Samita ASBL

Changing Genders, Changing Buddhists

(By Ayya Vimala)

I sit down with my cup of tea this morning and open up the paper. I don’t usually read newspapers but one of the headlines has caught my eye. It reads: “Are you ready for the sensitive man?” with a cartoon-picture of a man who throws away his porn- and car-magazines while holding a magazine on meditation. A tear flows out of his eye. It is an article about the changing gender-roles in our Western society. In the same paper there is also an article about the rising popularity of Frida Kahlo. The paper attributes this to her bi-sexuality and her surmounting of gender-roles.

A few months ago, Belgium passed a law to allow people to change their gender legally without any fuss: just to go to cityhall and change it and pay a small administrative fee. A judge in the Netherlands recently ruled that a third gender should be recognised in the law. Things are changing in our world; the traditional social gender-roles that we learn from the time we are born are changing.

So what does this mean for us as Buddhists? How do we look at gender and work within ourselves and how should we deal with this changing environment within the Sangha? Let’s first have a look at what this “gender” really is. When we are born, we are either male or female. Or are we? This is the assumption on which our gender-binary world rests. But let’s have a closer look at these assumptions.

First of all, I want to make the terminology clear: there is a difference between biological sex, social gender-roles, gender-identity and sexual orientation. Often these terms are used loosly and as synonyms but that is a mistake. Although these terms have something to do with each other, they are still independent from each other in that any individual can have a unique combination of each.


Biological Sex

Sex refers to the anatomical and other biological differences between females and males that are determined in the womb. Most people are born with either male or female organs, but certainly not all. There are also people who are intersex. In our world, they are often operated at birth in order to fit into the gender-binary world outside.

Then there is such a thing as spontaneously changing sex. This is rare but it can happen in puberty, mostly from female-to-male. Scientifically this process is not yet well understood. (Salt, 2007)

Social gender-roles

Gender is a social concept that denotes the social and cultural differences a society assigns to people based on their biological sex. Each society imposes on people the expectations of behavior and attitudes based on their biological sex. This we call gender-roles. Gender is therefore a social construction. How we think and behave as males or females is not determined by our biological sex but is a result of how society conditions us based on that biological sex. (Lindsey, 2011)

Biology vs Social conditioning

For many years there has been the debate if differences in gender stem from biology (Workman & Reader, 2009) or social conditioning or a combination of the two. Of course there are differences between the capabilities of our respective bodies, but in our world these differences are subject to change too. We no longer live in a society where day-to-day survival is of the utmost importance. Everybody still has unique traits and possibilities, but these are no longer determined solely by our biological sex. Even if biological differences did influence gender roles in prehistoric times, these differences are largely irrelevant in today’s world. (Hurley, 2007; Buller, 2006; Begley, 2009)

Some of the most compelling evidence against a strong biological determination of gender roles comes from anthropologists, whose work on preindustrial societies demonstrates some striking gender variation from one culture to another. This variation underscores the impact of culture on how females and males think and behave. (Mead, 1935; Morgan, 1989; Murdock, 1937)


Gender-identity is how we feel about ourselves. It is a mental construct that in most cases is in line with the assigned gender-role and biological sex, but not in all.

Attempts to reassign gender-identity can result in gender dysphoria; the condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be different to one’s biological sex. These people literally feel to be “in the wrong body” (or being forced to play the wrong gender-role) and feel more comfortable if they can assume the gender-role of the opposite sex or no particular gender-role at all.

Next to the usual terms of “man” and “woman”, there are many terms to describe various forms of gender-identity. If you want to know more, here is a short video that gives a great introduction:

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation refers to a person’s preference for sexual relationships with individuals of the other sex (heterosexuality), one’s own sex (homosexuality), or both sexes (bisexuality).

