Syncretism is the adoption of elements of one religion into another. All religions are syncretic to some degree. Despite the widespread assumption to the contrary, the Buddha adopted very little from the religions or the folk beliefs of his time and included nothing at all from them into his essential teachings. Buddhism as it has evolved in its traditional homeland is another matter. There, Buddhism has been far too casual (tolerant?) about accepting all sorts of superstitious beliefs and practices. To my mind, the most primitive of these is phallicism
There are several Buddhist temples in Japan associated with phallic worship. The most famous of these is Mara Kannon in Tawarayama, Yamaguchi Prefecture, supposedly dedicated to Avalokitsvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion - Kuan Yin in Chinese, Kannon in Japanese. For reasons that I have been unable to discover (other than that proclivity to corruption so common in Buddhism) the statue in this shrine has become associated with fertility which in turn has led to an unabashed phallicism. People who have problems associated with the penis – erectile problems, ‘size issues’, bed wetting, infertility, low sperm count, venereal diseases, etc. go there and offer small phalluses (bring your own or purchase one at the temple’s gift shop) in the hope of getting help (1st picture). The Mara Kannon Matsuri Festival held on the 1st of May every year and during which huge phalluses are carried through the streets, attracts thousands. I have never seen it but I am told that of prostitutes, cross-dressers and bawds from all over Japan come and there is much bacchanalian revelry. Very Buddhist indeed!
Wat Po is one of the largest monasteries in Bangkok. Go to the main shrine, pay your respects to the large and graceful Buddha statue there, then stand to one side, look up at the statues serene half-closed eyes and follow its gaze. You will see that it looks out the main door of the shrine straight to a large stone phallus, usually with pink or yellow ribbons tied around it and garlands draped over it (2nd picture). There are several phallic shrines in Bangkok but this is the only one I know that is actually in a Buddhist monastery. I have been told there are others. If you want your own phallus – you know, to hang around your neck or worship in the comfort of your own home – the place to go is to the amulet market held every Sunday at Wat Mahathat, Thailand’s premier Buddhist university. They have all kinds there; small, big, very big, enormous, being hugged by little figures, with faces or legs on them, inscribed with mantras, blessed by famous monks, made of wood, bone, plastic or metal. I went to this market once and couldn’t help noticing how many monks there were (mainly old ones) inspecting the wares.
Drukpa Kunkey is a semi-mythological character in popular Buddhism in Bhutan and southern Tibet. The various legends about him are not only funny but are meant to be a healthy poke at monastic formalism, ostentatious piety, sanctimoniousness and spiritual pride. Having evolved amongst peasants, many of these stories also contain a good deal of bawdy humor and imagery, particularly related to Drukpa Kunley’s apparently enormous member. I do not know that his phallus is actually worshiped, but paintings of it appear on many houses in Bhutan while wooden versions of it hang from the corners of the roofs of others 3rd picture). On the main shrine at Chimi Lhakhang, the temple dedicated to Drukpa Kunley, there is a large red-painted wooden phallus with a tassel on its end. When women wanting children come to this temple, the presiding monk touches them on the head with this phallus. Incidentally, the paintings in this temple, depicting the life of Drukpa Kunley are the finest I saw in all Bhutan. If you ever go there take Keith Dowman’s The Divine Madman with you. It will help you understand the paintings.
When I visited the famous Kaniska Gompa in Zanshar I noticed a large wooden phallus sticking out of the wall at the entrance to the temple. I asked the lama with me what it was for and he told me it was to frighten evil spirits so that they wouldn’t go in the temple. I didn’t ask why such spirits should be frightened by a phallus. If they are male I would expect them to admire it rather than be frightened of it.
From one point of view worshiping a sexual organ is no better or worse that worshiping any other form of the human body (precious blood, guruji’s lotus-like feet, bodily relics, etc) . On the other hand, the genetails are the physical manifestation of sexual desire and pleasure, something the Dhamma teaches us to deemphasize and eventually try to transcend. I know of nothing in either Pali or Mahayana literature attributed to the Buddha that could be described even with the broadest interpretation as ‘a celebration of sexuality’. The only thing I could imagine further from the Dhamma than phallic worship would be killing and perhaps hatred.
Apparently many Westerners attend the Mara Kannon Matsuri Festival, as they go to Khajuraho, to gawk in wonder at the supposed lack of prudery and ‘healthy attitude towards sex’ of Asians. This is of course nonsense on stilts. What could be more twisted than the Japanese attitude to sex! Who could be more sexually repressed than the Indians! And anyway, these and several other examples of phallicism in Buddhism have nothing to do with openness or healthy attitudes. They are examples of where the guardians of the Dhamma have either acquiesced to popular desires and needs or where, out of lack of commitment to the Dhamma, they have allowed superstitions to creep into it. Sociologically and psychologically phallic worship is very interesting. Spiritually it offers nothing of any value.