Buddhist Masculinities and Semen Retention

While perusing Reddit, I stumbled upon an unusual post that drew connections between semen retention and Buddhism. This surprised me, as renunciation has always seemed to be the focal point of early Buddhism in my understanding, and such discussions had not crossed my path in my readings thus far. The information originated from a book authored by John Powers, a Buddhist Scholar residing in Australia. Below are the pertinent excerpts from his work A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism:

Contemporary readers may wonder why absolute sexual continence is considered necessary for Buddhist monks and nuns. Today’s conventional wisdom holds that sexual intercourse is beneficial to physical and mental health if it is done in moderation, but the literature of ascetic movements in India presents a very different assessment. In ancient India, semen was associated with the energy of life, and men who recklessly shed their seed were said to become physically diminished. Excessive ejaculation leads to various morbidities and premature death. By contrast, the heroic ascetic who retains his seed is the most manly and virile of men and enjoys robust health, tremendous physical energy, and mental alertness, and he also develops supernatural powers (siddhi). Those who practice celibacy and other acts of austerity accumulate an energy called tapas, which literally means “heat.” Sages who remain chaste for long periods and who combine this with advanced levels of meditation can even challenge the gods in terms of power and wisdom. Unfortunately, a single ejaculation can undo the accumulated tapas of decades, or even centuries, and so men must be constantly vigilant in guarding their senses against the seductive blandishments of women."

On p.80 he writes "Because of its association with life and energy, semen is linked to longevity, and sages who successfully resist the urge to copulate can live for centuries. Thus Caraka cautions men: If due to excessive mental excitement a man indulges in sexual intercourse in excess, his semen will soon diminish and he will become emaciated. He will succumb to various diseases, and even death. Therefore, a man who wishes to have good health should definitely preserve his semen. Caraka adds that semen becomes polluted due to sexual indulgence, and he praises yogis who retain their seed. Caraka warns against seminal retention by men who do not engage in yogic training, because this can also lead to seminal morbidity, but if one remains chaste while pursuing the physical and mental disciplines of yoga, one’s semen is converted into a buttery consistency that is thick and rich and promotes health and vitality

On p.81 he writes “One paradox of this process is that a man who refrains from seminal emission becomes more and more attractive to women, who use their wiles to seduce him, but as soon as he succumbs he loses all his hard-won energy and descends to the level of other men. Thus the Truth of Yoga cautions, “the yogi becomes as strong and beautiful as a god, and women desire him, but he must persevere in his chastity; on account of the retention of semen an agreeable smell will be generated in the body of the yogi.” Celibate men are even said to be better lovers than their more passionate counterparts, because those who are not overly lustful can sustain lovemaking for long periods of time and are not subject to premature ejaculation.”

I was really surprised when I browsed A bull of a man since I didnt connect masculinities and other concepts within Buddhism :

The book focuses on the figure of the Buddha and his monastic followers to show how they were constructed as paragons of masculinity, whose powerful bodies and compelling sexuality attracted women, elicited admiration from men, and convinced skeptics of their spiritual attainments

So what I did is read more on this topic and read his [interview] and browsed his book(Rethinking Buddhist Practices and the Buddha’s Bodily Features—An Interview with John Powers - Buddhistdoor Global):

Q:Can a Woman be a “Great Man”?

A:“Until the tantras—and even there it’s very problematic—there’s no sense in Indian Buddhism that women can attain any of the advanced stages of the path, and certainly not Buddhahood.” He went on to explain that, if the texts are correct, females will have to develop disgust for their form and engage in practices designed to prevent them from being reborn in a female body. And if females want to visualize themselves as a Buddha, this involves visualizing an Indian ideal of a male body, including a perfect male organ.

and

In fact, meditators are often reminded to practice “letting go,” or detaching from their bodies, through practices such as asubha.* I wondered whether such spiritual practices affect our physical appearance. As John explained, there are numerous practices that purportedly lead to physical changes, such as phowa (transference of consciousness), which can cause a hole to develop in the crown of the head, and sometimes a flow of blood and lymph. Shamatha practice (single-pointed concentration on an object) can also lead to physical changes. Geshe Gedün Lodrö’s book Walking Through Walls (Lodrö 1992) begins with a discussion of possible effects, including physical lightness, which can lead to the ability to pass through solid objects. Eventually, according to hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of Indian Buddhist texts, successful meditative practice will cause one to develop the 32 major characteristics of a great man. John added that although many Buddhist teachers strive to guide their students towards Buddhahood, he has never heard that they remind them not to be concerned if they develop a large lump on their head or elongated arms as a result of an extended meditative retreat or engagement in meritorious activities.