Past Lives

The causes of why some people feel different from the social norm, either in gender-identity or sexual orientation or both, have been much debated but it seems to be a highly complex mix of biological and socio-cultural factors. One thing that sticks out for me is than none of the research has focussed on past lives. We have all been male and female in our past lives before and we have acted out many different social roles, including gender-roles. The mental factors that we have brought into this live from the past should not be overlooked but it is difficult to determine the extend to which this plays a role. It is known through the work of Ian Stevenson that children of a young age are more likely to remember their past lives and this is the age that core gender-identity gets established.

There is a large variety of combinations of biological sex, gender-identity and sexual orientation that people can have. Many transgenders and genderqueer people have tried to live a life according to the social norms with a gender based on their physical characteristics before they “came out”. Many were in a marriage with children before they decided to transition or come out as queer. Some never do and stay in their assigned gender-role. The idea of the gender-binary is simply much too simplistic.

I do not think that nowadays there are more people who feel uncomfortable in their assigned gender-role than there were before, but that the awareness, the understanding and the acceptance is increasing in our modern society. Many people begin to question the value of such gender-roles in an ever changing world where immediate survival is less important but new challenges have to be met. In the end, we are all just human beings.

Gender in Buddhism

Religion plays a large role in socializing individuals to their assigned gender-roles. Buddhism is certainly no exception to that, but we have to make a difference here between the Buddha’s teachings, and Buddhist culture, which has developed based on geographical and interpretational differences since the time of the Buddha.

In order to understand the Buddhist’ point of view we have to go back in history. As Ayya Sujato pointed out in his article on the Buddha’s genitals, the Buddhas himself appears to be more non-binary: he has gone beyond the notion of gender. But how were things in the Buddha’s time? This was a very different society than ours and the only things we know about it have come to us through the background stories of the Suttas and the Vinaya. But what that tells us is that in social relationships, this society was not so very different from India today. In any case, it was most likely a hetero-patriarchical society where forced marriage was the norm.

It was in this society that the Buddha had to teach. Even if he himself felt different, he would not directly challenge existing structures in society but would teach people to contemplate and look inside of themselves. His way of teaching was very subtle, never lecturing but always guiding people to find answers inside. And what he taught was to be compassionate to all beings, regardless of caste and gender.

In his Teachings he makes very clear that these distinctions between humans are irrelevant:

“Neither in neck, nor shoulders found,
not in belly or the back,
neither in buttocks nor the breast,
not in groin or sexual parts.

Neither in hands nor in the feet,
not in fingers or the nails,
neither in knees nor in the thighs,
not in their “colour”, not in sound,
here is no distinctive mark
as in the many other sorts of birth.

In human bodies as they are,
such differences cannot be found:
the only human differences
are those in names alone.”

Suttanipāta 3.9

The Teachings

There are various ways to look at the teachings. One way which I find very helpful here is the teachings on the five Khandhas: form, feeling, perception, choices and consciousness. When teaching about the five Khandhas, the Buddha teaches to contemplate them as Anicca (impermanence), Dukkha (suffering) and Anatta (not-self). He does not say that there is not a self, but that if you identify with a self, you actually identify with these five Khandhas; if you see them in accordance with reality, they don’t operate as a “self”, something you can cling to.

His approach is to encourage investigation. How do you know these things? Go through each aspect of experience and see if it is permanent of impermanent. “Dukkha” is a bit more subtle and sometimes confusing because the term “dukkha” is here used as a characteristic of the five Khandhas and is not used in the same sense as the feeling of “dukkha”, which is part of the second Khandha. What is meant here is something like seeing the imperfection of things, seeing that it is not fit to provide lasting satisfaction. Anatta is seeing that these experiences cannot be controlled and are therefore not a self.

One of the most important things about the five Khandhas is not the particular definition of each each but the interrelationship between the first four (form, feeling, perception, choices) with the fifth (consciousness). The interaction, the responsiveness and the resonance between the inner subjective awareness and the sentient body, between the inner sense of awareness and the external signs. We don’t simply see objects as annica, dukkha, Anatta but the very nature and structure of the interaction itself is interdependent and constantly spinning around, constantly changing. Deep insight is not about knowing what external objects are but how the mind is involved with these objects.

