For about 4 or more years, I was dedicated to becoming a priest in a particular Pure Land tradition of Buddhism. In the Summer of 2020, I was invited to become an ordained member of a Buddhist order. However, I stopped short of the goal when I found that the head of the order at the time was not affirming to trans people such as myself.
It started when I messaged him about being nonbinary and that my pronouns at the time were they/them. His response was far from accepting, particularly when he refused to use my pronouns. I then had another conversation with the deputy head of the order which was not encouraging as she spoke of not wanting to encourage something that was an illusion. In the midst of this, I also told some close friends in the order about my experience with the head and one of them reached out to him. Soon an conflict ignited that brought up other issues within the community, resulting in members leaving the order.
After some careful thought, I wrote to the deputy head and declined the order’s invitation to ordain me as I no longer saw the community as a safe place for trans people. I left the community within weeks of ordination, heartbroken. Since then, I’ve tried to get back to practice and that has not been easy. I realized that much of my practice was tied to a sense priestly duty that I hadn’t really been conscious of before. Without it, I found little reason to perform the rituals, particularly because many of those rituals were connected to a community to which I no longer associate with. Now, I’m floundering to do something that once felt natural. The consequence of spiritual malpractice among those called teachers is a pain that is hard to describe.
My transition has also changed my views on ordination. The person who wanted to be a priest died when I put down the old mask of forced masculinity. Now, I just want to go hiking, play video games, wear makeup, and live. However, my training gave me skills. I still love to read scripture. I also still feel an urge to reach out to anyone who might be struggling on their own path, even if it’s just to be there for them and listen.
I remember that the early lay community of Buddhists was just as involved in ministry as the monastics. In fact, the Buddha said that it was beneficial for lay folks to befriend other lay folks and learn from them. They didn’t need to have a priestly or monastic position. The Buddha called all beneficial spiritual relationships admirable friendship, a term that was applied to both monastics and laity. A person took on such relationships are known as a kalyanamitra or admirable friend.
I’m not sure how admirable I am but I do like to try to be a friend to the extent that I can. Although my dreams of priesthood are gone, I still have a ministry. Slowly, I’m getting back to it.
I’m glad that at least I have an affinity to a “simple” practice and grateful that Buddha is not bound by human form unlike some very human teachers. Buddha’s body is the Dharma and, though it’s hard to meet sometimes, it takes form in light, wind, and the emptiness from which all things arise and to which all things fall. It’s like trying to find a particular flower and then, once spotted, you find that flower everywhere in the field.
Not only does Buddha take form in the phenomena of nature but also the phenomena of friendship. In fact, I have a circle of comrades who recognize my achievements and vouch for my ministry. One of them, a former member of the order, gave me my religious name, Karunamala (Garland of Compassion). I also have many non-Buddhist and non-religious friends who have been a wonderful source of support. Inside and outside the tradition, I’ve been blessed to know wonderful beings who show me that kindness is still powerful in a world that can be rather unkind.
They are among the most beautiful of flowers.
Faran Lee Elowyn is a trans nonbinary femme (they/she) and a Pure Land Buddhist minister whose ministry includes nembutsu, meditation, and spiritual support. They are a member of the Amitabha Fellowship group of Buddhist leaders, they’ve completed Champlaincy training at Amida Academy, and became a recently enrolled graduate student in Strategic Communications at the University of Maryland Global Campus.