Remember a while back when I said my professor gave me an article on Buddhism and asexuality? Well, I read it, and then I took forever to do a write-up, because I kept being distracted by other things, like homework.
The article in question is “One Plus One Makes Three: Buddhist Gender, Monasticism, and the Law of the Non-excluded Middle” by Janet Gyatso. You can access it and/or buy it on JSTOR here.
A couple of things to note upfront: The article does not focus solely on asexuality, and instead covers a wide variety of identities, orientations, and fetishes that were historically lumped together into a “third sex” category. Also, Buddhism is not my area of expertise, so if you ask me some super complicated doctrinal question, my answer will probably be, “I dunno.” I’ve tried to keep the complicated terminology to a minimum (Buddhism has a lot of complicated terminology), but if you don’t understand something, let me know so I can make it clearer.
In unrelated news, this article may have the highest ratio of body text to footnote text I’ve ever seen.
I’m putting my summary under a break because it’s massive.
Content warnings: misogyny, genitals, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity, academic jargon
The article opens by saying that it’s going to talk about the category of the third sex to better understand the position of women in Buddhism. If you’re not familiar with the Buddhist position on women, there’s a famous exchange in which Ananda, a disciple of the Buddha, asked the Buddha if women could enter the monastic community to attain enlightenment. The Buddha refused at first, but when pressed, finally said that women could attain enlightenment, but if they entered the monastic community, their presence would slowly destroy the Dharma (that is, the Buddhist teachings). He finally agreed to allow women to be ordained as long as they followed the Eight Heavy Rules, which subordinated nuns to male practitioners, regardless of their relative levels of expertise. Yay, patriarchy!
Anyway, there’s then a bunch more about women in Buddhism, which I suggest you check the article for, if you’re really interested. The reason why women are brought up in this article at all, is that, as she says, women were not only contrasted with men, but also with “another class of persons, persons who cannot receive ordination under any circumstances” (92). So, basically, we’re talking about three groups of people here: men (who can attain ordination with no difficulties), women (who can attain ordination if they follow the Eight Heavy Rules), and a group that can’t attain ordination ever.
There are a lot of reasons you can’t be ordained including if you commit a major crime like murder, if you lack permission from your parent(s) or master, if you’re a fugitive from the law, if you’re an animal, if you have some sort of physical disability (she lists “dwarfs, those missing a limb, the blind, the deaf, those with boils, [sic] or leprosy” (93)), or if you’re in a “sexually marginal subgroup” (93), which is who the rest of the article focuses on. People in the sexually marginal subgroup were all lumped together under the term “the third sex.”
Who gets thrown in the third sex? Well, generally five types of people are listed: “those who are born as either neuters or sexually indeterminate, those who have lost their sexual organ or capacities due to circumstances after birth, those whose sexuality changes every half month (in some versions from male to female and back again), those whose sexuality depends on the initiation of others (or, in another version, having oral sex), and those whose sexuality is engaged by voyeurism” (96-97). It is worth noting here that there’s a definite conflation of sex with gender and sex with sexuality in these sources; thus “those who have lost their sexual organ” could mean “those who have lost their sexual organ” or it could mean “asexual people.” Similarly, “those whose sexuality changes every half month” were believed (in some cases) to actually have their sexual organs changing every half month.
Anyway, if you couldn’t tell, it’s a pretty bizarre mishmash of folks thrown into the third sex category. You’ve got intersex people, asexual people, bisexual people/people with fluid sexuality/genderfluid people (???), people who like oral sex/who need foreplay to be aroused (???), and voyeurs. Notice anyone missing from the list? Yep, being homosexual will not make you part of the third sex! As Gyatso says, “[S]ame-sex sex is not singled out as distinct from other kinds of proscribed sexual activity in the Vinaya [the rules governing monastic life]” (97), and then adds, “It seems that people who desire conventional homosexual sex […] can be ordained and can stay ordained, as long as they do not actually have sex. Exactly the same would be true for people with heterosexual desires” (97). Well, at least they’re not homophobic…?
Being a member of the third sex not only prevented you from being ordained, you also weren’t allowed to give alms to begging monks or be preached to at all. The third sex is also apparently unable to meditate, because they cannot develop the necessary concentration “due to their defilement and bad kamma [karma]” (98). Harsh. But why was the third sex being excluded at all? Wouldn’t you think that asexuals would be the perfect people to enter a celibate order? Well, actually, “a certain lack of restraint (asamvara) is required in order for there to be a basis for a vow of restraint. The idea seems to be that the pandaka [that is, the third sex] does not have enough sinful willfulness to have something to take a vow against” (99). Basically, monasteries didn’t want asexual folks because they wouldn’t have to struggle to maintain their vow of chastity. ”Yet in the same breath the pandaka [third sex, again] is accused of just the opposite problem: having too much and too unstable, [sic] desire” (99). This specifically refers to the voyeurs and the “half-monthers”; they just have too much desire to fight against!
