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Non-normative Sex/Gender Categories in the Theravada Buddhist Scriptures

Compiled by Peter A. Jackson

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The Pali canon contains numerous references to homoerotic behaviour and to individuals who today would be variously identified as hermaphrodites, transvestites, transsexuals and homosexuals. However, none of the sex/gender categories named in the c anon precisely matches any of these contemporary notions, but combines instead elements of these diverse physiological, gender and sexual conditions in distinctive formulations. Most canonical accounts of non-normative gender and sexuality are found in the Vinaya, the clerical code of conduct, and are listed amongst the many explicitly described forms of sexual activity proscribed for monks. In analyzing Theravada Buddhist accounts of sex and gender it is important to keep in mind that the religion be gan as an order of celibate male renunciates, the sangha, and that the Vinaya is overwhelmingly a clerical, not a lay code of conduct. Scriptural accounts of non-normative sex and gender also need to be understood in the context of the religion's general disdain of sexuality and its distrust of sensual enjoyment. Never theless, what makes accounts of sex and gender in these ancient Indian texts especially fascinating is their contemporary relevance in Thailand, which together with Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Cambodia forms part of the Asian cultural sphere in which Therava da Buddhism remains a vital cultural institution.

The Vinaya identifies four main sex/gender types: male and female, and two additional categories, called ubhatobyanjanaka and pandaka in Pali. The non-normative categories, ubhatobyanjanaka and pandaka, refer to different things in different sections of the Pali canon, and it is important to distinguish the distinctive nuances of these two terms.

The derivation of ubhatobyanjanaka indicates that the root concept is hermaphroditism. In Pali ubhato means 'two-fold', while byanjana denotes a sign or mark of gender or other characteristic. Hence, in literal terms the word means 'a person with the signs of both sexes/genders'. Khamhuno (1989:37), author of a weekly Bangkok magazine column on Buddhist affairs, defines the term in Thai as kathoey thae or 'true kathoey', that is, hermaphrodite. However, Bunmi Methangkun (1986:238), late head of the traditionalist Abhidhamma Foundation in Bangkok, observes that psychological as well as physiological factors are involved in the constitu tion of an ubhatobyanjanaka person. The category of ubhatobyanjanaka persons described in the canon should therefore be understood as including both biological and 'psychological' hermaphrodites, that is, persons who combine culturally ascri bed male and female sexual or behavioural characteristics.

The origin of the term pandaka is less clear than for ubhatobyanjanaka. However, the basic concept appears to be that of a deficiency in male sexual capacity. Subsequently, the denotation of the term appears to have expanded to incorporate notions of non-normative male sexuality. Pandaka may be derived from anda, which variously means 'egg' or 'testicle' in Pali, and probably originally denoted male reproductive deficiency or incapacity.

Commentators' definitions of pandaka are diverse. For example, Bunmi (ibid:235-239) lists five types of pandaka:

  1. asittakapandaka: A man who gains satisfaction from performing oral sex on another man and from ingesting his semen, or who only becomes sexually aroused after ingesting another man's semen.

  2. ussuyapandaka: A voyeur, a man who gains sexual satisfaction from watching a man and a woman having sex.

  3. opakkamikapandaka: Eunuchs, that is, castrated men lacking complete sexual organs. Unlike the other four types of pandaka Bunmi describes, these men attain their condition after birth and are not born as pandaka. Leonard Zwilling (1992:204) does not call this type of pandaka a eunuch but rather says the term describes a man who "attains ejaculation through some special effort or artifice". Bunmi's description of opakkamika as eunuchs appears to follow a sixth type of pandaka that Zwilling says is identified by Yas'omitra, the lunapandaka, which denotes a man who has been intentionally castrated.

  4. pakkhapandaka: People who become sexually aroused in parallel with the phases of the moon, either becoming aroused during the fortnight of the waning moon (Pali: kalapakkha) and ceasing to be aroused during the fortnight of the waxing moon (Pali: junhapakkha) or, conversely, becoming sexually aroused during the period of the waxing moon and ceasing to be aroused during the period of the waning moon. Zwilling cites the early commentator, Buddhaghosa, as saying that a pakkhapandaka "becomes temporarily impotent for fourteen 'black days' of the month but regains his potency during the fourteen 'white days', that is, from the new to the full moon".

