Mindful of Gender: Finding No-self in Transition
In 15 years of vipassana practice few experiences have engaged my mindfulness practice the way that my gender transition has.
This transition has been an opportunity to notice how powerfully conditioned the mind is to gender people, animals and other beings and objects. When I am walking around with my dog I notice that people often ask me, “is it a boy or a girl?” How is gender relevant in relating to a dog? I am guessing that gender comes into my dog’s experience in some way, but I haven’t noticed the experience of gender arising in my relationship with my dog. But nonetheless it is often the first thing people want to know about.
I spent the first 48 years of my life identified as female, though with considerable discomfort in that identity. I have spent the last two and half years identified as male in the world, with considerably more comfort. Did I feel like a woman, or female, those first 48 years? For sure not. Do I feel like a man now? Well, no, not really. What does it even feel like to be a man or a woman? What does it feel like to be neither a man or a woman?
As I make this journey from an identity of “female” to an identity of “male,” what I notice more than anything is that my perceived experience of gender seems to be slipping away or dissolving. When I meditate and try to locate “gender” or “maleness” in my embodied experience, I just can’t find it. My muscles are more defined than they were a few years ago, does that feel “male?” My chest is now flatter, does that feel less “female?” In both cases I don’t really find the answer is yes or no.
I am not the first practitioner to investigate gender. 20 years ago Caitroina Reed, a teacher in the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition, came out whole, as a woman of transgender experience. And today, she is still pointing to the need to dissolve the gender binary in our practice. In 2010 Rita M. Gross wrote in Inquiring Mind, asking the question “How Clinging to Gender Subverts Enlightenment.”
My experience, and these writers, point to the paradox of gendered identity, to the way that it exists and does not exist at the same time. For me this is a direct experience of the teaching of anatta or “no-self.” As I investigate my own experience I find that gender does not exist. At the same time as I walk in the world and am perceived by others as clearly male my suffering is eased in a very real way.
I live in a world where having a clear gender identity brings ease to social interactions. In my many decades as a gender non-conforming butch woman I had to deal with anything from discomfort and embarassment, to fear and outright hostility, on a daily basis. Now as a trans man who easily passes as male, my social interactions on a daily basis are so much easier.
Why is it important to consider this question of gender and identity in the context of Buddhist practice? We have to look at relative and absolute realities in our lineage. On the one hand the teachings lead us to investigate the non-dual nature of all experience including gender. On the other hand our lineage going back to the Buddha is based in monastic communities where gendered hierarchy is the only way that power is held and communities are organized, and those notions of gender are extremely fixed. If gender doesn’t really exist than why are we taught to strive for a male birth and why are all Buddhas male?
At the same time we have the embodiment of compassion, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who is embodied in whatever gender is called for, as they respond to the cries of the suffering. They may be male, female, agender, or any possible gender. This embodiment of compassion as gender fluid deeply resonates with my experience.
With all the complexity of our lineage, I am deeply grateful for my practice as I have gone through my own gender journey. Bringing my mindfulness practice to the physical and emotional changes I have gone through as I transition has resulted in a deepening of understanding of the essentially non-dual nature of my experience.
René Rivera is a leader and bridge-builder, working and learning in all the spaces in-between race, gender, and other perceived binaries, as a queer, mixed-race, trans man. René has been a student of the Dharma since 2004 and has been a part of the East Bay Meditation Center (EBMC) Sangha since 2008, currently serving on the EBMC Program Committee and as a Community Teacher. He has participated in the Commit to Dharma and Practice in Action programs at EBMC and the Community Dharma Leaders program at Spirit Rock. He is part of the teaching team for the first ever residential retreat for Trans+ community on Sept. 12-16 at the Big Bear Retreat Center.
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