Beyond the Binary

With our ideas of right and wrong, male and female, we’re stuck in the suffering of dualistic thinking. Nonbinary author Tomara Garrod wants freedom.

Tomara Garrod14 July 2023
Illustration by Mel Valentine Vargas
Illustration by Mel Valentine Vargas

I’m walking down a street near my house. It’s a warm afternoon. A gentle wind plays with the trees. There are some men standing outside a shop, drinking. I walk past them and overhear: “Is that a man or a woman?” I carry on walking.

This is an everyday experience for me, one I share with many nonbinary people. The question follows us, surfacing from people’s lips—indicating that we confuse and upset them because we challenge their preconceptions; we don’t fit into the binary categories they use to judge humans. Caught in this confusion, they double down, demanding we fit into this or that box.

These men aren’t special or unique. The ignorance they demonstrate is universal to absolutely all of us. Every day of our lives, things appear to us, and we ask: Is this thing good or bad? We love what we think is good and chase it everywhere; we hate what we decide is bad and try desperately to escape it. We’re caught in dualisms. This is the very human dilemma that Zen responds to.

Nonbinary people regularly face the prejudices of a world clinging to dualities. This means finding the courage to live with these prejudices. Similarly, bodhisattvas don’t disappear into nirvana. They stay in this world and vow to work for the liberation of those sharing it with them.

To enter the Buddha way, the bodhisatt­va must let go of dualistic thinking. As the sixth-century Zen master Kanchi Sosan said in his poem “Shinjinmei,” “Entering the way is not difficult, but you must not love, or hate, or choose, or reject.”

The way might not be difficult, but it’s not easy either. Love and hate come naturally. I hate being treated like an alien because of who I am; I love being treated with kindness and understanding. As I make my way around the city, it’s easy to be wary of the people I pass. Will they harass me? Should I be wary of them? This is my way of keeping safe, but it’s not the Buddha way.

In his commentary of “Shinjinmei,” American Zen teacher Philippe Rei Ryu Coupey explains that when Kanchi Sosan advised us to let go of love, he was referring to a “narrow love, based on you and me” and the personal differences between us. This is the love that makes us put our friends and family first, above the rest of the world.

The love of the Buddha way is broader than this. It is, says Coupey, an all-encompassing “compassion that takes place when there is no difference between man and woman.” Entering the way is not difficult, if we can loosen the hold that everyday prejudices have on us.

In feminist circles, it’s often said that the gender binary is a social construct. In the language of Zen, we might say it’s ku. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Money is also a social construct, but try telling that to your landlord next time rent is due! When the men outside the shop try to decipher my gender, they’re asking a very real question.

Reminding ourselves of the arbitrary nature of this question calls us to detach ourselves from it. It can help us recognize that other realities are possible outside the binary answers given. It might even give us the freedom to manifest this possibility.

Shinjinmei is often translated as “Faith in Mind.” This is not the small mind of our everyday personal prejudices, but Buddha mind. Buddha mind is the original mind that permeates everything, before thoughts and personal opinions arise. This state of equanimity doesn’t separate individual things according to particular judgments. When we nurture this mind in ourselves, we touch the root connecting us all to each other and everything else. Bodhisattvas vow to carry this state with them in their daily lives.

We’re used to thinking of faith as an outward-facing thing, directed at a God separate from us. But “in Zen, faith has no object,” writes Coupey, “it is faith in oneness, beyond God, beyond Buddha,” and beyond all separations of the mundane world. I came to Zen through practice, before scripture, before theory, through sitting zazen with others and experiencing truths that defy dualistic explanations. I come to my nonbinary gender in the same way.

It’s a warm afternoon, and I’m preparing to leave my house. I open my closet to choose an outfit. There are clothes in there which are “right” for me to wear, and clothes that are “wrong.” Harassment and assault are common punishments for those wearing the “wrong” clothes.

In his commentary, Coupey says faith is “the intuition that truth is present in this very moment.” Today, I have no reason to dress “the right way.” On days like this, fear can’t get a purchase, falling from me like water from a duck’s back. I let my hands guide me and put on some clothes. I realize truth is present in every moment I allow myself to live beyond binary expectations.

Living nonbinary doesn’t mean escaping the gender binary. Quite the opposite. Nonbinary people regularly face the prejudices of a world clinging to dualities. This means finding the courage to live with these prejudices. Similarly, bodhisattvas don’t disappear into nirvana. They stay in this world and vow to work for the liberation of those sharing it with them. Such a vow is grounded in the realization that all are capable of liberation. In the same way, living nonbinary articulates the faith that freedom from dualities is a possibility for all of us.

I’ve written this article in the full knowledge that the truths of Zen Buddhism are beyond language. Trying to pin them down with words is to watch them slip away. But I don’t have the luxury of silence: the fight for nonbinary rights requires language. Language that describes, compares, and speculates. Like all language, we should treat it with an open hand. Nestled delicately inside is the incomplete seed of a revolutionary idea: reality is fundamentally more complex than the dualistic boxes we make for it.

“The way is round, at peace and perfect, wide as the vast cosmos, without the slightest notion of rest or rupture,” wrote Kanchi Sosan in “Shinjinmei.”

Which is the right side of a circle? Which is the left side? This question only makes sense from the perspective of someone who stands outside, someone who separates himself from what he wants to understand. When we sit zazen, the distinctions between male and female disappear. They lose their relevance. When there is no difference, no duality, there is simply the vastness of everything there is, without rest or rupture.

I’m walking down a street near my house. It’s a warm afternoon and I’m wearing an outfit that I’ve been told is “wrong.” There are some men standing outside a shop again, drinking. I walk past them, and once they are behind me, I overhear them talking. They’re trying to work out the right side of a circle.

Tomara Garrod

Tomara Garrod

omara Garrod is a bodhisattva of Soto Zen in the Kishigami lineage. They write fiction, poetry, and theory on (trans)gender life. A full portfolio of their work is available at www.tomaragarrod.com