Transgenderism: A Buddhist Perspective

Zen Master Shikan visited Zen Master Matsuzan and asked her, “Just what is Matsuzan?” 

Matsuzan replied to him saying, “Matsuzan never shows her peak.”

Matsuzan, like many Zen Masters, took on the name of the mountain where she lived.

Shikan said, “Just who is the person within the mountain?” 

Matsuzan said, “It is beyond appearances of being a man or a woman.” 

Shikan said, “Then why do you not change [your form]?” 

Matsuzan said, “I am not the ghost of a wild fox. What might I change?”

Shikan prostrated to her and became her student.

I’m calling this essay “A Buddhist Perspective” and not “The Buddhist Perspective” because it is the opinion of one person, me, and informed by my own understanding and study of Buddhism. I am not attempting to speak for all of Buddhism. I am sure I do not.

I believe everyone should be able to live the way they want to live as long as it doesn’t cause undue harm to anyone else. How you choose to dress, who you choose to love, what name you choose to call yourself, and so on are none of my business. Furthermore, what any adult wants to do to their own body is also none of my business either. I do not encourage or endorse anyone who would harass or threaten any person because how of they choose to live their lives. 

Transgender people, like all people, deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. I just want to say a few things about the philosophical ideas that seem to be behind a growing trend that I’ve been watching for a number of years. 

I don’t see any Buddhists talking about how the philosophy of Buddhism would view the philosophy that underlies transgenderism. Maybe that’s because they don’t want to be perceived as intolerant or bigoted. I think that the philosophy of Buddhism leads to a way of seeing the phenomenon of transgenderism that, if it’s not explained carefully, could be misunderstood. Perhaps most Buddhists think that the best thing to do is to avoid addressing the matter and to just treat all people with kindness and respect. Which is a very good policy.

But I thought that it might be useful see if it’s possible to address the issue of transgenderism from a Buddhist philosophical standpoint while maintaining an attitude of kindness and respect. Because the philosophical understanding we have of what a human being is determines how we act in the world. 

We, in the west, have a long tradition of understanding the nature of body and mind and their relationship to one another that is vastly different from the Buddhist understanding of body and mind. If we look at transgenderism using the Buddhist ideas of body and mind, it looks quite different from how it looks when viewed using western ideas of body and mind.

It appears to me that transgenderism is based on the western philosophical idea that there is a fundamental duality between body and mind. Most of the proponents of transgenderism don’t seem to realize this. But I can see no other way to understand their position.

There are a lot of people who feel that they have been born in the wrong body. They have the body of a man but internally they feel that they are a woman, or they have the body of a woman but internally they feel that they are a man. We are told that when a baby is born, the doctor looks at the baby’s genitals and guesses whether the baby is a boy or a girl. But, we are told, sometimes the doctor’s guess is incorrect. Sometimes a baby with male genitalia is actually a girl inside, or a baby with female genitalia is actually a boy inside, or sometimes the baby is neither a boy nor a girl inside no matter what that baby appears to be outwardly. Only the child can tell us whether the child is male or female once that child becomes old enough to articulate that child’s internal state. Thus, the person’s internal mental or spiritual state is the true person. The person’s external bodily or material state is not. 

If the person’s external/material state does not match the person’s internal/mental state, we are told, then drugs, hormones, and surgery may be used to modify the material body to bring it into accord with the true internal/mental person. This, we are told, will solve the person’s problem with regard to gender. The inner immaterial/mental person and the outer material person will at last match up and finally that person will be able to lead a happy life.

This comes from the western dualistic idea of body and mind. It is based on the Christian notion of an immortal immaterial soul that inhabits a mortal material body.

Even though I’ve never heard any proponent of transgenderism talk about the human soul, it seems clear to me that they must believe that human beings have souls or something very much like souls. Furthermore, they must believe that our souls are fundamentally different from our bodies. I assume that most of the folks who propose these ideas don’t like religious sounding words like “spirit” and “soul.” But whenever I think about what they’re proposing, I can’t find any other way of understanding it. I suppose they might prefer to use the word “mind” instead of “soul.” But, even so, the idea that a person can be born into the wrong body only makes sense if one believes that body and mind are two separate things. Whether this immaterial internal person is or is not an immortal soul placed there by God is beside the point. The point is that in order for a person to be in the wrong body, the person must be a fundamentally different sort of entity from the body.

Buddhism rejects the idea of an immaterial mind (or soul or spirit) of any kind that lives within and is fundamentally different from the material body. According to Buddhism, material body and immaterial mind are one and the same. Buddhism says that body and mind are both manifestations of an underlying something that is neither body nor mind, neither spirit nor matter. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

According to Buddhist philosophy, it is utterly impossible for someone to be born in the wrong body.

