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On his American Buddhist Perspective blog, my friend Justin Whitaker recently posted an interesting interview on the experience of trans* people in American Buddhism. Justin uses “trans*” as a shorthand for “transgender”, “transsexual”, “transvestite” and similar terms – to denote people who have become or attempted to become, in some respect, a gender different from the one associated with their biology at birth. It is clear to me that trans* people in the US face various forms of unjust discrimination. Where the tricky questions get raised is when the struggle against that injustice intersects with Buddhism – as, for that matter, when the struggle against any injustice intersects with Buddhism. Justin and I began a conversation about this in the comments to that post, and I’d like to continue that conversation in more detail here.

Let me recap the conversation so far. (If you’ve seen the original comment thread, you can skip down several paragraphs without missing anything.) The creators of transbuddhists.org, interviewed in Justin’s article, identified many specific problems they face: “Insurance companies who won’t cover our medical needs because we’re trans*, families who have a hard time accepting us, people calling us the wrong pronoun, navigating finding and holding a job where we are treated respectfully…” By the standards of a normal concern with justice, these problems matter. My comment responded, as I have noted before, that Buddhist texts often urge a revaluation of many of our deepest concerns, and the concern for justice is not exempt.

So too, the transbuddhists.org interviewee claimed:

Equanimity, or acceptance, is another teaching that may have particular implications for trans* folks, being that many of us are at odds with the body, name, gender categorization that we were given at birth and go to lengths to change them in order to be more at peace with ourselves as we walk in the world.

And my comment continued:

As I understand the dharma, if you need to change something outside of your mind in order to be more at peace with yourself, you’re doin’ it wrong.

None of this is intended to deny that the slights faced daily by trans* people are injustices. Rather, it’s to point out that Buddhism is supposed to be about things that are more important than justice.

From there, the conversation began in earnest. Justin replied, in part:

it sounds like you are jumping to the ultimate truth in Buddhism as a response to people’s conventional suffering. If so, that would be like the sort of “spiritual bypassing” discussed elsewhere in cases such as racism and gender inequality in Buddhism. Of course, in the ultimate level there is no injustice, there is no gender, there is no race, sex, class, etc, but in our conventional reality these things need to be addressed to help remove the structures that bring suffering to those who fall outside “our” group.

I then asked Justin whether there were any premodern Buddhist texts that applied the rubric of ultimate and conventional truth to suffering in this way – the terms are usually not used that way, in my experience. I added the caveat that I’ve defended such innovation a number of times before – but that I think it’s important to acknowledge that it is innovation.)

In response Justin cited the Sigālovāda Sutta and the Five Precepts as premodern texts that deal with conduct toward others:

All of these set up a social framework for a just society; not with justice as an end in itself, but with justice as a natural result of people living rightly. My argument is that we can extend this model to trans*people today even though it wasn’t specifically covered in the Buddhist texts without doing much disservice to our understanding of premodern Buddhist philosophy/ethics.

And he added:

At the same time, I would challenge anyone to find cases of the Buddha urging discrimination against certain classes of people that might be extended to trans*people. My guess is that cases of the Buddha discriminating are going to be against people who actively, knowingly commit harm to a person/community; and adding trans*people to this group is obviously incorrect.

Here is my response. First, if I’m reading Justin correctly, I am now more convinced than before that the answer to my first question “are there any premodern Buddhist texts that apply the rubric of ultimate and conventional truth to suffering in this way?” is actually no. Certainly it’s not in the Sigālovāda Sutta, if that’s the paradigmatic text. There’s nothing about ultimate and conventional in that text; the words don’t even appear. There is suffering, but it appears in subordinate clauses (the warm-hearted friend friend is one who is the same in sukha and in dukkha); it is not theorized here, and not given as a reason to perform these actions. And the text is certainly not describing anything as “conventional as opposed to ultimate suffering”, any application of that distinction to suffering. This matters if we’re trying to understand what the premodern texts said, and learn from them as they were rather than reading our own prejudices back into them.

Regarding more the substantive claims about treatment of others: those rules are typically in the context of self-care. The five precepts are not all about the treatment of others; one is about refraining from alcohol. The Sigālovāda does spell out the treatment of others in more detail, and it is somewhat unusual within the Pali canon in that regard. The rationales it gives are also about the care of the self at the beginning. By the end its concerns turn toward an ordered and well functioning society at the end – but, as Justin noted, justice as such does not appear as a rationale. And that makes a difference. The Sigālovāda’s concerns look more like the conservative functionalism of Confucius or the Bhagavad Gītā: in the Access to Insight translation, “These four winning ways make the world go round, as the linchpin in a moving car. If these in the world exist not, neither mother nor father will receive respect and honor from their children.” One is not trying to achieve justice, but to preserve the established and harmonious social order of things. It seems to me that that’s not the kind of thing one extends to marginalized groups that break out of established social categories; indeed it’s in many respects the opposite, sustaining those categories as they are.

Turning to Justin’s point that “I would challenge anyone to find cases of the Buddha urging discrimination against certain classes of people that might be extended to trans* people.” I actually wasn’t intending to go there, since I was intending on making a more general point about political concern, but since he asked: the Pali Vinaya monastic code has many references to paṇḍakas, who are people with unusual gender status – putting eunuchs in the same category as men who give oral sex to other men. Peter Harvey’s Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, in an extensive discussion of related topics, suggests that in other texts the paṇḍakas also cross-dressed. That’s about as close as you can get in ancient India to the modern category of “trans*”. Not exactly the same thing, no, but definitely in the category of “might be extended to”. And what does the vinaya say about paṇḍakas? They’re not allowed to enter the saṅgha, and if a paṇḍaka has been admitted accidentally, s/he is supposed to be expelled. That’s discrimination. And I see little reason to believe that any of it has to do with the paṇḍakas knowingly causing harm. I suppose one could say that the vinaya is not actually the Buddha’s words, but establishing what the historical Buddha said is not exactly a piece of cake; the tradition has always considered the Vinaya to be buddhavacana.

So challenge accepted, I suppose. I should add again that I am all for innovation on this sort of issue – I would hate to see transgender people excluded from the saṅgha today on the grounds of these texts. (Or for to see women subjected to the eight heavy rules – another discrimination against a class of people that might easily be extended to trans* people, incidentally.) But when I say that I am disagreeing with buddhavacana, as I disagree with it on cosmology. And I think it’s important to make that disagreement with open eyes.