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Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality by Bernard Faure

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The Hermeneutics of Desire

    By whatever thing the world is bound, by that
    the bond is unfastened.

    One who, possessing desire, represses desire, is living a lie.

After six years of ascesis, Sakyamuni realized the ultimate truth under the bodhi tree and became the Buddha, the Awakened. What is this truth according to the first Buddhist orthodoxy (for as we will see, there have been several)?

It is expressed in the form of a tetralemma known as the "four noble truths": suffering, the cause of suffering, the possibility of ending suffering, and the method of achieving that end.

The first two rubrics describe the world of samsara, the cycle of transmigration through birth-and-death. The driving force of this cycle is desire.

Actually, desire is itself produced by ignorance, which makes one believe in the existence of an enduring self where the sage sees only fleeting states of consciousness.

The third rubric deals with nirvana, the ultimate quiescence and extinction of all defilements or passions; the fourth describes the path to nirvana--the so-called eightfold path.

    Some of these ideas were common in the Indian culture of the time. They were not radically new to Sakyamuni himself. Despite the attempts of his own father, King Suddhodana, to shield him from the harsh realities of the outside world, Sakyamuni had encountered these realities--in the form of a sick man, an old man, a corpse and an ascetic--during four excursions outside the palace.

    It is another event that led him to leave the palace, however. One night, he awoke and looked at the women of his gynaeceum, asleep around him in unflattering postures--frozen in a corpselike slumber. Sleep had stripped them of their charms, and revealed their ugliness.

This scene revealed to Sakyamuni the vanity of his hedonistic life. He thus came to understand that everything, including pleasure, is ephemeral and painful in the end, and that suffering takes root in desire and the illusion of a self.

More precisely, he came to understand the nature of sexual desire, which ties humans to their earthly body, to the circle of rebirths, and inscribes them in a long line of ancestors and descendants.

This first insight, which led Sakyamuni to abandon his wife and his newborn son, would eventually mature into full awakening under the bodhi tree.

By renouncing the world, Sakyamuni "left the family."

The expression "leaving the family" soon came to designate monastic ordination, and this is why, in Theravada, the postulant ritually reenacts the founder's "flight from the palace."

By an ironic turn of events, this ordination, in East Asian Buddhism, came to be seen as an adoption into another (spiritual) family, an affiliation to the "lineage of the Buddha": Chinese and Japanese monks bear the patronym Shi (Sakya). More generally, Buddhist monks and nuns are called "children of the Buddha."

    Whereas Sakyamuni left his wife Yasodhara and the other women of his gynaeceum without regrets, such renunciation was not always as easy for his disciples, as shown by the case of his half-brother Nanda.

After entering the Buddhist order at the request of the Buddha, on the day he was to get married, Nanda was unable to forget his love, the beautiful Sundari.

To help him take his mind off her, the Buddha showed him successively the most extreme ugliness--a dead and disfigured she monkey--and of beauty--the celestial nymphs in Trayastrimsa Heaven. Nanda came thus to realize that, from an aesthetic standpoint, the distance between the nymphs and Sundari was greater than that between Sundari and the monkey.

The stratagem turned out, however, to be a double-edged sword, as Nanda now became infatuated with the nymphs. Therefore, the Buddha promised him one of them as a wife if he would only persevere in his practice.

Fortunately, the mockery from his codisciples brought Nanda to his senses (or rather, away from them, back to reason), and thereafter he devoted himself to the practice of meditation.

The story affirms that he was eventually able to realize the vanity of all desires and the emptiness of beauty. He consequently untied the Buddha from his promise and renounced the nymph he had so coveted.


Sakyamuni succeeded in cutting off desire, but his disciples were not always as successful. In the later Buddhist tradition, desire was usually displaced, intensified, modified in manifold ways.

Even when repressed in its sexual form, desire was often merely displaced to thirst for power.

Political ambition, in turn, seems to have legitimated sex. Political success multiplies temptations and opportunities and, as we all know, "opportunities make the thief." A truly vicious circle.

    Sexual desire belongs to the realm of the senses, and these senses are deluding us.

We might recall Laozi's saying that the five senses make a person blind and deaf. Only the mind, a sixth sense according to Buddhists, can reveal things as they really are--provided that it can detach itself from sense perceptions.

Buddhist soteriology teaches that there are three obstacles to deliverance: passions, acts, and their retribution.

