24 November 2011

Book Review: Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender

José I. Cabezón is the XIV Dalai Lama Endowed Chair in Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. He was formerly Associate Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Iliff School of Theology. He edited this book about twenty years ago.

Although politics and religion are always deeply intertwined, for Buddhism, there has never been a central figure or a group of central figures. The development of Buddhism has been much more fragmented and rhizomatic. It is true that there are a few philosophically consistent groupings: the Theravada, the Mahayana, the Vajrayana and the Pureland sects. However, about every variable you could consider in terms of variation in schools, varies so widely within and among the four I just mentioned that the designation may be considered just geographic by another name.

Okay, I remember reading this book as a teenager and being confused. And so I don't know that I would recommend reading this whole book unless you have some vague background in Buddhist philosophy, history or similar because sometimes it gets technical and can be confusing. There are several important themes which any given reader will likely not be interested in. For a general reader wanting to know more about "Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender" I'd pick just a few chapters.

First, the chapter "Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism" by Alan Spoonberg is a concise treatment of how the textual ambiguity in the Buddha's pronouncements regarding gender equality (there is very little) eventually allowed patriarchy to slip back into the religious community and tragically, today, only in Chinese Buddhist religious communities are their fully ordained nuns and nuns from other sects who go to China, Hongkong or Taiwan for full ordination are looked at suspiciously and derisively, at best, and as apostates, at worst. (This is one area where the monastic hierarchy in many Buddhist communities really could work on improvement.)

Second, the chapter "The Gender Symbolism of Kuan-yin Boddhisattva" by Barbara Reed was also a concise explanation for how one of the few well known Buddhist icons in the world (the other being the historical Buddha and the other Amida Buddha) went from being a boyish young man to a woman. This bodhisattva is Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion is also known as Kuan-yi, Kannon, 観音, Quán Thế Âm, Chenrezig, 관세음보살, and Жанрайсиг. HH XIV Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the bodhisattva/buddha. Avalokiteshvara is Buddhism's first transgender Buddha, and a very popular one. This chapter gives a very concise explanation of the how and why.

Third, the chapter "Kukai and the Tradition of Male Love in Japanese Buddhism" by Paul Gordon Schalow. I find the present normative homophobia of Japanese and diasporic Japanese communities to be so curious. This is true, especially, because Japan has such a long, rich and proud historical tradition of gay sex. Of course, for those really interested in this topic, there is the book Male Colours. In any event, the chapter gets to the point. Just consider these two Japanese gay sex poems:

White snow on a mountain peak
turns to pure water on the rocks
and finally flows down.

I gaze up at the distant top of a cedar tree;
the wind blows strong,
and even the cedar bends.

The version I read was a 264 page paperback published by SUNY Press (December 13, 1991), ISBN-13: 978-0791407585. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was used at abebooks.com.

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