Friday, September 19, 2008

Buddhist Erotic Art: In search of?

Buddhist Erotic Art: In Search Of?

I recall a joke book: "Irish Erotic Art." Opening it, blank pages faced you. While perhaps the palimpsestic scrapings of guilty monks erased whatever salacious scribblings which might have adorned the pages of some Book of Monasterboice or Clonmacnoise or Termonfecken dug up from a bog, I do wonder why such absence, given admittedly-- this being a work computer-- a "moderate safe search" of images (text is anything goes!) of Buddhist equivalents looms in my brief but devoted scrutiny of snaps on the Web. Lacking any books to confirm or deny "Buddhist" + "erotic" / "sexual" + "iconography," I rely on the engines of clumsy cyberspace, which must for now hunt around words coupled near photos for any hints of enlightenment.

This query started when I found a while back the explanation of the one illustration that's ubiquitous: the "yab yum" pose pictured above in an uncredited source (at least triplicated on the Net) of a Tibetan scroll-painting, a "t[h]an[g]ka." Yab= father and yum=mother in Tibetan. Now, the male Buddha-deity represents in his union with his "consort" the joining of his "skillful means" and expression of compassion into the female's wisdom and emptiness. Talk about the big O. Hamlet would have liked this conjunction function.

So do the proprietors of an Amsterdam coffeehouse-cum-brothel, Hong Kong techno LP compilers, a rather dubious San Francisco purveyor of Tantric therapy, and the source of one host of this image, an earnest and learned New Age Dutch fellow enjoying the golden years in a garden in Victoria BC at Free By Nature . (Caveat lector: it's one of those endless pages you must scroll down four years' worth of posts to scan, but there might be pearls of wisdom therein lodged amidst the colorful and erudite musings.)

Still, all this symbol hunting made me feel like poor Causabon in "Middlemarch." I kept pondering: why did Buddhism appear, from the evidence scattered in my unscientific forays, to lack visual representations of sexuality? Did they come to conceive of sacred sex as this pose only? After all, many Westerners-- as with the Amsterdam and Tantric referents-- link liberated lubricity with Shangri-Las and Nirvana on earth. There seems an implicit contrast between the "Irish erotic art" reaction to a severe Christian denial of our urges and the Shiva-limbed, creative, and carefree contortions favored in, famously, one of the few sites to have escaped by its remote jungle overgrowth the annihilation (by Islam, but if the Jesus-freaks had got there first...) of Buddhism in its Indian homeland, Khajuraho. Here's an array of explicit photos from the temple friezes . Luckily, these supple carvings now are protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site, unlike the fate of the Bamian Buddhas obliterated by the Taliban or the deteriorating landmarks at Angkor Wat.

Still, the Buddhist options extant as pictured appear to be either Khajuraho or Yab Yum. Losing one's self, literally, in a higher experience symbolized by blissful conjugation, or losing one's self, temporarily, in a fleshly encounter sculpted for sensory overload. Perhaps two levels, then, may better sum up this dichotomy, this reliance, based on admittedly a narrow range of material and the vagaries of keywords and Google and my own vast ignorance?

I came across on a Tantric Australian site (can't backtrack for it) an intriguing suggestion: the temple had been so graphic on the outside of its depictions for a curative purpose. Once the viewer had gotten over being dazzled by the Kama Sutric variety, then the pilgrim would be ready for entrance into Khajuraho's interior, as austere as a Calvinist kirk of stimuli. (See Michael Rabe's article for details and photos, although he minimizes this Down Under understanding.)) As I wrap my mind around it, Buddhism requires its seekers to understand that desire itself sexually is not sinful as it has conventionally been confined-- if in a distorted fashion-- by Christian orthodoxy. Yet, our libido does keep us attached to the demands of a restless body. Taken as a brutal force or a dangerous drug, sensuality can drag us down into lusts, bewilderment, and selfishness. Rather than freeing us into the spirit that strives to separate itself from its troublesome throbbing shell.

There's considerable discussion, unsurprisingly, in print about Buddhism and sexuality. Lawrence Sutin, in the study which I just reviewed here a few days ago, "All Is Change," records how gay and lesbian Buddhist converts, upset by what they found as a considerably more puritanical set of restrictions on practices allowed under the "Third Precept" that proscribes "sexual misconduct," asked the Dalai Lama to reconsider its prohibitions, as interpreted by Tibetans, of non-procreative activity. Of course, this request came in San Francisco. I see this end run around the tradition to advance modern freedom as akin to what freethinking Catholics might challenge as those actions permissible only as "open to the possibility of conception." His Holiness took their request seriously, I suppose more so than the Pope entertains such appeals to the Magisterium.