  5. napumsakapandaka (also sometimes called simply napumsaka): A person with no clearly defined genitals, whether male or female, having only a urinary tract. Another definition of a napumsaka given by Bunmi (1986:239) is 'a [>male] person who i s not able to engage in activities like a man'. Elsewhere, Bunmi adds that napumsakapandaka are born without any genital organs as punishment for having castrated animals in a past life. According to Zwilling, Buddhaghosa describes a napumsaka as "one who is congenitally impotent".

Ubhatobyanjanaka is primarily a gender term, while in contrast pandaka appears to denote forms of non-normative sexuality or sexual incapacity. Both terms cover behaviour that is today labelled homosexual, because in contemporary Western societies the cultural construct of 'the homosexual' unites in a single ca tegory forms of homoeroticism that in the Buddha's time were viewed as markers of distinctive types of individuals. For example, it appears that among the early Buddhist communities men who engaged in receptive anal sex were seen as feminized and thought to be hermaphrodites. In contrast, men who engaged in oral sex were not seen as crossing sex/gender boundaries, but rather as engaging in abnormal sexual practices without threatening their masculine gendered existence.

Contemporary Thai accounts of ubhatobyanjanaka and pandaka are complicated by translators' identification of both categories as kathoeys and the use of this single Thai term interchangeably with the Pali terms. The official Thai language translation of the Buddhist scriptures variously renders the terms ubhatobyanjanaka and pandaka (pronounced bandor in Thai) in their original Pali forms and by the Thai term kathoey. Kathoey is etymologically unrelated to the two Pali terms that it is used to translate and appears to be originally of Khmer origin.

However, it is significant that, while the term pandaka is commonly translated as kathoey, none of the five sub-categories of pandaka described above in Bunmi's list suggests cross-gender behaviour. Thus it appears that in Thai the two Pali terms, with their distinctive emphases on non-normative gender and sexuality, respectively, are conflated within a strongly gender-structured system of male sexuality. The existence of discontinuities between the indigenous Thai and canonical Buddhist sex/gender systems is suggested by the fact that, firstly, Thai has only one word, kathoey, to translate two distinct Buddhist categories, ubhatobyanjanaka and pandaka and, secondly, some gender-normative forms of the pandaka are excluded from the Thai conception of the cross-gender kathoey. Gender-normative males who perform oral sex on each other, voyeurs, and people whose sexual desire oscillates with the phases of the moon, while labelled pandaka in the canon, are not called kathoeys in Thailand. The fact that the term kathoey is etymologically unrelated to the Pali terms it is used to translate also provides further evidence for a distinctive, non-Buddhist source for this Thai category.


The Persistence of Gender:
From Ancient Indian Pandakas to Modern Thai Gay-Quings

Bunmi Methangkun. 1986 (2529). Khon Pen kathoey Dai Yaang-rai (How Can People be kathoeys?), Bangkok: Abhidhamma Foundation.

Jackson, Peter A. 1994. The Intrinsic Quality of Skin, Bangkok: Floating Lotus Publications.
1995. Dear Uncle Go: Male Homosexuality in Thailand, Bangkok: Floating Lotus Publications.

Khamhuno (pseud.) 1989 (2532). 'Gay Prakot Nai Wongkan Song (Gays Appear in Sangha Circles)', 'Sangkhom Satsana (Religion and Society Column)', Siam Rath Sut-sapda (Siam Rath Weekly), 18 November 1989 (2532), 36 (22):37-8.

Morris, Rosalind. 1994. 'Three Sexes and Four Sexualities: Redressing the Discourses on Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Thailand', in Positions 2(1):15-43. Phra Traipidok Chabap Luang (The Tipitaka, Official Royal Edition), Department of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Education, Bangkok, 4th Printing, 1982 (2525).

Zwilling, Leonard. 1992. 'Homosexuality as Seen in Indian Buddhist Texts', in Jos; Ignacio Cabez;n (ed.), Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, New York: State University of New York Press.

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