05 December 2012

Buddhism and Liminal Sexuality

Tilda Swinton as the eponymous character in the film adaptation of Orlando (dir. Sally Potter, 1992).

The trumpeters, ranging themselves side by side in order, blow one terrific blast:—“THE TRUTH!”  At which Orlando woke.  He stretched himself.  He rose.  He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth!  Truth!  Truth!  we have no choice left but confess—he was a woman.
-- Orlando, Virginia Woolf, 1928
            At the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s novel, Prince Orlando is a sixteen-year-old boy in Elizabethan England, but midway through the story, Orlando wakes up to find that he has become a woman.  For many Western, male readers at the time of the book’s publication, the story must have seemed much like Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which the protagonist wakes one day to find himself transformed into a giant insect.  Given the lower social status of most women in the West from the Elizabethan period to the Modern, the notion of a change in physical sex would have been very frightening and akin to that of becoming vermin.  Losing maleness would mean losing power.  In her novel, Woolf dealt with some of the aspects of historical male privilege which her protagonist must concede when he becomes she.  For example, upon becoming an unmarried woman, Orlando has no right to property and must give up her land and home—the same possessions that were rightfully hers as a man.  Woolf imaginatively draws attention to the arbitrary nature of physical sex and the privilege produced from the power imbalance inherent in a binary understanding of physical sex.
            One might postulate that in a culture where biological sex was thought to be capable of naturally changing during the course of one’s lifetime this male privilege would not exist.  India at the time of the Buddha was one such culture, as evident in the early Buddhist texts, and yet women still did not enjoy the same status as men.  To complicate matters, there is no clear distinction at the time of the Buddha between biological sex, gender, and sexual orientation.  The latter two are modern developments in thought, stemming from psychology and describing behavior rather than what is physically apparent.  Instead, the early Buddhist texts conflate what was viewed as biological deformity, sexual dysfunction, and “non-normative” sexual behaviors and gender roles into a single term: pandaka.  As Buddhism moved into various cultures such as China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet, each seems to have had its own difficulty in untangling the knot of meaning in pandaka and has thus interpreted, glossed, and commented in different ways.  Peter Harvey in An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics relies heavily on the work of Leonard Zwilling and José Cabezón in attempting to unpack this confusing term for the West, but, at best, comes up with only a metaphorical meaning as a male who lacks the “normal” characteristics of maleness.
            Given Western dualistic thought, this can only mean a male who acts as a woman:  an effeminate man or perhaps even a transvestite.  In the West, too, these kinds of gender behaviors, however inaccurately, are conflated with issues of sexual orientation.  At least one study (Docter and Prince, 1997) found that the majority of cross-dressers are, in fact, heterosexual.  We prefer, however, to operate on our religious- and socially-conditioned assumptions about sexuality and gender, which reinforce a clear binary pair of categories:  man and woman.  Every person must fit into one of those categories and must perform the gender roles assigned to that category.  Any proposed liminal state of sexuality conflicting with those categories makes many people uncomfortable, just as the pandaka did in pre-modern India.  This problem is so fundamental and so powerful that historically even Buddhism, with its methodology to overcome dualistic thinking, has not been able to overcome the divide between masculine and feminine.  Thus, the Buddha barred the pandaka from ordination, and most cultures into which Buddhism migrated adopted the term and its subsequent stigmatization for people of more liminal sexuality within those cultures.
            How is it that Buddhism has served to reinforce, rather than break down the deceptive duality of sexuality?  As David Loy has argued in his article “What’s Wrong with Sex?”  Buddhist attitudes toward sexuality developed out of a concern for the effective maintenance of the monastic sangha.  This required celibacy and stringent rules against all sexual activities.  With no effective contraception at that time, heterosexual activity could produce children, the raising of whom would reduce the time needed for spiritual development.  Prohibitions also arose against oral, anal, and manual sexual activity, also precluding homosexual activity, so the possibility of producing children was not the only concern.  Anything which distracted from the pursuit of enlightenment was to be avoided.  How practical is such avoidance for laity, however, both then and today?  In our more sexually permissive culture, are we then to just ignore Buddhist writings on sexuality as historical socio-cultural artifacts with nothing to say about our contemporary lives?  Dr. Loy suggests that Buddhism can be useful in helping us to find a Middle Path between outmoded attitudes toward sexuality and our current seemingly endless pursuit of sensual pleasures.  The Buddhist emphasis on non-attachment draws attention to obsessive behaviors, like sexual addiction and co-dependent relationships, and provides a methodology for overcoming them.

