Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bernard Fauré's "The Red Thread": Book Review

From this French post-modernist professor, it's no surprise that this collection of essays (more than a seamlessly argued or tightly assembled study) roams over not only the map but the territory into his "own private" excursions and byways. Bernard Fauré warns as he introduces "The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality" that it's not systematic, and that he favors Japanese sources for their own historiographical contexts over those of India and China, unlike many Buddhist or Asian scholars who try to cover this ideological and cultural realm. The result, as he promises, is more his "own private" record of what he finds, often in the nooks and crannies of monastic proscriptions, tall tales of mystics, and transgressive parables by Zen masters (male, at least).

This does drift into engaging moments. The "two truths" theory that ultimate revelation may necessarily override fidelity to the here-and-now conventions allows wiggle room for monks (for better or worse, this book focuses on male and monastic contexts as these tend to survive down to our times as obsessing most over violations of the precepts, sacred and profane). This underlying direction--it bobs up and down, submerged by hundreds of notes which appear to have been built into a chain of associated examples more than a tight thesis--does not prevent Fauré from digressions. These may be underwhelming--much more on Bhutan's Drukpa Kinley appears to be relevant to Fauré's study than the snippet he sums up meagerly. Or, as in the Japanese poet Ikkyu, emotion emerges as we read spare verse to share his bold vision.

Ultimately, after chapters on homosexual behavior in Japanese monasteries, and tales that promote a subversive (or maybe not) male archetype, Fauré's accounts end with more a whimper than a bang. Dutiful research offers few surprises: the yin/yang oscillates as do the Two Truths. Marginal nods to Martin Luther, Alison Lurie, Borges, the classics, and clerical casuists from the Catholic tradition demonstrate his broad learning as fun or sly asides.

However, his "Afterthoughts" allude if in haste to his most intriguing interpretations. He rejects any "'pure,' atemporal, and changeless doctrine." Flexibility rules. As he anticipated in his denial of the easy trope of anticlericalism and decadent monasteries as a reliable genre for East or West, he later opens up for scrutiny a preconception of a normative Buddhism. Given the Middle Way's path between desire and non-desire, interdiction and transgression, Fauré tracks it as itself "double tracked and double edged: maintaining in principle a precarious balance between the the two extremes, yet constantly torn in practice between these two centrifugal tendencies." (279)

Feminists offer a bold alternative. Instead of awakening "as a rupture, a reversal, a social drama" as in hagiographical treatments, feminine practices "tend to insist on the progressive, nondramatic, intimate character of their religious experience." (282) He promises a follow-up volume on this subject.

Finally, what of another direction? Earlier he quotes Georges Bataille's "Eroticism" (1947, p. 42; cited p. 98): "The knowledge of eroticism, or of religion, requires a personal experience equal and contradictory, of taboo and transgression." He muses perhaps both aspects may remain in a fuller consideration of religious impact upon the realms of the red thread which connects us all by blood. (Amazon US 4-7-13)

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