So, I went down the rabbit hole and was pretty stoked to come across a fresh book that just dropped last year. It’s called: Buddhist Masculinities edited by Edited by Megan Bryson and Kevin Buckelew and published by the Columbia University Press .Here are the relevant excerpts:

BUDDHIST TEXTS DESCRIBE the Buddha as “the ultimate man” and extoll
his extraordinary, manly body as the Bhagavat.During his previous lives, the
Bodhisattva—the historical Buddha Śākyamuni (a.k.a. Siddhārtha Gautama)
prior to his awakening—practiced various perfections working toward his
buddhahood. In doing so, he karmically built the body he had as Siddhārtha
Gautama, endowed with the thirty-two major marks of a “great man”
(P. mahāpurisa-lakkhaṇa; Sk. mahāpuruṣa-lakṣaṇa), which is by definition male.
Early Buddhist tradition held that women could attain awakening as
arahants (Sk. arhat), but that buddhahood could be reached only in a male
body, so a woman must first be reborn as a man to achieve that state. This
attitude clearly reflects the patriarchal society in which a female birth was
deemed undesirable. Even aspiring to future buddhahood was possible only
in a male body

As John Powers has pointed out, Indian Buddhist texts “posit a close linkage between a person’s physical endowments, social status, and wealth and
both past and present ethical behavior.” The body is a particularly important marker of morality, and physical beauty indicates past or present virtue.1“Somatic consequences of actions,” Powers writes, “are construed as
both testimony to one’s attainments and powerful tools that are used to promote virtue in the world

So here am I wanting to open discussions regarding this :slight_smile: Personally I have some questions:
-Was the Buddha’s decision for renunciation related to semen retention ? In the sense that he saw semen as energy of life?
-Does this affect how he viewed or construed meditation as accumulating energies or tapas or other things? Like for men the impetus is accumulating tapas or energy but how would it affect women practitioners?
-Were the Jhanas connected to accumulating tapas or semen retention?
-Does meditation in the suttas really support the idea that being virtuous i.e meditating etc. would lead to changes in the physical body including gaining marks of the great men?
-How much was forms of masculinity embedded in the early buddhist suttas? Like how the Buddha was seen as a masculine paragon of a man?

I am open to the discussion regarding this seldom talked about topic :slight_smile: Genuinely I am flabbergasted when reading about this.

I mean no disrespect as I understand that Dr Powers is a respected academic but this is blatently false with regard to the early material, and I do wonder what exactly the game is here.

Also the 32 marks of the great man are hardly a description of “masculine attractivness” if anything they describe a hideously deformed creature from beyond the pale.

Am very curious to hear more informed contributions from those familiar with the professors work.

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It absolutley does not.

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That’s a pleasant image.

Good topic though.

I can’t comment much on the questions however. So I’ll bow out here. Although I have some opinions of my own regarding testosterone production, and the kammic effects of Excessive or even infrequent Masturbation.

This sutta might get you off at the right station.

https://suttacentral.net/pli-tv-bu-vb-ss1/en/brahmali?lang=en&layout=plain&reference=none&notes=asterisk&highlight=false&script=latin

The whole thing is a good read. Here’s an excerpt.

Then Seyyasaka ate, slept, and bathed as much as he liked, and whenever he became discontent and lust overwhelmed him, he masturbated with his hand. After some time Seyyasaka had a good color, a bright face, clear skin, and sharp senses. The monks who were his friends said to him, “Seyyasaka, you used to be thin, haggard, and pale, with veins protruding all over your body. But now you have a good color, a bright face, clear skin, and sharp senses. Have you been taking medicine?”

“No. I just eat, sleep, and bathe as much as I like, and whenever I become discontent and lust overwhelms me, I masturbate with my hand.” “Do you eat the food given in faith with the same hand you use to masturbate?”