According to the the Dazhidulun, a commentary on the Prajnaparamitasutra (Great Perfection of Wisdom) attributed to Nagarjuna: "Among these three obstacles, the act is the greatest."

Indeed, it is the act that brings retribution, but only because it is itself caused by passion. The Dazhidulun insists on the inescapable nature of karmic retribution:

    The wheel of transmigration pulls man
    With his passions and hindrances.
    It is very strong and revolves freely,
    No one can stop it....
    The waters of the ocean may dry up,
    The earth of Mount Sumeru may become exhausted,
    But the acts of former existences
    Will never be consummated or exhausted.

    Desire is almost as defiling as the act itself, however: "He who enjoys looking at women, even in painting, is not detached from the act." In the traditional Buddhist classification, there are three passions: hatred, love, and ignorance.

Desire, in the form of love (raga, a word meaning color, but also lewdness, concupiscence, lust, attraction), is therefore one of the "three poisons" that pollute and maintain human existence.

According to this conception, all existence (human or nonhuman, because this is true even for the gods) is fundamentally defiled.

    The Buddhist notion of desire is not limited to sexual desire; it encompasses all sensual desires.

Desire is usually described with ten similes: it is said to be like a dry meat bone, a piece of meat for which many birds are fighting, a torch made of straw carried against the wind, a pit full of burning coal, a dream of a beautiful landscape, borrowed things, a tree laden with fruit on which it is dangerous to climb, a slaughterhouse, the point of a sword, a snake's head.

Carnal desires are commonly associated with hunger and thirst, more precisely eating meat and drinking alcohol, and therefore nondesire implies not only chastity but vegetarianism and sobriety as well.

Buddhist desire--this "creeper of existence" according to the Dhammapada--is reminiscent of what the Romans called cupiditas, greed in all its forms. As Peter Brown remarks, the true struggle of the ascetic is as much against his belly as against his underbelly.

Significantly perhaps, the Buddha is said to have died from indigestion after eating meat, not from venereal disease.

In modern Theravada monasteries, the major obstacle to monastic life is not chastity but the--apparently minor--rule of fasting in the afternoon.

In Japan, monks have got round this rule by calling their evening meal a "medication."

    Buddhists distinguish between sensual desire and a subtler desire, the "thirst for existence"--including the desire to be reborn in paradise.

To these two forms of desire they add a third one, the desire for annihilation, the thirst for nonexistence.

However, the Buddhist position on this point is somewhat ambivalent.

Whereas in early Buddhism this desire for nirvana was judged to be good, later Buddhists came to deny its nature as desire (for its paradoxical object, nirvana, is neither being nor nonbeing).

In Mahayana Buddhism, however, this longing for deliverance is often perceived as the most dangerous form of the desire to exist, because it is the most subtle: as the simile goes, a sandalwood fire burns one just as well as as an ordinary fire.

    Some modern commentators have noted the apparent paradox of a "desire" for enlightenment. Of course, the term desire is misleading in this context, since we are not talking here of lust in the strict sense.

However, even if one cannot speak of a "lust for enlightenment" (Stevens) or of a "passionate enlightenment" (Shaw), the question of a will that would condition enlightenment, relativize the absolute, remains a vexing one.

We can distinguish on that point two main types of practitioners: those for whom any desire, even that of awakening, is harmful or at least superfluous; and those for whom, due to an ultimate ruse of ultimate reality, desire is still needed to put an end to desire.

Thus, in Tantrism, desire, once refined, may serve as fuel to awakening. In his study on rationality (and the subversion thereof), Jon Elster points to the paradox of states that are "by-products" and cannot be the direct effect of a cause.

Likewise, desire cannot lead directly to awakening, yet the latter derives from it--but it is only a paradoxical by-product, not a direct effect.

The Chan master Shenhui, for instance, distinguished two kinds of illusion, the gross and the subtle.

Gross delusion is to be attached to passions, subtle delusion is to attempt to get rid of passions in order to reach awakening.

    Desire for beauty belongs to the second category of delusion. Infatuation with beauty can remain long after physical craving has disappeared.

We recall the story of Nanda, who was infatuated with the beauty first of a mortal woman and later of a celestial nymph, but who was eventually able to overcome fire with fire.

