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Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (2006) 1-13

Monastic Masturbation in Pāli Buddhist Texts
J. Duncan M. Derrett
School of Oriental and African Studies, London

An interesting set of disciplinary materials on masturbation appears in the Vinaya (Buddhist monastic law) in Pāli, which is pre-Christian and, if interpolations could be removed, would reach back another five centuries, fragments being traditionally attributed to the Buddha, Gautama, himself. He died in the fourth century BCE, according to recent computations. It is possible that the earliest allusions to the Buddha's "legislation" for monks (and nuns after he reluctantly admitted any) in respect of masturbation occur in the very ancient Pāli Pātimokkha (Summary of Offenses) in the first rule of the San ghādisesa, defined as such since "intentional (sañcetanikā) emission of semen, other than in a dream, entails a formal meeting of the sangha [local Buddhist association]." 1 The word "emission" shows that precise physical manifestation to be vital to the "offense." The emission of fluids other than semen (which can be copious) does not count in the case of males, though it may in the case of females.

The unique material in the Vinaya could have been rendered into English by the best-qualified person of her day, Isabel Blew Horner (1896–1981), but she refused. Throughout her version of the Pāli Vinaya, which she [End Page 1] published between 1938 and 1966, she consistently omitted short passages because of their indelicacy. One short passage on dildos she reprieved. When she came to the third section of the Vinaya she virtually eclipsed a whole chapter of human behavior. She says: "The whole of §3, pp. 112–15 because of the outspokenness and crudeness which it contains, and which seem to be inseparable from early literatures, appears unsuitable for incorporation in a translation designed principally for Western readers." And again: "The reasons for not including the remainder of §5 in this translation are the same as those for not including §3 above." 2

Notwithstanding her squeamishness she titillated the readership by printing a prospectus of the same section 5:

A dream, excrement, and urine, reflection, and about hot water, medicine, itching, the way, the bladder, a hot room for bathing purposes, making an effort,

And a novice, and asleep, the thigh, he pressed with the fists, in the air, firmness, he meditated on, an aperture, he hit with a stick,

In the stream, muddy water [rather: "water-game"], running, a twist of flowers, a lotus, sand, mud, water, lying down, and with the thumbs. 3

We shall see what that rigmarole means, though this writer has some doubts still.

The whole is preceded by a story, introducing a passage that shows philological signs of having been put together out of blocks, each of unknown age. So we begin with a possibly fictitious case history. A monk named Seyyasaka was depressed and emaciated, no advertisement for the Middle Way. Seyyasaka told a specialist, Udāyin, that he was dissatisfied (anabhirata, "delight-free, disenchanted," 2.168). 4 Udāyin recommended that Seyyasaka eat, sleep, and bathe as much as he liked, and if passion (rāga) assailed him he might "emit impure material [semen], employing the hand" (2.110). 5 Seyyasaka's condition improved, and when his colleagues remarked on his sleekness he repeated Udāyin's formula as a proved substitute for medicine. They were cross. He had emitted (they too use the euphemism asuci, "impurity") with the same hand as received the offerings of the faithful (in his bowl, of course)—an interesting if sanctimonious objection. 6 Both Udāyin and the Buddha draw attention to the hand (3.119). A dual problem had [End Page 2] arisen. Indian superstition still considers semen "impure," and for that reason masturbators should use not the right hand (used for giving and receiving gifts) but the left (the lavatory and inauspicious hand)—a reasonable restriction, as the Romans agreed. 7 However, Seyyasaka was reported to...


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