The Emptiness of Gender

Nagarjuna and the Deconstruction of Gender

Progress & Conservation🔰
18 min readJul 5, 2022

This post may be easier to understand if you first read my post on the ideas of Nagarjuna.

“When we analyze on the basis of Dharma, the characteristics maleness and femaleness cannot be apprehended…. Deluded people do not understand and through false thought see maleness or femaleness, but this is an illusionary maleness and an illusionary femaleness, ultimately without reality.” — The Bodhidharma Anthology, Text no. 5: Record I (Jeffrey L. Broughton translation)

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The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna pointed out that all phenomena are empty (sunyata) — or devoid of any stable and concrete essence — and that all extant things are dependently originated or interdependently arisen (pratitya-samutpada). What I am is bound up with all the component processes that constitute me and all the relationships that define me. I am not an independent entity but rather a collection of processes and a bundle of relationships. Not only do the processes within my body, all the chemical reactions and neurons firing, contribute to what I am but so do other people and things outside of me. I am a son, a sibling, a student, an employee, a friend, a reader, a driver, a blogger, etc. My relationships to other people, things, and processes also determine who I am. To say anything about my essence as a thing-in-itself would be meaningless. Insofar as I am anything, I am defined by processes and relationships — there is no stable core or essence that determines who I am. I am a dynamic process.

The Western philosopher Jacques Derrida makes observations on language and writing that I believe suggest that Nagarjuna’s observations about reality apply equally to language as to all other phenomena. So I will be looking at the observations made by Derrida but interpreting and explaining them using the language and ideas of Nagarjuna.

Words are devoid of any inherent meaning, empty in the Buddhist sense. Words are defined by usage and different people use words differently. Furthermore, we define words using different words and each of those words has a somewhat vague meaning insofar as those words are also used in slightly different senses by different people and in different contexts. Derrida makes the following observation. If you look at a word in the dictionary, it is defined by other words. And if you look up each of those words that are used in the definition, you will find at some point that you end up stuck in a lexical infinite regress or definitional circularity. Words only have meaning because of the comparison/contrast between words. Switching back to thinking like Nagarjuna, we would say that words can only be defined by, and in relation to, other words — they interdependently arise (pratitya-samutpada) with other words as conditions for their own definition.

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Reality is a dynamic spectrum or ongoing process. Words are attempts to categorize things. In using words as labels, we are somewhat arbitrarily dividing things on a spectrum. The color “blue” is a range on the light spectrum — a boundary between blue and green doesn’t really exist. A cat is just a range on the spectrum of life in the process of evolution — the boundaries between the little cats, the “big cats,” and the non-cats don’t really exist.

With human language, we very frequently place things in an artificial binary by juxtaposing opposite terms — left/right, up/down, natural/unnatural, slow/fast, informed/ignorant. In an absolute sense, these words don’t mean anything. They are relational terms and, therefore, relative rather than absolute. All of these binaries are artificial and ultimately arbitrary. Insofar as they contain any truth, it is a relative or conventional truth. These are relational terms. When we say that someone is “informed” or “ignorant,” we can only say this relative to a specific content or context because everyone is ignorant when it comes to certain matters and well-informed on certain other matters. A plumber may be extremely well-informed on matters related to his particular trade but dreadfully ignorant on matters related to biology or politics. Something may be left or right or up or down only in relation to something else — and the top and the bottom of the something else is mostly arbitrarily determined by convention. If I say something is slow or fast, I am speaking relatively — it can only be slow or fast in relation to something else. Rousseau distinguishes between the “natural” state of primitive man and the “unnatural” state of civilized man but Derrida points out that the distinction is arbitrary. The line dividing the natural from the unnatural is arbitrarily drawn. Is it natural for man to associate with other men? Is it natural for man to pick up a stick and use it as a tool? Is it natural for man to try to co-operate with other men? to communicate with others? At what point does the development of language and technology move beyond the natural to the unnatural. The distinction is arbitrary and might have some conventional utility but tells us nothing about ultimate reality. Our language ends up describing a reality that is more like a spectrum in terms that are binary. We have two oppositional terms, “fast” and “slow,” to describe a whole spectrum of speed. And we have binary terms like “up” and “down” or “left” and “right” to designate an infinite range of positions.