Alienation not only in someone else's beauty but also in one's own beauty may become a stumbling block, as Narcissus learned at his own expense (or expanse).

Likewise, the handsome Ananda confronts dangers and difficulties unknown to the austere-looking Mahakasyapa.

Women fall in love with him, and he is lured into temptation by them. Sometimes, this love at first sight has disastrous consequences.

The Jurin shuyo sho, for instance, explain that monks no longer have their shoulder bare because a woman who was drawing water was troubled by the sight of Ananda and his skin "white as snow," and as a result let the child she carried fall into the well.

Sometimes, however, Ananda is able to use his beauty as an instrument of conversion.

In the Jikidan sho, the well-known episode of the seduction of Ananda by the courtesan Matanga becomes a moral victory for Ananda, who declares:

"If you want to become my wife, become a nun."

In the Sanbo ekotoba, we find that Ananda was, toward the end of the Heian period, the object (honzon) of a penance ritual for women.

    The "historical" Buddha himself is said to have been very handsome and he became at times the object of sublimated desire, in spite of the hagiographical or iconographical topos of the thirty-two corporeal marks that depicts him with hands reaching his knees, webbed fingers, and many other features that hardly meet our classical canon of beauty.

Nevertheless, transfigured by spirituality, his beauty can be beneficial, making him an object of devotion, an instrument of conversion.

Even after his death, the fragmented body of the Buddha in the form of "relics" (sarira), remained an object of desire and fetishism, and almost caused a "war of the relics."

In this case, people wanted to appropriate some of the spiritual power of the Buddha, an efficacy or charisma that was reflected (or embodied) in his corporeal beauty.

    For ordinary monks, beauty can be a mixed blessing.

For nuns (and women in general), it is simply a curse. In a man, beauty is often perceived as the effect of a good karma, whereas in a woman it is usually seen as the result of a past sin--paradoxically enough, because it produces attachment in men.

For this reason, the beautiful Eshun, sister of the Zen priest Emyo, had to disfigure herself to be accepted as a nun.

Such drastic measures are not always necessary, since attachment can also be thwarted by means of contemplation.

In order to understand the ephemeral nature of the body, monks are exhorted to contemplate impurity and ugliness, for instance to meditate on a corpse.

The Dazhidulun explains the necessity to "reject colors"--that is, all forms of beauty.

While emphasizing that "love or hatred depend on the person, and color in itself is indetermined," it argues that practitioners must reject both the feeling and its external cause, because "when melted gold burns your body and you want to get rid of it, you cannot simply avoid the fire while keeping the gold; you must reject both the gold and the fire."

Desire and Rebirth

What makes desire so nefarious according to Buddhism? It is the force that gets us bogged down in being, making us fall into what Augustine called the "slide of temporality" (in lubrico temporalis).

According to the idealist version of Buddhist thought, desire produces the act; the craving thought produces the three worlds.

Every person is thus the product of his or her own karma, and this karma manifests itself both subjectively and objectively, as the individual consciousness and its environment, the world in which the individual is immersed at birth.

Therefore, desire plays a properly ontological, or even ontogenic, role: it is what drives beings, after death to be reincarnated in a certain maternal womb.

According to the scholastic conceptions of the Abhidharmakosa-sastra, a kind of Buddhist Summa Theologia, after death, the human being exists in the form of an "intermediary being" (Skt. antarabhava) until the time when, seeing a man and a woman making love, he or she feels, due to his or her karma, irresistibly attracted toward one of the partners and repelled by the other.

According to this Buddhist version of the Oedipus complex, he or she will be reincarnated as a child of this couple--as a girl (if the attraction comes from the male partner) or as a boy (if it comes from the woman).

    Rebirth is by no means always human, however, and the intermediary being, depending on past deeds, may well be reborn in one of the five other destinies (gati)--among heavenly beings (devas), hungry ghosts (pretas), titans (asuras), animals, or the damned in hell.

All these destinies belong to the world of desire: even the devas, who live in constant bliss, are motivated by desire.

According to Dirghagama, in the Trayastrimsa Heaven male and female gods are able to achieve orgasm simply by thinking about each other.

The Dazhidulun also says: "Heavenly women (apsaras) have no eunuch to keep them, / They are free from the troubles of pregnancy. / [With them] pleasure and debauchery [have only joys]. /

After a meal, no need to go to pass a motion." Sensual pleasure is in this case admitted because it does not create new acts, since it is much more subtle than that of humans.

