Red Thread Review
Bernard Faure’s The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality manages to be both scholarly and a fun read at the same time. In an attempt to uncover “a Buddhist discourse on sex” Faure examines a wide variety of source, ranging from monastic texts, novels, plays, poetics, legal texts myths etc., and considers the role both social and political factors play in shaping religious doctrine. Faure does not dwell overmuch on the Indian roots of Buddhism, and most of the materials he draws upon are from Chinese and Japanese sources. A key point he makes is that there is really no universal Buddhism, but rather multivocal ‘Buddhisms’. Faure notes, at the outset, that in the text:
Woman is conspicuously absent, or she appears in as much as she is an element of the Buddhist discourse on sexuality: not for herself, as individual, but as one pole of attraction or repulsion in a gendered male discourse about sex. Denied the role of a subject in this discourse, she is primarily the emblem of larger generative, karmic or social processes, with positive or negative soteriological value.
Indeed, The Red Thread does focus almost entirely on male desire for women or male-to-male desire, and whilst there are occasional references to women’s desire (for men or for other women) this book is largely about addressing issues around desire from a male perspective – hence he does not really get past the portrayal of women as either dangerous seductresses or potential ‘saviours’ (he promises to look more closely at gender issues in Buddhism in a future work). Faure has a good deal to say about the problem of desire in the monastic Buddhist setting – there is an extensive examination of the Japanese nanshoku tradition of ‘male love’ ranging from aesthetics to jokes about Buddhist priests and their acolytes and the ‘forced moving’ of particularly alluring acolytes from monasteries; he also discusses Zen, the ‘crazy wisdom’ traditions and Buddhist Tantric instances.
Whilst I enjoyed reading The Red Thread I’d say its’ probably better to view it as a ‘sourcebook’ rather than anything more substantive, particularly as Faure actively shies away from drawing anything that resembles an overall conclusion about the wealth of material he examines.