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

Changing Sex or Changing Gender in Pāli Buddhist Literature

(PAGE 2 of 2)


Sex Change in the Pāli Buddhist Commentaries

In attempting to construct a positive genealogy of gay identity, queer critics and historians have often found themselves at a loss about what to do with the sad old queens and long-suffering dykes who haunt the historical record. They have disavowed the difficulties of the queer past, arguing that our true history has not been written. If critics do admit the difficulties of the queer past, it is most often in order to redeem them. By including queer figures from the past in a positive genealogy of gay identity, we make good on their suffering, transforming their shame into pride after the fact. I understand this impulse not only as a widespread but as a structural feature of the field, a way of counteracting the shame of having a dark past.[5]

Heather Love eloquently encapsulates trends in queer history in the past decade; those of us writing today have a compelling drive to redeem those lost in the silence of past centuries. In so doing, we make good on not only their suffering, but our own. She understands, she writes, the impulse to redeem those queens and dykes of history “as a way of counteracting the shame of having a dark past.” At this point, the author and the subject become blurred: we redeem our own past at the same time as we invite those monks and nuns who may have woken up in the morning with the genitalia of the opposite sex into a lineage which the redactors of the canon and commentaries likely never envisioned.[6] I will freely admit that my lesbian self sees connections with these monks and nuns who experienced a change of sex; one-sided connection, to be sure, but a connection nonetheless. When I first ran across these passages, I was driven to dig more deeply into the history to see what else might be available. A handful of scholars have written on these sex-changing nuns and monks, but none have unearthed any of the commentaries on these passages.[7]

The first substantive commentary on the lines from the Vinayapiṭaka is remembered by the Theravāda tradition to have been penned by Buddhaghosa, a South Indian Buddhist scholar known for his knowledge of Vedic texts and styles of debate. He was said to have been sent to Sri Lanka to study the Sinhala commentaries, because those texts were disintegrating in India. Buddhaghosa came to be known as the preeminent commentator and translator of these Sinhala commentaries, which are no longer extant. In the past fifty years or so, questions have been raised about Buddhaghosa’s authorship of the Samantapāsādikā, the commentaries on the Vinayapiṭaka. Whether Buddhaghosa was the actual commentator of the Samantapāsādikā need not occupy us any further, although we do need to be aware of the questions surrounding his authorship of the commentary.[8] On the passage cited above, the commentator who compiled the Samantapasadika wrote, in part:

In the fourteenth story, ‘sexual features of a woman appear’ (itthiliṅgaṃ pātubhūtan) means if, in the middle of the night while fast asleep, the sexual characteristics of a man (purisasaṇṭhānaṃ), such as a beard and moustache disappear entirely, and the sexual characteristics of a woman arise (itthisaṇṭhānaṃ), then ‘the same teacher, the same ordination,’ means ‘I allow the very ordination previously taken, and the very teacher previously chosen. Another teacher or ordination need not be taken.’ ‘The same rainy seasons’ means ‘I allow the same number of rainy seasons, the same number of rainy seasons counted since a monk’s ordination.’ It does not mean that one has to start counting all over again from this point forward. ‘Together with nuns’ means ‘I allow the provision of meeting with or being in the company of nuns.’ Thus it is said, ‘Now without the form [of a monk] (rūpaṃ) while living among monks, then go to a nunnery to live with nuns.’ ‘Those offenses shared by monks and nuns’ means ‘those offenses related to ordination or related to talks [that are] shared in common by monks and nuns.’ ‘Offenses may be rehabilitated among the nuns’ means ‘I allow rehabilitation among the nuns having followed the disciplines done by nuns.’ ‘There is no violation for those offenses’ means ‘there is no violation for those offenses such as emission of semen not shared by nuns and monks.’ According to this word-analysis, there is no offense for those offenses caused by the arising of usual sexual features (liṅga).

The close analysis with reference to the text follows according to traditional teachings. Out of these two characteristics, the male sexual features are the superior and the female sexual features are the inferior. The male sexual features disappear due to powerful bad actions.[9] Female sexual features are established due to weak good actions.[10] The disappearance of female sexual features is due to the disappearance of weak bad actions. Male sexual features are established due to powerful good actions.