Language is inherently problematic. Traditionally, hermeneutics wants to examine a text in order to determine the original meaning of the author. Derrida argues that there can be no ultimate point of clarity where you determine the “correct interpretation” by pinpointing the actual things that words signify, designate, or point to. Words are defined by relations and there is no concrete essence that can be pinpointed in the real world or in the world of forms (realm of ideas) that is definitively designated by a word. All interpretations of any text or any statement must be taken with a grain of salt. We can find meaning in a text but we can never comprehend the totality of the meaning of the text — and there may be other interpretations that are equally as valid as our own.

Literary critics have been very interested in where precisely meaning is located. When you are interpreting a text, is the meaning located in the author, in the text itself, or in the mind of the reader. Derrida would argue that language is so complex that you can’t even get perfect clarity as to the meaning of a particular word, much less as to the meaning of a text or philosophical statement. To translate this back into the terminology of Nagarjuna, words are empty. They are devoid of inherent essence — the essence/meaning of a word is unstable, constantly shifting and evolving. Words are interdependently co-arising insofar as the meaning of any term is interdependent with the meaning of other terms. And though we try to positively define words using other words, the real meaning of a word emerges out of the difference between it and other words. The essence or meaning of a word, while ultimately non-extant, emerges into conventional existence from the relations between words. Words are defined by an interplay between identity and difference, the overlap and gap between meanings of terms. The meaning of each individual word makes the language what it is but the meaning of the language as a whole, including all words, is entangled in the meaning of each word. The language might still exist in a different form without any particular word but the words could not exist individually without the whole language as a context to give them meaning and significance. The meanings are interdependent but the dependency is an asymmetrical interdependence.

It should be noted that I am not applying Buddhist philosophy in any way that it has not already been applied by Buddhists for thousands of years. Regarding the emptiness of language, we find this taught in these passages from early Mahayana sutras:

“‘Reverend Subhuti, the nature of all things is like illusion, like a magical incarnation. So you should not fear them. Why? All words also have that nature, and thus the wise are not attached to words, nor do they fear them. Why? All language does not ultimately exist…’” — Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra

“Whatever exists has no self-existence
the same is true of words

the profound truth of the emptiness of emptiness
is something fools don’t know….
and the words I teach are like shadows” — Lankavatara Sutra

“Words are created even when things don’t exist. Among the words that appear nowadays are ‘rabbit horns’ and ‘tortoise hair.’… They are merely words. Your contention that because words exist things exist is faulty…. Words are simply fabrications.” — Lankavatara Sutra

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At the center of Buddhist philosophy are the concepts of anatman (no essence/self), sunyata (emptiness/openness), and pratitya-samutpada (“dependent origination” or “interdependent co-arising”). Buddhism holds that all phenomena lack inherent essence and therefore are characterized by emptiness. Humans have a tendency to get hung up on gender and sexuality and I believe that’s because we have a natural tendency to interpret reality along essentialist lines. This is reflected in our tendency to force things into artificial binaries. What makes a tree a tree? Is “treeness” just a conventional category that we made up? or do trees all somehow share in some common essence of treeness? Plato posited that Ideal Forms exist in the world of Forms and that particular things mime or mimic these Forms. A tree is a tree because it mimes the form of the Ideal Form of treeness. Augustine came along and identified the Platonic world of Forms with the mind of God. God had these Ideal Forms in His mind when he created the world and he created each thing “according to its kind,” humans, dogs, cats, trees, etc. Essentialism is right there in the Book of Genesis but essentialism is not true. Essentialism is based upon mistaking conventional reality for ultimate reality. Cats, dogs, and trees are not concrete things defined by some unique essence of catness, dogness, and treeness — rather they are ranges on the spectrum of biological evolution. Red, yellow, and green are not concrete individual colors but just specific ranges on the color spectrum. Where the lines are drawn on the spectrum differs from culture to culture. In Japan, for instance, the green traffic lights are considered blue because where their culture/language draws the boundaries between colors is different. The reality is that colors are basically social constructs.

