We’re excited to share the first profile done in the form of an interview between trans*Buddhist community members. Much gratitude to Caitrìona and Kevin for this piece.
Caitrìona (Cait) Reed is the co-founder of Five Changes and Manzanita Village Retreat – www.fivechanges.com. She helps evolutionary leaders, conscious entrepreneurs, and spiritual and social creatives to discover and embody their full expression and visibility. She has led retreats and workshops internationally for three decades and has guided thousands of individuals to embody rapid change for long-lasting real-world results.
Originally from England, Caitrìona is a woman of transgendered experience. She notes, “I finally learned that we owe it to ourselves, and to everyone, to become fully and authentically visible. If we are to step into our role as an evolutionary leader and co-create the world that we are longing for, we must first become aligned with the truth of our own Soul-Being.”
Kevin Manders is a trans Buddhist, social service worker, vegan cyclist and has been sitting with DIY Dharma in Vancouver, BC for the last 8 years. He has been trying to immerse himself in Theravāda Buddhism and the Insight meditation tradition. He is presently working on a trans* Buddhist Anthology with Elizabeth Marston that should hopefully be released in the spring of 2017.
KM: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from? How do you identify?
CR: When I introduce myself publicly I say, “My name is Caitrìona Reed. I am a woman of transgendered experience … Which means that I know about big scary changes, and committed decisions.”
My work is informed by my understanding that everyone is challenged by change, by self-imposed limitation, and by the degree they can allow themselves to feel safe in the world. A lifetime of immersion in Buddhist practice and study has certainly left its mark, though I no longer describe myself as a ‘Buddhist’ teacher. I appreciate Buddhism most of all because of its implicit capacity to dispense with itself.
Together with my partner of more than thirty years, Michele Benzamin-Miki, we guide visionaries, healers, and leaders to navigate the human landscape. I draw from the greater syncretism of my life and experience in many fields, perhaps especially from my sensibility as a poet and artist.
I first came to the U.S. from England in 1980. I had trained for half a year in monasteries in Sri Lanka, and I was considering returning there. Then I met Joseph Goldstein in London in the spring of 1980, and decided to come to the U.S. for the annual three-month retreat in Barre, Massachusetts. I was aware that I was using Buddhist practice to numb the intensity of my desires, and to bury the painful confusion I had about my gender. When people ask me why I came to this country, I sometimes tell them, only half-joking, that I came here to change my sex. There was certainly a not-so-unconscious pull to come to a country because I imagined it was easier to be transgender.
In the spring of the following year I was invited to lead a retreat near Joshua Tree, at Ruth Denison’s center in the Mojave Desert. I have continued teaching retreats, in one form or another, ever since. In 1992, we founded our own center, Manzanita Village in the mountains of inland rural San Diego county.
KM: What brought you to Buddhist practice? What was it like to be authorized to teach by Thich Nhat Hahn? How long have you been a Zen teacher? Could you tell us a bit about your own personal Buddhist practice?
CR: Buddhism was a part of my teenage rebellion, and the general sense I always felt of not belonging .. in my family, in the boarding school where I was sent for 9 years, in the cultural climate I grew up in. In kindergarten someone had thrown a brick in my face because I was playing with the girls on the swings, rather than with the boys on top of the wall. It hadn’t been a conscious choice. I had just gone where I felt I belonged. Apparently that was not permissible. I still have a scar above my left eye.
As a teenager, I read Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, Lama Govinda. When I was 18 I visited Samye Ling monastery in Scotland, founded by Chogyam Trungpa and Akong Rimpoche. After dropping out of university I helped co-create a community in a remote valley in the French Alps. I spent a year there, burying my desire to show up in the world as a woman, by meditating and reading Milarepa, Alan Watts, and Ouspenski.
When I met Thich Nhat Hanh, I had already been teaching Vipassana for five years. We met at an interfaith retreat in Santa Barbara. I spoke to him about ‘graduating from Buddhism’. He liked the phrase, and he played off the idea for the rest of the retreat. It became a theme for my life. Then I finally ‘graduated’ from Buddhism, or perhaps I just realized that classification of that sort really doesn’t serve me.
A few years later, in Plum Village, in southern France, Thich Nhat Hanh gave me transmission as a teacher in his lineage. The ceremony took a day. It was formal, in the Vietnamese monastic style, elaborate and beautiful. Each of the half-dozen or so teachers-to-be delivered a short discourse based on verse riddle Thich Nhat Hanh had given each of us. I spoke about the Skylark, how it soars so high you imagine it’s going to leave the earth altogether.
At the beginning of the day someone had asked him, “Thây, when do you know that someone is ready to be a teacher?”
He replied, “When they’re happy.”
When I transitioned, a couple of years later, we ran into him the evening before a retreat we were helping organize. He saw Michele and recognized her, hugged her, then did a double-take before recognizing me. As he hugged me he smiled and said, “Ah, Ordinary Dharma!” Which was the name of our center.
A couple of days later he asked me to me sit up on the stage with him and hand him the questions people had written for him. It was a retreat of a couple of thousand people, and a very public acknowledgement from him that it was okay to be trans.