But wait! It turns out that the third sex was thought to have some positive qualities, despite being barred from ordination or even hearing Buddhist teachings preached. This is mostly A Thing in Tibet, although it builds on some Indian sources. The third sex comes to be associated with the Middle Path (which is highly esteemed in Buddhism, as it is the path between extremes). One interesting thing that happens in Tibetan medicine is that pulses are broken into three groups: the male pulse, the female pulse, and the third sex pulse. Weirdly enough, the third sex pulse is considered the best; “a person with this pulse will live long, have few diseases, high status, and will be looked on favorably by people in power” (101). Wait, what? I thought the third sex was overflowing with defilement and bad karma? But, no, the third sex is even associated with bodhisattvas, who are people who gain enlightenment but choose to stay in the cycle of birth and death to help others to salvation. So what’s the deal, then? The third sex is associated with all these positive qualities (including more I’m not listing here; read the article to find out more), and yet third sex people aren’t allowed ordination? What’s going on? Well, as it turns out, “despite all those positive profiles of the third sex that were just marshalled […] none of these were really about actual third sex people: rather, in each case the third sex stands for a principle, a concept, a category—a gender” (104-105). In other words, while a “third sex pulse” is pretty cool, a third sex person is not so much. The qualities of the third sex were seen as positive, but the third sex itself was not.
Remember those pulses from Tibetan medicine? A woman can have a male pulse and a man can have a third sex pulse and a third sex person can have a female pulse. The “male pulse” is not a pulse belonging to a man, but rather a pulse with qualities that have been labeled “male.” Most male people have male pulses and most female people have female pulses, but that’s not always the case. Pulses were considered something like “personalities” or “temperaments” and had the potential to be fluid over a person’s lifetime. Oh, hey, does this remind you of anything? What if I substituted “pulse” for “gender”? In fact, Gyatso considers this pulse theory a sort of forerunner to gender theory. Having a pulse that didn’t match your biological sex wasn’t pathologized; in fact, a woman with a male pulse or a man with a female pulse was considered more desirable than a man with a male pulse or a woman with a female pulse.
Which brings us back to the question of why the third sex weren’t allowed to be ordained. Basically, Gyatso thinks that “[w]hile for medicine and tantric yoga the third term signifies balance, flexibility, and health, I propose that for the Vinaya [that’s the rule book for the monastic order, remember] it is the aberrationality of the third sex that has the most salience, precisely because of its dissonance with the dominant ideology of the Vinaya” (107). The problem is mostly one of clarity—there are already enough problems in the Vinaya figuring out exactly what a transgression is (If you have a wet dream, is that breaking the “no sex” rule?) that throwing in a category that “basically is defined as people who are not definable” (108) is just too much of a headache to deal with. ”The pandaka [the third sex] is an abomination, then, not to the doctors, but to the monastic legalists, because the very project of the Vinaya depends on exact definition, and decision, and vow-taking, and the distinction between purity and defilement. The one whose principal defining feature is to be ‘whatever’ in this way had to be excluded from the monastic order” (108).
She then goes on to talk about how many of the features ascribed to the third sex were also supposedly present in women, uncontrollable sexuality being one of the main ones. Women were also interrogated by monks about their menstrual cycles and genitals when they joined a nunnery, because infertile women, women whose genitals were deformed, or women with irregular menstrual cycles were considered unfit for ordination. Gyatso suggests that the third sex may in fact be a caricature of “unacceptable” qualities in the second sex (that is, women). She concludes, “I am even tempted to speculate—and this is the final epiphany for now—that it was the very creation of an other to that other other that allowed the original other in through the door of ordination at all. Or in other words: I would like to suggest that the pandaka [that is the third sex] category functioned as a scapegoat for the threat that woman was believed to pose to the monastic order. This scapegoat would have served to purify the image of woman (at least, ‘normal’ woman) and allow her inclusion after all—even if she remained hobbled by the Eight Heavy rules” (114). Thus, ironically, the third sex may have been like bodhisattvas after all, as their very existence would allow women to enter the monastic order even as they themselves were reviled.
To sum up: Buddhism was super misogynistic (they’re trying to fix it now), Tibetan medicine had a really interesting primitive form of gender theory, asexual people aren’t allowed ordination because being celibate is too easy for them, being gay is okay as long as you don’t do gay stuff, being straight is okay as long as you don’t do straight stuff, and if you are bisexual your genitals are swapping every half month.
Some stuff to think about/discuss:
It’s interesting that Buddhism has the “celibacy is too easy for you if you’re asexual” idea, ‘cause I’ve heard the same from some Christians. I find it odd that sexual desire is considered so much more important than other desires—a monastery wouldn’t turn away someone for not having enough desire to murder people. (“Oh, sorry, it’ll be too easy for you to keep your ‘don’t murder people’ vows. You have to go home.”) Why is sexual orientation so important? Why is it more important than sexual behavior? After all, it doesn’t even matter if the half-monthers are celibate; they’re barred from monastic life, while the dude who has sex with everybody in town would be allowed entrance as long as he stopped having sex with everyone.
I’m also interested by the idea of characteristics associated with the third sex being positive even if the third sex itself isn’t. It kind of reminds me of the quandary some asexuals get sucked into—celibacy/abstinence is often viewed in a positive context, but celibacy because of lack of desire isn’t. I’m also thinking of how awkward it is when people start praising asexuality as some sort of enlightened state (heeeey, remember how the third sex was associated with bodhisattvas?)…when it’s obvious that they don’t understand what asexuality is, and, in fact, may be hostile to real world asexuals.
I’d also be interested in hearing from Buddhist asexuals who have tried to be ordained. (If you are out there, I want to talk to you!) I wonder if this would still be something that would be screened for before entering a monastery. If it was discovered that you were asexual, would you be thrown out of the monastery, pressured to leave, or allowed to stay?
Basically, there’s a whole lot to think about here. Hopefully some of you find this as fascinating as I do! If people have questions I can’t answer, I can always crash my professor’s office hours.
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