In relation to gender, we can see that our gender-identity is a perception. Whether we identify as man, woman or something else, we all have this perception. We also have an idea about how other people perceive us and this is where our assigned gender-role comes into play. This gender-role is a socially conditioned phenemenon, but it also has an internal part, namely how we perceive this in relation to ourselves; the interaction between what is inside and what is outside. We have no control over how these things are and we cannot will ourselves to have a different gender-identity. It is Anatta. It is as it is and we cannot change it. Our gender-identity is not a choice.

But when contemplating, there is a shift from Sañña (perception) to Pañña (wisdom). By observing things, slowly our defilements disappear and we will start to see things in a different light. The inner qualities of the mind change while wisdom grows. This way, we can let go of our thinking about how we “should be” according to some perceived social standard outside of us and learn to accept ourselves, and our gender, as we are, while keeping in mind that it is Anatta. This way we change our relationship to the outside world and we change our perception of ourselves and others.

The Vinaya

As is shown in the short video that @Adan posted, the argument against transgenders ordaining that is used now is the same as was used for Bhikkhunis before: you can meditate and develop without being ordained, just accept the way it is and be content with that. This is an argument that is used often by Buddhists, therewith quoting the Teachings of being content, equanimous and letting go. But that is a wrong grasp of the Teachings. Wanting to ordain is a wholesome aspiration and in line with the Dhamma and the Buddha would have applauded that. The Buddha himself was always compassionate to all beings and when individuals were refused ordination it was never because of their gender-identity or sexual orientation.

We have to look at how people with another gender were described in the Vinaya. There are several words that could denote this, or are generally translated as such, all of which only appear in the Khandakas of the Vinaya Pitaka and more precisely only in the Bhikkhunikhandaka (or as a term of abuse in Bhikkhu Saṅghādisesa 3). Bhikkhu @Sujato (2007) argues that the Bhikkhunikkhandhaka, as well as other parts of the Vinaya, are a later addition, possibly dating back to the Second Council.

There are several types of people that are noted: Vepurisikā, Sambhinna, Ubhatovyañjanaka and Paṇḍaka.
All of these terms are mentioned in conjunction with ordination: people with these characteristics are not allowed to ordain, at least, not as a Bhikkhuni. In the Early Buddhist Suttas we do not find any mention of the first three terms, only the word Paṇḍaka is found in some Anguttara Nikaya passages that do not have any parallels in other Early texts. It is not well understood what these terms actually denote, although the more conservative people in the Sangha refer to these terms as meaning anybody who does not comply with the established gender-norms. However, I believe it is wrong to accept the most conservative reading of the texts based on so little knowledge of the actual meaning of these terms.

The term Paṇḍaka has been discussed in more detail in this thread and also in the essay by @Bernat Font. It would seem that a Paṇḍaka is not an indication of gender or sexual orientation but more a term denoting a person who exhibits strong lustful behavior that would of course be inappropriate in the Sangha.

Regardless of how the Vinaya is interpreted, the doctrine of Anatta itself denies that there is an identity or lasting entity at the centre of any being, so this makes gender difference at the deepest level a superficial factor just as race, ethnicity, appearance or social status. Therefore to deny anybody ordination on the basis of this is itself against the Dhamma.

The Buddha’s teachings are just as applicable in today’s world as they were 2500 years ago, but we have to keep in mind that the conditions in which we need to work with these teachings are vastly different. We have no Buddha to tell us what to do, but if we try to follow the Buddha’s footsteps and be kind and compassionate to all beings, we cannot be far off.

Bhikkhu or Bhikkhunī?

Of course the above begs the question: if ordination for transgenders is allowed … how should they ordain?

No doubt this will be the topic of much discussion in years to come because not all trans-people also have had surgery (so they might still have the body of the opposite sex, at least partly). It is quite possible that somebody with male genitals identifies as a woman and visa versa. Moreover, there are many people who don’t strongly identify with either sex: they are non-binary.

