The analysis of representations of gender and sexuality within Buddhist discourse is one which has only exploded in recent times.  Bear with me for a moment and you’ll see why I introduce the post this way.  It was sparked by a discussion during a recent Pali class, in which I asked about the translation of the term Bhagava as ‘Blessed One.’  This has always intrigued me, in that I asked myself, blessed by who?  Surely the point of the Buddha’s awakening and his teachings (with some exceptions, as for example Amitabha worship) is that one cannot rely on any kind of external intervention, from gods or otherwise, for one’s salvation?  The answer, in short was, that the term is an ancient Indian title or honorific, divorced here from a literal meaning.  But I was reminded of a passage in Red Pine’s translation of the Diamond Sutra:

“The term bhagavan was derived from bhaga (vulva) and originally meant ‘like a vulva,’ and hence ‘fecund’ or ‘prosperous.’  Eventually it was applied to ‘one whose presence bestows prosperity” (p. 43).

It’s interesting to compare the concept of the tathagatagarbha (Skr), usually translated as ‘Buddha Nature.’   This is a concept in Mahayana which sees Buddha Nature as a fundamental and pervasive principle of reality.  As such, it was criticised by the Japanese Critical Buddhist school of scholarship, who believe it contradicts dependent origination.  Buddha Nature may relate to central Mahayana philosophies of interdependence, emptiness and nondualism in that, if there is no ultimate distinction between past, present and future or between self and other, then the existence of Buddhas and the possibility of Buddhahood in a future life (related to the Bodhisattva vow) means that we all contain ‘Buddha-ness.’  Specifically, our ‘original consciousness’ or ‘luminous mind’ is pure and undefiled, and remains as such within – it is this which we must uncover – rather than developing something which was not previously present – in order to awake.

As a Pali Buddhist, I’m not interested in Buddha Nature as an important or useful concept for my own practice, and I do think that the idea of an original pure consciousness is antithetical to the teachings of the Pali canon – but I don’t share the Critical School objections to Buddha Nature as such.  In her wonderful book Buddha Nature, Sallie King argues that Buddha Nature is not a truly ontologically existing thing (which would indeed be problematic for all varieties of Buddhism), but a potential.  The other term often considered to be a synonym for Buddha Nature is Buddha-dhatu – where ‘dhatu’ can be translated as ‘realm’ or ‘matrix’ (as well as ‘element’ or ‘principle’).

Discussion of whether there is an undefiled original mind is not quite a digression, in that we’re thinking about a bringing-forth (Heidegger, following the Greeks, sees ‘bringing-forth’ as an important concept in the pursuit of aletheia as disclosure, unconcealedness or truth).  The literal translation of tathagatagarbha is tathagata (I won’t even get into the knotty subject of the meaning and derivation of this one, but let us say that here it refers to the or a Buddha, a ‘thus-come’ or ‘thus-gone one’); and garbha, from ‘womb,’ meaning embryo or root.  This is closely related to the Pali word gabbha, the womb, where the gandhabba (Skrt gandharva, also a divine musician) is the embryo or intermediate being which descends into the womb during the process of rebirth – the being or stream of consciousness in a state between death and rebirth.  This can only happen when three conditions are fulfilled: union of the mother and father (these days we would say union of sperm and egg), the mother’s proper season, and the presence of the gabbha.

So according to tathagatagarbha thought, in all beings, there is the seed of Buddhahood.  We might also think of ‘seed’ as a term meaning sperm or semen, as well as the abovementioned etymological womb associations.  If you’ll allow me to be vulgar for a moment in the pursuit of knowledge, the Diamond Sutra is called, in full, the Vajrachhedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, the ‘Diamond-cutting Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.’  Red Pine notes that we don’t know whether this means ‘what cuts through diamonds’ or ‘the diamond that cuts through,’ but I’d draw your attention to the slang meaning of ‘diamond cutter’: an extremely hard erect penis.  And of course, the Vajrayana symbolism of the vajra (‘hard or mighty one’), the fist, diamond  and thunderbolt sceptre, as male wisdom is a near-ubiquitous Tibetan and Tantric trope – in counterpoint to and yabyum unity with the ghanta, the female bell signalling emptiness.  Vajradhara, the bearer of the vajra, is the ultimate primordial and Dharmakaya Buddha, the essence of all male Buddhas, the tantric form of Sakyamuni, and the prime Buddha of Father tantras, from whom the five Wisdom Buddhas manifest.

