Zen craves the truth. We practice to know our original nature—to reconcile ourselves with the absolute. We hold in our hearts the image of our ideal self, the potentiality of our higher truth. Once inside of this truth, we imagine, we are free to drop our defenses. Irreversibly extant, our egos unbutton their collars. Our souls ease up a bit. More flexible and receptive, our hearts grow soft. We give our small minds over to this sacred moment and surrender to big mind’s truth. Spiritual practice serves this universal yearning. In order to reach this nirvana, we sit.
Samadhi, acting as our Charon, ferries our rational minds across the river of suffering, over the shores of non-duality, and into the land of Enlightenment. Absorbed in concentration, our awareness broadens. Body and mind drop away. Supported by Samadhi’s egoless embrace, we drop the agonizing separation between self and other. The alienating chasm between ourselves and the world falls. Existing as only the pure energy of existence, our soul’s authentic expression is complete. Para sam gate, bodhi svaha.
For those born into marginalized bodies or minority identities, this non-dualistic state may sound particularly sweet. Oppression’s brittle infrastructure is deeply dualistic. The subjugator draws one line in the sand: Us and Them. When those invested with power codify those without it, identities become narrow, rigid, and stuck. Labels of otherness coil around our muscles, clutching at bone. The weight of trauma sits heavy and recalcitrant. It’s only with painstaking effort and the perfect conditions that these labels may one day unstick.
As a gender non-conforming person with no clear container for my identity, I quickly succumbed to the presuppositions of others. I let prolonged stares creep into my consciousness, whispers and epithets gnaw at my core. Thoughts became a vociferous oration on the ways I was hated, unwelcome and unloved because of who I was. As oppression tangled its way into my life, I turned to spiritual practice as an end route to my misery. I craved the sandy shores of acceptance, the relief of non-dualistic truth.
Beyond the confines of fixed view I thought I would find peace. I blamed society’s binaries for my suffering, scorned its tidy boxes into which I could never fit. If only I could reach a world beyond opposing pairs, I could relax and be myself. No more black versus white, or true versus false; no more woman versus man. In Samadhi, I would know my real gender, the real me. With body and mind dropped away, I would find my true nature. Then I would know whether to medically transition to male so others would see me as more of myself. My life would all make sense.
In the monastic setting where I came to practice, I anticipated sinking further into a relaxed, steady, non-dualistic Me. Meditating apart from society, nestled deep in the woods, I waited for truth to descend. Binary judgments, I reasoned, were responsible for what was wrong with the world. I resolved to surpass them.
I waited and waited on my cushion, but instead of authentic transcendence, mostly I was visited by images of escape. Breaking through brick walls, punching through locked doors. Unzipping myself out of my own skin. But I could not tell if I was trying to escape my body, or simply the pain I was in.
After several months of practice, I eventually experienced some deeply concentrated states. But the truth was not waiting for me when I arrived there. What I found, instead, was nothing at all. Just an emotionless stillness. A vacant, empty peace. It was not a lie and it was not the truth. No personality. No gender. It was just blankness; the inside of a gaping hole. And after the bell rang and the period ended, relative consciousness rushed right back in.
After my Samadhi ended, the old oppressive power structures remained. Once more vigilant of my difference, my suffering stayed. In trying to escape the pain of being different, I realized I had forsaken dual reality for a non-dualistic myth. I had abandoned my real life. In trying to escape binary oppositions, I was only making more of them. In attempting to transcend this relative world, I had recreated the same problem from which I wanted to escape.
I no longer anticipate the samadhic unveiling of a non-dualistic Utopia. Now I simply sit to quit running away. Instead of sitting to solve my life, I now sit to witness it. Instead of sitting my way out of dualism, I now sit to notice it. I see the chaos of my own judgments, my own quietly clenched dualistic beliefs. I learn to turn the mirror around. I see my prejudice, distortion and hate. I sit to untwist the brittle knots of my conditioning. I hope others may do the same.
Zen teacher Mel Weitsman writes, “The purpose of Zen meditation is to allow us to see clearly, to see things as they really are—not through the eyes of partiality, or bias, or out of the corner of the eye. It’s difficult, because we have to accept everything the way it really is.” To engage in meditation is to practice patience with reality and its slow rate of change.
My blind spots will always remain. I now see how spiritual bypass can creep its way into even the most earnest practice. Attempting to transcend ideology is still, after all, an ideology. To miss this is to become dangerously vulnerable to evasion and a thick Zen sickness.
In the middle of this mess, however, there is still hope. We can sit down and get to work by training our attention. We can sit with our eyes open. We can collide bravely with our own subtle preferences we so work hard to keep underground. “We are not doing anything with our bodies in zazen,” notes Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. “We are just listening to them.” We can feel the chaos instead of running away.
I have yet to land comfortably inside the male/female binary; nor have I discovered a stable non-binary gender. I now see the added misery of making myself pick between the two. I have found no one way to reconcile this body I did not choose. I have found no right way to be a woman, no one way to be a man. I now seek to accept, and celebrate, this dissonance.
I hope to stop creating binaries for my gender and be kind to my body’s dysphoria. To yearn for the absolute of any identity is to ignore the work right here. Inconsistencies are endless. To prefer non-duality is to cling to another absolute. To turn away from our anomalies is to miss our fragile truth.
“Our Buddha nature is not some ideal that we have to live up to,” writes Pema Chodron. “It’s who we are right now. It’s who we are right now, and that’s what we can make friends with a celebrate.” I seek to accept this reality as broken, just as we all are. Just like this.
Jey writes about gender and Buddhist practice, and currently lives at San Francisco Zen Center. More of Jey’s writings can be found online at Elephant Journal, Decolonizing Yoga, and Turning Wheel Media.