Our Opportunity to Include All Genders in Buddhist Communities

As a trans practitioner, Ray Buckner has struggled to find a sense of belonging in Buddhist spaces. They offer suggestions for how we can better support sangha members of all genders.

Ray Buckner
1 October 2018
Illustration by Iris Gottlieb.

When I enter new sanghas, I see people connecting. They smile and laugh, walking with a sense of ease. Their bodies, facial expressions, and loving words spoken to one another communicate a sense of home. The dharma hall is designed and built for people like them, making it easy for them to feel and say, “I belong here.” As a trans person in that same dharma space, connection doesn’t come so easy.

Being non-binary, I look to meditation and my Buddhist community for refuge. When I enter the dharma hall, I carry the shame and isolation I experience in everyday life with me. Instead of finding refuge, this sense of not belonging as a trans person is often exacerbated by our practices and community dynamics. Through critical awareness and contemplation, I believe that we as individuals and institutions can work to better support our trans sangha members. Here are five things to consider when creating a space that is welcoming to people of all genders.

1. Breathing

In my everyday life, I wear a chest binder. Typically used by gender-queer people and trans men, a binder is similar to a sports bra, but it puts more pressure on certain parts of the chest for a flattening effect. It can help us feel more comfortable in our bodies.

I don’t hate my chest, but I’ve never liked having breasts and I do hate how hard it is to be in my body. When I went through puberty, I didn’t have a choice as to how my frame developed. I couldn’t say “I like having a flat chest, I’ll go with that!” My reality is warred in this way, laid with anger, confusion, sadness, and the striving for peace and comfort. Looking to meditation to walk this tenuous path, my war with myself often expands through it.

How can we shift or adapt the teachings to serve a troubled breath inside a hurting body?

One night I arrived for meditation in a great mood, ready to practice, and wearing a binder. When I began to focus on my breath, I realized the pressure the binder was adding to my already anxious chest was making it hard to breathe. The more I tried to focus on my breath in meditation, the more this realization expanded, causing the pressure to climb. When I tried to label this realization “thinking,” I came back to my breath only to be hit with the upsetting reality that I couldn’t breathe. I began to close down inside. Tears streamed down my face as I sat, the people around me appearing to breathe easily. I felt helpless and alone.

I thought about whether I should go to the bathroom and remove my binder so I could meditate with just my top on, but that too sounded deeply uncomfortable. I tried very hard to stay, but my chest was hurting as I continued to struggle for a normal breath. I had no choice but to leave my seat and enter the cold air to breathe again. Everyone else was sitting in community, and I left.

I’ve brought this to the attention of meditation groups before, asking “What do I do when I can’t breathe? What do I do about my chest? What do I do about my binder? How do I meditate in this state of acute suffering?” There is only ever silence in response — never an answer, a guide, an invitation for a particular practice. No one has offered anything to help me along this particular path.

This is my conundrum to face, but it’s also ours. Teachings on meditation almost always declare the breath as the easiest form of connection to the present moment, but that isn’t always the case. How can we shift or adapt the teachings to serve a troubled breath inside a hurting body? This is a question for us to attend to.

2. The Circle

I arrived at meditation one night carrying anxiety in my body and wearing a packer beneath my underwear and tight jeans. Sometimes used to explore and embody one’s gender, a packer is basically a flaccid penis or phallic object that some trans and gender-queer people wear beneath their clothing. I’d spent the previous night researching packers online. Following my body’s desires, I went out earlier that day and bought one. I liked it a lot — it felt good and sexy — but, for me, wearing a packer is as exciting as it is painful and scary. Throughout the day I’d judgmentally asked myself, “Why do I like wearing this? What does wearing this make me? Does it make me a ‘man?’” I don’t see myself as a man, but I knew in this society, that’s what others would assume of me.

As I sat in meditation, I became deeply self-conscious of how my pants looked, wondering if I’d be read as weird, wrong, or inappropriate. My mind grew averse to the discussion circle we would soon enter where, sitting around with my fellow practitioners, my body would become hyper-visible. I didn’t know what to do or how to sit without it being seen. I didn’t know how to be with this new “part” of my body.

