Review of John Powers, A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism

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Review of John Powers, A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), xii-320 pp.

John Powers, who teaches Asian studies at the Australian National University, investigates early Buddhist discourses on masculinity, especially as they relate to the Buddha himself and to those who follow the path toward buddhahood. It is "a hybrid study," Powers writes in the Preface, "merging traditional Indology with contemporary studies of the body and sex" (p. x). The book gathers an abundance of material from Buddhist textual sources that illustrate the predominance of a male-centered universe, whether this pertains to the Buddha's ideal physiognomy, monastic rules, culture-bound social hierarchies, soteriological expectations, or gendered advice to male and female disciples dispensed by the Buddha or by his biographers and interpreters.

Powers, who has steeped himself in the study of Buddhism, admits that for a long time he "overlooked the tropes" of masculinity and that he lacked an "interpretive grip" to situate "Indian Buddhist notions of gender and the body," which seem so "foreign to contemporary understandings" (p. 226). Those tropes, however, are plentiful and obvious. "Despite the fact that the vast majority of Buddhist texts were written by, for, and about men, and [that] these texts contain a wealth of material on cultural notions of normative manhood, the body, sexuality, and male sociality," Powers writes, "there has been surprisingly little interest to date in discourses relating to masculinity" (p. x). The works by Michel Foucault (on discursive regimes), R. W. Connell (on hegemonic masculinity), Thomas Laqueur (on the cultural history of sex), Pierre Bourdieu (on habitus), and Judith Butler (on the performative nature of gender) offer Powers a conceptual framework for acknowledging the preponderance of masculine images and normative gender prescriptions in sacred texts. Thus, A Bull of a Man is the first book-length contribution to a critical study of men and masculinities in Buddhism.

Perhaps one should say what the book is not in order to guide a reader's expectation in the right direction. It is not a book about contemporary Buddhism or about Buddhist cultures around the globe. Rather, it is a study of texts from a limited geographic area (India) and a defined historical period, namely from the Buddha's life in the fifth century BCE to the eight century CE, with a concluding chapter on Tantric Buddhism up until the twelfth century and the eventual disappearance of Indian Buddhism with the Muslim invasion of Northern India.

The book is also not an introduction to either Indian Buddhism or to the study of gender in religion. Yet, a wide audience will benefit from reading it. Those interested in questions of religion and gender without a particular background in Buddhism can easily follow the wealth of material gathered in this book (Powers' use of English equivalents for the Pali and Sanskrit terminology is of great help in this regard). Experts in Buddhist studies and Indology, on the other hand, will find an opening for a fruitful discussion about a neglected topic, namely the issue of masculinity in historical Buddhism, which Powers embeds in the current debate on women in Buddhism. References to gender theory and to the original Pali and Sanskrit texts are amply footnoted, so that scholars can trace the primary sources as well as secondary literature in order to crosscheck the material or deepen one's knowledge about a particular topic.

Finally, A Bull of a Man is neither a philosophical essay on Buddhism nor a meta-historical discussion of gender theory. Rather, the bulk of the work consists of summaries and retellings of collected materials from a variety of Indian Buddhist texts that speak to the "core themes of masculinity, sex, and the body" (p. 229). Although Powers situates these texts within their cultural histories and occasionally offers theoretical and comparative suggestions, his work is best understood as a source book on images, stories, anecdotes, discourses, rules, medical treatises, ritual techniques, mythological biographies, and cosmologies relating to masculinity in Indian Buddhism. …