“Yes.”

The monks of few desires complained and criticized him, “How can Venerable Seyyasaka masturbate with his hand?”

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Dr Powers is certainly aware of the existence of the great arahantī disciples like Uppalavaṇṇā and Khemā. That being so, I think his statement:

“there’s no sense in Indian Buddhism that women can attain any of the advanced stages of the path,”

may have been spoken with reference to the Mahayana’s ten-bhūmi conception of a Bodhisattva’s progress, in which the possibility of femaleness (i.e., rebirth with a female body) is claimed to disappear at quite an early bhūmi. This seems the likelier explanation, given that it’s a conversation between two practising Mahayana Buddhists.

Alternatively, he might have meant that notwithstanding the existence of arahantīs in the Buddha’s lifetime, Indian Buddhists at some point ceased to believe that this was still a possibility for women. If this is his meaning, I’ve no idea if it’s factual or not.

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Sounds like the two are are very very confused then. I’ve never encountered anything like this in the Mahayana. The Bodhisattva’s Guide by Shantideva does not have anything like this to my knowledge nor any other authoritative sources. It also appears to deny Buddha Tara and the like which seems quite problematic :slight_smile:

There is a true feminist movement in Buddhism that relates to the goddess Tārā. Following her cultivation of bodhicitta, the bodhisattva’s motivation, she looked upon the situation of those striving towards full awakening and she felt that there were too few people who attained Buddhahood as women. So she vowed, "I have developed bodhicitta as a woman. For all my lifetimes along the path I vow to be born as a woman, and in my final lifetime when I attain Buddhahood, then, too, I will be a woman.

Buddha Tara is very very widely revered in Mayajana and Vajrayana so those two men again seem quite confused.

:pray:

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I find this a remarkable admission. I myself have read only a few Mahayana texts and yet have encountered it frequently.

Here, for example, is a passage from a commentary to the Daśabhūmika Sūtra on the characteristics of a bodhisattva who has arrived at the irreversible stage:

The Prajñāpāramitā has already extensively explained the characteristic signs of the avaivartika.

If, in contemplating the ground of the common person, the grounds of the śrāvaka disciple, the ground of the pratyekabuddha, and the ground of a buddha, a bodhisattva does not engage in duality-based perceptions, does not engage in discriminating thoughts, and has no doubts or regrets, one should realize that this is an avaivartika.
Whenever an avaivartika speaks, it is beneficial in some way.
He does not contemplate others’ relative strengths and shortcomings or good and bad aspects.
He does not long to hear the discourses of non-Buddhist śramaṇas.
What should be known, he immediately learns.
Whatever should be seen, he then sees.
He does not revere or serve others’ deities, nor does he make offerings to them of flowers, incense, banners, or canopies. Nor does he venerate or serve the gurus of those other traditions.
He does not fall into the wretched destinies nor, when reborn, does he take on a female body.

(Pseudo-Nāgārjuna, Daśabhūmika Vibhāṣā, ch. 8. tr. Bhikshu Dharmamitra)

Similar accounts are given by many Mahayana pandits when expounding the ten stages.

Since Śāntideva’s work isn’t a treatise on the daśabhūmika scheme one wouldn’t expect it to.

Which is perhaps the consideration that informed Dr Powers’ remark:

"Until the tantras—and even there it’s very problematic—there’s no sense in Indian Buddhism that women can attain any of the advanced stages of the path, and certainly not Buddhahood.
(my emphasis)

“Until the Tantras…”

The ten bhūmis teachings, however, pertain to so-called “common” (as opposed to Tantric) Mahayana.

To judge from her name, Elsa Ngar-sze Lau, I believe one of the two men is more likely to be a woman.

:slightly_smiling_face:

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Not sure why that is remarkable. Sounds like we’ve traveled in quite different Mahayana circles :joy: :pray:

So much the worse for those pandits? Again this sounds very confused. How did Buddha Tara become enlightened if not through the ten stages?

Tara is very widely revered in non-tantric Mahayana. I’ve never studied tantra yet I can’t think of a single Mahayana center I’ve ever been to or heard of where Tara is not highly revered. Perhaps Dr. Power’s comment regards Mahayana in the past, but it certainly does not reflect the Mahayana that is practiced world wide today to my mind.

