Transcending: Trans Buddhist Voices

· Beyond Fear of Differences, Reviews

Book Review by Finn Jogen Schubert

This book is unlike any book I have ever read. Like a quilt, each piece contributes a unique perspective and style, coming together to provide warmth and comfort on the dharma path. Whether you are cisgender, trans, questioning, or something else entirely, you will find fresh perspectives on the dharma that will speak directly to your own experience, as well as perspectives that you may have never considered before.

Transcending: Trans Buddhist Voices, Edited by Kevin Manders and Elizabeth Marston, North Atlantic Books (2019)

I could not have imagined holding this book in my hands in 2014 when I co-wrote Developing TransCompetence: A Short Guide to Improving Transgender Experiences at Meditation and Retreat Centers with two other transgender Buddhist friends, and launched transbuddhists.org. At the time, my friends and I had never met a transgender Buddhist teacher, nor spoken with more than one or two other trans Buddhists at a time. Over the next few years we hosted meetings online and in-person for trans and gender nonconforming Buddhists, connecting with practitioners from many different countries and traditions—including this anthology’s editors, Kevin Manders and Elizabeth Marston. An essay of mine, originally written in 2014, appears in this collection, and I am reminded of how isolated and misunderstood I felt as a trans practitioner not so long ago. Encountering other trans and gender nonconforming dharma voices over the past several years has been essential to my practice, and this anthology now offers some of these voices for anyone who would like to hear them.

This collection wrestles with many of the topics we discussed in our transgender Buddhist groups, such as, What does it mean to let go of attachment to the body, or to identity, when our identities can be such complex sites of suffering and pride, pain and hope? Is wanting gender-affirming medical care, like hormones or surgery, a desire that we should not c ling to? How can the dharma help us to heal from addiction and trauma, and to fully inhabit our bodies? Above all, how can we fully show up in our practice and in our lives as trans and gender nonconforming practitioners? What does the trans Buddha look like?

At times it can be easy to overlook the ways in which heterosexism and cissexism pervade practice and perspectives on the spiritual path, no matter how many pronoun go-arounds and gender-neutral bathrooms we have in place. These can be much more subtle, such as assumptions about how we each relate to our bodies (for example, practitioners being encouraged by cisgender teachers to enter their bodies through breath practice, something that can be complex for many trans practitioners), and relating to our identities (encouragement to “give up” or “let go” of identity can be very hurtful in certain contexts), not to mention normative assumptions about the role of sexual and romantic relationships and biological and chosen families.

The perspectives in this anthology offer illuminating and unflinching views on many of these topics, and it was refreshing to see a wide range of practice realities represented. Such a broad array of practice experiences helps to reveal how much can be missing even in well intentioned communities. Inclusion goes far beyond addressing structural barriers, and requires a deeper understanding of how dharma paths differ based on lived and embodied experiences.

Leading online and in-person hangouts for trans Buddhists, I was often amazed and saddened by how easily and quickly people weaponized the dharma against themselves: “I feel like I shouldn’t want surgery, I should just practice harder and let go of my attachment to my body being a certain way.” Transcending offers personal stories of how practitioners grappled with and came to a different understanding by using the dharma for liberation and healing. One author writes of asking questions of the body as a way to heal somatically, while another writes of how the openness of “I don’t know” mind helped to create more space to embrace the impermanence of gender identity itself.

The pieces in this book encompass a wide variety of styles and experiences but they are woven together by the myriad ways we can practice the dharma in our lives. We read about dissolving dualism, finding emptiness, and about the physical, emotional, and spiritual changes that come with gender transition. We read about abandoning hope of fruition, working with suffering, and aspiring to freedom. I am most struck by the sincerity of practice evident in each piece and the many dharma paths available to each of us. Reading and taking in such a wide range of practice experiences can open up new opportunities of our own, whoever we may be.

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