What is a Body, Anyway?

Form, Deep Listening, and Compassion on a Buddhist Trans Path

Photo by Getty Images/RamonCarretero.

Everything is of the nature to change. It’s a fundamental Buddhist teaching, and it might be transgender-affirming as well. But that’s not the teaching that drew me to Buddhism as a trans-struggling teenager in the late 1970s. One day I cleverly asked the minister of our hippie-inflected United Church of Christ, “How come we never learn about Buddhism here?” And he far more cleverly answered, “What would you like to know, and is there anything keeping you from learning about it?”

Had I been less afraid, I might have asked, “Is there any way I can make this arbitrary physical stuff of the body matter less?” I might have asked, “Why have people been telling me my whole life that I cannot be a monk?” I might have said, “You know this is all an illusion, right?”

I decided when I was six years old that I would become a monk, though I didn’t know there were different kinds of monks, and knew nothing of Buddhism. As a white child born in the midst of the civil rights movement and the US war against Vietnam, I was terrified of nuclear war and already grieving environmental destruction; my own family was challenged by my mother’s mental illness among other things; and I was a transgender kid who fared better in a world of mysticism and nature than the social world of forms and violently enforced norms.

Adults saw me as a nonconforming girl, and I knew myself to be a nonconforming boy. I was taught that everything started and ended with anatomy, but I thought anatomical definitions were superficial and untrue. By the time puberty had conclusively rejected my last bits of hope, I was desperate for ways to integrate my soul with a world that made no sense, and desperate for ways to make my body matter less.

I started learning about Buddhism on my own, and spent my college years pouring into the Pāli Canon, Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan forms of Buddhism. I practiced meditation with sanghas in the United States and Sri Lanka. I even sat in a cave on the side of a mountain.

11/1/2019 11:55:59 AM

Namaste and thank you for your honesty and deep introspection that allows you to lift many veils imposed by our delusional society. You are who you are, breath after breath, and that will change constantly because it is the nature of energy to do so. It does not require witnessing or judging or cataloging or labelling. I t just enjoys a pure thought, and you seem to have many. Thank you for sharing, your story has brought joy to my heart. Bodhivata from New York City

11/1/2019 8:26:14 AM

What we call a _person_ is a theoretical posit, though none the worse for that. The philosopher Daniel Dennett raises the question in his piece "Where Am I?": if (due to some surgical operation) Dennett's brain ("Hamlet") is in one place and his body ("Yorick") in another, connected with radio links, *where is Dennett*? But thank you for being the only person besides me who has understood the non-omniscient viewpoint of the narrator of the elephant poem! Everyone I bring this up to dismisses it!

10/27/2019 8:55:08 AM

If your body is at home with the changes, who is it that is enjoying the change?

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