Ah! I shouldn’t be assuming :slight_smile:

:pray:

On second thoughts, that would have been better phrased:

“I would certainly expect a scholar of Dr Powers’ eminence to be aware … &c.”

But on third thoughts, even that might be giving him too much credit. Just now I was looking at the entry for “Bhikṣuṇī” in his Concise Encyclopedia of Buddhism. It’s only a paragraph long and a little over 200 words. How many blunders could one possibly fit into such a short piece? By my reckoning he’s committed at least four and possibly as many as six. Here’s a screenshot of the entry:

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Comments

  1. “who convinced the Buddha’s personal attendant Ānanda to intercede on her behalf…”

In the Pali narration, Mahāpajāpatī doesn’t attempt to enlist Ānanda’s help. He acts entirely on his own initiative.

  1. “an order of nuns, who were bound by the 227 rules for monks”

Though there’s considerable overlap between the 227 rules for monks and the 348 for nuns, it’s not the case that all of the former are included in the latter. It would be very odd, for example, for an order of nuns to be bound by a prohibition against intentionally emitting semen.

  1. In most Buddhist countries today the full ordination lineage for women has died out, and most Buddhist nuns are thus only able to receive the novice (śrāmaṇerī) ordination.

I’ve heard that in Tibet there have traditionally been śrāmaṇerīs but not bhikṣuṇīs and perhaps this is also the case in one or two other places like Mongolia and Bhutan (I can’t say for sure as I’ve never looked into it), but it’s certainly not how it’s been “in most Buddhist countries”. Most Buddhist countries either had both or they had neither.

  1. “The order of nuns probably died out in India around 456 CE.”

From whence did Dr Powers obtain this extraordinarily precise date? What exactly happened in 456 CE that would cause the mass extinction of Indian nuns? Were they all suddenly wafted up to heaven, with all the monks looking on in astonishment, like in the Left Behind movies?

Suppose we take “around” to mean that the extinction occurred between 455 and 457 CE, what kind of cataclysm could possibly have brought about the vanishing of every bhikkhunī from Kashmir down to Tamil Nadu, and from Gujarat across to Arunachal Pradesh, in the space of three years?

  1. “and the full ordination was probably never transmitted to mainland Southeast Asia.”

Well, perhaps, though I believe Ayya Tathaloka has written an article challenging this claim.

  1. “because the order of nuns was established his teaching (dharma) would flourish for only 500 years”

Strictly speaking, it’s the saddhamma, not the dhamma, whose earlier demise is foretold.

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This is what a person who is already restrained from sexual intercourse is aiming for:

When the perception of ugliness is developed and cultivated it’s very fruitful and beneficial. It culminates in freedom from death and ends in freedom from death.’ That’s what I said, but why did I say it? When a mendicant often meditates with a mind reinforced with the perception of ugliness, their mind draws back from sexual intercourse. They shrink away, turn aside, and don’t get drawn into it. And either equanimity or revulsion become stabilized. It’s like a chicken’s feather or a scrap of sinew thrown in a fire. It shrivels up, shrinks, rolls up, and doesn’t stretch out. In the same way, when a mendicant often meditates with a mind reinforced with the perception of ugliness, their mind draws back from sexual intercourse. …

If a mendicant often meditates with a mind reinforced with the perception of ugliness, but their mind is drawn to sexual intercourse, and not repulsed, they should know: ‘My perception of ugliness is undeveloped. I don’t have any distinction higher than before. I haven’t attained a fruit of development.’ In this way they are aware of the situation. But if a mendicant often meditates with a mind reinforced with the perception of ugliness, their mind draws back from sexual intercourse. They shrink away, turn aside, and don’t get drawn into it. And either equanimity or revulsion become stabilized, they should know: ‘My perception of ugliness is well developed. I have realized a distinction higher than before. I have attained a fruit of development.’ In this way they are aware of the situation. ‘When the perception of ugliness is developed and cultivated it’s very fruitful and beneficial. It culminates in freedom from death and ends in freedom from death.’ That’s what I said, and this is why I said it. -AN 7.49

So, it is the stabilization of either revulsion or equanimity that indicates efforts in perception of asubha have been well-developed. The mind is literally being kept away, first from the physical act of sexual intercourse, and then - by way of ashuba - there is an effort to induce the drawing back of the mind. In short, you keep the mind away long enough that it does not want to return. From that point on there is the effort to then fully liberate the mind altogether.

