Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan

The impulse to believe the absurd when presented with the unknowable is called religion. Whether this is wise or unwise is the domain of doctrine. Once you understand someone's doctrine, you understand their rationale for believing the absurd. At that point, it may no longer seem absurd. You can get to both sides of this conondrum from here.

Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan

Postby admin » Thu Feb 28, 2019 5:33 pm

Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan Buddhism
by June Campbell
© June Campbell 1996




Table of Contents:

1. When Iron Birds Appear
2. Archaic Female Images and Indigenous Culture
3. The Lotus Deity -- A Lost Goddess
4. Monasticism and the Emergence of the Lineage of the Self-Born
5. 'Free of the Womb's Impurities' -- Divine Birth and the Absent Mother
6. At one with the Secret Other
7. A 'Traveller in Space': The Significance of the Dakini and her Sacred Domain
8. The Question of 'Otherness' in Female Representation
9. Perspectives on Culture and Gender
Notes and References
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Re: Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibe

Postby admin » Thu Feb 28, 2019 5:35 pm


I am grateful to the following people who have helped me realise this project. First of all, I wish to thank Benedetta Gaetani for helping to create the circumstances in which I could find time to write, and also for her valued friendship, encouragement, and financial support during the years in which this work was brought to fruition. I also thank Frances, Alastair and Elison Campbell for their support over many years, and Sophie Bentinck, Joaquin Canizares and Jennifer Batty for their very helpful individual contributions in supporting the development of my work. I am grateful to Valerie Allen and Angela Smith of the English Department at Stirling University for appreciating my writing, and to Mary Daly for encouraging my work. My thanks also to Maria Phylactou who provided very helpful comments on the text, and advice on editing, and to Brian Southam of The Athlone Press for recognising that this book was worthwhile.
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Re: Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibe

Postby admin » Thu Feb 28, 2019 5:39 pm


Amitabha The Buddha of Pure Light, one of five primordial Buddhas of the five directions, whose family colour is red, and whose symbol is the lotus.

Bon The religion which existed in Tibet prior to Buddhism, and whose main structures and iconography were adapted by the Buddhists.

Buddha The. historical figure of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as Sakyamuni Buddha, born in India in 583 BC. Lived and preached throughout India and Nepal, reaching enlightenment under a Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya in Bihar State, India.

Chenrezig The central Tibetan deity, the Buddha of Compassion, who is said to be incarnate in the Dalai Lama. His mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is to be found carved in stones, placed in prayer wheels, and recited daily by all Tibetans. Also known by his Sanskrit name Avolokiteswara.

Dakini The female deity who is represented in the iconography as naked and dancing, and whose role is traditionally to clear obstacles on the religious path, and provide insight into the nature of mind. She may appear as human, taking a variety of forms, from crone to virgin or sexual consort. Her name literally means sky or space-goer.

Dharma The teaching of the Buddha, the doctrine, or law.

Dharmadhatu The ideal realm of the Absolute.

Dolma The Tibetan 'mother goddess', also known by her Sanskrit name, Tara.

Emptiness The central concept of the Mahayana traditions, known in Sankrit as sunyata and in Tibetan as tong pa nyi which proposes that all phenomena are without substantiality, and non-dual in nature.

Hinayana The Sanskrit term for the Tibetan Thegpa chung chung, literally 'small vehicle', which describes the major traditions of Buddhism otherwise known as Theravada. These traditions are practised in countries such as Sri Lanka and Thailand and favour monasticism and the gaining of merit through meditation and good deeds, as the basis of Buddhist practice. They reflect most closely the original teachings of the Buddha

Karma Action, or the law of cause and effect.

Kuan- Yin Chinese lotus goddess and goddess of compassion.

Lama The name given to a priest in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, usually a tulku (recognised reincarnation), but also given to one who has shown great scholarship or success in meditation.

Mahayana The Sanskrit term for the Tibetan Thegpa Chenpo, or 'great vehicle', which describes the traditions of Buddhism practised in Japan, China and areas of Southeast Asia, and which hold to the doctrines of emptiness and compassion. Practitioners of this tradition vow not to enter into the state of nirvana for the sake of all sentient beings.

Mantra Sanskrit formula which is repeated or chanted, and which relates to a particular deity.

Mahamudra Sanskrit "term for the Tibetan Chaja Chenpo, which is considered to be the highest realisation of the Tibetan tradition, in which the meditator experiences 'one-taste', i.e. no differentiation between mind and phenomena.

Mudra Sanskrit term which signifies both a gesture, and a female consort.

Padmasambhava 'Lotus Born' teacher who is said to have introduced Buddhism into Tibet. Known in Tibet as Guru Rinpoche (Precious Teacher).

Prajnaparamita Name of the Buddhist Sutra which expounds the teaching on emptiness. Also applied to the Great Mother, as the embodiment of emptiness.

Sakti Female principle or power, also sexual consort

Sutra The name given to the discourses thought to have been given by the Buddha himself

Tantra Ancient practices which involved yoga, sexual ritual and meditation, central to certain forms of Hinduism and to Tibetan Buddhism.

Tulku A child chosen to be enthroned in a position of religious power, in the belief that he (rarely she) is the reincarnation of a lama who has died, or of a divinity.

Vajrayana The Sanskrit term for the Tibetan Sang Nga Dorje Thegpa, 'the adamantine or diamond vehicle', the tradition of Buddhism practised in Tibet which incorporates the Hinayana and Mahayana, together with Tantric Buddhism.
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Re: Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibe

Postby admin » Thu Feb 28, 2019 5:55 pm

Introduction: Tibetan Buddhism's Encounter With the West

Before embarking on my search for female identity in Tibetan Buddhism, it is necessary to present to the reader the context of this work, together with the theoretical approaches which I have used in writing it. On the face of it, a study of a particular aspect of any religion may seem straightforward enough, but in this case, the complexities are many. First of all, despite the fact that Buddhism has become popular as a religious practice in the west, the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism are little known generally, and are often the subject of much imaginative speculation and misunderstanding, because of what has been written about Tibet, its landscape, religion and people, in the past. Secondly, although the major focus of the book is a search for female identity in Tibetan Buddhism, this does not mean that the book is purely about specific female symbols, or indeed about the lives of specific women, but rather it examines the historical and institutional context of the religion, as a means of analysing and understanding the Tibetan religious philosophy of the female. As part of my analysis I have had to take into account the contemporary encounter of Tibetan Buddhism with the west, and the implications of that encounter, particularly in the light of the importance placed by Tibetan Buddhists on the centrality of sexual imagery in their religious icons and texts.

There can be few people in the west who, on hearing the name of Tibet, do not conjure up pictures in their minds of vast mountainous landscapes, mysterious Buddhist monasteries and magical rituals. I was certainly one of them, and at the early age of ten decided that one day I would travel to Tibet and become a Buddhist. As it turned out, only one of my wishes came true, for in 1959 the Chinese Government annexed Tibet and it became virtually closed to outside visitors, and the Tibetan religious traditions were severely repressed by the communist regime which replaced the ancient theocracy. At the outset, however, the heads of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism (the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug) fled into exile in India with about 80,000 followers, and there they established new monasteries in their refugee communities which kept alive the spirit and traditions of their homeland. Two young Tibetan lamas of the Kagyu lineage eventually found their way to the United Kingdom, and in 1967 opened the first Tibetan religious centre in the west, in the borders of Scotland, where I met them the following year, and became a Buddhist by 'taking refuge'.1 Shortly afterwards, I set out for the foothills of the Himalayas to a nunnery run by a small community of Tibetans in exile and it was there that I began my studies of the Tibetan language and the philosophy of Buddhism, known as the dharma. Much later, in the 1970s, I travelled throughout Europe and North America as a Tibetan interpreter, providing the link, through language, between my lama-guru and his many students. Subsequently he requested that I become his sexual consort, and take part in secret activities with him, despite the fact that to outsiders he was a very high-ranking yogi-lama of the Kagyu lineage who, as abbot of his own monastery, had taken vows of celibacy. Given that he was one of the oldest lamas in exile at that time, had personally spent fourteen years in solitary retreat, and counted amongst his students the highest ranking lamas in Tibet, his own status was unquestioned in the Tibetan Community, and his holiness attested to by all. As I describe in Chapter 6, these events took place under unusual conditions, and were to have a profound effect on my whole relationship with the Tibetan Buddhist religion.

Since these early days, hundreds of dharma centres have been established by Tibetans all over the world, their assets running into billions of dollars,2 and their prominence ever increasing as the teachings of Buddhism gain popularity in the west. This process, set in motion by the Chinese political actions of the 1950s, gave people across the world access to a religious tradition which had been largely hidden for centuries by the geographical inaccessibility of Tibet. What was particularly remarkable about this series of events was that in a relatively short space of time, the highest Tibetan lamas in exile managed to establish alternative sources of income and support across the globe, in sharp contrast to many other political refugees all over the world who have faced a more terrible fate. One of the reasons for the extraordinary success of the Tibetans in gaining financial support from westerners was the upsurge of interest in the west in the Buddhist religion. The Tibetans capitalised on this, not only in order to open the doors of their traditional Buddhist way of life to those who sought that knowledge, and certainly not solely as a proselytising exercise (for strictly speaking they do not believe in missionary work), but in order to keep their own culture and belief system alive outside of Tibet. While the Chinese zealously imposed their values and the principles of communism on the non-secular society that was Tibet, the Tibetans in exile, alarmed at the prospect of the destruction of their culture, set out to sustain their tradition outwith its societal context. This situation led to the establishing, by the diaspora, of the unusual structures and institutions of Tibetan Buddhism not only in many developing countries in Asia, but also within the context of many western societies throughout the world. This unique juncture of events which involved the movement of people, ideas, institutions and culture across continents, brought about a moment in the history of the Tibetan civilisation of the last thousand years, in which, at worst, the extinction of its ancient culture was faced, or at the very least the social structures and geographical grandeur of Tibet and its landscape would no longer be the primary context in which Tibetan Buddhism thrived.

In considering the potential value of my study of Tibetan Buddhism, it is certainly the case that the promotion of any religious system, which purports to contain truths of universal relevance, outside of the cultural environment in which that system first evolved, is a subject worthy of debate. Furthermore, as I hope to show, the particularly unique relationship between the institutional structures of their society, their religious beliefs, and the consequential effects on notions of female identity, make this debate very interesting, and all the more so since many western men have achieved positions of power within the Tibetan Buddhist institution. The historical events of 1959, which eventually brought about the widespread study of Tibetan Buddhism by westerners, meant that the teachings of the lamas began to be transmitted in cultural environments vastly different to the ones visited by earlier western Tibetologists and orientalists. For the Tibetans, however, there was naturally a problem in the transmission of their teachings outwith their societal structures, a problem which had the potential to lead to enormous cross-cultural misunderstandings and misgivings.

As a largely oral tradition, (indeed the name of one of the schools -- the Kagyu (Tibetan ka. rgyud) -- literally means 'lineage by mouth'), the Tibetan religion was always under the threat of degeneration, once its institutions left Tibet. This threat hovers over all fragile, oral cultures, for as John Potter has remarked 'Oral cultures are capable of immense sophistication, and tend to become visible only when they come into contact with the literate genres that are destined to replace them'.3 The Tibetan culture may not have been totally 'invisible', although some might argue that it was, but it was certainly remote, and as such did not come into contact with many areas of the world until it was forced into the international arena when the Chinese attempted to replace the religious culture with the dogmas of communism. As for the question of the western 'literate genres' with which it has come into contact, it remains to be seen whether 'replacement' or evolution of the Tibetan Buddhist culture will take place. What is sure is that those aspects of the religious tradition which find little resonance in the mores of western society will be discussed, criticised, debated and perhaps even attacked,4 whilst those aspects which may add something to the contemporary understanding of human nature will be valorised, or 'revalorised', as the feminist-Buddhist Rita Gross has attempted in her book on Buddhism.5

There is no doubt that the greatest danger to their cultural tradition is the threat to the continuation of their religious institutions whose traditions have depended on the very old practice of selecting a child to replace a dead lama of high status, and for that child to be considered his 'incarnation'. These reincarnate lamas, (known as tulkus, Tibetan sprul.sku) who hold immense spiritual and political power, maintained their status in Tibetan culture through the common belief in their actual divinity. It is these positions which will certainly be under threat should the practice, already begun by the Tibetans themselves,6 of choosing western boys (or even girls as is suggested by some feminist Buddhists)7 to be enthroned as the reincarnations of dead Tibetan lamas, and to head Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and religious centres throughout the world, continue or increase. Additionally, there is a possibility that the global forces of secularism and materialism may overpower the spiritual dimension of the oral tradition which rested comfortably in the high plateaux of Tibet, and that the Tibetans themselves may be willing participants in a process which ultimately swallows up their culture. If Tibetan lamas themselves succumb to the pressures of western materialism, or if the highest positions of power are gradually taken over by western 'incarnations', there seems little doubt that the traditions of the Vajrayana8 will alter radically.


Clearly, it would be impossible here to examine the many and varied facets of Tibetan Buddhism in any great depth. However, for those completely unfamiliar with the teachings of this form of Buddhism, I will set out the most basic elements of the religion, specifying those areas which make it so different from other forms of Buddhism, and highlight the points which I consider the most relevant in the context of this book. The first few chapters of the book will then elucidate the unique features I discuss here, and place their development within an historical context. Certainly there are many aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, the Vajrayana, which are familiar to people who know anything about Buddhism in general -- e.g. the belief in karma, in reincarnation, in the practice of non-violence to all living beings, in the non-existence of a distinct self, and in meditation as a means to achieve spiritual realisation. These beliefs and principles are upheld by all Buddhists in the many countries which practise Buddhism, but each tradition developed in a different way, and placed emphasis on different aspects of the teachings which the Buddha himself was said to have transmitted.

Most people are also aware that Buddhism has a very strong monastic tradition, and that this tradition reflects the emphasis which Buddhists often place on the renunciation of desire as the key component in religious practice. Monasticism became the main basis of the Theravada tradition which is found in countries such as Sri Lanka and Thailand, but was also a major component in the other traditions, including that of Tibet which had a monastic and a lay priesthood. The position of Tibetan Buddhist nuns, however, was traditionally one of inferiority, partly because the female lineage which allowed for full ordination did not evolve in Tibet, and therefore their status was lower than that of the men, and secondly because few women were given access to the scholarly tradition.

Buddhism itself is founded upon The Four Noble Truths of the historical figure of the Buddha, who began his life as an Indian prince, and after many years of ascetic practice and meditation achieved 'enlightenment' under a bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, in the Indian state of Bihar, in the fifth century BC. He stated, after his 'enlightenment', that all life is unsatisfactory, that the cause of this is desire, that the cessation of desire brings about unlimited happiness or nirvana, and that the path to achieving enlightenment, free of suffering, is to follow his eightfold path. The path itself sets out certain moral, ethical and spiritual guidelines for achieving liberation from the cycle of existence (samsara), where that liberation is also characterised by complete knowledge. This is all reflected in the title 'Buddha', which has the same meaning in its Tibetan form, Sanje (Tibetan sangs.rgyas), the two syllables of which mean 'completely purified'.

Tibetan Buddhism, however, contains a second strand of teachings which it has in common with the traditions of other countries such as Japan and Korea. This aspect of Buddhism relates to a belief in the existence of 'bodhisattvas' (Tibetan Changchub Sempa; or saintly practitioners who renounce their entry into nirvana for the sake of all sentient beings, and thereafter are reborn again and again, taking any expedient bodily form in order to hasten the enlightenment of others.
A central aspect of Tibetan Buddhist meditation is the engendering of such an attitude for the sake of others. Of the texts which make up this form of Buddhist practice, known as the Sutra path, whose main focus is altruism, the corpus known as the Prajnaparamita has a major place in Tibetan Buddhism, teaching as it does 'a nonsystematic religious philosophy, fervent in devotion and rich in poetic expression, centring on the notion that all is Emptiness'.9 One of the most interesting philosophical schools concerned with Emptiness, or the non-substantiality of all phenomena (even mind itself), is the Madhyamika, the 'middle way', whose major proponent, an Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, stated that 'any philosophical view could be refuted, [and] that one must not dwell upon any answer or description of reality, whether extreme or moderate, including the notion of "one-mind"'.10

Philosophies such as these underpin the techniques of meditation which Tibetan Buddhists enter into as part of the more advanced forms of practice such as the Mahamudra (Tibetan Chaja Chenpo, phyag.rgya.chen.po.), which seeks to develop a realisation of the nature of mind itself. But before embarking on such kinds of meditation which aim to reach the depths of human insight and understanding, certain preliminary practices, together with the necessity of complete devotion to a lama or guru, are considered essential. It is in these areas of the Vajrayana practice, which relate to the ancient and complex Hindu philosophy known as the 'Tantra', that one finds the unique nature of Tibetan Buddhism, which differentiates it from the other forms found elsewhere in the world. The Tantric aspect of the Vajrayana involves a rich and colourful pantheon of deities in its iconography, and teachings which are considered extremely risky to undertake, yet so efficacious if practised correctly, that they are reputed to lead to enlightenment in one lifetime. In essence, the Buddhist Tantra makes use of the notion that to enlist the passions in one's religious practice, rather than avoid them, is a potent way to realise the basic non-substantiality of all phenomena.

The Buddhist Tantric deities are invoked and visualised in meditation, and practitioners identify with them in such a way as to enable them not only to be released from the limitations of ego-clinging, but also to transmute the various mind poisons into various forms of wisdom or enlightenment which the deities represent. This kind of practice is reputed to help break the boundaries between 'self' and 'other' and ultimately between all dualities which are experienced as part of mundane existence. The highest form of such realisation is said only to come about through the secret Tantric practices which involve sexual relations,
and which are depicted iconographically in many religious paintings and images. Amongst celibate practitioners, and the 'not-so-advanced', these actions are visualised in the mind during meditation, as a way of experiencing the 'non-dual' through the images of the dual.

On becoming a Tibetan Buddhist, most lay practitioners receive some basic teachings concerning faith, non-violence and karma, and may be given a simple mantra to recite in order to increase compassion towards others. The most commonly recited mantra is Om Mani Padme Hum, whose meaning I discuss in some detail in Chapter 3. Those who seek to practice meditation at a more advanced level must undergo a rigorous training which involves four foundational practices, each of which must be done 100,000 times. The first involves a metaphorical enactment of the devotion and submission of the practitioner to the central pillars of Tibetan Buddhism, which are represented by the lama-gura in a deified form, the Buddha, his teaching, the community of practitioners, and the deities who make up the protectors and guides whose purpose is to clear obstacles on the path. The submission to and veneration of them is carried out by the performance of 100,000 actual body prostrations and recitations of a prayer. This practice normally takes some time to complete, but is usually undertaken over several months. The second foundational practice is the recitation of 100,000 mantras of the deity Dorje Sempa, together with a visualisation which is aimed at purifying previous negative karma accumulated over many lifetimes. Finally the lama himself is worshipped in a devotional prayer which is recited 100,000 times, in order to increase faith and total submission of the ego to the religious lineage of which the lama is a representative. According to the Tibetan belief, all teachings which are given by the lamas of the lineage are said to have been transmitted in an unbroken oral tradition which began with the Buddha himself, and all of which therefore originated in India.

Following these events, the practitioner is then considered a fit vessel for receiving more elaborate and detailed teachings, and is also eligible for 'initiation' into the Tantric practices whereby identification with the divine and transcendental bodies of deities may be carried out in meditation, in order to develop insight as to the nature of the mind. In tandem with these kinds of practices, the initiate may undertake special forms of developing the mind through concentrative meditation, the enhancement of deep insight and the development of discriminatory awareness. It is within the framework of the more advanced teachings that the notion of the lama or guru becomes crucial in Tibetan Buddhism, and the nature of guru-devotion potentially problematic. In a preface to the Mahamudra teachings of the 9th Karmapa Lama, it is written,

Guru-devotion involves both your thoughts and actions. The most important thing is to develop the total conviction that your Guru is a Buddha .... If you doubt your Guru's competence and ability to guide you, your practices will be extremely unstable and you will be unable to make any concrete progress.11

Whilst the Tibetans themselves rarely have a problem with this kind of approach, because of their own cultural background in which the lamas were held in awesome regard, in a western context the concept of viewing any human as totally divine poses problems, and this is especially so if the lama invokes the use of sexual relations with a student as a means of either furthering his own practice, or alleging spiritual benefit for the woman concerned. Leaving aside for the moment the question of what so-called 'advanced' sexual practices actually entail, the difficulties for any student involved in Tibetan Buddhism are highlighted in this statement by the Tibetan lama Beru Kyhentze Rinpoche on the importance of guru-devotion,

If your Guru acts in a seemingly unenlightened manner and you feel it would be hypocritical to think him a Buddha, you should remember that your own opinions are unreliable and the apparent faults you see may only be a reflection of your own deluded state of mind. Also you should think that if your Guru acted in a completely perfect manner, he would be inaccessible and you would be unable to relate to him. It is therefore out of your Guru's great compassion that he may show apparent flaws. This is part of his use of skilful means in order for him to be able to teach you. He is mirroring your own faults. 12 (Italics mine)

The consequences of the failure to see the guru as Buddha are also elaborated by Kyhentze, when he points out that the adherence to a view of lama-as-Buddha most certainly brings the practitioner closer to enlightenment, whereas any negativity directed towards the lama-guru results in going further away from enlightenment and in 'intense suffering' for the student.13 As Kyhentze is at pains to point out, guru-devotion is much more essential in the Tantric path than in the Sutra path, and is therefore considered the central pillar of the Tibetan Vajrayana.


In order to enter the debate on gender, sexuality and religion in the field of Tibetan Buddhist studies, I have drawn upon several disparate bodies of knowledge, and in particular have utilised the theoretical approaches of feminism and psychoanalysis, alongside my knowledge as a Tibetan scholar and translator. This work follows the interpretative books of Robert A. Paul, who made an orthodox Freudian analysis of the Tibetan religious culture, in The Tibetan Symbolic World, and of Peter Bishop who intuitively realised the imaginative role which Tibet has played in the minds of westerners, in The Myth of Shangri-La and Dreams of Power. Bishop in particular was aware of the cross-cultural dimension in his work, and as a Buddhist saw the need for debate between east and west, if Tibetan Buddhism were to be of value: 'Tibetan Buddhism' he wrote, 'must be in contact with the pathologies of the West if it is to have any real effect'.14 Both these books, whilst fascinating and instructive, failed however to consider in any depth the problem of female identity, concerned as they were with the male-dominated power structures of Tibet and the psyches of men. Instead, the problem area of women in the Tibetan system and the symbolism pertaining to them has been taken up by western Buddhists who have presented two different and fairly conservative perspectives. Firstly, autobiographical accounts of the lives, works and historical significance of Tibetan women practitioners (e.g. Tsultrim Allione's Women of Wisdom, Hanna Havnevik's Tibetan Buddhist Nuns, Keith Dowman's Sky Dancer), and of Tantric female 'masters' (Miranda Shaw's Passionate Enlightenment) certainly address the question of the recognition of the contribution of women and their insertion into the historical accounts of Tibetan Buddhism's evolution. What they show is that there is evidence that the status of women was once different within Tibetan Buddhism from what it is now, and that women have, despite the social difficulties of their lives, been diligent scholars and practitioners. What they fail to convey, however, is the process by which many of the very early achievements were eroded and how the female became 'fixed' in a different and inferior position which was reflected both in the textual philosophy and her position within the religious institutions.

