What is the 'legal' thing to do here (about transgender going forth)?


Good evening, Bhantes, and all…
Here’s a question that I do not know the ‘correct’ answer to:
What to tell someone who is transgender who expresses interest in taking bhikkhu ordination? I do not know the Bhikkhu vinaya well enough, except what I read in Thanissaro’s vinaya manual:

Absolutely disqualified. A person may be absolutely disqualified if he:

  1. has an abnormal gender;
  2. has committed any of the five deeds leading to immediate retribution in hell (ānantariya/ānantarika-kamma);
  3. has seriously wronged the Dhamma-Vinaya; or
  4. is an animal.
    The Canon states that such people may not receive full Acceptance. The Commentary adds (with one exception, noted below) that they may not receive the Going-forth. Even if they receive ordination, they do not count as ordained. Once the truth about them is discovered, they must immediately be expelled.

So what constitutes ‘abnormal gender?’ I know here in Burma the criterion is that the person must have testes. Otherwise not possible.
And is the com’y the gold standard here or the canon? IOW, can they take up a samanera going forth?

Changing Genders, Changing Buddhists

Not directly connected to your question, but on a related note, there is this in the Vinaya:

At one time the characteristics of a woman appeared on a monk. They informed the Master. He said: “Monks, I allow that very discipleship, that very ordination, those years as a monk, to be transferred to the nuns. The monks’ offenses that are in common with the nuns are to be dealt with in the presence of the nuns. For the monks’ offenses that are not in common with the nuns, there’s no offense.”

At one time the characteristics of a man appeared on a nun. They informed the Master. He said: “Monks, I allow that very discipleship, that very ordination, those years as a nun, to be transferred to the monks. The nuns’ offenses that are in common with the monks are to be dealt with in the presence of the monks. For the nuns’ offenses that are not in common with the monks, there’s no offense.”


Thank you so much for bringing up this topic, Ayya! In fact, the very issue of the legal implications of ordaining transgender persons is what I want to focus on in my graduate studies. :grinning: So, it might be sufficient to say that this kind of Vinaya exploration is my ‘jam.’

I don’t know in practice whether or not a transgender person could be ordained, I suppose it very much depends on whether or not one view transgenderism as fulfilling the category of paṇḍaka, of which Ajahn Thanissaro references in point one that you’ve quoted.

The five types of paṇḍaka are:

…those who are born as either neuters or sexually indeterminate, those who have lost their sexual organ or capacities due to circumstances after birth, those whose sexuality changes every half month (in some versions from male to female and back again), those whose sexuality depends on the initiation of others (or, in another version, having oral sex), and those whose sexuality is engaged by voyeurism. [1]

In Sanskrit and Pali these are [2]:


I think it would be very legally difficult legally to determine whether or not transgender persons fit into the category of paṇḍaka, because there really appears to not have been an equatable gender orientation during the time of the Buddha. Dr. Gyatso makes the point that “…this third-sex pandaka category, rather than being consistently or coherently defined, is starting to look more than anything like merely a loose catchall for an ever-expanding array of sexual aberrations on ever-shifting grounds—even psychological and social ones” [3]. Thus, the term paṇḍaka was used to categorize people who were sexually or anatomically different, particularly when compared to the stereotypical non-deviant male.

Which is why I always sort of feel icky when the example that Nicolas has quoted is brought up, because though very interesting, it’s not an example of transgenderism. Because of course one who is transgender does not just wake up one morning as the opposite sex; and furthermore, if the monk in that story showed signs of sexual or anatomical changes before his ordination, he might not have been able to ordain in the first place. So it’s difficult to tell if transgenderism should fit into the category of paṇḍaka. I’m not sure what monks these days have determined, but I would think that one would have to join whatever order (bhikkhu or bhikkhuni) they identify with. I’ve heard that at a certain monastery (that shall not be named) they ask transgender individuals to stop their gender reassignment surgeries and revert back to their birth sex, which makes me want to throw up. :face_vomiting:

Oops, I’m ranting. I hope at least some of this is helpful. :slightly_smiling_face:

Also, let me know if you want me to send you the cited sources. They’re excellent reads and Gyatso gives fantastically detailed examples of what “sexually indeterminate” means.

