Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Transgendered People And Buddhism

A person described as transgendered or transsexual usually identifies as, and desires to live and be accepted as, a member of the sex opposite to that indicated by their body. Thus some individuals have a strong feeling that they are female despite having male genitals or that they are a man despite having a woman’s genitals. Such people often say that they feel they are ‘in the wrong body’. Ancient Indian literature contains numerous myths about people who spontaneously changed sex, usually as a result of having desire or sometimes even just admiration, for someone of the same sex. Several such stories are also found in Buddhist sources. The commentary to the Dhammapada (5th century CE ?) includes a story about a man named Soreyya who changed into a woman after becoming entranced by a particular monk’s beautiful complexion. Later he married and bore two children (Dhp. A. I,324). The ancient Indians seem to have seen considered gender to be a rather fluid thing. This subject is well covered in Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai’s in-depth and well-informed Same Sex Love in India – Readings from Literature and History. The Tipitaka mentions several different types of transgendered states and individuals – the man-like woman (vepurisika), sexual indistinctness (sambhinna), one having the characteristics of both genders (ubhatovyanjanaka), etc (Vin.III,129). The interesting thing is that such states and individuals are taken for granted in the scriptures with little or no moral judgments being attached to them.
Various theories have been posited to explain transgenderism – that it is a psychological or hormonal abrogation or that it has genetic or environmental causes. The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth could help explain why some people are transgendered. A person may be reborn as, say, a woman in numerous successively lives during which time feminine attitudes, desires, traits and dispositions become strongly imprinted on their mind. This would determine that they were continually reborn into a female body or that their consciousness would mold the embryo into a female form - whatever factors are responsible for the physical characteristic of gender. Then, for either kammic, genetic or other reasons they may get reborn into a male body while psychologically remaining 'female' . If this or something like it, is the cause of transgenderism, it would mean that this condition is a natural one rather than a moral perversion as most theistic religions maintain.
Transgenderism has presumably existed in all Buddhist societies as it does everywhere else, although I have never even heard of it in Sri Lanka during my 20 years there. However, transgendered people seem be particularly visible and common in Thailand. The Thai word kathoey is used loosely for effeminate homosexuals, transvestites but particularly for transgendered people. Although such people are largely accepted in Thailand, probably because of the tolerance encouraged by Buddhism, they still face numerous social and legal difficulties and often end up as prostitutes. A jurisdiction in which the Dhamma was genuinely applied would recognize transgendered peoples’ specific needs and allow them to legally change their gender if and when they undergo gender reassignment surgery.


Ken and Visakha said...

Thanks very much for this.

Richard Harrold said...

Thanks for this post, it's a great resource. Your mention of the Thai word "kathoey," which I had read about in an anthology of writings by gay Buddhists. One of the articles talked about this term, but I can't recall who wrote it. It was not Silva, although Silva's ubiquitous article is in that text.

There was a mention in the article about "kathoey" taken from the Buddhist literature, although not sure from where, that describes the incident of the Buddha banning a monk from the Sangha because of his continual flirtations and sexual misconduct within the Sangha. Do you know what story or item from the canon I am speaking of?

David ( said...

Great blog post. I have held the same theory too. There are two genders and like any 50-50 probability there is the good chance that sometimes one could have the same gender for ten or more lifetimes in a row. Then those tendencies will be there.
If you flip a coin 1,000 times there are bound to be times when there might be 10 times in a row with 'heads' but in the end, after 1,000 flips of the coin, it will still be around 50.1% heads and 49.9% tails, or some other close probability.
As I have heard some gay people say, "do you think I would voluntarily choose this discrimination and voluntarily choose to go against everything society and my family wants?"
So it definitely appears to be natural and the rebirth issue seems to explain it completely. Homosexuality occurs in about 10% of any population and this would be about the amount of times that you might have the same sequence several times in a row -- about a 10% chance.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Richard,
Being a popularly used term rather than a precisely defined technical term ‘kathoey’ is used in Thailand loosely for a wide variety of sexual nonconformists. So it is not possible to know which of the several stories in the Vinaya about monks sexually misbehaving themselves refers to a ‘kathoey’. However, the Vinaya does disqualify transgendered people from becoming monks or nuns. My understanding is that it is not because of discriminatory reasons but for purely administrative reasons. Not knowing how to catagorized them, as either male or female, it was decided not to ordain them. Things might be different today with hormonal treatment and gender reassignment surgery.

die.tipse said...

Thank you very much for your wise comment on transgender, that make me feel very close to the buddhist wide sight. In Berlin, I realize since some years that more and more people are open to the in-between-gender - neither 100% male, nor 100% female. Here it becomes kind of popular under the cultural name "queer scene" in many political, social oder art events. The presure to belong to one gender with all characteristics becomes lower and lower. I still have a very optimistic view into the future...

bobzane said...

thanks, I posted link on Facebook and Twitter.