Secondly, other writers have exposed the anomalies in the Tibetan system vis-a-vis women's position, taking a feminist standpoint in their critique of the institutions and of the philosophies, which though patently egalitarian in nature, do not translate into the social and religious structures of Tibetan society. Rita Gross's work, Buddhism after Patriarchy, whilst not exclusively dealing with Tibetan Buddhism, does however raise many of the issues which I discuss here, principally those of the philosophy concerning gender in the Vajrayana, and the future of Tibetan Buddhism in its meeting with western culture, particularly feminist thought. Gross proposes 'a feminist revalorization'15 of Buddhism through the insertion of women into the historical framework, valuing the 'feminine principle', and reassessing the key concepts in Buddhism concerning gender. She also puts forward her 'solution' to the woman question, by proposing androgynous institutions as a way in which Buddhism could be assimilated into the ethos of contemporary western culture.

Whilst I review some of Gross's ideas in this work, my contribution to the debate is not so much about uncovering women's history, or in finding strategies for equality, but rather in questioning the notions of female identity and subjectivity, as found within the Tibetan tradition, and trying to relate these to the contemporary western debate on gender, sexuality and religion. My project has been twofold. Firstly I wished to enter the debate which became inevitable when westerners gained full access to the secret world of Tibetan Buddhism, and to do so by using not only my knowledge and experience of Buddhism and the Tibetan language, but also my understanding of certain western theoretical perspectives. Given the serious questions which have been made public concerning the role, power and status of Vajrayana lamas in the west, and their potential abuse of that power, I wanted to offer an analysis of the institutions of Tibetan Buddhism, which might facilitate cross-cultural debate. This kind of debate would involve the different meanings which can be attached to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, and the dynamic which occurs between different cultures where the encounter between them involves teachings which relate to gender difference and sexuality.

Secondly, the focus of my attention, the quest for female identity in Tibetan Buddhism, is based undeniably on my own position and past experience as a woman within Tibetan Buddhism and is the expression of a kind of female desire which seeks to name itself. As someone who initially left her homeland in an idealistic search for spiritual meaning, my own position as a female in an environment dominated by celibate men, led me to reflect on the religious 'truths' and symbolism concerning the female, that were presented to me in the Buddhist context. In this book I have tried to make sense of the notion of female identity as an important aspect of comparative religious study and of cross-cultural debate, and have chosen to use the metaphor 'traveller in space' in order to reflect the different layers of meaning which emerge when a search for female identity is undertaken.

The title of the book therefore, can be read in different ways. Primarily it is a translation of a Tibetan word which portrays the essential female aspect within the religion, and in Chapter 7 I explore its etymology in some depth. In addition, however, woman as a 'traveller in space' can be read in western historical terms as a non-fixed subject, who has been largely hidden from history, lacks real equality, and is unable to be located in the 'space' of philosophy. Her position, therefore, whilst absent from major patriarchal discourse, is none the less not static, for women participate in the endless journey of humanity alongside men, and do so through the unique perspective which having a female body brings. Finally, the term 'space travel' in itself suggests something not just of space and its vastness, but also of time, particularly of the future. Space travel implies the exploration of unknown territory, which takes place in a future dimension which itself is outwith the bounds of ordinary human knowledge. This exploration of the unknown is akin to the metaphysical journey which is involved in all endeavours of the human spirit, when individuals attempt to understand the realms of the human psyche, or the unconscious. Such exploration in the somewhat risky areas of the unknown signifies dimensions of reality with which we have barely begun to come to grips, and emphasises the intimate relationship between the human body and the powers of the mind to create these journeys.

In the past, westerners projected their fantasies of the unknown and the undiscovered onto places such as Tibet, and it is no coincidence that the early explorers identified and were particularly excited about the Tibetan yogis who were said to have been adepts at lung gom (air meditation), which supposedly gave them the power to travel rapidly over the earth without touching the ground. In many accounts of Tibetan life, early western writers recounted stories of how lamas could 'fly through space'. The romanticism of this idea fitted well with other notions of 'Shangri-La', which represented the ultimate fantasy of having the ability to be in a place where the unknown could be known, and the physical body transcended. But another aspect of the power to travel in space is the commonly perceived association with the breaking of barriers ('space -- the final frontier') and the ability to communicate at levels different from those we know now. In the future, 'virtual reality', the communications 'net' and the 'superhighway' promise to make us all 'travellers in space', or at least give us multiple possibilities concerning 'identity'. We are now facing a technological revolution which may be a part of that journey into unknown territory, where it is conceivable that the female symbolic, as it has been articulated so far, and as a manifestation of a dying world-view, will finally disappear along with other detrimental barriers between beings of all kinds.

A final consideration on the context of the cross-cultural debate is the question of 'orientalism' and the dangers which emerge when a study such as this is undertaken. In his book Orientalism, Edward Said criticises the role of those in the west who have written of the orient in such a way as to promote 'racial, ideological, and imperialist stereotypes'.16 He clearly identifies the 'powerful series of political and ultimately ideological realities (which) inform scholarship',17 and concludes that it may be in the field of the 'human sciences' that the insights which are lacking in traditional orientalism may be found. Said points out the kinds of ideologies which posit the notion of the 'other' as alien, and therefore inferior, as manifesting in the orientalist tradition in splits of east/west, north/south, have/have-not, imperialist/anti-imperialist, and white/black. He does not include in this list, however, the question of the gender split as equally significant.

None the less, in his analysis of the 'orientalist' view of women, he concedes three important points. Firstly, that orientalism was 'an exclusively male province';18 secondly that the women described by orientalists were subsequently and inevitably 'the creatures of a male power-fantasy';19 and thirdly, that orientalists linked 'the Oriental to elements in Western society (delinquents, the insane, women, the poor), having in common an identity best described as lamentably alien (italics mine).20 Peter Bishop also takes up this point by describing the orientalists' view of the orient as 'feminine', and Tibet in particular as 'a symbol of Otherness'.21 As a woman writer, my position enables me to counteract all these approaches to some extent, and I have made extensive use of the human sciences in order to redress the balance of the orientalist approach which, according to Said, 'failed to identify with human experience' (italics mine).22

In this context I would present my work as an analysis of the dynamic between people, cultures and belief systems, and would suggest that my position as a woman, having experienced the limitations and authority imposed by patriarchal modes of thought in the west and with the Tibetans, is recognised as a significant factor in this study. As I have pointed out, the situation concerning study of the Tibetan religious institution is complex, for in taking the unusual step of deliberately placing westerners in positions of power within these institutions, through 'recognising' western boys as incarnations of recently dead Tibetan lamas, the Tibetans themselves have shown that their desire to integrate Tibetan Buddhism into the west is very serious indeed. By so doing they initiated a process which has inevitably brought about a debate on the evolution of their unique system in the west.


The two main strands of theory which have informed my work are feminist thought and psychoanalysis, both of which have different and separate histories, yet have also found a convergence in the work of contemporary theorists, such as Luce lrigaray, Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous, although all of them find the use of the word 'feminist' problematic.23 I have used their work primarily because it provides a certain context within which the more complex questions of female identity can be addressed, and because each of them has articulated, in their own very different ways, the enormous difficulties involved in any kind of search for 'female identity'. In order therefore to locate the theoretical perspectives which I have used in this work, it may be useful first of all to contextualise them within the evolutionary processes of the two 'waves of feminism', which brought about different manifestations of feminist theory, and then to specify the particular aspects of their approaches which I found useful.

The 'first wave' of feminism attempted to locate women in history, and also sought to establish equal rights for women through parliamentary, constitutional, political and institutional change. This movement had its roots in the liberalism of the nineteenth century, and was strongly identified with Marxist ideology. Its impetus challenged, with some success, all the powerful western institutions and male edifices of its time -- in education, law, politics and, to some extent, religion. The so-called 'second wave', on the other hand, was born largely after the political movements of the 1960s, and was heavily influenced by the writings of Freud and by twentieth-century socialism. These dual influences created an analytical and aesthetic ambience in which many feminists withdrew their demands for a place in historical or linear time, in order to create a uniquely female space, where female identity was not required to be projected and justified, as in previous times. The second movement, having developed a different concept of itself, its subjectivity, and therefore its relation to temporality, reflected a growing distrust of political initiatives and solutions. Its main preoccupations became, according to Kristeva, specificity and difference, as opposed to equality, and brought with it more global awareness and concern for socio-cultural cohesion through the recognition and acceptance of wider issues, to do with reproduction, life and death. These moral issues related more specifically to the survival of the species than to the earlier universal and nationalistic concerns over the modes of production in society, and were linked to an upsurge in interest in marginal movements concerned with such things as spirituality and ecology.

Kristeva's critique of the two movements notes that the first movement was constructed within the confines of history, linear time, the symbolic order of the patriarchy, and therefore of language, whilst the second movement attempted to place itself outside the patriarchal order of its time by seeking to establish a radical change in gender relations, and an entirely new language in which women's experiences and desires would be inscribed. In her essay Women's Time, Kristeva maintains that, in the end, both movements achieved limited success, because each contained within it a relationship to the symbolic contract,24 which was ultimately self-defeating. The first movement invested in the social order by pursuing positions of power for women, but nothing changed as these women were ingested into the system, and in some cases ended up becoming 'the pillars of the existing governments, guardians of the status quo, the most zealous protectors of the established order'.25 On the other hand, the second-wave feminists, by focusing on the specificity of the female subject, through writing, representations, and a devotion to archaic images of the maternal, failed to acknowledge the multiplicity of background, experience and need to be found amongst women themselves. Nonetheless, the impact of the two waves of feminism had a considerable effect on the institutions of western society and on issues concerning gender relations.

In her vision of the nature of the future debate on feminism, however, Kristeva proposes a 'third wave' or a 'third attitude'26 in which a new generation may be able to adopt a new position, which, though different from the first two waves of feminism, nevertheless would not reject them out of hand, but encompass their ideals within the philosophical debate on gender and difference. At the heart of her argument is the importance of the psychoanalytic view of sexual difference, and therefore of the relationship between the psychopathology of the individual, and society. Her hope is that through the convergence of the third attitude together with an enactment of both kinds of approach to women's relationship to the symbolic order, i.e. the insertion into history, and the identification with all marginal movements, 'the very dichotomy man/woman as an opposition between two rival entities may be understood as belonging to metaphysics' (italics original).27 Furthermore, her view of women's special relationship with the semiotic leads her to suggest that all forms of academic and aesthetic practice which expose the socio-symbolic order as a 'sacrificial contract',28 which women 'are forced to experience ... against their will', 29 would change the very future of the species.

The work of Luce lrigaray, which also uses a psychoanalytical approach, is primarily concerned with difference, and of the importance of the accession by women to female subjectivity. She exposes the double bind which is present when any attempt to define 'woman' is made, by demonstrating that to do so would be to remain within the context of the phallocentric system of representation, but to fail to do so would allow for anything to be projected on to her. Whilst many seek to accuse lrigaray of 'essentialism' in her work (because of her quest for female genealogies and the acknowledgement of female difference), these accusations are counteracted by her strategic proposal not to reverse the current ideologies in order to favour women, nor even to elaborate a new theory, but rather to engage in a process of 'jamming the theoretical machinery itself'.30 Women, she suggests, should not join logical discourse about the category 'woman' but repeat and interpret the ways in which the feminine is always depicted as a lack or deficiency. This kind of approach, which attempts to 'slip' the oppositional dualities inscribed in language and patriarchal philosophy, would come about, she maintains, by the disruption of dichotomies. It would bring about an argument in which 'Nothing is ever to be posited that is not also reversed and caught up again in the supplementarity of this reversal' (italics original).31 Once engaged in this kind of discourse, she says, 'There would no longer be either a right or a wrong side of discourse, or even of texts'.32 Both lrigaray and Helene Cixous imagine a potential relation between the sexes which does not deny difference. Cixous places her psychoanalytic emphasis on women's sexuality, and its omission from patriarchal discourse. Her response to the question of female equality is to propose new kinds of discourses which can be expressed through 'feminine' writing. 'For Cixous the Unconscious is always a cultural phenomenon ... a product of a masculine imaginary'.33 Her work therefore makes a link between culture and sexuality, and the need for expressions of the female libido in all aspects of culture, particularly writing.

The theoretical approaches I have taken in this book reflect the main concerns of these three philosophers. I have attempted, in accordance with Kristeva's view, to adopt a 'third attitude' by including perspectives which are drawn from the first two waves of feminism, but are located within and alongside my metaphysical argument about female identity. These perspectives include: a critique of patriarchal institutions, the insertion of female experience into history, and the acknowledgement of archaic images of the maternal. They form not only part of the debate on female specificity and difference, but are also the means through which the metaphysical questions concerning woman and man can be addressed, particularly through the writing of a 'feminine' imaginary. It has not been my aim to undertake a 'reconstruction' of Buddhism in order to establish female equality within the institutions of Buddhism, nor to seek to justify that women are as important as men within the Tibetan system, because that work has been undertaken by others. My aim has been to address some of the complexities surrounding the search for meaning in the ways in which female identity has been constructed and interpreted within the Tibetan system, and why the Tibetan system has remained theocratic rather than democratic. This has seemed particularly important in the light of Tibetan Buddhism's encounter with the west, and the ramifications of its use of the sexual metaphor, within a different cultural context. Whilst I do include a critique of the institutions, and examine some aspects of women's lives, my main focus has been the metaphysical question concerning identity. My conclusions concerning female equality within Buddhism emerge, therefore, not from finding strategies for adapting teachings to include women and rationalise the gender question, but rather from raising the controversial question of whether after patriarchy any religions, as we now know them, could possibly survive in a recognisable form.

To begin the task of unravelling the idiosyncracies of the Tibetan view, vis-a-vis female identity, I firstly examine the historical links of Tibetan Buddhism with the west and set out some of the problematic areas of female identity as they were commonly represented in texts, including the use of language. In Chapter 2 I begin the search for the roots of female symbolism by examining some of the remnants of historical evidence pertaining to the emergence of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. I acknowledge the many cross-cultural factors of pre-Buddhistic times, including the impact of many belief systems, not least those from neighbouring Persia, on the development of the first-recorded indigenous belief system of Tibet (Bon), and the adoption of Tantric practices from India. As I show, these influences, themselves arising from the almost universal and ancient cult of the Great Mother, became deeply embedded in cultural practices some of which have survived in diluted, yet recognisable form, till modern times. I argue that because of Tibet's geographical remoteness, many ancient cultural features, which were lost to other traditions, retained their potency in Tibet, and that some of the symbolism pertaining to the female in Tibetan Buddhism has its origins in these pre-Buddhist times.

As an example of the kind of influences which pre-dated Buddhism in Tibet, I trace, in Chapter 3, the evolution of the Lotus Deity, now the most important (and male) deity of the Tibetan pantheon, in his form as Chenrezig. I show how the deity, originally female, and an aspect of the Great Mother, underwent a gender change during the period when Buddhism emerged in Tibet, and as a result changed meaning, iconographically. This, I argue, led to an absence of representations of the essentialist female-as-herself in Tibetan imagery.
In order to understand the context in which this important transformation took place, I go on in Chapter 4 to examine the theocracy of Tibet and its unique power structures, the place of women in them, and the relationship between the theocracy and the iconography. I maintain that the introduction of the tulku system of reincarnate lamas in Tibet in the early thirteenth century promoted the idea of the enlightened male subject, to accommodate the doctrine concerning the rule of the 'divine lama-king' and as a result further weakened the potentially positive images of the female in the iconography. In Chapter 5 I look at the symbolic position of the mother of the 'Divine Lama-King', whose representational absence in the system, I argue, is a key factor in its maintenance.

In Chapter 6 I discuss the links between the 'non-presence' of the female-as-herself and the existence of the secret female consort (Tibetan gsang. yum.)34 within the Tibetan theocratic system, taking into account not only the relevance of sexuality to the basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, but also the motivating factors which existed in order to perpetuate secrecy. In addition I consider the implications for women involved in secret relationships with lamas, and argue that their collusion, often through fear, enables the system to survive. In Chapter 7 I turn to an analysis of the dakini and explore some ideas concerning her so-called 'secret language' and her association with the discovery of secret texts. Through an examination of the symbolic female identity which the dakini purports to represent, I look at the significance of attaching gendered bodies (in this case the female body) to philosophical concepts. These notions are further elaborated in Chapter 8 when I discuss female transcendence, and the ways in which the association of the female with 'otherness' is conveyed through texts and representations. I also address the problem of female subjectivity in Tibetan Buddhism and how concepts pertaining to 'selfhood' are used differentially with women and men. In Chapter 9 the questions which I raise about female identity and difference are set within the context of the debate in the west about female subjectivity, and at the intersection of the debate on culture and gender. Finally I conclude by making a plea for a kind of debate which would take place at the boundary between subjects, of all categories and distinctions, whether human or metaphysical. Concerning the use of Tibetan texts as sources in this work, I have made considerable use of The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, a text based on the life and teachings of the eleventh-century poet and yogi Milarepa, as well as the biographical text of his life, Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa, to introduce the historical view of the position of the female in the social sphere and in the religious iconography. These works, alongside the Tibetan Book of the Dead, represent three of the most popular texts in Tibetan literature, known not only to the priesthood but also to all practising Buddhists. Their importance cannot be underestimated, for they provided, till the present day, the means through which lay people could understand the significance of the teachings to everyday life, in the case of Milarepa, through folk tales and fantastic myths, and in the case of the Book of the Dead, through providing a context to death, with instruction for the dying, and teachings on rebirth and karma. The other texts which I have consulted in the original Tibetan have been largely drawn from the Karma Kagyu and Nyingma traditions.

For ease of reference, and in order to keep the terminology as simple as possible for the benefit of readers not familiar with these areas of study, I have mainly used transliterated Tibetan words, (in the Kham dialect), with the accurate spelling in brackets, but where the Sanskrit term is already in common use, I have either prioritised it or included it, using anglified spelling. In the absence of adequate terminology to express the differences between cultures, I have felt bound by the language which conceptualises 'east' and 'west', despite its problematic and inadequate nature. I recognise that until our conceptual frameworks allow language to move beyond the dualistic framing of east/west, north/south, oriental/occidental, developed/ developing, present modes of expression are very limited.


When I began this book, it was difficult to imagine how I could manage to convey the many and varied strands of thought which have come together to form this particular cross-cultural analysis of a very specific, but I believe fundamentally intriguing, aspect of Tibetan Buddhism. Readers will certainly be able to identify the confluence of personal experience alongside cultural and academic study, and it will be apparent that I have been deeply influenced by the study of quite diverse modes of thought which have emerged from my involvement with Tibetan Buddhism, feminism and psychoanalysis respectively. What may not be so apparent, but which undoubtedly underlies these influences is the cradle of the Scottish philosophical tradition which has nurtured my own personal deliberations, and which has given me, since childhood, an education which emphasised the 'democratic intellect'35 and egalitarianism. The weaving together of such apparently disparate streams of consciousness has been an essential component in enabling me to express some ideas concerning gender, religion and cross-cultural understanding, and I have tried to do this in the spirit of openness and exchange, in an attempt to contribute something towards the understanding between people of different genders, cultures and faiths.

There are several points I wish to make about my own position in entering this debate on Tibetan Buddhism. Firstly, my role for many years was as someone who helped the transition of Tibetan Buddhism to the west take place. I travelled to India and, after having studied the language and practised all the preliminary meditations and rituals, began working as an interpreter at a time when Tibetan lamas had just begun to travel to the west. This meant that I was present at a moment when the institutions of Tibetan Buddhism had not yet become established in the west, and the Tibetans depended to some extent on the desire of westerners to understand and be a part of their ancient traditions. As a student of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan language I gained access to texts, but more importantly was able to communicate directly with the lamas, and thus moved quickly into the inner sanctum of the religious institution, and was invited to enter the realm of secret relationships with lamas. It was at this point that my involvement ceased to be purely that of the student who receives teachings in a didactic sense, given that I had to cross the boundary into an unknown world of secret religious practices and culturally different relationships. The significance of these events is explored in Chapter 7.

Secondly, I wholly agree with the comment of the psychoanalyst Harry Guntrip on the 'difficult question of the sources of theory'36 when he states, 'it seems that our theory must be rooted in our psychopathology'.37 For me this means that I am aware of the interesting relationship between my own personal life experience and the thesis which I have put forward. It also means that I detect in the theory, or philosophy of others, a personal strand which is often excluded by the objectivity demanded of certain modes of thinking, and which denies the relevance of the life of individuals to the societal structures, mores and belief systems which are created by them. To the extent that each individual is limited by both personal experience and the inability to reflect absolute truth, the work which I have undertaken here quite clearly is selective and individual. It neither claims truth nor certainty, and does not attempt to be definitive in its conclusions. Often the archaeological journey which takes individuals through the fragmented knowledge of the past can do no more than uncover shards of evidence, through which an understanding of certain aspects of the past might be created, and thus provide some insight into the present. In this book, therefore, I have tried to link the personal experiences of key individuals, both women and men, to the complex belief systems of which they were a part, in an attempt both to recognise the humanity in all of us, and as a way of understanding the meaning of female identity, not only in the Tibetan Buddhist world, but also in the western context.
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Re: Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibe

Postby admin » Thu Feb 28, 2019 6:03 pm

Chapter 1: When Iron Birds Appear

In Tibet's own history, the movement of peoples across the high plateaux of central Asia took place for thousands of years, especially on the east-west 'silk route' to China, but also northwards towards Mongolia and Russia, and southwards towards Nepal, and that other great cradle of oriental civilisation, India. Around the seventh century the Tibetan empire began to develop, and, notably alongside the political upheavals of the time, a Tibetan alphabet was devised and Buddhism became the state religion.1 The king credited with the most sweeping cultural developments of that time, Songtsen Gampo, had among his several wives two princesses, a Nepali and a Chinese, and the cultural and religious influences which they brought to the court ensured the further development of Buddhism. Although his expansionist policies and activities put him, according to some writers, in a league with Gengis Khan, his name has largely been mythologised by the Tibetans as a great hero, perhaps even the incarnation of a deity who took form on earth in order to clear away the 'demonic' practices of Bon and bring the true religion to Tibet. This was a time when Indian Buddhists were encouraged to bring their teachings to Tibet, and Tibetans who had travelled to India and Nepal to receive instruction in Buddhism returned to their homeland with missionary zeal, to convert the inhabitants from the indigenous Bon religion to the new faith.

The battles for secular and religious power at that time are well documented in the popular literature, and feature many tales of the subjugation of the Bon priests, whose doctrines were considered inferior to those of the new Buddhists. The biography of the eleventh-century saint Milarepa,2 for example, contains stories which illustrate how important these confrontations were in the establishment of Buddhism as a moral as well as a spiritual code. In the end the Buddhists triumphed and it became the state religion, although the form it took quite plainly was influenced by the then indigenous traditions of Bon. What seems very clear is that the adoption of Buddhism by the people who held power (for it was a feudal society), involved a process of institutional change, and the establishment of peculiar hierarchical structures in society, whilst the predominant images of Bon's iconography and many of its teachings were retained but adapted. In Milarepa's biography one convert to Buddhism confirms this, 'Outwardly, the practice and words of Bon and Dharma appear alike, but the compassion and grace are different and so are the achievements'.3 This meant that the imaginal aspects of Tibet's historical religious tradition, which lived in the minds of the people, could not be totally replaced, whilst the power structures could, because there was no political democracy. Buddhism was promoted as a civil code as well as a religious one, and the practices of Bon seen as primitive and inferior, incapable of supporting a great culture. That Buddhist culture survived until 1950 when the Chinese began a policy of annexation, and culminated in the 'Tibetan Uprising' of 1959, and the exodus of many refugees.

