07 December 2011

Book Review: The Red Thread, Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality


Bernard Faure is the Kao Professor in Japanese Religion at Columbia University. He published this book over a decade ago as the first part in a two part series, the other book being The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity and Gender.

The first time I read this book I was very young and naive and was mostly confused by it. This is, in part, because unless you have some background in comparative Buddhist Studies and/or a rudimentary knowledge of the various Buddhist spiritual cannons, at some point the extensive use of Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Japanese and Chinese will confuse a reader. It confused me when I read it in 1998.

But I'm glad I chose it again to read. This book has as its mission to survey how Buddhism dealt man to man sex. You see, like the original form of Christianity, the original form of Buddhism was not of this world. Early Christianity and Buddhism both called for a rejection of the family, familial piety, etc.,. The only way to break the bonds of karmic, cyclic existence is to step out of the stream of karma. The easiest way to do this (logically) was to not have children. However, in traditional societies, this is about as abnormal as it gets.

Faure overviews very closely the Vinaya, which are the monastic codes of behavior. You see, while in Christianity, there is one true doctrine and every other school is heretical, schismatic or apostatic, Buddhism is not committed to a unified doctrine. Instead, we distinguish schools primarily by the Vinaya they follow, that is the methods by which they believe one may direct his heart and mind towards enlightenment.

Early Buddhism rejected desire complete as one of the three main causes of cyclic existence. Then came along the great schism in Buddhism between the Southern schools and the Northern schools. I've written a book review about this point in Buddhist and sexuality history elsewhere in this blog. But the book focuses on how Buddhist philosophy was interpreted and understood to reverse what eventually came to be a rejection of the Indian legalism of the older Southern school understanding of sexuality.

Early Buddhism rejected desire. This remains one of the underpinnings of the Southern Buddhist schools. However, the Northern schools (Vietnam, China, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Japan, Korea, Mongolia), Buddhistized the doctrinal rejection of the rejection of desire and said that desire and passion can be used on the path to transcending cyclic existence! It also reincorporated notions of filial piety. The earlier Southern school focus on the individual attaining liberation, the Northern school focused on the individual attaining liberation for the community!

In the written record that Faure reviews, it is in the Northern schools where man to man sexuality explodes. In Japan, it moves to its extreme where Buddhist priests spiritualize and glorify the ritual and institutional sexual abuse and rape of children. This persisted in Japan for over a thousand years and eventually spread into non-religious areas of life (including the samurai and merchant classes). I have written a review of a book about the Tokugawa era homosexual and pederastic traditions in Japan.

Reading this book did make me think more about the extent of institutionalized sexual abuse of young men and boys in Japan over such a long time and how the Buddhist churches in Japan and their association with moral decline (including homosexuality) played such a significant role in the Meiji-era modernization of Japan and its present extreme homophobia.

I was less interested in the Japanese angle on this story as I was about two different facets that the book didn't delve too deeply into. Monastic sexual or non-sexual experience in other Northern schools monasteries (like Tibet and China) and in the other Northern schools, what their advice was to householders (the Buddhist term for lay practitioners). Since the Northern schools changed the nature of the householder and its relationship to liberation (householders could be a valid path toward liberation in the Northern schools, whereas in the Southern schools, householders are neutral since their alms offerings and donations to monasteries is at best, a karma neutralizing activity), the advice of Buddhist monks and abbots takes on a new significance which isn't well explored.

One of the overall themes of the book, which is important, is that various forms of homosexuality flourished, in part, because of the patriarchical and misogynistic approaches to gender adopted by the early Buddhist community -- and part of the ambivalence the Buddha demonstrated on the question of gender.

The version I read was a 324 page paperback published by Princeton University Press (October 26, 1998), ISBN-13: 978-0691059976. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was used at abebooks.com.

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