The politics of the Buddha’s genitals

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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 Rather, the penis was withdrawn into a cavity.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.

Changing Genders, Changing Buddhists

The first time I read a section with the Buddha whipping out his long tongue and sheathed penis I had this wild image of the Buddha doing so looking like a member of the band Kiss, it was one of those things that seemed so wildly out of place from the thousands of other pages I’ve read so far.

Edit : also I believe there are some mammals who’s penis retracts into the body when not in use.


A very compelling essay. One more reason to argue that from an EBT perspective, all of the misogyny and blind stubborness of the Thai Sangha over the incorporation of women fully into the Sangha has no meaning other than to treat one gender differently and more harshly than another. If these senior monks had a true sense of the EBT mythic or psychological view of the Buddha, they would be amiss and ashamed to treat any other gender differently than that of the male gender. Seeing this rank misogyny, it demonstrates the level of ignorance in that Thai Sangha view.

From the texts, we know that Gotama fathered Rahula, and likely had a bit of an active life of a prince while a young man. Yet, with the ascent into brahmacariya, and Buddhahood, all of these mundane vestiges were abandoned. As Bhante’s essay points out, with renunciation comes this awakening to a nondual world.


While I obviously sympathize, I would caution the use of language. Virtually all institutions in every society are, or have been, sexist, and it seems unhelpful to describe this as “pathological”. Wrong, certainly, but a pathology implies a deep level sickness, and I don’t even know what this could mean if applied to all the sexist institutions in human history, or to put it another way, to all the institutions in human history.

Furthermore, it erases the genuine but distinct problem of actual gendered pathology, i.e. personal misogyny. Some of the people in sexist institutions are themselves misogynistic, but not all of them are. If we assume that personal misogyny underlies all institutional sexism, we can only address the problem at a personal level, and miss the more urgent and achievable issue of institutional reform.

We also need to remain aware of the fact that many, perhaps even most, of the monks in Thailand do not agree with or support the policy of opposition to bhikkhunis. In fact, not even all the monks on the Sangha Council agree with it.

The idea that there is a uniform opposition to bhikkhunis among the monks in Thailand is nothing more than propaganda spread by those who themselves oppose bhikkhunis.


Thanks, Bhante, for this correction, I had actually edited my text to replace “pathology” with “ignorance” while you were responding…on reading what I wrote in black and white, I didn’t like it either. Your comments to me are correct and helpful in my understanding, which was, in and of itself, limited. I hope, as I spend more time in Thailand, to get a sense of this more balanced approach that you have rightly pointed out to me. I welcome the idea that this misogyny is not as pronounced as I had surmised; this is good news in and of itself.


I really like the theory.

It leads me to speculate if as progress in the path takes place chances of such mode of birth to increase.

Could one say that a birth in which gender is ambiguous may, in some cases, have roots in previous cultivation of equanimity and renunciation?



According to Dory Previn, just like Jesus!


The 32 marks of a great man, is a Brahmanic belief and is not of much relevance to the dhamma-vinaya. The Buddha was not recognised when confronted a few times suggesting that he didn’t look physically outlandish as the 32 marks would suggest. However there is one instance where he displayed his genitalia albeit using his superhuman psychic abilities to another man who would have been gifted with the same faculty (sutta?). To me this suggests the Buddha creates or projects a astral body composed of the marks of a great man. Maybe it was only a Buddha who could display this in terms of a psychic feat that no one else could do at the time. The mark of a seer is to see beyond the physical. When Asitha the seer looked at the newborn Prince he may have seen the spiritual body composed of the 32 parts, as 1) he saw psychology what he wanted to see 2) he was tapping into a spiritual vision and saw a symbolic representation of the greatness he would eventually bring to the world.


Bhante’s essay drew me to some limited research, leading to some reviews of John Powers’ Bull of a Man. Powers’ book seems to illustrate the heightened masculinity of the Buddha, reflected in the Indian culture that valued men as having heightened physical and behavioral sexuality. I also found an article by Alexnader Duncan, that examined Indian male sexuality:

Thus, the Buddha is simultaneously a supreme spiritual master and a virile ksatriya warrior, handsome, with large quantities of semen and saliva and strong sexual desire. Therefore, the prohibition of sexual intercourse is not a prohibition of sexuality as such but rather of its profanation. Many of the Buddhist monastics are represented as extremely virile and attractive young men (the Pali Canon mentions young men frequently, implying that young men were particularly attracted to the Buddhadharma) who were eagerly sought after by women in charnel grounds and elsewhere (Powers, Bull of a Man, p. 277 n. 13).

My sense of all of this is that on one hand we have Indian culture reflecting on the Buddha’s heightened sexual anatomy and prowess. But, my sense of what Bhante wrote today seems completely compatible with a general understanding of Buddhahood, that of having gone beyond the mundane. The idea of the Buddha, in the best translation of the text, as being physically ambiguous, fits better with the notion of the Buddha as supermundane, as having abandoned sexual prowess, and abandoning an ethos tied to physical forms, sexual prowess, or practices of cultivating sexual energies:

" In ancient India, semen was associated with the energy of life, and men who recklessly shed their seed were said to become physically diminished.[3] 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)."