Obviously the contemporary situation which has seen the emergence of Tibetan Buddhism from its geographical isolation in the remote regions of the high plateaux of Central Asia, to urban centres in every westernised country in the world, has, on the face of it, few parallels with the gradual development of Buddhism in that country over many centuries. Yet the fact remains that to many Tibetan Buddhists, the karma, or Buddhist law of cause and effect which operated when many Tibetans were forced to flee their country and settle elsewhere, was an inevitable consequence of previous deeds come to fruition, and perhaps an expression of the Tibetan saying, attributed to Buddhism's main founder in Tibet, Padmasambhava, and often quoted, that 'when iron birds appear in the sky, the Dharma will go to the west'.4 This kind of Buddhist perspective places the evolution of Tibet's religion in a larger context than its geographical location, viewing it as part of a greater process in which humans, at the mercy of karmic forces may be subject to political and social change throughout many lifetimes, whilst the dharma, unchanging in nature, becomes accessible to different beings at different times. It is also interesting to note that Buddhism itself had been a leading religion in India for a thousand years or more before it was adopted by the unified Tibet as its official religion, and that for more than a thousand years Tibetan Buddhism remained confined to Tibet and neighbouring remote countries till it was taken to other parts of the world by exiles.

The process of the development of interest by westerners in Tibetan Buddhism did not simply begin however when the Tibetans were exiled from their land in 1959. From the seventeenth century, Tibet was a country which held a remarkable interest for western travellers. Inaccessible and mysterious to outsiders, it was visited by a succession of European explorers and Christian missionaries, intent on studying the local customs and people, or in converting the natives from their so-called 'heathen' beliefs. In Victorian times, fascination with the country and its people reached a high point as the colonial observers, scholars, missionaries and soldiers recorded their journeys, providing us with many valuable records of Tibet, its religion, language and people. The obsession of western travellers for Tibet and all things Tibetan seems to have fitted very well the Victorian penchant for viewing the 'undiscovered', particularly the explorations of the so-called 'dark continents' and the wonders of science, as essentially female. Metaphors abound in the literature of the time. Knowledge was acquired by 'tearing the veil', 'penetrating' the mysteries, and 'raping' nature of her secrets. Tibet was identified with the feminine in the minds of these repressed Victorian travellers, who viewed it as an object of curiosity, and a landscape of secrets, mystery and of the unknown. It offered to them, according to Peter Bishop, 'a kind of imaginal continuity, especially at times of social and individual doubt or uncertainty'.5

Whilst the imaginal association of the feminine with the unknown was a common feature of the writers of the nineteenth century, the continuity factor was also significant. There is no doubt, for example, that the actual continuity of the Tibetan religious and political system represented a unique form of society, preserved as it was, on account of its geographical isolation, with its intricate structures of civilisation largely unchanged for more than a thousand years. For those early explorers, whose views of culture were blinkered by the arrogance of Eurocentrism, the agrarian-based, tribal communities of Africa and South America, for example, represented the 'primitive'. Tibet, on the other hand, seemed to offer the possibility of so-called primitiveness alongside a recognisable civilisation which consisted of a highly literate culture of philosophy, art and medicine. At the centre of this society were the lamas, with their priest-king the Dalai Lama, who presided over the religious and political affairs of the country, all of which were intricately related to the almost universal practice of Tibetan Buddhism. The fact that Tibet seemed to represent a very obviously patriarchal and hierarchical system of rule, alongside what was perceived by westerners to be its more 'feminine' aspect of 'purity', as a mysterious 'virgin territory', gave it an extra fascination for those western men who wrote about it.

As was soon discovered, any study of the life of the Tibetan people of necessity included the study of the religious system which had remained intact for so many centuries. Early writers took the view that, whilst the society was fairly civilised, the Buddhist religion as practised in Tibet was completely pagan, and they quite openly disdained it, whilst later writers began to analyse some of the more complex ideas contained within the ancient texts and iconography. Interestingly, it was a French woman, Alexandra David-Neel, who provided one of the first sympathetic appraisals of Tibetan Buddhism, for although her account of travel through Tibet disguised as a monk, first published in 1931, quickly went out of print in the United Kingdom, it later became popular, and gave an unusual insight by a religious convert to the life and religion of the Tibetans. It was in the 1930s also that several publications of translations of Tibetan texts were made, and these heightened interest in the meaning of the religion, particularly when Carl Jung wrote the psychological commentary to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and extolled its virtues as a valuable text for westerners. He equated the initiation process associated with the book with western psychoanalysis. Jung's declaration of the value of what until then had almost universally been considered a primitive religion had significant consequences. By then the religion had been considered from both anthropological and psychological viewpoints, and other perspectives were not long in following. In the course of the next forty years, philosophical and theological interpretations were explored by men like W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Herbert Guenther, Anagarika Govinda, and even the Christian contemplative Thomas Merton. Later, when the exiled Tibetans had actually established themselves in the west, an avalanche of commentaries, translations and analyses followed. Eventually, the trend away from the orientalist approach to Tibet was tempered by the exodus of many lamas to India, giving westerners the opportunity to study the religion directly, outwith the social context of Tibet itself.

Evans-Wentz, in his introduction to the English publication of the biography of Milarepa in 1928, draws parallels between the teachings of Milarepa and Jesus Christ, and calls Milarepa 'the Socrates of Asia'. He admits that his task in bringing the work to the attention of an occidental audience was to show that Tibet, at the time of Milarepa, was probably more developed philosophically and religiously than Europe. His wish to, 'help to spread understanding of this natural law of Universal Brotherhood' (italics mine)6 may have seemed at the time like a plea to end colonial attitudes towards the peoples of the empire and beyond, and for peoples of different religions to be tolerant towards one another, but it was never meant to be a proselytising piece of work. The trend to find common ground between western thought and that of Tibet remained a motivating factor, however, in many of the works of the twentieth century (both those written by westerners and by Tibetans themselves) and highlighted the desire amongst certain Buddhists, theologians, psychoanalysts and philosophers to assimilate the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism into western thought, despite the apparent differences in terms of societal structure and philosophical background.7

On the surface, these very differences seemed to be attractive. Jung, for example, in his fascination with the Tibetan Book of the Dead found it rich in symbolism and psychoanalytic meaning, in contrast with what he called, 'the dreary, half-baked literature of European and American Spiritualism'.8 A religion which addressed subjects such as medicine, astrology, sex, and the art of dying, in its texts was one which appealed to many who were opening the doors of the 'New Age' philosophies, where the occult, mysticism, healing and world religions often became mixed in a hotchpotch of esoteric ideas. For westerners, the desire to reject the philosophical traditions which were perceived to have led to the values and norms of occidental, materialistic society was very strong, coupled with the motivation to adhere to belief systems which appeared more egalitarian, more compassionate, and more acknowledging of the whole person, mind and body, in a vast, universal context. Not only did this form of Buddhism offer a game-plan for the spiritual progress of the individual, through meditation techniques and moral practices, but it also provided texts whose metaphysical philosophies genuinely seemed to give alternative and enlightening perspectives on the nature of the human condition and in particular the relationship between men and women.

It was no wonder then, that in the 1960s and 70s, so many young and truth-seeking people turned to the Tibetans for spiritual teachings, once the exodus of so many lamas from Tibet had taken place, and they had begun to establish themselves in the west. Just at the moment when the second wave of feminism swept the western world, the New Age cults along with, in particular, Buddhism, took hold of the imagination of the young. It is within this context, that the colourful, different and exciting images of Tibetan Buddhism, together with its texts, which addressed the issues of selfhood, morality and spiritual enlightenment, were presented to westerners as a possible way forward in a dark and troubled world. For many women, the possibility of being part of a tradition which saw equality in different terms from occidental religious systems, seemed to suggest that the limiting nature of gender, as they had experienced it, was truly inconsequential.

However, the particular system which is Tibetan Buddhism has, like other patriarchal systems, a historical context, which undoubtedly has determined its position philosophically and socially, on the role and status of the female. This aspect of the religion has never been examined in much depth by either Tibetans themselves, or by western scholars. For converts to the religion, therefore, it was initially easy to ignore some of the ramifications of the lack of status given to women, and the ways in which the representations of women in many of the texts appeared less than favourable. It was also quite easy for the lamas themselves, given such a new and enthusiastic audience of potential converts, to underestimate the complexities of the motivating factors which westerners had in pursuing Tibetan Buddhism as a religion to which they could belong. Little of the societal context of the Tibetans and their religion was known, and in particular the role and place of women in the society was hidden because of the fact that the first wave of Tibetans to teach publicly in the west were all men, and many of them celibate monks.

Gradually, it became apparent that there was an absence of Tibetan women in positions of authority, and that certain elements of popular mythology and folklore contained references to women which raised questions about the Tibetan Buddhist system. But what were these initial questions, and what were the common perceptions of the role and place of women in Tibetan Buddhist society and in particular the role of women within the religious establishment? It is known that a patriarchal theocracy existed for at least nine hundred years, until the time of the Chinese annexation of 1959. It is also known that the status of women in Tibetan society was ambiguous, given that there existed a degree of sexual freedom for both men and women, and the widespread practice of polyandry alongside that of polygamy. These social norms, which are associated with the acceptance by Tibetans of matrilinear customs, survived to the present, allowing, for example, rich Tibetan women to maintain the right to carry their own family names after marriage, inherit property, and marry two or more brothers at the same time in order to keep property in one family. Sexual freedom, however, was not without its consequences, for as India Majupuria notes in her book, Tibetan Women, in the case of adultery, there is historical evidence to suggest that a woman could be legally killed by her husband, providing 'he immediately takes the dagger or sword to the magistrate with a silk scarf tied at its handle'.9

Majupuria, however, prefers to explain the position of women in pre-communist Tibet as being governed by their class status, rather than by the religious structures which, as I argue, operated to disadvantage women socially and politically. According to her, the general religious view was that, 'women were greatly respected and enjoyed a great deal of freedom ... there is a great significance of Mother and the Dakini principles'.10 Despite this assertion, however, she is unable to explain why women had no place in the hierarchical theocracy, and very few, apart from relatives of the Dalai Lama, or members of the small but powerful aristocracy, held positions of social power. Majupuria's notion is that the religious system and iconography, as somehow separate from the social and feudal structure of Tibetan society, upheld the images of women as exalted and equal, and thus conferred relative freedom on Tibetan women. This is the very idea which Anne C. Klein ponders in her essay about the failure of Tibetan Buddhism to translate its 'principles of egalitarianism' to the role and position of women in society. Her conclusion is that,

failure at any level -- public or private -- to emphasize personal appropriation of the inner religion as the starting point for social, symbolic, and other permutations of religious perspective is a major factor impeding full translation of, for example positive female symbolism into full social equality for women.11

Klein's inconclusive analysis, which upholds the view that there are positive images of the female upon which societal equality could be based, fails to acknowledge the other key elements in the debate as to why Tibetan Buddhism, in exile in the western world, is still predominantly patriarchal.12 This is the debate into which I have entered, by exploring the relationship between the historical, theocratic and iconographical factors in the development of the imagery of the female within Tibetan Buddhism.

One of the fundamental areas in which gender bias is expressed in societies is language, and this is no exception in Tibetan. Alongside the development of the Buddhist Tantric philosophy in Tibet, the invention of a Tibetan alphabet and the subsequent emergence of a written language capable of translating the most complex of Sanskrit Buddhist texts, heralded the beginning of Tibet's great Classical Period. The written Tibetan language, with its alphabet of five vowels and thirty consonants, was devised in the seventh century by the scholar Thonmi Sambhota, who returned to Tibet after a long period of study in India. Based on the Sanskrit alphabet, Tibetan, whose dialects are spoken from Nepal to Mongolia, has, unlike Chinese, letters rather than characters. According to the lexicographer Jaschke, the achievements of early Tibetan scholars were extraordinary, for they had to 'grapple with the infinite wealth and refinement of Sanskrit . . . save the independence of their own tongue ... and ... produce translations at once literal and faithful to the spirit of the original.'13

The Classical Period, also known as the Period of Translations, lasted until the sixteenth century, and during that time all Tibetan texts consisted of either religious, historical or legendary subjects. This canon of work was added to later when cultural influences from China precipitated a study of Chinese literature. With political power held in the hands of the Buddhist clergy, whose theocratic rule lasted for well over a thousand years, it is unsurprising to note that Tibet's literature was, until the Chinese annexation of 1959, exclusively religious (even medical and astrological texts are contained within the religious canon). For this reason, it is only to these religious texts that one can turn to investigate the images of women, and use of language in relation to the female. In contrast to other cultures, where secular and religious texts can be compared to show changing attitudes, and to highlight the differences between popular culture and religious doctrine, the Tibetan model only allows for a religious perspective. Because of this, the separation of religious and secular life is impossible, and the consequent anomalies between the religious view of 'woman' and her actual societal position, made more acute.

In Tibetan texts, in addition to the divine aspect, the female also appears as human and in demonic form. The language itself illustrates her position and role, with its etymology demonstrating a clear difference in the perception of the social roles of men and women. In Tibetan there are considerably more words for 'woman' than for 'man'. Like English, the most common word for 'man', mi (Tibetan mi.), has been used in the spoken idiom and in the literature to signify both 'man' and 'person'. The literal translation of the few other words for 'man', seem value-free descriptions -- kyepapo (Tibetan, he who has birth; kang nyimi (Tibetan kang.gnyis.mi.) two-legged person; gonag (Tibetan mgo.nag.), dark-head.

In contrast, the many words for 'woman', often imply a given status and a description which places woman in relation to man. Chandra Das cites twenty synonyms for 'woman' in his Tibetan-English Dictionary.14 The two most common words are kyemen (Tibetan skye.dman) which means 'inferior birth', and pumo (Tibetan which means 'female man'. Other synonyms for 'woman' include tsamdenma (Tibetan 'she who has limitations'; chingchema (Tibetan 'she who shackles'; dodenma (Tibetan 'she who has lust'; gaweshi (Tibetan dgah.wahi.gshi.) 'the source of pleasure'; and tobmema (Tibetan 'she who is without semen' (or strength). Chandra Das points out the ambiguity of the etymology of another word, pumeh (Tibetan, which he acknowledges may mean 'cannot be dispensed with or forsaken' is from the root bud., 'to cast out', and med., meaning 'not', but also cites another meaning as 'one that cannot be left outside the house at night'.16 The verb, however, has other equally valid meanings and can be read as 'to set free, to set at liberty, to allow to pass'.17 It is therefore possible when read in this way, that could also mean 'not set free', 'unliberated' or 'blocked'.

In Milarepa's biography, examples can be found of a range of images of woman, from human to demonic and to divine. In general Milarepa disparages women, their nature, appearance, and the role they play in the life of the religious practitioner. 'Woman is always a trouble-maker ... the primary source of suffering',18 he warns (male) practitioners. Of woman's ability to attract men he cautions, 'At first the lady is like a heavenly angel ... middle-aged she becomes a demon with corpse's eyes ... at life's end she becomes an old cow with no teeth.'19 Of her role he is equally scathing, 'At her best, she may serve and devote herself to others, at her worst, she will bring mishap and disaster.'20 In the text, women themselves subscribe to this position, 'Because of my sinful Karma I was given this inferior [female] body',21 declares a young woman when she approaches Milarepa for Buddhist teachings. In these examples, the practitioner of Buddhism is implicitly male, the woman implicitly 'other'. While the male strives for perfection, the woman acts as obstacle and deterrent, or as an inferior being.

In many of the Buddhist scriptures there are numerous examples of teachings which pair together the female and the demon as beings which potentially cause difficulties for the 'practitioner' on the path. Robert Paul notes the connection between these categories, 'In general it may be said that the demons, the passions and women are conceptually related, and thought of as opponents of Buddhism, and of patriarchal unity.'22 Milarepa constantly warns of the destructive powers of women, admonishing his followers to reject their seductive charms, and become meditative hermits. Even a demon, who is subdued by Milarepa after she emerges from a crack in a rock, is told that she is in an unfortunate rebirth, not because of her demonic form, or because of living in a rock, but that 'Because of your evil habit propensities formed in the past, and your vicious doings in the present . . . you were born as a lower form of woman' (italics mine).23 In the relatively tormented world of demons, Milarepa is at pains to point out that the female demonic status is inferior to that of the male.

Freda [Bedi] was moved. She learned that within Tibetan culture the figure of the mother (any mother) was universally held in the highest regard, even reverence. The mother was the person who brought forth life, nourished that life with her own body, and was prepared to sacrifice her own life for the sake of her child. In short, the mother was the highest example on earth of selfless love. Freda was ready to take on the title.

-- The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi, by Vicki Mackenzie

Despite these clear-cut views of the female (in whatever form) as polluting and inferior, Milarepa's biography also contains quite contradictory statements concerning 'woman'. When he meets women whom he considers fit vessels for his Buddhist teaching, he confirms the Buddhist view of 'woman' as nothing more than a category, and a manifestation of dualistic thought. 'Though ... born in a female form, which is considered to be inferior, nevertheless, so far as the Maya [Store] Consciousness is concerned', he maintains, 'there is no discrimination between man and woman.'24 Furthermore, he acknowledges, in accordance with the Tantric tradition, the absolute necessity of a sexual relationship with a woman to the (male) practitioner, if he is ever going to realise the highest teachings of Buddhism. 'It is said in the Supreme Tantra, [That the qualified yogi] should attract the maids of heaven .... It also says that of all services the best is Karma Mudra.'25

Elsewhere, the fourteenth-century philosopher Longchenpa states, 'Since enlightened understanding does not come without resorting to a mudra, we are fettered to the triple world without such understanding' (italics original).26 Similarly, the Indian mystic Naropa writes, 'Without Karma Mudra, no Mahamudra',27 thus confirming the concept that for the male practitioner, enlightenment is impossible without sexual relations with an actual woman, as opposed to a visualised, imaginary sexual relationship in meditation practice. All these examples demonstrate the wide range of pronouncements regarding 'woman', something which clearly is not reciprocated in relation to 'man'. It is for this reason that the idea of a special 'view' on 'woman', which occurs throughout Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, is worth scrutiny, for in the absence of gender-bias language, or an analysis of the polluting qualities of 'man' to women practitioners, or the specific declaration of 'man' as an irrelevancy in gender terms, Tibetan Buddhism quite clearly uses the language of sexist polarities, and the privileging of the male, to describe its teachings. In order to begin the process of tracing some of the deeply held views on the nature of women, and the identity of the female within the religious context, I want to examine some of the historical influences on the development of Buddhist thought in Tibet, and to uncover some of the archaic images of the maternal and of the female which still find resonance in the contemporary Tibetan view. In the next chapter, therefore, I will look for evidence of the kinds of female images which pre-dated Buddhism and which lived on in the minds of people through folklore and mythology. In order to do this, I will examine some of the early influences which came together to create the unique character of Tibetan Buddhism, including those which may have been indigenous to the high plateaux of Asia, and those which entered Tibet from other cultures.
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Re: Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibe

Postby admin » Thu Feb 28, 2019 6:18 pm

Chapter 2: Archaic Female Images and Indigenous Culture

Although most Tibetan Buddhists would argue that the form of Buddhism practised by them is altogether comprehensive, including teachings drawn from all the major schools of Buddhist thought, it does nonetheless contain quite specific forms of practice which are not to be found in the more orthodox forms of Buddhism as taught for example in Thailand, Japan or Sri Lanka. The rationale given by Tibetans on this issue is that the Buddha revealed different levels of teachings, which he maintained would be appropriate for people of differing abilities and understanding. Tibetans believe that there are in fact 84,000 different forms of teaching, and that the teachings and methods of the Vajrayana represent the highest form of Buddhism, because in essence they give the means by which an individual could become enlightened in one lifetime. The classic example of a practitioner who is said to have achieved Buddhahood in one life is Milarepa, who in one of his songs proclaims, 'the Diamond Vehicle ... abounds with skills and means; it is the easiest, fastest and most versatile Path leading towards Buddhahood'.1

Yet the most compelling aspects of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, which characterise its unique form, appear to have their roots in the mixture of traditions and beliefs which pre-dated the official establishment of Buddhism as the state religion in AD763, and which owe their survival, I believe, as much to the physical landscape of the country as to anything else. The particular features to which I refer are yoga and meditational practices involving a pantheon of peaceful and wrathful deities; Tantric rites and initiations; the tulku system of reincarnate lamas; and secrecy as a major factor within the whole system. Supported by a range of religious texts and iconographical images, which are part of this complex system, Tantric Buddhism offers a variety of ideas about the role and philosophy of the female, both in terms of the place of women within its theocracy, and the esoteric meaning of female being. Just how radical, innovative or even relevant these philosophies are to contemporary women practitioners is an issue which bears close examination, particularly as these teachings are now most frequently presented outwith the social, political and cultural context in which they developed. It is only by building a picture of that historical context and by showing how it played a part in promoting certain anomalies concerning the status of the real and symbolic female, that an understanding of the mythologies and beliefs concerning female identity in Tantric Buddhism can be achieved. In order to clarify the various components which contributed to the complexity of the Tibetan religious belief, and in order to make links with the development of female identity in the philosophy, I have traced several distinctive aspects which have their roots in ancient times. These themes are categorised under the headings: (i) Early religious influences and the shamanic component, and (ii) The waning power of the Great Mother and the Threads of Tantra.


When Buddhism was established in Tibet in the eighth century, it was recorded that the legendary Indian yogi Padmasambhava spearheaded the movement which led to the conversion of the people to a new religious form of Buddhism as taught by the Buddha himself. However, the indigenous belief system which it sought to overthrow (Bon) was by no means simply a primitive form of shamanism, as is often reported. The traditions of Bon are so strikingly similar to those of its successor that there is little doubt that Bon was a form of Buddhism, brought to Tibet, as its many texts testify, at an earlier time, through the western rather than the southern route. Textual sources refer to the areas of Zhang-Zhung (Tibetan zhang.zhung), which has always been associated with an area to the west, and perhaps bordering on what is now Pakistan, and Ta-Zig (Tibetan stag.gzig,), which is a corruption of Tajik, and the name given by Tibetans to Persia, as the significant places associated with the beginnings of the Bon religion. More specifically these names are thought to refer to Sogdiana and Bactria. Whilst it is possible that Buddhism entered western Tibet hundreds of years before Padmasambhava's missionary efforts of the eighth century (and indeed Bon texts confirm the existence of Indian Tantric thought as well as the basic tenets of Buddhism), it is also possible that other religious influences came into Tibet around the same time, and that various strands of thought combined to produce the indigenous practices which were subsumed under the name Bon.

According to the Russian academic Kuznetzov, Bon was introduced to Tibet in the fifth century BC, when there occurred a mass migration of Iranians, from Sogdiana in north-east Iran, to the northern parts of Tibet. The theory is that they brought with them their religion, an ancient form of polytheistic Mithraism, and the Aramaic alphabet, named after Aramaiti, the Iranian Earth Goddess.2 This is an interesting proposition, given that Buddhists have always maintained that the Tibetan alphabet was devised by Sanskrit scholars at the time of the state establishment, whereas Bon texts ascertain the existence of a written language long before this time. These texts maintain that many translations were made into different Indo-European languages, and the teachings of Bon thus spread right across the Middle East and Asia. Texts of the sixteenth-century Buddhist philosopher and scholar Taranatha refer to the founders of Bon as being of Persian origin, and name Mathura as being one of them. In Bon texts the name Mura is given. In the Tibetan biography of Shenrab, who is said to have been the original founder of Bon, his origins are recorded as being in Iran-Elam and his name given as Mithra. Furthermore one of the epithets of Bon's founder as it appears in its Tibetan form, is Tsug Pu (Tibetan gtsug.phud), meaning 'the crown of the head', which approximates with the actual meaning of the word 'Mithra'.