If there are two monks who live together, having talked about dhamma and recited suttas, who lay down to sleep in the same house and fall asleep, and thus if female sexual features appear in one [of these monks], there is an offense relating to sharing a bed [with a person of the opposite sex]. And so that one, having woken up and seen the change and being miserable and dejected, even in the middle of the night, the other monk should console him by saying: “Very well, don’t worry. Corrupted states are part of the cycle of life [i.e., samsara]. The path to heaven is unobstructed, dhamma is accessible, a nun just as a monk is given the door to complete enlightenment.’ Having assured him like this, he should say ‘It would be good to go to the nunnery to stay with others. There will be some companions who are nuns there.’ If there are nuns like this there, or if there are not, the monk should say, ‘I need assistance; now I should enter the nunnery for the first time.’ With that monk or with another friend, that one should go be with nuns who are friends but the two should not go alone. Together with four or five monks, with a torch and staff in hand to guard against offense while going to arrange things with the nuns, saying ‘We go to such and such a place.’ If there is a monastery at a distance, beyond the village, or across the river there is no violation of the prohibition against going to villages alone, going to the other side of a river alone, staying away for a night alone, or staying behind a group alone.[11]

Now, it is probable that this passage was translated from the earlier Sinhala commentaries, somewhere at the start of the fifth century of the Common Era. Here, we see that the redactor of the Samantapāsādikā offers us a larger framework for the initial rather bare bones case that the monks brought before the Buddha in the Vinayapiṭaka. The commentary provide a rather commonplace setting: two monks (or nuns, as it may be) fell asleep after talking about dhamma and comparing sutta passages. One wakes up with female liṅga (or genitalia or gender or features), and the initial reaction, the commentary tell us, is not to recoil in horror or surprise but to console his or her friend with the observation that this sort of thing occurs in saṃsāra, and not to worry overmuch—nuns and monks can still be enlightened (a noteworthy claim in the commentaries in and of itself). The rest of the passage explains, in rather legalistic terms, just what one is supposed to do for one’s monk friend, who now has female liṅga—i.e., take her to a nunnery to find her some companions, and so on.

The legalistic tone of the balance of the passage follows the bulk of the Samantapāsādikā, which explains both the spirit and the letter of the rules that need to be followed in this case. Interestingly enough, the commentator also explains which rules can be bent a bit in order to care for one’s friend. From the time that a monk wakes up in the morning with female liṅga, the first rule that is broken is the rule against sharing a bed with someone of the opposite sex. The monk whose liṅga has changed should admit that s/he needs help, and off they should go—with another handful of nuns to keep them safe on the passage. The rules against two traveling alone should be obeyed: “Together with four or five monks, with a torch and staff in hand to guard against offense while going to arrange things with the nuns, saying ‘We go to such and such a place.’ If there is a monastery at a distance, beyond the village, or across the river there is no violation of the prohibition against going to villages alone, going to the other side of a river alone, staying away for a night alone, or staying behind a group alone.” All of these rules are well-established rules that were designed to prevent gossip (monks and nuns going off to enjoy a picnic in a desolate area, for example) and also to ensure their safety against robbers and thieves on the road. And the commentary explains in some detail that if there is a monastery (with a nunnery) at a distance, beyond the village, or across the river, then if they go in a group, there isn’t any violation of the rules against going to villages alone, going to the other side of the river, and so on.

Conclusions

The Buddhist framework for the substance of the recommendations found in this commentary, I suggest, is the category of kalyāṇa mitta, “good friends.” In other commentaries, whose analysis lies beyond the scope of this article, the commentators go into more detail about just what kind of nuns one should look for when one goes looking for a new community. Hsiao-Lan Hu discusses the Buddhist and feminist ethical implications of “good friends”: “The Buddha taught that association with ‘good friends,’ otherwise called ‘noble friends,’ ‘spiritual friends,’ ‘virtuous companions,’ or ‘companions in the holy life,’ was crucial in walking the Buddhist path and reaching the ultimate goal of nibbāna.”[12] Hu goes into greater depth on this point, urging us to realize that solitude was never taught as the ideal life of a monk or a nun. Members of the sangha should treat each other with metta, loving-kindness: “A member is taught to evince loving-kindness toward one’s companions in the Sangha through their bodily, verbal, and mental actions. She or he is to maintain that benevolence even in private, which means she or he is to keep the interconditionality with others constantly in mind and to conduct oneself accordingly in deeds, speeches, and thoughts.”[13] The commentators of the Pāli Buddhist tradition remembered, recorded, commented upon, and explained that if you are in that situation, then you should turn to your friends—and your friends should help you.

We have a commentarial thread about what happens if your sex or gender changes overnight that has been lost, save to a handful of monks and nuns living today and a dozen scholars or so. This case study can be traced back to the words of the Buddha and it treats sex change as simply one among a number of possible occurrences that may befall a monk or a nun; not a particularly unusual situation but not run of the mill, either. We need to take up Dinshaw’s question, “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?” The answer here should be in the affirmative: Yes, there is “. . . buried in some official representation . . . some other voice to be heard.” That voice is a voice of the one who experiences the change of liṅga:

And so that one, having woken up and seen the change and being miserable and dejected, even in the middle of the night, the other monk should console him by saying: “Very well, don’t worry. Corrupted states are part of the cycle of life [i.e., samsara]. The path to heaven is unobstructed, dhamma is accessible, a nun just as a monk is given the door to complete enlightenment.’