However, these celestial beings are themselves still chained to the wheel of samsara, condemned to fall back into a lower rebirth sooner or later, when their good karma is exhausted.

This realm of desire is the lowest of the three worlds that constitute the Buddhist universe.

The two others are the world of subtle matter and the immaterial world, which can be reached only by those who, having "entered the stream" of the Buddhist Path, are on their way to becoming arhats.


In Buddhist mythology, one particular figure incarnates the vital--yet deadly--drive that animates and binds all beings. This mythical figure is Mara, the Evil One, also conceived of as Kama, Desire.

We are told that when Sakyamuni was about to reach Awakening, Mara, afraid of losing dominion over the human world, sent his daughters to seduce him.

This is one of the "three attempts" made in vain by Mara to weaken Sakyamuni's resolve and prevent him from becoming a Buddha.

Georges Dumezil has argued that the episode should be read in the context of the Indo-European ideology of the three functions (justice/sovereignty, war, and sensuality/fecundity).

In this schema, desire belongs essentially to the third function. Mara's goal was to make Sakyamuni fall "in the trap of one of the highest values admitted in pre-Buddhist societies:

the riposte to aggression, spiritual perfection, and the procreation of heirs." One could argue that Sakyamuni had almost fallen into Mara's trap by marrying the beautiful Yasodhara and begetting a son.

However, it is nowhere implied that Mara used Yasodhara to lure the Buddha, although she is presented in an ambivalent light as both chaste and seducive, forlorn and dangerous.

In the Buddhacarita, a life of the Buddha compiled by Asvaghosa, Mara, after his three vain attempts, realizes that he has lost control over Sakyamuni.

He tries, however, to limit the damage by painting the perspective of a spiritual lineage in glowing colors: "Let the Perfect One return home and procreate with his legitimate wife many sons, who will in turn become Perfect Ones."

According to the most widespread version, Mara subsequently makes one last attempt to convince the Buddha to enter into nirvana without further delay, so that he would not share with men his realization of the Dharma.

Although he ultimately fails, the Buddhist tradition has been at times troubled by the apparent hesitation of the Buddha.

    Desire is therefore the "law of the genre" in the French sense (of gender, but also of genus--human and nonhuman). Sexuality is dangerous, above all because it binds men, as if with a "red thread," to human existence and to lineage.

A Greek euphemism for penis is "necessity." In Japanese, too, the popular etymology connected mara (penis) with the homonymous Sanskrit terms mara (obstacle, killing) and Mara (the lord of obstacles or of Death). Sakyamuni's son was also called Rahula, another word meaning "obstacle."

According to some brahmanical texts, a son's performance of appropriate rituals assures his father of one kind of immortality ("below the navel"), physical immortality.

However, a higher kind of immortality ("above the navel," that is, spiritual immortality), advocated in the Upanisad, is lost through the birth of a son and the resultant ties to samsara.

The Buddhist notion of continence ran against Indian and Chinese notions of lineage.

It was ironically turned against the Buddhists themselves in the Huahu jing (Scripture on the Conversion of the Barbarians), a Daoist polemical tract. In this work, Laozi plays the part of the Buddha.

In one variant, he even enters the womb of Queen Maya.

However, the main episode is that in which a barbarian king who has refused allegiance to him is subdued by his divine power.

Although the king repents, Laozi/Buddha punishes him and his subjects by ordering them to practice asceticism--that is, to wear red-brown garments like criminals, mutilate their bodies, and abstain from sexual intercourse in order to put an end to their rebellious seed.

If, the authors of the tract argue, Laozi taught the barbarians in order not to save them but to humiliate and weaken them, and eventually to destroy them, would it not be insane to introduce this teaching to China?


    The newborn infant is bound with the threads of marital alliance.
    How many springs have the scarlet blossoms opened and fallen?

    (Ikkyu, Kyounshu)

The desire to exist, analyzed in Indian Buddhism as one of the twelve nidanas (causes of existence), tended to merge in Chinese Buddhism with the popular Chinese conception of a "fundamental destiny" (benming).

According to this conception, every person receives at birth a certain destiny, and if he/she dies before fulfilling this destiny, he/she wanders about, like a lost soul, unable to renounce his/her memory and to fuse into the great cosmic woof of the Dao, or into the social woof of lineage.