With the best translation of kosohita as denoting an ambiguous physical form, we bring the Buddha out of the mundane celebrated Indian masculine form, and bring him into community with the awakened man devoid of attention to physical forms and sense pleasures, residing in elevated jhanic states. It seems to me that to even approach jhanic states, any connection with these ancient Indian themes of hypersexualism and sexual energies must be abandoned.

(Apologies in advance for my possibly crap research…just winging it on a Sunday morning…)


I’ve often considered this kind of reading too. But it hardly seems inescapable. One way of escaping it is to assume that those passages, like many others, are bits of fantastic nonsense, perhaps incorporated into the tradition by a deviant sect of Brahmin converts who wanted justify their adherence to Buddhism by arguing that he was their promised “messiah” of sorts, prophesied by bizarre esoteric texts that have been lost, except insofar as he lore has been preserved in the Pali Buddhist tradition.

Since no one else seems to have been aware of these two very unusual marks, the converts had to claim that they had been shown to them in private, and by magic.


I would say this is obviously true. If the Buddha really was endowed with these 32 characteristics, he would have been a freak of nature. But the suttas generally lead us to think he was quite normal. It seems likely to me that the 32 marks were incorporated in the suttas some time after the Buddha’s death as a response to brahmanical ideals.


Great minds!

Interesting point, maybe there is something to it.

I also have not read this book in full, but my impression from what I have read is that it falls into the all-too-common trap in academic works of exaggerating its thesis. There is obviously something to it, but it seems to have overlooked contexts such as this that point to a transcendence of gender.

The early texts state on several occasions that the Buddha’s genitals were not “normal”. This is inescapable. You might argue about what the exact nature of the abnormality is—as I discuss in the article—or that the passage is late—which I did not discuss—but the fact is that such passages exist, and that is what they say.

But it is not nonsense. I have just proved that: I made sense out of it. To dismiss it as nonsense is to refuse to listen to what it has to say. If the “sense” is not the same kind of sense that you are looking for—for example, an accurate physical description of the Buddha—then perhaps the problem lies, not with the text, but with the fact that it’s telling a different kind of story. It isn’t nonsense, it is mythology, and that is something very meaningful.


Yes, I agree with what you said about that, Bhante. It’s a possible reading, and one I have also wondered about. I just wanted to make the point that the reading is not inescapable, and the description of the marks and legend of the Great Man could just be some Brahmin prophetic lore that worked its way into the Buddhist tradition.

Many of the 32 marks are not in themselves very strange features, although a few of them taken together they would seem to make the Buddha a somewhat unusual looking person, which doesn’t seem to be the way he is generally presented.

It’s possible that the Buddha had some notable and unusual physical features, and the whole description of the 32 marks of the Great Man was constructed after the fact out of the description of the Buddha himself - possibly with some exaggerations creeping in. (Maybe the Buddha had a long tongue, but not that long.) But another possibility was that there was a pre-existing tradition about the Great Man, and that some converts to Buddhism could not be convinced until they were persuaded by proselytes that the Buddha actually possessed these features.


Dan, I completely understand the essence of what you’re describing. Just this morning, after seeing a story about the mesentery being discovered as the 79th organ of our bodies, I began to look for the Sutta references to the Buddha’s last illness and passing, recalling a former Bhikkhu/physician’s narrative about the Buddha’s last illness being a fatal bout with a mesenteric infarction, after eating a meal of Cunda’s pork.

Others have made this point too, and better than I can, but to me, what makes the Buddha so noble and so distinct is that I see him as a man indistinct from the the other monks around him; visitors seeking him out at his wat couldn’t locate him. Bald, indistinct, and as he grew older, wracked with the pains of a bad back and the illnesses of old age. So, for me, all of the talk of the 32 marks is interesting poetry and beautiful myth. The Buddha, maybe similar to Einstein (and surpassing him), was a very human man who realized and taught the ultimate release, and the same as Einstein, he was, from a factual point of view, completely human. This absolute humanity of the Buddha is what gives me hope that his Dhamma will have impact in my life and that of all of us.

So, the discussion above reminded me of Bhante Sujato’s essay, , and likely one or more of his talks that discussed the value of myth in the depiction of the Buddha. Here’s one section from the essay:

As we study (genuine) myth, it becomes clear that many things in myth cannot be substantiated by facts, and that some things can be positively disproved. And yet this did not undermine the power that these myths had as sacred stories. So truth in any literal sense is not a necessary quality for a myth – a conclusion that is reinforced by the existence of thousands of mutually incompatible myths around the world.