I felt a striking sense of isolation in my heart. As a trans person in Buddhist spaces, I’ve grown familiar with this feeling.

When I shared these feelings with the members of my group, they were kind and understanding, but my shame had already made its mark. I still felt my internal walls building up alongside a striking sense of isolation in my heart. As a trans person in Buddhist spaces, I’ve grown familiar with this feeling. No matter how verbally supportive my sangha is, I still feel alone. Not being able to communicate with someone I know has walked my path can lead to a great deal of pain. I’m always explaining myself, worried others won’t get it. It’s a sad and lonely terrain to navigate and the unending process of opening up can leave me exhausted. In this way, the circle becomes a space of disconnection. Buddhists communities should be aware that the circle can be a tender and vulnerable space for some trans practitioners, and might look to consider how to make this arrangement more inclusive and safe for all to abide in.

3. Movement

While on retreat, we were invited to practice yoga as a means to stretch our bodies throughout hours of sitting. As a trans person, movement exercises often set off a red light. Movement for me is difficult because it draws attention to my body in a way that feels unsafe.

I began the exercises tense and fearful. We stood in a circle in the shrine hall and were asked to let our body loosen, shaking our arms, legs, and whole body. I felt fine until the moment we were asked to raise our arms above our head, and suddenly something shifted in me. My chest felt hyper-visible. I could feel the strain from my binder and I felt as though my chest was popping out for my whole sangha to see.

I tried to keep my heart tender to my pain, listening to the panic arising in my body. I tried to offer compassion to my urge to run and hide, but a more prominent response took over. Instead of opening to my pain, I tried to hide it — hide my tears, sadness, and difference. I fought to mimic the look of everyone else who appeared calm, relaxed, and at ease in this movement practice.

I was trying to be the type of person this movement was meant for, which only pushed me further into marginalization. On the margins, we lack community and struggle to believe basic goodness applies to people living in bodies like our own. I feel deep sadness that I can’t rejoice in my body in the ways that others are able to experience.

In the same way that we seek to be mindful of the experiences of those with limited mobility, disabilities, and chronic pain, could we be cognizant of the needs of transgender bodies in both sitting and movement? Can we conceptualize, even before the practice begins, the real, embodied needs of those among us? If so, how can we respond to those needs?

4. The Bathroom

The first time I entered the Berkeley Shambhala Center, their staff informed me there was a gender-neutral bathroom located on the main floor. I remember feeling seen and visible through their acknowledgment of the needs of trans and gender-queer people. Bathrooms can be a space of intense anxiety and violence for trans people. Sometimes you have to occupy a gendered space you don’t identify with and often you are forced to engage with a society that judges you for entering a restroom it feels you don’t belong in.

The gender-neutral bathroom at the center had previously been a men’s room. The men’s sign still adorned the front door, although a sheet of paper with the words “gender-neutral restroom” had been taped to a presentation board in front. I typically opted for the single-stall gender-neutral bathroom on the third floor, but six months into attending the center, I thought, “Why inconvenience myself by going upstairs? Why not share a space with other people in community?” When I entered the bathroom, I realized the gender-neutral aspect existed only in its name. It was clear that only cisgender men used this space, with no women or trans folks in sight.

We need to ask ourselves how our trans sangha members might find belonging in the spaces we create.

It wasn’t that these men were looking at me or ostracizing me — they weren’t. This space was just structurally not meant for me. It was not being exercised as a neutral space, but rather a highly gendered one. I knew I didn’t belong. Each time I used that bathroom, a feeling of sadness, difference and alienation took over. I just wanted to get in and out of there unnoticed. As a trans practitioner, I wonder, where do I belong if not in a gender-neutral space?

Though there was kindness behind the choice to create a gender-neutral space, gender is a system that functions far beyond how kindly we treat each other as individuals. Gender is felt through our structural experiences, and it’s on us as centers and communities to mindfully discern how our spaces operate. We need to ask ourselves how our trans sangha members might feel, experience, and find belonging in the spaces we create.

