By Cheryl Costa
A few months after my Ngak Phong ordination I decided to exercise the reciprocal privileges that permitted Ngak Phong to assume a temporary monastic posture.
I requested permission to assume a temporary monastic posture (burgundy and yellow robes). In preparation I asked for an initial set of monastic robes, a shemdap skirt, a shirt and a zhen, from the lead monk who was in charge of such things.
His response was, “No,” even though he happily issued robe elements to the other novices. I was never sure what his problem was, though I did hear later that he didn’t have a very high opinion of me for whatever reason.
Surprisingly, the local American Lama granted me permission to exercise the reciprocal privileges and assume the monastic posture. Of course the catch was that the temple’s monastics weren’t disposed to issue me any robes.
I’ve worked many years in Community Theater and knew my way around a sewing shop. With a few photos and some instinct I made a set of robes. My first appearance at the temple in these robes caused some degree of upset with several of the senior monastics. I had no idea this would be the case. Call me naive but I never quite understood what the deal was.
On the other hand, a number of the nuns liked the style and workmanship of my robes and wanted to know where I bought them. They were shocked when I explained I had made them. Over the next year, half dozen monastics asked me to tailor various robe elements for them.
I asked for permission to live at the monastic community but I was told there was no room. When another nun moved out and went to a Buddhist center in another state, I asked after if I could take residence in her old quarters. Again the answer was, “No.” Sometime later a monk who lived in a yurt on the temple lands, moved out of state as well. I earnestly requested permission to move into the yurt and assume the duties that went with it, yet again the answer was, “No.”
Amazingly, monastic posture resonated with me; it fit like a comfortable favorite pair of slippers. Interestingly a year later when I requested genyen vows which was the next set up of temporary vows, I did not foresee the things my humble request would set in motion.
All the novices and I were requested to attend an ordination screening board. As we sat in a waiting room, I watched one monk come out with a big smile on his face. I saw a nun come out with a smile on her face. Another nun came out sobbing and stormed out. Finally it was my turn.
There were four monastics each sitting in lotus position. There was a mediation pillow about ten feet in front of them, someone gestured to me to take a seat. The lead monk did most the talking. He began by asking why I wanted to be ordained. My answer was simple, “I wanted to deepen connection to the dharma.” There were a few other dharma related questions, and then it got messy.
The senior monk remarked to me, “We think you are confused with regards to your gender. We don’t think you know what you are.”
Despite the serious nature of the monastic screening interview, I was amused and a bit annoyed. I could only answer, “I know what I am, and you don’t know what I am! Therein lays the problem. I’ve been around here nearly two years and wearing robes for nearly a year yet not one of the 34 monastics have bothered to sit down with me and engage me in a deep conversation about this.”
One of the nuns spoke up, “We were trying to respect your space.” I replied, “Where’s the respect for me, if in your ignorance of my situation, you turn around and make it an issue in my ordination screening?”
They dropped the topic.
The rest of the discussion centered on what I’ll call an issue of local politics that smacked of cult overtones. The bottom line was they were deeply concerned that I wasn’t showing avowed loyalty to the local American lama; suggesting that this person had first rights to be my root teacher.
In all my reading, my understanding was that your relationship with your root teacher was a unique and deeply personal one. I pointed out that our visiting teacher lama was my root guru; after all he picked me out of a crowd of nearly two hundred people and said he knew me, later explaining past life connections.
As well, he had long deep talks with me every time he has visited the local temple. Furthermore I pointed out that in nearly two years, the local lama had turned down over a dozen requests for a personal audience. “Explain to me how that constitutes a deep abiding connection?”
This was clearly wasn’t what they wanted to hear. I told in no uncertain terms I was formally rejected and told I wasn’t recommended to ordination. I maintained my composure and left the meeting, got in my car and drove home. During the nearly hour drive I decided to cut my losses and walk away.
Upon arriving home I changed into my lay clothing and that was that. In fact I went to a weekly sweat lodge a Native American friend of mine hosted a couple of times a month. I used the ceremony of the deep sweat to cleanse myself of all the sticky issues that had arisen during the nearly four year spiritual walk-about.
