Gender dysphoria and Karma

Would it be plausible to explain gender dysphoria in terms of persistent samskaras (mental imprints) in the citta left over from previous lives? We are used to thinking of our dispositions as determined to some extent by karma.

I find the theory quite plausible myself. If you’ve been born as one gender for many lives and then get the other gender this time round, I could see how that might be disorienting

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Many years ago someone who ran a retreat center told a friend of mine that she could not go on a 20 day retreat because she was gay and added that she was gay because she was obsessed with sex in past lives. At the time I told the story to an ex-monk who was running a sutta study group at a local vihara. He pointed me to these two not often mentioned suttas about kamma ( I have yet to see them in any anthology )

  1. It is impossible to say that person born with a particular condition was born that way due to a particular action in a past life:

Acintita Sutta (AN 4:77): “Inconceivable”

  1. The Buddha also said that not everything that happens to a person is the result of karma.

Sivaka Sutta (SN 36:21): “To Sivaka”

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so then, karma is a possible, but not always a necessary or sufficient factor in gender dysphoria, it’s only one potential piece of the puzzle

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It certainly seems like it has to do with past lives. I was 2 or 3 in my very first memories of clearly feeling that I wasn’t the gender people said I was. That’s too young to have such strong conditioning from this life.

Another possibility I see is that sudden death in the previous life might lead to a disturbed rebirth process. Maybe I was just in too much of a hurry to pick a new body that I didn’t notice it was a female one… In Analayo’s rebirth book, there was discussion of sudden death leading to a quicker rebirth IIRC.

I would add though that it doesn’t seem reasonable that it has to do with kamma in a moral sense. Eg being trans doesn’t seem likely to be either good or bad kamma. It seems to me to be more like natural variation comparable to skin color, nationality or sexual orientation.

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In Pali, there is a word, at times translated as “disposition”, namely, “adimutti/ādhimuttika” (which Sujato has translated as “convictions”). Suttas such as SN 14.15 and MN 12 say “ādhimutti” is determined by “the elements” (“dhatu”).

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The meditation teacher who told my friend and I that she was gay because of a past life got that from a “street Buddhism” belief (not spelled out in Buddhist texts ). My understanding, with no disrespect, is that a number of Asians engage in victim blaming by saying that people born into bad circumstances did something to deserve it in a past life.

My personal belief is that medical science will one discover a physical cause for gender dysphoria.

In the meantime we can do well by not adopting superstitions easily converted into ill will and judging people by the content of their character rather than by how similar they are to us.

Niney percent of the problems with gender dysphoria are due to how poorly those people are treated, not the why of the way they are. Treating people better is something within our power. Tracing karma really isn’t.

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If one has gone through all imprints of this life and found no cause, then one might explain it as a cause from a former life. I would start with the obvious and closest, which means a lot of shadow work.

something in me, dark and sticky
All the time it’s getting strong
No way of dealing with this feeling
Can’t go on like this too long

  • Peter Gabriel (Digging in the dirt)

I don’t mean to suggest that gender dysphoria is in any way negative or a karmatic punishment. If my understanding is correct, past karma can also account for musical, linguistic or spiritual aptitudes, and entirely neutral qualities like eye color.

Indeed, this world is no Gilligan’s Island.

On behalf of Trans folk everywhere, and especially me…THANK YOU! and because you all in general have tolerated my voluminous rants, here and elsewhere, in response to the many flawed, not to mention uneducated theories regarding the nature of Gender Dysphoria-which almost killed me-I will refrain from opining AGAIN, but would like to mention that research has been done though not on a wide-scale which does indicate myriad biological possibilities for the condition of transsexuality.

Brain sex is a complicated field, limited by the controversial nature of the the subject, and the lack of transgender volunteers to have their brains dissected for scientific research. But here is a look at one such study from 1997:

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Two Spirit people have been a part of indigenous society since time immemorial :pray:t4:

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Even more positively, if we believe past karma contributed to gender dysphoria, we are empowered to influence it in our desired way. For example, if the person wants to have more or less of it in the next life, he/she could accumulate more-or-less of corresponding karma.

