The Buddha And The Phallus


Syncretism is the adoption of elements of one religion
into another. All religions are syncretic to some degree. Despite the
widespread assumption to the contrary, the Buddha adopted very little from the
religions or the folk beliefs of his time and included nothing at all from them
into his essential teachings. Buddhism as it has evolved in its traditional homeland
is another matter. There, Buddhism has been far too casual (tolerant?) about
accepting all sorts of superstitious beliefs and practices. To my mind, the
most primitive of these is phallicism  

There are several Buddhist temples in Japan associated
with phallic worship. The most famous of these is Mara Kannon in Tawarayama, Yamaguchi
Prefecture, supposedly dedicated to Avalokitsvara, the Bodhisattva of
Compassion – Kuan Yin in Chinese, Kannon in
For reasons that I have been unable to discover (other than that proclivity to
corruption so common in Buddhism) the statue in this shrine has become
associated with fertility which in turn has led to an unabashed phallicism.
People who have problems associated with the penis – erectile problems, ‘size
issues’, bed wetting, infertility, low sperm count, venereal diseases, etc.  go there and offer small phalluses (bring your
own or purchase one at the temple’s gift shop) in the hope of getting help (1st
picture). The Mara Kannon Matsuri Festival held on the 1st of May
every year and during which huge phalluses are carried through the streets,
attracts thousands. I have never seen it but I am told that of prostitutes,
cross-dressers and bawds from all over Japan come and there is much
bacchanalian revelry. Very Buddhist indeed!

Wat Po is one of
the largest monasteries in Bangkok. Go to the main shrine, pay your respects to
the large and graceful Buddha statue there, then stand to one side, look up at
the statues serene half-closed eyes and follow its gaze. You will see that it
looks out the main door of the shrine straight to a large stone phallus,
usually with pink or yellow ribbons tied around it and garlands draped over it
(2nd picture). There are several phallic shrines
in Bangkok but this is the
only one I know that is actually in a Buddhist monastery. I have been told
there are others. If you want your own phallus – you know, to hang around your
neck or worship in the comfort of your own home – the place to go is to the
amulet market held every Sunday at Wat Mahathat, Thailand’s premier Buddhist
university. They have all kinds there; small, big, very big, enormous, being
hugged by little figures, with faces or legs on them, inscribed with mantras,
blessed by famous monks, made of wood, bone, plastic or metal. I went to this
market once and couldn’t help noticing how many monks there were (mainly old
ones) inspecting the wares.

Drukpa Kunkey is a semi-mythological character in
popular Buddhism in Bhutan and southern Tibet. The various legends about him
are not only funny but are meant to be a healthy poke at monastic formalism,
ostentatious piety, sanctimoniousness and spiritual pride. Having evolv
ed amongst peasants, many of these stories also contain a good deal
of bawdy humor and imagery, particularly related to Drukpa Kunley’s apparently
enormous member. I do not know that his phallus is actually worshiped, but
paintings of it appear on many houses in Bhutan while wooden versions of it
hang from the corners of the roofs of others 3rd picture). On the
main shrine at Chimi Lhakhang, the temple dedicated to Drukpa Kunley, there is
a large red-painted wooden phallus with a tassel on its end. When women wanting
children come to this temple, the presiding monk touches them on the head with
this phallus. Incidentally, the paintings in this temple, depicting the life of
Drukpa Kunley are the finest I saw in all Bhutan. If you ever go there take
Keith Dowman’s The Divine Madman with you. It will help you understand
the paintings.

When I visited
the famous Kaniska Gompa in Zanshar I noticed a large wooden phallus sticking
out of the wall at the entrance to the temple. I asked the lama with me what it
was for and he told me it was to frighten evil spirits so that they wouldn’t go
in the temple. I didn’t ask why such spirits should be frightened by a phallus.
If they are male I would expect them to admire it rather than be frightened of

From one point
of view worshiping a sexual organ is no better or worse that worshiping any
other form of the human body (precious blood, guruji’s lotus-like feet, bodily
relics, etc) . On the other hand, the genetails are the physical manifestation
of sexual desire and pleasure, something the Dhamma teaches us to deemphasize
and eventually try to transcend. I know of nothing in either Pali or Mahayana
literature attributed to the Buddha that could be described even with the
broadest interpretation as ‘a celebration of sexuality’. The only thing I could
imagine further from the Dhamma than phallic worship would be killing and
perhaps hatred.

Apparently many
Westerners attend the Mara Kannon Matsuri Festival, as they go to Khajuraho, to
gawk in wonder at the supposed lack of prudery and ‘healthy attitude towards
sex’ of Asians. This is of course nonsense on stilts. What could be more
twisted than the Japanese attitude to sex! Who could be more sexually repressed
than the Indians! And anyway, these and several other examples of phallicism in
Buddhism have nothing to do with openness or healthy attitudes. They are examples
of where the guardians of the Dhamma have either acquiesced to popular desires
and needs or where, out of lack of commitment to the Dhamma, they have allowed
superstitions to creep into it. Sociologically and psychologically phallic
worship is very interesting. Spiritually it offers nothing of any value.


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