SuttaCentral

On the legality of Non-Binary ordination


#1

There are quite a number of non-binary people on this forum like myself. Some have come out, others told me in private and yet others I might not know about. In this post I just want to clear up any confusion regarding the legality of the ordination of people who identify as non-binary: it is perfectly acceptable for non-binary people to ordain, there are no rules that prohibit this in the Vinaya.

Some misunderstandings can be traced back to the difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. There are three sexes: male, female and intersex.
The rule prohibiting ordination is for those who are called ‘ubhatovyañjana’. This means people who have sex organs of both male and female sexes, traditionally translated as ‘hermaphrodite’. This is however a wrong translation because true hermaphroditism does not exist in humans; the correct term is ‘intersex’. The word ‘hermaphrodite’ has also been used to stigmatise, exoticise and denigrate people so it is also rejected as a translation due to the link to its hurtful past.

The term ‘intersex’ seems however a bit broader than the term ‘ubhatovyañjana’ and there are several Pali words used in the ordination procedure that might be relevant to describe indeterminate sex characteristics. Intersex people are born in this way and some have surgery (consensual or not) to make them either male, or female. It is however important to note that not all intersex people are aware that they are intersex or it is not immediately apparent.

I also heard the postulation that trans people who are in the process of transitioning through surgery could possibly be regarded as intersex, but this is problematic because the term “intersex” refers to a congenital physical condition, which is usually not present in trans people. So linking these two terms in this context sets a dangerous precedent. The question is better phrased as: “does surgery on sexual organs impact eligibility for ordination under the Vinaya?” This type of surgery was not an option in the time of the Buddha so there is no specific mention of this. The same question would arise with people who have had a.o. hysterectomies or mastectomies and want to ordain. However, I feel that a full discussion of these cases falls outside the scope of this post.

My take on these matters is to always interpret the Vinaya in the most compassionate way. The Buddha often phrased the rules in ways that are quite open-ended. It is only later tradition that forces narrow interpretations on many of the Vinaya rules. So if we are to follow the rules as they were laid down by the Buddha–as he suggests we should–then it is perfectly acceptable to peel back some of these later interpretations and take a fresh look at the rules. Very often we will find they are not as confining as later tradition would have us think.

Although I feel that intersex people should have the right to ordain just like everybody else, the inclusion of the above mentioned pali terms in the Vinaya ordination procedure seems to indicate that at least the majority of them cannot. Based on my initial studies, I believe that this is most likely a later inclusion in the texts, but more research needs to be done to back this up. It is a difficult question and there are no simple answers; the matter is vastly complex, also due to the many variations in physical bodies that people can have. We have to look into this on a case-by-case basis.

It is clear however that the rules regarding the ordination procedure in the Vinaya and the questions asked of the candidate during the ordination pertain to the physical body (sex) only, not the gender one identifies with, like f.i. non-binary.

Non-binary people can have any sex (i.e. have a male body, or a female body, or be intersex), however they do not identify with being a ‘man’ or ‘woman’. A good post explaining this can be found here, so I will not go into detail about this. Therefore, it is perfectly legal for a non-binary person with the fe/male sex to ordain. A non-binary person with the female sex can ordain as a Bhikkhuni, while a non-binary person with the male sex will ordain as a Bhikkhu.

If your are non-binary and want to ordain there is nothing against that. There might be some conservative monasteries where they will not accept your gender, but I want you to know that as far as the Vinaya is concerned, there are no obstacles.


#2

Not exactly sure how the Vinaya would have anything to say about gender non-binary individuals since it is essentially an early 21st century concept which doesn’t have any sexual orientation determination or even implications, unlike genderqueer which is exactly the same thing except it is explicitly non-heterosexual.

You could easily make the argument that a non-binary self-determination is more closely aligned with the pathway to ending sakkāyaditthi than not.

It is fairly simple to superficialy to misread Indian cultural norms post-British rule since they forced Victorian values on the sub-continent and the biggest example is making homosexuality and transvestism both illegal and shameful, which beforehand was socially tolerated possibly dating back to well before Buddha Gotama. To assume that the current Buddha was unaware or of homosexuals or trans people seems rather naive, which then points to the obviousness of sex specific rules and regulations without allowances made for sexually minorities. Sexual minorities weren’t marginalized in India until roughly 800 years after the disappearance of Buddhism from the sub-continent. The same applies to Ceylon where Buddhism wasn’t devastated until the 19th century. Thus the argument that even if later generations added regulations to the Vinaya that couldn’t be well transposed to non-heteronormative individuals without losing their basis for implementation seems curious, because the cannon was locked down well before British colonization and the reversal of essentially ubiquitous tolerance of sexual minorities in India and Ceylon.

It is possible that so few sexual minorities ordained that it was just never addressed. No way to be sure.

Gender non-binary is an uncomplicated non-issue.

However, the issues surrounding sexual minorities, ordination and the incompatibility with many regulations could be easily solved by the 7th Buddhist Council. Very little of the Vinaya is set in stone… It just needs to be properly addressed to avoid unnecessary fracturing.