Reading Pico Iyer's "The Open Road," (reviewed by me here after I wrote the above paragraph), I add this clarification in the following two paragraphs: Iyer cites a friend and scholar who objected that "the famous injunction against" non-coital "intercourse was a late addition to a text that spoke only against adultery; Tibetan Buddhism at its heart prescribed no such doctrine, which would exile male homosexuality." Iyer has just noted that the texts "said nothing about women," an out(let) for me reminiscent of OT loopholes in Leviticus for the disport of the fairer sex, or the lack of laws against lesbianism in Victoria's England supposedly since the queen'd never heard of such behavior.

"The Dalai Lama, true to form, said that if his friend could produce the text and show him in completely scholarly terms that he had misjudged the old texts, he would certainly be open to changing his mind, but till then he could not go against the code he had inherited." (146) Strict, but at least there's room for a fumble and recovery with the Dalai Lama, who has argued that science can replace Buddhist tenets. For instance, the sun and the moon are not of equal size, and there's no lunar light emitted, contrary to Tibetan dogma! Like Galileo, it may be a long wait for those appealing similar freedoms from the Vatican. For forty years many have protested against the encyclical of Pope Paul VI in vain, to the detriment of common practice and adherence to the faith of my fathers-- and mothers-- by millions of Catholics. Still, it's a tough call, given the coherence of natural law theology. As doubtful to me as the lunar radiance, but an illusion easily followed by many others.

However-- and this remains independent of my own reactions to such doctrinal interpretations-- it seems to me both traditional Catholics and conservative Buddhists share an ineradicable understanding. They both favor the male-female, yab-yum, penile-vaginal connection as fundamental. This must be, at least from my knowledge of Humanae Vitae and the Dalai Lama's "The Way to Freedom" recapitulation of the Lam Rim core teachings of his Geluk Tibetan "ways along the path," cautiously grounded in the conventional norm of intercourse. Deviating from this ideal, both appear to preach, means losing one's self in one's own pleasure rather than the purpose for which coitus has been designed. This in turn endangers a relationship by putting the ego ahead of the other person's needs. And, of course, this understanding runs smack into the problem nowadays. (The reason, I might add, why my wife donated yesterday in the name of Bristol Palin a contribution to Planned Parenthood.) People no longer must couple only to make babies; contraception, education (not the sort Mrs. P. wishes for her daughter or our children) and variety both allow a broader range of sexual expressions, akin more to Khajuraho's abundance rather than Yab-Yum's concentration.

How this erotic expansion fits into the narrower version of proper sexual activity that the Third Precept expects will prove as daunting for Western Buddhists to reshape as it has been for liberal Catholics to reclaim. The erotic may, however, I suspect be more akin to Eastern acceptance of the flesh's right to fulfillment vs. the standard Abrahamic religions that tend to keep the women under suspicion of their Edenic powers of temptation. Now, Buddha five centuries before Christ also labored under his own prejudices. The legends tell us that when he-- years after abandoning his young wife and infant son as he tiptoed out one night and began his quest-- approached her on a sort of grand tour, she refused to see him again despite his fame. ( Andre Bareau: "A Mysterious Being: The Wife of Buddha.") Since I read Hesse's "Siddhartha" as so many teens have, I've always felt sorry for Yasodhara and their boy, Rahula. Junior later became a monk. She, long suffering, deserves a thangka, at least.

Historians assure us that, no less than any other age, even the Buddha instilled prejudices of his patriarchal era. At least his women followers could enter monasteries; the stress, however, on the separation of the committed adept from the lay devotee, in both Christianity and Buddhism, does heighten the tendency to favor renunciation as a necessary corollary of ultimate commitment to the teaching. For this, I do find that Muslim and Jewish practices may be in this case more admirable, for at least they tend to keep the family-- with necessary acknowledgment however fumbling or reluctant-- to conjugal domesticity as the heart of the practice. (If only to make more babies for the Faith, which is a whole other karmic conundrum.)

There's a discipline involved for the committed Christian or Buddhist, contrarily, that demands that he or she distance the body from the spirit so the latter can begin to ascend. Such tension inevitably erodes the erotic expression in favor or its spiritual sublimation. The Buddhists in the West, as Sutin notes, have been markedly reluctant to take on the ascetic attitudes towards the Third Precept's more stringent interpretation. He suggests that this distinction may prove one of those that will encourage a mature philosophy of dharma perhaps, and this is me chattering now-- differentiating Western Buddhists from both the more stringent guidelines of such as the Dalai Lama and from papal or evangelical Christian limitations on sexual choices.

I know many in the West distort Tantra-- in its primary meaning a channeling of the universal energy, achieved not by overnighters at Esalen but by initiates steeped in years of Buddhist study and guru-approved supervision. In fact, such unauthorized detours into the realm of the senses Georg Feuerstein's labelled as "California Tantra," confusing orgasm with sublimity. Maybe it's only a venal sin? Still, as with interpreting the esoteric "Tibetan Book of the Dead" as an LSD manual, anyone translating Buddhist conceptions into countercultural expression may see such metaphors, and simplifications, as perhaps inevitable distortions for eager laity.

