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Through the Yellow Gate: Ordination of Gender-Nonconforming People in the Buddhist Vinaya

Four months ago I started looking into the possibilities for ordination for transgender and intersex people because there seems to be much confusion around this. It was especially my friends Ayya Yeshe and Venerable @Akaliko who were the impetus for me doing this and for myself it became a spiritual journey as well.

You can download the paper here:
YellowGate.pdf (1.7 MB)

Transgender and intersex people, and at times other LGBTIQA+ people, have been excluded from ordination as a Buddhist monastic in the Theravāda tradition. This exclusion is the result of what I will show is an erroneous reading of several Pali terms–paṇḍaka and ubhatobyañjanaka–in the monastic disciplinary code (Vinaya Piṭaka) of the Theravāda tradition. The fact that certain groups of people are unable to obtain monastic ordination based on terms that are so little understood creates a barrier for all LGBTIQA+ people who come to Buddhism seeking refuge from suffering.

When studying the Buddhist scriptures, especially where there are groups of people who are marginalized, it is important to understand where and under which circumstances these concepts and interpretations have originated. I will show that these terms have their roots in Vedic mythology and provide a fresh insight into the ancient Asian paradigms for gender identities. Here we find the living proof of evolving ideas on sex, sexuality and gender that are very different from our Western concepts. And here we find that these terms are intimately bound up with the deeply ambivalent attitude towards women and women’s sexuality in ancient India.

In this paper I will first trace the emergence of these–and other gender-specific–terms in Vedic, Brahmanic and Jain scriptures and their changes over the centuries. I will then discuss the occurrences of these terms in the Pali and Chinese Vinayas and compare these with the understanding of the contemporary ‘religious others’ to come to a deeper understanding of what the terms paṇḍaka and ubhatobyañjanaka really meant at the time these passages were written and the reasons why these are said to be barred from ordination.
Finally I will show that neither these terms, nor any other regulations in the Vinaya, can be used as a justification to exclude candidates from ordination based on their sex, sexuality or gender.

I especially want to thank Ajahn @Brahmali and @Brenna Artinger for their input and help!

I would very much welcome your input and feedback, either by PM or here but as I will be in retreat until April, I will not answer until that time.

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Looks like a really interesting read. Can’t wait to dig in to it.

Seeing this article reminded me of something I was thinking about the other day. I’ve known several gay/lesbian Western monastics over the years. I’m sure there are also many gay/lesbian Asian monastics, as well. However, I don’t think the ordained non-heterosexual community have ever been given much of a public voice (if at all). Is that because of fear of discrimination? Or a belief that as a celibate monastic one’s sexual preference isn’t important? I’m sure there isn’t just one answer, but I wonder, if given anonymity, what they would like to tell their heterosexual monastic brothers/sisters and the laity? As a cisgender straight man, I’m probably not the right person to spearhead such an project, but I’d be willing to help out in any way I can.

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Yes. A case in point is the work I do with Rainbodhi LGBTQIA+ Buddhist Community, where I frequently receive trolling from Buddhists and recently received a death threat. So… It’s essential to understand that there is prejudice and discrimination within our Buddhist communities.

Whilst this thread is specifically about gender diverse and intersex people, there has often been
incorrect conflation with the concept of pandakas and gay men, and this has certainly led to misunderstandings about ordination eligibility for gay men in the past. I remember being told be someone that I couldn’t ordain because I am queer.

Ven Vimala’s excellent research points our that there are similar incorrect misunderstandings about trans and intersex people which need to be reexamined.

I’d just like to gently point out here that sexuality is not a ‘preference’. Although monastics are celibate, sexuality doesn’t magically disappear when one ordains, whether straight, bi or gay. If that was the case we wouldn’t have all those vinaya rules :laughing:

Similarly, being intersex , trans or non-binary are innate and fundamental aspects of oneself - why on earth should these people be barred from ordination?

Good question! It’s so important that people listen and not ‘shut down’ these conversations, which is quite a common experience for many Buddhists in monasteries and other centres. There is a silencing and a shush-ing that can occur along the lines of: "We don’t talk about that stuff here, we’re Buddhist!’. It’s weird because so many straight people come to monasteries to talk about their issues with partners and in-laws , children etc, but this isnt seen as problematic.