P.S. It makes me very happy that at the top of the Wikipedia page for Paṇḍaka it says,

Pandaka 2

[1] Janet Gyatso, “One Plus One Makes Three: Buddhist Gender, Monasticism, and the Law of the Non-excluded Middle,” History of Religions 43, 2 (2003), 96-97.
[2] Leonard Zwilling, “Homosexuality as Seen in Indian Buddhist Texts,” in Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. Jose Cabezon (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 204.
[3] Janet Gyatso, “One Plus One Makes Three: Buddhist Gender, Monasticism, and the Law of the Non-excluded Middle,” 107.


A long time ago, in a Dhamma talk far-far away, I recall Ajahn Brahm talking about this within a Vinaya context with the suggestion that it was possible to ordain as someone who was trans. I will keep the thought in the back of my head and i might remember more details about the talk. Enough to search for it.


And an interesting side note:
Looking a little online, I found much to my surprise that the locally famous (in Ladakh) ‘Inji Getsul’ - a British doctor who had gone forth in the Tibetan tradition and wrote a wonderful book about his year in Rizong monastery - was in fact trans. He died very suddenly in 1962 soon before his autobiography (telling all) was to be published. The going forth was done without the Lama knowing the situation, which I imagine would be difficult kamma.

Thank you Janet, for the very detailed answer.
I’d be curious to hear also from the Bhikkhu side, to know what they would do if faced with this situation.

Here in Burma, it’s not even a consideration.
It’s mind-bending enough for the Sayadaws to be told (regarding the metta instructions) that some Western people need to be allowed to radiate metta in the formal practice to people of the same gender, and why. So I have not asked them about anything more ‘complicated’ than that. :no_mouth:


Thanks for the lucid explanation, Brenna.

I’m not sure why there is a problem with the given example of transgenderism. Of course it is not exactly the same as a transgender person seeking ordination, but in Vinaya we make these kind of inferences all the time. As far as I can see, it establishes an iron-clad precedent for the acceptance of transgendered people within the Sangha. Perhaps we might prefer to see this put more explicitly, but for a 2,500 year old text, I think this is pretty good!

What I think this establishes is that if a person’s gender is clearly biologically male or female at the time of ordination, there is no problem. The means by which they came to be in that state, whether by birth or surgery or psychic powers or whatever, is irrelevant. I think such a person should not be considered as a pandaka under Vinaya.

This doesn’t, however, clear up cases where a person’s gender is ambiguous, such as where the biological and social dimensions of gender are complex, for example in the case of a person who has a penis but regards themselves as female.

I am far from being an expert in any of these areas, and as always I advocate for a compassionate application of Vinaya: it is meant to serve people to became awakened, not to obstruct them.


I’m just having a browse around to see if we can glean anything about paṇḍaka. One of the few non-Vinaya texts we find it in is the Milinda:

The translation is less than ideal:

The Milinda is of course a late text, and this is one of the later chapters. Not one of our finest moments, it says you can’t trust a woman with secrets because of her weak and changeable understanding (itthī paññāya ittaratāya) thus endorsing the position that the suttas ascribe to Māra.

Of paṇḍakas, it says they can’t be trusted with secrets due to their “ambiguity” (paṇḍako anekaṃsikatāya, not “imperfection” as the translation has it.) Ekaṁsa literally means “one-sided”, and is used for example for philosophical questions that can be answered definitively as opposed to those that cannot (anekaṁsa).

Whether this is directly relevant in the context of the Vinaya is an open question, but so far as it goes, it confirms that the issue with paṇḍakas is not that they have been something different in the past, but that in the present they are ambiguous. Of course, the question as to why ambiguity is considered a problem is really the interesting thing here, but for now I’m just checking what the texts say.


Here is an article by Peter Jackson on Non-normative Sex/Gender Categories in the Theravada Buddhist Scriptures.

The 5 types that @Brenna also talked about are defined a little differently here and comes for the commentaries:

Commentators’ definitions of pandaka are diverse. For example, Bunmi (ibid:235-239) lists five types of pandaka:
asittakapandaka: A man who gains satisfaction from performing oral sex on another man and from ingesting his semen, or who only becomes sexually aroused after ingesting another man’s semen.

ussuyapandaka: A voyeur, a man who gains sexual satisfaction from watching a man and a woman having sex.

