Does Buddhism suit your politics?

QUESTION: A famous scene in the Vimalakirti Sutra shows a goddess transforming Shariputra, one of the Buddha’s male disciples, into female. This is maybe the first recorded incident of a male transitioning to female in religious literature. This means Buddhism is pro-trans. Change my mind.

RESPONDENT ONE: Do people have a right to be perceived by others in the way they wish to be perceived? No, sorry, Buddhism aims to dissolve delusion, not reinforce it.

RESPONDENT TWO: Whoa, whoa! Let’s back up. Remember the context. Buddhism traditionally teaches that women cannot attain enlightenment. If women want to become enlightened, they have to do good deeds and hope to be reincarnated as male. Once they incarnate as male, they have a chance of awakening. This is among the many glaring examples of misogyny in Buddhism. As some of you know, I have argued that misogyny is a world religion in itself, and is manifested in local politics all over the globe.

The famous scene between the goddess and Shariputra in the Vimalakirti Sutra illustrates that women can attain enlightenment as they are. More than this, it illustrates that sex — male and female — have no intrinsic essence. Male and female are categories to describe the material manifestations of human beings. From the perspective of enlightenment/reality, however, these characteristics are empty of any essence that might transcend our human bodies. The goddess quotes the historical Buddha as having said: “In all things, there is neither male nor female.”

This scene is an effort to reform traditional Buddhist beliefs and practices that excluded and demonized women. In Mahayana Buddhism, thinking of women and girls as “lesser” than men and boys is profoundly mistaken. Whoever wrote the Vimalakirti Sutra was trying to say, hey, either enlightenment is universally accessible by all people, or it’s crap.

I agree that Buddhism isn’t “pro-trans.” Neither is it “anti-trans.” Transness just isn’t a big deal from a Buddhist perspective. Just like being male or female isn’t a big deal (or shouldn’t be) in Buddhism. The big takeaway from this scene in the Vimalakirti Sutra is that our physical bodies have no bearing on whether we can awaken to Buddha consciousness. Our inner sense of being male or female is ultimately illusory. Sex and gender don’t matter with regard to our ability to become enlightened.

RESPONDENT ONE: You need to be frank that Buddhism DOES NOT TEACH that human male bodies can become human female bodies. This is not part of Buddhism — although it IS a popular yet deluded belief that has served to enrich pharmaceutical companies and plastic surgeons.

RESPONDENT THREE: So noted. The lessons in the Vimalakirti Sutra are about nonduality. It’s understandable if people confuse nonduality with modern concepts such as nonbinary or bisexual or agender. I can see why people might think these ideas are the same as what Buddhists mean by nonduality, even though these ideas are not interchangeable.

Nichiren Buddhists don’t really talk about nonduality. We’re more likely to refer to oneness or nini-funi. Nini-funi means “two but not two,” which, when you think about it, is a bit different than saying oneness or nonduality. We also talk about shikishin-funi, which basically means physical existence and spiritual existence are two but not two.

Shikishin-funi is more commonly referred to in English as “oneness of body and mind.” It’s a core concept in Nichiren Buddhism. “Oneness of body and mind” was identified by the influential scholar Miao-lo as a key principle of the Lotus Sutra. It’s one of the “ten onenesses” recognized in Nichiren Buddhism.

The principle of shikishin-funi means that body and mind are interdependent and indivisible. The body is material, and the mind is spiritual, but neither exists without the other. My knowledge of trans issues is colloquial only. I understand that some people feel that they were born in the wrong body. I do not dispute that some people feel this way and believe this literally to be true.

Speaking only for myself, I do not see how this could be literally true, nor how Buddhism might rationalize this as a possibility in light of the ten onenesses. Buddhism views body and mind as inseparable manifestations of life. “Wrong body” is not a concept that jibes with what I know about the Buddhist view of human existence.

RESPONDENT FOUR: I’m old enough to remember when nonbinary was called androgyny. I also remember Bible study and Galatians 3:28. From the the King James Version: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This passage is not arguing that Greeks don’t exist. It’s not arguing that male and female don’t exist. It means that our differing characteristics and identities do not separate us from ultimate reality, Godhead, Buddhahood or whatever you want to call it.