Anderson (2016a) points out that monks and nuns forego the usual markers of sex and gender difference when they don their robes and shave their heads. In addition to this, they live a celibate life so these sexual organs are not used for the purpose that nature designed them for. It would therefore seem ludicrous for a transgender, who has not had full surgery, to have to go through this for the sake of a body part that plays no part in Buddhist Monastic practice.

The argument revolves around the explanation of a passage in the Vinaya in Pārājika 1 (translation by Ajahn @Brahmali):

At one time the characteristics of a woman appeared on a monk. They informed the Master. He said: “Monks, I allow that very discipleship, that very ordination, those years as a monk, to be transferred to the nuns. The monks’ offenses that are in common with the nuns are to be dealt with in the presence of the nuns. For the monks’ offenses that are not in common with the nuns, there’s no offense.”

The same passage is then repeated for a nun.

The appearance of this passage in Pārājika 1 is a bit odd. This rule has to do with sexual intercourse and obviously a change of characteristics has nothing much to do with that. It is possible that this passage was added later.

Carol Anderson (2016) points out that in the Abhidhamma, male rebirth is seen as the result of good kamma and female rebirth as the result of bad kamma (adultry) and that this might have some bearing on the appearance of this passage in Pārājika 1.

It is unclear what exactly “characteristics of a (wo)man” are. The word this hinges on is liṅga, which means sign or characteristics. It can refer to physical characteristics but not necessarily. The words for “characteristics of a (wo)man” are itthiliṅgaṃ and purisaliṅgaṃ. These words appear in the canon only 5 times, in later texts like the Abhidhamma and the Milindapañha. It also appears in the early suttas once, namely in Digha Nikāya 27 which describes the evolution. In the latter case, it seems that liṅga indeed refers to biological sex.

In the first commentary on the Vinaya-piṭaka, the Samantapāsādikā, the change of liṅga is described as appearing suddenly in the middle of the night; one goes to bed as a man and wakes up as a woman. This seems of course highly unlikely but might have it’s roots in the notion that sleep is a precarious state whereby one looses control, which can lead to shameful situations (Heirman, 2012). The commentary also attributes such a change to good or bad kamma.

Scherer (2006) and others take the term liṅga as a reference to the ‘secondary sex organs’ or characteristics of sexual difference, which also include behavioral differences so the term can be used to denote both biological sex and gender-identity as we define it today. They base this conclusion on the work of Buddhaghosa, a later commentator. However, the notion of gender as we have today is no doubt different from that in the time of the Buddha. More research in this field and also the corresponding parallels in other schools is needed to get a better picture.

In any case, it seems that there is a lot of uncertainty about what liṅga actually refers to. There are different attempts to explain the term in later commentarial literature but these have very different views from each other. All this has an impact on the ordination procedure, whereby one is asked if one is a purisa (man) or itthi (woman). It would follow from this passsage in Pārājika 1 that in order to be a man or woman for the purpose of ordination, one should have the liṅga of a man or woman.

I feel that the safest way to approach this is again to look at the Teachings and choose the most compassionate route. The passage in Pārājika 1 gives an indication of what the Buddha would do: the transitioned person should practice according to the VInaya that is most appropriate to them in order to get the best possible opportunities to eradicate defilements and practice the teachings.

I feel therefore that in light of the Teachings, ordination should be based on gender-identity and not on biological sex. The Buddha’s Vinaya is a guideline for our practice and is meant to help us overcome our defilements. A trans-woman, because of her gender-identity as a woman, will also benefit more from the training for Bhikkhunis and visa versa. It is therefore up to each individual to see where they would receive the best training suited for them in consultation with the monastics of the monastery where they wish to train.

As Ajahn Brahm said:

As Buddhists who espouse the ideal of unconditional loving kindness and respect, judging people on their behavior instead of their birth, we should be well positioned to show leadership on the development of gender equality in the modern world and the consequent reduction of suffering for half the world’s population. Moreover, if Buddhism is to remain relevant and grow, we must address these issues head on. But how can we speak about gender equality when some of our own Theravada Buddhist organizations are gender biased?

