Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Sexualities in Buddhist Narrative, Iconography, and Ritual

Serinity Young

Routledge, 2004

Paperback, 232 pp, 16 color plates

Available from

Relentless Patriarchy and Feminist Liberation in Buddhism

Young (Serinity is an absolutely charming name but for fear of accusations of patriarchal bias I will have to respect academic convention and stick to surnames) has undertaken an ambitious task. She examines the appearance of women in Buddhist biographies, and the way that their gender and sexuality are presented by authors who are almost universally male and monastic. Her scope includes both India and East Asia, and from the transition from oral to written texts in the first to fifth centuries to medieval Tibetan works (on the consorts of the title). Very sensibly the work is divided thematically rather than chronologically. This is aided by the texts themselves which tend to categorise women into stereo-types: mothers, wives, nuns, courtesans, consorts, etc.

The sources Young analyzes are amongst the most difficult a historian can engage with. They are lengthy, complex texts, many of which have been subject to long traditions of composition and editing. More importantly, they involve one group (male monastics) talking about another group (women) about whom we suspect they have relatively little knowledge. These sources therefore require a very subtle interpretation, and a balance between trying to peer through the glass to the women beyond, and using them as a mirror to examine the men who wrote them. Young does this excellently, drawing much about the historical position of women while never losing sight that the texts are mostly about 'men, revealing male fears of female sexuality and pollution, and anxieties about the loss of masculinity' (231).

If there is a thesis in this complicated set of readings it is the unrelenting subordination of women. Again and again Young is able to show how male authors marginalize women, transforming apparent heroines into objects and exceptionalising the most remarkable women so that their achievements do not reflect on women in general, and cannot therefore pose a threat to cultural beliefs in male superiority. So for example, in discussing the courtesans of the historical Buddha's palace, or the attempt of Mara's daughters to seduce the Buddha, Young's careful reading shows how these are far from the active female presence they first appear.

'... when they try to tempt the Buddha on the night of enlightenment, like the women of the harem, they do not act of their own volition, but are instructed by their father, Mara. These texts tell us not so much about women being sexual temptresses as women being under the control of men, as being part of the sexual economy of their time. In actuality these scenes are about two powerful males who want to deter the Buddha - the Buddha's father and Mara - and their sexual use of dependent women as their tools.' (13)

Young devotes a lot of space to Tantric consorts and sex change stories. These two themes, the first a feature of Tibetan Buddhism and the second more universal, are at first glance liberating to women. The sexual union involved in the yab-yum pairing between Tantric practitioner and consort appears to give women an equal place as partners in spiritual enlightenment. However, Young shows convincingly that in fact the woman does not act as a partner, but rather as a tool whose powers the male practitioner co-opts to advance his own enlightenment (a theme which recurs in a number of her analysis). Likewise, sex change is transformed from an apparently liberating activity to a subordinating one by the authors. The idea that gender was fluid, or meaningless, is part of the Buddhist idea that all phenomenon are illusory, and therefore irrelevant. This apparently places women on an equal spiritual footing with men. Unfortunately the practice is somewhat different, Young gives two stories of women as illustration, those of Candrottara and Sumati (196-7). Both women are challenged that they cannot achieve enlightenment as they are women and both respond with defenses based on the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, that gender is merely an illusion. The text almost immediately tips this defense on its head, as they two women for their eloquence by being transformed into men. If the doctrine is valid for gender there is no reason for them to be transformed, if the transformation is genuinely a boon, the doctrine is clearly invalid when applied to gender.

Though the resulting picture is almost relentless negative this does not stem from any failing on Young's part. It is simply that the sources do contain a great deal that reflects the subordination of women that was the historical reality of Buddhism for almost its entire history. However, there is one aspect which Young does not take up and which would have been a valuable addition to the book. Though she acknowledges that there are positive images of women in the Buddhist texts (images male authors are often trying to suppress) and that a debate must have existed on the spiritual enlightenment of women (198) she never asks where these positive images or arguments come from. Yet, I think this is an important question. By not tackling the side of the argument (in which women assert their subjectivity, and spiritual merit in Buddhism) she gives the impression that she is siding with a common feminist view that all that is liberating for women stems directly from the Buddha himself. This view, attempts to assert that the Buddha's actual teachings are completely in line with our modern views of women as equal partners in religious merit, and that these have been distorted by the efforts of male editors.

'The wisest teaching of Buddhism say that one must move beyond gender, beyond all dualities, but its rhetoric in texts, iconography, and ritual demonstrates an urge to co-opt and control creative female powers that ends up diminishing women and exalting men ... Changes need to be made that acknowledge past excesses and that create a future in which both women and men can pursue enlightenment free from false views about what it means to be gendered.' (232)

This is a somewhat naive view, and in a lot ways marginalizes women as much as the sources attempt to do. It credits all that is positive about gender in Buddhism to the 'wisest teachings' (a synonym for the Buddha, a man) and paints a picture of distortion by male authors, in effect denying women any agency in the creation of their own positive images. It is much more constructive, and less simplistic, to look at how women are able to create positive pictures of women within patriarchal cultures and traditions. Young notes in several places how Tibetan nuns are able to turn their apparent 'lesser value' to their advantage by taking greater risks in protesting Chinese occupation in modern-day Tibet. Likewise we can look to the Kushan period and India (a period from which a lot of the positive female images originate) to see how women are able to negotiate their own space within a patriarchal culture. In this case the idea of gift (dana) is a space within which nuns, mothers, and wives appears as able as men (this is reflected both in inscriptions and in the figure of the merchants daughter in the Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom). Probably in India in the early centuries women benefited from the inferior status of Buddhism. In a society in which men monopolised Brahminism women were able to create their own spaces with the inferior merit of Buddhism. It is noticable both the number of Queens that patronize Buddhism and that in Gandhara in the Kushan period, when Buddhism first achieves some level of primacy in religious terms, that women vanish from the donative record. None of this should be taken as too serious a criticism of Young's book, which does not set out to ask these questions (and I am sure Young would not have taken the simplistic view if she had). However, to fully understand sexuality in Buddhist texts we need to understand where the other side of the argument (the side we cannot hear) comes from. And I think it comes from every period of Buddhist history, not from some idealised correct interpretation of the Buddhas teachings, but from the collective effect of individual women's attempts to assert their own spaces within patriarchal cultures.

To summarize, Young's book is an excellent account of sexuality in a variety of Buddhist narratives. It is a valuable contribution to the debate over how women have experienced Buddhism, and how Buddhism has dealt with women. And it is an engaging and thought provoking read. It is a book that anyone interested in the relationship of gender and Buddhism should be interested in.

Contents Page Women in the Kushan Period  Faces of the Feminine Trade and Religious Exchange Gandharan Art in Context

Robert Bracey.