The worst thing is when Buddhists utilise the doctrine of not-self to imply that LGBTQIA+ people have somehow brought suffering on themselves by being ‘attached’ to their identity. But this isn’t really the case, it’s just that we are made aware of our identity by society and have many discriminatory and prejudicial issues that come our way!

However, those people who think of themselves as ‘normal’ are often blind to their own gender identity and sexuality , they use the same bathroom every time, they get upset if you misgender them, they tick the same gender box on the registration form, they make sure you know that they are straight! But some Buddhist’s use not-self in a really hurtful way to LGBTQIA Buddhists. Something to watch out for.

If you want to learn a bit more you can watch this video on diversity and inclusion:

And check out Rainbodhi’s upcoming online events which has several queer monastics talking abut their practice as LGBTQIA+ Buddhists.

Venerable @Vimala has done a great job with this research. I’m so impressed by their work! They have discovered so many fascinating things and demonstrated so clearly why we must continually challenge our own assumptions and prejudices.

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Thank you so much, Venerable, for pointing this out. Its not like we trans people are somehow more attached to our gender identity just because there happens to be a discrepancy between identity and assigned gender. In practice, I’ve actually noticed the opposite. It’s safe to say that trans people contemplate gender far more than the average person. Over many years of doing this, some people naturally arrive at a point of loosening the grip around gender. People in the trans community often describe it as being “post gender”. We spend so much effort and time on navigating the world of gender that eventually the transition is no longer from one gender to another, but from a world of genderedness to just being. We don’t stop being trans, but we begin to understand gender for what it is. To that end, anatta confirms the validity of trans people, not the other way around. Gender is simply a collection of feelings, perceptions and social constructs. How could any of these things be in our control!?

As a trans person who wishes to dedicate this life to the Dhamma, as a monastic if possible, I’m endlessly grateful for the work that is being done to shed light to this issue. Thank you, Venerable @Vimala for the work you’ve done! :pray:

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That’s appalling! I’m shocked that has happened to you Bhante. I too have been on the receiving end of death threats. It’s a terrible thing. I hope people can be more kind in the future, regardless of disagreements.

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Ven. @Vimala, it makes me really happy to finally see some discussion on this. Thanks for doing all the research and moving this topic forward. :heart:

Unfortunately there’s a lot of discrimination in the vinaya: against gender-nonconforming people, against women, against people with disabilities, etc. It’s heartbreaking that there are all these obstacles for people who just want to sincerely practice dhamma. It’s difficult to reconcile these vinaya texts with fundamental Buddhist principles of wisdom and compassion.

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Ugh, I’m so sorry to hear that. I think one of the many issues we Western Buddhists need to address is the various forms of discrimination in the countries and cultures from which we inherited Buddhism. That such discrimination exists has begun to receive a little more attention lately (I’m thinking of the bhikkhuni ordination situation), but there is still a lot of work to do. Of course Western countries have their own problems with prejudice and discrimination, but it doesn’t help matters when people’s Dhamma teachers are explicitly or implicitly reinforcing those wrong views. To be clear, I’m not saying “Asia bad, West good,” but simply pointing out that people will look to their guru/lama/ajahn/sayadaw as an example, and base their own behavior and attitudes on him/her/them.

Yes, my bad. “Sexual orientation” was what I meant to write. Sorry.

They shouldn’t be, in my opinion.

Another issue I think we Western Buddhists will have to revisit is the purpose of the gender segregation of monastics. If it was originally based on the assumption that everyone was heterosexual, and you have to keep all the women away from the straight monks and vice versa, then taking into account the LGBTQIA+ community, does that model really work all of the time? Based on my experience staying in monasteries in Asia and the West, truth be told, there are always a lot of women in monasteries. If you count lay women going to the monastery for dana, teachings, or staying for a period of dedicated practice (all of which should be supported and encouraged and is commonplace), the gender segregation is already starting to break down. In some Mahayana traditions, a single monastic complex will house monks and nuns, with separate living quarters for each. Maybe that is the way forward for Westerners, if, of course, that’s what women want. Anyway, this is a complicated issue that will require a lot of thought.

