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John Powers
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The androgynous, asexual Buddha of contemporary popular imagination stands in stark contrast to the muscular, virile, and sensual figure presented in Indian Buddhist texts. In this groundbreaking study of previously unexplored aspects of the early Buddhist tradition, John Powers skillfully adapts methodological approaches from European and North American historiography to the study of early Buddhist literature, art, and iconography, highlighting aspects of the tradition that have been surprisingly invisible in earlier scholarship.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-05443-1
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. 1 The Ultimate Man
    (pp. 1-23)

    In contemporary Western popular culture, the Buddha is commonly portrayed as an androgynous, asexual character, often in a seated meditation posture and wearing a beatific smile. Many (incorrectly) associate the Buddha with Hotei, a corpulent, jolly figure of Chinese Buddhism traditionally viewed as a manifestation of the future buddha Maitreya. Buddhist monks, such as the Dalai Lama, have also become images of normative Buddhism, which is assumed to valorize celibacy and is often portrayed as rejecting gender categories (at least in theory).¹ In Indian Buddhist literature, however, a very different version of the Buddha and his monastic followers appears: the...

  5. 2 A Manly Monk
    (pp. 24-66)

    According to Buddhist tradition, the boy who would grow up to become the Buddha was born in the royal family of a small kingdom in the southern part of modern-day Nepal. The dates given for his lifespan have been a topic of debate among scholars, but in recent decades a consensus appears to have developed that places his death at around twenty years on either side of 400 b.c.e.¹ There is no good reason to doubt the traditional notion that he lived for eighty years, which would place his birth at around 480 bce.

    There are a number of accounts...

  6. 3 Sex and the Single Monk
    (pp. 67-111)

    Once upon a time in India, a homeless man dressed in garments made from cast-off rags took an afternoon nap beneath a tree. As he dreamed, he developed an erection. A group of six women passing by noticed his condition and, naturally, decided to have sex with him. One by one, they mounted him and took their pleasure, and when the last was finished they continued on their way, praising him as “a bull of a man.”¹

    The homeless man was a Buddhist monk, forbidden by his religious vows from engaging in any sexual act. Some of his monastic companions...

  7. 4 The Problem with Bodies
    (pp. 112-140)

    Indian Buddhist literature abounds with admonitions against attachment to the body and with vivid descriptions of the foulness of the body’s contents. At the same time, there is a pervasive concern with maintaining health, with physical cleanliness, and with certain bodies like the Buddha’s that reflect the spiritual attainments of adepts. In addition, even though the human body is described as vile and repulsive, it is also the best physical situation within cyclic existence for those who seek liberation.¹ The lower destinies of hell beings (nāraka), hungry ghosts (preta), and animals (tiryak) are subject to continual suffering, and the minds...

  8. 5 The Company of Men
    (pp. 141-163)

    The “Connected Discourses on the Path” reports that Ānanda once told the Buddha his view of the value of friendship for men pursuing the religious life: “It seems to me, Blessed One, that good friendship is half of the holy life.” The Buddha admonished him for this notion and exclaimed: “Do not speak thus, Ānanda! Noble friendship is more than half the holy life; it is the entire holy life!”¹ He added that without the Buddha, their best friend, there would be no way for monks to receive instruction.

    Monastic friendship is regarded as essential for men pursuing the goals...

  9. 6 The Greater Men of the Greater Vehicle
    (pp. 164-202)

    According to tradition, shortly after the Buddha’s death five hundred arhats met in Rājagṛha to recite from memory what he had taught during his lifetime. The stated goal was to forestall the production of new texts attributed to him and to preserve his teachings intact just as he had spoken them. All had been present during many sermons, and Ānanda, who had attended the Buddha for most of his life, recounted one at a time the discourses his teacher had delivered in his presence or later repeated to him. Upāli narrated the monastic discipline, and at the end of the...

  10. 7 Adepts and Sorcerers
    (pp. 203-225)

    Beginning sometime around the middle of the seventh century, a new wave of texts began to appear in India, and like the Mahāyāna sūtras, they were presented as sermons delivered by the Buddha. Most of these had the term “tantra” in their titles, and some were referred to as “sūtras.” They assumed the general outlines of the Mahāyāna path, and the bodhisattva remained the ideal practitioner. The goal was buddhahood, but a new set of practices was presented, and the authors of these works claimed that the tantric path to awakening is more rapid and their new techniques more powerful...

  11. 8 Conclusion: Oversights and Insights
    (pp. 226-232)

    When I first began reading Indian Buddhist literature, I generally overlooked the tropes highlighted in this book as examples of odd Indian imaginings and mythologies. Indian Buddhist notions of gender and the body were so foreign to contemporary understandings that I simply had no interpretive grid within which to situate them and so paid little attention. There was no pattern for me, and these esoteric discourses of maleness and femaleness, sex and physiology, appeared as disconnected bits of culturally specific superstition and as irrelevant to the philosophical and moral insights that seemed to me at the time to be the...

  12. APPENDIX 1: The Major and Minor Physical Characteristics of a Great Man
    (pp. 235-240)
  13. APPENDIX 2: Epithets of the Buddha
    (pp. 241-244)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 245-296)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 297-312)
  16. Index
    (pp. 313-320)