I was recently looking through the Jataka Tales, that sizable collection of fables about the previous incarnations of the Buddha and his close disciples, when I came across one story, called ‘Jewel-Throat’, which you could call a queer, Buddhist version of ‘The Little Mermaid’. In this story about the relationship between a naga or snake-spirit king and two ascetic brothers, homoeroticism and homosexual love appear incidentally as obstacles to ascetic attainment. The story’s vivid account of homosexual spirit-love with reptile-people raises a number of points.
At least since Weber, the study of renunciation, asceticism and religious virtuosity has been intimately associated with more general questions about forms of social organization and authority. That disengagement from ‘worldly’ phenomena is an unavoidably social endeavor is clear. It is a truism of the study of religious renunciation that the world-renouncer does not, soteriological ideals aside, live entirely beyond the pale of human society. The project of renunciation requires a social milieu, a corroborative logic and infrastructure to sustain it. The supposed rejection of worldly life requires worldly life as its necessary antithesis and foil, just as the putatively ‘remote’ hermit is always and already implicated in any number of social relations and diverse economies of patronage and exchange of a more or less material nature. As such, the ascetics’ self-removal from society functions more as a ritualized procedure of spatio-temporal re-orientation than an actual geographic or social isolation. What’s interesting about this tale – and many others from around the world about religious retreatants – is that it reminds us that even when ascetics are legitimately cut off from human social worlds, they are never truly alone.
Encounters with demons, gods, ghosts, ancestors, wild animals and so on are a mainstay of the hagiographies of religious ascetics across the world. Detachment from human relationships often opens up spaces for deeper engagements with non-human persons of various kinds. Dben-gnas (pronounced wayn-nay), one of the many terms in Tibetan for a retreat-site, is often translated as an ‘isolated, secluded, empty, or remote spot’. Yet while the dben of dben gnas does indeed imply seclusion, its coupling with gnas off-sets any idea of absolute social detachment or a-sociality. Gnas has a broad semantic range, but in this case it implies a power-spot or special location or point in space, specifically one that is the ‘abode’ of special energies and spiritual agencies. Thus while dben-gnas may be devoid of regular humans and the ordinary activities of ‘civilization’ they are often chock-full of other non-(regular) human persons and presences. As described in a previous post, itinerant practitioners of certain forms of Tibetan meditation may specifically seek out places that are haunted and dangerous, the kind of locations filled with just the sort of persons – robbers, yetis, demons, zombies, wolves and so on – you don’t plan or wish to encounter within the confines of civilized human society. Auspicious and powerful locations for retreat are often those that are layered with the socio-cultural-psychic ‘residue’ (and actual wax, soot, and grease!) of generations of practitioners and devotion. As new waves of practitioners revisit sacred sites and practice there, these spaces become charged with a vibrant current of blessings, of memories, presences and activities. Space and time fold in on each other, and visions of past adepts and past blessings reveal themselves.
In this story, we see how ascetics’ encounters with non-human persons can be rich and complex. Demons may manifest as cajoling tormentors or seducers, but they may also appear as curious tourists, teachers, students, lovers, and friends. The most famous of Tibetan yogis the 11th century realized saint Milarepa was a strong advocate of celibacy, and dissuaded his disciple Rechung from living as a ngakpa and relying on his tantric consort Dembu. While Milarepa was not against non-celibate practices, he nonetheless stressed that they should be pursued only under the right circumstances. Despite Milarepa’s circumspection around las kyi phyag rgya, lay kee chakgya, ‘action seal’ or tantric sexual practices involving a physical consort, the 15th century ‘crazy saint’ and non-celibate tantric practitioner Tsang Nyon Heruka included in his biography of Milarepa (who he was apparently a reincarnation of), an episode where Milarepa is approached by the goddess Tseringma and her four sisters, who request that Milarepa take them all as sexual consorts. After the deities and yogi exchange a few songs, Milarepa does just that.
