Transgender Buddhism in the United States — The Revealer

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“I just can’t be afraid of myself anymore,” says La Sarmiento, a transgender Buddhist teacher based near Baltimore, Maryland.

La, who describes themself as “an immigrant non-binary person of color,” is a leading instructor of mindfulness and meditation in the United States. For 16 years, La served as a teacher at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW), a renowned Buddhist center in Washington, DC., eventually leading IMCW’s BIPOC and LGBTQ+ sanghas, or meditation groups.

La’s life has changed significantly over the past few months. In March 2022, they resigned from their position as IMCW’s Board President. La took on that role in 2021 with the hope that IMCW could forge a more socially just and equitable community. But La felt the board showed little progress in meeting the needs of marginalized Buddhist practitioners.

For La, leaving IMCW was a proclamation of a fundamental fact about their life as a Buddhist non-binary person of color: “I know that I deserve to exist.” They add, “It’s all about, for me, where the placement of power is. I had been giving my power away for so many years. And part of my healing was to reclaim my power.”

La now serves as a mentor for The Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program, where they mentor students to become meditation instructors. In contrast to many white Buddhist teachers who do not grapple with issues of social injustice, La believes Buddhist practice must address marginalization and oppression.

Over the past several months, I met with six transgender Buddhist teachers, many of whom have had to make choices similar to La and who have developed communities that explicitly affirm trans people’s lives. As a trans man, Buddhist, and Religious Studies scholar, these conversations allowed me to discern how trans Buddhist teachers are re-conceptualizing Buddhist teachings, or dharma, to meet the needs of gender-diverse people. By taking into account the trauma, joy, and experiences of trans people, these teachers are revolutionizing what a Buddhist path may look like for trans Buddhist practitioners who seek bodily peace and liberation.

Part I: Body
“To me enlightenment is fully inhabiting the body.”

For many trans Buddhist teachers, their story begins not with how they learned meditation or dharma, but with the history of their own bodies.

Phoenix Song, a Bay Area Buddhist teacher, shares how “It’s been really, really hard to be in this body. Like I did not want to be in this body in this lifetime.”

Phoenix is a queer and trans Asian American who was adopted into a white family as a child and separated from their Korean language and ancestry. As a teacher, they now work to heal their traumas.

“I feel like as a queer trans person, as an Asian American person who’s adopted and grew up in a white family in a white part of the country, there are many, many reasons why I felt like my voice was really shut down. It was hard for me to kind of speak my truth. To stand in my identity. To stand in my power.”

Like Phoenix, many trans Buddhists must re-learn what it means to find peace in their bodies. One of the main ways they do is through gender-affirming medical care, like hormone therapy or trans-affirming surgeries. While not every trans person decides to pursue these treatments and procedures, for those who do such steps are an important part of their journey.

Yet a problem that trans Buddhists often face is that, historically, Buddhist teachers view the body as an obstacle to liberation and, from this perspective, trans people should not alter it medically to find peace. This normative view, however, has contributed to trans people denying their body’s distress and need for trans-affirming medical care.

Martin Vitorino, founder of the “Mindful Transitions” group at Insight LA Meditation Center, a bi-monthly meditation group for trans and gender-diverse people, explains how for many years he used Buddhist teachings to try to “transcend,” “override,” and “supersede” his physical body.

Martin’s words draw on a foundational Buddhist concept known as “the doctrine of two truths,” which represent two realms of existence. The first, “relative truth,” characterizes the world as we live it, existing in bodies that are raced, gendered, and subject to conditions of violence and oppression. The second, “ultimate truth,” captures how all phenomena are empty and lacking an essential core. While we may have these bodies on Earth, fundamentally, these bodies, like all phenomena, are impermanent.

