Charming Cadavers: Horrific Figurations of the Feminine in
Indian Buddhist Hagiographic Literature, by Wilson, Liz.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, Pp. 258

Reviewed by Jennifer L. Manlowe, Long Island University

Philosophy East and West
Volume 49, Number 2
(April 1999)
pp. 227-231

Copyright by University of Hawaii Press




p. 227

The past century has seen serious progress in the analysis and understanding of Buddhist literature in relation to the lives of women. Most of this work has been conducted by feminist-leaning (if not unapologetically feminist) Buddhist scholars from the West. Turn-of-the-century Buddhist scholars C.A.F. Rhys Davids, Mabel Bode, and Isabelle Horner analyzed Buddhism and found it to be emancipatory for women because "taking refuge" allowed them to leave their domestically subordinated, feminine-conditioned roles as wives and mothers and join others on the gender-free spiritual path. Such a path, according to Rhys Davids, offered a woman a place to become "an asexual, rational being walking with wise men in recognized intellectual equality on higher levels of thought." [1]

    Approaching the end of the twentieth century, contemporary students of Buddhist women's history such as Diana Paul and Karen Lang have challenged this proto-egalitarian view of Buddhism. Both Paul and Lang have uncovered what they deem to be misogynistic characterizations of women in Buddhist scripture, highlighting the fact that women were only admitted to the sangha (order of monks) after much pleading. And when they were finally admitted it was under one decisive condition: that they submit to male authority. That was the gist of the eight special rules that Gotama (Buddhism's founder) imposed on women granted entry into the once-exclusive order. According to Lang, "Monks wrote and compiled virtually all of the texts included in the early canon. Much of this material reflects their ambivalent attitudes toward women. Women were considered physically and spiritually weaker, less intellectual and more sensual than men. The community of monks feared women as potential seducers." [2] In the last decade, Buddhist scholar Rita Gross has tried to walk the "middle path" by grappling with the androcentric aspects of Buddhism while suggesting a feminist revalorization of Buddhism. [3] Liz Wilson, professor of religion and author of Charming Cadavers: Horrific Figurations of the Feminine in Indian Buddhist Hagiographic Literature, has seen this effort to search for a genuinely egalitarian Buddhism (even in the purportedly class- and gender- inclusive texts of the Mahaayaana), as noble but more about projecting what we want to see, rather than seeing what is in plain sight. Wilson writes:

I am unable to give later forms of Buddhism such as the Mahayana a clean bill of health with regard to sexism. Harsh condemnations and exploitive figurations of the feminine in which women undergo mortification for men's edification abound in those tex ts (such as the Lalitavistara and other Sanskrit biographies of the Buddha) which proclaim in their colophons their allegiance to the Great Vehicle, as well as those that show Mahayanist influence but belong to other canons. Explicit arguments against the importance of gender in path progress coexist, in Mahayana texts, with vicious tirades against women. (pp. 7-8)



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    Wilson's study differs from Paul and Lang in emphasis. She examines how meditative practices, not just institutional rules, set up and sustain problematic gender arrangements. Her specific focus is on how disgust-inspiring images of women figure prominently in the religious achievements of members of the male monastic order. Her sample is a broad cross-section of hagiographic literature redacted in India and Buddhist South Asia after the reign of the Indian emperor A`soka (third century B.C.E.) in whic h repulsive figurations of women lead to the awakening to impermanence of prominent monks. In hagiographic texts representing a variety of scholastic affiliations, including Mahaayaana and Hiinayaana schools (such as the Theravaada), appealing female bodies become edifying objects of contemplation through death, disfiguration, and sleep so deep that it resembles death. Placing graphically morbid images of women at crucial moments in the hagiographies of leading members of the sangha, the redactors of post-A`sokan texts show the power of the macabre to promote insight into the Dharma. In addition to linking grotesque figurations of women with the lofty spiritual attainments of their subjects, the redactors of the hagiographies frequently suggest, in editorial asides, that such gruesome scenes have productive consequences for all who listen to the tales of the lives of Arhats ("worthy ones"). Wilson claims that "horrific scenes of the feminine instantiate the Buddha's teachings in such a graphic and compelling manner that only a fool would be oblivious to the lessons about life and death that they teach" (pp. 8-9).

