In ACTIVISM by Kim Roberts8 Comments

I live a short drive away from what was, until recently, known as the sex-change capital of the world: Trinidad, Colorado. As more people explore the option to alter their biology, gender issues have surfaced in so many ways it’s hard to recognize certain facets of culture we used to take for granted. There is no longer a ladies room or a men’s room for that matter in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. My Indian friend was aghast to learn recently that her 18 year old daughter’s dorm at Princeton has co-ed shower rooms, with flimsy shower curtain separating her from the male students in the adjacent stall. At a program I recently taught at a university, I was instructed to refer to one particular student as they, despite appearing as a young woman, they did not identify as either male or female. So they was not a she, as I had assumed.

These cultural changes provide the backdrop for a larger issue coming to light: gender equality and specifically, women’s rights. Is it a coincidence that the gender issue is arising at same time as #metoo? It seems there are two issues: gender fluidity and gender equality. We seem to be asking collectively, what is gender? And how do we implement basic human rights, and authentic gender equality, in the face of its evolving nature?

Gender is a mental construct: From an ultimate perspective, it’s fantastic we are disposing with entrenched labels. From another, I wonder: are we simply creating new trenches? Labels are still mental constructs, even if they do replace worn-out ideas. HH 17th Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje notes:

“The social meaning of our biological differences is created by our ideas about gender that is, what gender means socially is determined by the mind, and not by the body. Masculine and feminine are fabricated identities that societies create, not nature.”

“Although gender constructs are mere concepts, we can see that they can be terribly powerful forces that shape our experiences and affect how we treat others.”

17th Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje

I think the most important question we can ask is not, how do women get equality in an era of patriarchy, but rather: What does an authentic, empowered masculine look like? Because if we keep insisting on equal rights for women based on a lopsided paradigm, we are going to end up in a different unbalanced situation, on the other side of the spectrum. It’s up to each of us to identify our inner masculine and feminine -something we contemplate in any tantric tradition- and develop a sane relationship to those energies. And this can’t be done on the sidewalks of Washington DC. As helpful as social activism can be, I think most of what confronts us as we untangle the knots of patriarchy is inner work.

Karmapa writes:

“When a problem is rooted in society’s habitual outlook and habitual thinking, then legislating change will have limited effect. After all, you cannot legislate a change in thinking.”

What does equality look like? 

It is long overdue for women’s rights, and safety, to be given the respect it deserves. But equal does not mean identical. Equality denotes balance, fairness, a portioning out of things so that everyone ends up with an advantage, no one with an advantage over another. But how can we assure fairness when each has our own karma?

Karmapa continues:

“Women’s rights have to do with respecting the value of human life and freedom. It has to do with acknowledging our shared humanity and the basic human bonds that link us.”

Obviously the biological roles of men and women differ, so it’s never quite made sense to me how we can be equal. What would make more sense is to aspire to treat each and every human being with an equal amount of kindness and respect.

Equality Or Ahimsa? As we evolve into more acceptance of gender fluidity, and more awareness of gender equality, it seems to me that what we need more than a tired concept of equality. The real issue at stake here is ahimsa. Kindness and acceptance, or at least a commitment not to cause harm. Equality has to do with ahimsa.

Gender Fluidity: It’s interesting that the vast majority of sex reassignments are male to female. From a darker perspective, you might take the gender fluidity we now insist upon as another attempt to appropriate the feminine. This darker view might see the patriarchy plotting against women as we stand up and demand justice from oppressors. As if saying: society accepts this shift in consciousness, then let’s attack the very foundation. Let’s deny the paradigm of femininity itself. We’ll kill mother nature at its root – denying the importance of our physiological roles, and so anyone who wants to can simply change their minds and decide to call themselves something different.

So when I hear about gender fluidity, and the pronoun they I have a hard time understanding. It seems pretty clear to me that if you have monthly periods and the ability to bear children, you are a woman. If you don’t have this possibility, then you are a man. Forgive me if this seems to black and white, but man and woman are different than masculine and feminine.