Therefore, using drugs, hormones, and surgery to try to make the material body compatible with the immaterial mind is a futile endeavor. It cannot possibly work. It cannot lead to happiness. It cannot fix the fundamental problem. At best, such an approach might temporarily relieve some superficial aspects of a person’s suffering, but it cannot hope to get at the real root of the problem. It is more likely to cause more suffering.

In the story I quoted at the beginning of this essay, Zen Master Shikan asked Zen Master Matsuzan “Just who is the person within the mountain?” He was asking her who she really was inside, beyond who she appeared to be.

Matsuzan was no fool. She knew what Shikan was asking. She was not the first woman to receive transmission of the dharma and lead a Buddhist sangha. But she knew that female Zen masters were not common and that Shikan might have had some difficulty accepting a woman as a teacher even though Shikan’s master (who was a man) had recommended he study with her.

Matsuzan said that who she really was, was “beyond appearances of being a man or a woman.” Fundamentally, what we truly are is neither male nor female. Fundamentally, we are all non-binary. 

Buddhism is a philosophy of non-dualism. We do not believe in the duality of body and mind, or, to put it differently the duality of matter and spirit. We believe in the oneness of body and mind. We also believe that our true nature, our Buddha Nature, is not only neither spirit nor matter, it is also neither male nor female. We are truly and completely non-binary, not just in terms of gender but in the most absolute sense. We are not spirit. We are not matter. We are not men. We are not women.

But then Shikan asked Matsuzan, “Why do you not change [your form]?”

If Matsuzan was neither male nor female, why didn’t she just turn herself into a man? She’d have gotten a lot more respect as a Zen Master that way. Especially in ancient China where it was expected that Zen Masters ought to be “big stout fellows” (there’s a standard word for a great Zen Master that translates as “big stout fellow”).

But if Matsuzan had been a male Zen Master, wouldn’t she have been less appealing to female students who might have needed her teachings? And wouldn’t she have also been less helpful to male students like Shikan who might have needed to learn that women could also be great Zen Masters? And wouldn’t she have been less useful as an example to future generations of women?

Matsuzan answered, “I am not the ghost of a wild fox. What might I change?” A ghost of a wild fox was a symbol of something deceptive. Matsuzan was saying that she felt it was important to be honest about who she was. What she truly was may have been beyond male or female, and yet she had manifested in this present life as a woman. She felt that if she had presented herself as a man, even if she could have transformed herself into one somehow, this would have been an act of deception. She had to be authentic to who she was in this life.

What we truly are is beyond male or female. And yet the bodies that we manifest as when we appear in the world as human beings are either male or female. This is a fundamental fact that cannot be altered, even with drugs, hormones, and surgery. Our appearance can be altered. But the facts of our birth cannot be changed. It is part of our karma as individuals. 

Dogen Zenji was very clear in his teachings that it was not better to be male than to be female. In saying so he was going against hundreds of years of Buddhist teachings that said it was better to be a man than to be a woman. But he was harkening back to the original teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha who also held that both men and women were equally capable of reaching the highest state of enlightenment. Dogen said that Buddhism had become corrupted in the centuries after the death of its founder and needed to return to the understanding that women and men were spiritually equal.

Having said that our true nature is fundamentally non-dual, or non-binary, it is important to note that the binary and dualistic aspects of how we manifest in this world are not a trivial matter. The universe we inhabit as human beings is a universe of dualities — of light and darkness, of right and wrong, of male and female. The duality of male and female is seen throughout nature. Even plants and single celled organisms come in male and female forms. Yes, there are exceptions. But these are rare. And, in any case, human beings are not among those rare exceptions. 

Fundamentally the duality of things is an illusion. But it is a very deep illusion. It’s not something one can overcome merely by intellectually understanding it isn’t so. Human beings have evolved from a line of billions of years of living things that came in male and female varieties. We find ourselves manifested in this life as a male or female human being. We do not know why. But I believe that we should respect that how we manifest in this life is not arbitrary, and it is not something that was forced upon us against our will.

Personally, as I said at the beginning, I think that it’s fine to live the way you want to live. There are infinite ways to be a man and infinite ways to be a woman. There is no need to conform to gender stereotypes. Men can wear make-up and dresses, and women can shave their heads and smoke cigars. In fact, male Buddhist monks wear robes that look kinda like dresses, and female Buddhist monks shave their heads. So, it’s all good. Buddhism also has no fundamental problems with whoever you want to love.

But when I see people trying to solve their deep suffering by altering their bodies with chemicals and surgery, I wonder if they are making a mistake. And I wonder if we should be so quick to allow children to make permanent changes to their physical bodies that they may come to regret. It may be better to reserve that for adults who have had adequate time to consider the ramifications of such drastic alterations.

No one is asking me. But if they did, I’d say that I think that, rather than trying to alter one’s body to align it with one’s ideas about one’s “true self,” it would be better to learn to live as comfortably as possible with the mind and body that one’s past karma has manifested in this life.