Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex
By John Stevens.
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1990,
188 pp., paper, $9.95.

A lot of eyebrows were raised thirty years ago when the poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote, “Erotic love is the highest form of contemplation.” His comment actually paraphrased one of the primary teachings of the Tachikawa-Ryu school of tantra in Japan: “Sexual intercourse is the supreme Buddhist activity.” Lust, sex, and enlightenment have been as variously, and as contradictorily, treated in Buddhist literature as in the West. From the most extreme puritanical rejection of the subject of sex to tantric ecstatic devotionals, from women’s veils to aphrodisiacs, to discourses delivered by the Buddha while “reposing in the vagina of his consort,” Buddhism has explored, condemned, sublimated, and transformed sexuality. The universal Buddhist chant, Om mani padme hum, is a recitation of “The jewel in the lotus, all hail!” representing tantric union of lingam and yoni.

John Stevens’ Lust for Enlightenment is the first comprehensive study of Buddhism and sex to span cultural, mythological, and linguistic barriers. From The Splendid Dharma Gate Sutra he brings us the story of the courtesan-heroine Golden One of Illustrious Virtue, who instructed Manjusri, Bodhisattva of Wisdom, on the importance of maintaining a balance between the polarities of passion and the void.

From the obscure Chapters on Skillful Means, Stevens recounts the story of Subhuti’s encounter with a woman who gives herself freely to “men who enjoy sensual pleasure, enlightening them to Buddhism through passion.” When Subhuti questions the Buddha about the morality of her conduct, the Buddha calls her a “great bodhisattva.”

Elsewhere, Stevens stares plain old-fashioned sexism in the eye. “An appalling proportion of Buddhist literature in all traditions,” he observes, “is devoted to vilifying women as depravity incarnate-insatiable, vile, degraded, and nothing but woe … Buddhist texts are relentlessly masculine in orientation, and women are frequently condemned as being utterly incapable of attaining enlightenment. The best thing about paradise, some Buddhists believed, was that there are no women there.”

While the “red thread” of sexually enlightened behavior runs persistently throughout the grand fabric of Buddhism, it has at no time been predominant. And while the devout have observed the teaching that states, “Buddhist compassion must include compassion toward the non-Buddhist to be true compassion,” they have only rarely extended that compassion to women. Most early Chan (Zen) masters were willing to discuss sex, but reluctant to challenge convention. Even in the huge, classic compendium of koans, The Blue Cliff Record, none pertain to sex.

Among the more adventurous Japanese zennists, none compares with Ikkyu, the fifteenth-century Zen master who fell in love at age seventy with a young blind singer of twenty-eight named Lady Mori, and scandalized the Buddhist community by moving her into his quarters. Rumored to have been the bastard son of Emperor Gokomatsu and a palace concubine, and raised in a monastery, his poems speak openly of early homosexual encounters, and then of his passionate love of women. He frequented sake parlors and pleasure quarters and called sex “perfect interpenetration, perfect non-duality.” Most Japanese in Ikkyu’s heyday believed that those who patronize prostitutes are doomed to hell while the prostitutes themselves are delivered into paradise. The underlying conviction was that while the “pleasure girls” offered compassion, their patrons abused the gift.

The line between sex-for-fun and sex-for-enlightenment is at best abstract and at worst indefinable. And perhaps, finally, nonexistent. Beyond the issue of sex itself lies the arena of love and marriage and the daily, real, Buddhist family life. The early Chan master Lin-chi points the way: “Cling to the sacred and disdain the profane and you will be sunk in the ocean of life and death forever.” There are plenty of Buddhists who lust after enlightenment while trying mightily to transcend sexual desire.

Lust for Enlightenment is by no means exhaustive, but it is well-researched, and Stevens writes with eloquent ease. His translations of poems are fluid. John Stevens’ book is both entertaining and thought-provoking, and contributes to a discussion that is only now beginning in earnest here in the West.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .