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.”
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