Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Red Thread, Book Reviews

The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality

Bernard Faure / Author Princeton University Press $90 (324p) ISBN 978-0-691-05998-3

This book opens with an intriguing question: Why have so many prominent Buddhist leaders in recent times (e.g., roshi Richard Baker, Osel Tendzin, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche) been involved in scandals of excess, especially sexual? Faure's answer is that behind such ""antinomianism"" there is a deep-seated ambiguity in Buddhism, rooted in the pivotal place that desire (the ""red thread"" of the title) holds in the Second Noble Truth. The author, a religion professor at Stanford, finds this ambiguity at its height in the Mahayana tradition, particularly in its notion of the Two Truths (bodhisattva-ultimate and lay-conventional), and most especially and predictably in Tantric Buddhism. But more telling, perhaps, is the evidence in the canonical and extra-canonical stories of Gautama himself, as well as in the ostensibly rigorist Vinaya (monastic discipline) of the more conservative Theravada school. Though the book is informative and at times entertaining with its numerous anecdotes and stories from Buddhist tradition, the warning to the reader in the introduction is well founded: the thesis and line of argumentation tend to get lost, sometimes hopelessly, in the veritable barrage of source material, most of which is far more illustrative than probative and is thus ultimately distracting. (Dec.)

The Red Thread - Faure, Bernard



Is there a Buddhist discourse on sex? In this innovative study, Bernard Faure reveals Buddhism's paradoxical attitudes toward sexuality. His remarkably broad range covers the entire geography of this religion, and its long evolution from the time of its founder, Xvkyamuni, to the premodern age. The author's anthropological approach uncovers the inherent discrepancies between the normative teachings of Buddhism and what its followers practice.

Framing his discussion on some of the most prominent Western thinkers of sexuality--Georges Bataille and Michel Foucault--Faure draws from different reservoirs of writings, such as the orthodox and heterodox "doctrines" of Buddhism, and its monastic codes. Virtually untapped mythological as well as legal sources are also used. The dialectics inherent in Mahvyvna Buddhism, in particular in the Tantric and Chan/Zen traditions, seemed to allow for greater laxity and even encouraged breaking of taboos. Faure also offers a history of Buddhist monastic life, which has been buffeted by anticlerical attitudes, and by attempts to regulate sexual behavior from both within and beyond the monastery. In two chapters devoted to Buddhist homosexuality, he examines the way in which this sexual behavior was simultaneously condemned and idealized in medieval Japan.

This book will appeal especially to those interested in the cultural history of Buddhism and in premodern Japanese culture. But the story of how one of the world's oldest religions has faced one of life's greatest problems makes fascinating reading for all.

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