If you examine a table, it seems to be a singular stable object. Upon closer inspection, however, you find that it is composed of parts. A table may have four legs or a central pedestal and a flat top. It may be composed of nigh any material. It is defined by its function rather than its specific form. And tables come in various shapes and sizes. And even the “function” is somewhat malleable. It may be a place to sit things, to do crafts, to eat, or it may be entirely decorative in function. The parts of the table are simply arranged in a way that serves the function deemed suitable by the craftsman or the owner. A “table,” therefore, is not a concrete thing but a social construct. In an absolute sense, there is no such thing as a table. A table is just a cluster of particles that reduces to various chemical reactions and physical processes, arising from the ether and bound to ultimately decay and return to the ether. As a result of evolutionary processes, the human brain has created a sort of Graphical User Interface in order to make our environment more user-friendly. The ultimate reality of the real world is nothing like what we see. It’s all energy, chemical reactions, and various processes but the human brain has adapted a user interface that allows us to interact with certain collections of processes as if they were a unified whole. While a table is ultimately a cluster of chemical reactions, energetic vibrations, and processes, our brains ignore ultimate reality in favor of conventional reality.

The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, therefore, draws a distinction between ultimate reality and conventional reality. This can be seen as akin to the distinction between noumenon (the thing in itself) and phenomenon (the thing as we perceive it) in Western philosophy. Buddhism, especially the way it is espoused by Nagarjuna, can be seen as akin to process philosophy — things are actually processes or conglomerations of processes rather than concrete singular entities. Furthermore, things are always in the process of becoming. Everything is dynamic rather than static. I am not a concrete entity with a stable essence over time. I am not the same person that I was 30 years ago. Every single cell in my body has died and been replaced multiple times — not one cell remains from when I was a child. All of my beliefs, convictions, habits, and interests have also changed. I have nothing in common with the me that I was back then. I have essentially died and been born again multiple times throughout my life, so that I am not the same person in any meaningful sense. My body is different and my mind is different. Nothing remains of what I once was. My body is a conglomeration of various chemical reactions and processes and I am constantly in the process of becoming something different. This is true, not just for me, but for everyone and everything in existence. Nothing is static, nothing is stable — everything changes.

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Back when I was a Christian presuppositionalist, before becoming a Buddhist atheist, I thought that sexual reproduction was surely a stumbling block for Darwinism and evolutionary theory. In order for sexual reproduction to work, it seems, you need a male and a female — both would have to evolve together simultaneously in order for the trait to get passed on. It would seemingly have required a miracle. If a male evolved without any females, the trait of sex would never be passed on and vice versa. After learning more about biology, this no longer sounds like a good argument to me. It’s actually quite simple to explain how sexual reproduction might have evolved. First, we should consider two facts: (1) that many plants and animals (e.g. daffodils, aphids, starfish, and some species of jellyfish) are capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction, and (2) that many plants and animals (e.g. earthworms, snails, clown fish, groupers, roses) have both male and female sex organs. The distinction between male and female individuals evolved after the evolution of sexual reproduction itself. The first sexually reproducing organisms likely acquired the trait and then replicated themselves through budding or some other mechanism (asexual reproduction), thereby producing their own mates. Over the course of millions of years, mammals evolved and it became typical, among mammals, for each individual to have either male or female sex organs and to exclusively reproduce sexually— so mammals typically seem to fit into binary sex categories. But what is typical is not universal. Komodo dragons can, if they are totally isolated and unable to find a mate, revert back to asexual reproduction. And there is a tribe of people in the Dominican Republic where children are all born female and then some of them develop into males upon reaching puberty.

And intersexuality, instances in which a person doesn’t fit into either the “male” or the “female” category, is relatively common among humans. It’s about 1% of the human population that can be categorized as intersex. That may seem really rare but I went to a High School with 5,000 students and 1% means that there were likely 50 intersex kids at my school when I was a student there. The binary male/female classification is conventional and has some useful function but it doesn’t correspond to ultimate reality. Reality is much more complicated. Our linguistic convention of reifying things and reducing them to socially-constructed binaries is useful for the purpose of communication but also inherently problematic as it always oversimplifies reality!

