Academic Minute Podcast

Megan Bryson, University of Tennessee – Buddhism and Gender Fluidity

Gender fluidity may be part of the current zeitgeist, but it’s not a wholly new topic.

Megan Bryson, Lindsay Young associate professor of religious studies and chair of Asian studies at the University of Tennessee, examines one historical example.

Dr. Megan Bryson’s research focuses on gender and ethnicity in East Asian Buddhism. She has published the books Goddess on the Frontier: Religion, Ethnicity, and Gender in Southwest China (Stanford, 2017) and (with Kevin Buckelew) Buddhist Masculinities (Columbia 2023). Her work has also appeared in journals such as Asia Major and Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. At the University of Tennessee, she teaches courses on Asian religions, religious studies method and theory, and religion and nonprofit leadership.

Buddhism and Gender Fluidity

In the United States, discussions about religion and gender tend to focus on Christianity, but other religions offer additional ways of thinking about gender. One such religion is Buddhism, whose teachings on gender fluidity have taken on new meanings in recent years.

One example of Buddhist teachings on gender fluidity is the Lotus Sutra, one of the most popular Buddhist scriptures in East Asia. Its core message is that everyone, no matter their gender or status, has the potential to become a Buddha. This is an important message because earlier forms of Buddhism taught that only men with special physical characteristics could become Buddhas.

The Lotus Sutra conveys its message of universal Buddhahood in several stories that depict transformations between male and female bodies. For example, a dragon girl instantly transforms into the masculine body of a Buddha, proving that female bodies are not barriers to awakening. Elsewhere, the Lotus Sutra devotes a chapter to the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, known as Guanyin in Mandarin and Kannon in Japanese. Avalokiteshvara takes on male or female forms depending on the needs of the audience.

The Lotus Sutra has made Avalokiteshvara an inspiration and icon for transgender, gender-fluid and nonbinary people in and beyond East Asia. At Japan’s Shozenji Temple, the head nun, who is transgender, says, “Kannon Bodhisattva has no gender identity.” The Lotus Sutra may have been written in the third century, but it continues to shape views of gender today.

Read More:
[The Conversation] – The Lotus Sutra − an ancient Buddhist scripture from the 3rd century − continues to have relevance today
[Columbia University Press] – Buddhist Masculinities


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