If the mind has no sexual characteristics why contrast “women’s spirituality” with that of men? I’ve resisted making this comparison for years, debunking the concept of women’s spirituality as “narrow-minded” or “troublemaking.” For many, including myself, it’s painful to even consider the value of taking a clear and discerning look; sometimes I fear I might lose the sense of unity that springs from dharma practice, by overemphasizing the polarity of women versus men.
Throughout most of my life I viewed females and males in opposition: mother versus father; little girls in mommies’ heels versus little boys armed with paper clips, rubber bands and water pistols; bobbysocked teenage girls attracted to and afraid of the strange male beings with faded jeans and Marlboro smiles; ’60s women in the kitchen, cooking and writing flyers, versus the men in the living room “planning” the “revolution”; ’70s women, newly feminist, confronting men in the kitchen, in the streets and everywhere else. What a relief to begin a practice of discovering the mind—beyond oppositions, absolute and all inclusive!
In Women of Wisdom, a collection of biographies of Tibetan female mystics, Tsultrim Allione makes the crucial distinction between the absolute truth of the mind and the relative truths of our individual paths of liberation. This distinction allowed me, for the first time, without ambivalence, to ask myself questions about differences in the spiritual lives of men and women.
Even though I believe that on the absolute level the true nature of mind has no sexual characteristics, on the relative level the means to achieving illumination must be adapted to the individual. The difference between individuals must be appreciated and even celebrated. Women and men are different when we speak from a relative point of view. But how these differences are interpreted and whether these differences are seen positively or negatively is a matter of cultural and religious conditioning.
Tibetan Buddhist teacher, former Buddhist nun, student of Karmapa, Trungpa Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama, Allione explores both the hindrances to and support for practice encountered by women on the spiritual path. She shows the parallels in the experiences of female Buddhist practitioners with the experiences of women in other “patriarchal religions.” She compares what she perceives as Buddhism’s duality with a “feminine” understanding which incorporates opposites in a sacred wholeness.
It is as though the Buddha wanted to be rid of the dark and painful and only experience the light and the blissful, nirvana. There is a tremendous emphasis on going beyond, leaving the world, the ideal state which transcends the patterns of light and dark. Women’s religions tend to incorporate this duality and to hold it sacred. When the duality appears in the men’s religions we usually find that the male is associated with the sky, the spirit and transcendence, and the female nature with worldliness and murky complications.
In her introduction Allione illustrates the cultural imbalance which denies women their equality as spiritual practitioners. At the same time she presents aspects of Tibetan Buddhism which inspire a positive relationship to the “feminine”—the female deities, such as Tara, the Great Mother, and the Prajna Paramita, Profound Cognition; the tantric practice, in which the female and the male principles are understood as currents running through women and men, and the dakini, the dynamic feminine principle the yogic practioner must work with in order to become realized.
Through the lively stories of six Tibetan female mystics from the eleventh century to the present, Allione encourages contemporary women to fully meet and move through difficulties in our spiritual quests.
In order for women to find viable paths to liberation, we need the inspiration of other women who have succeeded in remaining true to their own energies without becoming fixated on their sexual gender and have, with this integrity, reached complete liberation.
Hopefully these biographies of real women, not mythological figures or divinities, can begin to fulfill this need.
While some of the earlier biographies, such as that of Nangsa Obum, devotee of Tara, or Machig Lapdron, founder of the Chad practice,[i] are interwoven with myth—these life stories have a reality which is both grounding and incendiary. I love the zealousness and courage of these women mystics—mostly wanderers, who, after having tried marriage and family, set out on their own and with absolute commitment dedicated their long lives (A-Yu Khadro died in 1953 at 115) to the dharma: sat in caves, lived in cemetaries, practiced with lepers and the dying.
Commitment to practice often meant a tremendous renunciation of what was precious in the lives of these women; they defined themselves in opposition to expected sex roles within their families. Nangsa Obum devoted herself to practice in defiance of pleas from her parents, her husband and her son:
If you really want to practice the Dharma, it is very difficult.
If you think like this why did you have a baby?
