The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality

The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality

The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality

The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality


Is there a Buddhist discourse on sex? In this innovative study, Bernard Faure reveals Buddhism's paradoxical attitudes toward sexuality. His remarkably broad range covers the entire geography of this religion, and its long evolution from the time of its founder, Xvkyamuni, to the premodern age. The author's anthropological approach uncovers the inherent discrepancies between the normative teachings of Buddhism and what its followers practice.Framing his discussion on some of the most prominent Western thinkers of sexuality--Georges Bataille and Michel Foucault--Faure draws from different reservoirs of writings, such as the orthodox and heterodox "doctrines" of Buddhism, and its monastic codes. Virtually untapped mythological as well as legal sources are also used. The dialectics inherent in Mahvyvna Buddhism, in particular in the Tantric and Chan/Zen traditions, seemed to allow for greater laxity and even encouraged breaking of taboos.Faure also offers a history of Buddhist monastic life, which has been buffeted by anticlerical attitudes, and by attempts to regulate sexual behavior from both within and beyond the monastery. In two chapters devoted to Buddhist homosexuality, he examines the way in which this sexual behavior was simultaneously condemned and idealized in medieval Japan.This book will appeal especially to those interested in the cultural history of Buddhism and in premodern Japanese culture. But the story of how one of the world's oldest religions has faced one of life's greatest problems makes fascinating reading for all.


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, Śākyamuni 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 saṃsāra, 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 nirvāṇa, the ultimate quiescence and extinction of all defilements or passions; the fourth describes the path to nirvāṇa—the so-called eightfold path.

Some of these ideas were common in the Indian culture of the time. They were not radically new to Śākyamuni himself. Despite the attempts of his own father, King Śuddhodana, to shield him from the harsh realities of the outside world, Śākyamuni 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 Śākyamuni 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 . . .

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