These experiences of misery and dejection reach out across the centuries, cultures, and religions as a vibrant response to Heather Love’s call:

By including queer figures from the past in a positive genealogy of gay identity, we make good on their suffering, transforming their shame into pride after the fact. I understand this impulse not only as a widespread but as a structural feature of the field, a way of counteracting the shame of having a dark past.

We need not name a trans* identity for these monks and nuns, for that would undermine the very commonsense and legalistic approach of these commentaries: there is no enduring self, there is no enduring or stable identity. Neither were these monks and nuns who experienced a change of liṅgaṃ classified as members of a third gender according to the commentaries—and the category of a third gender was in full swing during these periods of South Asian history. These monks and nuns were understood to be ashamed of the past actions that produced such a state, but the theological descriptions of these kinds of people did not belabor that shame. They were embraced by their good friends, reassured, and welcomed into monastic houses of the opposite gender, and presumably went on with their lives, in pursuit of awakening. Recognizing even the hypothetical existence of such individuals at the turn of the first millennium in South India and Sri Lanka is perhaps more redemptive for us, mired as we are in interpretive traditions that burden us with the enduring notions of sin and shame. However, I am not so certain that we need to redeem these monks who wake up in the morning with female liṅga or these nuns who wake up in the morning with male liṅgaṃ. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that we need to find our own redemption alongside these monks and nuns.

Pages: 1 2 All Pages

Previous page

Footnotes
  1. Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 32. [Return to text]
  2. This hermeneutical question rests at the heart of nearly all queer/gay/lesbian/non-heteronormative histories. In the field of religion, it was raised first by John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980); Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). One of the more engaging reflections on this is Suparna Bhaskaran, Made In India: Decolonizations, Queer Sexualities, Trans/national Projects (London: Palgrave Press, 2004). [Return to text]
  3. The first articles to be written on this topic appeared in José I. Cabezón’s edited volume entitled Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1992). These include Leonard Zwilling’s “Homosexuality as Seen in Indian Buddhist Texts,” 203-214. Zwilling published other articles in consultation with Michael Sweet, including Michael J. Sweet, and Leonard Zwilling, “The First Medicalization: The Taxonomy and Etiology of Queerness in Classical Indian Medicine,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3, 4 (1993): 590-607. See also Janet Gyatso, “One Plus One Makes Three: Buddhist Gender, Monasticism, and the Law of the Non-Excluded Middle,” History of Religions 43, 2 (2003):89-115; Janet Gyatso, “Sex,” in Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism, edited by D. S. Lopez (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Janet Gyatso, Being Human in a Buddhist World: An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); Petra Kieffer-Pültz, “Pārājika 1 and Saṅghādisesa 1: Hitherto Untranslated Passages from the Vinayapiṭaka of the Theravadins,” Traditional South Asian Medicine 6 (2001): 62-84; Lucinda Joy Peach, “Social Responsibility, Sex Change, and Salvation: Gender Justice in the Lotus Sūtra,” Philosophy East and West, 52, 2 (2002): 50-74; Serinity Young, “Female Mutability and Male Anxiety in an Early Buddhist Legend,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 16, 1 (2007): 14-39; and B. Scherer, “Gender Transformed and Meta-gendered Enlightenment: Reading Buddhist Narratives as Paradigms of Inclusiveness,” Revista de Estudos de Religião 3 (2006): 65-76. The many writings by Ruth Vanita, and Saleem Kidwai, provides a broader context for Indian religions. [Return to text]
  4. The best overview of this scholarship on Buddhaghosa and discussion of the task of commentary on the Pāli canon can be found in Heim, The Forerunner of All Things, 7-12 and passim. [Return to text]
  5. purisaliṅgaṃ balava akusalena antaradhāyati, in Samantapāsādikā: Buddhaghosa’s Commentary on the Vinayapitaka, edited by J. Takakusu et al. (London: Pali Text Society, 1924), 273. [Return to text]
  6. itthiliṅgaṃ dubbalakusalena patiṭṭhāti (Samantapāsādikā, 273). [Return to text]
  7. Samantapāsādikā, 273-277. [Return to text]
  8. Hsiao-Lan Hu, This-Worldly Nibbāna: A Buddhist-Feminist Social Ethic for Peacemaking in the Global Community (Albany: SUNY Press, 2011), 42-43. [Return to text]
  9. Hu, This-Worldly Nibbāna, 148. [Return to text]