It should be noted that intersex is quite different from transgender. So far, we have only spoken about biological sex. This is quite different from gender. While biological sex refers to the physical characteristics of an individual, gender is a sociological term referring to the roles and characteristics that are associated with the different sexes in various cultures. In Western societies, until very recently, it had generally been the case that women had the role of raising children and men had the role of procuring food and engaging in economic activity. Yet in the Aka tribe in Africa, the men have a much more prevalent role in caring for newborn infants and raising children. And in the Chambri tribe of Papua New Guinea, the women are generally responsible for fishing in order to provide food for the family and responsible for engaging in economic activities like trade. In addition to social roles, gender is related to aesthetic concerns like clothing and jewelry. Traditionally, in our society, men wore pants and women wore dresses yet in Scotland men wore kilts (skirts). And we typically associate wigs and makeup with women’s fashion but the American Founding Fathers all wore wigs and makeup. Cultures change over time and so do fashion trends and gender roles. And there are gender roles in the bedroom too. In our society, the female role is typically seen as submissive and receptive whereas the male role is dominant and imposing but there are plenty of women that are dominant and men who are submissive. The reality is that just as biological sex has no essence, so too does gender lack essence. It’s a social construct — and a particularly vague social construct that doesn’t map perfectly onto reality.

“I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand”
— Prince

A person that is transgender simply doesn’t feel like the gender aesthetics and roles that are typical in their society resonate with their own persona. Sometimes this may be related to sexuality but very frequently it is not. Some people that are assigned female at birth will transition to living as males and presenting themselves socially as males but this doesn’t mean that they are attracted to females — there’s not really any correlation between sexual orientation and gender identity. The only reason that conservatives hate trans people is because they wrongly believe that conventional truths are ultimately true —they take the artificial oppositional binaries of language as corresponding perfectly to ultimate reality. They think that there is male and there is female and these things have definite essences that cannot be altered or changed. That’s simply not true. Everything is ultimately dynamic and exists on a spectrum yet we conventionally classify things into static categories for convenience. This is fine as long as we don’t mistake our conventional categories for ultimate reality. Since sex and gender are not really binary and static, it’s only natural that some people won’t feel comfortable if forced into that binary. If someone feels more comfortable presenting themselves as the opposite gender from that assigned at birth, there’s no reason that we ought not to be accepting of their preferences — and if they don’t feel comfortable with either gender category, that’s also perfectly fine. If my friend’s name is William and he prefers to go by Bill or by Zaphod, I have no problem using a different name to refer to him. I will use whatever noun he prefers. If someone prefers he/him pronouns or even they/them pronouns, it is literally not a problem. It’s no harder to remember someone’s pronouns than it is to remember their noun/name. And it seems to me that people who refuse to respect other people’s preferred pronouns do so out of a desire to make others feel uncomfortable for self-identifying in a way that doesn’t conform to traditional social conventions. Gender is ultimately not real and it is nonsensical to demand that real people conform to less-than-real social constructs. The person in front of you is more real than the categories and labels that we try to stick onto them.

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It should also be noted that homophobia is akin to transphobia insofar as the reason that people oppose homosexual lifestyles is primarily because homosexuality doesn’t align with our society’s binary gender roles, where men are attracted to women and women are attracted to men. Christian opposition to homosexuality stems from the conviction that all animals, especially humans, were created “according to their kind…male and female.”(Genesis 1:24, 27) They believe in essentialism because they think that God first conceived things in His mind and then designed the world in accordance with His master plan. And they see homosexuality as conflicting with the purpose of sex and gender within God’s divine plan. This literalist interpretation of the Bible precludes basically all the findings of modern science regarding the evolutionary origins of mankind. It also contradicts the findings of modern science regarding the nature of the processes that collectively constitute all the things/phenomena that we encounter in this world.

