Both sides of the coin


Buddhist practice is tough; do it long enough, and you really start to question everything — specially one’s own ideas, which is precisely what it is supposed to achieve. I can say that sometimes I’m often even more “confused”. Let me try to explain!

Gender is actually irrelevant for Buddhist practice; both genders can attain high realisation. Interestingly enough, in the original teachings of the Buddha, there are some lists of beings that are to be excluded from practice — while this sounds harsh (shouldn’t the doctrine be universal, after all?… but read on to understand what it’s meant by that), it is meant to point out that certain beings are so consumed by their obsessions that they have little patience to practice the Buddhadharma [this is the fancy name for the Buddha’s teachings], so it’s often pointless to insist with them. One very strange type of person in that list is “someone who has changed gender more than three times”. Yep, that’s exactly what it says. And this is quoted to have been said 2,600 years ago, and recorded in writing 2,200 years ago!

In this century, Dharma students usually laugh at that passage and shrug it off as being just “mystical mumbo-jumbo”. But if you’re transgendered, it’s uncanny how the Buddha would address transgenderism so clearly in his own epoch! In fact, what he was saying was that if you’re so confused that you’re endlessly switching from one gender to the other, than you probably don’t really know what you wish, and are putting all your efforts on the wrong place anyway — so the Dharma is not for you.

These days, of course, we have a few examples of people who changed gender twice — the first time realising they did “a mistake” and going back. So, technically, this instruction from the Buddha truly applies to us — while it would make no sense to earlier generations (of course, these days, even in the so-called educated West, many people still don’t think it’s possible to physically change gender, that’s why students of the Buddhadharma don’t take this passage so seriously).

For me, however, this is one of the strong evidences that the Buddha, trying to be inclusive, even had something to say about transgendered people. And what he meant is that just being concerned with switching genders, and turning that into an obsession, is not good for you — it will cause you dissatisfaction. Instead, I think it’s far better to detach oneself from the dissatisfaction of the realities of being transgendered, and just go ahead and do what you need to do, and stop worrying about it 🙂

Of course, for me, this has many possible implications. My own wife, who tolerates my crossdressing but doesn’t encourage it, one day asked me a very good question: “ultimately, gender is really just a construct, a concept, it doesn’t exist by itself, like the so-called self. Once you realise the nature of your self, if you’re male or female, that shouldn’t bother you the least (realisation, as said, is fully available to both). So what you wear, what you look like, the kind of life you live, and so forth, are all irrelevant. What’s the point of being so frustrated and following your urges to crossdress as much and as often as you can?”

She obviously has a point there!

The reverse, however, is also true. Once you’re an enlightened being, having a male or female gender won’t matter much to you — and neither will matter what others think or say about you. So, why not switch genders? Whatever the result might be, a fully enlightened Buddha will not really have any kind of attachment and/or prejudice of whatever body they might have; it will only be relevant to him or her in order to benefit other human beings.

Of course, this also be seen as a way to deal with the frustration of either going through transition… or not being able to go through transition. In my personal case, and of course everybody will have a different opinion, it took me some years to realise that it would be pretty much next to impossible to go through transition this life — there are so many hurdles and difficulties that the likelihood of that ever becoming reality are way too high. And I envied those that had the courage to drop everything in their lives and went ahead, because there was nothing else they wanted more than having a successful transition.

For me that meant that I didn’t desire it enough, it was not the topmost priority, and perhaps that’s the best reason for not going through it. When I listed all the obstacles, I start with things like this: I can’t afford it; I won’t be able to get a job, ever again; I’m already too old (and not able to sustain myself financially, with an early retirement); I would need quite a lot of expensive surgery on top of HRT; I have a few health conditions that will make HRT much harder, take much longer, and make the health risks much higher (meaning living a statistically much shorter life, even if it would be as a woman); and, of course, it meant abandoning family, friends, colleagues and fellow practitioners, none of which would be able to understand my choice or even respect it (I might get some support from my wife for a while, but she would have such a horrible life afterwards, that as a practitioner I needed to seriously consider if I wasn’t being too selfish). At that time I even thought, my parents are so old, they could have a stroke or a heart attack if I told them about the wish to transition! (If you think that’s impossible, I now have my proof: because my own father went through a cognitive loss of abilities and dropped every responsibility on my mother, the stress and the anxiety were so high for her, that she died two weeks ago from heart attack — although she never had any heart problems and made regular exams showing that all her cardiovascular system was rather good at her age. So, yes, extreme changes can create death if you’re not prepared to handle them!)