If indeed ancient traditions of both Iran and India reached Tibet and influenced the already existent practices of shamanism which were certainly a common feature of all the peoples of Northern Asia and America in early times, then the curious combination of aspects of Indian Tantra, Buddhism and Iranian cults such as Mithraism, provide clues as to how the representations of the female developed. Certain myths appear to have common roots. The Tibetans for example, believe that their race came into being when a monkey married a goddess who emerged from a rock, whilst in Mithraic myth the Iranian Mithras was born from the Rock Mother (Petra Genetrix). The name of the principal Iranian deity Ahura Mazda is to be found in Bon texts. Indeed Chandra Das translates a phrase meaning 'the language of Ahura' (aura trita, Tibetan a.u.ra.bri.ta) as 'the language of the demons',3 implying the Buddhist view of the ancient deities as 'demons'. The roots of Mithraic belief are to be found far back in the annals of prehistory, in the worship of the Sky Goddess Mitra, references to whom can be found in the history of north Mesopotamia around the fourteenth century BC, and whose predominance as the central female deity either resulted in, or was due to, a social system in which female identity was highly valued.4 Her worship in later times was connected to the Anatolian cults of the Mother Goddess Ma, but as time went on a gender transformation seems to have taken place, and Mitra became the male Indo-Iranian Sun God Mithra, who according to Mithraic myth, took as his consort the Anatolian Mother Goddess Ma. This phenomenon, of gender transformation and reversal of roles, as I shall later show, was not restricted to the Middle East, but seems to have taken place throughout the whole sub-continent of India, and also in China where confusion over gender transformations of popular deities still exists to this day.

Devotion to the goddess, however, was maintained in different forms, in both indigenous Bon and subsequent Buddhism, but particularly important is her form as the central figure representing female energy. In Sanskrit she is known as the dakini, whilst in Tibetan, her name khandro (Tibetan mkha.hgro.) literally means 'sky-goer', or "traveller in space'. Her dynamic presence is a particular feature in the biographies of all the famous practitioners of the Tantra, appearing as she does to help the acolyte on the path, by clearing obstacles, challenging an intellectual approach, and uniting in sexual union with the male practitioner in order to provide the means whereby he can realise the highest truth. Her further association with charnel grounds links the dakini to several ancient goddesses whose powers over life and death are described in the texts of many traditions. Astarte, for example, as one of the most ancient forms of the universal great goddess, was worshipped by the Iranians in her form as Anahita, and was characterised by her powers of creation, preservation and destruction. One of her epithets was 'Queen of the Stars'. Her image, found in Sumeria around 2300 BC, is recorded by Barbara Walker as being 'identical with Kali's love-and-death sacramental posture, squatting on top of her consort's body'.6 In the Bon pantheon she has a manifestation in one of the chief goddesses, Kaladugmo (Tibetan, whose name means 'fierce sky goddess'. At the beginning of many prayers in Tibetan Buddhist texts she is invoked directly as Ma Namkha (Tibetan mao nams. mkha), which literally means 'Mother Sky'.

As Mithraism developed, however, it became, according to Pythian-Adams, 'a system solely and entirely devoted to the needs of the Male'.7 Barbara Walker describes it as ascetic and anti-female, 'its priesthood consisted of celibate men only . . . women were forbidden to enter Mithraic temples'.8 A male cult developed: women were forced to worship separately, and this they did by continuing the tradition of the early Aryan religions in their worship of the Great Mother, often apart from the male tradition, but sometimes incorporated into it, as a cult. If the influences of Mithraism were indeed brought to Tibet around the fifth century BC, then it is possible that by that time its institutional and masculist tendencies were already existent, and that these factors had an impact on the beliefs and practices of the indigenous shamans. It is certainly the case that both in Bon and in its successor Tantric Buddhism, there is evidence of these two distinct features -- the traditions of shamanism which were at one time almost universal, and the mytholologies of the more formal religious rituals of Mithraism. Mircea Eliade, in a work on shamanism, acknowledges these two strands as 'the still scarcely studied problem of the similarities between the Tibetan and Iranian traditions'.9

Many of these similarities are to be found in the belief systems concerning the religious cosmologies. The descriptions of seven, nine or sixteen heavens in Bon, is characteristic of the 'Babylonian idea of seven planetary heavens'.10 These numbers appear again in the groupings of early Tibetan Buddhist deities, described by de Nebesky-Wojkowitz as '''brotherhoods'' and "sisterhoods" comprising mostly thirteen, seven and especially nine members'.11 Not only were the numbers seven and nine significant in the rites of Bon, but they were also the numbers most often used by shamans. Siberian shamans for example, believed in seven sisters who guarded the Earth, and who were devoted to the seven stars of ursa major. The frequently described 'seven bone ornaments' worn by yogic practitioners of Tantric Buddhism are the same as those worn by the Siberian shamans. Even the most orthodox Buddhist myths seem to reflect the preoccupation with the ancient magic qualities of the number seven. In Mithraism, the soul of man at his birth was thought to pass down a seven-gated staircase. The Buddha at his birth took seven steps. According to Mithraic belief the initiate had to climb seven rungs of a symbolic ladder, through seven planetary heavens towards perfection, whilst the Buddha was said to have passed through seven heavens on his way to enlightenment.

Central to the practice of Mithraism, (and the Gnostic tradition), was the essentiality of a 'master' to the acolyte in his quest to realise perfection. The master's role was to test the acolyte and to help him destroy the negative influences of the ego in his quest for self-knowledge. As part of his progress on the path to perfection, he would also be expected to maintain secrecy within the 'brotherhood'. These elements are equally strong in Tantric Buddhism and clear examples can be found in the many biographies of Tibetan practitioners, for whom devotion to the 'guru' was paramount, and vows of secrecy within the Vajra Brotherhood equally important for his spiritual health. In addition, several other mutual features are striking. In both traditions there is no one divine book; the mystical geometry of the mandala (in the Buddhist case) and the rotas-sator (in the Mithraic case) were highly significant in mapping cosmic reality and symbolism; and whilst the priesthood in Mithraism wore red or purple robes, the Tibetan priesthood wore dark red or maroon.

Shamanism was, of course, practised widely across the world, and there are clearly many similarities between the rituals of native North Americans, Inuit peoples, and the nomads of Siberia and Tibet. With its primary focus on initiatory rites concerning death and resurrection, numerology, the influence of the sun and moon, and a belief in the soul (Tibetan la, bla.) as being related to certain animals or birds, shamanism offered a view of the world in which the boundaries between death and birth could be bridged. The use of sound, particularly the beat of the drum, together with incantations of spells and rhythmic rituals involving dance and an 'altered consciousness' all survived the transition from shamanism to Buddhism in Tibet. Furthermore, ceremonies which involved cemeteries, the wearing of bone ornaments, and the ritual offering of flesh to the spirits, also survived in different forms after the advent of Buddhism. Evidence of the particular cults associated with bones, particularly the skull and the femur, is to be found in the art of Tantric Buddhism and in many of its lay and religious dance forms. In an account of the life of Padmasambhava, he is described as dancing on the roof of his house 'clad only in seven ornaments of bone' .12

The significance of this description lies not only in the fact that the costume is shamanistic, and not Buddhist, but also in the reference to the number seven which, as an important shamanistic number, links the missionary of the new faith with the old traditions of Tibet's indigenous religion. It is interesting to note that in the mythical accounts of Padmasambhava's subjugation of the demons of the old religion, he is described as gaining power over the twenty-eight (four times seven) jukar (Tibetan rgyu.kar.), 'the lunar mansions which are represented in the shape of twenty eight goddesses' .13 Literally meaning 'the moving stars', the jukar not only symbolised the movements of the moon through its various constellations, but by association the female, and the influences of the female monthly cycle of twenty-eight days. It seems very likely, given that Astarte, as the main female deity of ancient Persia whose name appears in Bon texts, and who was thought to rule the stars, would indeed be the object of Padmasmbhava's suppressive missionary zeal.

Another fascinating feature which Mithraism and Tantric Buddhism had in common with shamanistic cults is the significance attributed to horn and bone, with their magical properties and centrality in the overall philosophy. This belief appears to have originated in the devotion to the horn, particularly that of the cow or ox. According to Marija Gimbutas, the great goddess of antiquity was both ox and moon. The horns symbolised the crescent moon, and even the shape of the skull was said to be associated with the shape of the uterus, and thus with the female menstrual cycle. At Catal Huyuk the goddess images were 'shown in a more stylised version with the bulls' horns emerging from her womb'.14 The ancients clearly placed the ox or the cow, and later the bull, at the centre of goddess worship, as the embodiment of the fertility of the Earth, who in the Indus civilisation was 'related to the horned goddess of the tree, who more than once appears with a cow's mask, hooves and tail',15 a belief shared with eastern Europeans who also associated the Mother Goddess, tree and bull.

FIG. 7.19 Female reproductive organs, as customarily pictured in medical texts.

Bucrania, or bulls' heads, are frequently found in the plaster reliefs at Catalhoyuk, usually consisting of cattle horns incorporated into plaster heads (see Fig. 7.18). These have traditionally been regarded as "an epiphany of male fertility," signifying "the qualities of male potency and strength." Some feminist matriarchalists have responded to this apparently obvious evocation of masculinity by viewing it as evidence of the complementary balancing of the sexes in Neolithic times, or by conceptualizing the bull as the son of the goddess, mystically symbolizing "the regenerative power of the female." [53] More recently though, matriarchalists have said that bulls have a central place in the imagery of Catalhoyuk because of an "accidental similarity" between a bull's head and the female reproductive organs. This idea was first proposed by Dorothy Cameron, an artist working on Mellaart's archaeological team who was puzzled by the appearance of so many bucrania -- as opposed to complete bulls -- represented at Catalhoyuk. Consulting medical textbooks, she noticed that these bucrania were shaped like a human uterus, with the horns positioned like fallopian tubes (see Fig. 7.19). The response of feminist matriarchalists to this insight has been enthusiastic. In The Civilization of the Goddess, Marija Gimbutas describes the purported similarity of female internal reproductive organs and bucrania as "a plausible if esoteric explanation for the importance of this motif in the symbolism of Old Europe, Anatolia, and the Near East." But what on page 244 is simply an interesting theory becomes on page 246 a certain fact, as Gimbutas writes, "Bull heads, that is, uteri .... " Feminist matriarchalists now routinely argue that bucrania are meant to emphasize not "the bull itself but the female reproductive system it invokes." [54] However, the similarity between the head of a bull and a woman's internal reproductive organs is not striking to those not already prepared to see it. Fallopian tubes "are barely visible upon dissection" -- they certainly do not call to mind the size and sweep of the horns of cattle -- and bulls' horns lack any indication of ovaries. [55]

Another common motif in the plaster reliefs of Catalhoyuk are the many "breasts" modeled around the skulls of vultures, foxes, and weasels, with "the teeth, tusks or beaks of the animals" protruding "where the nipples should be." A standard matriarchalist interpretation of these images is that they "represent both the nurturing and devouring nature of the Mother Goddess, in that all of her children eventually return to her." The suggestion that these are intended to represent breasts seems far-fetched. These objects frequently appear alone or in rows; when they are paired, they are sometimes stacked one on top of the other in a column rather than side-by-side (as one might expect if these were depictions of female breasts). Furthermore, the shape of a breast is the natural form a small animal skull would take on if plaster were molded around it. This plaster encasing may have been simply a convenient way for the people of Catalhoyuk to attach animal skulls to their walls, or a means of emphasizing teeth and beaks. [56]

Amid all this disputed evidence about the art of Catalhoyuk, a few points do seem clear: most of the images feminist matriarchalists regard as female (plaster reliefs, bucrania, "breasts" around animal skulls) are not definitely or even probably female; the images that are unequivocal representations of femaleness do not persist over the entire life of the settlement, suggesting that any goddess worship associated with female figurines was not a stable and enduring feature of Catalhoyuk's religion; hunting continued to be an important activity, in symbol if not in practice, and was strongly linked to men; and death was a prominent theme. None fit the picture feminist matriarchalists paint for prehistory.

-- The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future, by Cynthia Eller

The sacred tree was of course a motif which appeared in the myths of many religions, including the Egyptian, Judeo-Christian, and Hindu traditions. In Tantric Buddhism, it is still the central image in paintings depicting lineages of lamas, who are shown superimposed upon a huge tree, surrounded by the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, together with the dakinis and dharma protectors.

It is therefore an astonishing reversal of her role and symbolism which takes place with the advent of the Mithraic belief that the bull had to be sacrificed in order that spiritual perfection could take place. 'To kill the bull (the fleshly soul) is the stipulation of the path, in order that the spirit may be restored to consciousness by the stroke of his tail'.16 From an object of veneration to a ritual object of sacrifice, the bull became in Mithraism a representation of corporeality and the lower self. The act of killing became the means whereby the life-force was engendered, through the power of the bull's body, to create fertility. In ancient Iran, the belief was that once the bull was sacrificed its seed rose up to the moon and brought fertility of the crops.17 Plants were thought to have come from the dead bull's body; vine from the blood; and animals from the semen. In many astrological traditions the bull, Taurus, is associated with springtime, and the renewal and growth of nature.

Perhaps the most telling connection between the killing of the bull or ox and the ascendency of official Buddhism in Tibet is the story concerning the killing of the last Bon (often described as anti-Buddhist) king in AD842. [b;Langdarma (Tibetan glang. dar. rna.), whose name literally means 'youthful ox' (glang. also means the sign of the zodiac Taurus), is the slain bull, by whose death the true religion can become established.[/b] The symbolism, however, was not rejected totally in the subsequent development of the heterodox form of Buddhism which then took over, for in religious paintings, stories and myths, the importance of the horn recurs, particularly the yak horn because of its indigenous importance in Tibet. In one of Milarepa's stories, the linkage of the yak horn with the death of a 'fearful old woman'18 is made when he miraculously shrinks the size of his body and goes inside a yak horn in order to display his powers to his student Rechungpa. Later they meet the old woman who refuses them alms, then dies outside their tent that night. Finally they carry her corpse and bury it in a swamp, converting her soul through prayers to Buddhism.

As a symbol of fertility, the 'horn of plenty', the cornucopia, was initially associated with the white moon-cow goddess, but came to symbolise procreation. It is seen frequently as one of the offerings made before the throne of a deity in Tibetan scroll paintings. In Europe as well as Asia, the belief was that the horn emerged from the head and thus was made of the same substance as the brain, which in turn was associated with semen and life-giving forces. In Tantric Buddhism both the skull and femur are employed as ritual implements in ceremonies and in worship. In particular, the thigh bone of a 16-year-old virgin is thought to be the most auspicious bone to be used as a trumpet, kangling, (Tibetan rkang.gling.) in rituals. Coincidentally, the Greeks also held the thigh bone in high esteem, particularly its marrow, again linked with the 'seed' of being, or life-force. The Latin word femur has the same root as feminus, 'that which engenders'. In Greek, Hindu, Egyptian and Jewish ancient cultures there are legends concerning the extraordinary powers of the thigh bone, which was said to have birth-giving properties and when used as a ritual implement to have the power to bring the dead back to life. 19 The right thigh of the male was said to be 'a seat of fertility' in Hindu myth, and certain practices which involve the release of blood from the right thigh have been documented in studies of goddess worship in India.

The skull is equally important in Tantric Buddhist rituals. Not only is it carried by many deities (including the dakini) as a skull-cup, topa (Tibetan; Sanskrit kapala), filled with blood or amrita (the fluid of life), but is also filled during certain rituals with fluids which symbolise menstrual blood, semen, urine, faeces or saliva, which are then made as offerings to wrathful deities.20 These practices can also be found in Bon rituals and are in all likelihood linked to the shamanistic practices which once were spread from the Adantic to the Pacific. The Greeks, for example, thought that the head was sacred, and the seat of the soul. The fluid surrounding the brain, believed to be the same as semen, was considered to be the seed of life and therefore an important element to be preserved. The Greek word meaning semen or genius connects the brain fluids with procreativity. Whilst the Greeks believed that self-castration would lead to the retention of the life-force, the Tibetan Tantrics believed (and still believe) that the physical witholding of the semen in sexual intercourse would lead to long life and enlightenment. These particular practices, shrouded in secrecy in Tantric Buddhism, yet central to its yogic traditions, have a direct link to the traditions which preceded Buddhism. Having as its stated aim the liberation of the mind in one lifetime, Tibetan Tantric Buddhism skilfully mixes the philosophies of Buddhism with the Tantric yoga and shamanism of its ancient past, to achieve 'the spiritual revalorization of prehistoric customs entailing human sacrifices and the cult of skulls'.21 Mircea Eliade suggests that the connections between skull hunts and human sacrifices in Assam and Burma have been linked to 'a matriarchal ideology that still survives in Tibet and the Himalayan regions'.22


Riane Eisler supports the view that sacrificial acts associated with rituals and burials, which can be dated at their earliest as far back as the fourth millennium BC, were a phenomenon related to patriarchal rule, and not to earlier societies which, whilst sometimes categorised as 'matrilinear' or 'matriarchal', had simply at their centre the worship of the Great Mother. Her argument is that such societies were peaceful, agrarian, and life-loving, and emphasised partnership rather than dominance as a cultural norm. Given Tibet's geographical position, it is easy to see how the remnants of very ancient belief-systems which favoured matrilinear norms and the importance of the Great Mother could have survived, alongside later adaptations of these systems. Whilst not completely replacing the old traditions, the new ones, themselves influenced by the patriarchal norms of Persian cults such as Mithraism and other reformed cults which filtered through to Tibet from the western borders, were incorporated and later further reformed by the traditions of monastic, mysogynistic Buddhism.

In an insightful essay on the sinmo (Tibetan, the mythical Tibetan demoness who had to be subdued in order for Buddhism to become established in Tibet, Janet Gyatso proposes that the demoness's supine presence in art and in literature represents actual forces which had to be put under control in order that the patriarchal imperatives of Buddhism might prevail. Her femaleness was necessary, she argues, because the subjugation of the land as Mother Earth was inevitable, societal patterns of matrifocal and matrilinear customs had to be wiped out, and the early patriarchal view of 'that which is uncontrolled and threatening as feminine'23 had to be established. Gyatso is convinced, 'the Srin-mo does not primarily represent woman, but rather a religion, or more accurately a religious culture and world view that is being dominated'.24

If Gyatso's thesis is true, then it is possible to argue that in addition to the religious symbols changing in Tibet in accordance with the patriarchal imperatives which placed the male Buddha as central in the iconography, then the status of women may have been gradually affected in the social sphere. This is what Gyatso implies in her study of the sinmo, whose mythical proportions as the evil force of primitive religion represented not only an outdated way of thinking, but quite possibly a completely different way of living. This meant that when the changes came about which were to affect a whole world view involving the male Buddha as the central image of power and enlightenment, the old deities were banished along with the implications of replacing ancient female deities with male ones. Just as the worship of the Great Mother had represented a primitive form of recognition in humanity that, in nature, the female was the originator of life because of her ability to give birth, so the recognition of the symbolic male as pure and omniscient introduced the notion of culture, and the male power to create it.

Before the evolution to patriarchy where a hierarchical structure of divine and earthly power was regulated, it is likely that woman's subjectivity was established through her biological functions. With the gradual ascension of the male to divinity, first as the son, then the consort, and finally in his own right, the images of the female as all-powerful faded, just as her role in religious ritual and her secular position were eventually determined by the new priesthood. That there is a connection between the gender of deities, their place in the minds of the faithful and the actual lives of the people who worship them, seems beyond doubt. In the case of the sinmo, upon whom the Buddha is represented as sitting, the significant factor should not necessarily be the gender of the sitter and the sat-upon (for in other representations one can see female or male deities standing, sitting or dancing on both male and female bodies), but what the vanquished actually represent. Most often that which is subdued beneath the body of the deity represents a particular defilement, or the power of the ego, or sometimes death itself. In the case of the sinmo however, whilst her presence may have represented a certain belief system, it is clear from what Gyatso implies that she also represented a whole world view, one which was seen as being the antithesis of Buddhism, and one which was represented by the female body. It may well be that Buddhism triumphed over the primitive world view which held the Great Mother in primary esteem, but the image also suggests that, societally, the female had to be subjugated in order for patriarchy to survive.

From the outset, when Buddhism was officially adopted in Tibet, it is clear that the influence of Tantra from India was already a significant part of native belief through Bon, and was crucial to the development of the kind of Buddhism which then evolved. The etymology of the word Tantra is similar in Sanskrit and Tibetan. In Sanskrit, the word means loom, or warp, but is also understood as the principle underlying everything. In Tibetan, Tantra is known as ju (Tibetan rgyud.), which means thread, string, or 'that which joins things together'.25 Whilst there are obvious similarities between the two concepts, it is interesting to note that in very early Bon times, the Tibetans had 'only a very primitive method of recording their thoughts by means of knotted strings'.26 These strings, as a means of communication, often formed the basis of covenants between people. Even today, knotted strings are given by lamas to their disciples as a means of protection against evil. In the old Bon traditions of spell-casting, multi-coloured threads were often made into very intricate designs, known as doe (Tibetan mdos) and, depending on their size, were either worn round the neck or placed outside dwellings as a form of protection and blessing. Two of the most common patterns used as protective devices were the sky and the tree symbols, which connect the practice to the ancient traditions of shamanism.

Evidence for the existence of Buddhist Tantras in India is dated as early as the fourth century, when the amalgamation of the ancient Hindu Tantras with Buddhist thought began to emerge. Bhattacharyya, in his study of Tantra, describes it as being comparable with the philosophy of Pythagoras. In essence, he states, the Tantric maxim is, 'That which is not of the body is not of the universe', 27 and that the matter from which the body and the universe is composed is the female principle, known in the Hindu tradition as shakti, or power, and in the Tibetan tradition as yeshi (Tibetan ye.shes.), or wisdom. Bhattacharyya writes, 'Wisdom, conceived as the Female Principle, and the means of its attainment through the male, are to be combined in one's self for the purpose of liberation which is perfect enlightenment through the practical experience of the Female Principle'. (italics mine).28 The emphasis in Tantra on the centrality of the female principle can be traced historically to the pre-Vedic period of India, when devotional activities were focused upon the worship of the Great Mother, and women in general. In one of the early Hindu Tantras, the Kularnava, it is stated that, 'every woman is born in the Kula of the Great Mother and hence she must be regarded as an object of veneration' (italics original)29 (Kula being the Sanskrit word for family, or race).

Alongside the devotional aspect, however, the practice of sexual rituals, necromancy and ritual murder were also associated with the Tantra. Although Indian Tantra is thought to be very ancient, some argue that the influences of these particular features were of another origin, perhaps entering the sub-continent from Iran, western Asia and China, at a time when ancient cults of mother goddesses and associated practices were prevalent in many places, from Greece, across Anatolia, to Syria and Persia. As I have already suggested, however, these kinds of practices were already debased forms of goddess worship, brought about by the demotion of her centrality to that of consort or mother of male deities, and the promotion of sacrificial rituals in her name. In Asia, the Great Mother cults and worship of the female may well have taken place at a time when women participated more in religious affairs and when there possibly existed a female priesthood. Miranda Shaw, in her study of early female Tantrics, agrees with this, pointing out the affirmation of the female in Tantric texts, and also the autonomy of the woman practitioner who 'chooses when and on whom to bestow her blessing'.30

Shaw too highlights the gynocentrism in ancient texts, which suggest that 'women do not need to take any special measures to meet the approval of men'31 and that women were 'astute and indomitable'32 and were not 'characterized as passive or victimized sex-objects'.33 Shaw's main argument is that women in the Tantric tradition of ancient times were equal partners to men. Battacharyya, however, goes further by arguing that although modern Tantra is male-dominated, 'there is reason to believe that once it belonged to the females' (italics mine).34 His view is that,

The leading part played by women in religious life, their identification with the Mother Goddess, the symbolisation of various concepts and relations ascribed to women . . . the insistence on the cult of sex and the female organ as the sole seat of all happiness, the function of women as priestesses . . . the concept of the supreme being as a Female Principle, etc., must have a social basis.35

As far as the Tantric tradition in India was concerned, this is all the more likely because, symbolically, the Tantric non-Buddhists assigned the dynamic aspect to the female and the passive to the male, the complete reverse of the assignation made later in Tibetan Buddhism. It therefore makes more sense to theorise, as Bharati does in his work on Tantra, that in India the dynamic female was conceptualised because of a different concept of the female in society. Of the Hindus, who allocated the dynamic to the female, he writes, 'it seems probable that the matrifocal atmosphere in which they flourished (Bengal in the East, Oddiyana in the west -- the latter being linked with an Amazon-like tribe in legend) was indirectly conducive to assigning the dynamis to woman'.36 There is certainly some evidence even amongst tribal communities today which shows that many of the traditions associated with worship of the female generative organ, the yoni,37 exist alongside matrilinear customs and matrifocal marriage.