In Christianity and in Buddhism, we see these ideals of spiritual equality and uniting in faith with those who seem different than us. These ideals have obvious political implications. Funny that so many self-described Christians and Buddhists embrace political positions that emphasize fear and division rather than faith, equality and unity.

RESPONDENT FIVE: Buddhism does not support your politics. Nor mine. Buddhism does not support or refute ANY political position. Buddhism is a religion and a philosophical framework for looking at reality. Reality is immanent, deathless, uncreated bliss and how we relate to it, and how we relate to everything.

Your understanding of reality affects your politics. But using your Buddhist beliefs to advance a political position sucks just as much as Christian nationalists imposing their Bible-based beliefs on others.

RESPONDENT ONE: Oh, I love it when Nichiren Buddhists say Buddhism is apolitical. What a laugh. Nichiren campaigned to enshrine his brand of Lotus Buddhism as the state religion of Japan. So I’m not buying this “Buddhism doesn’t care about your politics” bs.

RESPONDENT SIX: Oh, I love the contingent of nichiren buddhists who always want to drag our religion back to medieval Japan.

Someone dear to me transitioned and is now detransitioning. I doubt that most people see the intense peer pressure and conditioning surrounding transition, with no one stepping up to challenge the doctrine that anyone who feels trans must be trans, no questions asked, not even in the medical profession. I feel guilty that I did not speak up about my misgivings sooner. It’s not unkind or transphobic to say, hey, I’ve known you all your life, and I know you’ve gone through painful trauma and chaos, but I don’t think transition is the answer, instead it may be a false escape from what’s really troubling you.

As far as a “buddhist perspective on trans issues,” I think we all strive to be kind, mindful, and welcoming toward all, and this is the best policy in everything. I think buddhist practice can help people who are struggling to accept themselves and who feel alienated from others and from their own bodies. Chanting is both physical and spiritual at the same time. In my experience the practice subtly helps integrate body and mind. Other forms of buddhist meditation probably do the same. Buddhism offers techniques for observing oneself, sitting with oneself, stripping away illusions, and really making friends with oneself without judgment.

RESPONDENT FOUR: In terms of U.S. politics I’m seeing how the Democratic party has lost the support of even gay and lesbian activists because the party has embraced policies about gender that conflict with sex-based protections such as Title 9. People who campaigned alongside Democrats for laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation are now being told that the new party line is: sexual orientation and biological sex don’t exist anymore; everything is Gender Identity now. I question the wisdom of the Dems uncritically embracing the ephemeral concept of gender as the new lodestar for human rights.

And, on the other side, we have the Republicans gleeful about outlawing pregnancy prevention and termination. One side pretends that “woman” is an undefinable essence; the other side is all too happy to define women as livestock for breeding/incubators for the “domestic supply of infants.” So maybe we’re all being dragged back to medieval Japan by political forces beyond our control. I credit my Buddhist practice for helping me maintain a “never give up” spirit. I have to keep my spirits up because defeat is rolling over me and my political values no matter who wins the elections.

Many of us U.S.-born Nichiren Buddhists have conflated our beliefs about democracy, civil liberties and civil society with our Buddhist practice. I’ve been chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo but my TRUE religion incorporates concepts such as rule of law, equal justice under law, free speech and freedom of association. These concepts were unknown in Nichiren’s day. He basically lived under a repressive military regime. There was no such thing as human rights. Still, Nichiren says that his efforts to understand and embrace the Lotus Sutra were motivated by his patriotism. He loved his land and the people in it. A lot of us here feel the same way about our countries.

RESPONDENT FIVE: Awakening to Buddhahood is not dependent upon a favorable political climate. Many schools of Buddhism flourished in medieval Japan, don’t forget. Nichiren’s life shows us that we can deepen our practice regardless of social and political turmoil. Why? Because Buddhism has nothing to do with politics.

RESPONDENT SIX: Sorry, didn’t answer the question about the Vimalakirti Sutra. FWIW, the Lotus Sutra also has scenes in which beings transform into other beings, such as the Dragon Girl becoming a Buddha. Why take this literally? It’s metaphor poetry spellcasting incantation dreamstate soulwork. Not a blueprint. Not politics either.