Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Strangest Sutra Of Them All

On the 3rd of June I wrote a brief review of John Powers’ A Bull of a Man. In a comment on this post Gustav mentioned that there is a sutra in the Chinese Tipitaka about the Buddha’s penis. I replied that I had heard about this strange sutra and knew something of its general outline. However, Gustav’s comments prodded me to find out something more about it. Not being familiar with the Chinese Tripitaka I got Ananda and Nam Khim, both well-versed in Chinese Buddhist literature, to help me. So this is what we came up with.
The sutra is called Kuan-fo-san mei-hai-ching in Chinese which means something like ‘The Buddha’s Meditation on Oceanic Concentration Discourse’ in English. It is very difficult to reconstruct its original Sanskrit name. It was translated into Chinese during the Liu Sung Dynasty (420-43) so it must have been written before then. It is sutra 643 of vol.15 of the Taisho Tripitaka. Mahayana sutras have a pronounced tendency towards fantasy, hyperbole and unreality but this one would have to go even beyond this. It is the three stories that make up the seventh chapter of the sutra that I will focus on here.
The first story takes place in Prince Siddhattha’s palace before he renounced the world. The ladies-in-waiting bring up a rather sensitive subject with Yasodara, prince Siddhattha’s consort. In all the years they have waited on the princess and her husband they have never seen Prince Siddhattha’s...his, you know...umm...well lets be adult about this...his penis. Equally strange, they have also noticed that he does not even have a bulge in the place where such things usually appear in males. Now the ladies-in-waiting are wondering if the prince is really a man. As it happens, Siddhattha overhears these doubts being expressed so he takes of his clothes, spreads his legs and shows the ladies what is there - and what was there is his kosohitavatthaguyha glowing with a golden light. Then a lotus appeared and from its centre a baby boy’s penis emerges which gradually grows into an adult’s. More lotuses appear, each with a bodhisattva in it. The sutra doesn’t record what the ladies-in-waiting said about this extraordinary exhibition. I imagine they were speechless.
The next story takes place when the Buddha is staying in Savatthi. There is a brothel in the city which is causing a lot of social problems and King Pasenadi asks the Buddha what can be done about this. He decides to ask the monks to meditate for seven days and then go to the brothel and try to reform its prostitutes. But as often happens with such anti-vice campaigns, the ‘working girls’ take absolutely no notice. One of the prostitutes, a saucy young lady named Lovely, says to the others, ‘Men without lust are not real men. The Buddha talks about suffering and the cooling of desire because he is incapable of desire. He probably insists on desirelesness because he himself doesn’t have the necessary equipment. If he was a ‘real man’ I would be more than happy to become his disciple’. The Buddha hears this, a challenge that apparently even an enlightened male cannot let pass, and he shows Lovely and the other prostitutes his penis. It is so long that it reached down to his knees. But these ladies have seen a lot in their careers and they are completely unimpressed, in fact they just laugh. It could be only an illusion, they scoff. So the Buddha exposes his chest and the miraculous swastika on it and suddenly he appears to the prostitutes as an extraordinarily handsome and desirable young man. He exposes his penis again and performs the previous miracle of the golden light, the lotus, the child’s penis gradually turning into a fully mature one and the multiple lotuses each with their bodhisattva. The prostitutes are amazed and are finally converted.
The third and last story is supposedly told by the Buddha to Ananda. Once, the Buddha says, while he was staying in Gaya, five Sivite ascetics, leaders of hundreds of disciples, came to see him with their penises coiled seven times around their bodies. The spokesman of the five told the Buddha that even though he and his companions are celibate their penises are as virile as Mahesvara’s (Siva) and are quite capable of doing what such organs are supposed to do. You, the Buddha, claim to be a ‘great man’ (mahapurisa). Prove it! Once again the Buddha exposes himself while performing several astonishing miracles, one of which involves wrapping his penis seven times around Mt. Meru. And once again the interlocutors are converted.
What could have been the point of this bizarre sutra and what are we to make of it? Firstly, we need to know that it has some precedent in the Pali suttas - go to and look up ‘Penis’ and ‘Signs of a Great Man’. There is also an incident in the Pali Tipitaka in which the Buddha exposes himself (M.II,135). The meaning of this and the other 31 Mahapurisalakkhana is very interestingly dealt with in Ven. B. Wilamaratana’s Signs of a Great Man published by the Buddhist Library here in Singapore. We also need to know something about Indian society during the first centuries of the Common Era when our sutra was probably composed. While Indian Buddhism was at its zenith during the Gupta period it was also being vigorously critiqued by a resurgent Hinduism. It seems likely that some Hindus were passing aspersions on Buddhist monks and the Buddha himself by claiming that they preached celibacy, not because they had passed beyond desire and lust, but because they were sexually inadequate, that they were ‘eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’ to use the biblical phrase. It is possible that this sutra was composed in an attempt to answer this challenge. There was, and still are, Hindu ascetics who ostentatiously and unhesitatingly displayed their genitals to stave off exactly this accusation. I have seen Naga Babas and other swamis lifting quite large rocks tied to their penises and wrapping them around their staves. Such demonstrations remind one of the Sivite ascetics who came to the Buddha with their penises wrapped around their bodies and challenging him. All this no doubt explains the origins and purpose of the sutra under discussion. But whether we laugh at it, blush as we read it, or dismiss as of no significance, it does underline a serious problem with many Mahayana sutras.
In the Theravada tradition, as new ideas evolved, new challenges arose, or new questions were asked, works were composed to explain, meet or answer them, but these were never attributed to the Buddha, they were never put into his mouth. Even the books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, which Theravada tradition attributes to the Buddha, do not make this claim themselves. Most Mahayana sutras are attributed to the Buddha and if the ideas they contain happen to be absurd, unbelievable or blatantly false, the poor old Buddha gets loaded with them and we Buddhists have to struggle to justify or explain them. As Mahayana literature becomes more available in translation this is going to become an increasingly awkward problem. Just imagine what those who would disparage the Buddha or Buddhism could do with the Kuan-fo-san-mei-hai-ching Sutra.


