By Ray Buckner
It’s an odd experience to find peace and belonging at an academic conference, but that was my experience at this year’s Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Diego, CA. Taking up questions of power, disability, transness, and race in American Buddhism, the AAR Annual Meeting existed as a site of expanding, reconceptualizing, and challenging what it means to think and study American Buddhism, as well as contemporary studies of Buddhism more broadly. Presenters interrogated the question, “Who belongs in Buddhist spaces?” and “How do trans and bodies of color experience and negotiate American Buddhist spaces and Buddhist theories of personhood?” The AAR existed as a profoundly rejuvenating and exciting space of academic, theoretical, and personal inquiry.
As a master’s student in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University, my research focuses on the intersections between Buddhist philosophies and sexual violence. Grounded in feminist Buddhist scholarship and black feminist thought, my master’s thesis examines public teacher responses to accusations of sexual violence against prominent Buddhist teacher Noah Levine, asking the question: “Which Buddhist concepts are mobilized in responding to sexual violence?” I focus on specific uses of Buddhist doctrines to reify patriarchal power, particularly the concepts not-knowing mind, non-duality, and equanimity. I find these teachers respond to allegations with the language of “not-knowing.” They ask their communities to “wait and see” whether these allegations are true, with the unspoken assumption they are not. I assert these responses use Buddhist teachings to uphold white men’s innocence by using sexist tropes to downplay and delegitimize the experiences of women survivors. I argue that these responses uphold men’s supremacy within Buddhist communities, and conclude that a feminist response to allegations of misconduct requires centering survivors of sexual assault.
These inquiries into power, gender, and Buddhism helped me take part in an exciting AAR session titled, “Buddhism, Queer Theory, and Trans* Theory.” In a presentation titled, “Buddhist Understandings of the Self Can Serve as Gaslighting Tools,” I examined the place of transgender practitioners in Buddhist spaces. Asking the question, “How does American Buddhist teachers’ engagement with trans personhood mirror discourses on racialization and whiteness in American Buddhism?” I analyzed the ways, structurally and philosophically, transgender Buddhists are marked as other in American Buddhist communities.
I started this presentation by exploring a particular response I received from a Zen Buddhist teacher after I wrote a piece for Lion’s Roar Magazine about being a trans Buddhist in American Buddhism. In that piece, I had examined some of the ways that meditation, and Buddhist spaces themselves, offer physical and structural challenges to a trans person. I described some of the internal discomfort I experience in my body attending meditation in a chest binder. If I wear a chest binder, I can barely breathe when meditating. If I don’t wear a binder, my gender dysphoria is unbearably high. My choices are limited. Is it possible, I asked, to meditate peacefully in my body while wearing a binder? Can Buddhist teachers help me along this path? Several responses proliferated online after the publishing of this piece. One response from a prominent Buddhist teacher was mockery, both on Facebook and YouTube. In a YouTube video titled “Inclusivity in Zen,” this teacher questioned the legitimacy and necessity of my gender expression in Buddhist spaces, including my use of gender-affirming gear like binders and packers. “Why are you wearing that to go to meditation?” he asked. Other people in the comment section of the video echoed these sentiments. Their main question was, “Why should a tradition that’s been around “forever” and worked for so many people change for just a couple individuals?” The unspoken answer: It shouldn’t.
In my AAR presentation I argued that this response was not “neutral” but grounded in a particular understanding of what the dharma should be, and importantly, who the dharma is for. Part of what that prominent teacher was trying to do, I argued, was invoke ideas of relative and absolute truths to undermine, and in particular gaslight, claims of trans suffering. As that teacher went on to state in the YouTube video, when one enters a Zendo with shaved heads and dark robes, no one can tell the difference between men and women. These gender differences, he argues, cease to exist. Ultimately this teacher set up the following frame: to see gender is to live in the relative; to live in the relative is to be unenlightened; to acknowledge transness is to hold on to gender as real. Any claim of trans identity or trans suffering is an unenlightened, and thereby unworthy exploration, within our dharma centers.
I argue that these Buddhist teachings on relative and absolute truths, emptiness, non-duality, don’t know mind, and equanimity—as they relate to the treatment of trans, surviving, and bodies of color in the United States—serve as an epistemic form of dismissal against claims of violence and exclusion. These teachers, I argue, use the Buddhist teachings to achieve certain hegemonic goals, ones that specifically reinforce white, patriarchal and cis-supremacy.
Our session on Trans Buddhism was one of many inquiring into forms of power, embodiment, and exclusion in Buddhism. Whether it was the theoretically prudent session “Decolonial/Anti-Racist Interventions in Tibetan/Buddhist Studies,” explorations of queer and trans theory and Buddhism, examinations into whiteness, racialization, and belonging in American Buddhism, or studies into disability and Buddhist scriptures, the AAR was rich with critical thinking about bodies, histories, and the expansive future of this field. As a graduate student in conversation with scholars committed to offering sophisticated, thoughtful, and critical perspectives on Buddhism, it was simply a beautiful, inspiring, and heartening experience to take part in. I feel excited to take part in a community and collective effort to examine race, gender, ability, and power in American Buddhism.
This inquiry is a necessary and powerful. If we are committed to examining and dismantling white supremacy, patriarchy, and cis-normativity in American Buddhism, we must come to understand the ways that Buddhist concepts are used to reify hegemony.