October 12, 2022

PLOWE | As a Queer American Buddhist

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The goal of Buddhism is to understand and reduce suffering. The term Buddhism encompasses an extraordinarily diverse epistemology and religion; multiple Buddhist lineages have developed different methods to tackle suffering. Buddhism is a rich, intellectually pluralist science of suffering. We need it today desperately.

I came to Buddhism for help with my own existential suffering, and now practice daily meditation for medicine. I have come to identify with this ancient tradition born from a different continent. I must reconcile my Buddhist identification with my other identities, such as my nationality, Jewish heritage and gender queerness. As a queer American Buddhist, I am a spiritual thinker before I am a religious follower. 

Buddhism as a historical religion is not explicitly supportive of transness or queerness (why be queer if you can just be a renunciant?). The low visibility of queerness in Buddhism is not a problem for my spiritual journey, however. The Buddha requested his listeners to be critical and questioning at every step of his teachings — which include following interpretations — and to only accept the teachings if the individual found them to be true. Therefore, disagreement within the tradition is no holy issue, and debate is heartily encouraged. 

As a queer American Buddhist, I am fairly removed from Buddhist culture and learn mostly from the internet, books and a Tibetan Learning Center where I stayed a week this past summer. My knowledge of the Buddhist tradition is highly limited, yet it has impacted and changed the course of my life. 

I navigate the world through the lens of non-duality. I experience the mundane world as both highly meaningful and simultaneously empty of inherent nature or identity. I celebrate my senses and am in deep presence as I love and support the people around me, yet I also work to detach myself from everything important to me because everything is impermanent and empty of inherent identity. 

My perspective is contingent upon the radical interconnectedness and interdependence of life on Earth. It is also a product of my understanding of no-self: that there are no solid, independent components to our consciousnesses and identities. My understanding of no-self validates my gender queerness because no-self negates gender essentialism. I present myself whichever way makes me feel most comfortable in this world because I know there is no inherent femininity or masculinity. 

I have two names and two sets of pronouns, and I never know which to use with whom. I struggle to introduce myself so much that I wish I could tell every new friend just to make up a new name for me. (That’s what I tell them to do with my cat, Kitty Baby.) 

I find femininity and masculinity to be relative, and my understanding of both of these ways of embodying myself to be fluid. In Vajrayana Buddhism, femininity is associated with wisdom, and masculinity is associated with compassion. Both concepts are portrayed in art and in stories with equal ferocity and are not mutually exclusive. 

As a queer Jewish-American Buddhist who is also bipolar (PHEW), I am a vessel of processing different kinds of suffering. It is not that these labels somehow allot me suffering, but my individual, ancestral and empathetic suffering provides me the grief from which I draw my spiritual (or meaning-making) strength. 

The thought of someone perceiving me as a cisgender woman is an unhappy thought for me, yet I know that I will never be able to control others’ perceptions of me. Therefore, I do not engage terribly deeply with their false societal view of gender. 

I argued in an eighth-grade ethics bowl that transgender people were mentally ill because that was what The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) said at the time, and therefore trans medical care should not be guaranteed under Medicaid. I am appalled at my argument, which was based on the myth of gender as biological binary. The implications of the false view of transness, and of selfhood, can be deadly.

I felt euphoric when I understood that transness is compatible with Buddhist philosophy despite how Buddhist institutions, like most religious institutions, remain bogged down in both metaphysical and normative misogyny. It is difficult to rely upon teacher and community support in Buddhist communities; I have read in the work of essays Transcending: Trans Buddhist Voices, during a practitioner’s transition. 

As an individual explorer of Buddhist spirituality, I have the privilege of free gender expression without fear of Buddhist community judgment. Transness and gender remain ongoing points of discussion in Buddhist academia and community alike, and I believe this discussion will continue to help Buddhism evolve and welcome more individual thinkers and practitioners. 

ED Plowe is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] With Gratitude runs every other Tuesday this semester.