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When transgender Buddhists describe their relative truth, Buddhist teachers too commonly pressure them to focus instead on the ultimate truth, thereby ignoring the realities of their bodily experiences. For example, trans Buddhists have been told that pursuing hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgery is a “materialist way of handling the problem” of our suffering. In the eyes of some cisgender teachers, trans people lack spiritual ability and discipline because they focus more on their bodies than on overcoming attachments to ideas that cause suffering. When trans Buddhists strive to transform their body, they are charged with reifying their “self” (ātman in Sanskrit) and failing to grasp the higher Buddhist teaching of “non-self” (anātman in Sanskrit), in which no separate realm of an individual body (a body that can be claimed as “mine”) exists.

But privileging the ultimate truth and demeaning the relative body has harmed trans Buddhists.

Martin shares how the effort to “supersede” his body through Buddhist practices actively “contribut[ed] to [his] suffering.”

“It sometimes felt like a failing that I couldn’t get over my dysphoria” or generate “enough compassion” for the suffering “to go away,” Martin says.

Martin ultimately refused to deny his body to achieve piece. He chose, instead, to “fully descend into [his] body” by pursuing top surgery.

“Getting top surgery saved my life,” Martin shares. “I mean so much peace, so much suffering alleviated just from being able to align my body with my gender.”

Learning about the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of gender-affirming surgery has been key for trans Buddhists. For many, it was only through working with transgender Buddhist teachers that they discovered gender-affirming care was not only possible, but a meaningful part of their spiritual path.

Part 2: Buddhist Teachings
“I felt like there was a way that I was doing it wrong if I wanted gender-affirming surgery.”

While gender-affirming surgery has positively transformed the lives of multiple Buddhist teachers, some felt internal pressure not to pursue gender-affirming care.

“Because there was an assumed and centered cis-normative embodiment,” Martin explains of his experience with cisgender teachers, “I was left to copy and paste teachings and try to apply them to my experience of dysphoria. And my internalized transphobia combined with my fear of medical transition created a perfect storm with teachings about ‘acceptance’ and ‘equanimity’ in that those teachings helped me to spiritually bypass my dysphoria and delay seeking gender-affirming care.” He finishes, “The absence of trans inclusive and affirming teachings applied to our unique embodiments creates this vacuum. And in that space, we are vulnerable to misinterpretations of the teachings.”

Martin’s reflection underscores a struggle transgender practitioners face, namely that they are forced to translate cis-normative Buddhist teachings to fit with their experiences as trans people. When this happens, Buddhist institutions fail to address the specificity of trans life.

Buddhist teachings on “acceptance” especially contribute to trans practitioners postponing trans-affirming medical care. “Acceptance” is a common word invoked within mindfulness and meditation spaces. “Acceptance” represents the idea that a meditator must be aware of the feelings and thoughts that arise for them while meditating, “accept” that these feelings and thoughts exist, but not try to transform them during the meditative experience.

But for some trans Buddhists, a harmful relationship exists between “acceptance” and the flourishing of trans lives. Phoenix explains, “I never really thought for myself that I can have the possibility of top surgery. I think that there’s been such an emphasis in Buddhism, and just in my life, of like accept, accept, accept.” They continue, “Accept reality as it is. My whole life has been like: I was born into this body. I should accept this body.”

Rion Pendergrass, a meditation teacher in the Bay Area, expresses a similar experience of Buddhist teachings, this time invoking the Zen concept “don’t know mind.” “Don’t know mind” is a practice in Sōtō Zen Buddhist meditation where a person pays attention to their wandering mind, especially when their mind cultivates thoughts that are grounded in fear and worry. Don’t know mind can help a person not spiral into panic, such as when their mind believes a “worst case scenario” is about to come true.

But the teaching of don’t know mind can also dismiss marginalized peoples’ experiences, as I’ve written about elsewhere. Trans Buddhist practitioners feel that, to practice “don’t know mind” correctly, they must eliminate thoughts related to their gender transition. For example, if a trans Buddhist speaks about a future yearning for gender-affirming surgery, or desire to start hormone therapy, or to change pronouns or one’s name, they may be told that they are failing to experience and fully exist within the present moment by placing themselves in the future. For many, expressing a trans-affirming desire equates to practicing Buddhism incorrectly.