5. Pronouns

I recognize that many centers are striving to provide trans practitioners with the resources they need to practice more safely, but often these good intentions manifest a much different reality.

At meditation one night, we sat in a circle for discussion and the facilitator asked us to go around and state our name and “preferred pronouns.” As each person spoke, anxiety rose in my chest and I became increasingly annoyed. For me, pronouns are incredibly personal and important. I ask that people refer to me with the gender-neutral pronouns “they/them.” I value the space and lack of charge embedded in these pronouns, compared to the weighted gendered assumptions accompanying the feminized pronouns “she/her”. To be referred to by a pronoun I don’t use is a deeply upsetting experience. It reveals how the person I’m interacting with does, or doesn’t, see me. It tells a lot about how they understand me and my gender expression.

That night, the request for pronouns was put forth in a very light and quick way. The all-cisgender group provided their answers in a way that left me feeling alienated and suffocating by the time my turn came around. No groundwork was laid about the importance and complexity of pronouns — one practitioner even joked that he identified with “it” pronouns.

This effort to attend to the needs of transgender people by asking for pronouns appears to be helpful, and for some trans folks, it might be. In this situation, pronouns seemed to exist only as a due diligence on the diversity checklist. Asking for pronouns was meant to make the trans people in the room visible, but visibility, like I’ve written about before, is varied. It is sometimes skillful and other times dangerous. Though well-intentioned, visibility vis-a-vis pronouns can make trans-people feel like a spectacle.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t ask for pronouns, but we need to ask ourselves what our intention is in doing so. Are we forging a path of suffering for our trans dharma siblings when we ask for pronouns in a room of otherwise cisgender people? Perhaps reflecting on what our pronouns mean to us could foster greater understanding and collective insight into our bodies and identities. We need deep, genuine engagement — a more radical and responsible path toward awareness.

Seeing ourselves in one another is an act of love — one the dharma calls for us to cultivate.

We all yearn for love and connection in this life. We hope to enter spaces that make us feel we belong and that we’re welcome within them just as we are. In my view, experiencing this belonging is the pinnacle of life. It’s what makes it all worth it — being heard, felt, and understood and resting in the awareness that I mustn’t leave myself and my complex body and mind at the door.

Being trans in our sanghas means struggling to belong. It means existing in a gendered monastic community and not knowing which side of the meditation hall I am expected or even allowed to sit on. It is living with the weight of that and suffering in silence. To be a trans sangha member means to wonder if anyone even cares to hear of my experience as they sit beside me, breathing with ease. It is wondering how the other sangha members seem to find their niche and connection so easily. To be trans in a sangha means to continually worry about which aspects of a space I belong in.

Belonging may be difficult, but it is possible in communities oriented toward collective liberation and committed to an ethics of collective responsibility. Our path is a connected one. The suffering and isolation I experience as a trans person has as much to do with you as it does with me as our lives intertwine in these spaces. Seeing ourselves in one another is an act of love — one the dharma calls for us to cultivate.

What is our collective path? Who does it yearn to include? Really, sit with this. Whose bodies do you imagine and whose bodies might be left behind? In the words of Rev. angel Kyodo williams, if the teachings and the path are not about liberation for all, it is not the path of liberation.

We have an opportunity to shift our path to support our transgender and gender-queer sangha members. We have the opportunity to contemplate their practice-oriented needs and the systemic and structural barriers that keep these groups isolated. With a breath grounded in hope, I ask you: what invitation can you, individually or institutionally, offer to another? What invitations can we offer as a center, community, or institution that will attend to the realities lived by our trans sangha members? How can we cultivate the love, connection, and belonging we all deserve?

photo of Ray Buckner

Ray Buckner

Ray Buckner is a PhD Student in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. His research examines sexual violence in American Buddhism and transgender experiences with Buddhism in the United States. Ray’s article, “Buddhist Teachers’ Responses to Sexual Violence: Epistemological Violence in American Buddhism” (2020), was published in The Journal of Global Buddhism. Ray’s article, “Zen in Distress: Theorizing Gender Dysphoria and Traumatic Remembrance within Sōtō Zen Meditation” (2020), was published in Religions.