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David Meskill asked an important question in response to my coming out as gender-fluid. He asks:

I’m curious about how your personal transformation might relate to your interest in traditional wisdom. Has it affected your views of tradition? Have those views informed your transformation in any way?

I said a bit in response to his comment (and in the previous post itself), but I’d like to expand on it here. (David is correct in thinking I have addressed the question somewhat in earlier posts; I will link to many of those here in this post.) As I noted in the previous post, my conviction that gender identity does not have to correspond to biological sex is deeply informed by qualitative individualism, which is a largely modern movement, though (like nearly every modern movement) it is one with premodern roots. But I do think it’s important to understand our philosophies historically and even understand ourselves as belonging rationally to a tradition, and I think there is a great deal to be found in premodern traditions that is lacking in more modern ones (such as Marxism). I am willing to characterize my relationship to Buddhism, especially, as one of faith. So how does all of this fit together?

I’ll first expand on my point from the comment: it helps a lot, in this regard, to be a Buddhist. This is not at all to say that premodern Buddhist tradition was in sympathy with modern views about gender; it wasn’t. The vinaya (monastic rules) is quite explicit about excluding people we would classify as gay, trans or otherwise queer, and gratuitously imposes extra burdens on female monks that are not imposed on the male ones.

But there is something surprisingly empowering in that very gratuitousness. That is: as far as I can tell, there isn’t anything intrinsic to classical Buddhist philosophical systems that would require the enforcement of gender norms. Within vinaya in particular, the justification made for most of the rules is pragmatic and social: monks behaved in ways that were socially disapproved, this harmed the prestige of the saṅgha, and therefore the Buddha instructed the monks not to do that. And, there is no doubt that the historical Buddha lived in, and that the vinaya was composed in, a deeply sexist, patriarchal and sex-segregated society. So treating men and women as equals, or allowing in people who cross that binary, would have hurt the saṅgha’s reputation and thus driven people away from it – and from liberation. But of course, if social reputation is the reason for the vinaya’s traditional sexism (which I think it is, though that’s disputed), then in a modern context that’s reason to include queer people and to treat women with equality, for far greater social shaming now falls upon organizations that aren’t so inclusive.

What there isn’t in classical Buddhism is any sense of complementarianism, any sense of biological sex as leading to naturally ordained normative ethical roles. This, I think, has to do with Buddhism’s relationship to reproduction: Buddhism is against family values, in a way that does not hold for many other premodern traditions. The book of Genesis declares “Male and female He created them”, and much else in the Abrahamic traditions attaches a sacredness to a natural process of reproduction, in which a human with a functioning vagina and one with a functioning penis combine to produce new life. Reproduction is a core part of the sacred order that God created and is as it should be. All of this is part of a wider view that takes nature as normative, where the way the world does work is in some sense how it should work. (Confucians, I think, have a similar view in the concept of tiān 天: the ultimate normative order underlying the universe, which is often translated “nature” as well as “heaven”. Thus Mencius endorses a patriarchal division of labour as normal and natural.) But none of that is there in classical Indian Buddhism: nature is saṃsāra, and therefore a source of suffering, which you’re trying to get out of. (Thus, aesthetically, the Pure Land of the Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra is no pristine natural Eden, but glitters with gold and jewels and chimes.) So I see very little in classical Buddhist tradition that tells me not to express myself as female – though there is plenty to remind me that I shouldn’t get caught up in desiring pretty new outfits!

However, my Buddhism doesn’t get me off the hook here entirely. For while I do consider myself a Buddhist, I also consider myself an Aristotelian – and Aristotle, I think, has a much stronger sense of the normativity of nature. Our telos has its roots in our natures as human beings; thus Aristotle’s scientific works on physis have a significant connection to his ethics. And so he endorses a traditional patriarchal family structure, with household roles specified as different for mother and father (as his teacher Plato does not).

It is for that reason that I have spent some time exploring the premodern roots of qualitative individualism, in figures like Duns Scotus and Leibniz – for I think those figures help bring out a qualitative individualist element in Aristotelianism, one which I think is there at least latently. While remaining an Aristotelian, Duns Scotus helps us move our attention from the telos of human-beings-as-such to the telos of this human being, of me, of you – which is not very far from the qualitative individualist idea, central to the transgender movement, that we all should express a true self that can be repressed by social norms and expectations. (Ideas of a true self are of course in their own deep tension with Buddhism, but that’s a different question.)

The latter point, I hope, goes some way to answering more of David’s original comment, which focused in particular on the concept of identity and its modern provenance. David points out that in traditional societies one’s status was typically ascribed at birth (though being a monk was a major exception; in societies that allowed that, it was often something one could choose to do). “Modern identity has vastly expanded the choices available and made one’s identity – one’s choices and expressions of them – of central, often existential importance.” I think this statement is generally correct, and at the heart of qualitative individualism – but I would diminish the importance of choice per se, as often it is not so much you choose these key identities as that they choose you. Few people say “I chose to be trans”. It has been widely accepted for a while, I think, that while one can choose to act or not act on homosexual desire – just as one can on heterosexual desire – one has little choice as to whether one’s desires are homosexual, heterosexual or both. In many respects I would not even say that I “chose” to be a Buddhist; I only chose to call myself one.

But the point is: yes, modernity does allow much more room for individual self-expression, and that expression often comes out in terms of the self’s identity. And I think that in the transition from Aristotle through Duns Scotus and Leibniz to the likes of Herder and Humboldt and Goethe, we can find a way to ground such individual expressions within Aristotelianism.