In this article I do not aim to be complete but try to create an overview of the issues and open a channel for discussion and more research in this field. Now we have some fairly comprehensive research with regards to Bhikkhunis and the possibility of Bhikkhuni ordination, it is time we start to look at other minorities that are not always accepted within the Sangha.


Anderson, C. (2016). Changing Sex in Pali Buddhist Monastic Literature. Researchgate.

Anderson, C. (2016a). ‘Defining Women’s Bodies in Indian Buddhist Literature’ In: Barbara A. Holdrege and Karen Pechilis (eds) Re-figuring the Body: Embodiment in South Asian Religions. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press

Begley, S. (2009, June 29). Don’t blame the caveman. Newsweek 52–62.

Buller, D. J. (2006). Adapting minds: Evolutionary psychology and the persistent quest for human nature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Heirman, Ann 2012. ‘Sleep Well! Sleeping Practices in Buddhist Disciplinary Rules’ Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 65(4), pp. 427–444.

Hurley, S. (2007). Sex and the social construction of gender: Can feminism and evolutionary psychology be reconciled? In J. Browne (Ed.), The future of gender (pp. 98–115). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Lindsey, L. L. (2011). Gender roles: A sociological perspective (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Mead, M. (1935). Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Morgan, S. (Ed.). (1989). Gender and anthropology: Critical reviews for research and teaching. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Murdock, G. (1937). Comparative data on the division of labor by sex. Social Forces, 15, 551–553.

Salt D, Brain Z (June 2007). “Intersex: Case studies”. Cosmos (15). Archived from the original on 2009-02-14.

Scherer, Burkhard (2006). ‘Gender Transformed and Meta-gendered Enlightenment: Reading Buddhist Narratives as Paradigms of Inclusiveness’ Revista de Estudos da Religião – REVER 6(3), pp. 65–76.

Sirimanne, Chand R. (2016). Buddhism and Women-The Dhamma Has No Gender. Journal of International Women’s Studies.

Sujato Bhikkhu, (2007). Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies. Santipada.

Workman, L., & Reader, W. (2009). Evolutionary psychology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


  1. fiona

    Dear Ayya
    You say
    ‘the transitioned person should practice according to the VInaya that is most appropriate to them in order to get the best possible opportunities to eradicate defilements and practice the teachings.’

    Can you clarify what you mean? Are you suggesting defilements are gender specific? If this is the case then this means you are pooling specific defilements in monasteries eg male and female monasteries. Would this lead to group think and prejudice? Most research supports heterogeneity in the workplace as it leads to better decision making. My experience is that monasteries are heirarchical and men use a multitude of tactics to maintain the power dynamic. They have historically co-opted women to various extents.

    1. Sabbamitta

      Dear Fiona, thank you for your comment.

      I leave it to Ayya Vimala to post their own reply as soon as they find the time.

      What I’d like to say is that maybe it’s not so much defilements that are gender specific, but the Vinayas are. There is a Vinaya for monks and a Vinaya for nuns – unless you want to try out a genderless Vinaya as suggested in this post (but note in the discussion how the mere fact of starting a thought experiment to this respect provoked quite strong reactions! So this idea would probably need more time to develop and mature.)

  2. fiona

    Dear Anagarika Sabbamitta, Thanks for your response. A genderless Vinaya seems to be a good idea. I believe splitting men and women up is just another tool for patriarchy to keep going.

    In Saudi women can drive now and the Prince responsible has enjoyed some reflected glory. Various princesses are seen draped across their convertibles in Vogue. Women are enjoying their new found freedom. The women who worked so hard for this change are still locked up as far as I am aware. Not much has changed for them. This is how patriarchy works. It just relieves the pressure points but there is no fundamental shift in attitudes. I suspect much of the male desire for power is based on insecurity.

Comments are closed.