In This Article Buddhism and Sexuality

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

Buddhism Buddhism and Sexuality
Amy Langenberg
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • 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’s 1993 study of sexuality in ancient Buddhist India (Sexuality in Ancient India), Miranda Shaw’s 1994 monograph on women and Tantra (Passionate Enlightenment), and Liz Wilson’s 1996 book on disgust and the female body in early Buddhism (Charming Cadavers). 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 2014 work, Love and Liberation, Richard Jaffe’s 2001 monograph, Neither Monk nor Layman, John Powers’s 2009 book A Bull of a Man, and Rajashree Pandey’s recently published Perfumed Sleeves and Tangled Hair. In the meantime, scholars of tantra and yoga traditions such as David Gray, Janet Gyatso, and Christian Wedemeyer have moved past the orientalist judgments 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, for instance, 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. Notable here is work by José Ignacio Cabezón. 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. However, a growing body of work on the body (Powers 2009), gender (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.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195305005.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    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/9780824853549.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    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: The Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Kelaniya, 1993.

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    A foundational work for scholarship on sexuality and 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: 10.4159/9780674054431E-mail Citation »

    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.

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    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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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. London: Routledge, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

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

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