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  • Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Sexualities in Buddhist Narrative, Iconograhy, and Ritual
  • Rita M. Gross
Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Sexualities in Buddhist Narrative, Iconograhy, and Ritual. By Serinity Young. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. 256 pp.

This book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Buddhism and gender. It presents information and explores issues on this topic in new and innovative ways. It is also well researched and well written. Part of Young's innovation is her use of Buddhist art and iconography, which she takes as seriously as textual sources are usually taken in Buddhist studies. Many of her most interesting suggestions and conclusions result from the seriousness with which she takes Buddhist art as resource for understanding Buddhism more accurately and completely. The other foci are clear from her subtitle: narrative and ritual. There is much less attention to the canonical and philosophical texts of Buddhism that are so often invoked in studies of Buddhism and gender.

Studies of sexuality or gender often end up primarily discussing new information about women and new ways of understanding women's participation in or exclusion from religion. This study is no exception, which is not in any way to fault the book. Young's analyses center on ways that women have been both included in the Buddhist world and excluded from that world. Among the many varieties of Buddhism, Young primarily focuses on early Indian Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism, which have the most provocative teachings about gender and sexuality. In Young's analyses, we see how women participated in early Buddhism in ways that have not been recognized in most earlier scholarship and ways in which they are excluded from Tantric Buddhism and most later forms of Buddhism that have not always been acknowledged.

Young's interpretations of the traditional life stories of the Buddha are extremely innovative and interesting. She argues that the future Buddha's rejection of women when he left his home and family must be balanced with his reintegration into the world of women before and during his enlightenment experience. She argues that this reintegration is evidenced especially in his acceptance of food from Sujata and in the help he received from the Earth Goddess during his trials with Mara. Young argues that many Buddhists throughout the ages have focused on episodes in his life that deal with rejection of women but have not fully taken in the implications of the stories in which women become important allies in the mission of the Buddha.

The sources for early Indian Buddhism most invoked by Western scholars of Buddhism are textual. These textual sources present a very mixed picture of women's lot in early Indian Buddhism. On the one hand, the Therigatha and some stories from the life of the Buddha present a relatively optimistic picture of women's possibilities and their acceptance in the early Buddhist community. On the other hand, texts present a constant message of the importance of renunciation, and much of the recommended renunciation involves women. Texts written by and for monks frequently conflate women with sexuality and hold women responsible for wayward monks' sexual temptations. Against this widely known material, Young calls upon the evidence of early Indian Buddhist art to argue that the monks' anti-women texts [End Page 174] do not tell the whole story about women in early Indian Buddhism. The art work, which was much more important for tutoring largely illiterate Buddhist laypeople, consistently portrays women voluptuously and positively. This contrast between text and art is so great that recently, during a slide show in a class I taught on ancient Indian Buddhism, a student asked point blank how monks could possibly sanction the voluptuous portrayals of women common in early Indian Buddhist sanctuaries. I didn't remember Young's cogent analysis at first, but eventually did reply, using her analysis. The monastic establishment controlled the discourse that eventually became the texts of early Buddhism, but the lay donors controlled the visual representations that decorated the sites where Buddhism was preserved. The lay donors were more than happy to represent the fecundity and beauty of women, without whom there would be no future donors or...


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