Interview with José Cabezón, author of Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism and The Just King.

José Cabezón, the current Vice President of the American Academy of Religion and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, specializes in the study of classical Indian and Tibetan Buddhist texts, while making key interventions in comparative religions. We spoke on the phone on September 21, 2018 about his most recently published book, Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism – Cynthia Eller, Independent Scholar


CE: When did you become interested in writing this book?

JC: I’ve been interested in issues of gender, sexuality, and the body in Buddhism for many years. In 1992 I edited a volume called Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender (SUNY Press). I continued collecting materials and reading on this topic after that, but the idea of actually writing a book didn’t coalesce until June 1997, when a group of gay and lesbian Buddhists in the San Francisco Bay area asked for a meeting with the Dalai Lama. They wanted him to explain statements that he had made that it seemed to them were homophobic, and therefore problematic. That meeting is described in the first pages of the book. In general, the Dalai Lama was very affirming of gay and lesbian rights, but at the same time he turned to some quite ancient texts to explain what constitutes sexual misconduct in that literature. This led to a series of other questions. As you can imagine, coming out of a celibate monastic milieu, these sources are less than positive not only about same-sex sexual relations, but about sexuality in general. For example, they proscribe sex during the day, masturbation, oral and anal sex, among other things. Anyway, after glossing these sources, the Dalai Lama did a kind of very interesting thing. He said, “This is what the texts say, but the texts also say things that by today’s standards we would consider highly problematic, like the fact that men who are married are allowed to hire prostitutes, but that women are expected to be celibate until married, and faithful to their husbands after they wed.” He also said that he could not issue a definitive statement on what constitutes sexual misconduct, but that the Buddhist community as a whole, and especially scholars, should study these issues and then make their own arguments. And so it was really at that point that I realized that I needed to write this book.

CE: So the short answer to the question of why you wrote this book is that the Dalai Lama told you to.

JC: Yes, in a way that’s true. He said, “We really need more research on this before we can come to a definitive conclusion. We have to know what the history of this tradition is”—meaning Buddhist writings on sexuality in general, and especially the writings on sexual misconduct. That’s what I set out to do in the book, among other things.

CE: Can you explain what the classical period is in South Asia? What years are we talking about, what developments were going on then, and why are these texts important for looking at questions of sexuality and gender in Buddhism today?

JC: I limited myself to the South Asian world, by which I mean India and Tibet (and to a certain extent, southeast Asia as well, the countries that practice Theravada Buddhism), from around the 2nd century CE until the 15th century or so. To be truthful, I’m not sure that “classical” is the right word; I use it in the sense that these texts aren’t modern. I suppose I could have said “premodern South Asian Buddhism,” but that’s also unclear. The texts I focused on were ancient sources that are preserved in Sanskrit, Pali, and Tibetan. This is the area of the world that I study. Other scholars, such as Bernard Faure, have dealt with issues of sexuality in East Asian Buddhist sources.

CE: Do the texts you examine have any greater authority in East Asian Buddhism than things that were produced in East Asia itself?

JC: Classical Buddhist texts, which includes a lot of material that is considered scripture—that is said to be the verbatim words of the Buddha—have a great deal of authority throughout the Buddhist world. When questions about political philosophy, the nature of reality, and of course sexuality—really anything—are addressed by scholars, they tend to go to the classical texts. This includes not only the scriptures, but also the commentaries that were written in the first millennium of the Christian era in India. But there are many South Asian texts that were not influential in East Asia, and vice versa, many texts that were popular in East Asia that were little known or studied in South Asia. 

CE: Where did you access all of these different texts that you translated and presented in your book?

JC: When I started the project most of these texts were in printed editions, but nowadays they’re mostly available online. Some of them still exist in Sanskrit or Pali; others exist only in Tibetan translations. 

CE: Is there a text you came across in your research that surprised you in some way?

JC: Rather than any one particular text, I would say that it’s oftentimes snippets of material that I found interesting. For example there’s a section in the book on a school of Buddhism called the Abhidharma. I found in some Abhidharma works a very interesting, almost hormonal theory of what constitutes sex and gender (and by sex in this case, I mean biological sex—what makes someone a physical male as opposed to a female). It’s a quasi-medical theory that claims that substances that inhere in the body determine not only what genitals and secondary sexual characteristics people have, but also what types of gendered behavior they exhibit, and what type of physical sexual pleasure they experience. It’s a kind of deterministic theory where your bodily sex determines your gendered behavior determines your sexual experiences. 

CE: Is this a one-sex or two-sex theory? Is biological sex regarded as two or more variations on one human type? Or is it a stronger form of sex difference, like the one you would find in chromosomal theories now?

