A non-binary experience of the Buddhadharma

By Joyoti Grech Cato

Starburst Anemone. Photo credit: Queer Nature
Queer #Mystic Series https://www.queernature.org/criticalnaturalistblog

I remember standing on the rajbari island, my feet re-rooting my body in the red earth of Where I Come From. My ancestors – warriors, weavers, women, men and all genders- surround me, my cousin and my friend by my side, the wide river below us and Bhante island[i] across it from us.

Dada pointed out the vihara on the Bhante island, and told us how Bhante’s goodness is known and respected even by the occupying army. The Commanding Officer overseeing the militarisation of our home, the building of cantonments and human shield villages of enforced settlers around them who are then armed and used as weapons themselves against us; on the land our people have tended and lived in respectful relationship with for immeasurable time. That CO crossed the river onto the island where only the monks live. He went to ask for guidance and blessings for his family from Bana Bhante.

I can share the story as an example of how life is not binary: a military commander of an occupying army asking for blessings and guidance from the spiritual leader of the very People whose land he is occupying; the faith he is oppressing, the temples that are being burnt to the ground under his command. The Buddhadharma[ii] helps me look after all the conflicting emotions that arise in me as I search for the words to recount it.

From where I stand, Bana Bhante’s own position is an even more powerful illustration of the non-binary nature of life, the non-duality that is central to the teachings of the historic Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha. Bana Bhante was recognised as an arhant (fully enlightened being) by our people.

To me, Bhante’s practice of liberation from illusion was embodied by the skilful way he facilitated the dharma, both for our Jumma communities under military occupation, and for the military personnel who also sought his guidance.

And there is still space in me to recognise that some ways in which we practice our Dharma path are not yet liberatory. Rani Yan Yan, my sister-in-law, took monastic vows and shaved her head in 2016 to show by her own example that this option is open not only to the men of our communities. Traditionally, all AMAB (assigned male at birth) folks over the age of puberty in our communities are invited/expected to enter the monastery as short-term monastics. Yan Yan is as far as I know the first person outside the gender binary to follow the practice. She is a formal community leader of our Chakma Circle. She is also a leader of the Marma Circle she was born into and loved; embraced and celebrated in both communities and throughout the Chittagong Hill Tracts and way beyond, because of her words and her actions.

When my uncle died in 2008, I was living with my children and their father in Sydney, Australia. It was hard to be so far from close family members in the UK and in Bangladesh, even though we were lucky to be part of a vibrant diasporic Jumma community locally. I remember calling my cousin, who had lost her beloved dad, in London on WhatsApp from Sydney. She was getting onto an Underground train and only heard me say, “Ujjaini!” before the line dropped out. Years later she said that hearing even that one word, her name, was enough to feel the connection and love between us.

We couldn’t join in the wider family rituals, but my cousins and elders suggested we ask the monks at the nearest Theravada Buddhist temple to pray for my uncle by name. So, my little family of 4 went off to Annandale to do so. Afterwards, the young monks played with our older, AMAB, child, who was seven at the time, teasing him that they would keep him at the temple with them. Our younger, AFAB child, aged five, excluded from the games, whispered to me, “Do they hate me because I’m a girl?”

There wasn’t anything to be said in response to that question that could help, only being cuddle-carried away and reassured with our love.

I’m writing these words in bed in a home where we are not related by blood but connected by principles and practices of Mutual Aid. It’s been as much a teacher in my life as the Buddhadarma, as the long-term health condition I’ve lived with for 9 years, as my children’s lives, their questions and revelations to me, as my Queerness and the loving communities it’s brought me into, as my multiple cultural heritage, as my landing here in diaspora as a migrant child fleeing war with my privileged family. All these experiences and paradigms are interconnected, as are all my intersectional identities and privileges. Mutual Aid maybe helps me make sense of all these interconnections, how we all need help sometimes and we all can give help sometimes.

Being Gender Queer in diaspora and on my own dharma path, I have found guidance in the teachings of contemporary Dharma practitioners, of all genders, in diaspora themselves. Difficult feelings arise in me when I read some interpretations of the early teachings – and I remind myself these were written down at the very earliest 500 years after the death of the Historic Buddha, Gautama Siddartha. I have sat in sangha with the Thai Forest tradition that is the closest form of Buddhism in the UK to the Theravada Buddhism practised in my Jumma community of origin. I have found refuge in some of the written teachings published by the Thai Forest monastics in the UK, and I find myself uncomfortable with and excluded by the binary gender divisions in place for the retreats they run. This gender binary imposition is the norm in all the Dharma retreats I have come across in the last five years, although some sangha are starting to offer accommodation along more fluid self-identified lines.

When I first sat in sangha with Lama Rod Owens in 2018, I felt like I had really found a home in the dharma where all parts of myself were welcome. He described himself as a large bodied, Black Gay Man – and by naming and loving these parts of who he is, he named and loved the parts of me that were invisibilised in the all-white, mostly straight, mostly able-bodied, middle-class, middle-aged sangha I had been practising with.

I have found love, insight, and guidance in the teachings of Sebene Selassie, Kaira Jewel Lingo, La Sarmiento, Yong Oh and with the Colours of Compassion BPOC online sangha who follow the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.

My own Queerness, my gender nonconformity, has come into focus in recent years as I have developed my practice of taking refuge in the triple gem: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. This practice of bringing awareness to the non-duality of existence, and the interconnection of all life, has helped the punitive dualistic constructs imposed by capitalist hegemony to loosen their grip. Some spaciousness has been allowed, and a widening of imagination and action is taking place in the gaps that are arising.

As I become able to notice and explore the interrelation of everything, binaries, and boundaries of every kind – nations, genders – reveal themselves as divisions created for the benefit of the owning classes. They are powerful fictions, but fictions none the less. By bringing awareness to them, we uncover them for what they are, and find that, of course, no system of binaries could ever encompass all that we are.

Joyoti is a writer guided by their intersectional experience of life, including being a parent, QTBIPOC, disabled by society, of Indigenous (Jumma) and Maltese origin, a migrant; the teachings of our ancestors and contemporary Dharma teachers and the principles of Mutual Aid.

[i] Bhante is the word for Monk. Bana (Forest) Bhante became known as such after spending 12 years meditating in the original forests of Where We Come From, before they were flooded by the construction of the dam and hydreoelectric project that dispossessed thousands of families and devastated the ecology and traditional knowledge systems of our People.

[ii] The Buddha – historic figure, Gautama Siddhartha, and our own capacity for awakening

The Dharma – the teachings of the historic buddha

The Sangha – community of practice

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