So I put all this into deep consideration, and made it part of my daily analytic meditation. This was not a whim, or something decided at the spur of the moment, but essentially, at some point, I had to work out what was more important: my own satisfaction or the unhappiness of dozens of people. And, assuming I decided for my own satisfaction, then I would seriously have to consider how “permanent” that satisfaction would be.

I also put the weights on the other end of the scale. Once having transitioned, I’d still had lots of problems to deal with, every day, and a lot new more problems which I don’t have now (starting with discrimination). Of course the  Buddha’s First Noble Truth [contemplate dissatisfaction and suffering] helps us to understand that there will be always problems to deal with, transition or no transition; transition would just bring new problems, but it’s not transition by itself that is “the” problem. Both men and women have troubles; women don’t have “less” problems or “more” problems. So, on the reverse side, I wouldn’t really have “more” problems after transition; I would have different problems. But having different problems will happen anyway! As we age, we change, no matter if we don’t wish to; and with age come new problems, and we have to deal with those as well. But even if we didn’t age… things change, no matter what we do, and the problem of tomorrow will not be the same as the problem of yesterday. So, focusing merely on the “problems after transition” is unfair: they’re not more, nor less “different” than the ones we have.

Consider my short experience after my mother died. Until half of the month of August, all I “worried” about was to make sure I kept all the deadlines on my academic work, which is already late, and I have already been given ample warnings that I have to stick to the deadlines “or else”. So that was my priority. I abandoned pretty much everything I could to get my work done, and pushed everything out of my “problem list” just to have one single item there: do my work in time. Then, after my mother died, the “problem list” was thrown away, and now just has a single item that occupied my whole time: babysitting my daddy until we can figure out a way for him to live alone (as he wishes). The amount of work done in the past 15 days was… 45 minutes. Pretty much everything else was somehow taking care of my daddy.

This is a lesson on impermanence! The best laid-out plans always won’t work as we intended, and the problems from yesterday will be quite different from the ones today, and the ones we will have in the (as yet unexisting future). So I don’t know if my analogy with the “problems about transitioning” is now clear: by worrying so much about what would happen after transition, my choice was: “let’s stick to the known problems I have today than to accept the future problems that transition will bring”. By doing so, what I was saying was, “I fear impermanence; I wish to make my situation permanent; I prefer problems as they are now instead of taking The Big Step and create a whole new set of problems”. However, having stuck to “permanence”, what happened was that the illusion shattered: my situation changed nevertheless, no matter how carefully I had planned for otherwise, and things changed anyway, and now I have to deal with a whole new set of problems! (Ironically, if I had opted for transition a few years ago, now I would be “that weirdo in our family that we are not allowed to talk about”, meaning that nobody would expect me to take care of my Dad — so, yes, I would have a different set of problems, but not the ones I have now!)

What is my whole point here? Basically, that from the perspective of a good practitioner, and not one as self-delusional as I am, this all should be obvious. I read the words “impermanence” and “dissatisfaction”, but for me they’re just intellectual concepts. In fact, by listing all the disadvantages of transitioning and tagging the problems which I had to deal with — and finally saying, “this is not for me” — I was merely grasping at some sense of “permanence” — “let things remain as they are because I’ll be happy if they stay that way”. It should be obvious for someone claiming to follow the Buddhadharma that there is absolutely nothing permanent that can be “fabricated”, or the Buddha would not leave the Four Seals [a way to ascertain that a teaching is indeed Buddhism] to us!

So, I learned the lesson: I was just trying to be rational, trying to justify things to myself, finding excuses to try to “make things permanent”, and reading the Dharma to extract intellectual justifications why I shouldn’t go through transition. And that gave me a warm feeling that I was doing “right” in not changing anything in my life, because, well, somehow I wanted to make my current life “permanent”. When that is obviously completely stupid from the point of view of the Buddhadharma!