My curiosity, my tendency towards syncretism, towards assimilating and integrating things, was my way of graduating from Buddhism. I believe that there’s very little to ‘let go’ of, mostly it’s a question of simply seeing things in a different light. It always seemed to me that the idea of ‘letting go’, the notion of liberation, were often taught as a way of avoiding the challenges we face. We’re connected umbilically to everything that surrounds us, and to four-and-a-quarter billion year journey together. My inclination is to embrace it all.
In that spirit I am currently informed by the likes of Alfred Korzybski, Whitehead, the Marseille Tarot, Richard Bandler, the Western scientific tradition, as I am by Nargarjuna, Thich Nhat Hanh, or the Diamond Sutra.
KM: We have heard that you once led a trans* only retreat. Is that true? What was the experience like? We think that there would be benefit in having occasional trans* only retreats. Do you think that this might happen again?
CR: For several years we lead retreats for trans people. Actually, those retreats were open to anyone who ‘questioned the normative binary gender paradigm”. They were structured so that everyone was invited to facilitate a discussion, process, or activity. They were very participatory. We usually taught some mindfulness. Other than that, there was no specifically Buddhist flavor. Having a sanctuary like that available in the 90’s and early 2000’s was huge for a lot of people. I still hear from people who remember those retreats as significant turning points in their life. And yes, we’d certainly be open to doing those retreats again if there was a calling to do so.
I once won a prize at a business conference for having the most unique business description, “The only 100% queer friendly, actively transgender positive, meditation retreat center in the Universe.” I wonder if that’s still true.
KM: More and more trans* Buddhists have been struggling with, working on, and actively discussing their gender identities and the Buddhist concept of no-self with each other. What do you think about trans* identities and the concept of no-self?
CR: I find that the notion of “no-self”, especially as it often presented among first generation convert Buddhist communities to be misleading. The words Anatta, or Anatman, come from a very specific cultural and philosophical context, and would be better translated as “no separate self.”
The distinction is huge, and it’s distressing that so many people are mislead by such an obvious complication of a very simple teaching. It flips everyone back into the duality it’s supposedly trying to avoid. “No separate self” means everything is connected, everything is worthy of your attention, everything matters, everything counts. This confusion promotes disassociation, which is the problem that may westerners bring with them when they first come to the Dharma. From my perspective the way ‘no-self’ is often taught is a distortion of the Dharma, and is utterly at odds with the vitality of life, and the spirit kindness and generosity that I associate with Buddhism, and especially with the Asian Buddhist communities I’ve been fortunate to experience over the years.
I thought I could destroy my desires through practicing more. I did violence to myself, and my practice only deepened my commitment to be true to myself. There’s no right or wrong about being trans, obviously; nor, for that matter is there anything right or wrong about Buddhist teaching, except in the ways we understand it.
I like the Gnostic adage, “Truth is what is useful.”
KM: How does being a trans* woman affect your Buddhist practice? How does your Buddhist practice affect your being trans*?
CR: When I visited Ruth Denison in 1998, a year after I had transitioned, I told her that I seemed to be having a pretty easy time of it. She was quick to reply, in her rich German accent, “Of course daaaling! The Dhamma is taking care of you!” Aside from the unseen magic implicit in her answer, I could attribute the rest to the simple act of paying attention, and being considerate and kind to others. My old-fashioned mother accepted my transition only after I had fully absorbed the pain and confusion she was experiencing, and said to her one day, “This must be so hard for you.”
KM: As you know, there are Buddhist folks out there struggling with their gender identity and there are trans* folks out there struggling with their practice. Would you have any advice or suggestions for them?
CR: When I was younger I was painfully shy. One day, years ago, I arrived early to a party. There were two or three others hanging around the kitchen, silently. All of them were equally, painfully, shy. I couldn’t stand the tension. The discomfort was just too much for me. I started asking questions, finding out who they were. From that moment on, my shyness disappeared.
When I was transitioning, I once walked into a room full of strangers. As a tall and awkward transsexual, I soon realized that I was the one who held the advantage. I was the one people looked to, to make them feel safe – lest they make a faux pas, lest their anxiety get the better of them. So I learned, rather than waiting for others to tell me I was okay, to assume that I was fine, and then to do whatever I could to help them feel at ease. Asking other people about themselves is always a good start. Give them the benefit of the doubt, assume that they’re going to be basically okay with you.
If you choose to take other peoples’ ignorance or insensitivity as a personal affront, then there’s no end to the suffering you’ll cause yourself. If you can lessen other people’s anxiety, and help them feel safe, not only do you create safety for yourself, you add to the general wellbeing of the universe – basic instruction for any trans Bodhisattva in the making!
Also I learned that one of the key lessons in life is that our experience isn’t determined by what someone else is doing to you, it’s something you choose. You always have the option of giving new meaning to any situation, of seeing things in a new light. Isn’t that what Dharma practice is asking us to do? We might have to step outside our familiar comfort zone. We might have to begin to do our life differently. But isn’t that the point? As Joe Gebbie, the founder of Air B&B, said in his TED talk, “Turning fear into fun is the gift of creativity.”
And after all, isn’t being trans both one of the scariest, and one of the most fulfilling i.e. ‘fun’ things, any of us ever do.
Have fun. Refuse to be a victim.