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Pali Cannon records examples of transexual monks and nuns


Gender transformed and meta-gendered enlightenment: Reading Buddhist narratives as paradigms of inclusiveness
By: Burkhard Scherer*
Revista de Estudos da Religião Nº 3 / 2006 / pp. 65-76

--- Quote ---Let us start our investigation with a story found in the basket of discipline (vinaya) of the Pāli
canon.1 The Pāli canon of the Theravāda tradition is canonical for Buddhists in Sri Lanka and
South East Asia (=Southern Buddhism) and the only canon completely surviving in an Indian
language (as opposed to the fragmentary survival of Sanskrit and Prakrit canons of other
Buddhist schools or translations into e.g. Chinese and Tibetan).

Here, in the Suttavibha≡ga – the first section of the vinaya – we find significant discussion on
offences meriting expulsion from the order (pārājika). All kinds of breaches of celibacy are
discussed; the discussion is prompted – as stated explicitly - by real cases, including
curiosities such as training a female monkey for sexual pleasure (I leave open here the
possibility that this indeed does not refer to actual bestiality but is a humorous insertion which
plays ironically with the over-systematisation found in the vinaya).2
Interestingly enough, we read here also about a change of sex, although the connection with
breaches of celibacy is not immediately obvious:
‘Now at one time, the sign of a woman [ittthilinga] appeared to a monk. They [the
other monks] told this matter to the lord. He said: “Monks, I allow a teacher
[upajjha, preceptor, spiritual teacher] to meet with nuns during the rains, as for
the upasampadā ordination [higher ordination], so as in the presence of the nuns
away from those offences which they have in common with monks; but in those
offences of monks which are offences not in common with nuns, there is no
offence (for the nuns).’

‘Now at one time, the sign of a man [purisalinga] appeared to a nun. They [the
other monks] told this matter to the lord. He said: “Monks, I allow a teacher to
meet with the monks during the rains, as for the upasampadā ordination, so as in
the presence of monks to turn the monks away from those offences which they
have in common with nuns; but in those offences of nuns which are offences not
in common with monks, there is no offence (for the monks).’ (Vin. iii 35 PTS)3
The gist of this narrative might not be too clear in the earlier translation of Ms. Horner, Pali
Text Society (1938), which I just quoted. Let us try a more accurate reading of the crucial
point in this obscure Pāli passage:
The Buddha answers in the case of the male to female (MtF) transformation: Monks, I allow
[her] a preceptor, I allow her the ordination, I allow her the ordination years [or: the monsoon
periods, pointing either towards prestige or the general permission to stay with other nuns
during this period] and the presence of nuns…

The Buddha’s laconic and pragmatic reaction towards sex/gender-crossing within the sa≡gha
(the Buddhist community) is striking. The bottom line is, the Buddha changed the status of
the transsexual from Monk to Nun, with all implications for the keeping of the specific
precepts of the other sex but with no consequences for the continuity of spiritual guidance
(preceptor) and prestige (years of ordination). The female to male (FtM) is treated

The context of the passage in the discussion of offences clarifies the focus on the ethical
implication of a sex-change for the community, in which sex specific precepts had to be kept
and in which cross-sex contact was extremely limited and sanctioned.
By defining the transformed as a full member of the sex changed into, the Buddha clarifies
the monastic-disciplinary implications. Interestingly enough, the text doesn’t give any account
how the ‘mark of the opposite sex’ appeared in the person in question. That it happens is
accepted as common fact. This is also demonstrated by the enumeration of MtF and FtM
transformations in the para-canonical Milindapañhā (267) within the regular phenomena
appearing in the world.4

So, we find here a laconic, basically non-judgemental reaction of the Buddha, which can
provide a valuable paradigm when applied within modern gender discourses towards
transsexuality / <not allowed>.
--- End quote ---


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