Buddhist biographies, iconography, and rituals provide vivid, compelling, and somewhat contradictory views of how Buddhists lived and what they believed. In focusing on beliefs and practices that surround gender and sexuality I have uncovered an ongoing, complex, and even contentious discourse on what it meant-and what it continues to mean-to be gendered, sexual, and Buddhist. This discourse began in fifth century B.C.E. India and continues to be debated today in Asia and the West. Throughout its long history, wherever Buddhism flourished, the meaning of gender and the place of sexuality was argued, portrayed, and enacted in biographies, works of art, and rituals.
Monastic Buddhism was and is a religion that exalts celibacy and one that has always been dominated by men. This is reflected in biographies and other texts that made some very negative statements about women, and which explicitly connected women, not men, to sexuality, relegating men to some not-female/not-sexual hinterland. Yet, sexual women, such as wives and courtesans, made frequent and meaningful appearances in the biographies of the Buddha (566-486 B.C.E.), while early Buddhist iconography is prolific in its depictions of positive images of women and female divinities that emphasize their beauty and their auspicious powers of fertility. Simply put, the iconography seemed to be expressively exalting women while the texts often condemned them. As I pondered this incongruity a third dimension of Buddhist life, ritual activity, became relevant. Early Indian Buddhists had rituals for securing fertility and abundance for themselves, their domestic animals, and their fields that were focused on curvaceous nude and seminude female images.