Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Changing Sex or Changing Gender in Pāli Buddhist Literature

There is a body of references in Pāli Buddhist texts that discuss a case that is brought to the Buddha by his followers that claim that both monks and nuns can experience a change of sex. This theme is not uncommon in Mahāyāna literature, as evidenced by the familiar debate between Śariputra and the Goddess about gender in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa: the Goddess changes genders with Śariputra to prove that there is no such thing as male and female. In Pāli Buddhist literature, there has been little to no substantial examination of these passages. Starting with the references in the Vinayapițaka, this article discusses the setting for these stories and traces these explanations about sex change throughout the commentarial literature in different types of Buddhist literature. The commentarial tradition is surprisingly thorough about both the causes for changing sex and the implications for monks and nuns who experience a change of sex/gender. If we are examining authoritative religious texts for information about how early Buddhist thought about sex and gender, what implications are there for contemporary understandings of sex change, transgender, and sexuality as a whole in today’s cultures? Such inquiries should not conflate representations of men and women, monks and nuns with the possibility that such men and women actually existed. At the same time, these passages cannot be left behind, cannot be reduced to the remnants of a Buddhist past that have been comfortably buried beneath centuries of colonial scholarship, and yet cannot stand simplistically as evidence of “the way life once was” for itthipaṇḍakas, women, paṇḍakas, men and other not-heteronormative humans, animals, and living beings.

The Task at Hand

The tools by which these passages have been unearthed are those honed to a keen edge in the colonialist annals of linguistic scholarship. The dictionaries that embrace the meanings of the words, the grammars that open up the syntax which were first translated into colonial languages which in turn opened up the possibility of reading the grammars in Pāli, Sinhalese, Thai, and Sanskrit, and other editions in different scripts. The “critical edition” of a text—transcribed first from an accepted standard edition and then compared to other versions in other scripts, often housed in European libraries—which are then authenticated by a European body remains the standard by which scholars of Buddhism conduct their translations, and the means by which I discovered these passages. In that model, the voices of the translators’ existence, passions, race, gender, orientation, anguish, and joy are gently cloaked under the choice of terms and framing of one’s translations. My own positions—white, female, lesbian, and the beneficiary of a colonialist past through kin whose origins are traced to European and Scottish descent who valued the education that is rewarded by institutions of higher learning in the United States—lurk invisibly under the words on the pages of the final translation. The purpose of this essay is to ask what difference does it make that this tradition kept its teachings about the possibility of sex change and the teachings about women who may have acted like men, women who did not have normative women’s bodies, and men who pursued differently conceptualized desire tucked away in the pages of inscribed oḷa-leaf manuscripts, housed in the library cupboards of monasteries? With Dinshaw and others, we should ask: “Is there buried in some official representation, in gaps, repetitions, prefigurations, other weird narrative temporalities, some other sign to be read, some other voice to be heard?”[1]

Sex Change in the Pāli Canon

Two passages in the Vinayapiṭaka of the Pāli canon that is claimed by the Theravāda school of Buddhism document the possibility that a change of sex is possible in this life. In keeping with the logic of the monastic rules articulated in the Vinaya collection, the Buddha’s response focuses on which rules are broken and which are not broken, following a change of sex.

Now at that time the sexual features of a woman appeared on a certain monk. They told the Blessed One about this matter. [He said,] “Monks, I allow the same teacher, the same ordination, the same rainy seasons together with the nuns. I allow reinstatement among the nuns for those offenses that nuns share in common with monks. According to those offenses of monks that are not shared in common with nuns, there is no offense.

