Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book Review: Lust for Enlightenment

In a previous post, I discussed sexuality through the prism of current American Buddhism and the Christianity presumptions of America, and used the catch phrase "eyes wide open" to really look at human sexuality in it's positive and negative potential. So I went looking for a book about Buddhism and sexuality. Lust for Enlightenment is positive or neutral towards sexuality, though it acknowledges there's a puritain strain of Buddhism, and that the Buddha was not longer interested in sexuality once he was enlightened.

John Stevens has been reviewed here earlier for his Japanese Buddhist erotica, which was a more recent book than Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex, which came out in 1990, 23 years ago. In this 5 chapter book with 141 pages, John Stevens looks at sexuality through the history and mythology of Buddhism. He is a professor at Tohoku Fukushi University in Japan of Buddhist studies and is my mother's age.

The first chapter is about the Buddha, and includes his enlightenment where he transcends sexuality. It's a sexed up account, until he is enlightened, and then he's beyond temptation.

One might note he sees the Buddha as staunchly heterosexual, which he insists a few times, without proof or cites. Every time he insisted, my mind, trained in many graduate schools, shouted out, "heterosexual presumption!" In fact the book deals with homosexuality in the last pages of the book, where he noted it could be quite common at times.

In the second chapter Stevens discusses the "puritain elders" who say to try and extinguish passions in favor of non-attachment. People are persuaded to be celibate. Meditation on the loathsomeness of the body is seen as a method for calming the passions. See the body as a bag of blood, pus and filth. Also imagine the decay of a dead body. (The author identifies the voice as "puritain Buddha".) I used to have trouble sustaining the image of seeing someone throughout the life cycle, but I'm getting better and better at not reassembling the body into voluptuousness.

Chapter two is a ribald tale where for every monk's transgression, but Buddha makes a rule against such and such. Every, and I mean every, scenario is considered, and forbidden for the monks by the Buddha. This section is derived from the vinaya, which might be a fun read in terms of what people did to bring about such and such a rule. It's a kind of Starr Report; under the pretext of condemning actions, it titillates. Wild times in ancient India with salacious details. I read them out to my girlfriend because they were pretty shocking at times.

Reading what I first read in Vishvapani's book on the Buddha, that the Buddha said it would be better to stick your penis into a snake's mouth, than into a woman, I find that pretty shocking.

My complaint about chapter 2, is I don't know why he occasionally inserts more modern examples into the ancient Pali sanskrit examples. I would have preferred a historical order. But I also admire that he's read all this stuff and collected all these stories into one place.

Stevens is good at culling from the buddhist tradition sexuality, though he doesn't repeat the suggestion he had in his last book, that the Buddha has sex with the rice milk woman. He quotes a lot of primary texts from the Pali Cannon

In chapter 3 he makes the common mistake to see Vimalakirti as a "layman". Sangharakshita deftly puts that silliness to bed in his book about the Vimalakirti Nirdesa, called Inconceivable Emancipation, which is one of his best books about a text. The whole book is about how silly the different dualism of Mahayana and Hinayana are, so to say Vimalakirti is a lay buddhist is to kind of not get the whole text's point.

Stevens uses good footnotes, and he refers to a literature I'm not familiar with. But there were key Buddhist quotes that could be controversial, and called to mind Bodhipaksa's wedsite Fake Buddhist Quotes. He combines the Buddha's last two statements into one statement, for one thing.

Chapter 3 continues on into Tantra, Cha'n and Zen tradition, as does chapter 4. Which brings to mind something a friend said. Someone quoted another order member to support their position, to which my friend said, "you can find an order member who believes in everything." Just because there were times when it was OK to be a Buddhist monk and be very sexual, doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. If you are suffering under a repressive idea of sexuality, then this book might be a kind of Kinsey report for you. And I want to know what the tradition says.

Through the countless examples you see varying tolerance to sexuality by society, and how sexuality bubbles over despite "spiritual" desires. At times the guru gains status, at others he loses it.

He also mentions that in quite a few of the sexual practices, the man is not supposed to come.

Chapter 5 is about marriage, and has many examples of various configurations of polyamory, and examples of love and fidelity. You can find statements suggesting monogamy is the best. Here as in other places takes a kind of bookish sociology--what can be found out in books about a buddhist society of the past?

To refrain from sexual misconduct can be interpreted narrowly, a point to chastity, or it can be interpreted widely, and point to the potential joys, and just don't do anything extreme that hurts someone or yourself. Deceit is seen as the unskillful act. Lust, if it is pure, can be a path towards enlightenment, according to Stevens. How to purify lust, he does not really say.

I get the sense that Stevens is interested in his subject, but he doesn't share any instruction in spiritualizing sexuality that he has gotten. All the books that purport to instruct along those lines are out of print, and cost a fortune used.

Stevens is mostly an expert on the Japanese tradition, and he doesn't bring much beyond reporting things. The only implied perspective in the narrative is that collecting and reporting all this stuff is a worthy project. I don't think I was harmed by it. Buddhist culture is very diverse. I bet there existed traditions within all the major religions to spiritualize sexuality.

Writing a book isn't easy, and this one isn't bad for a trail blazer. To my knowledge it's the first English language book on sexuality in buddhism. I don't know why it's so natural to criticize. Listen to sports radio and you mostly hear about how people made mistakes. Teams win sometimes, and then it comes to testosterone filled taunting of the opponents fan base, not a real joy in success. So, avoiding that spirit, I wish to say that while I have these nit picky things to say, it's out of joy in the book that I comment, and that I'm a work in progress, who has a lot of work to do.

Now to read a book about the negative side of sexuality: Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center


Savanna Jo said...

Hi Steve
I very much recommend this book:
Sex and the Spiritual Teacher by Scott Edelstein.
It came out recently and I found it to be very helpful.
It also discusses the SF case you are about to read about.

Stephen Bell said...

on my wish list, thanks.