From a Meditation Viewpoint: Mind is neither male and female. All of my teachers have taught that both men and women have an equal opportunity to attain enlightenment. But Padmasambhava is recorded as saying that all other factors being equal, a woman is more likely to achieve enlightenment:

“The basis for realizing enlightenment is a human body. Male or female, there is no great difference. But if she develops the mind bent on enlightenment the woman’s body is better.”

This then begs the question: where are all the women teachers in Tibetan Buddhism? And how do we contextualize – and accept – the sexual escapades of male teachers? 
Tenzin Palmo asked her teacher Khamtrul Rinpoche why he thought there were not more female incarnations. He replied:

”My sister had more signs at the time of her birth than I did, and when she was arriving everybody said, ‘wow, this must be some really special being coming.’ but as soon as she was born, they said, ‘Oh, we made a mistake!’ You see, if she had been male, they immediately would have tried to find out who this child was, and he would have been given a very special kind of upbringing. Because she was only female, she was not given a chance. She had to marry and so on. This was the problem,that even if you came back as a female it would be very difficult to receive the kind of training and opportunities you could get as a male.”

Karmapa writes in his book, The Heart Is Noble:

“ I think a note of caution is in order here. Although there may be aspects of Buddhist teachings that can help us in thinking more wisely about gender issues, I want to warn you against looking to Buddhist societies to provide ideal examples of healthy gender constructs and practices. You should expect to come across things you do not want to adopt for yourself. Not everything in Buddhist institutions is perfect, and this is certainly the case when it comes to gender discrimination.”

I appreciate the openness and honesty of recent months, but where does this leave us? I have watched over and over the splitting of sanghas due to the misbehaviour of teachers. And yes, #metoo.

#metoo: I was groped by one of my yoga teachers, Pattabhi Jois. I did not speak up. Nor did any of the other many women I knew who he had touched inappropriately. Why did we remain silent? Because our voices had been cut off at an early age: the rule as a young lady is that you don’t cause conflict or confront injustice directly. I hope this movement of sharing can help us show up and educate men and women to be kind and decent human beings, so we can shift the tide to make respecting women and the power of the feminine the norm and not the exception.
Karmapa writes:

“If we continue to devalue what women have to offer, we will continue harming women and continue overlooking and devaluing these virtues that are considered feminine and these are precisely the virtues that the world needs most now.”

Letting go of identity: How do we as practitioners let go of fixation on identities while acknowledging this re-balancing of power. How do we say with a straight face that there is no gender, while supporting a woman’s right for basic human dignity and respect?  I understand the value in thinking about ourselves as human, rather than as men or women. But middle path is not neither. Middle path arises when we have 2 distinct polarities that play off of each other. If we lose the polarity, we lose the juice. Karmapa reminds us that gender constructs are nothing more than social fabrications.

Without attention to the details of our worldly experience, the fabric of our society may unravel. As practitioners our greatest contribution is to embody the wisdom of a larger view while embracing compassion as we meet each individual.

About the Author
Kim Roberts

Kim Roberts

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A graduate of Naropa University’s M.A. Contemplative Psychology program, Kim Roberts has been a devoted student of Ashtanga yoga and Dharma since 1992. She spent 15 years living in South Asia and now makes her home in Crestone, Colorado, where she is finishing her second book, Toward A Secret Sky: A Guide To The Art Of Modern Pilgrimage, to be released in Spring 2019. She also makes encaustic art. Learn more at or

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    There is a recent article in Scientific American summarizing the biological complexity of sex and gender. I tried to link to it, but it seems that the comments don’t allow links. The title of the article is “Stop using phony science to justify transphobia”

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    As a trans female whom also goes by “they” pronouns I’d like to say that I do not at all accept your narrow view & summation of what makes a man or woman or neither. Masculine, feminine, male, female – these are conceptual mind born constructs regardless of being psychical or mental as another commenter had pointed out as well.
    I respect your expression of opinion but absolutely do not respect or agree with your views themselves,

    Within Dzogchen it teaches that there enlightenment is of one, non dual taste. To distingush, categorize, critique & etc between ground & groundlessness is to stray from the practice of this non duality.

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    Thoughts produce action (choices) =karma=conditional thinking. Repeat process( samsara). Mindful of freedom in the equation or mindful of the body in the body.

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    Michael – et, te.