In Tibet it appears that societal structures which were predominantly matrifocal, or matrilinear, did exist in very early times. This means that because they preceded the rule of Buddhism it is likely that ideas concerning the association of the dynamic aspect with the female may have been indigenous before the reverse symbolism emerged. The Chinese annals of the Sui and T'ang dynasties record some evidence for supporting the view that women's power in society was recognised as valid and followed a unique pattern of traditional rule. The annals record at least three 'Kingdoms (sic) of Women', in what was later to become known as Tibet. One of these was Nu Kuo, which was situated in the Tsung-ling mountains in the north of Tibet. The 'kingdom' had ten thousand families and produced copper. Its queen was said to live in a nine-storied house and have hundreds of female attendents, and she held joint rule with 'a little queen'.38 Women were reported to 'hold in light esteem their husbands',39 and on the death of a queen two women were chosen from her clan to succeed her. The Chinese records also show that every new year men or monkeys would be sacrificed, and a divination ritual performed after the sacrifice, to establish the potential for a fruitful year by examining the innards of a pheasant. The kingdom of Nu Kuo was apparently known at the Tibetan court up until AD586, three hundred years before the establishment of Tantric Buddhism as a state religion.

The second documented queendom was that of Tung Nu Kuo, situated in the east, said to be ruled entirely by women, and consisting of eighty towns with forty thousand families and an army of ten thousand. The queen, who lived in the K'ang-Yen valley, was described as wearing black or blue robes, and having a similar entourage of female attendants to that of her counterpart in the north. In the event of her death, it was noted, twenty or more people followed her to the tomb. The country was described as cold, the people grew barley and had herds of horses and sheep, and gold was mined. Rich women had male servants who painted their mistresses' faces black, a custom which lasted into the nineteenth century among certain Tibetan women. As in Nu Kuo, it was written that the women 'do not esteem highly the men'40 who, according to custom, took their mother's name. The main task of the men was to fight when necessary and work the land, while the women held government.

Other remnants of ancient matrifocal rituals and symbolism have been found. On the north-west frontier region between Tibet and India, A.H. Francke found evidence not only of the worship of the yoni amongst Tibetan Buddhist peoples, but also of human and animal sacrifice associated with the burials of important leaders. On his visit to Poo, on the north-west frontier of Tibet, at the beginning of the twentieth century, he observed inscriptions of passages from the Mahayana text, the Prajnaparamita,41 addressed to the Yum Chenmo (Tibetan for the Great Mother), on Mani walls.42 He writes, 'It is not unremarkable that we should find here a prayer addressed to the wife of Siva, for the festival of Shar-rgan which was distinguished by a human sacrifice, was apparently celebrated in her honour' (italics mine).43 According to Francke, human sacrifice at this particular festival in the name of the goddess had taken place almost within living memory, and certainly up until the eighteenth century. He quotes a local Tibetan saying which implies human sacrifice in the worship of Tara, one of the manifestations of the Great Mother. 'When I (Tara) came here from India, [I used to receive] a calf three years old and a child of eight years of age.'44

In this example, it is clear that an indigenous goddess named Tara is associated with human sacrifice, a Hindu god, and the Buddhist deity Prajnaparamita. It is unlikely, given the history of the region, that the Tara to which these people referred is the same deity as the Tara known to Tibetans as Dolma and normally regarded by Buddhists as the Mother of Compassion. The Tibetan Buddhist Tara is associated with Chenrezig, the god of compassion, from whom she is said to have been born. Under Buddhist rule, with its emphasis on non-violence, and its opposition to all manner of sacrifice in religious ritual, the Tibetan Buddhist Tara would not have been worshipped in this way. It is much more likely, as Bharati suggests, that the Hindu Tara was 'simply the wife of Siva ... an entirely different deity', 45 and one whose name was retained by custom, but whose meaning was changed with the influx of Buddhist thought. Bharati goes on,

the name is a common epithet of all great Hindu goddesses, and we find it in the Sahasranama, in the 'Invocation of the thousand Names, of Lalita (Siva's spouse proper), or Sarasvati, and of Laksmi; neither of them bears any relation to a Tibetan or Vajrayana Buddhist goddess'.46

Given her great stature within Hindu thought, it is also imaginable that she would become associated with the Yum Chenmo, or Great Mother, who was conceptualised in Tibetan Buddhism as Prajnaparamita. The rituals and traditions of Poo therefore, reflect very clearly the ways in which deities were confused with one another, and adapted in meaning, but not necessarily in name, to fit the changing trends in the belief systems which met at certain geographical points. In one of the Indian texts, the Sammohatantra, it is recorded that many centres of Tantra existed across central and eastern Asia, in such countries as Persia, Medea, Iraq, Nepal and China. Although certain basic aspects of the ancient Great Mother cult can be seen to be common to all these countries, it does appear that the main features of the Indian Tantra are those which were adopted most strenuously in Tibet, to be amalgamated with not dissimilar concepts whose roots were firstly in shamanism and later in Bon. 'Buddhist tantrism has borrowed many of its lesser deities from Hinduism, or at least from the large stock of deities present in areas which nurtured Hindu, Buddhist, and aboriginal Indian mythology.'47

The most vital elements of the ancient Tantra were the symbolism of polarity which designates male and female with opposing, or complementary attributes; the doctrines concerning death and reincarnation; the practices of yoga, sexual ritual and symbolic sacrifice; the centrality of the guru; the symbolism of the iconography and language; the importance of the mantra;48 and the essentiality of initiation and secrecy in the successful achievement of spiritual progress. However, before examining how these concepts were adapted and promoted in a new form under Tibetan monastic rule, I want to show how one of the ancient female goddesses reached a changed apotheosis in the institutionalised form of Tibetan Buddhism, and how that changed the question of an 'essential' female identity.
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Re: Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibe

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Chapter 3: The Lotus Deity -- A Lost Goddess

At the centre of the complex system of beliefs and philosophy which is Tantric Buddhism, there exists a powerful iconography of carved images, ku (Tibetan sku.), and painted scrolls, tangka (Tibetan thang.ka).1 These representations make up a pantheon of deities, male and female, peaceful and wrathful, who are worshipped for the specific qualities they are said to embody, and are used not only as decorative features in colourful temples and shrines, but also as objects of mental visualisation in the specific meditational practices of Tibetan Yoga. Surprisingly, images of the historical Buddha are far outnumbered in the iconography by the images of Tantric deities, including the mythical Buddhas of the five directions, who form an important part of the philosophy of the Vajrayana. The most popular deity in the whole of Tibetan Buddhism and the patron deity of the country is, however, Chenrezig (Tibetan spyan.ras.gzigs, Sanskrit Avolokiteswara), the so-called 'God of Compassion', who is said to have his earthly incarnations in the human form of successive Dalai Lamas.

Throughout the geographical area in which Tibetan Buddhism is practised, devotion to Chenrezig is manifest everywhere, through the construction of walls of stone carved with his mantra ('Mani walls'), and through the universal recitation of his mantra, which is undoubtedly the most significant and widely used devotional prayer in the Buddhist world. The prayer is usually printed on large drums which are spun round by devotees, as well as inside the smaller prayer wheels which Tibetans traditionally carry and keep spinning. The importance of Chenrezig, therefore, in the minds of faithful, is not only as the tangible manifestation of continuity in their social system through the power of the Dalai Lamas, but also as the essence of the Mahayana Buddha-Dharma and its stress on compassion. The origins and mythology surrounding Chenrezig are however, quite obscure and by no means simple. The Indian god Avolokiteswara, who is considered to be the equivalent of Chenrezig, emerged in India, according to Diana Paul, around the fifth century, and, as 'the chief assistant to the Buddha Amitabha, escorted the faithful to the Pure Land along with Amitabha's other chief assistant, the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta'.2 It is Paul's contention that this deity was always male, yet De la Vallee Poussin states that Avolokiteswara was worshipped in India in female form before her introduction to China in the first century as the female Kuan-Yin. It is known that in the seventh century he appeared as the male Chenrezig in Tibet. Paul does however acknowledge the links between the Indian Avolokiteswara and the Chinese deity Kuan-Yin, who always took female form, but argues that the puzzling change in gender from male to female, which occurred when the deity became prominent in China, is rationalised in Mahayana literature by the advancement of the idea of the ultimate 'asexuality' of Bodhisattvas.

The asexuality ascribed to Bodhisattvas meant that gender transformation was feasible, because 'the sutras . . . claimed that all notions of sexuality, either male or female, were mental attachments contradicting the Buddha's teaching that all phenomena are Empty'.3 As a result, representations of the denied, or hidden sexuality of the physical body, were put forward, both textually and iconographically, and in the case of the Buddha himself this was achieved by the 'concealment of the male sexual organ'.4 Despite this symbolic representation of asexuality, which appeared to place gender as an insignificant factor in the quest for Buddhahood, transformation from female to male was still considered desirable, because even at the level of Bodhisattvahood, masculinity was the preferred state of physicality. Paul writes,

It is only when sexuality remains a criterion for enlightenment that feminine images of Buddhahood are untenable. The enduring association of the feminine with sexuality becomes a 'double-edged sword' in images of Buddhahood. When sex is conceived as an important factor for attaining Buddhahood, the perfect sex is always masculine.5 (Italics mine)

By rationalising gender transformation in these terms, the problem of what Paul calls 'the tensions between misogyny and egalitarian ideals'6 in Buddhism were addressed, but in a way which still perpetuated dualistic notions of gender, which ultimately privileged the male. Paul's examples show that representations of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas either emphasise maleness, promote asexuality, or incorporate the female into the male to produce images of androgyny, but tend to exclude images where the female body and sexuality stand by themselves. This missing fourth dimension is alluded to in another of Paul's observations on the alternative states for achieving enlightenment, when she writes that, 'There is a specific sutra which states that a Buddha appeared in a land of women and in a female body became a Buddha'.7 Despite this rare reference to an essentialist vision of the female as complete in herself, and capable of corporeal Buddhahood, Tantric philosophical texts tend to deny the female as a viable 'Buddha-subject' in her own right by theorising in terms of gender. Paul sums it up when she notes the genderisation of concepts occurring in certain Mahayana texts,

The male state of mind, that is, the Bodhisattva and Buddha state of mind, understands the teaching of Emptiness. The transformation from female to male symbolized the state of transition from ignorance to the Perfection of Wisdom which is Emptiness.8

In the Tibetan iconography, an examination of the origins of Chenrezig as the single most important deity reveals the 'gender problem' as a relevant factor in the evolution of their belief system, for it is not only possible to make historical connections with other deities of other traditions, but also to surmise the way in which his gender is an important signifier of the changing meaning, through time, of certain religious symbols, and their relationship with the social reality. Unlike Diana Paul, I believe that the male Bodhisattva Chenrezig had his origins in a female deity, of great antiquity and universal significance, and rather than transforming into female in China, actually retained her original gender categorisation there, whilst transformations were taking place in neighbouring Tibet and India. The deity which emerged in Tibet, whilst embodying attributes of the earlier female, actually subsumed her symbolic meaning, and did, as Diana Paul describes, embody the three essential characteristics of a Bodhisattva, that is, male in body, asexual in nature, and androgynous by character. Alongside him a symbolic 'daughter' Dolma carried forward the mother symbolism, but in a less prominent position.

There seems little doubt that the promotion of Buddhist philosophies, which theorized the possibility of gender change as an attribute of Bodhisattvas, explained these confusions of gender and exchanges of roles in a philosophical rather than an historical context. Nonetheless, some commentators do recognise that certain 'autonomous'9 deities did develop in the Buddhist cults of the fourth century. These deities, whose 'independent development outside the Buddhist tradition, (were) subsequently incorporated by Buddhist practitioners',10 most frequently had their origins in the much older Hindu tradition. Even in China, Taoism seems to have carried forward archaic images, 'As is well known, symbols such as the Mysterious Female and Mother Earth are fundamental to Taoism, representing essential pragmatic aspects of the teaching.'11 In the Tibetan case this process was considerably affected by its geographical position, sandwiched as it was, strategically, between several great civilisations. When the male god Chenrezig gained ascendency in the minds of the faithful, his qualities and attributes were set out in such a way as to fulfil the criteria required by the Mahayana teachings, and his status as a Bodhisattva, while replacing primitive mother goddesses, but not the symbols associated with them. In this way continuity would be achieved, and a new order created, but one in which the meaning of the earlier essentialist symbols of the deity would be considerably weakened for women.

The importance of these transformations cannot be underestimated, because what they represent is a shift in consciousness from a so-called 'primitive' belief in the essential being,12 sexuality and divinity of the female, in her personification as the Great Mother, to a position in which the female became not only of secondary importance, but also categorised relationally and sometimes in symbolic opposition to the male. This dualistic position, characterised by the goddess's existence as defined by her relationship to the male, gave rise not only to an androcentric view of philosophical matters, but also to the loss of symbolic relationship between females, and thus the loss of potential divinity through the female, as and by herself. As various writers have noted, this has led, in tandem with the social structure which supports such a belief system, to a problem in female transcendency. Luce Irigaray states categorically, 'there is no longer any spirit of divinity circulating between mother and daughter, between woman and woman'. 13

The evolution of Chenrezig, however, has to be seen in the context of the symbol most closely associated with him --- the Lotus. This universal symbol, whose images are to be found far back in the depths of antiquity, links Chenrezig with the ancient Lotus Goddess of the past. Her existence, in various forms, can be traced as far back as 2500 BC, when images of her were made during the great Mohenjo-Daro civilisation of the Indus. Joseph Campbell writes of her, 'She is a special aspect or local development of the Mother Earth of old: the great mother goddess of the Chalolithic period, who was worshipped over a wide area of the world.'14 The Mother Goddess, whose image has been found in caves in Utter Pradesh, India, and carbon-dated to 20,000 BC, is very ancient indeed. Her later association with the lotus can be seen from lands as far afield as the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the valley of the Danube, replicating the features of an early Sumero-Semitic goddess of Mesopotamia and pre-Aryan times.

In Asia, the symbol of the lotus represented female sexuality, so much so that images of the lotus (Sanskrit padma) were understood as alluding to the vulva. Always associated with fluid, because the lotus vegetates from its own matrice without earth, it was the symbol of 'the productive powers of the waters'.15 Indian myths describe the white lotus and white elephant as figures which arose out of the churning of a milky ocean at the beginning of time. The first elephant, known as Airavata, 'born of she who is possessed by fluid',16 later came to symbolise fertility and abundance, as well as its association with the female. In ritual festivals in India, devotees of the Mother Goddess seeking to invoke her powers to bring the rains, and increase fertility, follow a white elephant, painted with sandalwood, and accompanied by men wearing women's dress, in order to 'do honor to the cosmic female principle, the maternal, the procreative, feeding energy of nature'.17

Clearly related to notions of fertility, and to the generative powers of the female, the Lotus Goddess Padma came to represent essential female being. Many of the themes of the original myth of the creation appear in the story of the conception of the historical Buddha, Gautama, in the womb of his mother, Queen Maya. In the legend, the queen prepares for a full moon festival by giving money to the poor, taking vows of self-discipline and then retiring to bed. Once asleep, she dreams of being taken to the Himalayas, the traditional abode of the ancient gods, where she is bathed in a lake by the queens of the rulers of the four directions. They then lay her on a bed inside a golden mansion, set on a silver mountain, and the Buddha-to-be enters the mansion in the form of a white elephant bearing a white lotus in its trunk, and enters her body through her right side. The next morning, when the queen tells her husband of the dream, and he summons 64 priests to make an interpretation, their first words, as though anticipating the assumption drawn from so much female symbolism, are, 'Do not be anxious, the embryo is not female, but male, and a superior being'.18

In India, the ascetic branches of Buddhism attempted to get rid of the ancient lotus imagery, but their zeal was unsuccessful when 'a few centuries after Buddha's time, the most prominent figure on Buddhist monuments was again Padma, openly displaying her genital lotus'.19 Later, the actual sexual imagery of a female deity displaying her own sexuality in a unitary image would largely be replaced by the yab-yum images of male and female deities in sexual union, and the lotus itself given a symbolic position on Tibetan Buddhist images. In China she evolved to become the goddess Kuan-Yin, who pre-dated the emergence of the deity as male in Tibet. Diana Paul views the female Kuan-Yin as a deity who has undergone gender transformation. 'It is not at all evident how this intriguing transformation from male to female took place',20 she writes, yet does not take account of the possibility that Kuan-Yin may have remained true to her original gender, and that the transformation was the one which took place in Tibet and India, from female to male. She argues that Kuan-Yin's origins could have been either as a combination of the ancient Taoist 'Queen Mother of the West' and the Indian Buddhist figure of Avolokiteswara; or as an extended form of Tara, his Tantric Buddhist consort. Certainly the boundaries between all these deities seem very fluid and their individual evolution may have depended upon social and geographical factors which influenced how their meaning was established in the different iconographies of different cultures. The clues to the evolutionary process which took place are, however, to be found in the similarities which emerge in the legends and myths regarding all these deities, and in particular the stories concerning all three phases of development, the ancient female, the incorporated female, and the primary male.

The Tibetan deity Dolma, for example, was linked in legend to Chenrezig. She is said to have been born from him, in a lotus flower which grew in a lake formed by one of his teardrops. As a myth, this account of the birth of a goddess demonstrates a strange reversal of roles, in which a male deity 'gives birth' to a female, through the only body fluid directly comparable with water (or the sea) -- the original source of the lotus itself. In a similar way the Hindus themselves reversed their early symbolism regarding the goddess Padma, by representing the lotus as emerging from Vishnu's navel. But as Joseph Campbell has noted,

(because) the primary reference of the lotus in India has always been the goddess Padma, 'Lotus', whose body itself is the universe, the long stem from navel to lotus should properly connote an umbilical cord through which the flow of energy would be running from the goddess to the god, mother to child, not the other way.21

The mythological origins of Kuan-Yin as the leading lotus deity of China has similar interesting parallels with many of the features attributed to the latter-day male god Chenrezig in Tibet. Her existence as a figure of mythology, named Miao-Shan, was said to have been in the Chow Dynasty, around 696 BC, although some records date the legend as early as the Chin T'ien epoch of 2587 BC.22 It is said that as a young woman she wanted to become a nun against her father's wishes, and went to the monastery of White Sparrows in order to meditate. To show his displeasure at her not marrying, her father ordered that she be decapitated. The sword used to do this, however, was said to have broken into a thousand pieces when it struck her, so she was strangled, and her soul after reaching paradise re-emerged, and was transported on a lotus flower to the island of P'oo too. Later, when her father fell ill, he dreamt of a doctor who told him that his only cure would be to obtain medicine made from the hand and eye of a living person. The doctor was in fact his transformed daughter, who had gained powers through eating a magical peach, and she cut off her arms and plucked out an eye, in order to cure him. In gratitude, the father made a statue of her, which had one thousand arms and eyes. On confessing his evil deed in murdering her, the daughter's response was simply, 'Will you now force me to marry?'23 Later she gained many disciples, one of whom, a fish, gifted her with a magic pearl for saving his life.

In the myth of Miao-Shan, it is clear that the daughter struggles against patriarchal imperatives in order to attempt to fulfill her own spiritual destiny, but that ultimately it is her sacrificial act of love for the father which carries the meaning of her altruistic compassion. In this kind of patriarchal myth, the father is the key point of reference in the daughter's choice of action, because it is he whom she disobeys, it is he who kills her, and it is to him that she sacrifices her body in an act of love. There is no doubt that the story would have carried quite a different meaning had her mother killed her and she had sacrificed her body for the sake of her mother. Instead, Miao-Shan's tale illustrates the options open to women under a patriarchal system in which she must either submit herself to the institution of marriage, or reject it openly in an act of defiance of societal norms, and thereafter suffer the punitive consequences. Furthermore, after having undergone a symbolic 'annihilation' in society through her actions, (as symbolised by her strangulation) such a woman is obliged to show her compassion for her oppressor by sacrificing her body (and thus its sexuality) in order to be rehabilitated in the eyes of man, and take up a new position in which he can worship her. Julia Kristeva has analysed this paradoxical scenario as it affects women today:

woman is presented with a clear-cut choice: either she remains identified with the mother, thus ensuring her own exclusion from and marginality in relation to patriarchal society or, repressing the body of the mother, she identifies with the father, thus raising herself to his symbolic heights. Such an identification, however, not only deprives woman of the maternal body, but also of her own.24 (Italics mine)

There are several other interesting aspects to the Miao-Shan story. To satisfy his anger the father attempts to sacrifice her by decapitation, in an act which reverses the genders of the participants of the beheadings made in the name of the great angry goddess of antiquity, Kali. Once dead, however, Miao-Shan's plucking out of an eye, and mutilation of her own body, symbolically remove two signifiers of woman's power -- the fearful all-seeing eye (represented in myths by such goddesses as Medusa, or the Indian Minaksi-Kali, the 'Fish-Eyed One', or the Tibetan one-eyed goddess Ekajati), which has the power to destroy, and female beauty itself which has the power to tempt men. In many ancient cultures, the evil eye was identified as female, associated with Kali, and thought to be capable of looking into the souls of men. In India itself, the symbol of the yoni was used as an amulet to ward it off. In the myth, not only is Miao-Shan obliged to remove an eye as an offering to the father, but later she is gifted back eyes and arms by her father, as symbolic attributes which signify not the power of destruction and evil, but rather the all-seeing power of goodness.

In the legends of many ancient goddesses, the two features of beauty and magnetic eyes are frequently represented together, but in later myths and in the accounts even of the lives of female Christian saints, they are described as obstacles to woman's spiritual life, which require to be 'removed' before she can pursue her ambitions in peace. Frequently these myths describe the self-effacement of women in terms of the benefit for women themselves who, by carrying out such acts against themselves, are freed from the restraints of patriarchal imperatives to marry, and thus can follow a religious life. But the other aspect of sacrificial acts against the body is the requirement by women to undertake such gestures 'for the sake of the father', in other words for the sake of society, which, under patriarchy, obliges them to place their powers secondary to those of men, and to give up the female body and its sexuality in order to gain an equal status with men in the religious domain. These imperatives were born not only out of men's discomfort at being unable to control beautiful women who chose to follow the spiritual life rather than marry, but also out of the requirement for female sexuality to be negated unless it was under the control of men. The myths which emerged in the transitional period between the ancient worship of goddesses as primary, and the later worship of gods as primary (such as that of Miao-Shan), illustrate this new order under which the old attributes were reversed and redefined under religious patriarchal rule.