I accepted my situation; I released my attachment to becoming a Buddhist monastic. I simply asked Spirit to show me the way.
Several weeks later, about a week before the ordination date, a senior nun called me and asked after my well-being and why I had disappeared. I indicated the obvious—my ordination board rejection. “Do you still want to be a monastic?” she asked. I told her yes but I reaffirmed that I had been rejected. “You didn’t hear this from me, but you can appeal to a higher authority outside the local hierarchy if you still wish ordination.”
She explained to me that two others were rejected besides me for various reasons; one of them had appealed and was granted permission. She explained how to go about it and pointed out that I would need certain robe elements.
I explained that I had already made them because I assumed the local temple wouldn’t provide them to me. She was intrigued by this level of preparation and commitment.
The day before ordination, the head of the Palyul lineage at that time, was visiting and in residence. My lama was traveling with him as his translator; I sought him out and told him I had been rejected by the local board. He indicated he knew and wasn’t happy about it or their reasoning.
He asked me three questions:
If Holiness ordains you a boy is that okay? I said, “Yes”
If Holiness ordains you a girl is that okay? I said, “Yes”
If Holiness decides to not ordain you, is that okay? I said, “Sure, I can reassume my Ngakmo posture.”
He smiled, told me to get a haircut and show up at 6 a.m. I attempted to get a haircut with the monks but they turned me away. The lead monk stated that I had been rejected.
I drove over to the nun residence and asked if I could get a haircut with them. They were surprised as well since they all knew I have been rejected. The senior nun who had called me and suggested that I appeal, suggested to them something bigger was happening. I was allowed to join the ceremonial haircut party.
The next morning I showed up. His Holiness looked into my eyes and ordained me a nun and named me Moon Tara.
About an hour after nine of us had been ordained, an junior Genyen nun asked me, “So I suppose Holiness ordained you as a monk?”
I replied I had been ordained a nun.
She had a shocked look on her face and remarked, “…can’t he see what you are?”
I found myself biting my tongue trying to not spoil the glow of having been just ordained by the head of the Palyul tradition. After a moment I found the words, “Perhaps your obscurations prevent you from seeing what holiness sees in my essence.”
The nun got a disgusted look on her face and stormed out of the foyer. This incident was the logical punctuation to over a year’s worth of the controversy that led up to my ordination. Ultimately, the monks wouldn’t take me into their residence and the nuns wouldn’t take into theirs.
I consulted with my lama; he wasn’t pleased about the internal politics locally. He gave me permission to live elsewhere and assigned me to the task of starting a small center in the Maryland suburbs. A few years later I started and ran a center in upstate New York and was the Buddhist chaplain for four regional hospitals.
Lastly, I did get to live with other monastics, while in the DC area; some Burmese monks I knew invited me to live with them. Of course with them being Theravada and me being Mahayana, we had some interesting debates during evening meals.
The Vinaya was given to us by Buddha as a code of conduct for monks and nuns to observe. It defines who’s qualified to be a monastic, how to become a monastic and it provides regulations for living as a monastic and for certain special circumstances.
A lesser known point: the Vinaya allows a monk or nun to change genders up to three times within one life time.
Think of this as a social gender change only, not in terms of a modern western medical sex change. A monastic need only declare that they are the other gender and they are; likewise the sangha should treat that being appropriately related to that gender declaration.
All monastic vows unique to a specific gender will automatically transmute to the new gender presentation.
While the practice was condoned and understood by the Buddha, monastic and lay sanghas have been less understanding; illuminating the point that we are all still just students working toward our pure view.
I know of at least five trans-person who became monastics in the years following my ordination. All of them report less than equal treatment in their Buddhist communities.
Epilogue: I left monastic posture in late 2004 and returned to Ngakma posture, but that is another story.
Cheryl Costa is a Syracuse, NY resident and a native of Corning, NY. She’s a veteran of two military services and retired from Lockheed Martin. She’s a published playwright , mystery writer and current pens the weekly newspaper column: New York Skies for the SyracuseNewTimes.com.
Photo: Roy Zipsetin/500px
Editor: Dana Gornall