chela said...

strange sutra indeed! that's something i don't want kids to read.

by the way, have you heard of "narilatha" flower or "liyathambara" flower -- the flower that was supposed to have a female form (and thus, distracting ascetics from their meditation.)

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Chela,
No, I have not heard of this flower. But I do think that anyone who can be reminded of a woman’s sensual form simply by looking at a flower defiantly shouldn’t be an ascetic.

Ken and Visakha said...

The hostility toward courtesans or prostitutes doesn't ring true to the time of the Buddha in Inda. The story of Ambapali's triumph over the Licchavi princes is certainly sympathetic to her.

Brothels did not cause social problems, prostitutes weren't to be reformed, and beautiful courtesans were regarded as civic assets.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ken and Vesakha,
What you say is both true and not true. There were what we today might call ‘high class’ prostitutes or ‘hostesses’ who sometimes gained renown and a degree of respect. These were the ones mentioned in the Tipitaka and often idealized in later Indian literature. But they were probably a small minority. Most, as today also, were ‘trafficked’ or driven into prostitution by poverty, they were little more than slaves, mercilessly exploited and then casted out and reduced to begging when they were too old to appeal to even the most undiscriminating customer. These prostitutes never made it into the literature. See under ‘Prostitution’.

richard said...

courtesans are a bit different from prostitutes...

courtesans are usually cultured people, have a taste and skill in music and other fine arts as well as tact and intelligence.

one that comes into mind is matahari, the geishas here in Tokyo and some other obscure classical Chinese counterparts,an example would be the highly talented courtesan who the Emperor himself visits under disguise.

Ken and Visakha said...

