The Transgender Monk: Recalling the Remarkable Lobzang Jivaka

The Transgender Monk: Recalling the Remarkable Lobzang Jivaka July 27, 2020




I was reading an article, the “Wild Irish girl and the ‘Dalai Lama of little Thibet:’ the long encounter between Ireland and Asian Buddhism” by the Irish scholar Laurence Cox, when I found myself introduced to Michael Dillon, Lobzang Jivaka.

Michael was born on the 1st of May, 1915 as Laura Maud Dillon. He attended Cambridge and while there began a process that would lead to become the first surgically female to male transexual person.

Digging around for more information I discovered several articles including one at Wikipedia that helped to flesh out his story.

After leaving university he worked as a truck driver and a fire watch. But, Michael would return to school and qualified as a physician. He became a naval surgeon working for P&O and the China Navigation Company.

According to the Wikipedia article on him, his gender change was exposed inadvertently because of his aristocratic background. He was the younger sibling of the Eighth baronet of Lismullen. Debrett’s Peerage listed him as the heir apparent. But, Burke’s Peerage only mentioned a sister. A small scandal ensued. And Dillon decided to go to India.

I believe the decision for India was for several reasons. One, it was far away. And that mattered. But, also all along the way he was on a spiritual quest. He’d been raised Anglican. But he discovered Gurdjieff, and then Theosophy. And, he from there he had developed an interest in Buddhism.

And pretty much as soon as he arrived he began formal Buddhist practice under the tutelage of the English born monk Sangharakshita. He underwent a Theravada novice ordination with Sangharakshita. But, for various reasons, not least of which Sangharakshita’s dismissal of transgender identity, Dillon left.

He turned his focus from Theravada to the more expansive Mahayana, and specifically the Vajrayana. Haunted by ancient prohibitions of ordination for members of a “third sex,” he eventually sought refuge at the Rizong Monastery in Ladakh, where he was assured that he could take the lower ordination, if not advance to full monastic status.

According to Pagan Kennedy, “In the spring of 1960, Dillon arrived at the monastery without any money, not even a decent pair of shoes. He would stay for three months in its tumbledown buildings, set against the lunar landscape of a Himalayan mountaintop, until his travel permit ran out. Dillon insisted that he should be treated like any other novice who came to the monastery, with no concessions for his white skin or advanced age.”

He wrote several books. In Wikipedia we’re told, “Jivaka published Growing Up into Buddhism, a primer on Buddhist practice for British children and teens, and A Critical Study of the Vinaya, which looks at the Buddhist rules for ordination and defeat. Both books were published in 1960. Additionally two books by him were published in London in 1962: The Life of Milarepa, about a famous 11th century Tibetan yogi, and Imji Getsul, an account of life in a Buddhist monastery.”

He was forced to leave the monastery when his visa expired. And not long after, on the 15th of May, 1962, unexpectedly, he died in Dalhousi, India. He was 47.

A memoir, “Out of the Ordinary; A Life of Gender and Spiritual ransitions,” was published posthumously, in 2017.

For me among the many reasons I find Lobzang Jivaka important is the powerful and literal ways he crossed many barriers on the way to a wholeness of humanity and spirit. His transition from woman to man is a powerful thing. But, also his move from his birthright Anglicanism, through Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, then to Theosophy, and out of that to Buddhism, first Theravada and finally the Vajrayana, encapsulates our era, where, while we never leave all of what was past behind, we can, and as he showed, sometimes do pass into our complete authenticity.

I think Lobzang Jivaka did.

I am also mindful of unfinished injustices. His story reveals many of those…

Reminders for all of us on the way.

Endless bows…

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