Dear Lam, my younger brother recently came out as a transgender. It was a shock for the family, and my parents and I have rejected to see him until he starts wearing male clothes again.  Actually, I wonder whether in Buddhism it is a sin to act like this. All of my friends and colleagues tell me that it is the 21st century, and so I should be more tolerant. Is my reaction wrong? Also, should he not understand the feelings of my parents and grandparents and dress in a standard way when he’s around them. Lam, I’m really confused about this matter, and so please advise me?

Confused sister, Thimphu  

Well, first of all, Buddhism doesn’t have a concept of sin. We believe in karma, which is the natural law of cause and effect. It is a complicated subject, but, simply put, thoughts, words, and deeds that aim to benefit others create good karma, while thoughts, words, and deeds that aim to benefit ourselves while harming others creates negative karma. 

As for Buddhism, it has one aim, and one aim only – to awaken us to the truth and gain liberation. In this respect, it is totally irrelevant whether a person is transgender or not. 

Here is a relevant comment by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: “Your sexual orientation has got nothing to do with understanding or not understanding the truth. You could be gay. You could be a lesbian. You could be straight. We never know who will get enlightened first – probably lesbians. We never know.”       

Now, in specific reference to karma, as I explained above, the law of cause and effect is purely dependent on whether our action is aimed at benefitting or harming others, and as there are no bad or good intentions behind being transgender, it neither creates positive or negative karma. To put it another way, people neither adopt a transgender lifestyle to hurt or benefit others, and so it is karmically neutral, and, in this respect, no different from the lifestyle of a teacher, a chef, or a farmer. 

You mention that you feel uncomfortable with your brother wearing female clothes. In this respect, it’s important to understand that judgments, such as good and bad, large and small, or beautiful or ugly, are not ultimate truths, but merely opinions that have been formed in relation to personal experiences. To put it in another way, our values are not founded on universal laws that are cast in stone, but on changing external reference points. Take a simple object like a broken cup as an example. To a person who grew up in a culture where cups are used to hold tea or coffee, it will be seen as a useless object. In contrast, to an insect that settles on its rim or an artist who requires an interesting subject to paint, it may be considered a useful item. From this example, we can see that the classifications were purely based on personal assessments, and that neither ‘useless’ nor ‘useful’ are fixed labels. In this respect, we can understand how values are not inherent to the object itself, but are imposed from outside. As another example, think of a relationship. When two people fall in love, they see their new partner as the most handsome or beautiful person in the entire universe. Later, when the relationship cools, they consider each other as ordinary. Finally, if there is a break up, they will mostly focus on how their partner is too fat or too thin or that their nose is a strange shape. This example confirms that, as stated above, the labels we attach to things are merely reflections of our own mind based on changing reference points, and are not inherent to the object itself. It is the exactly the same with transgender issues. In this case, the labels we impose on transgender people are based on our upbringing, education, karma, culture, exposure, etc, and are not innate characteristics of people who adopt their lifestyle. 

So, to resolve your feeling of being uncomfortable around your brother you need to address the source of these feelings – your own mind. Basically, you need to recognize that your opinions only exist in relation to unfixed reference points. When we lack this understanding, our thoughts evolve into rigid views and concepts, which we then mistakenly believe to be ultimate facts. On this point, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche has noted, “A beautiful object has no intrinsic quality that is good for the mind, nor an ugly object any intrinsic power to harm it. Beautiful and ugly are just projections of the mind. The ability to cause happiness or suffering is not a property of the outer object itself. For example, the sight of a particular individual can cause happiness to one person and suffering to another. It is the mind that attributes such qualities to the perceived object.”     

Furthermore, when we focus on one aspect of a person and make a judgement based on that observation, we are denying the Buddhist truth of emptiness – that nothing exists as a single, permanent item, but is comprised of many changing parts. As an example, take a person who works as a teacher. We call him an educator. However, he is not merely defined by this title as if all educators are somehow connected to the same brain and have the same character, but he has his own unique personality, preferences, and feelings. It is the same for anyone who adopts a specific life-style or takes on a job title, and there is no such thing as an inherent characteristic of a transgender person, an addict, a doctor, or an office worker, but only individuals with multiple personalities and traits. Not understanding this point is actually the underlying cause of all conflicts and wars. 

As for tolerance, I feel that the LGBT community doesn’t require tolerance, but understanding. When we speak of being tolerant, it implies that we don’t like something, but put up with it, as we might perhaps tolerate dogs barking all night or a neighbor blasting loud music. On the other hand, with understanding, a situation is considered normal, and there is nothing to tolerate.    

In conclusion, as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche stated, “it is the mind that attributes qualities to a perceived object”. In this respect, to effectively address your feelings of being uncomfortable around your brother, it is for you to question why you have these feelings and not for your brother to adapt his lifestyle to accommodate your specific prejudices. Now, at the end of the day, you may still feel uncomfortable around your brother, but at least you will recognize that these feelings are the result of your own outlook and not due to his lifestyle. 

On a final note, when meeting grandparents or elderly relatives who may be unable to accept and understand your brother’s choices, perhaps he could consider dressing in a way that will not disturb them. Ultimately, however, that is a matter for him to decide. In my reply to your question, I’m merely looking at the issue from a Buddhist prospective. 

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organizing drug outreach programmes.