I do love how the king deals with the prostitue (not courtesan) in the Gámani-Canda Játaka.

As poor Gamani is being dragged to the king, the local prostitute asked him to ask the king about her problem. She used to make plenty of money, but, at that time wasn't getting even the price of a betel-nut. Nobody hired her and she had no idea why.

King Ádásamukha responded to her question saying, “Formerly, that prostitute didn’t offer her services to anyone until she had given the man she was with his money’s worth. By satisfying one man at a time, she made a good living. Recently, she took on a new style. Without permission from the customer she is serving, she starts taking care of someone else. Now, no one wants her, and she is not making any money. If she returns to her old ways, she will once again become prosperous.”

Sound business advice. No phony moralizing. Obviously, she wasn't trafficed or exploited. She was self-employed, but apparently not too bright. One only hopes she saved for her old age.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

And like I said in my review of the new re-telling of the Jatakas, some of its stories are a bit raunchy and not suitable for the kids.

Shantivadin said...

Get ready to ramble:

Mahayana sutras have always seemed to me a tad too "far out", which is why I prefer the Theravadin traditions (although I do like Zen).
It does call into question whether Mahayana texts can be taken seriously as religious scripture or merely for entertainment. But then again, this may also be related to what we westerners consider what is religion and what isn't. Buddhism has always been a little hard to define in western terms of what constitutes a religion.
Some would argue that yes, Buddhism is a religion, and some would argue, no, Buddhism is philosophy. Which is it? Or is the question irrelevant (apart from tax purposes)?

We read the Mahayana sutras and sometimes think, "Wow. That's ridiculous. That's not Buddhism." And in most cases we're probably right. But why can't religion (and/or philosophy) be entertaining? What do I know?

Shantivadin said...

Oops! when I said "It does call into question whether Mahayana texts can be taken seriously as religious scripture or merely for entertainment."
I meant to say "It does call into question whether SOME Mahayana texts can be taken seriously as religious scripture or merely for entertainment."

That one little word "some" is quite important!

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Shantivadin,
Mahayana sutras often contain notions and ideas that are both profound and practical. The problem is that this is all too often mixed up with things that stretch credibility to breaking point. I do not think any of them were ever meant to be ‘entertainment’. Also, I do not think that categorizing them as ‘religious’ or not is the point. The point should be ‘Is this true?’ ‘Does this correspond with the facts as I know them?’ I do think the Pali Tipitaka has far less of the ‘incredible’ and that most of this ‘incredible’ material is peripheral.

jigumann said...
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jigumann said...

I've never heard of this Sutra. Interesting anyway.

I think, This sutra was born because of influence of Kamasutra and the 108 sex position development of China in those days!!!

The only I see the point is the Buddha himself knows very well what his PENIS look Like !!!


Gui Do said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gui Do said...

The roots for "hyperbole" and "fantasy" in sutras lie in the Palicanon itself. The Jatakas, the stories of former lifes (as in the Sutta Nipata) and hellish punishment for bad deeds, strange rules like the prohibition of ten kinds of meat for monks etc. - all this is fantasy, relying on belief rather than on common sense to me, and neglectable on a deep spiritual path because "mind-made" (by certain individuals). It is true that in main Mahayana sutras like the Avatamsaka so many heavenly creatures appear that the first 100 pages or so make a real hard read. But in the end you have to read between the lines, as in the Palicanon. Or even just consider them nonsense. If not, you will find out one sign that marks a Buddha, the ability to draw one's penis back into one's body, can really lead to sickness.

Shantivadin said...

True Bhante, and yet how do we define what is true and what is not? I've found that in Buddhism the answer can be quite inconsistant.

As you know, the Buddha said in the Kalama Sutta that we should test the things we are told (even his teachings) to find what works, what is worthy of edification, and then put aside the rest. In my view that is completely rational.

