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2 Jul 2010

Dragged to enlightenment

What 'drag' have to do with Dharma? And what is a monk doing, talking about 'drag'?

Yesterday evening, we were having a celebratory dinner with HE Tsem Tulku Rinpoche to thank some sponsors when he gave a short Dharma talk about dressing up in drag. I'm sure you must be thinking what the hell does drag have to do with Dharma? Or what is a monk doing, talking about drag?

At first, Rinpoche was teasing some of the guys at the dinner about dressing up for a fund raising dinner auction we are holding on July 18, at Sunway Resort Hotel, KL. He asked a few guys whether they would dress up in drag as part of the evening’s entertainment for the dinner. These guys were all straight and their initial response was rather reluctant, being macho and all. One was a Dharma teacher at our Dharma centre, another was a very serious man who looks so monk-like that people often think he was a monk! They had been previously approached to perform by Margaret, a beautiful lady at our centre who was the choreographer for the performance. However, they had politely declined and somehow Rinpoche learned about it so during the course of the evening, Rinpoche brought it up.

The guys all squirmed and looked like rabbits caught in the headlights. You see, in Tibetan Buddhism, Guru devotion is crucial to our practice because our relationship with the Guru is the key to our gaining attainments and eventually Enlightenment. It is not a blind slavish devotion but one based on checking out the Guru before we take refuge with him. The Guru will also check out a potential student to see if the student will benefit from the relationship. If it is mutually beneficial, the student may request refuge with the Guru and the Guru grant it. Once that relationship or samaya is established, it continues from life to life until the student reaches Enlightenment. There are many scriptures on Guru devotion, the most popular being the 50 Stanzas on Guru devotion, by the first century Indian pandit, Ashvagosha.

Guru devotion means that should our Gurus give us an instruction, we should carry it out immediately. There is a caveat though that should we not be able to do whatever the Guru requests of us, we can politely explain why. However, usually our Gurus would never request of us to do what we are unable to, so with that trust that the Guru only acts to benefit us, we should simply follow instructions.

Anyway, everyone teased the guys about their Guru devotion – would they be willing to drag if their Guru asked them? After several moments of hilarity, Rinpoche explained that by dressing in drag, they would actually be practising letting go of their ego and of their attachments. They would be letting go of their attachments to what they think they should be – their perception of who they are; attachments to what they want others to think of them and so on.

We are all conscious of what others think of us to a certain extent. Even the most outwardly confident person has a perception of themselves which they wish to convey to others. When we are in a situation where we have to step out of our comfort zones, it literally becomes rather uncomfortable.

In fact, the more uncomfortable you are about doing something, and yet you do it, it shows that you can overcome your ego, Rinpoche explained. And this was not simply just for fun – it was for a fund raising event which would benefit others. Rinpoche teased them, saying that they didn’t even need to perform. All they needed to do was to stand still on stage and everyone would find it hysterical.

And just to help them make their decisions whether to drag or not, Rinpoche happily reminded them that the event would be videoed, put on youtube, published in our newsletter, on our websites, and that even photos of them would be made into greeting cards! He would even put it on his very popular blog!

The rest of us last night were laughing so hard as the guys looked more and more mortified. Then one by one, they decided to throw all caution (and reputation!) to the wind and agreed to do it.

Rinpoche then became serious and commended them on their decision. He said that although these guys would normally never ever dream of doing drag, because they could see the Dharma angle, they agreed. This kind of decision-making would actually prepare them for Tantra in the future, which is about breaking our own perceptions.

I was just bowled over by Rinpoche’s skilful teaching of the Dharma. He shows us that everything can be a Dharma lesson – even dressing up in drag! Dharma lesson or not, personally, I can’t wait for July 18!

Sharon Saw is a writer / editor at Kechara Media & Publications, which focuses on publishing the teachings of H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, a high incarnate Lama of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. A selection of Buddhist and non-Buddhist related books from Kechara Publications is now available on Fridae Shop. You can follow Sharon on Twitter. This column appears every other Friday.

