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This may seem like a question that is far too modern for an ancient tradition, but when I traveled in Thailand I learned that katoeys (male-to-female) are a legal gender in Thailand. What does Buddhism say about the folks who experience discomfort or distress because there is a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity?

As it becomes less dangerous for transgender folks to change, I am finding out that several of my friends are transgender and I would like to know what Buddhism offers them.

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    Answers to this question should be careful to avoid being anachronistic - modern conceptions of transgender identity (even in places where it's better-established, like Thailand [kathoeys] or India [hijras]) are much younger than Buddhism, and as such, the texts could only possibly have referred to other (albeit possibly related) conceptions of fluid or indeterminate gender. – senshin Jun 26 '14 at 7:00
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This link may be helpful. Transgendered People And Buddhism by Shravasti Dhammika:

The Tipitaka mentions several different types of transgendered states and individuals – the man-like woman (vepurisika), sexual indistinctness (sambhinna), one having the characteristics of both genders (ubhatovyanjanaka), etc (Vin.III,129). The interesting thing is that such states and individuals are taken for granted in the scriptures with little or no moral judgments being attached to them.

There is also the International Transgender Buddhist Sangha

Here is a quote from the International Transgender Buddhist Sangha blog:

"The Vinaya Pitaka, the ancient Buddhist texts that define the rules for Buddhist monks and nuns, record two incidences of sex change that a monk and a nun had gone through. A group of monks and nuns bring the two incidences to the Buddha’s notice. The Buddha accepts their changed status. He allows the former male disciple who became a female to live with female disciples, and the former female disciple to live with males.

These episodes indicate the Buddha’s open-mindedness toward transsexual persons. He accepted their bodily changes even though some in his society attributed such changes to the influence of bad Karmas. [...] There is every reason to believe that the Buddha accepted all kinds of people irrespective of any differences they had undergone.

Facebook group of the International Transgender Buddhist Sangha

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    It would be helpful to give a small description of what is in the links you share. Looking at your answer it is hard to tell what is your general input to the discussion. Thank you. – Rabbit Jun 26 '14 at 9:05
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    understandable, although I had assumed the name of the link matching the question was obvious enough to not have to extrapolate. perhaps quoting a paragraph from the link might work. – Sāmaṇera Jayantha Jun 26 '14 at 12:15
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    Links only answers are discouraged on all SE sites. This is because the answer becomes worthless if the links go dead. It's best to summarize the relevant main points of each linked site in your own words and provide the link merely as background. – THelper Jul 21 '14 at 9:26
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    I updated the original to include a quote from the International Transgender Buddhist Sangha blog link. Will read the sdhammika blog article too and pull out a quote or two from it. – jerclarke Jan 21 '18 at 0:24
  • Submitted another response edit to include a quote from the Shravasti Dhammika blog article that refers to various terms from the tipataka and makes reference to the source, though I didn't check the sources yet. The article also has a theory about rebirth causing "transgenderism" but no sources and really it's just speculation. It ends with a supportive message supposing that a genuine application of the dhamma would mean supporting trans people socially. – jerclarke Jan 23 '18 at 1:52
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The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara can be seen as have an indeterminate gender. Quoting from this website

One interpretation of this development contends that the bodhisattva is neither male or female but has transcended sexual distinctions [...] the flowing drapery and soft contours of the body seen in statues and paintings have been intentionally combined with a visible moustache to emphasize the absence of sexual identity.

So the issue of gender can take on a more flexible interpretation with some more Mahayana aspects of Buddhism

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The Theravada tradition doesn't condemn such people. The essence of Theravadin morality is expressed in the Ambalatthika-Rahulovada Sutta like so:

"What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?"

"For reflection, sir."

"In the same way, Rahula, bodily actions, verbal actions, & mental actions are to be done with repeated reflection.

"Whenever you want to do a bodily action, you should reflect on it: 'This bodily action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction... it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do.

"While you are doing a bodily action, you should reflect on it: 'This bodily action I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it is leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both... you should give it up. But if on reflection you know that it is not... you may continue with it.

"Having done a bodily action, you should reflect on it: 'This bodily action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it... you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction... it was a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then you should stay mentally refreshed & joyful, training day & night in skillful mental qualities.

