by Jey Ehrenhalt
“When you find yourself caught in dualistic thinking, return to beginner’s mind and ask yourself, what is this?” –Shunryu Suzuki
“Hey, mister—miss—teacher!” My new kindergarten students erupt into a fit of giggles.
“Why do you have weird hair like that? Why do you look like a boy?” Sometimes they are mean-spirited, but mostly they are just curious. Inside the classroom, three girls wearing purple barrettes and pink stockings inspect my body, eyeing my face dispassionately.
“You wear boy shoes,” they reason, “and you have boy hair, but you have a girl voice and a girl body. So you are half boy, half girl.” I nod in acceptance of their nondualistic verdict. At four, they understand gender’s social construction better than most.
After work, to calm down my brain and body from their anxious, pain-ridden states, I practice walking meditation in slow small circles around the bus stop. Foot meets the pavement and pavement meets foot. As the two melt into each other, they cease to be distinct. Foot ground foot ground foot ground foot.
As a gender non-conforming person, I am prone to leaving my body, abandoning it, running away. A major criterion for gender dysphoria, formally called “gender identity disorder” in the DSM-IV, is dissonance between one’s body and mind. Some transgendered men report experiencing a phantom penis, while others note a profound sense of lack between their legs. I, on the other hand, simply ignore my body, my shallow breathing and heart jackhammering between two supple, perky breasts. The problem is I’ve gotten so good at jumping out of my skin that I can’t figure out how to get back in.
In the evening I attend service at my neighborhood Zen temple, where I count breaths and scan body sensations with my Sangha. During the ritual dharma talk, the priest describes the three marks of existence: dukkha, suffering, anica, impermanence, and anatta, non-self. He outlines the path by which we stop clinging to our identities, letting go of the delusion of an independently existing self. Upon enlightenment, he informs us, we will awaken to the truth of non-self. No race, no body, no age. No gender. “No eyes no ears no nose no tongue no body no mind,” we chant from the Heart Sutra. Upon awakening, says the priest, we will return to Buddha-nature, free of conditioned arising states. As we come closer to the enlightened mind, we will realize that our minds and bodies are not separate, but different aspects of the same thing. I wonder silently to myself if gender dysphoria—the experience of dissonance between one’s body and mind—in the awakened Buddhist mind, could even exist.
I have spent much of my life searching for the right label to validate my gender identity. First I chose “genderqueer” in an attempt at political subversion. The intellectual label identified a third gender category, neither male- nor female-identified, but something else entirely. The genderqueer marker asserted that the problem lay in language limiting the categories to just two. But, as I came to discover, there is no genderqueer box next to M and F. Invalid entry, please try again.
Looking for a more culturally substantiated sense of belonging, I gravitated towards transgendered. At my support group for trans guys, I received the impression that to find my true gender identity, I needed only to restructure my body, get it reorganized, fixed. The discussion leader briefed us on the move away from a psychological model of GID towards a medical one. The problem lay not in the mind this time, but solely in the body. Expectations of hormone treatment therapy: decreased life span, acne and coarsening of skin, increased aggression, higher risk of heart disease, more body odor, sweating. An apple-shaped fat distribution to replace my pear-shaped curves. Once I had altered my body, I would pass as, be perceived as, function as a man. The trophy of ultimate acceptance would reveal itself as utter invisibility—but still, in eyes of society I would be “trapped in the wrong body” no more.
Yet, within the confines of either of these labels, I still felt trapped in a mind-body duality. Then I tried Buddhist meditation. Its path promised reentry into my body by way of the practice, and eventual freedom from the prison of judgments and thoughts. Before long I was hooked. Buddhist thought holds, I learned, that the root of all suffering is the attachment to our identities. We let go of this suffering by releasing attachment to our sense of “I”. Similarly, we let go in the body of painful clinging by allowing ourselves to see what is really there. I found this method invaluable for my relentless chronic pain. Without attempting to change, or judge anything, my body released all on its own. I found solace in the dharma not as somewhere to get to, or something missing, but simply something to come back to. We do not need to go looking for our Buddha-nature, we simply settle back into it. As Vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein notes, “we are already aware.”
Yet as good as this promise sounds, it remains a privilege to break free from these binary categories of cultural identities. Such a transcendence is dangerous when it denies the historical struggle to be recognized, the political fight to be heard. While I understand the appeal of moving beyond one’s gender, the paradigm likely shifts more smoothly for one whose minority identity has never been threatened or taken away. So far, my goal of enlightenment does not involve any higher states of consciousness or transcendent bliss. My hope is simply to feel all right in my body, at home in my skin.
“I am tired of having a body,” writes Buddhist author Susan Moon, “I just want to be my body. Let me remember that my buddha-nature is drenched in flesh.” If I am finally able to feel at home in my gender identity, part of me hopes I will cling to it in triumphant attachment, opting never to meditate my gender away.
Jey Ehrenhalt is a practicing writer, teacher, vegetable farmer, genderqueer, and Zen Buddhist. Jey currently works at an elementary school, and hopes to one day teach the dharma full-time. Jey can be found in the queer literary journal Gertrude Press, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.