One last note concerning the legend is the intriguing insertions of references to the ancient deity most closely linked with female generative powers. When Miao-Shan 'comes back from the dead', she does so by eating a magical peach, which in Chinese mythology represented the female genital, whose juice was thought to be the elixir of life. The Chinese believed that there existed a magical peach garden, situated to the west, which was ruled over by the Great Mother. Later the story tells us that a disciple, a fish, gives her a magical pearl, a jewel always known to be sacred to the Goddess of the Sea, whose body, in Chinese myth, was the gate (the 'pearly gate') through which all passed at birth and death. 'The ancients gave all pearls the feminine connotation, saying they were made of two female powers, the moon and water'.25 That the donor of the pearl is a fish is also related to its ancient symbolism. 'A world-wide symbol of the Great Mother was the pointed-oval of the yoni, known as vesica piscis, Vessel of the Fish .... The Chinese Great Mother Kwan-Yin ("Yoni of yonis") often appeared as a fish-goddess'.26 The myth of Miao-Shan therefore confirms the importance of the maternal for women, emphasising that women's powers come from the mother, although in patriarchal societies this must be hidden, and the mother denied.

It is very evident that the story of Miao-Shan incorporates significant references to the culture of the past, while describing the requirements for harmony in a new social order. In this way, in a manner not unlike the Hesiodic myths, the Chinese myth becomes an important signifier of historical change, which carries forward in the minds of the people the memories of the past, together with the reality of the present, in a kind of universal unconscious. Miao-Shan's story reminds us of the magical quality of the time in which the relationship with the Great Mother was primary, and describes the violence which is an inevitable part of the establishment of patriarchal rule by force. Rene Girard supports this argument that all societies are based on some kind of sacrifice, whose violence is mediated by religion, but Luce Irigaray goes further in pointing out that the initial sacrifice in all structured societies relates to the mother, and thus to fertility. 'The suppression and incorporation of the maternal genealogy by the paternal genealogy leads to a non-respect of fertility'.27 In Miao-Shan's legend there is a clear rejection of motherhood, so that she may achieve spiritual progress, a theme which is repeated in many later Buddhist stories which involve women, even those who, as mothers already, feel obliged to give up their roles in order to attain spiritual enlightenment.

Despite the antiquity of Kuan-Yin's legend in her form as Miao-Shan, many remnants of this old story have been preserved in the present-day image of the male Buddhist god, Chenrezig. She was known as 'she whose eyes see all things', and 'Great Mercy', while Chenrezig's name in Tibetan literally means 'all-seeing', and one of his epithets is 'Great Merciful one'. Miao-Shan lived on the island of P'oo too, while Chenrezig is said to reside in the Po to la, the name also given to the Lhasa palace of his alleged incarnation on earth, the Dalai Lama.28 Miao-Shan is depicted wearing white robes, and was worshipped in her form with one thousand arms and eyes. Chenrezig is white in colour (despite the anomaly of belonging to the red Buddha family), and has a form which has a thousand arms and eyes. Miao-Shan had a magic pearl, a magic fruit, and was transported to P'oo too on a lotus. Chenrezig holds a pearl rosary, a lotus, and a magic round jewel in his four-armed form, and is said to have been born from a lotus flower.

In both China (Kuan-Yin) and Japan (Kannon) her name literally means 'looking at the sounds' and she has forms which carry a baby, or hold a round object said to be a fruit which represents fertility. Getty, in her study of the deity, noted that,

The common people pray to the divinity as 'goddess of mercy' while the priests and the more educated classes worship the god as a masculine deity, for he is believed to dwell on the right hand of Amitabha ... where no woman, without attaining merit, can enter.29

Amitabha, as the Buddhist deity who oversees the Pure Land of Buddhas of the West, may well have been an adaptation, in legend, of the Taoist Queen Mother of the West, re-cast as the male Buddha in an all-male Pure Land (of the Western Direction), for it is evident that, with the advent of Buddhism, many of the ancient and central deities did re-emerge as male. Evidence of this possibility comes directly from one of the Buddhist Sutras, the aptly named 'Lotus Sutra', where Amitabha is actually represented momentarily as female and as a mother figure, all the more puzzling when one considers the dogma surrounding the belief that meritorious beings are admitted to his Pure Land in male form only.

As I have already mentioned, in Tibet itself, the role of principal Mother Buddha was taken by Dolma, most commonly worshipped in her green form, but also in her white form as the consort to Chenrezig. Twenty-one (seven times three in magic numbers) forms of Dolma are acknowledged. Dolma too is marked by the signs attributed to the early legendary form of Kuan-Yin -- she has eyes in the palms of her hands and soles of her feet, and holds a lotus flower. In Japan she is portrayed holding a blue lotus or a pomegranate. In her white form as Junguli, she is invoked to cure snake bites, and holds a white snake in one of her four hands. In Japan the Snake Goddess is an emanation of Sarasvati, who is worshipped as a white snake, and it is thought her worship may have originated from a sixth-century legend that there existed, to the north of China, 'a Kingdom of women who took serpents for husbands'.30 At any rate, it is well known that the sexual energy aroused in Hindu Tantric practice through the use of a sakti is known as kundalini and represented as a serpent.

All these kinds of associations, legends and myths clearly mark the lotus deity as a primordial symbol of female sexuality and procreativity. The subsequent gender change and incorporation of the female into the male points to an evolutionary development in society which involved the suppression of female sexuality as the primary object of worship and veneration, and a move from mother worship and superstition to the more organised rationality of the law of the father. Further evidence of the change in gender of the lotus deity, and the suppression of the female is to be found in the meaning of his mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum. Popularly translated as 'Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus', it is frequently interpreted as alluding to Tantric sexual practices, with 'jewel' being interpreted as the phallus, and 'lotus' as the vagina. Many Tibetan scholars have disagreed with this interpretation, however.

In the first place, whilst padma clearly does refer to the vagina, it is not convincing that mani should be interpreted as 'phallus'. In some Sanskrit dictionaries mani does carry the meaning of 'glans penis', but interestingly also carries the meaning of clitoris.31 In almost all instances of what Bharati calls Tantric 'intentional language',32 where a metaphor for phallus is used, it is written as vajra in Sanskrit, in Tibetan dorje. Mani, however, literally means 'pearl', 'jewel' or 'gem' in Sanskrit. The Tibetan equivalents, mutig and norbu do not carry the connotation of phallus, but rather link the deity with its more ancient form and the legends concerning pearls and jewels. A. H. Francke, in his article on the meaning of the mantra, points out that the 'e' of padme is the 'vocative case of a feminine noun ending in 'a'.33 He argues that the mantra is addressed to a female deity called Manipadma -- 'the deity of the jewel-lotus' (italics mine)34 -- or the Goddess Pearl-Lotus, an epithet which could easily be applied to Kuan-Yin and the ancient forms of the female deity who pre-dated Chenrezig. Read in this way the invocation would be a powerful mantra to the essential sexuality of the female, i.e. the deity of the clitoris-vagina.

This point is further substantiated by the ancient writings of Longchenpa, who verifies that in order to address one's tutelary deity, 'You should invoke his (sic) name in Sanskrit prefixing it with the syllable Om and letting it end with Ah or Hum'.35 Francke however goes further and proposes that other mantras which seemingly refer to male deities use a similar vocative case and are therefore addressed to a female, e.g. those of Manjusri and Vajrapani, who are often found in triadic occurrence with Chenrezig. His suggestion for this anomaly is that the mantra may have been addressed to the deity's consort as she was regarded as more powerful, but it seems more likely that when the zealous missionaries of Indian Buddhism sought to establish their faith in Tibet, they had as their goal the obliteration of all signs which were linked in the people's minds with the 'old religion'. As part of this process, these ancient mantras were simply transferred to male deities after they had undergone their sex change. In India similar processes occurred. According to the Hindu belief, the waters of the earth are female and maternal, and the cosmic lotus which emerges from the ocean is called 'The Highest form of Earth' or 'The Goddess Moisture'.36 It is personified in myth as the Mother Goddess through whom the absolute moves into creation. As Joseph Campbell has pointed out, the Mother Goddess of ancient India, on whom the Buddhist deity Prajnaparamita was modelled, and later shown sitting on a lotus with a lotus in her left hand, 'was removed from her Lotus and Brahma seated in her stead'.37 The reason for this event, he claims, was 'the arrival of the strictly patriarchal warrior-herdsmen'38 who proceeded to install their own patriarchal gods. Whilst Campbell acknowledges the return 'to its archetypal nature'39 of the goddess Kuan-Yin in China, he also perceives the decline and loss of the fertility aspect, and in particular the specificity of a female gender in the Tibetan representation of the lotus deity, who was then worshipped as male.

That the male deities Chenrezig, Manjusri and Vajrapani may have had original form as female deities is an interesting proposition, especially as their triadic form, still frequently seen, would have been akin to the many manifestations of the triple goddess worshipped elsewhere in the ancient world. Some commentators, however, have tried to argue that the triadic occurrence of deities is symbolically phallic and that the so-called 'femininity' of some of the qualities and aspects of male deities is due to the evolution of a male deity in whom the mother imago is embodied, rather than replaced. In this way, Chenrezig has been described as, 'a desexualized mother',40 'at worst a female, and at best an asexual youth' (italics mine).41

These kinds of images, which appropriate and incorporate the female, together with the use of derogatory language ('at worst a female'), underline the subtleties which a contemporary Freudian interpreter of Tibetan iconography employs in order to rationalise the historical and iconographical place of the female as inferior. In Mary Daly's interpretation of the Dionysian myth, she discusses a similar example of the incorporation of the female into the male, by comparing and contrasting the ways in which Apollo and Dionysus are viewed in Greek mythology, and as modern symbols within Christian theology. Whilst Apollo is seen to represent rampant masculinity, whose influence has been supreme throughout modern history, Dionysus, like Chenrezig, embodies the mother imago, and is himself described as 'feminine' in nature. Like Chenrezig, he is born from a part of the body of a male (father) god -- the thigh of Zeus, after Zeus had destroyed Semele who was carrying him. There is a suggestion that some Christian theologists now advocate the return of Dionysus as an ideal model of androgyny, in whom the female has been incorporated, but Daly warns of the dangers of women being seduced by such an image, which she suggests can ultimately lead to madness. She goes further, 'we can well be suspicious of male fascination with the all too feminine Dionysus, for his mythic presence foreshadows attempts to eliminate women altogether' (italics mine).42

In the Tibetan case, one begins to see how this process evolved, first from an incorporation of the myth of the lotus deity, her features, and even her most basic attribute, her birth-giving powers, into a male counterpart, then in the diminution of her role as herself to the relational role of mother or consort of the male. Other female deities, who once represented aspects of female divinity, such as wrathful destructive powers, suffered the same fate, thus ensuring that in the iconography only male subjectivity was prioritised and addressed. Male deities, such as the Buddha, retain their integrity as central subjects, and are never described as 'consorts to' a particular female deity, whilst female deities, sometimes worshipped in their own right, are nonetheless always labelled in this way. Even the iconographical images always show the male as subject, face showing, and the female consort, in sexual union with him, with her back to the viewer.

In the iconography of Tibet the image of the lotus has found its way into the representations of all deities, by forming the seat on which the Buddhas, gods, goddesses or lamas sit. As if the symbolism of this act were not enough, the lotus is employed also as an icon by which purified males are completely free from the taint of female presence. In the religious texts, to be 'lotus-born' is the equivalent of being enlightened, or having been born from purity, rather than of the world. This is the particular epithet of Padmasambhava (Tibetan Guru Rinpoche) who reputedly introduced Buddhism to Tibet and whose name in Sanskrit alludes to his status as having originated from a lotus (Sanskrit padma -- lotus). This myth, in line with many myths concerning the birth of the 'hero', dissociates the male from the human mother by attributing his birth to the miraculous, outwith the sphere of the female; in this case the vagina being represented, as in ancient times, with the lotus flower. A contemporary analyst of the symbolism of the mandala, points out this very fact when he puts forward his view of the symbolism of the lotus circle which is found in representations of the Tibetan mandala. According to him, the lotus circle represents the purity of birth of Padmasmbhava, a reincarnation of the Buddha. Whilst the Buddha's birth is described as 'not sufficiently pure on the female side', the birth of his later Tibetan incarnation had to be 'improved upon with further developments'.43 In other words, not only is the conception of a Buddha deemed to be a symbolic affair, but the actual passage of birth, through the medium of a real woman's body, had to be replaced within the Tibetan system by pure symbolism.

The transformation of the Lotus Goddess into a male god under the Tibetan Buddhist system, was, however, only one aspect of the diminution of her status, for it is also apparent that she became associated with a new and different manifestation of the Great Mother within the Tibetan Buddhist iconography. As Prajnaparamita (Tibetan yum.chen. mo., 'great mother') some characteristics of the old goddess remain, but as Campbell has pointed out concerning this adaptation, 'The ancient pattern of the goddess Lotus . . . has undergone a radical transformation of meaning' (italics mine).44 It is this change in meaning, in addition to the change in form, which determines Tibetan Buddhism as particularly patriarchal, creating, as it does, a system in which the seemingly exalted status of the female in the iconography is not replicated within society. In his observation of this phenomenon, Campbell explains the transfiguration as being from 'maternal goddess of earthly goods and happiness, of fertility and earthbound life' to 'the highest representative of world-transcending wakefulness'.45 As grand as this may sound, it is important to realise that the transcendency which is inferred by this definition is ultimately of value only to the male, by whose definitions the goddess has come into being. Seen always from his perspective and always relationally, the female deity lacks the substance and the subjectivity granted to the male. Thus it transpires that in the loss of the apparent essentialism of her meaning as primordial creator and mother, the Great Mother was reduced, under a new system, to a representation which ultimately served social and political interests, and in particular the interests of the male priesthood.
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Re: Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibe

Postby admin » Thu Feb 28, 2019 6:47 pm

Chapter 4: Monasticism and the Emergence of the Lineage of the Self-Born

The state establishment of heterodox Buddhism in Tibet ensured that the worship of ancient gods and goddesses would gradually be supplanted by a new social and iconographical hierarchy, brought into being by the all-male priesthood of lamas, who soon were to hold political as well as religious power. With the development of various sects, amongst whom both political and spiritual rivalry grew, the monastic hierarchy sought to establish itself alongside the traditions of older beliefs where the lay aspect of religious life was emphasised.1 Monasticism, however, whilst dominant, never completely replaced these older ways, but was able to co-exist alongside secular traditions, so that in Tibetan society both lay and celibate lamas held positions of great authority. In effect, only one out of the four major schools consisted wholly of a monastic tradition of succession, and it was from this school, the Gelugpa, that the position of Dalai Lama, as the politico-spiritual leader of the Tibetans, evolved.

There is no doubt that the people of Tibet held the lamas in great esteem. Their power base was established principally on the strength of the intricate institution which developed over the centuries and which led to the virtual deification of certain high lamas and their subsequent successors. This system of succession by reincarnation, the tulku (Tibetan sprul.ku)2 system, ensured a particularly unique means of accession to power by the lamas, in social, political, spiritual and esoteric aspects of Tibetan life. Its adoption by all the major schools of Buddhism in Tibet was significant in the promotion of patriarchal ideals in which male power, both secular and spiritual, was central to society. Furthermore, the central and powerful role which the lama held, not only in the social and religious structures of society, where the theocracy developed, but also in the philosophical and iconographical aspects of the religion itself, ensured that notions of male superiority were embedded in all aspects of Tibetan life.

The lama's role in Tibetan society was multifarious. In many respects his activities were akin to those of the shaman, who as an intermediary between the divine and the profane had the sole power to initiate his followers into the mysteries of the spiritual life, and also help them to pass from this life to the next. Like the shaman too, the lama was frequently called upon by his followers to dispense medicines, perform acts of exorcism and divination, recite incantations, and undertake rituals with bone instruments and sacred objects. Even the shamanistic practice of falling into trance-like states in order to commune with spirits of a different dimension, was retained by the Tibetan Buddhist state through the establishment of official 'oracles' whose role was to take possession of the spirit of a deity, and make pronouncements about the future.

Whilst oracles were thought to have the ability to commune with deities, some lamas were deemed to be those deities, and were worshipped as their embodiments on earth. Not only could a lama be a shaman, healer, teacher and holder of spiritual power (Tibetan dbang.), which would only be transmitted through religious initiation, but he could also be the donor of divine and spiritual grace. This was certainly the case with the heads of the major schools, who were variously seen to be incarnations of such deities as Avolokiteswara, Padmasambhava, or Manjusri, in addition of course to being incarnations (tulkus), or even 'aspects' of previous famous lamas.

The title 'lama' (Tibetan bla. ma.) is only given to those who fall heir to it through reincarnation, or who merit it through many years of study or meditation practice. It has always been equated, however, with the Sanskrit term guru, whose esoteric importance in Tantra is emphasised in all the texts. Whilst textual references may infer that the esoteric meaning of the guru is more complex than simply the adoration of one man, some commentators, although keen to underline the synonymity of the word guru with lama, fail to look further. 'It is unfortunate that both the Tibetan term bla-ma and the Sanskrit word guru have been horribly misused, be it out of ignorance or self-aggrandisement ... The word bla-ma stands for the Sanskrit word guru which has two meanings of 'weighty' (heavy) and 'light' (ethereal). As there is an abundance of capabilities there is weightiness, and as there is no limitation by evil there is lightness. This meaning also applies to primordial pristine cognitiveness'.3 Whilst this writer may be intrigued by the etymology of the Sanskrit word guru, and at pains to make much of its deep meaning, he seems particularly reticent about exploring that of 'lama'. With its definitively feminine ending, its etymology is unambiguous. The syllable 'la' (Tibetan bla.) means superior, and it can also mean soul or life; while the syllable 'ma' (Tibetan ma.) is conclusively the word for mother, and as an ending denotes the female in many words. Several Tibetans lamas have confirmed to me that the 'ma' in lama refers to the mother, and that the explanation for this title is that the lama is viewed as the highest form of motherhood. In Chandra Das's Tibetan-English Dictionary there is an acknowledgement of the literal translation of the word lama as 'soul mother', or 'the all-sustaining mother of the universe.'4 He also quotes a Tibetan saying, 'previous to the lama, even the name of the Buddha did not exist.'5

This saying could have an historical as well as a symbolic meaning. At its most mundane level, it may mean that the lama (i.e. the male priest) came into existence concomitantly with the advent of state Buddhism. On the other hand, given its ambiguity, it may mean that, prior to the worship of the Great Mother, language and patriarchal religion did not exist. Given also the overwhelming evidence which points to the establishment of patriarchal rule in the ancient world some time during the Bronze Age,6 and the worship of the Great Mother which preceded that rule as far back as the palaeolithic period at least, then it does seem possible that prior to her worship patriarchal language associated with the process of 'naming' did not exist, and certainly there would have been no concept of a supreme male deity. On its final level of symbolic interpretation, the saying bears close resemblance to the psychoanalytic theory which proposes that any human's relationship to the maternal is primary, and precedes entry into the symbolic order where language and the 'word of the father'7 come into existence. In accordance with the Tibetan proclivity for threefold or sometimes even fourfold explanations of 'outer', 'inner' and 'secret' meanings, this saying can be read in different ways.

In the Tibetan-English Dictionary, Das also points out that Tibetan scholars themselves have alluded to pre-Buddhist Hindu influences in the etymology of the word, which strangely has a female suffix. It certainly seems doubtful that the word 'lama' was coined after the state introduction of Buddhism in the eighth century, when there already existed a patriarchal lineage of royal succession. If the word was ever meant to refer to the male priesthood it would surely have been lapa, using the male ending pa. My conclusion, therefore, is that the word was in use in Tibet before the introduction of the hierarchical theocracy of 'lamas', and referred possibly to the female Tantric priests of ancient India, or to the shamanistic practitioners who worshipped the Great Mother in pre-Buddhist times. This unusual carry-over of usage of a female term for the established male priesthood provides further evidence of the significance of the female at a different time in Tibet's history.

The priesthood, established firmly by the thirteenth century, by which time the unique incarnation system of succession had taken hold, formed the basis of the feudal social system, which governed Tibet for over seven hundred years. With the decline of the pagan societies whose traditions, as I have shown, often featured women as powerful figures, and whose marriage customs incorporated both polygamy and polyandry, the Buddhist system, or 'Lamaism', created a very different form of rule. In her article 'Primordial purity and everyday life', Anne C. Klein ponders on the reasons why women did not have equal status with men in Tibetan society and in the Tibetan Buddhist institution. Citing examples of women's situation at home, at work, in education, in religious life, and the position of the female within the iconographic symbolism, Klein concludes that 'Tibetan society, especially where political or economic power accrued, was intricately hierarchical', and 'wherever hierarchical structures were emphasized, as they were in Tibet's monastic order and theocratic political system ... women were excluded from power'.9

Klein's argument, however, is that there do exist within the iconography images of the female (particularly those which depict the association of the female with primordial purity, or emptiness), which predetermine the potentiality for female social liberation. However, as I shall show, the interdependence of the secular and religious spheres in Tibetan Buddhist society, together with the strong historical influences of shamanism, Bon and Tantra, combined to create a religion and iconography in which the images of the female were ambiguous to say the least, and not necessarily positive, given the change in meaning which arose when the old views of the natural world were replaced with the sophistication of the hierarchical system of Buddhism which developed. The interrelationship between the secular and the religious structures of Tibetan society and the central position of Buddhism as the arbiter of culture, is clearly one of the aspects of Tibetan civilisation which sets it apart from many other cultures. It is difficult to find, for example, much evidence of a secular tradition in art, music or literature, given that the thread of Buddhist mythology runs through everything.

The tulku system, however, is by far the most powerful aspect of the way in which Tibetan Buddhism evolved. Despite being a patriarchal system of rule it nonetheless incorporated several female 'tokens' by which it vindicated itself from charges of exclusivity. Established by the followers of Dusum Khyenpa, the first Karmapa Lama, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, it was soon adopted by all the other sects and spread throughout the Tibetan Buddhist world, to countries such as Mongolia, Bhutan and Nepal. The system ensured that Buddhist lamas who died were 'reincarnated' in male children, who were then taken as young boys (tulkus) and enthroned as the head of the monastery which they were said to have previously ruled. The system was supported by the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, which postulates that there are six realms of existence10 and within these realms any sentient being (i.e. a being with a mind) may be reborn after death. The place of birth is dependent on the actions or karma, (Tibetan lay, las.) of the individual during his or her lifetime. Buddhism views liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth as the goal of the practitioner, the ultimate state being called nirvana. However of all the realms, the human realm is seen as being the best, because it is believed that it is only in the human condition that one can achieve Buddhahood and liberation from the wheel of life, or samsara. In addition, the Tibetans believe that the acquisition of a 'precious human body' also entails not being born with a disability of the senses, and not being born into 'primitive tribes to which no religion has appeared'.11

It is not surprising therefore, that Tibetan peasants quite readily accepted the tulku theory, as it was applied to Tibet. The theory proposed that the lama, (or guru) who inevitably headed their community, and whose power was manifested in his considerable knowledge, wealth and prestige, was, if not an incarnation of the Buddha himself, then at least a spiritually advanced being, perhaps a Bodhisattva12 who would have the wisdom and means to choose his next rebirth through his miraculous powers of meditation. Equally unsurprising would be the fact that he would choose to be reborn amongst them, rather than as any other human being in any other country, or as any other being in any other realm.13 Given Tibet's isolation, and isolationism, few other alternatives could have been thought possible. The powers bestowed on such a male child 'discovered' in this way were therefore quite unique, and his elevation to the status of 'divine' immediate.