Victims of violent death, who still have a portion of life remaining, cannot be inscribed into familial memory: they are out of place, outlawed, out of the "economy" (oikos nomos, the "law of the house").

To prevent them from harming the living, an attempt is made to reintegrate them into that socio-cosmic economy: they are turned into gods or ancestors through elaborate rituals.

By taking charge of the cult of the dead, Buddhism was able to take root in China.

    We recall that Mara's last attempt to divert the Buddha from preaching the Law was an argument for the continuation of Sakyamuni's physical (and spiritual) lineage: "Beget many sons who will reach awakening."

Sakyamuni rejected this temptation, thereby forsaking his duties (and his name) as an heir and leader of the Sakya clan. The rise of the Buddhist sangha coincides with the destruction (for karmic reasons, we are told) of this lineage and of his father's kingdom.

    Like the Christian message according to Peter Brown, the early Buddhist message was unfamiliar in both senses of the word: "It was a message of which those caught in the narrow confines of the family could have no inkling."

The Buddha himself had apparently cut off what Paul Eluard called "the dreadful snake coils of the blood ties."

This antifamilial and antisocial aspect of early Buddhism drew sharps criticisms for the new doctrine: "At that time, sons of well-known and distinguished families from the country of Magadha were practicing the religious life under the guidance of the Blessed One.

This upset and angered people: `

He is on a path which takes away [people's] children, the monk Gotama. He is on a path which makes widows, the monk Gotama. He is on a path which destroys families, the monk Gotama.'"

    From a Chinese perspective in particular, the apparent lack of filial piety of the Buddha raised serious issues.

In response to this criticism, Chinese Buddhists worked hard to assert a typically Buddhist form of filial piety: the Buddha even went to heaven, we are told, to preach the Dharma to his mother.

He also took good care of his father: tradition has it that when King Suddhodana died, the Buddha and his half-brother Nanda were at his pillow, and Ananda and Rahula at his feet.

At the time of the funerals, the Buddha is said to have shouldered his father's coffin, "in order to admonish sentient beings in our latter age against ingratitude for our fathers' and mothers' loving care."

According to the apocryphal Fanwang jing: "When Sakyamuni Buddha sat under the bodhi tree and attained supreme awakening, that was when he first enjoined the bodhisattva precepts and filial submission toward parents, teachers, clergy, and the Three Jewels.

Filial submission is the Dharma of the ultimate path.

Filial piety is called sila, it is also called restraint."

    The fact remains that the Sakyas' seed became extinct with the Buddha, or rather because of him, with his son, who became a monk under him. Incidentally, tradition has it that Sakyamuni's begetting of a son was merely intended to prove to the world that he was a real man:

"And it occurred to him: `Lest others say that the Prince Sakyamuni was not a man, and that he wandered forth without `paying attention' to Yasodhara, Gopika, Mrgaja, and his other sixty thousand wives, let me now make love to Yasodhara.'

He did so, and Yasodhara became pregnant."

As noted earlier, the child's name, Rahula (lit. "Obstacle"), tells a lot about the fatherly feelings of the Buddha.

In a Sanskrit variant of the tale, the Buddha's relationship with his wife and son is radically different.

To quote John Strong's synopsis: "Rahula is not born on the eve of the Great Departure but only engendered then, when the future Buddha makes love to his wife to prove his manhood and to fulfil his duties to his family....

There ensues an interesting parallelism between his career as a quester and [Yasodhara's] own pregnancy, which develops at home. ...

Finally, when he attains enlightenment at Bodh-gaya, she gives birth at home, having, according to this legend, borne her son in her womb six years!

Here her son's name, Rahula, is not associated with the word for fetter but with the divinity Rahu, who eclipses the moon at the moment of his birth, just as his father, upon attaining enlightenment, is thought to outshine the sun."

    The image of the Buddha as an ascetic rejecting marital life and blood ties was sometimes questioned by family-oriented Buddhists. In many Japanese stories, the marital sequence in the life of the Buddha was on the contrary emphasized, and sometimes served as an excuse for monks who wanted to break their vows:

thus, in an otogizoshi (narrative book) entitled Sasayaki take monogatari, a priest of Kurama-dera (on the northern outskirts of Kyoto), Saikobo, argues that if Sakyamuni, before achieving enlightenment, plighted his troth to Yasodhara and fathered the child Rahula, there is no reason why he could not himself have at least an affair with the girl he is infatuated with.
We learn also that the Buddha had other wives, with whom he fathered a child.