As a hypothesis, here’s a few factors that may contribute to better sexual situation in the next life

  • wisdom: self-awareness into one’s own disposition (sexual and not)
  • contentment: accept one’s own gain (not coveting other’s partner)
  • clarity: non-obsession on sexual activities
  • non-harm: don’t harrass other people to confuse them of their sexuality, but accept them as they are

Because there’s no mention of gender dysphoria in the sutta, we can only guess by logic and analogy. And maybe can never reach conclusive result. But a few hypotheses are better than nothing at all.

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We’re doing alright? That’s genuinely good to hear.

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A propos of nothing , except perhaps the generally east Asian focus, I find some intriguing ideas in the Neo Confucian synthesis (which has significant borrowings from Buddhism). Particularly the interpretation of human reality as an ever changing balance of male and female energy, within every person and every situation. You could say that gender dysphoria is the very life of the yi jing hexagrams. Perhaps one way of understanding the dynamics of dependent co-arising?

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Just to note that this thread is about gender. You’re conflating gender with sexual orientation here, which is an error. Gender and sexual orientation are different things.
You can learn about the difference here:

Further, please be careful about hypotheses that imply that queer gender identity and sexual orientation are the results of past bad kamma from sexual misconduct, as this approach is often unfairly used to shame and stigmatise LGBTQIA folks and implies that these identities are punishments, when these are more likely simply naturally occuring variations in humans and other beings.

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Yes! Thank you Bhante, for this clarification which sadly needs to be repeated ad infinitum to the uninformed. This trope about gender dysphoria is terribly harmful, both physically and psychologically for so many of us, while we continue as a community to resist the violence and hate that permeate global society.
If diversity is celebrated anywhere on the planet, one would hope that it would be here in the Dhamma where everyone was someone else in a previous incarnation. This means that everyone was someone’s mother in a past life. Let’s chew on that for a while. :heartpulse: :crazy_face: :hugs: :rose:

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I think gender dysphoria is (mythically) attested in the Jataka tales:


So the son of the treasurer of Soreyya, transformed into a woman, was married to the son of the treasurer of Takkasilā, and as a result of their living together, she conceived a child in her womb. When ten lunar months had elapsed, she gave birth to a son. When the latter was old enough to walk, she gave birth to a second son. Thus Soreyyā, who was the father of two sons born in the city of Soreyya, became the mother of two more sons born in the city of Takkasilā, making four sons in all.

[Soreyya:] “First I was a man, then I was a woman, and now I have again become a man. First I became the father of two sons, and but recently I became the mother of two sons. Think not that, after having undergone two transformations in one state of existence, I shall ever live the house-life again. I shall become a monk under my noble Elder.”

Thereupon the Elder withdrew himself from the multitude: when he sat, he sat alone, and when he stood, he stood alone. Having thus sought solitude, he grasped firmly the thought of decay and death and attained Arahatship, together with the Supernatural Faculties. …

My reading of this is that gender dysphoria can be immensely positive karma if it motivates one to ordain and to practice for Arahatship.

https://www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net/English-Texts/Buddhist-Legends/03-09.htm

Maybe trans and non-binary people are created when beings get reborn after living in realms without gender differentiation (e.g. arupa worlds IIRC)?

If you previously were a gender-less entity, maybe it’s easier to mess up when you get reborn in a world with gender differentiation? It makes sense to me that, if you have no strong inclination towards either gender, your nama-rupa would develop more randomly in terms of its gendered aspects.

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Ahhh, thanks for this fascinating anecdote!

Again, a fascinating way of framing this condition of trans-ness Yet, ironically, Gender Dysphoria almost produced the opposite effect for me-leading to suicidal ideation, and severe depression.
It is one thing to theorize about the karma of gender dysphoria and its pursuant transition, and yet another thing entirely to experience it. And then having done so to realize the profundity of it from within and without.
And finally the irony that those of us who have been through it have no path to becoming an Arahat.

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I think this thread frames the question in the wrong way. It looks to Buddhism to understand gender dysphoria and trans-ness. I think this is one of those times “Buddhism” should be quiet and listen to the lived experience of trans people. The goal should not be to have a Buddhist explanation of trans and non-binary people. The goal should be for Buddhism and its practitioners to listen and understand the lived experiences of trans and non-binary people, and to use that understanding to make sure Buddhist spaces are safe, welcoming, and supportive spaces for the full range of gender identities and gender experiences that exist in the world.

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