And the worst thing about this title is, I’m not even kidding.
As sutta students are well aware of and somewhat embarrassed about, the suttas depict the Buddha as possessing 32 special marks, regarded as signs of a Great Man. Most of these are visible to a careful observer, but two are hidden: the nature of his penis, and the size of his tongue.
When the Buddha realizes that someone wants to check out his equipment, he uses his psychic powers to reveal his genitals to that person. As respectful as we would like to be when discussing the Buddha, it is a little hard to take this seriously.
Now, almost all translators have rendered the description of the great man’s penis as being “enclosed in a sheath” or something similar. This is based on the commentary, which says:
Kosohiteti vatthikosena paṭicchanne
“In a sheath” means hidden by a sheath-sack
Here, the word vatthi usually means “bladder”, so here it clearly means a bag of skin. Whether this is like a super-foreskin or an extended scrotum, I will leave to your imagination.
However, a similar phrase is found in one other place in the Pali, Ja 526. This is one of those Jatakas that deals with salacious matters, and hence was not fully translated into English. You can read the clean version in English here, and the NSFW version in German here (Google translate works reasonable well.)
The story goes that a naive lad was being seduced by a much more worldly woman. He sees her private parts, and is shocked, having no idea what they were. He asks:
Kose nu te uttamaṅgaṃ paviṭṭhaṃ?
Is your “upper limb” ensconced in a cavity?
The word kosa here is the same as used in the description of the great man. Now, while this is, in this context, usually translated according to one its meanings “sheath”, this is not its primary or most common sense. Most commonly it means a store-room or enclosure, and seems to have a general meaning of a “cavity”. And clearly this is the sense required here.
In the description of the great man, the full term is kosohita. The second element of this, ohita, normally refers to something that has been put down or placed into something. It thus fits better with the idea that the genitals have been “placed into an cavity” rather than being “covered with a sheath”.
There is no “sheath” that grows around the penis. Rather, the penis was withdrawn into a cavity.
Given that the only case of similar wording is explicitly a description of a vulva, and it is in a context of gender confusion, I would argue that the burden of proof is on the commentary to establish that a significantly different meaning is intended here. But so far as I can tell, there is no such proof.
I suggest that the similarity to female genitals prompted the commentaries to offer a more masculinized reading. The commentary wants to exaggerate the Buddha’s masculinity. But it would seem that the original purpose of the text was to establish a gender ambiguity.
It is inescapable that, whatever the reading, according to the early texts the Buddha did not have “normal” genitals. And the only reading actually supported by a canonical text is that the Buddha was intersex, and his genitals looked like a woman’s.
The spiritual connotation was, of course, that awakening was beyond gender.
That such a sense was incorporated in the characteristics of the “great man” is no accident. One of the essential features of myth, almost a defining characteristic, is that it embraces ambiguities and contradictions. Telling a story, or multiple stories, enables us to see things from different perspectives. Rather than resolving a problem one way or the other, we develop empathy and can appreciate multiple different perspectives, without insisting on any of these as final. Myth stands resolutely opposed to the binaries of true or false.
In fact, this perspective is essential to this very context. The myth of the great man tells us that he must pursue one of two destinies: to become a great king or to become awakened. These are the two career paths offered in countless myths all over the world, starting with the very oldest myth we have, Gilgamesh.
There is no attempt to reconcile these, to figure out how to be awakened while living at home, or even an argument that one is better than the other. They are just there, irreconcilable but real. I have argued elsewhere that the epithet vessantara applied to the Buddha means “in between all”, the one who stands apart from all binaries. Thus the Buddha, by choosing the path of renunciation, becomes one who transcends all dualities. This is a paradox; but only to logic, not to myth.
Hence the great man is someone who, in a very real sense, is not fully a “man” any more. History shows us that many cultures, desperate to impose their dualities on a world that does not share them, will cut and slice the genitals of infants who seem to be non-conforming. If a baby with fully retracted genitals was born in such a culture, they might have to endure non-consensual surgery. Thankfully, ancient India was not such a culture. In the early texts, drawing on an unknown tradition, they preserved the idea that true greatness meant transcending notions of binary identity, and symbolized this by emphasizing the ambiguity of the genitals.