One, in particular, Gopa, now takes the front seat (or the main bed). Tantric Buddhists argued that the Buddha, before leaving the palace, learnt from her all the secrets of sex, although in this case sex was not aimed at procreation.

Paradoxically, the message of some of these stories is that whereas the ascetic denial of sexuality can lead to evil results, apparent transgressions may end well.

In the famous Dojoji legend, a monk died as a result of refusing to respond to a young girl's love. She turned into a monstrous snake, and followed the monk to his hiding place, the bell of Dojoji.

Coiling around the bell, the snake reduced the monk to ashes through the intense heat of her anger.

Although some people hearing this story may have concluded that women are intrinsically evil, others may have thought that it would have been better for both the monk and the girl to have followed the human course of events.

    In the Mahayana tradition, Vimalakirti is said to represent the ideal of the householder, but we hear nothing of his family, his wife and children.

This family man does not indulge in family pleasures any more than he indulges in sex while visiting brothels.

Another famous "family man," at least in the Chan/Zen tradition, is a disciple of Mazu Daoyi named "Layman" Pang.

In his case, we do hear about his family--a strangely nuclear family in Tang times, consisting of his wife and daughter.

They all live like pure Chan adepts, and their lineage comes to an end with them, since there is no male heir.

To make matters worse (from a Chinese viewpoint), Pang destroys his family's wealth by throwing it in the river.

Furthermore, his daughter, who apparently never considers marriage as an option, turns out to be quite unfilial (at least by Confucian standards) by chosing to die before her parents.

    The Buddhist ascetic, in a sense, wanted to be irresponsible.

Responsibility means to respond to the call of the other, to trade solitude for solidarity, the silence of nature for the bustle of society; it is to reintegrate the economy.

Yet Buddhism was eventually reintegrated into the "economic circle" and diverted from its early ideal of renunciation in the name of the collectivity.

An example of such relapse is found in the following tale, which shows how an eminent monk could fall into the trap of lineage.

Shi Hao, the prime minister of the Song Emperor Xiaozong, despaired of having a male heir.

Having heard that one way to get one was to lure an old hermit and hope for his death, so that the latter would be reborn as a male child in one's lineage, Shi Hao invited an eminent priest named Jue.

Despite his many years of ascesis, Jue was dazzled by the wealth of his host, and the thoughts of envy that arose at the moment of his death caused him to be reborn in the house of the minister.

Later, he became a cruel and corrupted statesman. Beyond the karmic morality of this tale, which shows us the fall of an insufficiently virtuous monk in the whirlpools of evil, its interest is to illustrate the belief in the possibility of the transformation of spiritual power into vital power, of divesting moral virtue to the profit of procreative virtus.

    A similar motif is found in the biography of Kumirajiva.

The Indian translator was the son of a monk who had been forced to marry a Kuchean princess against his will.

After the boy had come of age, another Kuchean king attempted to force the young Kumirajiva to marry yet another princess, a proposition the young monk steadfastly refused.

Undaunted, the king then forced Kumirajiva to become drunk one night and locked him in a "secret chamber" with the girl, after which time, we are told, Kumirajiva "surrendered his integrity."

After Kumirajiva arrived in China, the northern ruler Yao Xing, impressed by the monk's intelligence, forced him to cohabit with no fewer than ten courtesans, arguing that otherwise the "seeds of the Dharma would bear no offspring!"

"From this point on," the biography continues, "Kumirajiva no longer lived in the monks' quarters."

However, as Antonino Forte points out, "What is usually presented as the imposition of a barbarian king (constraining him to have relations with many women in order to procreate many geniuses like himself) could well be the result of an idea of the clergy which is not strictly monastic but more secular."

    The popular transformation of spirituality into vital force is also illustrated in an episode of the Chinese novel Xiyou ji (Journey to the West).

In this episode, an ogress passes herself off as a bodhisattva and fools the priest Xuanzang.

However, when the supernatural monkey Sun Wukong perceives her true identity and ties her to a tree, she confesses that she wanted to become an immortal by copulating with the Chinese monk, a man who has practiced since childhood and has never lost a drop of his primordial yang.

