In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism and Sexuality

  • Introduction
  • Seminal Monographs
  • Article-Length Overviews
  • Monastic Law
  • Same-Sex Eroticism and Third-Sex Concepts in Premodern Buddhisms
  • Textual Representations of Female Sexuality
  • Sexual Reproduction in Buddhism
  • Sexuality in Japanese Buddhism
  • Sexuality in Indo-Tibetan Tantra
  • Non-celibate Monasticisms
  • Contemporary Queer Buddhisms
  • Sexual Misconduct in Contemporary Communities

Buddhism Buddhism and Sexuality
Amy Langenberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0244


Because of its high regard for celibate monasticism and incisive critique of desire as a root cause of suffering, Buddhism is widely assumed to be a sex-negative religion. In fact, as a growing body of scholarship has demonstrated, the sexual landscape of Buddhist traditions across time and place is varied, complex, and at times transgressive. The beginnings of Buddhism and sexuality as a research subfield can arguably be traced to the 1998 publication of Bernard Faure’s The Red Thread, a work that attempts to identity major themes and lines of tension in Buddhists’ imaginative encounters with, efforts to discipline, and philosophical understandings of human sexuality. Faure’s monograph was, however, preceded by L. P. N. Perera study of sexuality in ancient Buddhist India (Sexuality in Ancient India); see Perera 1993, cited under Seminal Monographs), Miranda Shaw’s monograph on women and Tantra (Passionate Enlightenment); see Shaw 1994, cited under Sexuality in Indo-Tibetan Tantra), and Liz Wilson’s book on disgust and the female body in early Buddhism (Charming Cadavers); see Wilson 1996, cited under Seminal Monographs). Since Faure, specialists in various Asian traditions have focused on sexuality with ever increasing levels of historical detail and theoretical sophistication. Examples include Sarah Jacoby’s work, Love and Liberation (Jacoby 2014, cited under Seminal Monographs), Richard Jaffe’s monograph, Neither Monk nor Layman (Jaffe 2001, cited under Non-celibate Monasticisms), John Power’s 2009 book A Bull of a Man (Powers 2009, cited under Seminal Monographs), and José Ignacio Cabezón’s Sexuality and Classical South Asian Buddhism (Cabezón 2017, cited under Seminal Monographs). In the meantime, scholars of tantra, yoga, and consort traditions such as Holly Gayley, David Gray, Janet Gyatso, and Christian Wedemeyer have moved past the orientalist judgements of early Indology and the phenomenology of Mircea Eliade in their treatments of Tantric sexuality; advances in Vinaya studies by Shayne Clarke, Alice Collett, Anālayo, and others have deepened understanding of early monastic negotiations with Indian sexual concepts and social mores; and queer and LGBT studies by Richard Corless and Hsiao-lan Hu have generated new research angles. The subfield of Buddhist ethics has also produced a small literature on Buddhist sexual ethics to complement its already substantial work on related topics like human rights and abortion. Additionally, specialists in Buddhist modernisms such as Ann Gleig and Stephanie Kaza have enriched the literature on Buddhism and sexuality by addressing issues such as sexual expression, sexual identity, and sexual abuse in contemporary Buddhist communities in the West.

Seminal Monographs

Book-length works such as Faure 1998, Perera 1993, and Young 2004 that take Buddhism and sexuality as a primary and exclusive focus are relatively few. Of note, however, is Cabezón 2017, a field-changing monograph. A growing body of work on the body (Powers 2009), gender (Langenberg 2017, Pandey 2016), the feminine (Wilson 1996), and religious affect (Jacoby 2014, Mrozik 2007) in Buddhism have helped to articulate important themes, patterns, and lines of tension related to the topic. Not every work listed here explicitly positions itself as centrally concerned with Buddhism and sexuality, but all contribute in formative ways to the subfield.

  • Cabezón, José Ignacio. Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism. Somerville, MA: Wisdom, 2017.

    This monograph lays a foundation for the study of sexuality and sexual ethics in Buddhism by providing a detailed survey of sex-related themes and doctrines in Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan Buddhist texts.

  • Faure, Bernard. The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

    A groundbreaking monograph, one of the first to attempt a comprehensive, rigorous, theoretically engaged treatment of sexuality in Buddhism. Focuses in particular on East Asian sources. Reworks an earlier 1994 publication in French.

  • Jacoby, Sarah. Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

    An important monograph that explores the dynamics of love, carnal desire, celibacy, and sexual politics in the biographical and autobiographical writings of an early-20th-century female Tibetan Buddhist visionary.

  • Langenberg, Amy Paris. Birth in Buddhism: The Suffering Fetus and Female Freedom. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2017.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315512532

    This theoretically informed work of textual scholarship indexes the theme of reproductive suffering as constitutive of classical Buddhist understandings of sexuality, bodily impurity, and gender. It argues for a link between these Buddhist understandings and the freedom and agency of female Buddhist monastics.

  • Mrozik, Susanne. Virtuous Bodies: The Physical Dimensions of Morality in Buddhist Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195305005.001.0001

    This innovative and often referenced work articulates the central problematic of sexual desire and sexed embodiment in the work of the highly influential Indian master, Śāntideva. A lucid writing style combined with an elegant methodology makes it suitable for both neophyte and expert.

  • Pandey, Rajashree. Perfumed Sleeves and Tangled Hair: Body, Woman, and Desire in Medieval Japanese Narratives. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824853549.001.0001

    This work critically questions the applicability of basic conceptual categories like sex, sexuality, and sexual desire to the Buddhist-inflected world of medieval Japan. Though focused on Japan, its theoretical framework is broadly applicable to studies of sexuality across Buddhist cultures.

  • Perera, L. P. N. Sexuality in Ancient India: A Study Based on the Pali Vinayapitaka. Kelaniya, Sri Lanka: Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Kelaniya, 1993.

    An early text-based study of sexuality in Buddhism. Extensively details references to and offers intertextual analysis of relevant passages from the early Buddhist Pali tradition.

  • Powers, John. A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674054431

    Considered a groundbreaking study, this monograph focuses on representations of the sexed male (rather than female) body in a rich array of Indian Buddhist texts dating from the ancient through the medieval periods.

  • Silk, Jonathan A. Riven by Lust: Incest and Schism in Indian Buddhist Legend and Historiography. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009.

    Based on research in primary sources in a full complement of Buddhist languages, this monograph explores the theme of incest and the Oedipal in relationship to Indian Buddhist historiography.

  • Wilson, Liz. Charming Cadavers: Horrific Figurations of the Feminine in Indian Buddhist Hagiographic Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

    A seminal work of feminist scholarship that examines the association between the sexualized female body, disgust, impurity, and death in Indian Buddhist narrative literature.

  • Young, Serinity. Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Sexualities in Buddhist Narrative, Iconography, and Ritual. New York and Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2004.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203494127

    A competent compilation of major themes, images, and tropes from a loosely feminist critical perspective. Suitable for undergraduates.

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