Transgender Networks said...

I posted your link on our Transgender and Buddhism Facebook Page.

International Transgender Buddhist Sangha

Facebook Page

Deborah said...

I too have now posted your comments on my Facebook page. Thanks

Transgender Networks said...

Our new website: International Transgender Buddhist Sangha

Yours in the dharma,


Noki said...

I believe... based partly on modern scientific research... that the cause of transsexualism hormones in the uterus. On the other hand, I believe... having nothing to do with scientific research... that the reason for being born transsexual is for the soul in question to learn lessons relating to tolerance and strength of character.

It doesn't always work. And I suspect that these same lessons are the reason for other conditions, such as homosexuality and psychological lycanthropy.

What I find interesting is that the oppression of transgendered individuals in most societies is a relatively modern occurrence, possibly relating to the influence of certain Middle Eastern religions, at least to some extent. I wonder, then, if I'm right about the reason for being born transgendered today, what was the reason, for example, 1000 years ago in a Native American tribe where such a person might be considered special?

The Universe is a strange place to live.

Kaitlyn H said...

I am a MTF transsexual. I've always felt like I was reincarnated into the wrong body.

I wonder what kind of karma could could a woman to be reincarnated into a male body?

I have a transgender resource website, would you be interested in doing a link exchange?

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Aeondrift said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aeondrift said...

Transsexualism has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but is purely about Gender Identity. Transsexualism is (simply put) where a person mentally strongly identifies themselves (since young) to be of a particular gender, and which is misaligned with that of his/her body; and are chronically distressed by it to the point of depression – and thus seeks to transition. It is not a choice but a need for a transsexual when they have reached the point of breaking.

From the biological point of view, the genitalia is “decided” on the first 9 weeks of pregnancy, while the brain only starts developing after about the 9th weeks. By default, w/o testosterone all fetuses starts off as a “female”. For a male baby, any hormonal changes or imbalance may disrupt the brain to develop properly into male even if the genitalia has already been formed completely into male (and if the genitalia development is disrupted, this results in intersex characteristic too), And thus the physically-male baby is born with a mental map of its physical body (akin to how some amputees may experience “phantom limbs”), psychology and emotion of a female with a physical body of a male. There are various studies conducted on the brain of deceased transsexuals, that supports this; couple with our understanding of how a fetus develops in the womb that makes the explains presented palpable. Female-to-Male Transsexual Men also do exist; but they tend to transition a lot more successfully even after puberty, and are able to stealth and fit in society unnoticed.

Philosophically speaking, the mind dictates “who we are” and not our body. Transsexualism is an inter-sex condition of a brain, and the lack of immediate physical sign does not discount the horrible suffering these individuals experienced with their physical birth defects.

Transsexualism is not to be mistaken with Crossdressers, Fetishistic Transvestites, or Drag Queens (entertainers), who are still considered men; and does not suffer the same intense gender dysphoria that Transsexual people experiences since their childhood. For transsexuals, it is not a "lifestyle"-choice but a *need*, as that is what they are within.

It is great to see how so many Buddhists (even within Singapore's ultra-conservative society) can be accepting and compassionate towards sufferings of transsexual people, instead of passing harsh judgement out of ignorance, and instead tries to understand and empathize.


Khadijah said...

It is interesting because I am a long time Christian, and am seen by many as transexual but am actually genetically XXy, (Damaged y Chromosome). Today I was talking with a woman who said I interpreted life like a Buddist, though I have never studied it. I wonder where this will go?

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Seten said...

Bhante, You wrote "abrogation" but I believe you intended "aberration." Just a small correction, submitted with respect.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I love men: Mercury, Juan Gabriel, Wilde.: But my nature, error, by nature; I am designed with a discrete orientation a purpose. A philiation with life. If you mask death with No-life & no procreation: Still death. Death culture: abortion, homicide, drugs, euthanasia and specie's homo-suicide. I define myself as trans-Planet because the silly level of discussion here and the meaningless issues (being others more important and prioritary) I born at the wrong planet. I felt attraction to extraterrestrial beings but only if they are sinister and cyborg. I'm buddhist. The raft, the brothers searching for the thief instead of a peaceful way to theirs sister's marriage & there are questions futile issues with no value or meaning if one is not searching dilligently nibbana.

BriannaFox said...

I have something to say. The trans movement is taking a dark turn. In america, they want to pass a law to force people to date them. they harass and bully people that disagree and in Canada, your kids can be taken if you do not agree. not to mention there are cases of pedophile trans people. be aware and be warned.

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