In another episode, Xuanzang is captured by four demons, who explain to their master: "We had heard for long that this Chinese monk had a dharma body formed through the practice of purity during ten successive incarnations: to eat a bit of it would indefinitely prolong our life."

    In the Nihon ryoiki we find a story about an eminent monk, Zenshu, who was reborn as a prince. This monk had a large birthmark on the right side of his chin.

When he was about to pass away, a diviner was called to give an oracle about his life after death,

Then Zenshu's spirit, having possessed the diviner, said, "I will enter the womb of Tajihi no Omina, a wife of the emperor of Japan, to be reborn as a prince.

You shall know his identity owing to the same birthmark as mine on the prince's face."

After Zenshu's death, the imperial consort gave birth to a boy who had the same birthmark as the late priest, but the boy died after three years.

In this case, we seem to be dealing with the rebirth of a bodhisattva, a last rebirth whose function is to exhaust some karmic residue.

The story is ambivalent, however, because of the widespread belief that children who died before their third year were actually demons, incarnated in a human family to expunge some karmic debt.

The Nihon ryoiki mentions another case, that of a famous hermit known as Bodhisattva Jakusen. When he was about to die, Jakusen told his disciples that he would be reborn twenty years later as a prince named Kamino.

He is, says Kyokai, the present emperor, a truly a sage ruler, although some have unduly criticized him due to the occurrence of droughts and plagues under his reign.

The point of this story for us is that the rebirth of the priest is clearly seen as the reincarnation of a bodhisattva, an expedient motivated by compassion to help people.

    More often, it is attachment to life (or to a living being) that causes the desire to be reborn in this world, despite all its suffering.

In the worst case, such desire can create ghosts with "unfinished business," unable to move on along the path, trapped forever in a liminal realm.

In Japanese literature, for instance, we have several instances of a monk's rebirth as a "malevolent spirit" (onryo) because of a burning love.

Thus, when Lady Nijo tells Emperor Go-Fukakusa that she has had an affair with the Ninnaji priest Ariake, he says, "None of this bodes well for the future, for events from the past teach us that passion respects neither rank nor station.

For example, the spirit of the high priest Kakinomoto pursued Empress Somedono relentlessly, and it was beyond the power of the buddhas and bodhisattvas to prevent her from yielding to his malevolent spirit.

The holy man of the Shiga Temple was also smitten by passion, but he was luckily returned to the true way by the sympathy and skill of the lady he loved."

    When Ariake comes to take leave of Nijo, after she has given birth to a child who is taken from her, and he has contracted a fatal disease, he tells her:

    Sometime after our sorrowful parting on that far-away dawn I learned that you had gone into hiding, and having no one else to turn to, I began copying out five of the Mahayana sutras.

In each chapter I inserted a phrase from one of your letters with the plea that we might be united in this world, so deep are my feelings. The sutras are copied now but not dedicated.

I shall dedicate them after we have been reborn together. If I store the more than two hundred chapters in the treasure hall of the dragon king, I will certainly be reborn to this life, and then I shall dedicate them to Buddha.

To accomplish this I plan to take the sutras with me after death by having them added to the fuel of my funeral pyre.

    Lady Nijo comments, "His futile attachment to this world distressed me. `

Just pray that we may be reborn together in paradise.' `I cannot, for I am unable to relinquish my love for you.

That is why I wish to be reborn as a human.

When I die, as all creatures must, my smoke rising to the vast and empty sky will surely drift toward you.'

He spoke with a grave sincerity which touched me deeply."

    We should not interpret the apparent contradictions of Buddhism only as concessions to popular piety.

Admittedly, Buddhism first defined itself as an ascesis--moderate but efficacious--that is, as a more or less violent attempt to weaken the physical vitality in oneself so as to allow the growth of a spiritual principle.

By renouncing the world, the Buddhist ascetic joins the "living dead." Paradoxically, some of these saints became in popular devotion "deities of life."

In China, the most well-known cases are the two friends Hanshan and Shide, worshiped as "gods of union."

In Japan, certain self-mummified saints were worshiped in order to enhance fertility.

In one particular case, the object of devotion was the dried genitals of the saint. This unexpected return of vitality is inscribed in the inner dynamics of Buddhism, in particular in the ritual renunciation.