As Rion shares, “I felt like there was a way that I was doing it wrong if I wanted gender-affirming surgery. Because if I’m supposed to accept things how they are, and be in ‘don’t know mind’ and things like that, I was like is it wrong for me to want these things, want these changes?”

Ultimately, teachings of “acceptance” and “don’t know mind” can converge to deny the needs of trans people: one either feels pressure to “accept” their body as it is (and thereby not medically change it) or reside in “don’t know mind” (and thereby not make a solid and enduring claim to one’s needs as a trans person).

Combatting these injurious applications of dharma requires an increased number of trans teachers who can respond to trans people’s unique experiences. For trans practitioners experiencing gender distress during meditation, Martin argues, “You need somebody to walk you through the maze that is dysphoria, dissociation, and the trauma of being in a body that you don’t feel aligned with and that the rest of the world is telling you is one thing and you’re like, I don’t feel that way.”

For other trans Buddhist teachers, supporting trans people requires not only trans representation, but an active discussion of the difficulties that may arise within meditation spaces, even those designed for trans people. Bri Barnett, a meditation teacher who has previously taught at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, CA, addresses the experiences of trans-feminine people in meditation spaces. She explains how the presence of trans women and trans feminine people remains limited in Buddhist gatherings, making it challenging for trans women and specifically trans women of color to exist and flourish in them.

While meditation spaces for queer and trans people are often supportive, allowing “a group of people with shared identity [to come] together,” as Bri puts it, this experience does not “always resonate for everyone.”

Ultimately, cultivating an affirming community for trans Buddhists requires effort. A growing number of trans Buddhist teachers are taking on that challenge, at times even transforming long-revered teachings so trans Buddhists can thrive.

Part 3: Voice
“That is my journey to continue freeing my voice, to speaking my truth.”

For many trans Buddhist teachers who strive to help trans people honor their feelings, experiences, and desires, they have learned that they need to give trans practitioners a choice about how they meditate. Simply, trans teachers do not want to force a single practice onto their students.

Leading a body scan meditation, Rion says to his students, “If this [practice] doesn’t feel right to you in this moment, I don’t want you to go through [with it.] I don’t want you to try to follow along.” Trans teachers want their students to listen to the experience of their body and choose what is best for them in that moment. This may mean the student leaves the meditation room during the practice, or chooses to sit in the room without following the instructions.

One of the most important ways transgender Buddhist teachers are helping trans people is by allowing them to use their voices during meditation retreats.

In 2019, Martin managed the “Creating Joy in Community” retreat, the first-ever residential retreat for transgender, gender-queer, and gender-expansive people. Taught by JD Doyle, René Rivera, Riya Christie, and Fresh “Lev” White in Big Bear, CA, the retreat illuminated the benefits of turning away from silence and creating more opportunities for collective expression.

“In a traditional residential retreat, it’s silence,” Martin explains. “And you do develop these beautiful bonds with people in the midst of silence.” But at the non-silent “Creating Joy in Community” retreat, Martin says, “What we were finding is that, for some people, silence is their whole life. They’re in silence around their experience and that can be really activating when you’re being ignored by somebody who’s looking straight ahead and not making eye contact with you. That can reinforce how you feel in your everyday life.”

At this retreat, the teachers took specific steps to mitigate potential traumatic responses by transgender practitioners. JD Doyle serves as Guiding Teacher at Insight Santa Cruz. They explain how Buddhist spaces can leave trans people in vulnerable positions because they are unable to respond to the teachings in the moment that they are given. For example, meditators often sit in silence while the instructor offers meditation instruction. During meditation, the mind typically wanders to various thoughts, and so students are encouraged to return to the breath as it goes in and out of the body. If the body can be quiet, the thinking goes, so can the mind.

Yet, the body is not a simple space, and the breath is not always a source of refuge. JD explains how meditators are often told to simply “‘Close your eyes, follow the breath.’” But this can “be really trauma-inducing,” JD says, because “finding the breath in my body is too hard because it draws me to my chest. I have all sorts of associations with my chest.”