Now at that time, the sexual features of a man appeared on a certain nun. They told the Blessed One about this matter. [He said,] “Monks, I allow the same teacher, the same ordination, the same rainy seasons in relation to the monks. I allow reinstatement among the monks for those offenses that monks share in common with the nuns. According to those offences of nuns that not shared in common with monks, there is no offense” (Vin III.35).[2]

There is much to be unpacked in these two passages. The word I have translated as “features” is linga, a word that carries a range of interpretations and connotations. The word can refer to the actual sexual genitalia of males and females (for humans as well as non-humans), the linguistic markers of gender in language, or even to what we would today call the category of “gender” in and of itself—the cultural meanings assigned to the habits and behaviors of men and women on the basis of the biological organs of males and females. Other common translations of liṅgaṃ include “sign,” “characteristic,” “feature,” “sex,” or “organ.” When paired with “male” (purisa) or “female” (itthi), the compound should properly be construed as “the features/organs of a male/man” and “the features/organ of a female/woman.” And thus we have our starting point: the claim that the sexual features of males may appear in nuns and the sexual features of females may appear in monks. This fact is introduced in the Vinayapiṭaka as a straightforward observation made by his followers, brought to the Buddha for his consideration, and his response.

These sentences are cited throughout the canon and commentaries as the root text for change of sex. The Vinayapiṭaka is one of three divisions of the Pāli canon, and as such, may be dated anywhere between the first century B.C.E. and the fourth century C.E. The Pāli canon is so-called because it is written in the language of Pāli, a dialect of Sanskrit, and this canon is known as the Buddhist canon of the Theravāda tradition. There are other collections of the canon that have been recorded in Sanskrit and in Chinese and, at many points—but not all, the Pāli canon accords with the canons of other Buddhist schools. These “canons” are collections of texts grouped into vinaya (discipline), sutta/sutra (story), and abhidhamma/abhidharma (further or higher dharma). Each of these is called a piṭaka, which is usually translated as basket, but we get a clearer sense of the term if we envision it as a thread, particularly as a thread of the teachings that became identified as the Buddhist canon. The Vinayapiṭaka is considered to be authoritative for Buddhists in terms of proper monastic Vinayapiṭaka insofar as it is part of the Tipiṭaka (three baskets) of the Pāli canon that was recited at the first gathering of monks and nuns after the Buddha’s passing into parinibbāna. The Tipiṭaka contains the earliest strata of the canonical writings, and passages found in the Vinayapiṭaka are often called “root” texts, to distinguish them from later commentaries. The Pāli commentarial tradition is a rich one, and we have collections of commentarial treatises that stretch from the late fifth century C.E. to the present.[3] These sentences, then, are the anchor for the substantial commentarial tradition that offers a plethora of different explanations and elaborations on the questions of how a monk can have the sexual features of a woman, or vice versa.

In the Vinayapiṭaka passage, the Buddha responds exclusively in terms of how this sex change affects the monk’s or nun’s teacher, seniority, and relationship to the new order of nuns and monks to which the transformed monk and nun, respectively, should now belong. The Buddha explains that the monk and the nun can have the same teacher, upajjhāya, the same ordination, and the same number of rainy seasons—that is, the same number of years spent as a monk or a nun, or the monastic’s seniority in the order. There are traditionally two kinds of teachers named in the Pāli canon, the upajjhāya, who may be considered to be the more senior of the two, and the ācariya. Similarly, there is no question about the validity of ordination the male monk who has female genitalia is now a nun and the female nun who now has male genitalia is now a monk. Nothing changes for the monk (now a nun) or the nun (now a monk) except their biological sex, their gender, and the fact that they now have to belong to the Order of nuns or the Order of monks. The fact of sexual transformation is regarded in this passage as a rather ordinary thing, to be dealt with solely in terms of one’s rank in the order of monks or nuns.

