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How do you spell “TERF” in Tibetan, Harry?

Lama Fede Andino

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dragon that is anti-queer conservationism has risen again within Dharma groups. Now that teachings that question traditional gender roles, like the Chime Phagme Nyingthik are more openly taught or that Upadeshas like those revealed in the fields of Mara in Shambhala contain positive LGBTQI+ practices, with same-gender sexual contact, the resistance to them was bound to spring up.

Personally, I expected some of it. I have heard my share of myopic, prejudiced commentary: the theoretically celibate monk with kids, who calls laypeople “lusty”, the Zen teacher who thought that sexual positivity was something to be punished, the monk and nun who, in a teaching, told me that gay people where women in previous lives trapped in a new body; a theory that I have heard repeated and told by others many times.

So, from monks and rimpoches, I kinda expected this resistance. But not from people who identify as laywomen.

This shouldn’t have surprised me, in hindsight. The world's most famous TERF is the millionaire author of the Harry Potter novels, so it was bound to happen that some people would take her posture, in that tired, aspirational manner that some people have in Instagram; posting self-help phrases instead of actually reading something and thinking through it.

In this post, I want to look at the two principal arguments that those people use, without naming names. This is not an attack on the authors themselves, but on their positions and their untenability within the Dharma.

Also, we’re going to do it without compromising our Samaya; Not revealing things that are supposed to be kept secret. Something that we have seen also too many authors flout, even while harping on the lack of traditions.

Argument one: the gendered tantric body has a biological basis

So, the first and usual argument is: in tantra, you have a series of channels and chakras. We usually use these in a particular stage of practice. These exist in the body and in some systems are called male and female. Therefore, the tantric union, which aims to produce changes in these channels, should be between a male and a female.

The first problem with this approach is that the channels are nor fixed or natural; each system has their own description of them. Some have lateral channels, some don’t. Sometimes the chakras are three, sometimes four, sometimes five. Some systems do not have any channels or chakras.

So, what is happening? If the channels are the natural way that the body is, why is there such a variation?

What is happening is, of course, Nāgārjuna. The one and only, the Lord of Suspicion, the Destroyer of Arguments.

On Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, he explains the system of two truths in very simple terms. The two truths comprise:

  • The truth of emptiness (i.e. that there isn’t anything that exists by itself, without depending on other phenomena), often called the absolute truth.

  • The truth of socially constructed phenomena and day-to-day existence, called the relative truth.

These are not two levels, or two dimensions. These two form a non-dual experience. This twofold formulation of truth is so profound that Nāgārjuna says:

“Those who do not understand

The distinction drawn between these two truths

Do not understand

The Buddha’s profound truth.

Without a foundation in the conventional truth,

The significance of the ultimate cannot be taught.

Without understanding the significance of the ultimate,

Liberation is not achieved.”

(Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā)

Emptiness, in this context, means interdependence. Everything depends on everything else; if there is something that exists beyond the causes and conditions that create most phenomena (like the christian conception of a transcendent god) Buddhism doesn’t really work.

How does this apply to our discussion about the channels?

It applies because this conception destroys the word natural.

What is natural? It is a concept that, like everything else, changes with the society, with the time. What is natural today, for you it’s very different that what it would mean to someone from the North Sentinel island, a place in totally, voluntary isolation.

(if you are reading this from there, hello! You’re probably our first sentinelese reader!)

Let’s not go into what natural would be for, say, a 6th century Saxon farmer. Yes, the word existed back then, but the concept changes all the time.

Ok, perhaps, but the bodies, the bodies do not change, you might argue.

And yet…what are bodies except concepts? Unless you’re a doctor or a mortician, go to YouTube and watch a video of an operation. Where does one organ begin and another end?

These are all concepts transmitted from generation to generation and that we have been discussing and re-framing. That is what science actually is: understanding that there is nothing natural. What we now call the nervous system just a couple of hundreds of years back, they understood it to be a device for cooling blood and that the heart was the center of the mind.

But, you might say, we can find these channels in the human body.

Can we? Where? If I were to open a great yogi up at an operating table, would I see channels and chakras? And if I opened, say, a Cabalist, would I see a Tree of Life?

Of course not. Because channels, chakras and so forth are not naturally existing, but are actually something that we build. We build our bodies, especially our tantric bodies, visualization by visualization. We use the same method that we used to build anything: we repeat things. The same way that you build an identity, a nationality, or a gender.

Because, going back to Nāgārjuna: that something doesn’t exist apart from emptiness in the absolute doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist on the relative. It is relatively existing, therefore constructed and changeable, not natural and eternal. Therefore, this idea of male & female anatomy, like all gender and anatomy, is just a particular set of coordinates that changes from system to system.

So, this takes care of argument one. Let’s focus on argument two.

Argument two: Buddhism itself is beyond culture, and it is perfect and eternal. Therefore, if there’s a teaching with two genders, there are only two genders.

This is another take that we hear lately a lot. Oh, yes, there are abuses within Buddhism. There are misogynist teachers. But it’s not Buddhism’s fault. See, there are cultural teachings and true teachings.

This position is, again, a failure to understand Nāgārjuna. There’s no Buddhism outside of a particular culture, like a core, true teaching that lives in a fantasy pure land. All Buddhism is, as all things are interdependent with its causes and circumstances.