As an alternative to local kingships, the Tibetan tulku system allowed for the transference of local power on the death of the lama of a monastery to a child, usually unrelated by blood, and more than often under the age of five. By the seventeenth century the system was adopted to establish wide-ranging temporal power in the form of the Dalai Lamas who, as heads of the so-called Yellow Hat Sect, the Gelugpas, manoeuvered themselves into a position of political power through negotiations with the more powerful sovereigns of China and Mongolia. One Tibetan has described the system as combining, 'popular democracy with metaphysical monarchy'.14 Whilst it is deeply inaccurate to suppose that the power to choose new incarnations lay anywhere outside a small elite of lamas who previously were close to the deceased, and could never therefore be classed as democratic, the idea of a metaphysical monarchy is one which bears closer examination. Indeed, one commentator who has theorised on the nature of the Tibetan system, Robert A. Paul, sees a parallel between the ancient idea of 'the divine king' and the Tibetan tulku system which, in his view, represents a contemporary version of it. He maintains that 'political and sacred authority are always accompanied by Oedipal symbolism',15 and sees the Tibetan system as simply another manifestation of the universal law which says that men must rule, and that to do so they must compete with other men over their access to, or control over, women. Using both the historical argument which compares Tibetan traditions with those of other cultures, and the psychoanalytic argument which examines the underlying motivations which influence how patriarchal institutions and societies are organised, it is easy to see how such a phallocentric view could be upheld. There are certainly some of the features of the divine king myth present in the Tibetan system. For example, in the legends of many cultures the divine king is represented as an archetypal figure who, in a variety of guises, is seen as sacred, and as the embodiment of continuity, structure and value in society -- qualities which require to be maintained despite the inevitability of his death. This facet is to be found in the tulku system.

Furthermore, the association of certain features of the traditions surrounding Mother Goddess worship, with a male succession to power, strongly suggests that the tulku system could simply be an adaptation of the divine king legends. In the Celtic European practices of the 'divine victim', the king, as the god incarnate and consort to the queen, was worshipped for a set period of time, then sacrificed and replaced by a younger man. This practice later evolved into the sacrificing of animals or symbolic objects at certain times of the year, so that the king himself would not die. In the Tibetan system, whilst the dying lama is not sacrificed, the requirement that there be continuity of his spirit, which is determined by esoteric rituals which predict the whereabouts of his soul after death, ensure that the 'king' does not truly 'die'. Similarly it is known that 'human sacrifice . . . is everywhere characteristic of the worship of the goddess',16 and as I have already shown there is certain evidence for both sacrifice (both human and animal) and goddess worship in the history of Tibet and its early empire. Other aspects of these ancient practices seem to have their parallels in Tibetan mythology. For example, in the early Bronze Age mythology of ritual regicide, 'the king was identified with the dying and resurrected moon',17 whilst in Near Eastern civilisation 'The leading concept was of a goddess of an eon mathematically marked by the passages of seven spheres, and the king, ritually slain, was the incarnate god, her ever-living, ever-dying spouse.'18

The number seven, as I have shown earlier, was often viewed as magical, was associated with the phases of the moon, and appears frequently in these kinds of mythologies, both in the Bon and Buddhist traditions. It is recorded for instance that, in ancient times, a white horse and seven sheep were sacrificed every year in the seventh moon, at Karma Tang, at the source of the Yellow River in Tibet. The universal king of Tibetan Buddhist mythology is said to have had seven jewelled companions. Most interesting of all are the references, by several Tibetan scholars, to the fact that in 'prehistoric' Tibet the seven mythical kings of the Yar-Lung thrones had a sacrificial death when their sons reached thirteen years of age. If this is indeed true then it is easy to see how the idea of the ever-living 'divine king', with whose mythology the Tibetans were already familiar, could be adapted, under the new system of Buddhism, to accommodate the monastic order of lamas and their wish to rule.

The question of whether or not the whole notion of male power and divinity, which has its roots in such myths as these, can be said to have both universal and timeless qualities is, however, much more controversial. Not only that, but the significance of the proposition that male power and divinity are related to universal norms which dictate that men establish (and have always established) their societal position vis-a-vis their particular relationship with their fathers, and thus the so-called Oedipal struggle, has a direct bearing on how women fit into that view of the world, and how indeed the female is represented within that system of thought. By analysing in more depth the historical roots of the Tibetan system, which still appears to promote 'divine kingship', I aim to show the evolutionary quality of the marginalisation and degeneration of the importance of the female within the system. In addition, I argue that there are no such things as universal and timeless categories which place the male as subject, and female as object, but rather that philosophical thought concerning such matters depends on, or is closely related to, ever-changing social structures for their development and promotion.

As I have shown clearly, many of the rituals and practices which are widely acknowledged as being historically associated with matrifocal societies did indeed exist in Tibet (some even into modern times), and it is therefore inaccurate to conclude that the system of patriarchy which now exists arose from universal and historical constants in the lives of men. This is not to say that the traditions which preceded the patriarchal system of rule by lamas (Lamaism) were superior per se, but rather to view the development of the system within a much wider historical context, which helps to elucidate the paradoxically ever-changing continuum. Failure to acknowledge the existence of the very powerful traditions relating to the Great Mother, and their subsequent adaptation under different social and cultural conditions, produces a one-sided view of reality, a view in which notions of dualism are simply strengthened by privileging the male over the female. It is entirely possible that the Tibetan religious system, now freed from the geographical constraints of an isolated Tibet, will yet undergo further changes to accommodate both western philosophy and the presence of women in a different societal context.

If the tulku system retains aspects of the divine king myth, which may have grown out of a very different cultural context, it does not, however, ascribe the same value to the female as once must have existed when the Mother Goddess reigned supreme. As has been noted, the Tibetan tulku system, which contains spiritual and secular power within the hands of the lamas, has its roots in religious ritual and initiation which passes, 'from "senior male" to "junior male" disciples, and which results in a lineage or descent system.'19 The system itself, as an invention of the patriarchs, is crucial to the maintenance of the whole religious and social system, which 'carries patriliny a step beyond, by negating the need for sexual reproduction altogether, thus excluding the need for females in the system' (italics mine).20

In ancient times, in most societies, royal or sacred lineage was determined through kinship and sexual reproduction, but in the Tibetan case the lineage was created solely by the oral transmission of the Buddhist teachings, within which the tulku system played a central role. The tulku, according to Paul, on being recognised as the incarnation of a deceased lama, 'is raised to "Divine King" status, in much the same way as the mythological kings of old, that is, he is perceived as having, thereafter, no bonds in common with other mortals such as kinship, exchange or alliance. He has no royal house, and no need for marriage or children, as he is his own successor' (italics original).21 Unlike other sacred lineages, therefore, there was no 'queen' because most incarnate lamas were celibate monks, and the mother of the child was excluded from the system despite her role in being responsible for bearing the boy child and surrendering him to the system. Her exclusion was not only from power, but also, theoretically, represented an absence within the entire system itself which, though barely acknowledging its need for a female body, could not include her as a potential lineage holder.

The metaphorical denial of the mother, and her sexuality, is a key factor in the maintenance of the system. 'Skeptics may object', Paul states, 'that even a reincarnate lama is, after all, born of a woman. . . . But symbolism can only reduce or conceal, not eliminate, the real paradoxes of existence.'22 This ambiguous remark, which itself reduces or conceals the actual role which women played in the maintenance of the tulku system, appears to support the exclusion of women from religious or secular power, by promoting the symbolism which facilitates male power within the system as universal, and perhaps itself irreducible. If one views the tulku system, however, as a symbolic enactment of Freud's Oedipal struggle, there are certain elements of that theory which would have to be applicable to its actual structure, so that one could logically conclude that the resolved elements of the struggle can be seen in the complex institution which manifests itself throughout Tibetan Buddhist societies. In the cultural context of historical Tibet, one may surmise that men re-enacted the myths by which senior males must be killed by junior males and yet survive, and vice versa. Through the unique form of succession devised by the Tibetans, this is not only achieved symbolically, but their patrilineal lineage is also ensured asexually without the (apparent) use of women. Paul writes,

The reincarnate lama, then, represents the living proof of the legitimacy of the monk's claim to the possibility of asexual reproduction, the eternal dream of the male sex. He represents immortality not of the species, but of the individual . . . the assertion of their ability to create a self-sufficient male world and thus obviate the need for the divisive presence of women. (Italics mine) [23]

Placing the Tibetan monk's fantasies of reproduction and the creation of a homo-erotic world exclusively populated by men as the rationale for the existence of the Tibetan tulku system, Paul clearly demonstrates his use of Freudian theory not only as a theory of individuals, but also as a theory of societies and cultures. His view is that the perpetuation of the system, which relies on structures which are manifest on the cultural and religious levels within Tibetan Buddhist societies, depends also on psychological factors in individual men.

But what of the notion of a so-called 'universal constant' which proposes that in all societies, at all times, a struggle takes place between younger and older males for power and authority, and sexual access to women? This struggle is seen as achieving a symbolic resolution in situations where junior males must kill senior males, and vice versa, yet both must somehow survive. From the male Freudian perspective, this resolution, so vital for their well-being and subjectivity, is no more than 'the phylogenetic basis of human social organisation in general'.24 Furthermore, as Paul maintains, 'The individual Oedipus Complex is merely the minimal unit in the nuclear family, of a complex which actually has its roots in the cybernetic control of the social system as a whole' (italics mine).25

The choice of words used in describing the power ascribed to the complex as experienced by men is interesting. Phylogeny, which is the history of evolution, has its roots in the Greek phylo, meaning race, and genesis meaning origin. By proposing that the male complex is the phylogenetic basis of everything, the implication is that the male experience is paramount. It alone can be claimed as the ultimate source of all things, and therefore as embodying unquestionable authority. The male Oedipus complex becomes the determining factor in the evolution of all races, implying the universal and evolutionary nature of male power. This power, which crosses all racial boundaries, has as its common bond the struggles between males over their sexual access to women, and the conflict between males for sacred and political authority.

Cybernetic, on the other hand, from the Greek kubernetes, meaning a steersman or pilot, describes the manner in which this complex is viewed as controlling everything, in a robotic and machine-like way. The view, in this respect, differs widely from, for example, the view put forward by the author of the Gaia Theory,26 who clearly sees cybernetics as a process of interaction, rather than control, in which circular arguments are favoured over linear and mechanical concepts of cause and effect. Although some theorists may like to think of male supremacy as a matter of automatic control, the developing view of reality shifts the emphasis from a dominator model to one of co-operation. This view, however, presupposes acknowledgement of the other as a complete entity in her own right, something which has not yet been possible under what has been seen as universal patriarchy. The view therefore that the Tibetan system is merely another form of the Oedipal struggle in which men always enact their psychological battles in order to gain power and control over women, whilst convincing in its argument, may not necessarily be accurate when described as a universal constant, either in terms of time or of location. In particular this theory fails to recognise the compliance of women within the system, or their own deeply felt experiences which are equivalent to the male experience of the father-son relationship.

By linking the Tibetan system to the divine kingship myths, and to the Freudian notion of the male psychic struggle for being, one can see quite clearly from Paul's work that patriarchal dominance, as described by men themselves, depends both on historical factors of political power in society, together with individual psychodynamic struggles which pertain to the male view of the world as the male child develops within those male-dominated social structures. Paul is quite right to say that the system engineered by the lamas fulfilled a certain idealised male fantasy in which the masculine element is prioritised, and in which a kind of immortality is granted through social institutions. Of much more relevance to women, however, is the fact that this elaborate system may owe its very existence to the complicated devices by which it both makes use of, and excludes or denies, the female.

Through centuries of change in which patriarchal thought has refined its expressions of superiority, the female voice, experience and perspective of 'being' has either been silenced, repressed, overlooked or co-opted in the creation of particular social and philosophical systems. As Luce Irigaray has stated, 'the greatest fault committed by the race of men was to deprive one gender of its ethical consciousness and of its effectiveness as a gender'.27 In Tibetan Buddhism the exclusion of the female as the subject of being is no less remarkable than in any other patriarchal system, but given the wide-ranging philosophy and iconography which purports otherwise, it is important to explore and attempt to understand the mechanisms by which this suppression has taken place.

I have already shown that the manifestations of female identity, as they were reflected in the ancient Tantric texts of India, were not subsequently sustained under the patriarchal lineage system of the Tibetans, where women had no equality within the priesthood. I have argued that the nature of the tulku system, which elevated the male to a central position in the society, was the cause of weakening that archaic position. However, in order to examine the implications of the particular kind of phallocentrism which developed in the Tibetan social, religious and cultural system, it is essential to look in closer detail at the impact of these extraordinary social structures on the individuals who played out their parts within them.
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Re: Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibe

Postby admin » Thu Feb 28, 2019 7:09 pm

Chapter 5: 'Free of the Womb's Impurities' -- Divine Birth and the Absent Mother

The very real human drama which took place when a boy child was 'recognised' as being the incarnation of a dead lama, and subsequently taken into the all-male environment of the monastery, is frequently overlooked or given low prominence in the accounts of the lives of lamas. One can only surmise the extent of the pain and the sense of loss which was engendered in these boys when they had to leave their mothers, and enter the world of celibate men, often at tender ages when their own sense of being and relationship was still developing. For the tiny child who was to become the Dalai Lama, found in 1937, before he was three years old, the devastating change in circumstance can scarcely be imagined. The Italian explorer Fosco Maraini described it most graphically:

From the day of his installation in the Potala an entirely new life begins for this child selected by fortune. Instead of the humble country cottage, the kitchen, the farmyard, the fields and the flowers, the games with little friends of the same age, he now occupies a whole suite in the vast complex of palaces, temples, mausoleums, dungeons, halls, passages, libraries and kitchens of which the Potala consists. His parents are given a suite in which to live, and his father is honoured with the title of kung, or duke, but after the first few months both he and the child's mother see less and less of their offspring. The new Dalai Lama, like every other monk, must die completely out of civil life; even his name is changed. 1

Maraini also refers to the strict rigours of the young Dalai Lama's education as 'a very severe process' in which 'every detail is rigidly prescribed'.2 Furthermore the penitances, the compulsory attendance at religious ceremonies which lasted for many hours, and the monastic discipline of the community over which he presided, demanded great patience and fortitude on behalf of the young boy. The claustrophobic environment was, 'in short, a whole court with a very rigid and elaborate etiquette, from which women are completely excluded' (italics mine).3

Of this experience the Dalai Lama comments in his autobiography, 'There now began a somewhat unhappy period of my life. My parents did not stay long and soon I was alone amongst these new and unfamiliar surroundings'.4 In an account of the 6th Dalai Lama's 'recognition' and removal to the monastery at the early age of two years and eight months, it has been written that, 'Nine years later the mother still bitterly recalled the anguish she felt at this sudden separation.'5 How much more so for the stricken child? This kind of experience was replicated to a similar degree in many monastic communities in Tibet, where the excessive discipline on young tulkus, already suffering from deprivation of familial relationships and catapulted into the asceticism of monastic life, must have taken its toll on the psychological development of these young boys. Whilst the 14th Dalai Lama himself has memories of being 'terrified',6 at three years old, of his physically violent uncle, other young monks whom I have known, of lesser status but of equally tender years, were threatened with having their penises cut off if they continued to bedwet, in the harsh conditions of the dormitory.

There were few compensations for such children forced to endure the hardships of this most unusual childhood. Furthermore these hardships did not just pertain, as I have mentioned, to the upbringing of tulkus, but also to the countless young boys who were given by their families at a young age to the monastery. Some estimates suggest that one in three of all male Tibetans were monks, many of whom began their lives in the monastery under the age of seven. Often their only comfort was to be found in relationships which they could form within the confines of their forever-supervised environment. An older monk, such as the one whom the Dalai Lama describes in his memoirs, would sometimes offer physical comfort to the small boy, thus creating an opportunity for closeness. In other cases, and especially with the onset of adolescence, the boys found comfort in one another, very often in order to find an expression for their developing sexuality. Later in life, in some instances, secret relationships with women were instigated, and these were either of a mundane nature, or incorporated into the spiritual and meditational rituals of the Tantra, which stipulated the use of sexual activity as an essential component of the religious life of advanced practitioners.

The lack of physical intimacy in childhood was not, however, the only facet of the tulku's life which distinguished him from others. Brought up in an atmosphere of adulation, where his position inspired nothing short of awe in others, he was never in a position to define himself in human terms, or strike up his own identity, given that he already carried the name, spirit and responsibilities of a dead, divine lama. In the claustrophobic environment where every small gesture and word was often thought to be 'meaningful', because wisdom and divinity were believed to lie behind them, the child was taught quickly to suppress his own needs and take up the mantle of 'lama', whose role was to become the 'Great Mother' to others. Having been, to all extents and purposes, abandoned by his own mother, this was an ironic position to take up; however, if one considers the degree of 'difference' which such a child must have felt, then an identification with the female, already defined as 'different' in male eyes and ideologies, was not wholly inappropriate. That 'difference' was manifested in the unique environment created around the tulku.

The experience of the very young tulku was characterised by his position as the centre of attention, surrounded by hundreds and sometimes thousands of followers who would prostrate before him, receive blessings by his hand, and never communicate in an ordinary way with him. These actions must have added greatly to the experience of isolation which the child developed, and which had been already established by the sudden detachment from his mother and from women in general. This, together with the monastic attitude to women as being either polluted or dangerous to the monk's essential celibacy, must certainly have bred in the young boy at best an apprehension or fear of women, and at worst a hatred of them. In their theological world too, the monks learned to develop a philosophy of the female, which was graphically portrayed, as I shall show later, both in the language and through the texts and iconography. This philosophy fulfilled the dual function necessary to the monastic male practitioner -- on the one hand the denigration of the female as inferior, and polluting, and on the other the idealisation and transcendentalisation of her in order to make use of her imagery in his religious practice.

To begin the complex task of unravelling the psycho-philosophical approach to the female, I want to start with the position of the divine son's mother, who as the only woman whose intimacy with the child was predetermined, was of central importance in the development of the ideology concerning the female. The early texts of Bon already describe certain attributes of the mother of divine lamas, which are to be found in later Buddhist texts. For example, in a text concerning the previous lives of Shenrab, the founder of Bon, and the equivalent to the Bonpos of Shakyamuni Buddha, he is described as having once been born in heaven to a goddess, and fathered by a cuckoo. The mother herself proclaims, 'O son born of a virgin woman, You are a shoot grown without a seed being sown' (italics original).7 The theme of the virgin mother as significant in the birth of heroes or divinities is not, of course, confined to oriental religions, and is likely to have achieved its near-universal status through the ancient belief of the parthenogenetic powers of the Great Mother. As Marija Gimbutas has written, 'The parthenogenetic Goddess has been the most persistent feature in the archaeological record of the ancient world'.8 Later, when the concept of fatherhood became part of the social consciousness, this motif seems to have been replaced with that of the 'divine' father, often portrayed in religious stories as a mythical animal or bird, and sometimes as the godhead himself.

As far as the mythologies of Buddhism were concerned, the precedent for the absent mother of divine male children was firmly established by the legends concerning Gautama Buddha's mother, Queen Maya, and indeed the mothers of all previous Buddhas. In order to maintain complete purity, it seemed essential that the mother of an enlightened-one-to-be was chosen not only for her good karma, but also because she would only have one week to live after his birth. This ensured that the vehicle of his entry into the world could not herself be further contaminated in any way by sexual contact. The mythology of this legend has been retained by the Tibetans whose lay people frequently allude to it as evidence for claiming the particular holiness of a lama whose mother has died following his birth. Nonetheless the mother's humanity is often emphasised and juxtaposed against the divinity of her son. Regarding Queen Maya, 'This mother may have been of noble birth but she was otherwise a normal mortal woman'.9

In the literature pertaining to the birth of tulkus, references are usually made, however, to the pre-natal experiences of the mother, particularly the conception of the child, and his activities whilst still in the womb. Unusual dreams or occurrences are documented as evidence of the forthcoming child's spiritual powers. A common theme is that the mother dreams of being entered by a deity or mystical animal during pregnancy, signifying the child as being the product not of human sexual union, but of divine beings. Often he has the power of language on birth and can quickly define himself and his allegiance to the sacred male lineage.

During her pregnancy his mother dreamed that Guru Padmasambhava came towards her and entered into her. There were many auspicious omens. When the baby was born he took one step in each of the four directions, sat cross-legged in the centre and said 'Om Mani Padme Hum Hri! I pity the sufferings of humanity, for I am the Karmapa!'10

The child's super-human qualities are also emphasised through the documentation of his state of difference in relation to his parents, who frequently have humble origins, but are religiously devout.

When he was born he sat cross-legged, wiped his face and said, 'I am the Karmapa!' He remained sitting in that position for three days and his father was so overawed that he started prostrating before him. At this the child stood up, said 'Om-Ah-Hum!', and started to laugh. His mother untied her apron strings and tried to wrap up the child in it, but he threw it off saying 'Oh No No!' Then he was wrapped up in a sheepskin which he accepted.11

In these extraordinary accounts of the births of two children destined to become, at different historical moments, the head of the Karma Kagyu sect, it is possible to discern the different elements which make up the key aspects of the tulku system. The child must have divine origins. He needs to be super-precocious. He needs to demonstrate power and knowledge, and he must reject the secular and particularly that of the female and enter the world of male exclusivity, in order to prove his divinity.

Following the death of a tulku-lama, the reincarnate successor to him would be chosen, usually from a selection of candidates, by an elite body of men in whose hands lay the power and responsibility of choice. The visions and dreams of different mothers, and the omens surrounding their claims might well be considered, but in the end the ability to 'recognise' the divine child was in the hands of men. In this way a rebirth controlled by and within the paternal lineage was ensured. With the usual mundane needs and wishes of the mother obliterated in a system where divinity preceded human relationships, the male lineage was able take over the maternal role and relegate the mother to the background. Unlike Christianity, where the mother's divinity was recognised alongside that of the son, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition only the tulku was divine, whilst the mother was a useful vessel for his apparently self-chosen rebirth.

As an integral part of the system, the texts required to confirm the divinity of the tulkus not only through the written statements made by lamas before their own deaths, but also through the dreams and omens of the mother of the new incarnation. Most frequently, as I have shown, she dreamt of a divine being, creature or symbolic object entering her body at the moment of conception. In the numerous accounts of such miraculous births, however, there appear to be no instances in which the mother dreamt of herself as divine. Even in the autobiographical account of the birth of Yeshe Tsogyal, the female consort of the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, her mother dreams of a golden bee which 'vanished into her husband's fontanelle'.12 After the birth, Yeshe Tsogyal reminds us that as a baby her first words were to praise her future husband, and that her body 'was free of the womb's impurities'.13 This kind of language, whilst reflecting the contrast between the 'divine' child and the 'worldly' mother, appears frequently in philosophical texts. For example, the Mahayana Uttara Tantra on the 'Changeless Continuity of the True Nature', describes Buddha nature in a series of metaphors concerning perfection situated within polluted images. Buddha nature is 'a king ... a future ruler of men in the womb of an unfortunate, ugly woman', and its emergence, the 'birth of the royal child' who escapes the' 'impurities of the womb'.14 With the metaphor of enlightenment encoded in this way in gendered terms, the female body represents the imperfect or dangerous containment of the (male) Buddha nature, along with other polluted metaphors such as the 'decaying lotus', 'the bee-swarm, the husk, the filth, the ground, the fruitskin, the tattered rags ... and the clay mould'.15

In Yeshe Tsogyal's case, the non-divine nature of her mother is also emphasised by her observation that the first food offered by her mother to her is 'coarse', and that she eats it only to 'complete my mother's happiness'.16 These kinds of images hardly portray the female gender as significant, or as sacred in its own right, despite the fact that the text itself clearly views Yeshe Tsogyal's life as important and her status as divine. In Tibetan literature, little is written of the role of the mother after the birth of the child, apart from her compliance in giving him up to the monastery and distancing herself from him physically and emotionally. Trungpa Tulku, one of the first Tibetan lamas to settle and teach in the west, after the Chinese annexation of 1959, gives some clues as to the process which took place for him. In his autobiography Trungpa states that his mother left him when he was five years old. Initially, after his enthronement, she visited him every day, but Trungpa writes, 'her visits became more spaced out, until after a fortnight without seeing her, she came to tell me that she was going back to Dekyil; I missed her as only a small boy can' (italics mine).17 As to the status and image of the mothers of tulkus he alludes only fleetingly in one of his many books to his own relationship with his mother, and how it affected him. He recalls that his mother was shy, and as a child he had once asked her about his family name, 'Then I remember asking her whether I was her son who came out of her body ...... "Well", she replied, "maybe I'm an inhuman being, a subhuman being. I have a woman's body; I had an inferior birth."'18 Trungpa writes of this exchange, 'We had an intense moment of relationship with one another.'19 He also adds, 'I learned a great deal about the principles of human society from the wisdom of my mother' (italics mine).20

Forced into the all-male society of the monastery at such a young age, perhaps it is not surprising that Trungpa did recall this particular exchange, out of all possible exchanges with his mother, for it seems to encapsulate everything which the tulku system represents. That his mother's pathetic statement about herself should be associated in Trungpa's mind with wisdom, underlines his own conditioning into a system in which men can achieve the status of divine, whilst women are viewed as inferior vessels. Furthermore that Trungpa should also associate this event with his understanding of 'the principles of human society' is highly significant, given that it does indeed essentialise the elements of the Tibetan patriarchal system, the only 'human society' of which he was aware. One can only imagine the heart-breaking sorrow of a child such as this, subjected suddenly to the rigours of the monastic life and a new identity, and betrayed by the terrible rejection which he experienced at the hands of his mother. Is it any wonder that, once grown, these men would have little difficulty in promoting the ambiguous teachings concerning the female? Is it unsurprising that future relationships with women might be characterised by a disdainful distancing, or by the desire to become involved in secret relationships which carried no responsibilities, were completely in the control of the lama, and which were conducted in such a way as to enable the lama to maintain his position within the all-male hierarchy?

