June 13, 2009

Did You Know that the First Female-to-Male Transsexual to Undergo a Phalloplasty Later Became a Buddhist Monk?

[UPDATE: Our friend James Shaheen, editor and publisher of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, writes to inform us that Pagan Kennedy wrote a piece for the venerable dharma magazine on this remarkable man for their Summer 2007 issue. I really shouldn’t have missed this story before now, but somehow I did–completely! Don’t make my mistake; take a look!]

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t. Until I read this commentary piece by transgender educator Jamison Green about the recent news that Chastity Bono will undergo a sex change operation, that is.

    Before the word “transsexual” had been coined in English, an intrepid young person whose family belonged to the British nobility set out to transform herself from female to male. He received a medical school education, obtained hormones — relatively new substances that were poorly understood at the time, and independently began living as a man in the early 1940s.Eventually, he found a plastic surgeon to help him, and his physical changes were complete by 1949, but his family rejected him. The British tabloids hounded him. To escape publicity, he was forced to carve out a life for himself virtually alone. He became a Buddhist monk, and died in Tibet in 1962 at the age of 47.His name was Michael Dillon, and he one of the Western world’s first transsexual people, that is, someone who changes sex and/or gender by medical means. His extensive writings were suppressed and destroyed by his family — only fragments survive.         

Wanting to know more, I consulted the entry on Dillon at GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. There I learned that Dillon first became aware of Buddhism while serving as a ship surgeon in the Merchant Navy in the years following his phalloplasty.

    During his years aboard ship, Dillon’s continuing interest in mind-body interaction inspired religio-philosophical exchanges with Anglican priests, followers of G.I. Gudjieff, author Tuesday Lopzang Rampa, and, finally, teachers of Therevada and Tibetan Buddhism.

Between his interest in Buddhism and the intense media scrutiny, Dillon moved to India and “poured himself into meditation and study.” He took the name Lobzang Jivaka (in large part to stay anonymous), and authored several books including the still-in-print The Life of Milarepa: Tibet’s Great Yogi (1962). During this time, he also ordained as a novice in the Theravada tradition and struggled to obtain full monastic ordination, according to the GLBTQ. This included discord with at least one well-known teacher of Buddhism:

    A fellow English convert hindered Dillon’s own access to his vocation, however: in Kalimpong, Dillon encountered Sangharakshita, a monk of the Theravada tradition, details of whose identity and painful conflict with Dillon are revealed in Pagan Kennedy’s The First Man-Made Man.Although Dillon embraced Sangharakshita as his mentor, the latter believed that despite his surgeries Dillon remained a woman or a member of a “third sex” and was ineligble for ordination as a monk. Dillon’s conflict with Sangharakshita led him to find his way into the Tibetan branch of Buddhism, which had drawn him for several years.          

Kennedy’s book explains that part of the draw for Dillon was the exile experience of the Tibetans in India:

    He guessed they would be sympathetic to him, for he was as much an exile as they were. Through a translator, he asked Denma Locho Rinpoche–an eminent Tibetan monk–about his “third sex” dilemma. As Dillon had expected, the Rinpoche agreed to ordain him, third sex or no. They set a date for the ceremony.To make sure everything was on the up-and-up, Dillon wrote a letter to Sangharakshita, asking him to come to Sarnath to act as an English-to-Hindi translator and to preside at the ceremony. Somehow, in the months since he’d left Kalimpong, Dillon had managed to convince himself that Sangharakshita…would be proud of him.The reply was hardly what Dillon had expected. Sangharakshita fired back a letter, in triplicate, to the Rinpoche and other leaders in Sarnath. The letter revealed Jivaka’s Western name and spilled details of the sex-change operation. According to Dillon, it included many false accusations as well.Nowadays, Sangharakshita still believes that he had no choice but to write the letter. Dillon intended to break monastic law, and Sangharakshita refused to be a party to that.One Saturday morning, the Rinpoche handed Dillon the letter from Sangharakshita and explained (through a translator) that the ordination was off. It would be too politically dangerous right now to go ahead with the ceremony. Dillon was devastated.       

Through his friend, the prolific German Buddhist scholar and author (and Trungpa Rinpoche pal) Herbert V. Günther, Dillon found his way to Rizong Monastery in Ladakh. As Kennedy tells it, there he finally found the hope of acceptance:

    …Dillon managed to wrangle a meeting with Kushok Bakula, a prince in the royal family of Ladakh, where Rizong monastery was located. Dillon poured out his woes to the prince and was enormously comforted when Kushok Bakula “gave me a look of compassion which I will never forget.”The prince assured Dillon that he could one day be ordained as a full-fledged monk. But until the controversy blew over, Dillon would only be allowed to take vows as a novice in the Tibetan tradition. (While there was a ban against monks who belonged to the “third sex,” no such ban existed for novices.) Dillon would be able to enter a monastery in Ladakh, but only if he would inhabit the lowest rank, on par with the 10-year-old boys. Kushok Bakula had picked out a monastery where Dillon would be sent: by chance, it happened to be Rizong, the famous monastery of fruit trees and punishments.          

After three months, Dillon’s permit to visit the region ran out, and he was forced to leave or face jail time.  After leaving the monastery, he traveled to Kashmir in order to arrange a proper permit. Unfortunately, though, tragedy struck.

    He succumbed to illness during a stopover at a hostel. No one seemed able to say what type of sickness had caused the death. According to Sangharakshita, a rumor circulated that Dillon had been poisoned, but there was no solid proof. The details of his death remain an open question.His body was cremated and the ashes scattered in the Himalayas. His autobiography, still unpublished, sits in deep storage in a warehouse in London.          

I’m grateful to Jamison Green for making me aware of Michael Dillon and the role he played in modern Buddhist history. Dillon’s is often a very sad story, and yet there is much to be happy about as well. (I’m so glad, for instance, that Dillon received that look of compassion from Kushok Bakula, and that he found a home at Rizong.) Here’s to not forgetting his story…

[This is cross-posted at my personal blog.]

Read 5 Comments and Reply

Read 5 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Reverend Danny Fisher  |  Contribution: 12,340