Yes, I kind of hijacked the thread, sorry, but it was Ven. Vimala’s work with the LGBTQIA+ community that made me start posting here, not any connection I felt between the pandakas and gay men.

Maybe @Gillian can split this out into its own thread? Or, if it’s felt that my posts on this topic haven’t added much of value, they can just be removed.

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:heart_eyes: :heart_eyes: :heart_eyes:

Millions of sadhus Venerable @Vimala! :clap:t5: :clap:t5: :clap:t5: :bowing_man:t5: :bowing_man:t5: :bowing_man:t5: A wonderful, clear-eyed paper that will remove much dust from people’s eyes! So timely, so important.

I will certainly share with fellow monastics on my end—I’m wondering if you have intentions for wider distribution? Either posting online somewhere or submitting to a journal?

Anyway, thank you so much for all the energy and effort you put into this! It is certainly for the faith of the faithful and of the faithless!

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Thank you, Venerable @Vimala, for this insightful and validating paper.

I would like to share some points from my own trans perspective:

In a time when Hormone Replacement Therapy and surgery were not available it does not seem to be likely that anybody just changed gender from one day to the next. (p. 35)

We never before had the medical knowledge about intersex or the ability to change sex with Hormone Replacement Therapy and surgery. (p 36)

When I came out as a trans woman, I got it a lot like „now that you are a woman“ or „before, as a man“ etc., implying that I changed sex and or gender. From the outside perspective, it might seem like that. But from my (inside) perspective it is more like setting free, what was suppressed and forbidden for a long time. I have always been a transfeminine person, but I suppressed it, hated it, feared it. Observing how society and people around me viewed and treated persons, that are different (like homosexuals or trans), I internalized this from a very young age throughout my life and fought this part of myself. But it stayed and eventually, I realized my transness - this was a transforming moment, really! I felt relieved, freed. I learned to accept and finally love myself - a very hurtful process.

But, my expression, performance and presentation changed. With hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and gender confirmation surgery (GCS) we can feminize or masculinize the body to a certain degree (it’s different for each trans person and not every trans person wants HRT or GCS or not to the full extent). This is important or even necessary for some to reach congruence or alignment between their gender and their body (i.e. sex characteristics).

So, there might be a lot of change in my mind, my perception, my body. But there is a very deep-seated feeling or perception (in everyday language) of „gender“, that is very stable and persistent. It’s like a push to, or pull towards what might superficially manifest as the social constructs of gender. What I try to say is: there is the social construct which differs and evolves through time, place and society and there is this deep and „diffuse“ feeling of feminity, masculinity or both or neither or something in between. I can’t describe it and I might have failed to convey what I mean… sorry!

Thank you Venerable @Akaliko, this is very validating! Generally, I had very good experience with coming out to friends and colleagues. But with one buddhist friend (who is gay, btw.) it turned into a nightmare! He immediately turned the conversation to my genitals, that he liked me better as a man and some other stuff. I told him, how uncomfortable that made me, but he kept going. That was invasive, intrusive and humiliating. Something like that makes me feel dehumanized.

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Thank you for sharing all that you have @tkk. It takes no small amount of courage and vulnerability to do that :pray:t5:

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Wonderful study Ven @Vimala :pray:t4:The more scholarship there is on the subject the better. Will you be publishing this essay in a journal ( LaTeX format suggests you may :grinning:)

I’ve heard this so much 🤦🏽
I want to scream out: “ It’s because we’re Buddhist we need to talk about ‘that stuff’ !”

Just listening and having the conversation shows kindness and understanding and a willingness to grow, aren’t those Buddhist virtues?

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That’s very distressing to hear, Bhante. I’m sorry you have to experience that.

I would like to suggest that for us lay-followers, it’s important to go beyond just not being bigoted personally, but to be openly anti-discriminatory, anti-bigotry, anti-sexism, anti-racist and so on.