JD’s reflection helps me to consider my own experiences prior to top surgery. For many years, I experienced panic attacks during meditation. I could not breathe deeply due to wearing a chest binder. When I did focus on my breath, this attention would bring me closer into a body that I did not like and did not want to be in. Yet my dysphoria was not only related to my physical distress, but to the loudness of my mind. My thoughts ran rampant, thinking of and then embodying those past experiences of distress when I was shamed for my gender. Looking back, I can see how meditating, held in silence and a fierce attention to my body, often caused me greater psychic harm. While I came to meditation thinking it would help bring clarity to my body and mind, the process of meditating in silence facilitated the spiraling of my mind and heightened the gender distress of my body.

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Trans Buddhist teachers have found that the use of voice is a critical apparatus by which trans people can connect to their body, especially amidst moments of panic. For example, in between meditation sessions, teachers prioritize small group discussions where students can ask questions of their teachers. If students experience a troubling feeling during meditation, they do not have to keep this feeling to themselves throughout the retreat (and risk further devolving into panic and traumatic response). Instead, they can receive guidance on how to address their struggles from both teachers and co-participants.

JD explains, “Meditation and mindfulness is staying in contact with everything. And so sometimes, in order for that to happen, we need to have speech in there. Because if the body is inaccessible because of all the trauma, then being able to say, ‘oh this landed this way’ and speak it out, allows me to reconnect with the body.”

Phoenix has long known the importance of the voice within spiritual spaces. “When there’s so much trauma stored in the body, it is impossible to sit still,” Phoenix explains. “Most of my life, I have felt silenced, unable to get my voice out. It’s been incredibly healing and liberating. That is my journey to continue freeing my voice, to speaking my truth.”

“Part of what I’m doing as a teacher is I’m constantly trying to model vulnerability for people. And that like it’s okay to not be in a good [place]. It’s okay to be messy. It’s okay to not be okay. So often when I’m sharing, I’m modeling for people: keep talking through the tears. Speak your truth. That allows everybody else in the room to kind of drop into, touch into like ‘Oh, these are some painful places’ and to be witnessed and be held by others.”

Phoenix’s pedagogical decisions allow people to experience grief, dysphoria, joy, and pain without interruption. It’s about, as Phoenix puts it, “Allowing people, in a really gentle way, to hold all the grief, the dysphoria, and just help people move slowly, slowly into the type of voice that feels more in resonance with who they are.”

A Trans-Affirming Path Forward
“Reality is more beautiful. Reality is our bodies are beautiful. Reality is we’re sacred. That’s what reality is.”

These transgender Buddhist teachers are striving to help trans people belong—in community, in their bodies, and on their spiritual journeys. They are not afraid of carving their own path and crafting new pedagogical tools so trans lives flourish.

“There are so many ways to get to freedom. There are so many ways to access freedom, to get connected to support that is outside yourself. There are just so many ways. And so I want people to feel like that is available to them,” shares Rion.

Deeply aware of the challenges faced by trans practitioners, these teachers are helping their students to cultivate wisdom and fierce compassion. As La explains, “Every trans person has to find their own way, find whatever configuration works for them. All of us just honoring that… whether it be having top surgery or taking hormones or not taking hormones. Whatever it happens to be. These are the choices that I have in this life.”

There is a beauty in being able to make these choices. There is a beauty in finding refuge in one’s trans body. There is beauty in trans people trusting who we are, what we want, and what we need.

For these trans Buddhist teachers, this is the power of trans Buddhist spaces. Of the growing trans Buddhist community, Martin says, “I can see the world more clearly as it is. Because all of the transphobic shit kind of fades and like: this is reality. Reality is more beautiful. Reality is our bodies are beautiful. Reality is we’re sacred and natural and whole and gorgeous and divine radiant sacred beings. That’s what reality is.”


Ray Buckner is a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. His research focuses on trans studies of Buddhism in the United States and Thailand. 

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