Waking up on Nov. 20, 2022, my heart was heavy and anxious thinking about the day ahead of me. This would be our fifth annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) memorial service at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple (BBT), and every year, I forget just how emotionally taxing preparation for the service is.
If I were to simply put on a spreadsheet how much time that my other queer and transgender officiants and I put into planning the service, it wouldn’t be excessive; however, the weight of the pain and great sorrow that we carry in contemplating how we might speak to the grief that our communities bear and the moment-to-moment loss we face is incalculable.
That Sunday morning, while making some tea, I opened my Instagram to see news of the mass shooting that claimed five lives just the night before at Club Q, a LBGTQ+ nightclub in Colorado. I sat down and dropped my phone in my lap, put my face in my hands, and wept for several minutes. Through my tears, I saw a message from a minister friend seeking advice about how to talk about this event to Dharma School. I was so sad. So angry. So overwhelmed. So filled with rage. I didn’t have an immediate answer. Is there an answer, really?
I’m a Buddhist priest. I’m transgender and nonbinary. I’m queer. I’m a practitioner of nonviolence and an abolitionist. I’m a human, and I’m not perfect in my practice of nonviolence and abolition, because unlearning the structures of discrimination that we are all conditioned to hold as “normal” is moment-to-moment work.
My rage that Sunday was not directed at the shooter nor any other singular event, rather the reason why we hold the Transgender Day of Remembrance in the first place: the systemic erasure, misunderstanding, and hatred that transgender people face.
When we assign blame on only one person and seek retribution, then we simply perpetuate the cycles of harm that undergird systems of violence. This is a teaching from abolition, nonviolence, and the Buddhadharma. Honestly, I don’t like the shooter at all, I might even hate them. But I sincerely hope that they get help to heal and learn to be full of love. We all deserve that chance.
In spite of my pain and brokenness that morning, perhaps because of it, I was even more resolved to be at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple with my Sangha family because that is a place of great love and comfort for me.
I had faith — because things felt like they were falling apart — that my Sangha would hold me together. That morning, I officiated a family service at BBT, and I shared the children’s book “I Am Jazz” by Jazz Jennings, which tells the story of a little transgender girl’s social transition and highlights values of kindness and loving acceptance across difference.
We held the TDOR memorial service after our regularly scheduled Dharma Family Service’s tea time, and I was thankful to see a number of our Sangha friends in attendance along with several others who could join us online.
I was very grateful to be joined by my chosen family, Tara, Juliet Bost, and Shakutake Eli Ryn Brown, in co-officiating and planning the service. Tara is an ally, a Minister’s Assistant, and a partner with me in many of our equity- and community-building programs at BBT. Juliet and Ryn are both queer, transgender nonbinary Buddhist teachers in their own rights. Ryn leads the Zen Shin meditation program at the Midwest Buddhist Temple along with having their own thriving abolitionist Sangha (of which I am very lucky to be a part). And Juliet is my Shinran-reading-homie, a Minister’s Assistant at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, and an accomplished high-level Taekwondo black belt. Together, we were intentional about each piece of the service in order to create a safe environment for all who are impacted by transantagonistic hate and violence.
In our planning meetings, we discussed what to chant, what to share, how to create a sense of safety, and how to foster a space that would honor those whom we have lost.
As part of my own contribution to the TDOR memorial service, I very carefully chose to share 三奉請 “Sanbujō.” I am a Jōdo Shinshū priest, so Pure Land teachings hold a great deal of meaning to me. Each of our officiants follows the Buddha-way and we all brought our whole complex selves to this very unconventional service in a Shin Buddhist temple.
As for myself, during services where we commemorate the dead, as we often do in our lineage, I always return to Ven. Shinran’s writings on Birth in the Pure Land, and I have come to appreciate the concept of ancestry in a slightly less conventional way, but in a way that means a great deal to me.
When I learn about the many queer and transgender people who have died in a society that often neglects and disdains us, I see this as an opportunity to learn about and love on these bodhisattvas as my own ancestors.
We may not be related by conventional family structures, but we are related in the Buddhadharma. When I chanted “Sanbujō” during our service on Sunday, I sincerely expressed the wish that my transgender and gender-nonconforming siblings who have been born in the Pure Land and who have returned here now, guiding and leading us all as Buddha, come to teach us how to hold the deep and painful grief that we share on this day of remembering and mourning.
“Sanbujō” is one of my favorite liturgical pieces because it reminds me how I might understand death, loss, and violence in such a way that is transformative and motivating. This invocation of Buddhas to join me in my life is how I reflect on the great ancestry that coalesces in each of our bodies: the sacrifice, the pain and suffering, the joy, love, and community that this great ancestry of Buddha entails.
Knowing that Buddha is ever-working in this present moment, just for me, encouraging me to wake up, this knowledge sustains me and gives me hope, and hope is something that we all need when the grief that we carry is so very heavy.
I am forever grateful to my ancestors, past and present, to be able to share rituals and reflections with the Sangha during the TDOR memorial service.
I am grateful to this great ancestry that I have had the opportunity to encounter the Buddhadharma and my dear chosen family. Grateful to have been brought to this chance to be with Tara, Juliet, Ryn, and all those who came to hold one another in grief during this important service.
I encourage us all to take some time to read about the history of the Transgender Day of Remembrance. There are lots of resources online.
You can also watch the recording of this year’s service on the BBT YouTube channel at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ra2-2CMWRGM
If you or someone at your temple would like to talk about holding a TDOR memorial service in your own community, feel free to reach out to me at Rev.Sokugan@gmail.com