opakkamikapandaka: Eunuchs, that is, castrated men lacking complete sexual organs. Unlike the other four types of pandaka Bunmi describes, these men attain their condition after birth and are not born as pandaka. Leonard Zwilling (1992:204) does not call this type of pandaka a eunuch but rather says the term describes a man who “attains ejaculation through some special effort or artifice”. Bunmi’s description of opakkamika as eunuchs appears to follow a sixth type of pandaka that Zwilling says is identified by Yas’omitra, the lunapandaka, which denotes a man who has been intentionally castrated.

pakkhapandaka: People who become sexually aroused in parallel with the phases of the moon, either becoming aroused during the fortnight of the waning moon (Pali: kalapakkha) and ceasing to be aroused during the fortnight of the waxing moon (Pali: junhapakkha) or, conversely, becoming sexually aroused during the period of the waxing moon and ceasing to be aroused during the period of the waning moon. Zwilling cites the early commentator, Buddhaghosa, as saying that a pakkhapandaka “becomes temporarily impotent for fourteen ‘black days’ of the month but regains his potency during the fourteen ‘white days’, that is, from the new to the full moon”.

napumsakapandaka (also sometimes called simply napumsaka): A person with no clearly defined genitals, whether male or female, having only a urinary tract. Another definition of a napumsaka given by Bunmi (1986:239) is `a [>male] person who i s not able to engage in activities like a man’. Elsewhere, Bunmi adds that napumsakapandaka are born without any genital organs as punishment for having castrated animals in a past life. According to Zwilling, Buddhaghosa describes a napumsaka as “one who is congenitally impotent”.

It seems clear to me that it is simply not known what a pandaka really is.

Considering that our notion of gender has changed a lot in the last century, I think we can assume that in the time of the Buddha, the physical gender is meant and the determining factor for ordination. Gay/lesbian sexuality is also referred to in the Vinaya rules.


Another obscure passage is in the Kathavatthu, a series of arguments between a Theravadin and imaginary interlocuters who misinterpret various points:

Once again, the translation leaves much to be desired:

This passage deals with the vexatious issue of whether a supposedly enlightened being might mistakenly appear to have had a nocturnal emission due to the malicious act of a deity who conveyed semen to their bed while they slept. In my researches many years ago I discovered that this exact same point is addressed in the Malleus Maleficarum. So as usual, Buddhists are much more advanced than the west!

Anyway, one of the points of the argument is to examine whether semen is emitted during sleep solely by physical causes such as eating food, or whether there must be an element of lust. To establish that lust must be involved, the Theravadin uses a syllogism:

  1. We know that XYZ eats
  2. Yet XYZ does not emit semen
  3. Therefore semen is not produced solely by food

Under XYZ, three kinds of beings are invoked, it being assumed by both parties that such beings obviously do not produce semen. The three kinds of beings mentioned are children, paṇḍakas, and devas.

Again, the relationship between this and the Vinaya texts is an open question. But according to this passage, anyone capable of producing semen is definitely not a paṇḍaka.


Absolutely. And this is a definitive point: we can’t make determinations, especially not highly significant ones that massively impact people’s lives, based on things that we simply don’t know.

And thanks for the additional references. I was planning to check exactly what the commentaries say, we’ll see if I get around to it.


:clap: :clap: :clap: And sadhu!!! …sorry…it wasn’t enough to just “like” this.


There was a discussion on another board some time ago about what a “pandaka” was/is/could be translated as now and it seems to me it maybe wasn’t even that consistent at the time of the Buddha exactly what it was (this does sound like slang after all), probably immensely less clear now 2600 years later. The thread discussed all the scholarly discussions/articles on the word, with attempts to translate Pandaka, and mostly scholars seemed to be daunted. One of the scholarly attempts to describe it was “sexual nonconformist” if I remember right, which is evocative but also vague at the same time.


And a further note. The Pali Vinaya doesn’t say much about pandakas, but the passage describing why they cannot ordain is found in Kd 1.61.1:

Now at that time a certain eunuch came to have gone forth among the monks. Having approached a number of young monks, he spoke thus: “Come, venerable ones, commit an offence with me.” The monks refused, saying: “Be off, eunuch, depart, eunuch. What need have you?” Refused by the monks, having approached a number of large, fat novices, he spoke thus: “Come, your reverences, commit an offence with me.” The novices refused, saying: “Be off, eunuch, depart, eunuch. What need have you?” Refused by the novices, having approached mahouts and grooms, he spoke thus: “Come, sirs, commit an offence with me.” The mahouts and grooms committed an offence with him.

