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.


What I like and what I dislike said...

Hello Banthe, good to have you back again. I was in sorrow because I had no idea why you stopped posting from June 14th to mid of September.
But now I am happy you are back. I hope you are in good health?
This topic of including some beliefes or traditions into Buddhism was always a riddle for me. What you wrote about this issue is not mere shocking but a little bit amusing.
It shows what people obviously need to be happy or to think they need to be happy.

All the best to you,


Unknown said...

Hello Banthe. Great blog! I've just checked out many of your articles and I think they're just fantastic! Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Mayte Ruíz and I'm from Mexico. I've been studying Buddhism for a year now. I'm a big "fan" of yours Banthe.I really admire your work and forever appreciate all the great effort you've made on the BuddhaNet website with all the Dhamma talks recordings (especially the ones on self examination and inner beauty!) I will also take the chance to thank you from the bottom of my heart for that great book of yours: Good Question, Good Answer. Not only is it in more than twenty languages, but it's so concise, straight foward and practical. I've already shared it with four other people (in Spanish, of course). Our Lord would be so proud of you Banthe for all your striving to preserve and share the Dhamma. I also admire and respect your knowledge in Pali. What an honour I believe! And again, thank you so much for all the good deeds that you have done and to the many more that I'm sure will come. I know this comment is too long, but please don't mind. I feel overwhelmed to finally have the oportunity to even contact you! I don't have any fellow Buddhists to find support in...let alone learn anything from them. Most people here are Catholic (as you may know). So advancing on my Dhamma studies becomes a little challenging, but thanks to you and the other members of the Sangha, I've been able to grasp many of the Buddha's teachings (putting them in practice is the tricky part). Years of wrong views and mental dullness and defilements are hard for me to get rid of, Banthe. But I'm determined to become a true Buddhist laywoman (as to begin with...since I see Arahatship a little far) :P
May I soon find other beings who rejoice as much as we do in the Lord's words and may you be healthy, may you be safe, may you be happy, and may you reach enlightment for the benefit of all beings. Thank you yet again and hope to hear from you venerable sir.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Mayte, thanks for your kind words. If you send me your address I will happily post you some books. My address is

Unknown said...

Thank you very much Bhante. 😊 (sorry for the wrong spelling in the previous message) I'll send you an email then and I hope it's not too much of a burden, knowing you're so busy. Hope you have a great day (?) (over here it's 8pm). Thanks again Bhante. Greetings! 🙋

Shravasti Dhammika said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

So grateful to have you. Thank you Bhante!! 😄🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏

brahmavihara said...

Some twenty years ago, I was spending a Rains retreat in one of Australia's best known Theravada Buddhist Monasteries as an Anagarika. The teachings at this monastery and it's associated society are well known for their no nonsense, but vital content the Buddhist teachers, are likewise and one or two of whom have international status in the Buddhist world. Anagarikas such as myself were much in demand to carry out many monastic duties including driving and meal preparation and so on. I was tidying up the dining hall after our faithful supporters had left for the day and gone home. The daily cleaning of Monk's spittoons and so on was underway, vacuuming the carpets and so on. It was a routine day, save for one thing. There was a rather large unadorned cardboard carton near where the Senior Monk would sit and give the usual blessings and Dharma talk after the morning meal. i opened the closed but not sealed box and to my surprise, beheld the contents. The contents was a collection of what seemed like carved wooden mushrooms of various shapes and sizes. At closer inspection it became obvious that these were in fact Phalluses. A real surprise. It became obvious what to do next and that was report this devotional offering to our Abbott which is what was done. The Abbott said to burn the box of goodies in the hot water furnace and an hour or so later they went up in smoke.
So it seems the Buddhist/Phallic worship seems to be a rather persistent phenomenon, no matter the relevancy or appropriateness. Someone took he effort to procure these objects, transport them to the Monastery and leave them as some kind of devotional gift presumably with the best intentions. A few weeks later, another box, but this time some rather mysterious talismans or amulets? made from wild animal skins and bones etc. More fuel for the hot water furnace. Funny old world, aint it? The person{s} that made these offerings must have earned at least the merit of keeping the monastic community warm for a time. Probably not exactly what he or she had planned. So there you have it

Unknown said...

There is no phallus warship in Buddhism but in Hindi-Shiwa religious. Don't get mistaken.
Revatha Thero

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