Monday, September 26, 2016

The Buddha And The Phallus

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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Little-known Buddhist Physician

Vāgbhaa was a Āyurvedic physician who flourished during the 6th century, probably in Sindh in western India. His teacher was Avlokita, another notable Buddhist physician of whom unfortunately all information has been lost. Since ancient times Vāgbhaa major work, the Asagahdaya, has been considered the epitome of all medical treaties that preceded it.  He starts his treatise by praising the Great Physician, i.e. the Buddha, ‘who destroys diseases the foremost being lust, which always clings and creeps over the whole being giving rise to craving, delusion and discontent’. Being based on a faulty understanding of human anatomy (the veins carry wind and converge  on the navel, etc.) many of Vāgbhaa cures are not  relevant today, but other things he wrote  certainly would be. Although primarily concerned with medicine and sickness and health Vāgbhaa includes advice on ethical living believing that the two are related. ‘All beings believe that everything they do is done because it will make them happy. But there is no true happiness without virtue. So one should put virtue first.’ 
The ethical values he recommended are imbued with distinct Buddhist principles. Examples of this are included in the first chapter of the Asagahdaya. ‘One should strive to look after those who suffer because they have no livelihood, or because they are sick or distressed. One should even try to see small creatures like one’s own self…One should aim to be helpful even to enemies who wish one ill. One should maintain equanimity through good times and bad. Do not crave for success but rather give heed to those things  which nourish success. Speak at the right time, be kind, moderate and graceful. One should never break one’s word… Keep to the Middle Way in all things… A good person fulfills these qualities; gentleness towards family, generosity to others, restraint of body, speech and mind, and treating the cares of others as if they were one’s own.’ 
Vāgbhaa did not neglect advice on etiquette and common-sense precautions so to avoid sickness or accidents that would require consulting a physician. ‘One should keep one’s body hair, finger nails and beard short, and one’s feet and bodily orifices clean. Bathe regular, be nicely perfumed, well-dressed, and acceptably but not ostentatious… Travel with an umbrella and sandals and keep one’s gaze straight ahead. When it is necessary to go out at night take a staff, ware something on the head and get a friend to accompany you…One should not sneeze, laugh, or yawn without covering the mouth. One should not pick one’s noise or aimlessly scratch the ground with one’s foot.’  
You can read more about Vāgbhaa in K.R Srikantha’s Vāgbhaa’s Asaga Hdaya: Text, English translation, notes, appendix, and indices, 1991-5 or perhaps better in Dominik Wujastyk’s more easily available The Roots of Ayruveda, Penguin Books, 2003.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Vision Of India

William Gedney was an American photographer who died in  relative  obscurity in 1989 and whose work has only attracted some critical attention in the last few years. He’s known  mainly for his photos of  rural Kentucky but he travelled through India in the early 1970s and took many photos there. Here a few that remind me of what  India  was like when I was there around the same time.