a way to connect my trans journey with my Buddhist journey. What can Buddhism teach me about a soft path in this queer and trans frame? What does it mean to transition genders and sometimes dwell in happiness and joy, and other times dwell in pain and sadness? How do I hold the complex experience of my trans body? I wish to turn towards certain teachings, believing that those teachings can help open new avenues for thinking with and living through our trans and queer “selves.”
Recently I came upon P.A Payutto’s writings on “Dependent Origination: The Buddhist Law of Conditionality” (n.d.). In this discourse on interdependence and dependent origination, Payutto outlines several “natures of defilements.” Payutto here describes several forms of “clinging” and “attachment,” clinging to such things as “sexuality” (Ditthupadana) a “true self” (Attavadupadana) and the overall desire to “free the self from the present and find a state which is more fulfilling” (Payutto, n.d.: 43). In speaking further on the phenomenon of “attachment,” Payutto explains that “Attachment to any life situation will produce thoughts or intentions to either become or avoid it” (Payutto, n.d.: 36). Payutto’s writings here are exceptionally helpful, for they point us in a direction of understanding how clinging to certain desires can further our attachment to those sites of clinging. In attachment, we become more attached. We wish to either hyper-become, or hyper-avoid. As Dogen writes in the Genjokoan: “Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread” (Tanahashi, n.d.)
In wanting a penis, I become deeply focused on the fact that I want a penis. I become hyper-focused on the fact that I don’t have a penis. I need a penis. I need to feel better. I need to feel right. I can’t escape my desire, or find a way out. Payutto’s discourse on Dependent Origination then opens a trans door—it opens the possibility that clinging to specific desires, desires that are grounded in an idea of a solid self, can sometimes cause injury. These attachments can limit my capacity to realize my existence outside of this fundamental want. These attachments can become all-consuming on the relative level and obstruct my path of enlightenment on the absolute. I can’t think my existence outside this absence. Re-thinking my attachments and forms of clinging might be able to help me re-orient and create new relationships with my body, mind, and being.
In this past year, I’ve struggled with my gender journey. There are times when I love my chest, but I hate my wide hips. There are times when I can’t bear to look at my vagina, seeing the past of its existence and its present and future arrival. I have new hair on my body, but it’s thin. I have struggled a great deal with my body, even as I have found moments of great joy and peace in it too. Dogen writes:
“Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is after and the firewood before. Understand that firewood abides in its condition as firewood, which fully includes before and after, while it is independent of before and after. Ash abides in its condition as ash, which fully includes before and after. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death” (Tanahashi, n.d.)
It is not exactly from female to male or male to female that we travel. It is not exactly from emptiness to wholeness or dysphoria to euphoria that we exist. There is not who we were and who we are now. Time is not teleological. Time is time. Existence is existence. To be trans is a story of becoming, but it is becoming as becoming. It is not becoming into this or becoming from this to that. It is the experience of becoming. It is the experience of being.
To accept that our existences are as they are does not mean that this is an easy acceptance. It does not mean that what we see brings joy. It also does not mean that a vagina must stay a vagina or that a penis must stay a penis. This is not an advocacy for bio-essentialism. This is not a transphobic Buddhist theology. This is simply a trans Buddhist argument for presence. It means that what we see is what we see. It means that when I look in the mirror, I have to grapple with what exists before and within me. It means that when I can’t get hard, I have to sit with what it feels like to not get hard. It means that if I listen in, and I wish to get hard, I might try to make plans to get hard. It means meeting time. It means meeting me, as I am.
“When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others. The place, the way, has not carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now. Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, to attain one thing is to penetrate one thing; to meet one practice is to sustain one practice” (Tanahashi, n.d.)
Where am I now? What meets me here? My trans body exists as it does—in difficulty, in pain, in joy, in sexiness, in desire, in dysphoria, in all its multitudes. To exist in presence on this trans path—to meet our bodies as they come, to meet our desires as they arise, to meet a clenched hand held under a soft object—this is the object of our practice. This is the importance of our path. I write this piece not to turn away from our trans desires. I write this piece not to speak against our longings. I write this piece knowing these longings are fundamental to our trans beings. Transition is a tricky thing. Our bodies are a complex and beautiful vehicle. I hope this offering, in all of its incompleteness and humility, offers some refuge to you on this trans Buddhist path.
Ray Buckner is a PhD Student in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. Their scholarship focuses on trans embodiment, trauma, and sexual violence in American Buddhism. Their academic work is published in the Journal of Global Buddhism and Religions.
Tanahashi. Kazuaki, n.d. “Actualizing the Fundamental Point (Genjo-koan).”
Available online: https://villagezendo.org/wp-content/pdfs/Genjo_Koan.pdf
Chödrön, Pema. 2006. Practicing Peace in Times of War. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Payutto, P.A. n.d. “Dependent Origination: The Buddhist Law of Conditionality.”
Available online: https://seattleinsight.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Dependent-Origin-Payutto.pdf
Trungpa, Chögyam. 2009. Smile at Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery. Boston: