A long time ago, when Zen Master Baizhang was giving some lectures, an old man would show up to listen and then leave right after the talk. One day, he stayed behind and Baizhang asked him who he was. The old man told him that he used to be a Zen teacher, in the time of a previous Buddha, and that one day a student had asked him, “is a person who practices with great devotion subject to cause and effect?” The old man had said “no,” and because of that he was turned into a fox for five hundred lifetimes and was still, apparently, a fox. He asked Baizhang to say a Zen word and release him from his fox body, and put the question to him, “is a person who practices with great devotion subject to cause and effect?” Baizhang said, “don’t ignore cause and effect.” Hearing this, the old man was enlightened and bowed, saying “I am now liberated from the body of a wild fox. I will leave my body in the mountain behind the monastery. Master, please perform the funeral services of a monk for me.”
– Pai-chang’s wild fox kōan
I can remember the first time I started to feel discomfort in my body. I was 12 years old, and I had started to go through the changes that come with puberty. As I grew older, that feeling of unease became familiar, and I simply assumed that everyone around me also felt a sense of pain and dysphoria because of their bodies. Although my body was becoming more masculine, my way of being in the world—moving and speaking in more androgynous ways—remained the same. This attracted negative attention. People made fun of my voice and the way I skipped when I walked. Eventually, one of my bullies physically assaulted me.
I was told by the school that there was not much that could be done—that the boy who attacked me had a difficult family life and that his parents wouldn’t really care if he was suspended or expelled. I think a lot about that boy’s suffering, which caused him to lash out at me from his own pain and hurt.
I had to change schools. My parents also sent me to a therapist in an effort to help me get along with other children. Even though my parents were trying to protect me, the message was clear: my difference was the problem, I was the one at fault, not the people who called me names or hurt me. The therapist explained that if I wanted to fit in and be safe, I would have to talk more like a boy and move more like a boy. We did exercises where he watched me walk and told me to catch myself if I stepped too lightly through his stuffy office. I practiced lowering my voice and deadening its tone.
I wonder what would have happened had I been born ten or twenty years later—would a therapist have offered me the possibility of gender-affirming care to help me make peace with my body and express my authentic self more courageously? I feel very protective of young trans and queer children today because of this. I also think this experience allowed me to see with some clarity the kind of emotional lobotomy we subject young boys and men to in our society. I wonder how many men wander our world starved for love, hungry ghosts so malnourished that they do not even realize they have never been properly fed? What kind of world would it be if boys and men were permitted intimacy—if their feelings were celebrated rather than suppressed and cauterized?
I still feel and notice those experiences as a kind of stiff scar tissue, and it is very hard—but not impossible—for me to be my genuine self with others. My relationships with people tend to be marked by a kind of fear, and my expectation is that I will not be accepted or loved; rather, that I will be rejected and hurt.
Like many queer kids, that feeling of unworthiness made me a target for predatory people. I am a survivor of sexual assault, which occurred when I was a young teenager. This is something I seldom talk about or share—partly from feelings of shame and partly because of how sexual trauma can be so easily weaponized against queer and trans communities.
Without the language or support to confront my feelings of discomfort with how my body was gendered, judged, and sexualized, I have often coped by dissociating from it, diving into work or creative escapism—anything to be outside my body. I had trouble seeing my face in the mirror.
Last year, I finally worked up the courage to begin medically transitioning. I am now, for the first time in my life, looking at my face and feeling the natural joy that comes with the privilege of having a human face and accepting that it is mine. It is an astonishing feeling to inhabit a body to which I am now intimately connected. Now, when I reach out to friends and lovers, my truest self extends to the very edges of my fingertips.
I did not come to Buddhism and meditation practice because of these experiences—or at least not specifically because of them—but these experiences have shaped the color and flavor of the questions I have asked of the practice.
An early question I brought to the cushion was whether I could, if I practiced with “great devotion,” as the old man asks, squirm free once and for all from my body and its trauma. Could I skip over the messy, shameful experience of gender and sexuality and pass straight through to being a shining bodhisattva?
In the mythical narratives of the koan stories, I could easily see myself as the unfortunate student asking Baizhang, “if I practice devotedly, will I transcend this body and these painful experiences?” Based on some of the common ideas about practice and enlightenment that circulate in Western Buddhism, there are probably a lot of wild foxes wandering around.
This is something Larry Yang, one of the core teachers at East Bay Meditation Center, talks about in his book, Awakening Together. He writes that, “we are sometimes predisposed to idealize aspirations of spiritual practice and to assume that the highest aim is to transcend the vicissitudes of this life, to somehow obviate the sorrows of this lifetime so that we only experience the pleasant, peaceful, or sublime.” Yang references well-meaning dharma teachers who avoid talking about diversity, believing that the focus of practice should instead be on our similarities rather than our differences.
But as Yang understands deeply from his experiences as a gay Chinese American in predominantly white and heterosexual meditation communities, life is not just about similarities. He writes:
“Like any manifestation of nature—like any snowflake, leaf on a tree, or shape of a cloud—we all have attributes that are unique and characteristics that are common, it is through seeing the deep nature of our differences and how they are a part of our lives that we can also see the deep similarities of our human experience. We all feel different at some point in our lives; in that experience of difference is a similarity common to us all. Just as we cannot have a life without both joys and sorrows, we cannot have a life without both differences and similarities.”
Yang also cites the meditation teacher and psychologist John Welwood, who coined the term “spiritual bypassing” to describe the widespread tendency to employ spiritual ideas and practices as a tool to avoid facing unresolved wounds and unfinished work. For Welwood, there’s a danger of what he calls “premature transcendence,” or trying to rise above the raw and unpleasant parts of our life in the here and now before we’ve made peace with them. When we prematurely transcend, we end up dismissing real human needs and feelings—our own as well as those of others—the very stuff Buddhism is supposed to help us address.
Did Baizhang understand the dangers of spiritual bypassing and premature transcendence when the old man student asked to be released from his wild fox body? The passage seems to indicate that no, we cannot ignore cause and effect, but once we’ve faced it squarely, the dharma invites us to use it as the grounds for our awakening to this present life.
Not ignoring cause and effect is, for me, to find in practice the freedom to live whatever is happening or has happened as the path. Not to move beyond it but to conceptualize it and make it real as a grounding for awakening. The dharma I express is a queer dharma—my own dharma, and as such, it cannot be anything else. My hope then is that when I express it honestly and authentically, that others can receive it as their dharma. And maybe, when I am brave enough to accept that it is received—and that I am not rejected but am loved by this life—I can receive my dharma back from others and see how my life—with its specific differences—is actually a shared experience.
Five hundred lifetimes as a fox is my own life right now. But is it really even a punishment to be a wild fox? Even though I came to my practice as a means of escaping my body, that same practice ultimately requires a return and reconciliation with the body. And in returning to this foxy body, I have slowly come to have experiences of true joy within and through it. I am very confident that this will continue, and even though it is hard work, in practice I also have the opportunity to rest in the powerful silence of the mysterious not-two, a place of ease from which to work in the turbulent world of the relative and the ultimate, in neither and in both.
To awaken in this body and as this body is also the basis for recognizing the self not as something to cast aside or move beyond, but as an aspect of our dynamic, flowing, and relational life. Transgender students of the dharma have a wonderful opportunity to experience and enact this universal truth. Dr. Florence Ashley, a bioethicist and scholar, has repeatedly affirmed in their scholarship that gender and transition are not acts of unearthing a preconstituted image of the self, but instead a project of “actively creating ourselves” in a process Ashley calls “creative transfiguration,” which must occur in relationship with others.
When I read this, I felt strongly that it harmonized beautifully with descriptions of the bodhisattva way as inherently creative, playful, and imaginative. The fabulous images of the Mahayana sutras—with naga princesses turning into men or the Buddha’s male disciple, Shariputra, finding himself in the body of a goddess much to his awe and dismay—are an invitation to transform the wonderful powers of human imagination into tools of awakening. Imagination is not separate from reality but rather cognizes reality. We conceptualize the world through the lens of our imagination, and through imagination, we can reach out and create a pure land here and now, in this body, in this life, and in this world. This is the miraculous power of the Buddha and our birthright as humans.
We cannot ignore cause and effect. We cannot ignore this life, especially the painful, embarrassing, and frustrating parts of it. But through practice, we can transform these experiences into fuel for awakening—and not an awakening somewhere else beyond the rough edges of modern human life—but right here in the middle of it. That’s where you’ll find me—sometimes a queer student of the dharma, sometimes a mischievous fox, but always flowing on and moving forward, toward a deeper love for this messy world.
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