At the end, what I can say is that the “acid test” in my case was to learn — perhaps the hard way! — that it’s pointless to “try very hard to make things permanent”. Instead, I should look at things as they are, ever-changing. And be honest with myself: I never really considered taking transition seriously because I’m a coward. The rest are just intellectual justifications. The truth is that I fear change, I fear the consequences of change, I fear what others think about me, I fear having to deal with new sets of problems, and so forth. But, alas, change happens anyway; it will have consequences, no matter what I do (or what I avoid to do); people will still think what they wish about myself, no matter how I look like and act and so forth; and I will always have new sets of problems and have to deal with them anyway. Transition or no transition.

Going back to the first set of scales, I also understood more plainly what “attachment” means in the case of the transition, and, actually, I have to thank my wife for that (she’s an excellent teacher!). As merely a crossdresser, my constant frustration is that there is a limit to what clothes, accessories, and makeup can do to improve my female image; in a sense, it’s the thought that I will always look horribly male-ish that makes me fear interacting with others that way (in this case, I mean interacting with family, close friends, and so forth). I’ll always be “a guy in a dress”. The only way to go beyond that is with extreme surgery (and whatever HRT my health affords me to get), but that’s something too expensive, and which takes too long — in the mean time, I would have to deal with the “guy in a dress” image for a long, long time. So what my wife said is that I exaggerate the advantages of becoming the “perfect female”, and, while doing so, I wish to become that — this is the classical definition of attachment in Buddhist philosophy.

And she’s right. My mind works this way: if I had a more feminine nose and chin, I’d pass better, and look less self-conscious. But would that mean that I’d look “perfect”? NO. I would still look like a guy, just with a feminine nose and chin! Of course, I can add more and more things to change, here and there, but… at the end, no, I won’t look like Angeline Jolie, no matter how much surgery I do on myself. So I have created this exaggerated, idealised, “perfect” female image of myself and crave that image, trying to convince myself that “once I’ve got that perfect image, everything will fall into place and I will live in the best of possible worlds with as my female self”.

No! This is all self-delusional! Even considering that there are magic plastic surgeons that could give me Angeline Jolie’s body, that wouldn’t make all problems disappear. I can’t “hack & slash” at my physical body and expect that suddenly I have achieved Nirvana just because I might possess the “perfect” female body! The problems will continue to exist, no matter what, and new problems will continue to exist; there is no way, while we’re stuck to samara, to prevent problems from arising.

So, after really a lot of reflexion and some meditation, I started to become a little more realistic about everything. I won’t be “more happy” because of transition (but, reversely, I will also not become “more happy” about not transitioning!), but only if I start really dropping the causes of all my problems, and some of those causes are refusing to look at things as they are and starting to create idealised, “perfect” ideas of my own future. If I do that, and be more honest with my practice of contemplating impermanence, specially the impermanence of my own self (and the physical body that comes with this self), then I will soon realise — not merely understand it intellectually — that happiness is beyond transitioning and not transitioning, it’s beyond male and female. I can still enjoy pleasant moments without developing a craving for the “idealised, perfect female image”. And of course I can slowly work towards that — even more slower than I planned! If my nose & chin are so ugly to me, I can still get rid of them — and not really go through transition (I can add a lot of other small, uh, “improvements” that can be made). I won’t get rid of all my problems that way, but it’s also not a problem to derive some enjoyment from that! As I’m a bit lazy and take so much time to crossdress… if I can cut on that time by investing in small things like full body hair removal and some cosmetic surgery here and there, so all that it takes to have a female image staring at me in the mirror is to put a dress on top and wear a good-quality wig… which takes 5 minutes… why, then I might live as a part-time woman, without wrecking the lives of family, friends, colleagues and so forth.

But if nothing like that ever becomes reality, it’s pointless to fret about that. This is pretty much what I’m going to reflect in the next few weeks, while I’ll be away for a while from my usual place of residence, taking care of my daddy at his “summer house” in the Portuguese Highlands.

When I return I should be thinking about my next wig 🙂