    Maybe getting my master’s ( dusty bachelor’s in nuerobehavioral psych from UIUC) won’t be as hard as I think it could be.

    I’m excited by the idea of an entirely disperate culture encountering Buddhist philosophy for the first time, and whether the Buddhist world can weather the onslaught of empirical facts, acknowledging that Science won’t matter for Shine-Ola if they don’t start with the Truth.

    No more stories of peace and love, when the monastery basements were armories, and the Kagyus and the Gelugs were chopping off each other’s hands in a war over the equivalent of Johnathan Swift’s big vs little egg-enders. No more women dying and being shunned into the wilderness as a loser in consort competition. They have to lose the proven superstitions, rather than try and acculturate.

    For example, is pre-orgasm the same as bliss pre-sneeze or pre-sleep? If so, then WTF are we not teaching our six-month-olds the pre-sneeze? All become enlightened about the time we send them off to public school, if this is true.

    And I do beleive it is, as expereinced, and that the male paradigm is clinging desperately onto sexual practices because those are so fun for them.

    Is world peace is just a password into the party? Is anyone really seeking Enlightenment?

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      Thank you Tess for your generous and informative comment. True, I did no research for this article. It is something that I ponder on a near-daily basis and wanted to explore/invite dialogue on how we might work with the issues that arise. Responding to Erik and Tara’s call for someone to tackle this issue, I thought I’d throw the ball in the court.

      I am not a scientist or a researcher. As an artist and psychotherapist my passion is in understanding how to dialogue about this gender issue. It coincides with my own experience of feeling marginalized/exploited as a woman throughout my life.

      I hear, “our culture being mesmerized by sex, sex, sex and the bizarre attitude we have about diversity,” and this is my question precisely: Why does it matter so much who is having sex with whom, and what gender they are? I’m not really sure why it is all such a big deal. Human rights would solve it all. Realization of the true nature might render the whole argument null and void.

      Forgive my omissions and (great) ignorance, and thank you for your kindness…I am trying to understand and make some sense.

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    The article begins with a premise that is a medical basis; this is the difference between healing and fixing. People as living things heal. Toasters as mechanisms are fixed.

    Organic is not mechanical. Organics cannot be pulled apart into pieces successfully and have those pieces remain as the form and function when part of the web that is the living that arose from the interdependent web of life.

    Toasters have parts that are hooked together. A switch, thermostat, heating coil or lever each remain as that part that was separately assembled to be such and remain such wherever installed. An arm, kidney, watershed, uprooted tree are organic, and become compost the moment they are disconnected.

    Consider the Subject /Object positioning. People are deciding to more outwardly display the relationship they have with their own identities as other than the visibly dominate primary and secondary sexual traits as transgender. This is introduced in the article with a description that reads, “As more people explore the option to alter their biology…”

    People are not having gills created to breathe underwater. Nor are they altering their biology by gender reassignment. Black/white thinking of manufacturing gender is not what is happening here.

    What is happening is people finding more socially freeing self expression by relieving themselves of a social stigma in what could be described as sort of a medically benign birth defect. Something that should have sent the ancient argumentation for karma back to the garage for a 100-thousand mile check up.

    In “Principles of Transgender Medicine and Surgery” ( R. Etteniner and A. Guillamon) a medical text book there is a chapter entitled, ” Etiology of Transgender Identity” is available to read in Google books ( ).

    It discusses the prenatal and neonatal effects of hormonal exposure on the organizing factor of the developing fetus and newborn. At every level, in every organ for every process in all systems these hormones are about core identity, not just gender and sex. The brain – everything from mass to neural structure and function – are affected.

    This only makes sense, when one considers that sexually dimorphic characteristics include the adam’s apple in the male and the splaying of forearms below the elbows to accommodate wider hips in the female. Nothing about these aspects in and of themselves are sexual, but the assignment of these forms and functions are sexually specific to gender.

    The article has ignored a third aspect of sexuality, most likely as an aberration of our culture being mesmerized by sex, sex, sex and the bizarre attitude we have about diversity, mostly atrributable to a patriarchal society’s only willing to authenticate the male gaze, IMHO. Diversity is Nature’s actual preference. Nature loves diversity and is always throwing its creations into the mix, as new ares of study such as cross-species epigenetics imprinting is demonstrating.