Jakucho Setouchi, a contemporary Buddhist nun from Japan.
            In the past, though, Buddhism appears to have done little to overcome the basic dualism of masculine and feminine.  While it is true that the Buddha, after the encouragement of his trusted friend Ananda, allowed women to establish a separate monastic order, they were still not seen as equals.  Monastic rules were different for the two sexes and nuns were still subject to the authority of the monks.  In effect, while offering liberating alternatives to women not available to most lay women, Buddhism has still maintained the dualism of male and female.  This duality is at the core not only of relations between men and women, but also the other conflated issues of gender roles and sexual orientation.  For, in any duality, there is an inherent imbalance of power as one of the pair is given preference over the other.  In order for true equality to exist, that pair must be pre-empted by a concept that is neither masculine nor feminine but encompasses both.  In so doing, other related dualistic pairs of self-constructed or externally imposed identity will break down, such as hetero- and homo-sexuality. Buddhism has the power to deconstruct these dualities, but has thus far not been effectively used to do so.
            As Buddhism infiltrates the West, we have a new opportunity to call it to task for its past iniquity in dealing with the dualisms of sexuality.  Sexual orientation and gender are just constructed categories of identity used to maintain ego—either through self-identification (in order to try to understand our illusionary “selves”) or through imposition upon others (in order to separate “them” from “us” and impose illusionary control over others.)  In relying upon these lexical and conceptual categories, we are maintaining a delusion that keeps us from liberation.  This may seem counter-intuitive for those of us who self-identify as gay or lesbian.  We think we have been liberated by being able to come out as such; the greater visibility of liquid and liminal sexual identities by those who have openly self-identified as gay, lesbian, and bisexual has eliminated much social dukkha, as noted by Dr. Loy.  These terms, though, are still categories of identity and may be doing as much harm in maintaining the illusion of individual egos as good.  Indeed, many Westerners of liminal sexuality have attempted to diminish this effect by appropriating an all-encompassing term, “queer,” to pre-empt binary thinking about the categorization of individual sexual orientations.  Until “queer” is a self-identifying term employed by “straights,” as well, the delusive binary is maintained.  How many people who consider themselves predominately heterosexual today are willing to self-identify as “queer” in order to help eliminate the dukkha of others?
            To stop coming out as “lesbian” or “queer” runs the risk of losing the ground we have gained in the fight for equality, a frightening prospect for those of us who have suffered due to difference.  We seem to be caught in a paradox, encouraging separate identities while attempting to overcome the illusion of separateness.  Dualistic thinking is at the core of such paradox.  Until we gain some insight into the complex interrelationship of all things, we will remain troubled by this apparent paradox.  Although Buddhism does not seem to have yet provided answers to the problems at the heart of sexual identity, it should not be dismissed as a tool in the journey to find those answers.  Already, many gay Westerners are calling upon prominent Buddhist figures to clarify their positions on sexual orientation in an attempt to understand how practice can improve their lives and relationships.
            The Dalai Lama has thus far espoused a position unsatisfactory to many queer Buddhists, citing monastic prohibitions against “non-normative” sexual activity and yet denouncing violence against others due to sexual orientation.  He has, however, stated that a consensus among the current sangha could change the direction Buddhism has historically taken in relationship to sexual orientation.  I would argue that we will never reach such a consensus until we realize the inextricable nature of the interrelationship between sexual orientation, gender roles, and biological sex.  This is not to say that one determines any of the others in a cause and effect relationship, as has been commonly misperceived.  Instead, if we work to eliminate the dukkha others experience when privilege is afforded to one aspect of these constructed intertwined pairs, we work to eliminate the dukkha associated with the others.  Our society devalues homosexual men because it associates homosexual men with femininity.  It devalues femininity because it devalues women.  It devalues butches because it cannot accept women who it perceives to have "appropriated maleness."  And so on. These relationships continue to multiply and cross one another and endless others with no clear beginning and no clear end; it seems the only means we have to eliminate suffering, then, is to work on all fronts simultaneously.   How can we do this without exhausting ourselves?  Exhausting our “selves” is just what we must do:  eliminate our egos and we eliminate the conflicts that arise from ego.

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