Nothing about semen or power or anything resembling what is found in the OP. The obsession with sex will continue on even through celibacy if the wrong value is attributed to it in the first place. For instance, that there is power some special power in semen. The only power is that if you combine it with an egg it will make another human. End of story. Sure, dudes that stop ejaculating may experience tremendous surges in energy, but that’s only on account of a body and mind that were very familiar with the act on routine basis, and now it is gone. In other words, the restraint is astounding on account of preference of the mind (citta) to have it, and the fact that there is now the choice to not give in to that.

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Thank you everyone for the discussion :slight_smile: For me personally semen retention / tapas were not discussed in the suttas and that they are not really needed to explain the argument for renunciation. In the sense that the Buddha taught renunciation not because of spiritual energy accumulation etc but rather for reasons regarding attachment but still make sense on their own.

Still Dr. Powers’ book is interesting regarding the iconography of Buddhism and how masculinity was presented. Like how supposedly Ananda was found to be good looking by women and how the asceticism makes the monk " good looking " or attractive.

Sounds like AN 4.159

I agree with your take, but it should be noted that OP was referencing sources other than just the Suttas. In other words, even if these things are not mentioned explicitly in the Suttas, did general Indian beliefs at the time play a role? The impression I personally get solely from the Suttas would be a “no.”

Just based on my reading of the Pali canon as translated on Sutta central:

The Buddha decided to become a renunciate in pursuit of the spiritual goal. He joined three non-buddhist orders as a devotee. Was any of that “related” to semen retention? Well, that would depend on their doctrines, which are not greatly expounded upon in the canon. If you can identify this sort of belief among pre-buddhist schools, it’s plausible, but not guaranteed, and certainly not central. He became a renunciate in pursuit of the deathless.

-Does this affect how he viewed or construed meditation as accumulating energies or tapas or other things? Like for men the impetus is accumulating tapas or energy but how would it affect women practitioners?

Meditation is connected with the accumulation of energy ( vīrya) but this is never directly connected with semen.

In general, we have much less detail preserved either addressing or from women (c.f. men). But there’s gender-neutral instruction, and a very strong basis for believing instructions given to men (e.g. about cultivating energy through lots of means, none of which are about semen) apply equally to women.

-Were the Jhanas connected to accumulating tapas or semen retention?

Not in this way. In fact, I’d argue the vinaya contradicts this idea, as the rule against sex has a large number of stories / exceptions saying that if a lay devotee rapes a monk who is meditating, the monk has not broken the precept. The word used for meditation is “divāvihāragato” not Jhana, but when it’s talking about an Arhant meditating so deeply it seems he didn’t even notice being raped, it seems likely they’re in Jhana. This isn’t irrefutable, but in terms of evidence from the text I see these passages opposing the “Jhana as-semen-retention” theory and no passages in support.

-Does meditation in the suttas really support the idea that being virtuous i.e meditating etc. would lead to changes in the physical body including gaining marks of the great men?

The marks of a great man? Yes - in a future life.
General physical changes? They’re inconsistent, as IMO makes sense for stories which span the 45 year career of a man aged ~35-80 which are not very concerned with chronology. Sometimes, you hear descriptions which talk about glowing complexions side-by-side with meditative attainments. Sometimes, you get people with great meditation attainments and ordinary bodily failings.

-How much was forms of masculinity embedded in the early buddhist suttas? Like how the Buddha was seen as a masculine paragon of a man?

About as much as, say, Abraham Lincoln. I believe Sujato has sanitized his translations to get rid of the baggage of gendered language where possible (which is good in almost all ways) but to identify the baggage you can see this translation from bodhi AN2.5:

“I will not relax my energy so long as I have not attained what can be attained by manly strength, energy, and exertion”

The Buddha was described, by himself and others, with a lot of superlatives. In a sexist / patriarchal society, that will include gendered superlatives. I’m not bringing up the Bodhi translation to claim it’s more accurate than the Sujato one, just to show that a respectable person with all the benefits of living in the 21st century could interpret the words that way, it seems likely a person living in the negative centuries could do so as well.