Do not try to do what you are not capable of doing,
Practicing the Dharma.
Do what you know how to do.
Be a house wife.
Not only did domestic life make demands and expectations which contradicted practice, but, Allione reminds us, in the monastic community, to this day, nuns have been subordinated to monks.
. . . any nun, no matter what degree of knowledge or realization she possesses, must treat any monk, even the rudest novice, as if he were her senior.
According to Allione, Buddhism is less patriarchal than theistic religions which have a male father God. Nonetheless the social view of the female body as an inferior vehicle for the practice of religion was expressed in the conventions of Hindu society at the time of the Buddha, and perpetrated (albeit in a less prejudiced form) through his teachings. Allione quotes from the “Sutra on Changing the Female Sex”:
The female’s defects—greed, hate and delusion and other defilements—are greater than the male’s . . . Because I wish to be freed from the impurities of the woman’s body, I will acquire the beautiful and fresh body of a male.
If this concept informed the entire picture, Allione might be seen as presenting us with a grim view for the woman practitioner; happily, the picture is informed by other rich and subtle influences.
Tibetan Buddhism combines religious traditions which include Tantric[ii] teachings and the Dzog Chen[iii], in both of which the “practitioner must maintain a relationship to the feminine, otherwise the practice will be blocked.”
It is wonderful to experience the range of female images propagated by the Tantric iconography. Allione shows this “vast assortment” in both the stories of the mystics and in her discussion of Tantra in the introduction.
. . . Western Culture splits the feminine between the prostitute and the madonna, whom we see passively adoring her male offspring. In Tantra we see the emergence of female images which are sexual and spiritual, ecstatic and intelligent, wrathful and peaceful . . .
Through the Tantric imagery women practitioners have been validated, not only as potentially loving, generous, peaceful, but as sexual, angry, forceful—ways of being we are taught to deny and suppress in much of “patriarchal religion.”
The dakini, perhaps the key manifestation of the feminine in Tibetan Buddhism, activates our own energies, and opens the intuitive faculties allowing insight to occur. She appears in ever-changing forms throughout Allione’s introduction and often in the biographies. The dakini’s teachings are transmitted through direct life experiences, in contrast to the more intellectual Sutric teachings.
She may appear as a human being, as a goddess—either peaceful or wrathful—or she may be perceived as the general play of energy in the phenomenal world.
The dakini often appears spontaneously to practitioners in everyday life situations. For example, after contact with the dakini, Naropa, the great scholar, decided to seek his true realization outside of the monastic university.
In her preface Allione writes about the role of the dakini in her own practice.
I realize now that, for me, spirituality is connected to a delicate, playful part of myself which closes up in militantly regimented situations. The more I try to limit my mind in outward forms, the more this subtle energy escapes like a shy young girl. It is as if I need to trust in the vastness of my mind and let go . . . I think that this luminous subtle spiritual energy is what is meant by the dakini principle. She is the key, the gate opener, and the guardian of the unconditioned primordial state which is innate in everyone.
While the path Allione has discovered as her own has a female character, it opens to the unconditioned state which is “innate in everyone” and beyond gender. In offering this book she includes us, as readers, in the play of her own spiritual process. Through bringing us in contact again and again with the dakini she invites us to join the dance, and, each in our way, to activate our own energies for transformation.
[i] In order to develop an understanding of egolessness and to develop compassion for all sentient beings the Chod practitioner uses visualizations to perform offerings of the body—to cut (“Chod literally means ‘to cut’”) attachment to the body and to the ego. The use of sound, which creates a vibration in the body, is intrinsic to Chod practice.
[ii] 2 In the Tantric teachings men and women are made up of both male and female principles, or currents running through their bodies, and “the tantric principles activate and integrate both forces within the individual. These forces also may be polarized though sexual intercourse.”
[iii] Dzog Chen, the most ancient form of meditation in Tibet, teaches that we are already enlightened. “Through transmission from an empowered teacher and working directly with our energy, luminosity and vision are reawakened and the primordial state of illumination shines through.” Dakinis, female spiritual forces, are a key part of the teachings.