    From “Principles” page 10:

    “… morphological differences in transgender individuals primarily involve the right hemisphere of the brain.”

    “The significance of the right hemisphere is salient in that one’s perceptual experience of the body and the body phenomenology emanates from parietal and insular networks located in the right hemisphere. Longo, Azanon, and Haggard (2010) anchor the right hemisphere to higher somatosensative cognitive processes. One such somatic process is ‘somatorepresentation’. This refers to the abstract construction of

    “: semantic knowledge and attitudes about the body, including: lexical semantic knowledge of bodies in general, and one’s own body specially, configural knowledge about the structure of bodies, emotions and attitudes towards one’s own body, and the link between the physical body and the physiological self.”

    The options available are not altering biology so much as bringing it into alignment. Enlightened wisdom and compassion as Method and Wisdom is all that is required from the rest of us. We must 1) watch our minds and our mouths 2) read/listen, contemplate, and meditate 3) think before we speak.

    So when I read, “What does an authentic, empowered masculine look like? ” as the answer to finding our way through the ancient power paradigm imbalance of patriarchy – yes, even in the Karmpa’s worldview – all I can say of it is, “Still waiting for bhikkhuni’s ordination here, Your Holiness. It’s been over 2,000 years.”

    When I further read the Karmpa says, “If we continue to devalue what women have to offer, we will continue harming women and continue overlooking and devaluing these virtues that are considered feminine and these are precisely the virtues that the world needs most now.”

    Well, I choke on my tea but turn my head away from my keyboard in time to avoid a classic spit take all over the electronics.

    At the heart of the matter for a Buddhist is not taking in more than an assay can prove. The backstory to me in this article is people struggling with duality of appearances and reconciling that with the nonduality as arising from Emptiness as not yet a Realized being.

    The power structures have it all wrong. Because. They are power structures. This includes most of organized Buddhism, but also Christianity, Muslimism, you name it any religion.

    Men love power. Men may not be built to love Love like they love power, and thus the construct to contain the Magic that is the promise of Buddha by his reasoning his way passed cognition, if you know what I mean. (Nod, nod. Wink, wink. – Monty Python).

    Both Padmasambhava and Tsong Kapa both said that women are a serious matter when it comes to Enlightenment, not because they are harlots and nymphomaniacs, nor are they the intellectual equivalence of cows (#malegazething), but because they have maternal instinct, to put it bluntly. Male Buddhists have spent eons wanting to appropriate that, as acquiring the ultimate power trip and subjugation. Envy is the father of Compassion and the mother of Equanimity.

    This article is about still unresolved completion practice for Tibetan Buddhist practitioners for the most part. I base that on my locating references suitable for explaining the physiology and nature of transgender as being prenatal/neonatal in origin in less than a minute. I am a retired sixty-something, who has not cracked a physiology text in 35 years. I do occasionally read the new if it isn’t too silly with human-made foibles. But, yes, I negated the object and then looked at what remained to draw this conclusion.

    What this explains to me is that no one really tried to research before they wrote, besides copy/pasting some generic pull-quotes from the Karmpa – who, I acknowledge – is a pretty good guy at heart.

    He is caught like the rest of us in the gears of the single-leader mostly-male administrative behemoth that is the existing structure of Buddhists’ container for knowledge and practice. It is kind of him to remain in samsara/nirvana to try and boost a few of us over that wall of sorrow, which is of our own making and actually not there as such because we can tear it down as easily as we built it. That man is a master at the display of charades.

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    I will address just one point in this confusing article. It seems that the author wishes to find in “biology” some easy categories and unambiguous certainty. This is not an unusual wish held by people who are not biologists, but as a neurobiologist I can tell you with great certainty, that all categories, biological or otherwise, are cognitive constructs. As a Buddhist, and separately as a psychotherapist, I could tell you the same, but I answer you as a scientist because you call upon science as an authority.

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      Thanks for your comment and clarification. I knew I was getting myself into deep waters with this article, but I wanted to open the dialogue in this rich community. I feel this is an issue of our era and that we all have to define how it fits into our evolving reality. Scientists, Buddhists and psychotherapists needed.

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