Love between human practitioners and spirits can thus appear as both a spiritual distraction and an opportunity. I’m reminded here of the considerable ethnographic material from around the world on spirit kinship and marriage, which if nothing else is testament to the complexity and consistency of conjugal and ‘domestic’ arrangements between humans and spirits. Indeed, this particular brand of ‘queer’ sociality, the encountering and engaging with weird ‘others’, with non-human persons or spirits -would seem to be an almost inevitable part of engaging intensively in spiritual disciplines.
One thing that is often associated with these kinds of human-spirit relationships is jealousy. Tensions and rivalries between spirit and human spouses is a common theme all over the world. Here in this tale, the dynamic revolves around a love triangle between two human brothers and a non-human lover. The larger point of the story seems to be that monks should not be surprised when they are despised for excessive begging for alms or when they are entitled as monks and make unreasonable requests on the laity. The Buddha’s use of this ‘old-world’ tale is interesting. Looking at the story primarily from the ‘present time’time perspective (i.e. that of monks rely on inappropriate forms of begging to build their cells) the younger brother stands in for the wayward sangha, his crime is inappropriate begging, and our sympathy falls with the naga cum wealthy potential patron. Yet the tale clearly contains other themes that shift the balance of blame and didactic focus. Looking at the Tale of Jewel-Throat separately from the narrative that frames it, one notes that it is not the younger hermit’s abjectification and deprivation per se that are a turn-off for the beautiful snake-king, but rather his request that the king deprive himself as part of loving him. It’s also interesting that although the brother proclaims that the naga’s touch makes him uncomfortable and he wishes to be free of it, we are told that he nonetheless wastes away even AFTER his lover’s departure as a result of missing his company. The tale’s descriptions of queer/homoerotic intimacy come across, at least in this translation, as curiously visceral and off-hand at the same time. The younger hermit’s conflict – and the moral lesson it makes possible – takes on deeper significance within the broader scope of the Jataka Tales, in which Ananda and the Buddha appear, again and again, across life-times as frequently intimate companions.The younger brother’s homoerotic bond with Jewel-Throat is portrayed as transactional and conditional, as self-protecting and ultimately unreliable. In contrast, ascetic bromance serves as a allegory for devotion to the Buddha, his teachings and company. Unlike the love of the beautiful and endowed naga, it is a superior and lasting kind of love, one that is selfless and unconditional, and which can countenance the greatest of privations. If we take the naga-king as a stand-in for the rich laity too, rather than representing potential distractions from non-human persons on the path of renunciation, Jewel-Throat suggests the way that relationships between Buddhist renouncers and the lay community may be filled with both mutual attraction, admiration and tenderness, but may also be fickle, stifling and ultimately toxic.
The version of the story of Manikantha or ‘Jewel-Throat’ below is from W.H.D. Rouse’s 1895 translation, and comes from www.sacred-texts.com:
“Rich food and drink,” etc.–This story the Master told while he was dwelling at the shrine of Aggālava, near Ālavī, about the rules for building cells.
Some Brethren who lived in Ālavī 2 were begging 3 from all quarters the materials for houses which they were getting made for themselves. They were for ever dinning and dunning; “Give us a man, give us somebody to do servant’s work,” and so forth. Everybody was annoyed at this begging and solicitation. So much annoyed were they, that at sight of these Brethren they were startled and scared away.
It happened that the reverend father Mahākassapa entered Ālavī, and traversed the place in quest of alms. The people, as soon as they saw the Elder, ran away as before 4. After mealtime, having returned from his rounds, he summoned the brethren, and thus addressed them: “Once Ālavī was a capital place for alms; why is it so poor now?” They told him the reason.
Now the Blessed One was at the time dwelling at the Aggālava shrine. To the Blessed One came the Elder, and told him all about it. The Master convened the Brethren touching this matter.  “I hear,” said he, “that you are building houses and worrying everybody for help. Is this true?” They said it was. Then the Master rebuked them, adding these words: “Even in the serpent world, Brethren, full as it is of the seven precious stones, this kind of begging is distasteful to the serpents. How much more to men, from whom it is as hard to get a rupee as it is to skin a flint!” and he told an old-world tale.
Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta reigned in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born as a rich brahmin’s son. When he was old enough to run about, his mother gave birth to another wise being. Both the brothers, when they grew up, were so deeply pained at their parents’ death, that they became anchorites, and dwelt in leaf-huts which they made them at a bend of the Ganges river. The elder had his lodge by the upper Ganges, and the younger by the lower river.
One day, a Serpent-King (his name was Maṇikaṇṭha, or Jewel-throat) left his dwelling-place, and taking the shape of a man, walked along the river bank until he came to the younger brother’s hermitage. He greeted
the owner, and sat down at one side. They conversed pleasantly together; and such friends did they become, that there was no living apart for them. Often and often came Jewel-throat to visit the younger recluse, and sat talking and chatting; and when he left, so much did he love the man, he put off his shape, and encircled the ascetic with snake’s folds, and embraced him, with his great hood upon his head; there he lay a little, till his affection was satisfied; then he let go his friend’s body, and bidding him farewell, returned to his own place. For fear of him, the hermit grew thin; he became squalid, lost his colour, grew yellower and yellower, and the veins stood out upon his skin.
It happened one day that he paid a visit to his brother. “Why, brother,” said he, “what makes you thin? how did you lose your colour? why are you so yellow, and why do your veins stand out like this upon your skin?”
The other told him all about it.
“Come tell me,” said the first, “do you like him to come or not?” . “No, I don’t.”
“Well, what ornament does the Serpent-King wear when he visits you?”
“A precious jewel!”
“Very well. When he comes again, before he has time to sit down, ask him to give you the jewel. Then he will depart without embracing you in his snaky folds. Next day stand at your door, and ask him for it there; and on the third ask him just as he emerges from the river. He will never visit you again.”
The younger promised so to do, and returned to his hut. On the morrow, when the Serpent had come, as he stood there the hermit cried, “Give me your beautiful jewel!” The Serpent hurried away without sitting down. On the day following, the hermit stolid at his door, and called out as the Serpent came–“You would not give me your jewel yesterday! now to-day you must!” And the Serpent slipt off without entering the hut. On the third day, the man called out just as the Serpent was emerging from the water–“This is the third day that I have asked you for it: come, give this jewel to me!” And the Serpent, speaking from his place in the water, refused, in the words of these two stanzas:
By means of this fine jewel which you crave:
You ask too much; the gem I will not give;
Nor visit you again while I shall live.“Like lads who wait with tempered sword in hand,
You scare me as my jewel you demand,
You ask too much–the gem I will not give,
Nor ever visit you while I shall live!”
 With these words, the King of the Serpents plunged beneath the water, and went to his own place, never to return.
Then the ascetic, not seeing his beautiful Serpent-King again, became thinner and thinner still; he grew more squalid, lost his colour worse than before, and grew more yellow, and the veins rose thicker on his skin!
The elder brother thought he would go and see how his brother was getting on. He paid him a visit, and found him yellower than he had been before.
“Why, how is this? worse than ever!” said he.
His brother replied, “It is because I never see the lovely King of Serpents!”
“This hermit,” said the elder, on hearing his answer, “cannot live without his Serpent-King; “and he repeated the third verse:–
For begging makes you hateful in his eyes.
The brahmin begged the Serpent’s gem so sore
He disappeared and never cane back more.”
Then he counselled his brother not to grieve, and with this consolation, left him and returned to his own hermitage. And after that  the two brothers cultivated the Faculties and the Attainments, and became destined for the heaven of Brahma.
The Master added, “Thus, Brethren, even in the world of serpents, where are the seven precious stones in plenty, begging is disliked by the serpents: how much more by men!” And, after teaching them this lesson, he identified the Birth:–“At that time, Ānanda was the younger brother, but the elder was I myself.”
* For those interested, ritual magician and occult writer Donald Tyson has written perhaps one of the most comprehensive treatments of experimental ‘sex with spirits’ for contemporary magicians that I am aware of. Based on a considerable amount of personal experimentation and collected interviews, Tyson’s book discusses a topic that is often treated in passing or broad strokes in Western occult and sex magic(k) literature in surprising detail. Check it out.