Sunday, November 16, 2008

How Did That Get There!

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 traditional Buddhist countries is another matter. There, Buddhism has been far to casual (tolerant?) about accepting all sorts of superstitious beliefs and practices. To my mind, the most primitive of these is phallic worship.
There are several Buddhist temples in Japan associated with phallic worship. The most famous of these is Mara Kannon in Tawarayama in 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. come here and offer small phalluses (bring your own or purchase one at the temple’s gift shop) in the hope of getting help. 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 of people. I have never seen it but I am told that thousands 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 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 directly to a large realistic stone phallus, usually with pink or yellow ribbons tied around it and garlands draped over it. 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 Drukpa Kunley 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. On the main shrine at Chimi Lhakhang, the temple dedicated to Drukpa Kunley, there is a large red-painted wooden phallus and 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 part of the human body - e.g. Jesus’ ‘precious blood’, his sacred heart or guruji's lotus-like feet - or even the whole body, e.g. the actual person themselves. On the other hand, the sexual organs 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 of 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.
I know that 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 complete nonsense. What could be more twisted than the Japanese attitude to sex! Who could be more sexually suppressed 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 just 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 vulgar superstitions to creep into it. Sociologically and psychologically phallic worship is very interesting. Spiritually it offers nothing of any value.


Alessandro S. said...

Hello, Bhante.
I read these words of yours:
«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.»
I recently run into Ms. Durga N. Bhagvat's book, "Early Buddhist Jurisprudence", New Delhi, 1939. While she agrees that
«the peculiarity of the rules lies in the structure and formation, which are so distinct from any ecclesiastic laws [like the Hindus' and the Jains']» (p. 46-7), she argues that
«we cannot disregard the root of legal institutions merely because they happen to be embedded in antiquity. Tradition is a great storehouse of the unwritten historical material from which many ideas can be drawn. The laws of the Vinaya, also owe a good deal to tradition, as the laws suiting any sane and practical institution must needs do [sic]. Buddhism and Jainism are different in their ethical and religious outlook from Brahmanism, yet no religion in the world is in the real sense of the term so original, as to break off completely from the beaten path. Especially, in a conservative and past-loving country like ancient India, even the idea of smashing the tradition seems improbable. The Buddha himself never wished it. He never meant to find a new way to salvation; he only remodeled customs which were worn out and out of place. [...] The Hindu laws are known for their sole dependance on custom; but the laws of the Vinaya also have mostly their antecedents in nothing else but custom. The Hindu law-givers, looked upon three things as the sources of the law, viz. (1) Veda, (2) Smriti, and (3) Ācāra (custom) [1]. But since the Buddha did not believe in the former two sources, custom was all the more important in the formation of the Vinaya-laws, and that is one of the reasons why public censure and recommendations had so much effect in on the origin and evolution of these laws.

«After a close scrutiny of the Vinaya-laws one find out that the framework of these rules is essentially based on tradition, while the details and the legal methods are the inventions of the Buddhists. The rules as a fact are taken from the ancient law-codes, the Upaniṣads, topical environment etc. The rules borrowed from the Dharmasūtras are generally taken from the injunctions of the two institutions, viz., the Brahmacarya and ascetism.» (p. 48-9) The following pages, sections Contribution of Brahmacarya, The influence of the institution of Yatis and Uposatha in older literature, give many of the details Ms. Bhagvat assets prove her point.
I am only a commoner and a layman, but I would like a comment of yours on these opinions.
With kind regards,

Alessandro S. said...

Bhante, tomorrow I am going to leave. I will be back in December, and I will be able to read any comment of yours only then.

Ser Ming said...

Which is worse:-

1. phallic worship or;
2. tantric sex?

Unknown said...

i have seen in the movie "travellers and magicians" (which is shot in Bhutan and directed by a Buddhist monk)a really giant phallus being brought into a house, during a house blessing ceremony. and this ceremony is being dismissed by the main character of the movie.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Yamizi,

Unknown said...

Just out of curiosity - why is the one for the Tibetan painting not "pointing" straight up like the rest? Most lingams do.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Terrance,
Perhaps he's tired!