"Whenever you want to do a verbal action, you should reflect on it: 'This verbal action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful verbal action, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful verbal action with painful consequences, painful results, then any verbal action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction... it would be a skillful verbal action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any verbal action of that sort is fit for you to do.

"While you are doing a verbal action, you should reflect on it: 'This verbal action I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful verbal action, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it is leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both... you should give it up. But if on reflection you know that it is not... you may continue with it.

"Having done a verbal action, you should reflect on it: 'This verbal action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful verbal action, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful verbal action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it... you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction... it was a skillful verbal action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then you should stay mentally refreshed & joyful, training day & night in skillful mental qualities.

"Whenever you want to do a mental action, you should reflect on it: 'This mental action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful mental action, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful mental action with painful consequences, painful results, then any mental action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction... it would be a skillful mental action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any mental action of that sort is fit for you to do.

"While you are doing a mental action, you should reflect on it: 'This mental action I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful mental action, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it is leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both... you should give it up. But if on reflection you know that it is not... you may continue with it.

"Having done a mental action, you should reflect on it: 'This mental action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful mental action, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful mental action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should feel distressed, ashamed, & disgusted with it. Feeling distressed, ashamed, & disgusted with it, you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction... it was a skillful mental action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then you should stay mentally refreshed & joyful, training day & night in skillful mental qualities.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.061.than.html

If something does not cause harm to one's self or to others, then from a Theravadin perspective it is morally acceptable. In my opinion the teachings of the Buddha offer many sexual minorities (such as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people) the clear moral teachings that affirms that they are not to be condemned.

Sexuality in general is technically classified as being unwholesome or unskillful, but the Theravada school makes a distinction between acts that are unwholesome (anything based on attachment at all, so this also includes enjoying entertainment, food, etc...) and acts that are evil. Sexuality that is within the third precept (not using sex in ways that breaks up relationships or sexual taking advantage of people etc...) is understood as being acceptable for a layperson. Although this Sutta talks about abandoning all unwholesome states of mind, it was aimed at the Ven. Rahula who was a novice monk at the time. For laypeople one only must abandon evil actions.

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The institutions are all over the place. There are rules that say hermaphrodites (or probably more generally, anyone who doesn't fall into a tidy male/female gender) isn't allowed to ordain.

Then a few hundred years later you get Mahayanaists who specifically say hermaphrodites (& I supposed anyone who doesn't fall into a tidy category) are allowed to become Bodhisattva's, too. Except in Chinese Buddhism, they were still expected to give up any interest in sex.

In one of the Mahayana sutras a celestial Buddha or Bodhisattva transforms Ananda into a woman to make a point about appearances being superficial & differences being artificial. I can't find the source, if I find it I'll come back and add the ref.

And finally, in the old and new traditions, a good Buddhist woman would hope to be reborn as a man, or I suppose a man would fear doing wrong lest he be reborn as a women. This was obvious sexism, but amazing meant people were sexist, but somehow comfortable with the idea of cross-life transsexualism. It sounds progressive, but it is a odd situation where a sexist line of reasoning leads to a progressive conclusion.

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    In Vimalakirti sutra the goddess transforms Shariputra's to a female body. – Andrei Volkov Jun 8 '18 at 13:03
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Peter Harvey, a Buddhist scholar who focuses fairly heavily on morality in Buddhism, writes at length on "culture war" issues like this, homosexuality, abortion, etc. in the context of the Pali canon. His Introduction to Buddhist Ethics explored issues related to transgendered people, in the chapter "Homosexuality and other forms of 'queerness'. It's worth a look. The full text can be found here - http://www.e-reading.me/bookreader.php/142060/An_Introduction_to_Buddhist_Ethics.pdf/ and it's a good read in general.

Here is an extract:

SEX-CHANGE

Early Buddhist texts refer to the sex of a person as something that can change within one life, as well as between lives. In the Vinaya, there is reference to a monk in whom the sexual characteristics of a woman appeared, and a nun in whom the sexual characteristics of a man appeared. In both cases, the Buddha appears to accept this and simply say that the ex-monk nun should follow the rules of the nuns, and the ex-nun monk should follow the rules of the monks. In commentarial literature, the sex of a person is seen as determined at conception, but as subject to possible change. Causes of sex-change are seen as karmic in nature. The Dhammapada commentary tells of a man instantly turning into a woman when he is sexually attracted to a monk; after marrying and giving birth, she then turns back to a man when she asks the monk’s forgiveness, and goes on to become an Arahat. Sex-change, then, is not seen as limiting spiritual potential.