Inspired by AN 8.39, we have to ensure that everyone has “freedom from fear, enmity, and ill will” in Buddhist spaces.

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Dear Ayya and all friends, thanks for this important contribution, and for all the love and support in this thread. I have already learned a lot this morning just from what you’ve put out here, so please don’t think no-one’s listening.

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Yes, I totally agree with this and have often thought the same, that gender diverse folks actually have a great insight into the constructed nature of identity and the reality of impermanence, or similarly, that gay/bi folks often have a sense of fluidity, being out at some times, closeted at others. Queer folks often are very much aware of navigating between these worlds of identities, we can see how flimsy they are! And yet we are so affected by those identites in many ways in our lives.

Thanks for sharing!

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I am so glad you came through this hurtful process and that you can be yourself! Thank you for sharing this here with us, I learn a lot from your post.

I get it!! :smiley: I think this is the special insight trans people have into not-self, gender and identity. It’s not fixed and stable, it’s changing and out of control, but the experinec of gender is still there, in all it’s varied forms, regardless of being cis, trans, or intersex. Many people will never interogate not-self in the way that gender diverse folks do. We have a lot to learn by listeningto experiences such as yours. Thanks again!

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The link to the file is not working. Can anybody attach it here in the discussion?

Here you go, Venerable~ :card_file_box:

YellowGate.pdf (903.8 KB)

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Sorry for butting into this conversation a bit late, @Vimala (and everyone else interested), but I have a question about this specific point in the article:

Rendering the terms paṇḍaka and ubhatob yañ janaka into English, previous
lexicographers of the Pali language have used vocabulary rooted in the (Christian) understanding
of the early 20th Century, like ‘eunuch’ and ‘hermaphrodite’.1

Now I’m curious about the history of the PTS’ translation of Pandaka as “Eunuch.” Was this simply Horner’s choice? I cannot seem to find an entry for Pandaka in the 1921-1925 PTS pali dictionary by TW Rhys-Davids and William Stede. Were there any earlier attempts by English speakers to translate it?

Thank you all so much for your contributions here. And especially to Theresia @tkk: I very much respect your openness and honesty and I can well relate to what you are saying.

One thing I took from the discussions is that some things I said in the paper were not so very well explained. I struggled a lot with the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ because these terms were simply not used in the same way in ancient India and the notions of sex and gender are very blurred. Therefore I am adding some more explanations to chapter 3 on liṅga and will also re-write part of the chapter on “changing gender” because it wrongfully seemed to lay a link with transgender people as we define them today. So I changed that to “changing liṅga” and kept with the Pali word for that and also added some more explanation. I will upload the new version here soon.

Some people asked me if I was going to publish in a journal. And the answer is a very definite NO! Journals means copyright. It would mean that I could not publish anywhere else and not here on SuttaCentral. In writing this paper the accessibility, or lack thereof, of papers because they were published in journals was a great obstacle for me. I want this paper to be openly visible on the internet and accessible for monastics. Instead I publish it here and I will published it on Academia soon.

Somebody asked me a few months ago if there were transgender monastics in other religions and indeed I found one: Sister Elena of the Order of St. Hildegard. She wrote an interesting article which I have posted below. Apparently in the biblical scriptures ‘eunuchs’ are also mentioned as not being allowed to ordain but in her article she comes to a conclusion very similar to my own, that these ‘eunuchs’ were religious seekers of other sects and not to be equated with transgender people.

There is also an account of a transgender nun in the Tibetan tradition in the USA. This tells a clear story of the difficulties for transgender people in ordaining in the Buddhist Sangha and the prejudices that she had to face. The dedication of this nun against all odds is admirable.

Eventually she is ordained by the Dalai Lama himself, who obviously saw her essence as female while other monastics could not see that. One thing that struck me here also is how she ran into a difficulty in living with other monastics who could not accept her as she is so she ended up living alone. She writes the following with regards to the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya:

With regards to your other questions I hope to come back to that next week.

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That’s not completely true as there are now a number of open access, Buddhist journals. For example, The Journal of Buddhist Ethics might be an especially good fit for this work, just saying. :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

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