But I have heard some Buddhists (even a monk!) say, "The Kalama Sutta was meant for the Kalamas, not for Buddhists."
Yet surely that is like saying the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta was only meant for Malunkya (or those shot with a poisoned arrow), or the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta was only meant for the five monks, no one else!

KoSa said...

Dear Ven.Dhammika,

I think that your interpretation is based on two assumptions: 1. that Mahayana Sutras were *composed* much later and have little to do with what the Buddha actually spoke; 2. that they have to be taken at face value.

Regard the first point, it is not as easy to prove that as it seems. Those who have tried to do that usually rely on some form of materialist historicism (i.e. the social sciences) from which contemporary historiographical methods arise. If instead one uses the - I would argue, more sophisticated - tools of Buddhist epistemology, the avoidance to tackle some points of argument as merely 'obvious' can be seen as, in fact, mere dogmatism and lack of argumentation. On my part, I rather consider that Mahayana Sutras have the same exact status as the non-Mahayana ones.

As for the second one, taking the Mahayana Sutras at face-value is considered to be a serious mistake. For this, see the Mahayanasutralamkara (if you are interested, I can give you more precise references).


Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear KoSa,
Thank you for your comments. My post is based on the belief that the Mahayana sutras were composed much later than the Pali four nikayas. I am satisfied that the evidence points clearly to this. But you are wrong in assuming that I conclude from this that they reflect little of what the Buddha spoke. I believe they often do just that, and sometimes with startling clarity and skill. But I also feel, as I said, that this is frequently mixed with concepts and claims that drift far from Dhamma and from reality, and often obscure Dhammic ideas. Your point that perhaps not all such material should be taken literally is a valid one, and as with Pali literature, there seems no doubt that some material was meant to be seen metaphorically. However, if we interpret everything we in the 21st cent. cannot accept, as ‘symbolic’ or as ‘a metaphor’, we may be misleading ourselves. Everything we know about ancient Indian society (and other societies too) show that people did believe in the concrete reality of monster and devils, magic and necromancy, spells and charms. They accepted as a given that the world was flat, that Rahu ate the moon and that stars and planets were gods who could answer prayers. Many strange beliefs and ideas were incorporated into later Buddhism and were often very clearly presented as true and were meant to be taken as true. Such things can be found in early Pali literature too but there is surprisingly little of it and nearly all of it is peripheral to the Dhamma.
And yes, I would be most interested in the quote you mention from the Mahayanasutralankara.

KoSa said...

Dear Ven.Dhammika,

Thank you for your reply.

Well, I’d like to start with the Mahāyānasūtrālaṁkāra (1.20):

yathārute’rthe parikalpyamāne
svapratyayo hānim upaiti buddheḥ |
svākhyātatāṁ ca kṣipati kṣatiṁ ca
prāpnoti dharme pratighātam eva ||

When one imagines the meaning to accord with the literal expression,
Following one’s own convictions, he harms one’s own understanding;
He discards the perfect enunciation, and obtains loss,
as well as a sure offense, in respect to the Dharma.

Please do notice that here Ārya Maitreya is saying that taking the meaning of the Mahāyāna Sūtras to correspond to their literal expression, constitutes a serious downfall.

As for the other points you raised:

I am not all satisfied with the evidence that has been adduced to argue that the Pāli Suttas are earlier than the Mahāyāna Sūtras, for a variety of reasons. I don’t think I could prove the opposite, but it’s not a problem for me. I simply think that any argument about the relative chronology of different texts is bound to be inconclusive. Some of the arguments that have been adduced (in fact, most) are so flimsy as to be based on style and vocabulary, and about 80% of those arguments involve circular reasoning.

KoSa said...

