By Cheryl Costa
A Burmese monk friend and colleague frequently used to introduce me in a very special way: “This is my brother; she is a Tibetan tradition nun.”
Are you confused? Sit back and allow me to share a very unique spiritual journey.
I am a trans-person. That means my legal and social gender presentation are different from what it was I was assigned at birth.
For many people the first questions I’m usually asked amounts to “What’s between your legs?” or “What does it say on your birth certificate?” With regard to my birth certificate my answer is usually: “Which one? I have three of them!” In terms of what’s between my legs, that’s between me, my doctor and my spouse. We call this question the proverbial “Panty Check.”
Most transpersons get asked this invasive question by bosses, co-workers and even their faith community. Let’s call it a matter of medical privacy.
Like many trans-persons, I knew I was miscast in my gender from an early age—say four-ish. In my teen years in the mid-1960s, the spiritual being behind this mask of flesh was at conflict and war with the image he saw in the mirror every morning. After a shower, I would look at the foggy full length and mumble something to the effect, “That’s not right!” Hence the classic medical term, that those like me were saddled with, Gender Dysphoria.
As a teenager, I was quite the library nerd and I searched the stacks for answers. By my junior year in high school I was more conversant on the topic than most counselors and many therapists.
At 17, I left the faith of my upbringing; Catholicism clearly had no place for someone like me. It was in the Air Force, while serving in Vietnam, that I touched shamanic thinking via some Native American airmen I worked with. For the next 25 years, the shamanic path resonated with me and it made me flower in ways I can’t put into words. It was my shamanic path that gave me the strength and insight to get through the five year process that was my gender change in the late 1980s.
All of this said, there was still a problem. In the early 1990s there were still unanswered questions that my shamanic training couldn’t really answer. I consulted a seasoned medicine person who remarked, “So you took a white man’s solution to a spiritual problem?” He floored me with this statement. Then he used a term I hadn’t heard before, he referred to me as a two-souls. At his recommendation, I shifted my spiritual contemplation efforts toward exploring what it was I was at my core being level.
In 1994, out of the blue, I was invited to a private gathering of two-souls in the high desert of New Mexico. There were 16 of us and we did powerful exploration ceremonies and collectively got our spiritual butts kicked.
I spent the next two years in a working retreat. That is, I went to my corporate job daily but retreated to the solitude of my apartment afterwards. I contemplated and meditated on the complex things that happened to me in the desert. During the course of it, I found myself doodling in a sketch book that I dedicated to this inner search.
Strange things came out in artistic form. There were things that I didn’t understand and things that seemingly had immediate meaning to me. There were symbols and drawings of places I had never been to. Shamanic training taught me to follow my nose.
About two years later, a college acquaintance visited me. We discussed my profound event in the desert. When I showed her my sketch book she laughed with delight as she thumbed through the two years’ worth of nocturnal drawing. My friend has a degree in comparative religion, and when I asked her what she thought it all meant, she remarked that it was Tibetan Buddhism.
I had heard of Tibet and I had heard of Buddhism but I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. She grabbed a yellow pages and we rode around the regional Washington, D.C. area looking at temples and shrines for two days. On the second day, we visited a Tibetan temple in the Maryland suburbs. As we drove up the drive way, I asked her to stop. I thumbed through my book and there amongst the pages was a rough sketch of a building that closely resembled the temple.
Inside I visited with American monks and nuns. They looked at my sketch book and all the Tibetan symbology inside. A senior nun indicated that this sort of thing happens from time to time and that perhaps I should speak with a Lama teacher when he visits in about six months.
For the next six months I volunteered in the temple’s kitchen on Sunday mornings. My shamanic training had taught me that feeding the students was an honorable thing to do. For the next five months, I was among them but I really didn’t feel like I was one of them.
Sure, I went to Dharma 101 classes, Tsog ceremonies and every manner of event that they had. But at the end of five months, everyone was content to let me work in the kitchen. I was never invited to their tables to eat; I was never invited to be part of them. I had come to the conclusion I was being shunned, even by the obviously Gay and Lesbians.
Finally, I just stopped going there. The dharma sang to me but the fact of the matter was I couldn’t stand these Buddhists as far as I could throw them!
About a month after I made myself scarce, the senior monk who supervised the kitchen called me at home. The visiting lama was in town and the monk pleaded with me to come and make Hors d’oeuvres; something I had a knack for. I figured, okay, one last time.
There were hundreds of people there to see the lama. This guy was like a visiting rock star. Another kitchen help person, Lynn, a good Jewish-Wiccan lady and I figured we would never catch sight of him, let alone meet him, as we were cloistered in the kitchen prep area.
To our surprise, all of the kitchen help in our very messy aprons were ushered out to see the lama as he and his entourage made the last hand shake rounds.
When he shook hands with me, he got a surprised look on his face and moved close to me and remarked, “I know you.” He shook hands with Lynn and made a similar comment. Then he looked to his monk entourage, “I know these two, they’re friends lifetime after lifetime.” He turned and bowed slightly, “Nice to see you again.” With that he toddled off with most of his monks.
An older American monk leaned into us and commented, “I’ve known him 15 years, he plays it close to his chest. I’ve only seen him do that once before. I’d advise you to get on his calendar and go see him.”
Both Lynn and I were honestly rattled. Yes, sure I believed in reincarnation, but for both of us this was the first time either of us had reincarnation presented to us in a technical sense.
My 10 minute appointment with the lama stretched into over an hour. He was light and jovial and amused by the Tibetan script scrawled in the margins of my doodling.
He asked what I practiced for spirituality in this life, and I told him shamanism. He grinned, “Still doing the yogi stuff?” I must have looked puzzled, he asked me if I was good at it and I answered in the affirmative. “Did you think you learned it all in this life time?” He replied. This guy knew me! He knew me—the being behind this mask of flesh.
About a month later, I was called by one of his aids and requested to attend a private ceremony. In the lama’s cottage, there were eight of us; six men plus Lynn and me. That evening we were given the vows of the Ngakpa and Ngakma.
In Tibetan Buddhism and Bon, a Ngakpa (male) Ngakma (female) is a person who has received mantrayana vows. The concept is a devotion to life practices based on the Buddhist tantric path. In the Nyingma tradition these folks wear burgundy and white ceremonial robes. Are they lay monastics? Yes and no. That’s a talk for another time, but Ngak Phong do hold reciprocal privileges to wear monastic robes. It requires a haircut and the local lama’s permission.
The Ngak Phong ordination ceremony that the visiting lama conducted didn’t set well with the local temple community and in particular the local American lama or the monastic community. While they took great pride in being Nyingmapa tradition, they weren’t enthusiastic about embracing the Ngak Phong aspect.
The result of the political backlash was that the four of us from the local sangha weren’t permitted to wear our Ngak Phong robes at the temple.
*Look for Part 2 soon
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.
Editor: Dana Gornall