When the Vatican “scandal” erupted, I happened to be reading Kumagusu Minakata’s writings on homosexuality — to be exact, his writings as selected, with comments, by Taruho Inagaki. I was doing so because Inagaki (1900-1977) won Japan’s literary “grand prize” for his book, “The Aesthetic of the Love of Boys,” the year it was set up, in 1969, and he did so at the urging of one of the judges, Yukio Mishima.

Minakata (1867-1941), who worked for the British Museum from his 20s and early 30s, was mainly a naturalist. But his encyclopedic knowledge extended to a number of other fields and subjects. Male same-sex love, which he discussed at length in his letters to Jun’ichi Iwata (1900-1945), was one of them, the voluminous correspondence apparently prompted by an innocuous question Iwata asked in 1931. Iwata would later achieve fame for his work on the subject as it relates to Japan.

So, in one letter, Minakata began a paragraph touching on the Roman Catholic Church and sodomy by referring to the Confucian thinker Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728): “Sorai, who grew up to be an adult among monks, in Kazusa, simply states that monks always think about sexual acts, because they have to try to pretend to do otherwise.”

Sorai said that “in his political discourse for the eighth Tokugawa shogun,” Minakata noted. At that time, Buddhism was the government-sanctioned religion, and “female violation,” along with meat eating, was among the cardinal sins for the monks. They could be crucified for it. But with the introduction of the freedom of religion at the start of the Meiji Era, those bans were lifted and Buddhist monks could eat meat and have sex as they pleased. As a result, Minakata told Iwata, “in the Shingon School, it is no exaggeration to say that monks and such are all men of lascivious conduct.” He knew what he was talking about. He lived not far from the holy Mount Koya, where Kukai (774-835) the Great Proselytizer established his version of the Shingon School.

In contrast, “in the Ikko School, there is little to talk about” in that regard, because its followers “are internally content, as Tachibana Haruakira says in ‘Idle Talk at the Window to the North.’ ” The Ikko School, practically suppressed during the Tokugawa Period, accepted marriage among its priests. Haruakira, better known as Nankei (1753-1805), was a physician who left accounts of travels through Japan.

“Something like ‘meditating in the state of clear water’ is, in truth, identical to masturbating in your mind.” Here Minakata used the word shisuikan. “Stopping your mind to meditate” or shikan is the basic means of seeking enlightenment in Zen. He, in effect, dismissed any such thing as a sexual duplicity.

“In the West, too, Roman Catholicism bans female violation. Because of this, they engage in sodomy,” he continued. “In addition, they concocted something called the Holy Mother on which there is not a single word in the Bible, and they have vied in making the most beautiful lady out of her, obsessed as they are less with praying to her in veneration than with the thought of doing it with her.”

Minakata knew something very similar happened at Mount Koya. When young, he was surprised to visit the temples of Mount Koya, he told Iwata. He saw so many beautiful women — heavenly maidens and female Buddhas — painted on screens and such. Mount Koya’s reputation as excluder of women still held then, but it was obvious that “the monks were totally obsessed with women.” Those who disliked women, on the other hand, “worshipped Manjusri in adolescent form by taking the word sri (shiri) to mean ‘ass’ or else had pretty young boys painted in the portraits of patriarchs where they had no part.” Either way, “there was no one who did not want to do it.”

The results of carnal prohibition have been well known from the outset, of course. As Minakata told Iwata, “Nihon Ryoi Ki,” Japan’s oldest extant collection of homiletic tales, from the ninth century, includes a story about a monk who fell in love with a statue of Kissho the Heavenly Maiden and left buckets of semen. There has long existed a how-to volume on sex with acolytes attributed to none other than the Great Proselytizer.

Minakata concludes: “Not doing what you want to do — nay, trying hard to show you are not doing it, you waste your time only on such exterior things and never have time to listen to the religious principles.” He then refers to the 240 B.C. Chinese compilation of philosophical thoughts, “Lulan,” to quote an observation: “If you have something you can’t force people not to do, let them do it as much as they want to.” Minakata adds: “If you do something too much, you get surfeited and stop doing it.”

The ancient Chinese wisdom reminds me of America’s “war on drugs,” one of the most self-righteous, the most egregious and the most destructive policies this country has ever devised for the world, other than outright wars. But let me not digress. Here my subject is sex.

Hendrik Hertzberg has pointed out, in “The New Yorker” (April 19, 2010), that practically all the Vatican “controversies” have had to do with sex: “abortion, stem-cell research, contraception, celibacy, marriage and divorce and affectional orientation.” The latest, pedophilia, is a mere public rehash of what has been known for centuries.

In his article, “Indulgence,” Hertzberg, also mentions Martin Luther, and that reminds me of words of the religious rebel that I have liked ever since a friend gave me “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” four decades ago: “There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or company than a good marriage.” Or, as he is supposed to have put it in a verse: “He remains a fool his whole life long / Who loves not women, wine, and song.” Women can easily be men, and why not?

Hiroaki Sato is at work on a biography of Yukio Mishima.

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