Transgenderism and the True Self

Is this the real me?

Last week I put out a video called “Gender, Karma, and Lava Lamps.” Some people thought that I was trying to make a statement about transgenderism in that video. I wasn’t really. But I can see why it seemed that way. I apologize for the confusion.

This got me thinking about the current debates raging around the issue of transgenderism. I think that a lot of these debates aren’t really about transgenderism at all. Of course they’re often about people’s various political agendas. We all know that! But I think there’s another thing going on. Sometimes, it seems to me, they are arguments about what constitutes the true self.

On the one side, there are folks who seem to be taking the idealistic position. They seem to be saying that the mind is the real self. For example, someone believes in their mind that they’re female but their physical body is that of a male. These folks say the mind is more important. Therefore, the body should be made to conform to the mind through hormone treatments and surgery.

On the other side, there are those who seem to be arguing the materialistic position. They seem to be saying that the body is the true self. They argue that if the mind and body are at odds over a person’s gender, the body ought to be obeyed. Therefore, the mind should be conditioned to conform to the body through therapy and prayer and other such methods.

This is a very old argument and has applications far beyond the transgender community. For centuries people all over the world have been arguing about whether the mind or the body is the real self.

What if neither body nor mind are the true self? And not just for people with gender dysphoria, but for all of us.

In Inmo (It), one of my favorite of his essays, Dogen says, “We are tools which it possess within this Universe in ten directions. How do we know it exists? We know it is so because the body and mind both appear in the Universe, yet neither is our self. The body, already is not ‘I.’ Its life moves on through days and months, and yet we cannot stop it even for an instant.” A few sentences later he says, “The sincere mind, too, does not stop, but goes and comes moment by moment. Although the state of sincerity does exist, it is not something that lingers in the vicinity of the personal self. Even so, there is something which, in the limitlessness, establishes the bodhi-mind.” (Inmo is chapter 29 in Book 2 of the Nishijima/Cross translation of Shobogenzo)

The word translated here as “it,” is the Chinese word inmo. Inmo is a word that indicates a thing that cannot be named. The word is akin to English words like it, or what.

Dogen is saying that the body is not the self and neither is the mind. Yet, he says, something exists. This something is neither body nor mind but manifests as both body and mind. It “does not linger in the vicinity of the personal self,” Dogen says. The personal self with all of its demands is not the real self.

The mind goes and comes moment by moment, Dogen says. The thoughts and impressions we have at one moment are often very different from the thoughts and impressions we have the next moment. Sometimes we can have a complete reversal of an opinion we once held very strongly. Sometimes our impressions of things change completely.

The body, too, undergoes changes. Dogen uses the example of aging, but there are many other examples. The body appears to maintain some consistency, and yet sometimes I wonder about this. I think that I look the same today as I did yesterday. I think my awful driver’s license photo looks enough like me to be recognizable. That all seems to be in order. And yet the Buddhists say that we appear and disappear moment by moment, not just in mind but in body as well.

I suspect that we might be coming to a point in our society where large numbers of people are starting to question the core notion of self. They’re probably not quite ready to apply these questions to themselves. It may seem safer to project these questions onto a special group of people that is removed from the day-to-day experience of most of us.

But the mystery of whether the body or the mind is the true self is not a concern only for transgender people. It was a deep concern for Dogen 800 years ago, and for the Buddha 2,500 years ago, and for the entire community of Buddhists. In all cultures across all of human history some people were and are concerned about this matter. Buddhists call it the Great Matter.

We live in a time where materialistic thought holds sway all over the world. As materialists, we are prone to think that the way to solve a problem is by adjusting our material circumstances. We were too hot, so we invented air conditioning. We couldn’t get to places as fast as we liked, so we invented cars. We get sick, so we invented medicines and surgical techniques.

The idea that the best way to deal with gender dysphoria is through hormonal treatments and surgery is a thoroughly materialistic way of handling the problem. Even if it seems to be proposed mainly by people who hold an idealistic position on the true nature of self. It’s another way we try to make the material world conform to the immaterial mind. It makes perfect sense that a society steeped in materialism would see this as a viable solution.

This doesn’t necessarily mean materialistic solutions are always a bad thing. I’m glad there are air conditioners and cars and medicine.

Yet air conditioners, cars, and medicine don’t just solve problems, they also cause other problems. Every materialistic solution to a problem seems to affect the delicate balance of forces within the material plane of existence. In order to shore things up, we have to make other adjustments. And our new adjustments have their own unforeseen effects, and so more adjustments are required, and so on to infinity (and beyond?).

Buddhist ways of dealing with the human tendency to dislike material circumstances are often surprising. There’s an old Zen Buddhist saying that goes, “When it’s too hot, let the heat kill you. When it’s too cold, let the cold kill you.”

They didn’t literally mean you should die from heat or cold. The operative word in this saying is “you.” When that thing you think of as your self rebels against the circumstances in which it finds itself, kill the idea of self. Sometimes this means taking real action, like turning on the air conditioner or putting on a coat. Sometimes this means dropping the idea that things should be different from how they actually are.

I have no Buddhist solution to propose to transgender people. Each of us has to find our own way to live in this world. I just find it interesting to see this debate emerge at this time in the history of human thought.


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Is this the real me?