According to Maurice Bloch, such rituals of renunciation aim, above all, at letting the violence of the ascetic act rebound in the form of vitality.

At any rate, the otherworldly teaching of Buddhism, like that of Christianity, eventually confronted the two major aspects of sexuality underscored by Michel Foucault: discipline and demography.

Inasmuch as it became part of an ideology that was promoting fecundity, it came to promote "deities of life."

The Buddhist emphasis on funerary rituals was another way to promote fertility, the regeneration of life, but this time without the mediation of sexuality.

As Bloch points out, sexuality is opposed to fertility: "It is associated with flesh, decomposition and women, while true ancestral fertility is a mystical process symbolized by the tomb and the (male) bones."

Thus, "the fertility of `life' which is affirmed in funerary practices is above all legitimate fertility often contrasted ... with illegitimate individual polluting sexuality."


For early Buddhists, continence was imperative in order to break the vicious circle of human existence. Buddhism was also influenced in this respect by Hindu conceptions.

In Hinduism, desire was also seen as perturbating the self-control of the ascetic. In yoga, for instance, chastity was essentially a way to accumulate spiritual energy.

The consummation of the sexual act is usually perceived by the male as a vital depredation: the loss of semen--the vital essence par excellence--entails a loss of energy.

Similar conceptions were also formulated in Daoism, and they may have reinforced the ascetic and misogynistic tendencies in Chinese Buddhism.

From this viewpoint, sex is not only a hindrance but it can also make one lose the benefits of a long ascetic practice.

This is what happens to many ascetics who lose all their powers at the mere sight of feminine beauty.

    The paradigmatic example is that of the hermit Unicorn, an ascetic so powerful that, in a moment of anger, he imprisoned the dragon kings, deities of rain, and provoked a terrible drought.

To bring the rain back, the king sent five hundred beautiful maidens into the mountain where the hermit dwelt. One of them seduced him, and the dragons were able to escape, bringing on a sudden deluge.

The courtesan took refuge in a cave with the hermit, who fell in love with her. After a few days, when the rain stopped, she decided to return to the city, and the hermit showed her the way.

At one point, he offered to carry her on his back to cross a stream.

When they entered the city, he was still carrying her on his back, and thus became an object of ridicule.

When he attempted to fly off back to his mountain, he realized to his great dismay that he had lost all his powers.

In one Japanese variant, the hermit, under the name Kume Sennin, returns for good to the profane world:

"One day, whilst he was flying over a river, his eye was so violently caught by the unusual whiteness of the legs of a young, lovely washerwoman that instantly he lost all his miraculous gift, and fell down before her quite topsy-turvy.

Subsequently, he married her, but persisted in adding the title `Ex-Saint' to his sign-manual."

    A similar topos is found in Chinese novels.

In the Jinpingmei, for instance, a group of monks who have come for the funeral of the husband of the beautiful Golden Lotus become victims of her charms:

"At the sight of the deceased's wife, all these monks felt their Buddha nature becoming clouded, and their mind of meditation getting lost;

none of them was able to control the monkey-like agitation of his thoughts and the running wild of his desires....

Their strenuous ascesis was in one instant annihilated, and thousand thunders could not have reestablished it."

    Another entertaining example is that of the test inflicted by the third patriarch Upagupta on one of his disciples who bragged that he had overcome the temptations of the flesh.

One day, when he was crossing a ford, this disciple felt compelled to rescue a young woman who was about to drown.

Aroused by the contact of her soft skin, he suddenly forgot his years of ascetic practice and decided that her debt toward him should be repaid right away in nature:

    Forcing her to the ground, he lay between her legs, intent on violating her--and at that moment he looked at her and found that instead of a woman he had hold of the holy sage who was his master.

Aghast, he tried to pull away, but Upagupta held him fast between his legs, and cried out, "Why do you torment an aged priest in that manner?

Are you the saintly man who has gained enlightenment and is untainted by sexual desire?"

The disciple was overwhelmed with shame and struggled to get free from Upagupta's legs, but they held him in a vice-like grip and would not let go.

As the master went on upbraiding him, a crowd of passers-by gathered to watch, and the disciple was overcome with shame and mortification.

    Owing to Upagupta's skillful means, however, the disciple was able to recover himself and to preserve some of the benefits of his earlier practice.

Often, as we will see, reform was achieved by much less humorous means.