And as for Rāhu and the moon, and all the rest, that is really not what I was referring to. I personally believe that pretas, piśācas, asuras, and so forth, probably exist; I am quite sure that necromancy works; I agree that the Moon (Bhagavān Candra) and the Sun (Sūrya Bhagavān) are in fact deities; and also that, in many contexts, it is more accurate to say that the Earth is flat with mount Meru in the middle. To you those may just sound like strange beliefs, but to me they are perfectly sensible. Hence, I have no problem whatsoever with Sutras which mention such things! That’s not really what I was referring to. I would in fact be very disappointed if I found Sutras whose cosmology may be more in accordance with 21st century canons of empirical observation – which I consider flawed and unsophisticated, and in fact, one of the very grand causes of human degeneration in the modern era.

However, Ārya Maitreya’s point is of a different kind. The important point is not really one of what is being observed empirically (the size of the Buddha’s penis) but its meaning. From a Mahāyāna perspective, what one sees depends from one’s karmic propensities, and there is a sharp difference in what ordinary beings and Bodhisattvas on the Bhūmis can perceive (since the latter can perceive the Sambhogakāya – as specified in the Abhisamayālaṁkāra literature). There is no perfectly uniform object of empirical observation – hence, to concentrate on that feature in the Sutras is to miss their intended point completely. As a great Tibetan Lama once said, the Mahāyāna Sūtras describe a Lion Throne for Buddha Śākyamuni, decked in jewels and richly decorated; but had we been there, we would have only seen a slab of stone.

To read and comment upon Mahāyāna Sūtras is an art. If I am not mistaken, Huan Tsang describes the education system in Nalanda precisely in terms of becoming a ‘master’ of those Sūtras; either ‘Master of Five Sūtras’ or 15, or 50 (he himself obtained the highest title). Like most South Asian Śāstras too, the Sūtras are not self-enclosed textual entities, but rather, they are accompanied by a tradition of oral commentary and practice handed down from generation to generation. In other words, reading Mahāyāna Sūtras is an art, to be learnt through years of study, reflection, and cultivation. It is no surprise that Mahāyāna authors wrote large treatise (like the Mahāyānasūtrālaṁkāra and its commentary, or Vasubandhu’s Vyākhyāyukti) to explain the difficulties and proper ways to approach the reading of those Sūtras.

All this is to say the following: if we don’t find Dharma in the Mahāyāna Sūtras, the fault may well be in our own lack of interpretive skill. At least, we should accept the *possibility* that it may be so – that we have not found depth in that Sūtra because *perhaps* that depth is not in us. It is at the very least a possibility worthy of some consideration. A quick dismissal of something as 'strange' or 'meaningless' is to me a sign of lack of sufficient reflection. 'Common sense' is just a synonym of ingrained prejudice.

Mahāyāna masters have found meaning in those Sūtras for at least twenty centuries, and through them, they have been able to cultivate a realization in line with the intent of all the Buddhas. Since I believe this to be possible (and since I believe it to be the case) I regard all the syllables of all the Sūtras as equally precious and worthy of reflection. I have never read a single Sūtra which struck me as containing either strange or gratuitous materials. I may have not read those many, but I did read a few.

Again thank you,


Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear KoSa,
To me, reading a lot of contemporary Buddhist writings it a bit like reading a Soviet newspaper – ‘Everything’s wonderful’ ‘We’re all united behind the Party’ ‘Everyone is happy’. How dull! No wonder the USSR collapsed! Creative tension between different perspectives and alternative approaches keeps the precious Dhamma vital and alive. And for as long as the discourse remains civil it’s a good thing. I disagree with much of what you have said but I do so respectfully. Sarvamangalam!

KoSa said...

Dear Ven.Dhammika,

I actually agree with your first point, and that is the rationale behind offering my own disagreement. In fact, I am aware that my positions in respect to modern canons of empiricism is both minoritarian (amongst contemporary Buddhist writers) and counter-intuitive (for many at least).

