“Many Voices, One Song”
Review of Transcending: Trans Buddhist Voices
For Transcending: Trans Buddhist Voices, editors Kevin Manders and Elizabeth Marston solicited essays, memoirs, prayers, poems, and meditations from 34 contributors, hailing from different parts of the world (including America, Australia, Canada, and England) and identifying variously as artists, immigrants, mystics, and people of color. What they have in common are their trans (genderqueer, nonbinary) and Buddhist identities, and in most of the pieces, the contributors directly explore these two facets of themselves, trying to put them in relationship: to understand how they inform, complement, and sometimes even challenge one another. Editor Marston writes, “While it may be true that there is only the present moment, every meditator knows that the present moment is full of stories, and in this way is both enchanted and haunted by what came before.”
For many of the contributors, what came before was a challenge that seemed to come from the outside. Many of the pieces recount the hostility felt and the disappointment faced after coming out as trans to their Buddhist communities. Dharmacharini Jńanamitra Emmett, in her essay “Belief and Disbelief in Buddhist Transsexual Life,” writes of being unprepared for a negative reaction: “After all, these were kind, mindfully aware people!”
In “Karma Chameleon?” Michelle McNamara tells a similar story. A “homophobic” reaction by a trusted Buddhist teacher sent her back into the closet for years. Yet it was Buddhism that ultimately supported her eventual coming out, by following the practice of “non-self” and a practice “aimed at improving self-compassion so that one can be more compassionate to others.” McNamara reports, “I am writing this in my seventh decade of life, but Michelle herself has existed for only a little more than two and a half years”—a testament to the idea that it’s never too late to be who you are.
Cooper Lee Bombardier’s contribution, “Soil, Shit, and Compost,” breaks things down for the layperson. “Buddhists are all about the impermanence of everything, and of course trans people are all about carving out a home in one’s own temporary skin,” he explains, suggesting that for trans Buddhists the struggle is even more fraught. Yet Bombardier discovers, “Changing my body wasn’t a way out; it was a way in.”
Many of the essays raise issue with the Buddhist community at large. In “Uppity Apostate Transgender Monk Questions Transphobia and Sexism in Buddhist Monasticism,” Santino Vella, a former Californian foster child (and former Buddhist), writes of feeling “out of place as a Western transgender Buddhist monk with a history of poverty, violence, and post-traumatic stress disorder that persisted despite extensive spiritual practice, in a space dominated by judgmental upper-middle-class people unfamiliar with the brutality of the world I came from.” He also takes issue with the “lack of ordination opportunities for Buddhist women in various traditions”; he surmises that the “subordination of women and the rejection of transgender people in Buddhist monasticism are predicated on the belief in their karmic inferiority.”
In “Barriers Faced by Trans People of Color in Buddhist Communities,” Thuy Vanh recounts the challenges of finding “trans-positive, anti-racist, and accessible practice spaces,” pointing out (as other essays do) that “retreats or meditation halls have women sit on one side and men on the other. Where are nonbinary or trans people supposed to sit?”
The postscript of Shaun Bartone’s essay, “Conduct Unbecoming: A Transqueer Experience of the Dharma,” condemns the Buddhist community: “I have ceased belonging to any Buddhist organization, and I’m never going back. They’re all authoritarian and oppressive, and it doesn’t even have to do with being trans. Buddhist organizations are oppressive to everybody.”
“Buddhism, like any other system of thought, can be used to put things in boxes, to sanitize the world, and to mute our experience of it,” Caitriona Reed writes diplomatically in her preface. “The genius of Buddhist teaching and practice is that it has a built-in self-destruct system, whereby whatever you think it is, it is going to turn around and disappear on you.” While this appears like a slippery slope for some to follow, Reed finds it foundational. She writes, “I’d been teaching the importance of authenticity for some time. It was the perfect preface to my transition.”
For Finne Enke, Buddhist practice raises deeper questions rather than providing easy answers. In “What Is a Body, Anyway? Form, Deep Listening, and Compassion on a Buddhist Trans Path,” Enke recounts how a meditation practice fostered the ability “to deeply listen to everything that arose, without judgment,” which changed the nature of Enke’s search: “It suddenly became far more important to me to learn about myself than it was to resolve the question of physical transition.”
Jacoby Ballard’s contribution, “A Lotus Dependent upon the Mud,” thoughtfully and successfully braids both his queer and Buddhist experiences, beginning with his childhood in Colorado. Bullied and suffering from an eating disorder, he describes himself as “a queer youth in a small rural town, not yet aware, safe, or outrageous enough to come out, without support and role models, before both the connectivity and the online harassment of the Internet.” Meditation, he writes, “saved my own life.” The practice provides both “an inner resilience and a philosophy to rely on,” he explains, “not only to turn toward pain with tenderness and attention, but to transform it into understanding and alliance.”
Ballard proves best able to put into words the links between the trans and Buddhist experiences. Recalling time spent at an “LGBT retreat,” he remembers the teacher speaking of “‘ennobling silence,’ distinguishing between this consensual practice of grace and inquiry and the oppressive form of silencing that many of us have faced due to oppression.”
For readers unfamiliar (as I am) with anything other than the bold strokes of Buddhism, some communication of its core beliefs at the beginning would have been helpful, along with translations of some of the words unique to this spiritual practice (dharma and dhamma come up again and again, confusing me each time). This book is about trans Buddhists (and “All contributor proceeds are being donated to Trans Lifeline,” a note on the back cover informs us), but the editors could’ve given more thought to building a bridge to reach an audience outside that circle. Instead, they almost mount obstacles. Two sets of acknowledgements, two prefaces, two introductions, and a blessing stand between the reader and the first contributor’s piece. All of the essay titles and the contributors’ names are written in a script typeface that renders them nearly illegible.
For all of its diversity in representation, there is a kind of sameness to the experiences recounted here. The contributors dutifully write on topic, and the same themes emerge. The writing is, almost uniformly, cool-headed. It leans more heavily toward thought than feeling. But sometimes, as in Zavé Gayatri Martohardjono’s “Untitled,” inexplicable feeling breaks through. When it does, it feels like a revelation. Evoking a picture of life in present-day New York City (perhaps on a crowded subway train), Martohardjono writes, “It appears as a tiny gesture, the subtlest of shifts. I feel my sense of isolation gently pull back. I am standing somewhere, packed in the crowd. I accidentally glimpse the crack of a smile on a stranger’s face and suddenly, unexpectedly, feel great joy.”
REVIEWED BY MASTER MICHAEL QUINN
Michael Quinn interviews authors and reviews books for Publishers Weekly, for the Adroit Journal, and for his own website, under the heading “Book Report.” His reading list for the reviews he’s not assigned is determined by interest, whim, and chance—and by what’s available at the Brooklyn Public Library.