This translation has one major grammatical flaw. It says:

Comes, Venerables, commit an offence with me
etha, maṃ āyasmanto dūsetha

The verb dūseti is more literally, “corrupt, violate”. But as is well established in other contexts (including the preceding paragraph), this idiom does not mean “do this with me” (which would be expressed with the instrumental), but “do this to me”.

Comes, Venerables, violate me.

Obviously we could imagine cruder English words that would be more idiomatic here! But the sense is clear. The paṇḍaka is taking the passive role in intercourse, which agrees with the Kathavatthu, in that they do not produce semen.


Bhante, is it true the literal Pali for Pandaka is “sparkled one”? or is the meaning more like “sparkles like a fish”? Or is there no relation to the word for fish at all?


Hi and thanks to all.

In Theravada, during the ordination procedure the candidate will be asked specifically whether he is a man. He then must answer “yes” affirmatively and sincerely: If he is not asked, or if he answers “no”, or if he says “yes” but does not in truth conceive himself to be a man, then his ordination can be argued to be legally invalid. The same goes for women in bhikkhuni ordination. According to Theravada tradition it seems that the ordination of trans persons would be highly problematic from a legal point of view.

But not just legally! There is the question of social acceptance, and I believe this is the real obstacle. And it is mostly this that will determine legal interpretation. For example, the phrase “purisosi?” (Are you a man?) Does not include a strict definition of manhood. This means it is up to the preceptor to define it. While one preceptor may suffice with how the candidate perceives himself, another may insist on a natural biological foundation, and yet another may actually stipulate that “purisa” excludes anyone who is not heterosexual (which actually happens). So even legally it varies.

All this is from a legal perspective. Practically though a trans person wishing to ordain will have to find both a preceptor willing to ordain him and a community willing to support him. And I presume that even then his ordination will still not be recognised by many other communities in the traditional and conservative Theravada monastic world.

@Brenna it’s interesting that you’ll be doing your phd exclusively on this subject! Then … Good luck with the field work!! :wink:


The same holds true for women. Bhikkhunis are not recognised by many other communities in the traditional and conservative Theravada monastic world. That does not mean that this person should not ordain.

I believe that all humans, no matter if they have a male or a female body in this life, have been men and women in previous lives and we all carry that with us. Gender is mostly just a perception. How a person is has nothing much to do with a physical body, it is the mental perception we ourselves and our society project onto that. We all are in some sense non-binary. But because of these perceptions, we have different experiences, we are raised differently, treated differently.


Yep! I was only stating the facts. What people should or shouldn’t be or believe or do, I leave for them to decide. My support and sympathy is with every spiritual striving effort of everyone, whether monastic or lay, and whether Buddhist or otherwise.


I’ve not heard that, do you know where that comes from?

In the PTS Dictionary, it merely suggests to look under Latin pello in Walde, which thanks to the Internet Archive we can read here:

But I can’t find anything on pandaka there. The etymology of pello is Indo-Eropean:₂-

But this doesn’t say anything about pandaka, and there seems no obvious connection.

Given that the word doesn’t appear to be attested in pre-Buddhist sources, it sounds to me like it may be of non-IE origins.

The Wikipedia entry says that the fish was named after the Sanskrit term, so maybe that’s true.


I have come upon a somewhat related case while staying as a female lay guest in a monks’ monastery. There was a person who identified themselves as a trans woman and who applied to spend a week in the monastery in the women’s quarters (“my first attempt at seclusion… :smile:” they mentioned to me).

And after a bit of discussion finally the abbot agreed. Compassion over rigidity! :heartpulse:


Where this thread has gone is inspiring. I’m not much of a scholar these days, so it’s wonderful to have all that you have gathered at my fingertips to read.

What strikes me is the tension between legality and compassion: the compassionate thing to do may not be legal and the legal thing may not be so compassionate. And because there is no firm ground of understanding to stand on (what’s a pandaka? Who knows, really?), it seems to me that to err on the side of compassion and flexibility is more in accord with the Buddhadhamma.

So what you say, bhante, deeply gladdens the heart:

As a tangent, it’s interesting to notice how we who are cultivating non-clinging can get ridiculously tied up in knots trying to find textual certainty where there is none to be found. As if that somehow keeps the ground from continuously sliding out from under our feet. (I’m not talking about anyone here, except myself sometimes.)