Thursday, June 3, 2010

What Makes A Real Man?

In the blurb on the back of this book Charles Prebish says it is ‘one of the most creative and remarkable manuscripts on an Indian-Buddhist related topics I have read in the past quarter century’. I would agree completely. John Powers’ A Bull of a Man, Harvard University Press 2009, is an in-depth study of masculinity, male sexuality and the male body in Indian Buddhism, from the Pali Tipitaka, Sanskrit Hinayana texts, Mahayana texts and in Vajrayana literature. It makes fascinating, and at times rather disconcerting reading. In the second chapter Powers looks at the Buddha’s body as described in the Tipitaka. He takes the position that the Buddha’s physical beauty, so often mentioned in the Tipitaka must be the result of the doctrine of kamma, the idea that physical attractiveness is the result of good done in former lives. While this is possible I see no good reason to doubt that the Buddha was handsome (some people are) and that the Tipitaka is recording an authentic memory of how the Buddha really looked. Powers then examines the mahapurisalakkhana, the 32 signs of a great man, probably the strangest doctrinal idea in the Tipitaka. If the Buddha really had some of these physical characteristics one is tempted to think that the midwives would have suffocated him as soon as he was born. But the reality is that the ancient Indians considered such characteristics not just auspicious but also charming and beautiful. Later Buddhist literature like the Paramitasamasa never seem to tire of praising the Buddha’s tongue, so long that he could lick the back of his head, and his webbed fingers. Special attention was also given to his penis which could be drawn into his body like those of male elephants and horses. In his Abhidharmakosa, Vasubhandu contradicts the Vibhasika’s contention that the Buddha’s penis was ugly, maintaining that it was actually beautiful to behold. It’s enough to make you blush! The origin of the mahapurisalakkhana has so far foxed scholars but they are usually said to be a Brahmanical concept incorporated into Buddhism at an early date. The problem with this theory is that the idea is found nowhere in pre or post-Buddhist texts. Powers uses his very considerable knowledge of Indian medical texts to examine the mahapurisalakkhana and although he comes to no firm conclusion, it looks like the 32 signs might have their origin is early medical ideas.
Powers maintains that the early Buddhists were concerned that the Buddha should not be thought of as impotent or in any way inadequate, even sexually inadequate, and to this end they emphasized his masculinity. This seems like a plausible theory and would certainly explain the noticeably macho epitaphs the Buddha and other enlightened males are given throughout the Tipitaka - the Bull of Men, Leader of the Caravan, Stallion, Hero, etc. Later tradition would seen to verify Power’s theory too. He recounts a popular legend from Laos about the Buddha’s virility. According to this story, some evil disciples were claiming that celibacy was unnatural and that the Buddha practiced it only in order to hide his impotence. When some other monks heard this and thought that perhaps their might be some truth to it the Buddha asked them, ‘Do you really doubt my virility?’ Their silence indicated that they did. The Buddha then went to a secluded place and returned some time later (the story doesn’t say exactly how long later) with cupped-hands full of his own semen. He showed it to the doubting monks saying, ‘Here is proof of my manliness’ and then went to the Mekong and washed his hands. It so happened that the fish goddess just happened to we swimming past, she became pregnant and later gave birth to the boy child who would grow up and become the arahat Upagta, a mythological saint popular in parts of S.E.Asia. Good God! What a story! That would have to be the most bizarre Buddha legend I have ever heard.
According to Powers, the modern popular images (conceptual and actual) of the Buddha as asexual or even effeminate are actually a recent idea. I’m not sure about this. I think it would be more true to say that the ancient Indians considered the Buddha to be unambiguously masculine but that their image of masculinity was/is somewhat different from that of other peoples. Powers must have missed Daud Ali’s Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India (2004), a brilliant study which includes an examination of ancient Indian ideas of masculine beauty. The virile Indian male was, at least to Western thinking, soft and effeminate. Like his modern counterpart he held his male friend’s hands and lounged in his arms, painted his eyelashes and spent an inordinate amount of time looking at himself in the mirror. Al Baruni (11th cent.) found Indian men distinctly dandified and effeminate compared to what he was used to. ‘The men wear articles of female dress; they use cosmetics, wear earrings, arm-rings, golden seal-rings on the ring-finger as well as on their toes.’ This is not to say that South Asian men are incapable of doing everything other men are but only that their concept of masculinity was/is different.
In the seventh and last chapter ‘Adepts and Sorcerers’ Powers examines Indian Vajrayana. It is only a brief survey but the material he assembles is enough to contradict the Western Tibetan Buddhist contention that Tantra had little to do with sexual indulgence and promiscuity. Even allowing for so-called ‘twilight language’ some of this stuff was clearly meant to be practiced and is pretty bizarre by any standards. Some is so bizarre and extreme it simply couldn’t be practiced. Sex itself may not be adhammic, but that unrestrained lust, sexual indulgence and sexual magic are a means to enlightenment, was a major departure from early Buddhist and Mahayana teaching. Powers makes another point that may well be unpalatable to Western Tantric enthusiastic, particually females. ‘All of the tantras I have studies assume a male perspective, were written by men for men, and assume that males would be performing their rituals. The descriptions of sexual yoga are always, as far as I am aware, addressed to males, and female consorts are not described as deriving any spiritual benefits from their participation. The Indian Buddhist tantras provide no guidelines for woman who want to engage in these yogas…The female consort does not attain any soteriological benefits in any of the text I have studied, and her role is as a facilitator in her partner’s progress. I have not encountered any evidence of a corresponding women’s spirituality in any Buddhist tantric text’.


Anonymous said...

No matter how seemingly bizarre an ancient (or contemporary) people's idea of beauty and/or masculinity might be, I just can't understand how a tongue that can lick the back of the head could ever be considered attractive!
Ah, vive la différence!

Very interesting and amusing post Bhante!

Unknown said...

Miranda Shaw has published a book called Passionate Enlightenment in which she gives an explanation of tantras from a feminine viewpoint, which is grounded in the tradition, the book was chosen as a buddhist book of the year by Tricycle Magazine, what Powers says maybe true, i.e. he has not read or heard anything of the kind that Miranda Shaw presents.
The famous chinese yogi C.M. Chen has told of a sutra called Buddha Penis Sutra that exists in chinese Tripitaka, in it Buddha has a Who's penis is bigger? -competition with Shiva, which the Buddha naturally wins. Unfortunately Yogi Chen's "disciple" mr Yutanling has "edited" C.M.Chen's books, after which there is no mention of this highly interesting sutra!

Shravasti Dhammika said...

There is in fact a ‘Buddha’s penis’ sutra in the Chinese Tipitaka, a translation from the original Sanskrit. However it has not been translation into English and I have never read it. But from what I know of it, it is an attempt to counter the growing influence of Sivite Hinduism and as Yogi Chen correctly says, includes a penis competition with Siva who is, I’m sure you know,is often symbolized as a lingum. Whether or not this is composed in a ‘tongue in cheek’ tone or not I cannot say. Either way, it sounds like a pretty bizarre piece of literature. As with so much Buddhist literature, the further you get away from the Buddha the more unrealistic (and in this case, the more embarrassing) it becomes.

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