  • The word "transgender" appears once, on page 432 of the document (i.e. page 454 of the PDF file). – ChrisW Oct 5 '14 at 11:05
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    True, but in the chapter I mentioned Harvey treats the subject of "sex change" and gives quite a few relevant examples from sources ranging from the Vinaya, Sutta Pitaka, and commentaries. Some of those examples do seem right on point for this question. – user698 Oct 5 '14 at 21:08
  • The stories of the "suddenly another sex" monastics do seem like a tiny part of the answer to this question, though we should definitely take them in context as being impossible to compare directly with modern trans people. Fundamentally the stories seem magical/mythological, and thus not very relevant. Maybe though the real story is "trans man (man with a vagina) found among monks" with the conclusion "that is in fact a woman, put her with nuns". If true, this story implies the answer is: At the time they forced trans people back to their birth-assigned genders. – jerclarke Jan 20 '18 at 21:44
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Simple answer mind has not gender. Mind might reach enlightenment in any manifestation. Body is just temporary manifestation of mind.

  • This is interesting, but doesn't give us much insight into how transgender people should approach buddhism and/or how they will be treated by buddhists. It could both imply that buddhism is fine with trans people, because gender is not absolute, and that buddhism is dismissive of trans people, because trans people themselves are too absolute about their own gender. – jerclarke Jan 23 '18 at 20:20
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What does Buddhism say about the folks who experience discomfort or distress because there is a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity?

Lots of people suffer about sex; like teenage boys who think they should get sex; girls and women who suffer over their physical appearance; people in general who want but don't have a relationship; sex addicts; porn addicts; the lonely; the broken-hearted, etc. Sex is a source of suffering.

As it becomes less dangerous for transgender folks to change, I am finding out that several of my friends are transgender and I would like to know what Buddhism offers them

Buddhism offers nothing specific for transgender people, apart from non-violence. What Buddhism offers the world is its path of morality, concentration & insight. If a transgender person lives a sexual promiscuous life, this against Buddhist principles. Ultimately, being heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, in itself, whatever, is not going to end suffering & bring happiness. Transgender is a form of "worldliness". What Buddhism offers is the same for all people.

  • You mentioned some points to "Sex is a source of suffering", I however don't think that it is sex per se that is the problem BUT THE ATTITUDES (BELIEFS) people have about sex. If people depreciate themselve for not achieving a goal/standard, if they dogmatically 'should' on themselves or others and escalate a healthy preference to a dogmatic 'should be' then it is quite obvious that the resulting emotions & behaviours are going to be maladaptive. You cannot generalize & say sex is suffering for the attitude and use of it is important. Loneliness & broken heartedness stems from unhelpful views. – Val Jul 5 '18 at 10:52
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Buddhism is firmly in support of LGBT (and transgender specifically), because shedding of boxed reified identities is shedding of conflict and suffering.

  • LGBT is actually identity. Higher Buddhism is against any kind of identity. Also, transgender does not lead to freedom from suffering. Also if Buddhism was about non-conflict, it would support non-conflict towards criminals – Dhammadhatu Jun 30 '18 at 18:36
  • Thank you for your comment. LGBT is a step away from rigid M/F identities and reified morals, so accepting LGBT is a step in the right direction. Of course LGBT can become an identity as well, when misunderstood. The Buddhist path is the path towards Peace, including the peace of no-conflict. You are mistaken in your judgments because you misunderstand Buddhism due to your attachments to your social judgements and attitudes. – Andrei Volkov Jun 30 '18 at 19:48
  • If transgender is step on the right director, why don't u get some surgery? – Dhammadhatu Jul 1 '18 at 10:28
  • I'm talking about the attitude, dummy :)) The attitude of transcending gender stereotyping. I'm already not limiting myself to stereotypically male attitudes, so I don't need surgery. – Andrei Volkov Jul 1 '18 at 12:02
  • Whatever male stereotypes you might be imaging, transgender won't resolve this because transgender is just another stereotype. – Dhammadhatu Jul 1 '18 at 21:30