I hope my argument was not taken to suggest that *we must all agree*. In fact, it was meant to suggest quite the opposite - that there are *genuine differences* in the understanding of reality and of Buddhavacana say (for example) between Vaibhaa.sika and the Yogaacaara, or between Theravaada and the Madhyamaka. The stance I adopt, I would argue, is in accordance with the Yogacara and Madhyamaka traditions (not out of a priori decision, but due to reasoned conviction). I don't think it is identical to other traditional positions (like, say, Vaibhaa.sika or Theravaada) and I don't think it is perfectly compatible with modern scientific materialism. It is also not in accordance with most contemporary writing on Buddhism, and I feel quite free to differ.

Hence, I also offer my disagreements respectfully. If I may be allowed to say this without sounding too arrogant, my argument, in a nutshell, is that yours is a mistaken method - your approach to interpreting the Mahayana Sutras does not look sound, and I have pointed out why in the previous note. It's a matter of being convinced by different types of reasoning - and yours don't convince me, for reasons highlighted above. Nonetheless, I am sure thankful to you for sharing them, and for reiterating that you don't agree with my own position (it would be useful to know why, but please feel free not to answer). I am also open to change my own understanding, if some sound counter-argument may convince me.


Jeffrey Kotyk said...

It is probably best to just describe the scripture in question as a folk tale or popular story that made it into the Chinese canon. The Chinese generally accepted anything from the 'western regions' and beyond as genuine.

In East Asia and Tibet they drew up doxographies detailing subjective schemes determining which scriptures were truest and which were only 'elementary' or upaya teachings.

In this case the said scripture can be summarized simply as a clever way 'the Buddha' was able to manifest skilful means to teach anyone, but it should be kept in mind this is a popular story made sutra.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Also, this scripture might have been drafted with the idea in mind of provoking a response not unlike what you've brought up. A lot of Mahayana scriptures say things which at the time would have been shocking to a lot of Buddhists. Look at the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra. The tantric literature is even more provocative. Bodhisattvas are to faint hearing some teachings.

I think the scripture in question has a meaning behind it, but whether it is clear in Chinese translation and outside of the context it was written in is debatlable.

Personally if someone asked me about it I'd suggest it was just a popular folk tale made canonical and leave it at that.

KoSa said...


Thank you for your comments.

I feel I have already expressed the reasons why I would not find your suggestions satisfactory - they are based on some modern canons of historiography, which I find far less sophisticated and convincing than those discussed and upheld by Buddhist historians (like for example Taranatha). Furthermore, I am quite convinced that such parameters of historical reconstruction are ultimately committed to a form of materialist view, to which I surely do not subscribe.

And of course, I find them slightly patronizing and Euro-centric. The only reason why such dismissals of alternative historiography is so easily and broadly accepted is, alas, the history of violence and prevarication between colonizers and colonized. This gave rise to a coarse positivist rhetoric which conflates 'science' with 'rationality' and which still holds sway in the mind of many, perpetuating the prejudice that the 'natives' perspectives about their own past are somewhat primitive, 'folk', and uncritical. And I would insist that this is no more than a prejudice.

KoSa said...

P.S.: sorry if this sound like a very polemical reply.

It's not intended to be so. What I wish to highlight, rather, is that traditional Buddhist positions about the history and the past are sophisticated and well-reasoned. Often, modern readers of Buddhist texts are not aware of Buddhist principles of historiography, and I feel this may be part of the reason why traditional accounts are so quickly dismissed.

On my part, I would like to recommend serious study and reflection of what Buddhist philosophers themselves have to say about the exegesis and understanding of the Sutras; if that is also found to be somewhat 'folk' and unconvincing, I feel it is only fair to state the reasons, since the Buddhist positions are based on well argued reasoning and it seems unfair (at least to me) to brush them aside without offering any rationale to do so.

awdawd said...

trimakasih infonya...
sangat menarik dan bermanfaat...

Antique Buddhas said...

The name of the sutra itself is quite strange no offense though.
The sutra in Mahayana is believed to be quite strong among the Buddhist monks.