So seed is one part of sexual union, but also from sexual union arises the seed, and the seed is a common metaphor in Buddhism – both in terms of kamma-vipaka, and in terms of impermanence and continuity in (not-)self identity.  The Yogacara school came up with the influential idea of the alaya-vijnana, the storehouse consciousness, which contains the kammic seeds that germinate at some point in the future.  For the Yogacarins, liberation had to come from an external seed, namely, hearing the teachings.  While this dealt with the problem of an ongoing self, it both called for external intervention for salvation, and it posited the problematic idea of a ‘place’ where these seed-objects are stored, inactive, before germinating.

So on the one hand, we see the evolution of the concept of the ‘seed’ and, in the Mahayana, the idea of the womb as a central concept in the possibility of Buddhahood coming into being, the possibility of our own and others’ liberation.  This challenges the legend of Gotama’s birth (not found in the suttas), in which he was born, not from his mother’s womb and vulva, but from her right side.  And Maya herself is cross-fertilised with the salabhanjika, the fertility goddess and virgin depicted standing near a tree and grasping a branch.  More power to the womb! (as long as this doesn’t mean that the category of ‘woman’ is associated solely with the desirable function of the ‘womb’).

On the other hand, though, it’s been argued that the Mahayana becomes increasingly misogynistic: that what in early Buddhism was a general repulsion for the body and for lust becomes, in the Mahayana, a situation in which the male monk’s approach to the woman’s body is the paradigmatic site of the identification of loathsomeness – as for Shantideva’s important work the Bodhicaryavatara – while sexual lust becomes the paradigmatic case of all desire.

And we know that in the later traditions, particularly Zen and some Tantric traditions, the relationship to desire and attachment becomes more ambiguous than it was in the Pali canon – actual renunciation is no longer seen as necessary when we can ‘dance with the ten thousand things,’ and lay life may be contrasted favourably with ordination (as in the Vimalakirti Sutra or the tales of Layman Pang).  This has been convenient in the modern capitalist West, where renunciation is extremely unpopular, and does not jibe at all with our inherited Romanticist ideas of achieving authenticity and fulfilment (Thanissaro, McMahan).

Although we don’t want to idealise the early Sangha, this narrative of transformation around sexuality and gender would fit with the idea that the heavier regulations on nuns as compared to monks, and the later disappearance of nuns, comes about as a result of the re-encroachment of societal misogyny, and textual interpolation, on Gotama’s more gender-equitable Buddhism – though one might then ask, why did nuns survive in the Mahayana but not the Theravada traditions?

Pursuing developments in the Mahayana, the Srimaladevi Simhanada Sutra (‘the Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala’), an important tathagatagarbha work dated to the 3rd century AD, discusses the Dharmakaya.  This is the inconceivable Buddha-body from which all Buddhas arise and to which they return (a concept specific to the trikaya or three-bodies Mahayana doctrine).  The Srimaladevi argues that this dharmakaya is present within all beings, but obscured by defilements.  Controversially, the Srimaladevi calls this a ‘Self,’ and suggests that sunyata (emptiness) does not apply to the tathagatagarbha/dharmakaya itself or to its virtues:

“the Tathagatagarbha is not born, does not die, does not pass away to become reborn. The Tathagatagarbha excludes the realm with the characteristic of the constructed. The Tathagatagarbha is permanent, steadfast, eternal.”

According to the sutra itself, which is set in the time of the historical Buddha, Srimala is the daughter of King Pasenadi and Queen Mallika.  On the basis that their daughter is profound and clever, and therefore would soon understand the Buddha’s doctrines, her parents send her a letter telling her about the Buddha; on reading it, she wishes for and receives a visit by the Buddha himself (who at the time is residing in Savatthi) in the form of an inconceivable body emitting rays of light.  After expounding the doctrine and being praised by the Buddha, Srimala returns to her home city, Ayodhya, where she converts her husband King Yasomitra and all adults in the capital to ‘the Great Way’ (Mahayana Buddhism).