I hope I don’t sound presumptuous, and certainly cannot hope to capture what Bhante understands and teaches, but it seems to me there is great value in this study of myth in the Pali texts. Understanding the role of myth, and the role of discerning historical facts, makes this study, to me, more colorful and interesting. The only risk we have as students, without teachers like Vens. Sujato and Brahmali, is that we might confuse the two contexts.


Yes, Anagarika, and yet it’s interesting that the tradition seems to offer different Buddhas for different kinds of believers.

One thing we can keep in mind is that there were people in the Buddha’s circle - including his cousin Ananda, and aunt/stepmother Mahapajapati - who would have had plenty of intimate knowledge about what the Buddha looked like as a boy and young man. So, for example, the fact that the Buddha was a “shaveling” monk doesn’t mean we can’t trust the claim hat he had very curly black hair as a young man.

And if he did have unusual, intersex primary sexual features, Pajapati would certainly have known, even if the Buddha himself were very discreet about the fact. So that’s one possible way in which the report might have passed into the tradition.

Also, if there were something physically unusual about the Buddha’s sexual organ, that might have contributed to the feeling of “not fitting in” among his fellow young khattiya braves, and add an additional poignant touch to the ultimate decision to go forth from household life.

But to me, the account of the marks has the feeling of something that came from a legendary package of traits. Perhaps there had been some great leader or figure in the past who had possessed such an unusual set of physical features. (for example, the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten is frequently hypothesized to have have possessed some genetic abnormalities - including elongated arms and fingers.)


Hi Dan. Yes, and I think some of the myth filters into the public domain, causing some to dismiss the Buddha as a myth, or attribute mythlogical traits to him that lessen the saddha of those new to Buddhism, without bothering to inquire as to the historicity of the Buddha, and the story of his life in the EBTs. Far later Mahayana sutras then carry the same evidentiary weight, in the eyes of some, as the early Pali and Chinese texts.

And “Yasodharā” would come to mean “the disappointed one.” :slight_smile: Sorry, bad joke. I’m guessing that Gotama was completely normal, and had normal equipment. As a young warrior prince, can you imagine the stories that would come out of the young warrior clansmen’s locker room?


In one of the Chinese taoist yoga lineages , they say that the retractable penis, attainable by any serious meditator, not just a Buddha, just means a forest monk, mountain hermit, yogic lifestyle with lots of meditation and a simple healthy diet tends to shrink the penis quite a lot (relative to their penis size engaged in worldly life) and draw inwards, with the result that their penis looks more like a baby boy’s penis rather than something that can completely retract and become invisible.

I suspect all 32 marks maybe have a real basis but became exaggerated by commentators embellishing a story and having no personal experience of the marks.

I’m not trying to defend the 32 marks in the EBT. Even if they are completely true, I don’t see how it helps in teaching the dhamma, how it leads to dispassion and cessation and nirvana. In my mind, 32 marks are not part of the EBT.


That’s interesting, I wonder if it has an Indic origin. I know the thing about the long tongue is found as a yogic practice; Iyengar talks about it.

You just have to be clear about what you mean. The texts are as they are: nothing changes that. When I talk about EBTs, I simply mean the early strata of texts. Of course, we have to accept that not everything in the EBTs is authentic: the two are not synonymous. “Early” does not mean “original”.

A Buddhist Council Guide for EBT enthusiasts

Yes, everything in the EBTs are not authentic such as the following passage which narrate the bhikkhuni ordination,

BD.5.356 “If, Ānanda, women had not obtained the going forth from home into homelessness in the dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder, the Brahma-faring, Ānanda, would have lasted long , true dhamma would have endured for a thousand years. But since, Ānanda, women have gone forth … in the dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder, now, Ānanda, the Brahma-faring will not last long, true dhamma will endure only for five hundred years.

“Even, Ānanda, as those households which have many women and few men easily fall a prey to robbers, to pot-thieves, even so, Ānanda in whatever dhamma and discipline women obtain the going forth from home into homelessness, that Brahma-faring will not last long.

“Even, Ānanda, as when the disease known as mildew attacks a whole field of rice that field of rice does not last long, even so, Ānanda, in whatever dhamma and discipline women obtain the going forth … that Brahma-faring will not last long.

“Even, Ānanda, as when the disease known as red rust attacks a whole field of sugar-cane, that field of sugar-cane does not last long, even so, Ānanda, in whatever dhamma and discipline … that Brahma-faring will not last long.

“Even, Ānanda, as a man, looking forward, may build a dyke to a great reservoir so that the water may not overflow, even so, Ānanda, were the eight important rules for nuns laid down by me, looking forward, not to be transgressed during their life.”

According to @sujato ,

I do not believe the Buddha said anything like it. If he did, he was superstitious, sexist, and wrong!

It is found in various other Vinaya texts. In my view, this, and the whole narrative of the ordination of Mahapajapati as we have it today, were added around 100 years after the Buddha’s death, some time around the Second Council.

Bhante , can we consider this( 32 marks ) to be a later addition as well ?


Yes, I would agree that both the account of Mahapajapati’s going forth and the 32 marks are very likely to be later additions.