The Red Thread

The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality

Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 324
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  • Book Info
    The Red Thread
    Book Description:

    Is there a Buddhist discourse on sex? In this innovative study, Bernard Faure reveals Buddhism's paradoxical attitudes toward sexuality. His remarkably broad range covers the entire geography of this religion, and its long evolution from the time of its founder, Xvkyamuni, to the premodern age. The author's anthropological approach uncovers the inherent discrepancies between the normative teachings of Buddhism and what its followers practice.

    Framing his discussion on some of the most prominent Western thinkers of sexuality--Georges Bataille and Michel Foucault--Faure draws from different reservoirs of writings, such as the orthodox and heterodox "doctrines" of Buddhism, and its monastic codes. Virtually untapped mythological as well as legal sources are also used. The dialectics inherent in Mahvyvna Buddhism, in particular in the Tantric and Chan/Zen traditions, seemed to allow for greater laxity and even encouraged breaking of taboos.

    Faure also offers a history of Buddhist monastic life, which has been buffeted by anticlerical attitudes, and by attempts to regulate sexual behavior from both within and beyond the monastery. In two chapters devoted to Buddhist homosexuality, he examines the way in which this sexual behavior was simultaneously condemned and idealized in medieval Japan.

    This book will appeal especially to those interested in the cultural history of Buddhism and in premodern Japanese culture. But the story of how one of the world's oldest religions has faced one of life's greatest problems makes fascinating reading for all.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2260-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-2)
    (pp. 3-14)

    OVER THE PAST two decades, a number of scandals have shattered Buddhist communities in North America and Europe. The San Francisco Zen Center, the oldest Zen center in the United States, repudiated itsrōshi, Richard Baker, when the latter was accused of having an affair with one of his female students. In the Vajradhatu community, one of the largest American communities practicing Tibetan Buddhism, a scandal broke out in 1988 when members learned that one of their masters, Osel Tendzin, well known for his active sexuality, had contracted AIDS three years earlier. Other scandals, having to do with alcoholism, embezzlement,...

    (pp. 15-63)

    AFTER SIX YEARS of ascesis, Śākyamuni realized the ultimate truth under the bodhi tree and became the Buddha, the Awakened. What is this truth according to the first Buddhist orthodoxy (for as we will see, there have been several)? It is expressed in the form of a tetralemma known as the “four noble truths”: suffering, the cause of suffering, the possibility of ending suffering, and the method of achieving that end. The first two rubrics describe the world of saṃsāra, the cycle of transmigration through birth-and-death. The driving force of this cycle is desire. Actually, desire is itself produced by...

    (pp. 64-97)

    IF DESIRE was a much-discussed topic among Buddhist philosophers, the regulation of sex was, more pragmatically, one of the main concerns of the early Buddhist order. Thus, the dogmatic discourse of Buddhist doctrine (the Dharma) was eventually linked to another normative discourse, that of monastic discipline (the Vinaya). As one text puts it, “The speech of the Buddha is twofold due to the doctrine and the discipline” (dharmavinayaśena dvividham).¹ This twofold speech would be doubled by the twofold truth of Mahāyāna exegesis. As a corpus of disciplinary rules, the Vinaya (and its extracanonical epitome, thePrātimokṣa) presents itself as a...

    (pp. 98-143)

    THE LOGIC of transcendence that characterizes Mahāyāna Buddhism implies, in its very principle, a transgression of all fixed rules. As Georges Bataille puts it, “The knowledge of eroticism, or of religion, requires a personal experience, equal and contradictory, of taboo and transgression.”¹ Likewise, according to Michel Foucault, “At the root of sexuality, of the movement that nothing can ever limit (because it is, from its birth and in its totality, constantly involved with the limit), … a singular experience is shaped: that of transgression.”² Indeed, transgression constitutes a determining hagiographical motif in East Asian Buddhist chronicles. There are, of course,...

    (pp. 144-206)

    WE HAVE EXAMINED in the preceding chapters the various normative views entertained in the Buddhist tradition regarding desire and sexuality. Between this theoretical approach and the reality of social practices, the gap is wide at times. The Two Truths theory was often invoked to bridge this gap, for instance by arguing that traditional morality, as expressed in the Vinaya, was only reflecting conventional truth, whereas ultimate truth was beyond good and evil. This argument, which may sound disingenuous to some, reminds us of the words of Hegel at the end of his life, to a natural child who had come...

    (pp. 207-240)

    Sots d’hommes, égaux morts.

    (Jacques Prévert)

    WE HAVE examined the accusations leveled at Buddhism in matters of sexuality. The strongest case for the moral turpitude of Japanese Buddhists, from an European perspective at least, was “sodomy,” a term designating, in this case, the type of sexual relations commonly described nowadays as “homosexuality.” Despite their contrasting evaluation of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, Jesuit missionaries in China and Japan agreed in their condemnation of the moral depravity of Buddhist monks—and more precisely, in their denunciation of the “sin of intellectuals and clerics.”² They were reminded of the old dictum: “Pedagogus ergo...

  9. Chapter 6 BOYS TO MEN
    (pp. 241-278)

    WHAT differentiates medieval Japanese Buddhist discourse on male love from other homosexual traditions is its fascination for the chigo. The range covered by chigo literature is vast. From the Heian period onward, the chigo appears in many love poems.¹ However, the most interesting genre is formed by a series of tales calledchigo monogatariorotogizōshi.² In these texts, the sexual element is often downplayed, and the narrative unfolds around the concept of friendship between a priest and a youth. This notion of male bonding was preserved until Saikaku, who gives many examples of idealized friendship between chigo and monks...

    (pp. 279-288)

    THE ABOVE DISCUSSION has tended to emphasize the monks’ (and to a lesser extent the nuns’) encroachments on Buddhist discipline rather than their observance of it. Undoubtedly transgression, thenec plus ultraof antinomianism, is easier to locate in the documents than obedience, the daily rice of monastic life. However, my intention in describing these transgressive feasts and fasts was not to indulge in titillating tales nor to endorse the kinds of anticlerical critiques we have examined, but rather to try to locate where the trouble lies, where the Buddhist sandal pinches. An idealized vision of Buddhism can only contribute...

    (pp. 289-292)
    (pp. 293-332)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 333-338)