It’s interesting that, as a woman, Queen  Srimala is such an important figure in the ‘Buddha-Embryo’ doctrine – we might even read her encounter with the Buddha as a union which gives rise to the tathagatagarbha!  In his translation (which, as always, is fascinating, clear and deeply scholarly), Red Pine suggests that the Diamond Sutra itself is not really a book but a body, the body of the Buddha, of all of our bodies, of every possible body, a body with nothing inside or outside, a body which doesn’t exist in space or time and which is not a construct of the mind, but a body which nonetheless has room for compassion.  Red Pine argues, though – and here I disagree – that the teachings on sunyata and the perfection of wisdom, which we now associate with the Mahayana, were indeed taught by the historical Buddha himself.  His argument runs that, because they were a late addition to his teachings and were understood by few, these teachings were preserved not at the First Council, but at a larger council happening at the same time or soon after under the leadership of Vashpa (Pali: Vappa), one of the first five disciples.

The incorporation (pun intended) of ideas about male- and femaleness across the development of the Buddhist tradition is fascinating; Prajnaparamita is herself a goddess, and in his translation of the Heart Sutra Red Pine suggests that the Sutra is not only the ‘mother of Buddhas,’ as Prajnaparamita is commonly known, but also her womb.  With its concluding mantra [gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha] “ringing in our minds, we thus enter the goddess, Prajnaparamita, and await our rebirth as buddhas” (p. 7).  Via a lengthy digression into beliefs about the teaching of the Abhidhamma, Red Pine concludes that the Heart Sutra – spoken by Avalokiteshvara to Sariputta/Shariputra – was actually spoken by Sakyamuni Buddha’s mother, Maya (‘illusion’).  How so?  The Sutra employs what Sujato calls the ‘Samyutta Matika,’ the list of fundamental early Buddhist canonical concepts which are used to structure the Samyutta Nikaya (the five aggregates, the six sense bases, the twelve links of dependent arising, the four noble truths).  It was given to Santushita (Pali: Santusita), who was Maya’s rebirth, in Tavatimsa heaven, and, according to RP, Avalokiteshvara (who gives the teaching to Sariputta) is likely a subsequent incarnation of Santushita.

Despite the temptation, I won’t speculate on the Freudian centrality of wombs and bodies to Red Pine’s interpretations, except to say that they certainly fit with some Buddhist traditions!  But even if we actually think, as I do, that the Abhidhamma is a later rationalisation, the image of the Buddha giving the ultimate teachings to Maya, the mother who died seven days after his birth – and of these in turn being expounded as the ‘womb of Buddhas’ by Maya to Sariputta (‘son of Sari’), foremost in wisdom but often denigrated in the Mahayana tradition, who at the end of his own life would pass the teachings on to his own sceptical mother as an act of gratitude – is a beautiful one.  Unlike so much received Buddhist discourse, this patched-together narrative gives a picture of men and women (and not only monks and nuns) in pursuit of the Dhamma living together and interacting in all their humanity, all their being-ness.

References and Relevant Works

J. Carrette & R. King, Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, Routledge, 2004.

B. Faure, The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity and Gender, Princeton University Press, 2003.

B. Faure, The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality, Princeton University Press, 1998.

M. Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ in Vorträge und Aufsätze, 1954.

J. Hubbard & S. Swanson (eds), Pruning the Bodhi Tree: The Storm over Critical Buddhism, University of Hawa’ii Press, 1997.

S. B. King, Buddha Nature, State University of New York Press, 1991.

D. McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford University Press, 2008.

J. Powers, A Bull of A Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism, Harvard University Press, 2009.

Red Pine, The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom, Counterpoint, 2001.

Red Pine, The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas, Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004.

Sujato (Bhikkhu), White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes: A Buddhist mythology of the feminine, Santipada, 2011, <;.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, ‘The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism,’ Access To Insight, 2006, <;.

A. & H. Wayman (trans.), ‘The Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala Discourse: A Buddhist Scripture on the Tathagatagarbha Theory’, 1974, <;.