Are these passages really about a change of sex or a change of gender? The Pāli terms used to denote what I have translated as “sex change” do have a semantic range of meanings associated with liṅgaṃ, as discussed above. Should the words “itthiliṅgaṃ” and “purisaliṅgaṃ” really be translated as “female genitalia” and “male genitalia”? The answer is “yes,” liṅgaṃ should be understood with reference to the biological characteristics of sex, or the genitals—and not gender, more broadly construed. The reason for this emphasis on “change of sex” instead of “change of gender” is due to the fact that the Buddha explained, in some detail, that a monk who experienced a change of liṅgaṃhad to go live in the nunnery with other nuns—he couldn’t stay in the monastery. The same is true for the nun: she can’t stay with other nuns after experiencing a change of liṅgaṃ. One of the prerequisites for becoming ordained as a nun or a monk is a normatively sexed body. A diseased body, a deformed body, or a non-normative body such as that of an ubhatobyañjanaka (an intersex person) or a paṇḍaka (biologically male who are not considered to be normatively gendered) cannot be ordained.[4] The attire of monks and nuns in saffron robes demarcates an individual’s monastic status, and removes monks and nuns from the usual ways in which gender is performed by normatively gendered and sexed standards of behavior within any given historical period. To interpret these passages as statements about the fact that monks or nuns can experience a change of gender instead of sex fails to recognize that becoming ordained as a monk or a nun is to voluntarily give up the cultural determinants of gender by taking on the robes, avoiding contact with members of the opposite sex and gender, and so on. At the same time, monastic life of Pāli Buddhism is based on the separation of normatively sexed female and male bodies, and thus the Buddha instructs those who have experienced a change of sex to go live with other normatively sexed bodies of the proper biological sex. These passages, then, should be understood as referring to a change of biological sex, not gender.

In the Parivāra passage at the end of the Vinayapiṭaka, we encounter a different phrase used that becomes widespread throughout later commentaries. Instead of saying explicitly that “there is a monk to whom the sexual features of a woman appeared” (and vice versa), we read simply “the appearance of sexual features” as one of four ways by which a monk or a nun may violate the disciplinary rules—and the reverse, that one may be reinstated after having broken the rules. These two phrases, “there is a monk/nun to whom the sexual features of a woman/man appeared” (bhikkhuno itthiliṅgaṃ pātubhūtaṃ hoti) and then simply “the appearance of sexual features” (liṅgapātubhāvena) become the usual way of referring to sex change in this body of literature. The observation that the genitalia of the opposite sex can appear in—or perhaps on—a monk or a nun is presumed throughout this body of literature, but the attention given to the resolution and the cause of changing sex become more detailed as we move away from the root text in the Vinayapiṭaka and into the commentaries, which stretch from the fifth century into the seventeenth century.

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  1. Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 18. [Return to text]
  2. “tena kho pana samayena aññatarassa bhikkhuno itthiliṅgaṃ pātubhūtaṃ hoti” and “tena kho pana samayena aññatarissā bhikkhuniyā purisaliṅgaṃ pātubhūtaṃ hoti,” Vinaya-piṭakaṃ, edited by H. Oldenberg (London: Pali Text Society by Luzac & Co., 1964 [1882]), vol. 3, 34-35. With the good company and consultation of Professor Rebecca Manring (Indiana University at Bloomington), the translations of the Pāli are our own. [Return to text]
  3. There are several recent and insightful studies of Buddhist monastic education, the nature of Pāli and Buddhist commentaries, and Buddhaghosa, a fifth century commentator. See Justin Thomas McDaniel, Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words: Histories of Buddhist Monastic Education in Laos and Thailand (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008); Richard F. Nance, Speaking for Buddhas: Scriptural Commentary in Indian Buddhism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); Maria Heim, The Forerunner of All Things: Buddhaghosa on Mind, Intention, and Agency (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). [Return to text]
  4. Carol S. Anderson, “Gender in Pāli Buddhist Traditions,” Gender in Indian Philosophy, ed. Veena Howard (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, forthcoming); Carol S. Anderson, “Regulating Women’s Bodies in Indian Buddhist Canonical Literature,” in Re-figuring the Body: Embodiment in South Asian Religions, Conference on the Study of Religions of India Series, edited by Karen Pechilis and Barbara Holdredge, (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016). [Return to text]