For Buddhism, it may be that Khajuraho's the accessible portal into rarified Yab-Yum. We wear ourselves out happily on the lower levels of the playground, and then we climb the ladders. Contemplating the Yab Yum, I speculate on its perspective: the woman is on top of the man; this embrace appears reliably on tantric websites. Why doesn't a feminist paint it the other way around? Give us the back of the Buddha's head and show the whole face of his consort. Make her the one we're gazing upon? And, I keep nagging away: surely there's a wider range of postures that some Tantric initiates must have depicted on some thangka? Where's a 21st c. re-orientation for a lascivious, lithe, and/or laughingly lovelorn lama?

See the "Red Thread" discussion (linked below) by a Zen nun about her own romp along this path from fornication to realization. Could one, I idly and saucily meditate, employ erotica as a visual stimulation into the mysteries of the Buddha-deity and his consort? Or, would such a use tangle one in attachment to karma, to a samsaric want for easy entry into more esoteric insights? Similar perhaps to the distrust-- also noted by Sutin-- of Buddhists for a psychedelic shortcut to what yogis sought to encounter by prolonged fasting and bodily deprivation. Here, too, perhaps Westerners may imagine erotic and pharmaceutical aids towards elevation. Drugs, debauchery, and drink brought down more than one guru in his mission to the West in recent years. Scandals do not only taint the Church. So, another precept's prohibition against stimulants may make this as problematic as alcohol is for the Beehive state full of Jello-addicted Mormons. Still, one wonders what full-immersion virtual reality may bring.

Now, in the service of scholarship I recognize a problem akin to if, in search of Western postures, I entered but two terms, say, "missionary position" and "soixante-neuf." I simply do not know the vocabulary for alternative arrangements that may open up other imagery or information. Not to mention the linguistic barriers. Perhaps this is why Tantric instruction's not given to the prurient? There's always a come-on to lure us deeper into the coming attraction, the price of admission that draws us into the shrouded shade outside the fairground's glare.

I feel as ignorant as those intrepid bible-thumpers stumbling upon a delightful orgy amidst the jasmine and boganvilleas. One wonders how many Khajurahos have been demolished as surely as the Bamian Buddhas. This being said, it appears-- and seems illustrated in later Buddhist art if Tibet's any indication-- that Yab Yum's ecstatic model dominates the discussion; India's earlier exuberance we find preserved only by luck of the jungle vines that shrouded its scenes from Muslim ga(u)zes.

P.S. There's much more on this topic, by its endlessly provocative nature! Here's a list of further reading that I recommend.

Dr. Alexander Berzin: Issues in Buddhist Sexual Ethics. 1998 lecture.

Thich Nhat Hanh: The Third Precept: Sexual Responsibility. 1993 rpt. essay.

Winton Higgins: Buddhist Sexual Ethics. Buddha Net article, n.d. Also see link to a stern "Rejoinder" here.

Stephanie Kaza: "Finding Safe Harbor: Buddhist Sexual Ethics in America."Buddhist-Christian Studies 24(2004): 23-35. Project Muse: not available freely online.

Michael Rabe. Sexual Imagery on the "Phantasmagorical Castles" of Khajuraho. Int'l Jrnl of Tantric Studies 2:2 (Nov. 1996).

"Red Thread Zen: The Tao of Love, Passion & Sex." Dharma Web. 1993 teisho.

Roohi Saluja. Mystic Mandala of Khajuraho. Life Positive. Jan. 2005 essay.

M. O'C. Walshe: Buddhism & Sex. 1975 tract.


Wim Borsboom said...

Quoting you,
"...the source of one host of this image, an earnest and learned New Age Dutch fellow enjoying the golden years in a garden in Victoria BC at Free By Nature .
Caveat lector: it's one of those endless pages you must scroll down four years' worth of posts to scan, but there might be pearls of wisdom therein lodged amidst the colorful and erudite musings.)

Hi there Fionnchú.

You are so very kind... :)
You are not bad yourself at this...
Here is a new blog I just set up:
It's old (from a Kundalini website that I started in 1998 and new material.


Wim Borsboom said...

On my Free by Nature Blog you can find the pictures I took in Khajuraho. I met some wonderful Indian people there and will return to India in December 2010. Go to the second slide show after you access:

Fionnchú said...

Belated thanks, Wim, and belated as I only today posted a review of Brad Warner's "Sex, Sin & Zen". His book does not look at the iconographical element, but delves into the physical manifestation, which after all's more tangible, if not as lasting.