What is a Body, Anyway?

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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 P?li Canon, Therav?da, 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.

I was drawn to Avalokite?vara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, and the uncertainty of Avalokite?vara’s form: quite apart from Avalokite?vara’s historical transition from apparently male to apparently female as Guanshiyin (Kuan Yin), there remained a question about whether this bodhisattva is articulated as male or female, both or neither.

In the Lotus S?tra, one of the bodhisattvas asks the Buddha, “How does Guanshiyin Bodhisattva roam this world, speak the dharma, and carry out his work for all living beings?”

And the Buddha answers, “If a living being needs to be saved by someone in the body of a Buddha, Guanshiyin will appear in the body of a Buddha.…” Buddha then lists more than thirty different bodily manifestations of Guanshiyin according to what is needed: some are male, some are female, some young, some old; they vary by class status and station and occupation; some are divine, some are human, many are nonhuman. Guanshiyin will manifest in the form of a divine dragon if that’s what you need. Compassion manifests in all possible forms in order to reach all beings because we exist in form.

It’s not that Guanshiyin is “really” a man and puts on a dragon costume, nor is Guanshiyin “really” a woman and puts on a hummingbird costume. Rather, Avalokite?vara/Guanshiyin manifests nonduality: the way that everything in the universe is present in every cell in every being, form and boundlessness together.

The lesson for me turned out to be not that form doesn’t matter, but that it does: for this moment I have this opportunity to experience existence in this form. It is through form that I apprehend interbeing, the awareness that everything in this moment is connected to everything else just as it is and has been and will be. It is form that makes consciousness possible.

My practice changed. If this stuff matters, how do I cultivate compassion for all that is, including fear and violence and suffering inside and outside me? After all, the first precept teaches reverence for all life.

For the next two decades, I dismissed my transgender experience on the grounds that, just as form matters, there is no hierarchy of forms. The bunny is as necessary and precious as the bee and the human and the sun; violence taking place outside me is also inside me; we are not separate. I convinced myself that my body is precious and sacred, and also that the specific form of form doesn’t matter. It made no Buddhist sense to say that I wasn’t a woman, and the feminist in me also rejected that articulation. Besides, my particular body was also a source of joy: I was healthy, strong, grateful for my physicality and the miracle that life is.

By the time I was in my forties, I barely noticed the chafing confusion I felt whenever people addressed me as “ma’am.” I was so used to seeing multiple images in the mirror that I literally could not see the physical form that most others interpreted as female. I was inured to the hum in my brain during social interactions as I tried to sort out how to act as though I was a woman while my energetic body and soul were busy running around the block. The work of passing as what people perceived me to be (female) was so much my version of normal, that when it all busted open one day on an ordinary walk, I literally fell down in my tracks. For decades, I thought I had a square deal with the universe: I’ll be in and honor this body, and you’ll give me life and love.

Suddenly, I needed to change things, a lot of things, but I didn’t even know what or how. Can I change a few things without losing everything? Suddenly, every metaphor of monsters and waking giants made sense. Everything might be of the nature to change, but what kind of power do we face when we launch ourselves into the unknown? I changed my name and for the first time in my life, I felt addressed when people called to me. Half a year later, I changed my pronouns and had to deal with the way that few people were comfortable using “they” or “he.”

More slowly, I discovered that I was clinging hard to the notion that I shouldn’t willfully mess with this perfectly good body. I confronted the possibility that for me, this belief was just as much a habituated story as the conventional stories that call some bodies male and some female. I wondered, can I engage this embodiment with compassion?

Avalokite?vara is sometimes translated as “one who contemplates the sounds of the world.” It is said that deep listening transforms suffering because it returns us to our interconnectedness.

You know that parable about the six blind men and the elephant, where they’re all feeling a different part of the creature, and they all have a different perception of what this must be. The parable is meant to teach that only when we bring our multiple perceptions together can we realize that it’s an elephant.

Well, this was always a troubling parable for me. It implies that sighted people would automatically assign the name “elephant” to this being and that they would be correct. As a child, I was equally distressed that they have this whole committee of people to determine what it is and no one ever thinks to ask this magnificent creature itself. To my protestations, people usually responded with some version of “Elephants can’t talk” or “An elephant doesn’t know what it is.”

Humans have applied this arrogance to everything on the planet and beyond. We grow up learning “conventional designations”; we’re taught to call it an elephant and believe it is an elephant. Naming brings worlds into being; naming is artful, beautiful. But thinking we know it is an elephant that can’t talk might do great harm. How, then, can we listen to all beings?

The S?tra on Invoking Avalokite?vara is all about deep listening: “We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We sit and listen without judging or reacting. We sit and listen in order to understand. We sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid.”

In the first precept, we vow to “cultivate openness, nondiscrimination, nonattachment to views” in order to honor all beings, and to transform violence in ourselves and in the world. We learn to listen deeply.

What would it mean to listen to myself? Trying to make sense of my physical form, I was struggling as though I was the six blind men and I was the elephant, and I was the sighted people thinking I have superior perception, and I was the blind people arguing about what is real, and I was the thing all of me is arguing about.

How do I practice nonviolence within myself?

I decided to bring embodiment to the front and center of my meditation and qi gong practice. I decided to deeply listen to everything that arose, without judgment. Newly observing rather than dismissing questions of physical transition, I felt immediate peace. It suddenly became far more important to me to learn about myself than it was to resolve the question of physical transition. But it was an experiment: I didn’t know what I would discover, or how long I might find this practice illuminating, or what (if anything) would come of it.

Right away, the question changed from “Can I put testosterone into my body?” to “What does this right here feel like: to be as present as I can be in my body and my experience of my body in the world?”

In meditation practice as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches it, we don’t try to banish the difficult things that arise; we don’t try to run from them or kill them. We observe with openness, kindness, with compassion. It doesn’t mean we don’t suffer anymore, but it is a nonviolent way to respond to suffering; it makes it possible to handle grief and fear and anger in the most tender way. This gives us the best chance to transform suffering into insight and compassion.

Eight months of intensive, embodied meditation practice showed me that there was no objective judgment about whether taking testosterone would be a good thing or a bad thing for me.

Just as being transgender or being anything else is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. Only experience could tell me if testosterone felt right, with the privilege to try it on my own terms and pay close attention. This realization brought another congruence so compelling to me that, even with prescription in hand, I wanted to just observe and enjoy this, too, in no hurry to be anywhere other than where I was. Many months later, I started a low dose of topical testosterone, allowing me to navigate and define transition on my own terms.

Most surprising in this life of transformation is that I now feel an unprecedented, unimaginable coherence and ease. For the first time in my life, I make sense to myself. All the shadows have integrated: there is just one of me, and it’s the one I’ve known my whole life. Others still misgender me most of the time, but I stay solid and present. No longer racing away, I listen deeply, to myself and others.

Testosterone has also made meditation challenging. My body and mind are more active, and it takes some discipline to sit down on my own. Once I’m seated, I’m home. But now I’m a typical person with typical distractions, and more dependent than ever on the sangha part of Buddha, dharma, sangha.

I’m not trying to get to some imagined other place. I’m just exactly where I need to be, changing and present in a nonbinary form. I’m not “in between” anything; I’m just here.

From Transcending by Kevin Manders and Elizabeth Marston, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2019. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

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