The main thrust of the buddha’s message is suffering and the end of suffering, which he taught to / for everyone. He even said he would teach trees, if they could hear and understand. Things like the relationship of perception and feeling aren’t gendered.

But there’s a lot of material in the canon, so there’s some stuff which talks about, for example, the one who would become the Buddha having three palaces with all-female musicians, or the buddha, after enlightenment, using his preternatural abilities to defeat a dragon, or paralyzing a non-buddhist with psychic powers who challenged him. These seem very “male power fantasy” to me, but are as trivial as Abraham Lincoln’s career as a professional wrestler.

Someone who is so inclined could definitely fixate on those elements, but I think it’s pretty clear that such a person would be tragically missing the point, and a person doesn’t need to know any of those elements to understand the teachings of the Buddha.

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Considering how long Buddhism has been around and to how many places it has spread, it should not be surprising to find the ccasional freak development.

Masturbation is frowned upon by the orthodox of all major religions. This may be because in antiquity, you needed about five children in order for one to survive to adulthood, and marrying big with many children was the only available social security and retirement plan. Note that the famous story about Onan in the Christian bible is about a guy refusing to procreate, not playing a Bach menuet on his ivory flute.

Our Teacher, I believe, was an exception to this rule, because had he felt so strongly about it, he would have prohibited it for the lay followers which he didn’t. (He may have been second only to Plotinus, who - according to a certain reading of the Enneads - encouraged male masturbation to prevent having actual sex).

BTW is said acrivity permitted at Bodhyana? I noticed in some videos that Ajahn Brahm likes to add “with another person” when talking about the no sex sila.

I get that impression as well. If we think about the prerequisites to psychic powers, even that was a very high degree of samadhi, which is both valuing and making use of the tranquility resulting from, not just observing virtue and restraint (and then automatically having access to some accumulated energy), but of understanding what it meant to develop within that wholesome direction.

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Yeah I agree. I should have been clearer too. It seems reasonable that such beliefs existed at the time of the Buddha. Their absence in the Suttas suggest they did not play a role in what the Buddha believed. But they also, interestingly, aren’t explicitly rejected (arguably they are implicitly rejected).

I find the beliefs have the potential to be harmful.

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Thanks for raising this topic.

Not long after the release of this book I had a conversation with some of John Powers students on this topic. I had just completed my book white bones red rot Black snakes, which came to a rather different conclusion: that masculinity and feminity both have good and bad sides, and enlightenment was reached by developing the good sides of both, by which one can ultimately transcend gender. The last chapter sums up the highly feminine ways the Buddha has been presented.

Anyway, Powers students laughed and said yes, he probably didn’t take that stuff into consideration.

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What’s up with the caterpillars?

That’s shockingly bad scholarship, thanks for highlighting it. I could add more:

according to stories in the Pali canon …

Not wrong exactly, but the Mahapajapati story is shared among all traditions, so it’s misleading to present it as if it were only in the Pali. And surely an academic source can find a better way to reference it than “stories in the canon”.

there are, however, full ordination lineages today in Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong

Again, not strictly incorrect, but also misleading. Vietnam has one of the biggest bhikkhuni communities, and they are present also in China and elsewhere.

Whether the garudhammas

clearly relegate nuns to an inferior position in the Buddhist monastic order

is arguable, but IMHO overstates the case. Perhaps something like, “the garudhammas ensure nuns pay respect to monks, who are granted oversight in certain legal proceedings”.

the Buddha is reported to have said …

Again, why so vague about a straightforward canonical reference?

a number of women have received ordination from Chinese preceptors

This is an understated way to describe a movement that currently counts over a thousand women internationally.

And there are more mistakes of detail: the preceptors were not “Chinese” but Taiwanese, Vietnamese, or Korean. And ordination is not “received from” a preceptor, it is given by the Sangha under the guidance of a preceptor.


Sure, these are all details minor in themselves, but what do we look to academic work for if not attention to such details?

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