Just as Buddhism in China took on Confucian and Daoist characteristics and in Tibet it took a more shamanic outlook, all Buddhism is interdependent with its practitioners. Buddhism in China, with its Confucian hierarchy of relationships, was extremely patriarchal, while the comparatively more relaxed Indian medieval approach to gender gave us Niguma and Sukkhasiddhi.

Even in Purelands, we can see the interaction between culture and vision. We have Purelands that are clearly monastic, where beings do not have any sexual organ and practice compassion and gentleness. We have Purelands where there’s so many violent orgies that it becomes a “bring your own lubrication” situation. We have peaceful, fun loving Purelands. We have retrofuturistic, militant Purelands. The Purelands take the characteristics of the society where they are found.

This is because every concept is born of a series of causes and conditions that interact at the relative level. It happens in all phenomena. There’s no Buddhism outside the different Buddhisms. They all might have things in common, but there’s no pure-core-platonically-perfect Buddhism living in the world of Ideas.

Let’s go back to the beginning, to the works of her TERFness J.K.Rowling. The Harry Potter novels are, of course, a series of fantasy novels. And yet, it is strange how the fantasy world replicates models of a worldview that we can see in our world. The “hero” Harry is a white male that, at the beginning, seems to be impoverished and unloved. But, oh, he’s the chosen one, so by the virtue of his birth he enters a world of privilege, going to an elite institution where he has slave servants and has riches stored in a bank run by a caricature of Jewish people.

Eventually, of course, he defeats his enemy, another scion of a pedigreed family, and becomes famous. But not to everyone, no; Harry’s world, where all of this happens, is shielded from the rest of the world. The decisions that are taken, and that they intersect and mold with the everyday’s worker world (called derogatively “muggles”) are not visible to those whose lives are affected. They are a privileged class.

Harry’s struggle is not to overturn this world, but to take his place on it. He doesn’t liberate the enslaved spirits and non-humans; he doesn’t let the world know the existence of Wizards. Hence, the reactionary appeal of the books. Appeal that is shared with so many novels and works: the world divided between the dominating and the dominated. Come, because of your birth, take the place that you deserve and enjoy the dominion over others.

The nominal hero’s journey ends up with Potter becoming not only part of that world, but a cop that makes sure that its institutions and privileges keep going.

Good going Harry, you fucking class-traitor.

But this is just a book, isn’t it? And a fantasy book at that. Why does it look suspiciously like modern Britain’s society? Why, instead of having an economy based on slave and indentured labor, like the British Empire has and had, doesn’t it have an economy based on, let’s say, unicorn drawings? Why the need to have an economy at all?

Because it is interdependent with the writer’s outlook and her perception of reality. Had J.K.Rowling been born in, say, Botswana, Harry Potter would probably have been more socialist in his outlook, as well as having a lot more metal concert in his saga.

In the same manner, someone who is born as a Buddhist teacher in a misogynist society will tend towards the teachings that support that position. Yes, there are notable exceptions. But these are exceptions, and most of the Buddhist discourse within that society will have those characteristics.

Conclusion: we need a Vice Drug Documentary called On the Search for the Eternal, Natural Truth

What can we make out of all this confusion?

One person who holds that there are two natural genders wrote:

“So, next time a male Buddhist teacher patronisingly tells you (when querying sexism and gender inequality in Buddhist cultures) that there is no gender in the ultimate view, kindly tell him that in that view there are also no teachers or human beings either, so why is he teaching and taking donations? “

Which is written as a snide comeback, but the thing is: this is correct. There are no genders and no teachers in the ultimate sense of truth and there are in the relative sense.

Take me, for example. I am one of those teaching Buddhism. So, I am a teacher as the person who wrote this says, of Buddhism. But is there a part of me that’s absolutely a teacher? A part that is the teacher part, that was destined, or innately born or a soul of teachiness?

A good understanding of emptiness would mean that no, there isn’t. There are a lot of relative causes and conditions that led to that. I was born; I am still alive; I was part of a privileged class of society, which allowed me to study. I met teachers who could teach me and supported me. I have devoted students. I still have time, after my daily work, to teach. All of this is necessary for me to be a teacher.

Therefore, I am a teacher in the relative manner that this implies. Even a single change would change the configuration. Same with gender. I identify as a male, but because my experiences, privileges and preferences have led me to this. It does not mean than in any natural or absolute way I am, since even the concept of maleness does not exist. So I am in the relative sense a male.

This need to find things that truly, absolutely exist and that language can identify them does not have any place within Buddhism, especially not after Nāgārjuna.

Do you know where they have a place?

In Christianity.

In Christianity, the difference between the Sacred and the Profane is very clear. Between transcendent and immanent. Between spirit and matter. So perhaps, if what you need is an obvious distinction, Buddhism is not the path for you.

To be a Buddhist, to be a Tantric Buddhist, especially you need to understand that everyone, especially yourself, drown immersed in the confusion that is Samsara. You need to grasp that confusion and stop trying to make everything fit into little boxes. Like Procrustes from Greek myth, you will end up stretching or chopping up people to make them fit your definition. And if mutilating people and causing suffering is your aim… why are you on the path of the Bodhisattvas?

To quote one last time the Lord of Suspicion:

“By a misperception of emptiness

A person of little intelligence is destroyed.

Like a snake incorrectly seized

Or like a spell incorrectly cast. “

(Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā)

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