    Wilson uncovers a paradox: These female objects of meditation are, in a way, teachers of monks. But in their role as teachers they do not speak. What they have to teach is not what is on their minds but what is going on in their pre-fetid bodies. Wilson uses ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, John Berger, and Michel Foucault to illustrate what it feels like to be the object of another's gaze: "the person being observed by another will remain a mere object, a fixture in the mental universe of the other, unless he or she can return the gaze of the other and make the other an object in his or her own universe of meaning." [4] But the dying, dead, or unconscious women who appear in these object lessons for enlightenment are incapable of observing their male observers. Since they are never given subject status, they cannot return the gaze that surveys them.

    The examples Wilson uses to give weight to her claims come not from a single school or sectarian orientation of Buddhism but from a remarkably broad cross-section of post-A`sokan Buddhist literature. Women transformed into revolting lessons of impermanence can be found translated from the Sanskrit biographies of the Buddha (such as the Buddhacarita) to the Paali commentarial literature (Dhammapadatthakatha or commentary to the Dhammapada and the Jatakatthakatha or commentary to the Jataka) that narrates the interpersonal contexts behind canonical accounts of what the Buddha said. Finding such a wide sample leads Wilson to assume that such narratives belonged to a common stock of Buddhist hagiographical literature shared by all schools of the post-A`sokan period.

    Wilson's book is divided into five chapters with an appendix on "The Post-A`sokan Milieu." The five main chapters address primarily a textual-critical audience and focus on feminist concerns and views of the text. In chapter 1 she explores the



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sociology of celibacy in its South Asian context and suggests why the desire for sexual gratification and the desire to reproduce posed such great threats to the fragile beginnings of the sangha. The bulk of the first sangha were male renouncers like Gotama -- men who left wives and children behind to pursue spiritual and material liberation.

    Chapter 2 describes various forms of meditation by which insight into the nature of sa.msaara (the predictable suffering cycle of life and death) may best be achieved through cultivating a healthy sense of aversion toward impermanent things, particularly the female body. In this same chapter Wilson takes on those of her detractors who would accuse her of splicing Indian Brahminical discourse preoccupied with purity onto Buddhists in an Indian milieu. She describes the differences between the stances of the two traditions on the body: both traditions see the body constituted as a leaky, sieve-like container that is constantly sullied by the defiling substances that flow from every orifice. But where Brahminical discourse advocates closing off the apertures through purificatory rites, Buddhist literature (most of the Anguttara, Samyutta, Majjhima, and Diigha Nikaayas) recognize that bodily closure is impossible. "Like a boil so filled with pus that it leaks in nine places, the body described in Buddhist discourse is a wound that neither merits nor is amenable to ritual purification" (p. 10).

    Chapter 3 focuses on Paali Hagiographies that climax in repulsive figurations of women set in sleeping harems or strewn in charnel fields. Wilson uses the story of Gotama's own first lesson that "living bodies are comparable to walking corpses," a lesson he learned with his own eyes in the harem in his palace just before he renounced the world. Waking up in the women's apartments in the middle of the night, one version of the Buddha's story explains, Gotama noticed the saliva dripping from half-opened mouths and the rigor-mortis-like postures of the sleeping women in his own palace. He then suddenly had a vision of the harem as a charnel field strewn with corpses. The vision of beautiful women ravaged by death so agitated Gotama that he left home immediately to seek a path that leads beyond birth and death. He was said to have taught this lesson again and again in his capacity as head of the sangha: the utter perversity of pursuing sexual gratification when the human body, in its natural state, emits substances as foul as those emitted by putrefying corpses (p. 2). While some meditation manuals suggest that it is a bad idea for a monk to look at a dead woman's body because he might find it arousing, post-A`sokan hagiographies combine arousing and disgusting stimuli in ways comparable to practitioners of aversion therapy. Wilson writes, "These narratives suggest that the path to wisdom is not always the path of prudence; sometimes the path of prurience -- in which desire is encouraged only to be subverted in the end -- is much more efficacious (p. 12).