Reader's Comments

1. 2010-07-02 16:53  
I was a drag queen, or perhaps ''gender illusionist'' from the age of 17 to 22, at first for fun, then after a while was offered money for doing what I did just for fun- and IT IS FUN! Creating an alternative identity, parodying homophobia, sexism & mysogyny, there is no possible way I could ever look convincing as a woman, hands 23cm long, shoe size 46, UK 12/13, USA 13/14, & a low pitch gravelpit voice that resembles a machine gun or a thunderstorm.
Funny thing is, NOBODY EVER GAVE ME ANY TROUBLE! Taking trains, taxis or buses in drag, people would smile, blow kisses, anyone attempting any hostility & others, PERFECT STRANGERS would leap to my defence and scold them severely for their ignorance- as Rupaul (Manifestation/Embodiment of Universal Enlightened Glamour) said: ''We're all born naked, all the rest is drag."
& now my VERY STRAIGHT brother in UK frequently attends fancy dress parties where he and his STRAIGHT male friends all make a point of dressing as the ugliest & most unfashionable women possible- seems we've all learned to transcend our identities & give ourselves the fluidity & space to evolve even further, silly to get stuck on one's identity based on sexual preference, gender, ethnicity, etc, they are all just this life, & in many lives before I was probably a toothless illiterate peasant who died of the plague, a flea bitten dog, or the flea who bit it- don't recall being stuck in those identities, why should I get stuck on this one?
When I grow up I wanna be Buddha Manjushri!
Gifts not required, nor hats, nor formal attire, all up to you, dear readers, so even drag can be a dharma lesson on not getting stuck on identities, Milarepa said EVERYTHING can be a dharma lesson, keep your eyes and ears open! Can I come to your Enlightenment party? Perhaps not in drag.
Recommended read ''Queer Dharma" in which there is a Bodhisattva Malibubarbi Sadhana- the practise of which can help us attain the Enlightened Glamour of the Dharmakaya, ENHOY!
2. 2010-07-02 17:06  
Interesting huh...adds colour to the statement, 'To thyself be true'.

But could one actually do that in Malaysia?

Societal 'norms', familial expectations and etc...heck being a drag is made a crime in this country and yet the double standards of this country is that it allows drag on stage for 'entertainment value' but not in real life...and thus far, I know of some 'social misfits' who paid a dear price for expressing themselves openly...so can we blame the guys for being hesitant in a 'nanny State'? My own mom would kill me if she saw me doing this! LOL
Comment edited on 2010-07-02 17:08:56
3. 2010-07-03 09:45  
Drag can be liberating and empowering, maybe that's what Rinpoche was trying to teach?
My mother never saw me in drag, and never knew I did drag, until after I stopped doing it, when it was no longer relevant, she probably would have tried to go hysterical, however, the only question I would ask in that case- How is it your business? What harm does it do? To whom?
Drag is not demeaning, does not deserve to be ridiculed, in fact, when in drag it is very easy to ridicule and demean those without the guts to do it themselves.
In what way were Rinpoche's students compromised for having done drag? IN NO WAY AT ALL! The only thing that was compromised was their obvious yet silent narrow mindedness, & now that this is on its way out, it leaves them more room to evolve and grow, THANK YOU RINPOCHE!
4. 2010-07-04 08:43  
Great article, and great comments.
5. 2010-07-05 09:48  
for hundreds of years:
Onnagata in Japan
Koceks in Turkey, popular since Ottoman times
Hijras in India/Pakistan, popular since the time of the Moghuls, according to popular Hijra belief, when Prince Rama was banished, neither men or women could attend on him, so those who were neither did- Hijras.
Female characters being played by men in Shakespeare's time & in Chinese Opera- seems everyone has a great deal of respect for Mei Lanfan, & in the Ancient Middle East- Transvestite Eunuch Prostitute Priests who were devotees/practitioners of Ishtar,
Pantomime Dames being played by men, and Principal boys in pantomime being played by young women- & this is considered popular entertainment for children- something about non traditional gender roles being ''entertaining''?
Even at present in Central Asia, Taliban/Taliban inspired warlords keeping transvestite ''dancing boys'' as ''mistresses'' (catamites) both as a status symbol & in some way to prove their virility/masculinity, interesting- in a culture where homosexuality is often punished with death.
I recall in the Mahabharata or Bahagavad Gita, Arjuna, Krishna's charioteer alos spent some time as a woman, and at one point, Shariputra was discussing with a Goddess how much easier it is to achieve Enlightenment as a man rather than a woman, so she temporarily swapped places with him to help him transcend and see the Emptiness of gender.
Guan Yin is the female chinese representation of Avalokiteshvara, & Buddha Tara made a vow to always achieve Enlightenment in a female form, seems Guan Yin would be a great for LGBT Empowerment, & Tara for Female Empowerment.
6. 2010-07-05 19:53  
@5, I think Avalokiteshvara also became female in Japan, as Kanon. The statues of him as a man also generally look quite effeminate; possibly because compassion is seen as a feminine quality in some way?
7. 2010-07-06 12:41  
Avalokiteshvara became female in China because it was considered inappropriate for women to worship a male deity, my personal observation is that perhaps because Indian deities have lots of jewelry, scarves, silks, accessories, adornment they may well have seemed female to the ancient Chinese, so many Indian Buddhas & Bodhisattvas could have become female.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are many deities in union with their consorts, the male figure represents compassion, the female figure represents wisdom, my knowledge on the subject is microscopic, so much information available just with the most rudimentary research, try wikipedia or answers.com
Comment #8 was deleted by an administrator on 2010-07-19 11:30
9. 2010-07-27 17:49  
I am sorry comment 8 was deleted, I have an insatiable curiosity . . .

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