Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism

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José Ignacio Cabezón
Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism
  • Sommerville, MA: 
    Wisdom Publications
    , October
     632 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.



José Ignacio Cabezón’s monumental work on sexuality in South Asian Buddhism will form the baseline of scholarly work on sexuality and Buddhism for years to come. It is a vast survey of the topic that draws extensively on canonical and scholastic texts in Pāli, Sanskrit, and Tibetan. No one can gainsay Cabezón’s stunning achievement as a researcher. His book generously gifts the scholarly community a treasury of knowledge gleaned from deep textual exploration, the details of which the author documents in informative and meticulous footnotes. One of the most significant contributions of Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism is its modeling of a methodology that merges rigorous philology, sound Buddhalogical scholarship, and critical constructive readings. Cabezón opens his book with an account of the Dalai Lama’s statements before a room of gay and lesbian Buddhists in San Francisco in 1997, a meeting at which he also was present. After affirming the LGBT community’s claims to social acceptance, the Dalai Lama cited the Tibetan scholar Tsongkhapa’s ethical condemnation of homosexuality in the Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path. In Cabezón’s phrasing, many of those present found this citation “problematic” (1). Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism as a whole, but particularly its final three chapters, comprises a full, scholarly response to this scenario.

Cabezón’s book is thoughtfully structured, seeming to follow in its early chapters the doctrinal formula of the Four Ennobling Truths. Chapter 1, “The Cosmology of Sex,” details the tradition’s cosmic unease regarding sexuality, mapping Buddhist sexual ethics onto Buddhist cosmology to demonstrate connections between sexuality and the suffering of embodied existence. Chapter 2, “Desire and Human Sexuality,” pieces together a comprehensive Buddhist doctrinal theory of sexual desire and its origins in cognitive error and afflictive emotion. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 align with the major elements (discipline, concentration, wisdom) of the classical eightfold path. Chapter 3, “Monasticism: Just Saying No to Sex” explores Vinaya as a disciplinary system that physically curbs and circumscribes sexual behaviors. Chapter 4, “Curbing Lust through Meditation,” analyzes the internal disciplining of desire in Buddhist meditation traditions. Finally, Chapter 5, “The Deconstruction of Sexual Desire,” discusses Buddhist perspectives on the role of enlightened cognition in the permanent transformation of ordinary human sexuality. 

Cabezón’s thesis is most powerfully advanced in the final three chapters where he deploys with particular sharpness conceptual categories such as gender, sex, and sexual orientation drawn from feminist theory, gender studies, and queer theory. Chapter 6, “Sexed Bodies, Gender, and Sexual Desires,” details explicit normative theorizations of gender within Indian medical and Buddhist canonical and scholastic texts. Chapter 7, “The Construction of Sexual Deviance,” is the most methodologically assertive of the book. In it, Cabezón investigates South Asian Buddhist typologies of queerness (he uses “queer” to translate the Sanskrit term paṇḍaka) as discourses that “inform readers about which human beings count most and which count least” and whose “goal is social marginalization and exclusion” (379). In his final chapter, “Buddhist Sexual Ethics,” Cabezón takes his readers through an in-depth exploration of scriptural and scholastic treatments of lay ethics. Here, his most striking contribution is to wrestle with the question of this discourse’s relevance to contemporary Buddhist communities. Cabezón shows that the early scriptural tradition defines lay sexual misconduct mainly as adultery, arguing therefore that none of the later, restrictive ethical systems advanced by Indian and Tibetan scholastics (which proscribe homosexuality, among other behaviors) are based on scriptural authority. They are authoritative, then, only to those Buddhists that submit themselves to the authority of their authors. Hence, in these three chapters, Cabezón deploys the analytical categories of gender and queerness to denaturalize Buddhist constructions of gender, to indicate that these constructions are implicitly linked to social hierarchies of power, and to partially uncouple Buddhist sexual ethics from the soteriological goals of Buddhism, while fully honoring and finding value in South Asian Buddhism’s long textual tradition. 

The title of Cabezón’s book, Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism, indicates that it is a comprehensive study of the subject. Cabezón’s text omits, however, a balanced treatment of female sexuality in Buddhist South Asia. To be fair, the authors of Cabezón’s main textual sources were male monks primarily concerned with the vagaries of male sexuality. Moreover, Cabezón does provide insightful, even groundbreaking, analysis of their occasional statements about female sexuality. In examining canonical and commentarial typologies of male and female paṇḍakas, for instance, he comments on their construction of the properly female as sexually passive and capable of pleasure only through vicariously experiencing male pleasure (420-21). Piecing together a fuller picture of female sexuality from classical South Asian Buddhist sources would require a feminist hermeneutic and methodology as it is not readily available through a surface reading of the texts. That Cabezón did not take on this challenge in his book is not in and of itself problematic. That the absence of a full treatment of female sexuality goes unmarked, and is, in fact, occluded by the book’s title and general self-presentation is, however, problematic. The subtle effect is a repetition and even augmentation of the tradition’s androcentrism.

More problematic is the thinness of Cabezón’s critical feminist lens in the early chapters of the book. In the later chapters, Cabezón is explicit about addressing the relationship of classical Buddhism’s textual tradition to ethical questions surrounding homosexuality and queer gender identity as a critical-constructive project. He does not, however, approach issues related to female sexual ethics in classical Buddhism with the same critical impulse. In his chapter on desire, for instance, Cabezón mostly marginalizes the topic of sexual aggression to a footnote or two. This seems unwarranted since anger-driven sexual misconduct is explicitly theorized in Indian scholastic texts; aggression is implicated in a Buddhist normative view of male sexuality as insertive, agentive, and nonrelational; and the rape of nuns is a constant theme and worry in the Vinaya literature. This lack of critical feminist acuity is particularly noticeable in the long section on sexual pleasuring as upāya (“skillfull means”) in chapter 5, a slippery Buddhist rhetoric that demands a critical approach. A neglect of the relationship between power, aggression, and sexual behavior in Buddhist sources, and muteness on the subject of female sexual pleasure, has the effect, however unintended, of re-inscribing a sexual ethic that tolerates and even condones sexual aggression toward women. 

In conclusion, Cabezón has advanced scholarship on sexuality and Buddhism significantly in this important and impressive volume. The critiques advanced here are made with the hope of moving past the theoretical reticence or silo-ing of feminist approaches that has sometimes constricted Buddhist studies as a field. Cabezón’s critical discussion of queer identity in Buddhist sources opens a vital conversation both for Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism. It is for others to follow his lead, making similar interventions regarding female sexuality and sexual violence in Buddhist contexts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Paris Langenberg is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Eckerd College.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

José Ignacio Cabezón is the Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies and XIVth Dalai Lama Professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. He is the author or editor of a dozen books and many more articles on various aspects of Tibetan religion and religious studies, with research interests as diverse as Madhyamaka philosophy, Buddhism and sexuality, classical South Asian political ethics, and Tibetan ritual.



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