    In chapter 4, Wilson compares the guileful methods of Maara (the god of death and enemy of renouncers) to Buddha's skillful means (upaayakausalya) in assisting his lust-troubled monks. She illustrates how Maara captures his victims by offering female-flesh-bated hooks that deliver death instead of gratification, and the Buddha mimics Maara by baiting the "hook of the Dharma" with female flesh that is intended



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to awaken those lulled by the specious beauty of women. But the Buddha ultimately subverts the heterosexual desire he encourages by the strategic use of repulsive figurations of women. Wilson concludes this work with what I see to be the most feminist act in the book when she invites us to look through the eyes of the nuns who are said to have occupied genuine subject positions in the post-A`sokan, Paali hagiographies. These accounts have curiously self-reflexive female subjects who achieve enlightened insight by observing their own bodies (or those of magical doubles) undergoing grisly decomposition. They contemplate their aged flesh and taxonomize with pride the wrinkles, cataracts, and deflated breasts that now make them unattractive to men -- the perfect exemplars of the truth of the Dharma. Wilson claims that "by turning their gaze in the direction which androcentric convention compels them to look in order to achieve the insight of an awakened subject, these female subjects inevitably interact with themselves as objects" (p. 13).

    The book concludes with Wilson's close reading of post-A`sokan hagiographies against Christian hagiographies. Both hagiographies lionize the very women who are encouraged to participate in their own bodily vilification. Both hagiographic traditions praise women who gouge out their own eyes to repulse the gaze of their aroused assailants or to assist the wayward monk/male who is irresistibly tempted by her female qua seductive form. Wilson deconstructs the vexed eye/"I" of the holy woman: "The eye that is so dramatically gouged out serves as an icon of a distinctly female way of seeing. What better image to represent the blinders that restrain the female gaze ... than the eyes that these women removed so that they might see (and be seen) as good Buddhist and Christian women?" (p. 14).

    Though Wilson investigates first-millennium Buddhist notions of spirituality, her work takes up a set of universal concerns connected with women in religion. What role do women play in their own spiritual attainment or enlightenment, and who (or what set of circumstances) fosters such a role? More specifically, Wilson's work poses questions that have rarely been asked in Buddhist literature. In representing people as objects of meditation, in what ways do Buddhist authors endow these representations with subjectivity? Are the people thus represented depicted as conscious agents with access to speech? Are they constituted as subjects who think, act, and speak only under certain conditions (and what are those conditions)? If their consciousness is, as Sartre would say, consciousness of themselves as perceived by others, will their voices and their actions also be constrained by this awareness of self-as-constituted-by other? What kind of agency results from this derivative form of subjectivity? By way of case-presentation and critical theory, Wilson presents a careful examination of the literature in terms of the hagiographic stories and translations of Sanskrit, Paali, and Tamil terminology and thought, as well as the psychosocial affects of these object-lessons -- the fallout for women (and men) of the past and present.

    Wilson's work presents a deeply thought-out analysis of an overlooked aspect of Buddhist meditation for monastics. Through repeated and thorough examination of the text and the hagiographic literature, she arrives at a point of view that is vital for Buddhist scholars who claim to want to disentangle the egalitarian best of Buddhism



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from its androcentric accretions. She pleads strongly for the resistance of denying these troubling practices that misogynistically shape the consciousness of men and women Buddhist practitioners. She rejects one by one the grounds presented in favor of such neutered readings of what she deems as clearly gendered practices -- ones still practiced in many parts of the Buddhist world even by the Dalai Lama himself -- that date back to the first millennium. [5]

    Altogether, Liz Wilson's Charming Cadavers -- a fresh analysis of "the feminine" in post-A`sokan literature -- is a well-written and stimulating examination of both the ancient texts and the modern theories surrounding this literature. It is not the last word in an ongoing debate on the place of sexuality, desire, the body, and women in Buddhism, but it is certainly a word worthy of thoughtful attention.




1.    C.A.F Rhys Davids, "The Women Leaders of the Buddhist Reformation as Illustrated by Dhammapala's Commentary on the Theri-gatha," in Transactions of the Ninth International Congress of Orientalists, vol. 1 (Indian and Aryan Sections), ed. E. Delmar Morgan (London: Committee of the Congress, 1893), p. 348. See also Isabelle B. Horner, Women under Primitive Buddhism: Lay Women and Alms Women (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1930).

2.    Karen C. Lang, "Lord Death's Snare: Gender Related Imagery in the 'Theragatha' and the Therigatha,'" Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 2 (1986): 64.

3.    See Rita Gross, Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).

4.    Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Citadel, 1969), pp. 228 ff. See also John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Pelican, 1972).

5.    See Dalai Lama, Policy of Kindness: An Anthology of Writing by and about the Dalai Lama, ed. Sidney Piburn (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1990).