JC: I think it’s the latter. In Buddhism, the ultimate explanation for everything is karma. So according to the ancient texts, the fact that we are born as male or female is ultimately the result of actions that we have taken in the past.

CE: So if I’m really good in this life, I get to be a woman in the next life?

JC: Unfortunately, it’s the other way around, as one might expect from a patriarchal culture. What these abhidharmas did was to say look, it’s not enough to explain this in terms of karma; there must be more proximate causes that allow us to explain why peo ple are men and women, why people are male and female. They then developed a theory of how a person who is destined to be a man, a woman, or the third gender in Buddhism, which is called napumsaka or neuter, is born that way. Boys gestate in their mother’s womb on the right, girls gestate on the left, and neuters gestate in the middle. They also explain how the neuters end up as neuters. There’s a theory that at the beginning, when the fetus is first formed, it is either male or female, and then some kind of internal problem causes the neuter child to change and become neuter.

CE: That’s not so far off from most contemporary Western theories of sex determination.

JC: Is that true? I don’t compare these ancient Buddhist theories with contemporary ones in this book. I find that drawing one-to-one correspondences can be misleading, because the presuppositions in the ancient material are so different. That’s why, for example, I don’t use the word “hormone” to describe these substances that supposedly exist inside the body, according to the abhidharmas. But they are hormone-like. 

CE: How long were you working on this book? From 1997 all the way up to the present?

JC: In a sense, I really started after I published that 1992 edited volume. This isn’t the only thing I’ve been doing over the past twenty-five years, but I was collecting material and writing chunks of this book all that time.

CE: And how did you decide you were done?

JC: I think I could have gone on indefinitely. The material is so interesting. But at some point I thought to myself that enough is enough, and I really should publish what I had. 

CE: What do you want readers to walk away from your book having learned? If you were to feel like your mission had been accomplished, what would they be gaining from your work?

JC: I guess one thing is that Buddhism represents a distinctive tradition about questions of sex and sexual embodiment and sexual ethics: that on the one hand there is a kind of continuity between the texts, and on the other hand that they are not univocal. There are a lot of competing voices and competing theories, and it’s because of this that there’s a lot of material for Buddhist theologians to work with as they try to develop sexual ethics for the present day. My book is not predominantly theological, but I do try to point to areas of the Buddhist tradition and sources that are particularly contentious or that are potentially liberative, so that this work might help contemporary theologians to think about these issues.

CE: To what extent do you think that this is an explicitly Buddhist discourse, and to what extent is it a South Asian discourse that one could find in any of the religions in the region?

JC: I do look beyond Buddhism to other sources that I thought Buddhism was in conversation with. This includes the Indian medical tradition, which is very old. There are clear parallels between it and the Buddhist texts. Also the Dharmashastra literature, which addresses law, and the ethics of day to day life—it includes a vast literature on sex, sexuality, marriage, and the nature of men and women. In an ideal world, one would have been able to say that some of these sources influenced Buddhism, or else alternatively, that Buddhism influenced one or another of these texts. But the dating of this material is extremely difficult. Some of these texts began to be written at a certain date but then they were added to over the centuries. We don’t know which portion of a given text dates from which period. So it’s difficult to talk about influence in terms of strict causality—for example, to say that Buddhists got their ideas from the pan-Indian medical tradition. Bracketing the historical question though, I think there are clear parallels between these bodies of materials, some of which are specifically Buddhist, and others of which are more pan-Indic.

CE: Do you envision yourself doing more in this area, or do you think this is your magnum opus and now you’re going to step away and look at different things?

JC: I’ve begun working on other things. I just finished a book on the history of Sera Monastery, a Tibetan monastery founded in 1419 that today exists in two forms, one in Tibet and the other in the Tibetan exile in Karnataka, India. I’ve thought to myself sometimes that a lot of my scholarship has focused on sexuality: people who had sex in the ancient world, and on people who didn't—namely monks and nuns. So I guess the answer is that I don’t see myself doing a lot more work in this area over the next few years, but it’s so interesting that I also don’t want to vow never to come back to it.

CE: Do you want to say anything about your other recent book, The Just King?

JC: The Just King is a book on political philosophy that was written for a king living in Eastern Tibet by a 19th century Tibetan, Jamgön Mipham. I started reading it with graduate students and got really interested in it, so I ended up translating it. One of the things that’s striking about it is how much of this is relevant even to our own contemporary situation. Mipham discusses what a just ruler should be like, the kind of virtues he—and in this case it’s presumed to be a he—should cultivate and what he should do for his people. The presupposition is that such a king is altruistic. It’s amazing that we live in an age where issues of humility, altruism, and compassion don’t come up in politics very much.