The binary gender categories of conventional language may fit most people just fine but, as we said, gender and sex are both spectrums rather than binaries. The emergence of xenogender as a new way of self-identifying is, in my understanding, functionally a statement of the emptiness of gender. Sexual identity and gender is not only a spectrum but also is ultimately empty — it’s merely a conventional thing, a linguistic and social construct. Gender, being empty, is just whatever we define it as. Some people decided to define “male gender” as such-and-such and yet I, as an individual, don’t perfectly fit into that box, so in a deliberate act of rejecting the authority of these fascists who would impose their definitions upon me, I can identify as a mushroom, a deer, a tree, or a book. This isn’t to say that I am literally a book. Rather, it is to say that I, as an individual, no more conform to the essence of “maleness” or “femaleness” than I do to the essence of “bookness.” Your language is ultimately bullshit and whatever functional value it may have is ok as such but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you force me into a non-real binary and deprive me of my right to self-determination! Or, at least, I think that is what xenogender people are saying. If I am correct, then xenogender identities are really a functional deconstruction of gender.

Regarding the emptiness of gender, we can point to the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra, where Sariputra meets a devi (goddess) and finds out that she is, in fact, a bodhisattva. Upon realizing that she has magic powers and could really choose any physical form she wants, he asks her, “Goddess, what prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?” The devi-bodhisattva replies, “Although I have sought my ‘female state’ for these twelve years, I have not yet found it…. all things do not really exist….With this in mind, the Buddha said, ‘In all things, there is neither male nor female.’”(ibid.) The bodhisattva is arguing that sex and gender are empty, lacking any essential nature, because everything lacks essence. She examined her “female nature” and didn’t find anything there. It is a core principle of Mahayana Buddhism that all dharmas (things that can be conceived) lack essence or are ultimately essentially empty. The devi-bodhisattva is not identified in this sutra but it’s worth noting that the male bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara regularly appears in the female form, as Quan Yin, in East Asian Buddhism.

This is quite typical of Mahayana sutras, where it is argued that all beings contain the tathagatagarbha (“seminal buddha” or “buddha seed”), so everyone has the potential to become a buddha. It is merely a matter of awakening to reality, requiring only a change in perspective or state of consciousness. So we see, in the Ugrapariprccha Sutra and the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra, that lay people like Ugra and Vimalakirti can be bodhisattvas — and potentially even better bodhisattvas than monks who often use quietude and seclusion in order to escape from the world. The layperson has no choice but to be engaged with the world and so may find it easier to go down the bodhisattva path, whereas the monk can easily get stuck in the sravaka path, learning the sutras and seeking personal liberation but not actively applying the dharma in a manner that makes the world a better place. Then we see a female protagonist in the Srimaladevi Simhanada Sutra. If all things are empty, then the dichotomies of monk vs. layperson and male vs. female become ultimately meaningless. The distinctions only apply to conventional reality and not to the ultimate nature of things. Essentially, there is no difference between a monk and a layperson. Ultimately, there’s no difference between male and female. The distinctions are merely conventional. So you can have female bodhisattvas, lay bodhisattvas, and even lay female bodhisattvas — and that’s a major theme that the Mahayana sutras attempt to drive home.

Language and the categories in our languages are human conventions that lack ultimate reality. Whatever conventional utility we may find in the labels that we place on things, it’s important to remember that our conventional social and linguistic constructs don’t perfectly map onto reality. We are always using oversimplified labels to designate complicated realities. We live in a world where everything lies on a spectrum and we try to reduce these complex things to binaries so that we don’t have to think as hard. Realizing this is necessary in order to think clearly and ethically.

"Nor should [bodhisattvas] make distinctions such as, 'This is a man' or 'This is a woman.' They have no such attachments to all things, neither knowing nor seeing them as such... All things are emptiness, as they are without existence, neither permanently abiding, nor arising and perishing.... They contemplate all things as nonexistence, as just like empty space, and as having no solidity, no birth, no coming forth, no moving, no regressing, and with constant abiding as their sole attribute."—The Lotus Sutra

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Progress & Conservation🔰

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