The Kybalion, a text on hermetic philosophy, says that "all paradoxes can be reconciled."
Tashi Choedup, a trans-feminine Buddhist nunk, embodies this hermetic precept. It is at the intersection of queerness and faith — often argued to be in contradiction to each other — that Tashi Choedup has found solace and identity. Tashi tells us that their privilege has played an essential role in their journey so far. This is because it has given them the resources to live this life, at least in part.
Tashi engaged with faith primarily to escape the world when they realized it was a means of safety. So, at a tender age, they devoted themselves to faith, prayers, and meditation. Being born and raised in an oppressive Savarna system that privileged piety, this mode of escape worked and was unquestioned. And as Tashi grew older, so did their spirituality. In time, they realized that faith could offer more than just solace. What was initially a means of escape soon evolved into an intimate relationship with the self, others, and the world.
Tashi has always been receptive to learning from other religions. Born and brought up in an upper-class Hindu family, they were raised Hindu. Later, they came across a disciple of Christ and were introduced to Christianity. While they were traveling with their Christian guide, Tashi eventually encountered Buddhist teachings. They became a Buddhist nun upon finding immediate resonance with the Buddhist dhamma and have been practicing the faith ever since.
On reconciling faith with queerness, Tashi clarifies how, even as a child, they were audacious enough to believe that choosing one’s faith was a birthright and not a luxury. This allowed Tashi to build a relationship with their faith independent of their queerness. And interestingly, Tashi confidently attributes the source of this courage to their queerness. The courage that comes from being queer proved to be their guiding light for personalizing their faith.
I am the only authority on my faith. Nobody else is. My teachers and mentors, of course, can be the guiding light, but how I engage with my faith, what it means to me, what I make out of it, and what it communicates with me — that’s my relationship, and no one else can dictate it.
Something else that has helped Tashi in reconciling faith & queerness is the clear distinction they maintain between religion and faith. Explaining the difference between the two, Tashi tells us that their faith transcends religion.
When asked about their experience of expressing queerness in monastic circles, Tashi lets out a knowing laugh, and describes it as tricky, often challenging, yet mostly relieving.
They share an unconventional and altogether surprising insight: although Buddhism is lauded for being a progressive, liberal, logical, rational, and faith-based community, it also exists in a world that is inherently patriarchal. Hence, even Buddhism is not free from the limiting flaws of misogyny. However, the redeeming part is that Buddhist philosophy has plenty of room for dialogue or debate. For Tashi, that has made all the difference because as long as there is room for conversation, there is room for hope that things may change for the better.
The script changes when Tashi discusses faith in queer spaces.
Given the time-immemorial exclusion of queerness from society, many queers have a huge appetite to belong. They too are social creatures and long to establish roots. But when one is constantly made to believe that they don’t belong, one also tends to internalize that sense of dynamic displacement as a natural state of being. Tashi draws our attention to the self-abandonment that is commonly experienced by the queer community.
Tashi says that to be at home with yourself is to experience safety, joy, and peace in your body, regardless of one’s environment. Once you love yourself from within, you can extend the same to those around you, they add.
Not feeling at home in your skin, and not finding your place in society is quite an uncomfortable experience. And Tashi has been no exception to these experiences. The Buddhist religion, however, helped them discover a home that had always existed within them. The philosophy taught them, time and again, that no matter where one lives, one cannot truly experience belonging until one finds a home in their mind and body. The practice of meditation, compassion, kindness, and community work taught Tashi the ways to unlearn this inheritance of self-denial.
Commitment to monasticism requires a lifelong vow of celibacy. However, Tashi says that the vow does not need to exclude intimate experiences. Tashi touches upon a radical idea that allows us to rethink intimacy as an experience that is not always connected to sexual interaction. Sex is a source of intimacy but it is not the only source of intimacy, they explain. They have experienced and continue to experience intimacy with their non-biological family, with their teachers, their friendships, and communities in abundance despite abstaining from sexual activity.
Learning how to be with yourself without a self-deprecating attitude takes time, effort, self-awareness, and commitment. However, Tashi emphasizes that what has worked for them may not work for others, but eventually something will.
Tashi is a transperson who actively works for the trans community. Therefore, they are not alien to either the daily violence faced by their community or the state’s systematic lack of protection. Being compassionate is not an easy thing, especially when you have generational and systemic reasons to be angry.
Many transpeople that I have met across the spectrum are extremely compassionate - not simply because it is easy, or is backed by a higher philosophy, or means of survival, but because, as transpeople, we know what it means to suffer. We know what it means to be rejected, to be ostracized, to be looked down upon, and ill-treated for no reason other than that we are trans.
They share that it becomes easier when we stop reducing a person to any single trait or action. When they encounter a transphobic person, they remind themselves that this is a human with a complex inner life. Apart from being transphobic, this person could be a loving parent or a kind neighbor. And while that does not compensate for their transphobia, it helps one cultivate compassion and look at the human behind the acts of intolerance and hate.
On allyship, Tashi hesitates but candidly confesses that they do not like the idea. They tell us that the word ally demands perfection and is transactional. It also creates pressure to always be politically correct. When you put too much emphasis on political correctness, we leave little room for error. Instead, they prefer the word ‘friendship’ as it enables acceptance of each person’s marginalization and privilege, and allows one to care for the other. It also creates breathing spaces for imperfections. Now that leads to growth. When you can be a friend, why be an ally?
To conclude, we ask Tashi for a piece of advice that they’d give those who wish to embark on a journey of self-discovery, acceptance, and faith. Not a fan of giving advice, Tashi instead closes with a prayer.
May all of us be free of suffering and its causes. May we never be separated from happiness or its causes. And may all of us find the wisdom to manifest the causes that bring happiness, and take us away from suffering.