YOUTH IN FOCUS: My brother is a transgender, but I am a devoted Buddhist and so I don’t feel comfortable with these things.  Is it a sin to act like this or to be gay? How should I treat my brother?

– Confused, Thimphu

Well, first of all we don’t have a concept of sin in Buddhism. We believe in karma, which is the law of cause and effect. I’ll try to explain this in a simple way.
Everything in the universe is compounded and impermanent. Take a piece of paper as an example. It was not paper from the very beginning, but came from wood. The wood, in turn, came from a tree, which grew through its interaction with moisture, warmth and nutrition. In this way, we can say that the paper is compounded (i.e. not an independent object, but made up of parts and elements and so connected to the world outside).
Actually, everything exists in this way – including ourselves – and once the elements or parts begin to disappear, then the object itself will cease to exist. These are two of the three truths that are known as ‘the Three Marks of Existence’: impermanence, no-self and suffering.
When we don’t understand these truths, we tend to act as though we and everything in the universe exists independently and will last forever, and this misunderstanding causes suffering (the third mark of existence).
Ok, I can imagine that you are shaking your head and thinking ‘what is this old guy in red talking about’? HAHA. To give an example, I’ll tell you a story that I heard in Taiwan. Once, the organs in the body didn’t realise that they were compounded and connected to the other organs, but thought that they existed independently and would live forever. As a result of this mistaken view, they felt proud and slowly stopped co-operating with each other – The heart no longer gave blood to the other organs. The liver stopped cleaning out the toxins and the kidney refused to share the fluid. As a result, the body became ill, and as they were part of the body, the organs also became sick and eventually died.
Can you see how acting out of harmony with the way the universe functions creates suffering? Simply explained, action that is based on the wrong view creates negative karma. The opposite is also true, and action that follows the truth creates good karma. Had the organs in the story possessed the right view and realised that they were compounded and so connected to the other organs and body – the blood from the heart being part of the kidneys and the fluid from the kidneys being in the heart, etc – they would not have acted in a proud way and stopped co-operating, but instead worked hard to benefit each other.  In this respect, there is no idea of sin, only ignorance of reality, and this causes us to do things that hurt ourselves and others.
As for your question about transgender, being Buddhist should not make you less open, but more open. Buddhism is a wisdom-based religion, and genuine wisdom destroys all prejudices and fixations, not only those regarding life-style and gender.
When you say that your brother is transgender, you are just seeing a guy who perhaps wears women’s clothes. However, if you look deeply, you will discover that, like the piece of paper in the above example, he is composed of many factors and possesses many characteristics. He is not just a transgender, but a human being with many qualities.
Basically, when we have strong feelings for or against another person or race of people, we are not seeing things with wisdom eyes, but wearing dark glasses of ignorance. As a result, we just see everything in one colour. If we continue with the earlier example, we just see a piece of paper and do not examine it further. We do not see the many aspects that joined together to create the paper, nor do we recognise that the piece of paper is not permanent and will change. We just see a fixed and independent object called paper. Later, we decide whether we like it or not and then get stuck with our opinion.
In the same way, we see people or things as good or bad and ugly or beautiful. As an example, a person who we consider bad might have done something harmful, but definitely they will also possess good qualities. In addition, the reason for them causing harm is due to their education, family background, karma and life-experiences. Like the piece of paper, they are not a single unchanging object, but a human being with many characteristics that have developed as the result of various influences. When these influences change, then the person will also change.  In this respect, we should not get stuck with an idea that something is permanent or 100% bad, ugly or whatever.
Furthermore, we should understand that the label we stick on someone is just an opinion based on our education, culture and family background. Actually, it is ok to have an opinion, but we need to realise that is just our opinion. It is not an ultimate fact.
As it is based on wisdom, Buddhism has no bias about transgender, gay, skin colour or race. Every sentient being possesses Buddha nature and so has the capacity to become enlightened. And so to answer the last part of your question, we should respect all life and treat every human being as precious.
As Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche stated, “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.”
Personally, I suggest that rather than blaming your brother for making you feel uncomfortable, you instead investigate why you have this prejudice. You can also consider why some people feel superior to others because of skin colour or feel uncomfortable with people who have a different lifestyle? If people use Buddhist wisdom, they will discover that everyone is a just the product of their education, upbringing, karma, culture etc and that the characteristics they display are impermanent and constantly changing. They are not a solid, unchanging object with one single characteristic. Likewise, we will discover that our prejudices are just based on our influences. They are not ultimate facts.
Because it is wisdom-based, the tolerance and compassion that Buddhists are credited with possessing is not a wishy-washy concept of being nice and smiley, but is rooted in a deep understanding of how everything functions.  All the violence in the world comes from people fixating on ideas of things being absolutely good or bad, ugly or beautiful and feeling that their opinion is indisputable.
In this respect, I suggest that you use wisdom to view your brother’s lifestyle. This will open your mind and make you less uncomfortable with people whose lifestyle differs from yours. As a result, you will develop tolerance and compassion that is genuine and unfailing.
I’m sure that you know this, but just for your reference, gay and transgender are not the same.
Finally, as I am a person with no wisdom, I suggest that you read articles by accomplished lamas on the subject. Here is one that you might find of interest:

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 organising drug outreach programmes.

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