One only has to read Trungpa's evocative poem, 'Nameless Child', to begin to understand how easy it would be, for someone with his childhood experiences, to elevate to the realms of the spiritual and divine, the phenomenon of so-called 'self-birth'. Given his unique circumstances, perhaps only a spiritual context could be sufficient to explain what it meant to be a tulku.

Suddenly, a luminous child without a name comes into being. . . . In the place where metal birds croak the instantaneously born child can find no name .... Because he has no father, the child has no family line. He has never tasted milk because he has no mother. He has no one to play with because he has no brother or sister. Having no house to live in, he has no crib. Since he has no nanny, he has never cried. There is no civilization, so he has no toys .... Since there is no point of reference, he has never found a self. (Italics mine)21

This poem, which expresses the sentiments of the so-called 'self-born' child, comes very close to an articulation of the literal meaning of the word tulku (Tibetan sprul.sku), which is 'illusory body'. There seems no doubt, given the present understanding of child development, that the tulku system was indeed apposite in its organisational format, for it provided the conditions in which a child could grow up feeling abandoned by family, cut off from the 'real' world, and perhaps even 'illusory'. Denied at a very young age the usual social contacts which establish a sense of self in the mundane world, the young boy with his new identity would have had to suppress his 'old self, relegating it to the realms of the insignificant. In Trungpa's case, his original identity later became a source of fascination, as well as some confusion, as illustrated by his conversation about it with his mother, and the fact that he obviously stored this memory, only to recollect it later and introduce it into his writings as one of great significance. Living in the kind of ambiguous position which the tulku system created would certainly have given him an unusual perspective on the world. Whilst relinquishing one identity in order to take on that of a dead person, the young boy must have felt neither one nor the other. From this unique position one can understand how he could come to view with equanimity the inconsistencies and dualities which characterise reality. The alternative would surely have been despair. As Trungpa says of his 'nameless child', 'The child's world has no beginning or end. To him colors are neither beautiful nor ugly. He has no preconceived notion of birth and death. . . . The child exists without preconceptions.'22 In the language of the Madhyamika school of Buddhist thought, these sentiments have meaning, and can easily be accommodated, whilst in the language of psychoanalysis they describe a time, before entry into language, when his body and that of the mother were experienced as indistinguishable. It would be to this time that the growing tulku would yearn in later life -- a deeply embedded memory of relationship with the mother from whom he was forcibly separated.

For believers, naturally, the rationalisation of the events surrounding 'recognition' meant that the child was viewed as divine and therefore had no reliance on ordinary human relationships. Belief that the tulku lived outwith the bounds of conditioned existence meant that he was not subject to the emotional responses and limited vision of the ordinary being. From a psychoanalytic perspective, however, the trauma which surrounded the early lives of these boys, albeit with societal support, can only be seen as of great importance to the development of their sense of self, and to the nature of the relationships into which they subsequently entered.23 It seems not without significance that, as grown men, both the Dalai Lama and Chogyam Trungpa spoke of the loss of their mothers as though the events had human rather than spiritual meaning. In Trungpa's case, as a severe alcoholic in later life, and as someone who lived on the edge of danger in his personal relationships and actions (as has been documented), his behaviour could easily have been interpreted during his lifetime, by believers, as typical of the 'mad yogi' tradition.24 Those viewing his life from a humane perspective would surely connect his early traumas with his later actions.

The tulku system relied on the body of the mother, not as a participant in the power structures, but as a subsidiary element to the process. Understandably, the mother's collusion in both ascertaining divine events during conception and pregnancy, and her co-operation in giving up her son, were crucial to the maintenance of the whole system. In order to partake of the kudos surrounding his recognition, and gain some kind of sense of identity vis-a-vis the lineage system, mothers of tulkus invariably endorsed their child's sanctity by making statements about divine visions, omens and signs associated with the birth. Immersed as they were in the rich and dramatic culture of their society, it is not unsurprising that they, like any other humans of a particular culture, would dream and fantasise in the signs and symbols which that culture had evolved as an expression of its psycho-social organisation.

However, through the use of the mother as 'a mere receptacle', 25 and her subsequent exclusion, the Tibetan system promoted a patrilineal ideology which in essence privileged the son over the mother. Not only that, but the implication that a lama was actually 'self-born'26 by virtue of his miraculous powers, and could control the means and manner of his own rebirth, established a belief in the male lineage of succession as one which simply made use of the female, rather than depended on her. This deception, in turn, reduced the value of the female in the system, and attributed to the patriarchal system an ability for a symbolic male motherhood, through enlightened males who could choose the time and place of their birth. As one commentator has noted, 'The aim of a rebirth from the father is to undo or overcome the mortality implicit in the female, phenomenal world and achieve a timelessness or unchanging absolute quality, associated with maleness.'27

This statement is interesting because it clearly spells out that, for men, the disassociation from the female is motivated by a desire to overcome the profane, and the worldly, already defined in many texts as akin to the female. This is why Tsogyal, herself female, also rejects the womb as 'impure' and views her mother as profane in her act of giving food, because to do otherwise would be to go outwith the bounds of the sacred, and thus the position of the male lineage, and the imperatives of society itself. While profane motherhood had to be scorned, symbolic male reproductivity in the form of the tulku lineage became the cornerstone of the conceptualisation of the sacred as masculine. It is my belief that this deeply unconscious mechanism did indeed arise through the psychopathologies of the men involved, so that the distancing of women and the metaphorical process of 'male motherhood' which the monastics embraced, came to replace female intimacy as an institutional structure. As Mary Daly argues, the disassociation of the female from the male is in fact the very substance of all patriarchal myths and religions, which derive their meaning through symbols which elevate the male and exclude the female. Fatherhood, or 'male motherhood', she maintains, takes on immense significance in the maintenance of the whole system, and is central therefore to the myths, religions and social structures of all patriarchal societies. Seen in this way, the mother of the divine lama-king becomes synonymous with other mythical mothers, such as Semele, the mother of Dionysus, whom Mary Daly describes as 'epitomizing the patriarchal ideal of mother as mere vessel' (italics mine).28

The mystical association of the redundant mother and the divine son is revealed in yet another form in the account of the life story of Tibet's most famous ascetics, and eleventh-century member of the Kagyu lineage, Milarepa. His autobiography tells of his search for truth, beginning with his leaving home to study under different lamas. Eventually Milarepa returns to his village after many years to find that his mother has died in the meantime. Overcome with grief he visits his old home and finds a heap of bones which he intuitively recognises as those of his mother. Gathering them up, he makes a cushion of them, on which he sits in order to meditate, and after seven days reaches the realisation that all worldly life is meaningless. The anguish he experiences over his mother's death finally gives him the determination to renounce everything for the sake of the spiritual life. His recollection of these events move him to write later, 'Henceforth, the world had nothing to tempt me or to bind me to it.'29

The imagery projected by such words and deeds strongly suggests that it is through the ossification of the life energy of the mother imago that the son progresses spiritually. In other words, it is only when the female is rendered lifeless, as an absent force, that the conditions are right for the male to overcome his fear of mortality. When the mother dies the son is free to become enlightened, when she is absented through the power of the lineage, his path is cleared for the monastic, spiritual life. Either way, the tulku's relationship with the paternal becomes prioritised. When Milarepa becomes the 'spiritual son' of Marpa, through the transmission of Buddhist teachings and the endurance of terrible hardships which are only given meaning in the context of their relationship, the lineage of lamas is continued, and maleness, associated with asexual reproduction, becomes the means through which this is achieved. Even Trungpa Tulku, in his poem 'Letter to Marpa', cannot help but convey the idea of male motherhood and its importance,

solid Marpa
our father
we sympathize with you for your son's death
yet you produced more sons
eagle-like Milarepa, who dwells in the rocks
snow-lion-like Gampopa, whose lair is in the Gampo hills
elephant-like Karmapas, who majestically care for their young
tiger-like Chogyam roaming in foreign jungles
as your lineage says, 'the grandchildren are more accomplished
than the parents'

your garuda-egg hatches, as the contagious energy of mahamudra
conquers the world.30

Here Trungpa names the various members of the Kagyu lineage, including himself, depicting them as offspring, miraculously born, like the garuda, 'the celestial hawk of Indian mythology which hatches from its egg fully developed'.31 The theme of the 'selfborn', complete son, whose existence is owed to the father-line alone, is emphasised by these words. No expression of the significance of the lineage would be complete, however, without reference to that crucial other aspect of its success -- the absence of the female. Trungpa makes one reference to Damema, the wife of Marpa, and the woman responsible for supporting both Marpa and Milarepa in their quests for enlightenment. Adulating Marpa for his earthy qualities, he describes his person as being characterised by his 'stout body sun-burnt face ordering Damema to serve beer for a break' (italics mine).32 Having defined the place of the female in Marpa's life in terms of man as master, woman as servant, the elucidation of 'the message of the lineage'33 is complete.

The story of Milarepa and his relationship with Marpa is only one of a host of such tales in which the ideal of a perfect identification with the master provides the key to enlightenment. Complete identification, achieved through meditation, permits the 'son' to be born of the 'father', without a female presence, thereby replicating the cloning process. This represents a 'perfect identity between the prototype and the copy, which is impossible in sexual reproduction'.34 This kind of practice ensures that the tulku system is beneficial to the male psyche, not only because it offers an outlet from the base, physical world of sex and reproduction with real women, but it also satisfies men's desires for creativity by providing a model by which symbolic cloning may take place. In addition, the phenomenon of perfect identification with the 'master', as the key to the symbolic transmission of teachings between 'father' and 'son', is something which women could not achieve. Robert Paul calls it 'the right to reproduction through the transmission of a symbolically encoded teaching.'35

It is interesting that Luce Irigaray in her work, Sexes and Genealogies, should identify this process so clearly when she writes,

when the father refuses to allow the mother her power of giving birth and seeks to be the sole creator ... he superimposes upon our ancient world of flesh and blood a universe of language and symbols that has no roots in the flesh and drills a hole through the female womb and through the place of female identity. A stake, an axis is thus driven into the earth in order to mark out the boundaries of the sacred space in many patriarchal traditions. It defines a meeting place for men that is based upon an immolation. Women will in the end be allowed to enter that space, provided they do so as nonparticipants. (Italics mine)36

This is precisely what I maintain takes place within the Tibetan tulku system, with power over the birth process in the hands of men, the negation of the mother as the prerequisite for male sanctity, and the inclusion of women in the system as non-participants.

Tsultrim Allione in her book, Women of Wisdom, addresses the issue of female sanctity within the Tibetan system through her examination of the lives of some female yogis. She implies that their biographies are important to women because they contain certain elements of difference from the stories of men.

The differences between individuals must be appreciated and even celebrated . . . 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. (Italics mine)37

Allione agrees that difference is central to the process of finding a female genealogy, but seems less convinced that it should be expressed in sexual terms. The kinds of differences she articulates as relevant to women are concerned with events such as the restrictions of marriage on women, childbearing, wife-beating, and depression over family life, all closely related to the issue of woman as mother, and mother as woman. Given that the male genealogy depends on the male fixation on its own sexuality, it is difficult to see how women could do otherwise than become fixated on theirs. What may be implied by Allione's assertion is that women are less likely to be fixated on gender than men, and therefore may more easily attain success in practice. If difference is to be fully expressed in women's stories, it has to include three specific factors -- women's right to subjectivity, by and for herself; the establishment of real female genealogies; and the essentialism of a female divinity. The denial of this right to women, whether whole or partial, has been fundamental in the maintenance of the tulku ideology, even up to the present day, when boys of western origin are being selected to inherit the thrones of deceased Tibetan lamas. There is no doubt that as long as women are contained within the confines of the staked-out sacred space, as paradoxically absent presences, whose differences are subsumed by the dictates of patriarchal imperatives, then their unique contribution to human civilisation will go unheard or ignored, with the direst of consequences.

Allione is right to identify motherhood as a crucial ground in the battle for female subjectivity, for it is the imaginary and symbolic relationship to the mother which is very often denied in patriarchal societies, not least in the Tibetan tulku system. In the biographies of women practitioners, one would certainly expect the different facets of women's mundane lives to emerge as significant in the way in which women achieve a sense of autonomy in their spiritual lives. This is illustrated by the various stories which describe the struggles pertaining to marriage and childcare. Keith Dowman, in his commentary on female energy, is keen to point out that difference in this sphere is indeed significant, and as a man he is quick to overplay the power this gives women. Talking of Yeshe Tsogyal's life he states

The status of women in the society into which Tsogyel was born, practically, could be said to be one of equality with men. True it was a patriarchal society, but besides the basic power that resides in woman as mother and mistress, a power that unmarried feminists invariably underestimate in their evaluation of the status of woman, in every sphere of human activity women were active. (Italics mine)38

The power which Dowman so eloquently pleads to be recognised, however, is the very one which is denied by the lineage system, and one which every patriarchal society conspires to hide, through fear of the maternal imago. Perhaps Dowman could not bring himself to consider that it is not the work of 'unmarried feminists' which devalues motherhood or dismisses the role of the 'mistress', but rather the evolution of the suppression of the female by all participants in patriarchal societies, and their institutions, which privilege the rule of men. Luce Irigaray argues that the lack of recognition of the power of the female is linked to the denial of her participation in the 'sacred space'. 'Forbidden to celebrate ritual or to participate in social institutions, women are reduced to the polemics and rules of the private sphere.'39 This means that it is precisely the hidden nature of the mother (Tibetan yum) and the lover (Tibetangsangs.yum)40 which is the foundation of the tulku system, something which, far from being chosen, is imposed upon women, as a means to incorporate them into the sacred space on the terms laid down by men.
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Re: Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibe

Postby admin » Thu Feb 28, 2019 11:21 pm

Part 1 of 2

Chapter 6: At One with the Secret Other

Alongside the absent mother, whose gender-specific role of giving birth and mothering became symbolically usurped by the system, there existed also in the sacred space the secret consort or songyum, whose female sexuality was essential for those lamas wishing to practise Tantric sex secretly. Whilst the word songyum is an honorific title meaning 'wife' which is applied to the actual wives of those lamas belonging to the lay tradition, it is also used to mean the 'sexual partner', and means literally in Tibetan, 'secret mother'. The fact that in the Tibetan language the words for 'wife' and 'mother' are synonymous, is not, as I hope to prove, insignificant. The purpose of the secret songyum was, in the context of the monastic establishment, to provide for male practitioners the opportunities for sexual activity, without the disruption of the structures of the system. So while a lama would, to all intents and purposes, be viewed publicly as a celibate monk, in reality he was frequently sexually active, but his activities were highly secret. Even highly prestigious lamas of the status of the fourteenth-century scholar, Longchenpa, resorted to this method. 'Outwardly wearing the habit, but inwardly a yogin of the Mantrayana, he took that nun as his secret consort so that nobody knew about it'.1 These actions were only achieved, however, with the collusion of the women involved, and also of those monks who were particularly close to the tulku or lama, and who would protect him so that his activities would not be subject to public disclosure.

This shroud of secrecy extended also into the literature where most references to actual women in biographical accounts of lamas' lives were omitted, or given metaphorical status. Even in contemporary works by Tibetans or their followers, the songyum is often described as the visualised deity of the monk's imagination, the female consort to a male deity, whose presence had to be conjured in order for the meditator to realise certain insights pertaining to the symbolic union of so-called opposites, the male and female. However, this aspect of the practice was only part of the whole story, for in the actual social world of the monastery, the lama often acquired the secret services of a real woman in order, allegedly, to achieve these insights. In my own experience, as the songyum of a tulku-lama of the monastic Kagyu order, Kalu Rinpoche, only one other person had knowledge of the relationship, which lasted for several years, and which took place within the strictest bounds of secrecy. When the biography of this high lama was written it included periods of time during which I acted as his songyum, yet there was no mention whatsoever of my name in the text, or even references to a metaphorical 'consort'.

The Tibetan system was to all intents and purposes a 'secret society', as confirmed by the synonym for its religion, Songwa Dorje Tegpa (Tibetan, which means the Secret Vajrayana, or Secret Diamond Vehicle. There is no doubt that secrecy played a large part in the religious practices of Tibetan Buddhism, and that this secrecy extended not only to the requirement that only initiates could attend certain rituals, but also to the fact that certain activities took place which even other initiates did not know about. That these activities concentrated on sexual acts is hardly surprising, because the institution, with its outward appearance of monasticism, could hardly have survived in the form it did, had the importance of the woman's position and status within it been openly acknowledged.
The two elements which I believe helped to sustain the secret society of Tibetan Buddhism were the downgrading of the mother to a 'receptacle' for holy tulkus; and the hidden status of the songyum in the monastic system which made use of her. As Mircea Eliade observes in a study of secret societies, whilst they always 'emphasize the sexual element' they also 'constitute an attempt by men to establish life independent of women, a rejection of feminine power and influence'.2

Miranda Shaw, in her book Passionate Enlightenment, sets out to rationalise historically the status and the role of women within Tantra, by providing examples from ancient texts, many more than a thousand years old, in which details are given about Tantric women teachers, and the emphasis on the importance of viewing the female as an equal partner in sexual rituals. Shaw points out at the beginning that the secrets of the Tantric tradition in which she was most interested, i.e. the sexual aspect, 'are counted among its most esoteric and closely guarded features',3 yet she describes them in great detail in her book. This is done in order to support her case that the women involved in Tantra, a thousand years ago at least, had equal status with the men, and were at least as responsible as the men for the propagation and continuation of the tradition. She believes that her research counteracts the work of many other commentators who have 'attempt(ed) to project a mood of male domination onto this movement'.4 Shaw further criticises 'Western scholarship and feminism for their emphasis upon domination and exploitation'5 in their reading of the Tantric tradition, suggesting instead that culturally they could not appreciate the 'highly nuanced balances of interdependence and autonomy that can characterize gender relations in other societies'.6

Certainly there is much to be said for her observations, because it is apparent that the importance of the female within this tradition in ancient times implies a very different cultural ambience, in which it is possible that the relationships between the sexes were not the same as they are now, either in the west or the east. One can only conclude that the female prominence has either been suppressed throughout the last five hundred years or more, in the Tibetan tradition at least, or that there has been a degeneration of the teachings in general, which has resulted in women losing touch with their own powers and knowledge as Tantric lineage-holders. In her own search for a teacher who would transmit the details of the practices to her, and help with the translation of the texts, Shaw names the lama who agreed to co-operate with her, but fails to name any woman who could substantiate the teachings from a practice viewpoint, despite saying that 'it is necessary to obtain access to an oral commentarial tradition that is secreted in the minds and hearts of living masters (both male and female)' (italics mine).7 Clearly it begs the question, in the absence of actual commentaries by live women on their practices with actual men within the tradition, where are the living female masters of the Tantra in the Tibetan tradition, and if they exist, why must the woman's position, name and commentary be kept secret? It is obvious from Shaw's work, and the work of many others, that the actual details of the so-called 'secret' practices are in fact known and have been published many times. If, therefore, the secrecy is not in the details of the acts themselves, where is it? My contention is that the secrecy is in the 'hidden' subjectivity of the female, either as a participant in the acts, or as a symbolic figure whose mystical presence, though necessary for the continuation of the lineage, was gradually eased out of the picture, so that live women would not be seen to accede openly in the human form to the status of 'Buddha'. Shaw herself puts forward this same view in a way which implies the necessity of the woman's hidden nature, as if a kind of essential female nature was to be found in her suppressed or hidden status.

The women of Tantric Buddhism and their divine counterparts are often called dakinis, translatable as women who dance in space, or women who revel in the freedom of emptiness. As their name suggests these are not ladies who leave a heavily beaten path. At times their trail disappears into thin air where they took flight on their enlightenment adventures, but sometimes the trail resumes in the dense underbrush of ancient texts, amidst the tangled vines of Tibetan lineage histories . . . The traces of women of Tantric Buddhism are sometimes obscure, enigmatic, even hidden and disguised, but they are accessible to anyone who discovers where to look for them. (Italics mine)8

However, it is not just the organisational context of the system which is of relevance in the diminishment of the prominent role and purpose of women's spiritual lives. The power of that particular system lay in the hands of men who themselves had often been traumatised by unfortunate childhood experiences which separated them from their families, and in particular their mothers. Obliged as they were to be later locked into their role as monks or tulkus, with very little freedom of will until adulthood, the effect of their removal at an early age from the maternal environment into the harsh reality of the masculine world of discipline in the monastery must have produced conditions wherein many of them may have harboured secret longings for their mothers and for the intimacy of the female world. Even in Lacan's account of the socialisation of any young child, he believes that, 'With the entry of the named subject into language and the social order, the unnamed, repressed desires of the subject are driven underground'.9 The kinds of yearnings which these young boys must have felt would have been doubly taboo in the environment of the monastery, especially where the monks of a lower status than the tulku dealt with their passions by viewing women as inferior and unclean. Despite this, there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that often secret meetings and liaisons with their mothers or sisters took place during childhood and adolescence, with the knowledge of only the closest disciples.

These kinds of experiences, in which feelings for women were habitually channelled underground in an openly masculine environment, meant that the tulku became accustomed to associating women with secrecy, and later, when opportunities for sexual liaisons arose, whether in the context of Tantric practices, or quite simply as an expression of their own longings, they already perceived this kind of liaison as a norm. It is interesting that Irigaray categorises all patriarchal cultures in this way, by pointing out that 'Such traditions as these do not encourage love between women and men. Lovers fall back into a mother-son relationship, and the man secretly continues to feed off the woman who is still fertile earth for him'.10

From the patriarchal point of view, however, it is easy to see why this degree of secrecy developed, and why men colluded, in the name of the lineage and its power, to protect one another. But what of the women involved? In the absence of a female lineage of knowledge about Tantra and woman's role in it, and the difficulty of gaining access to texts which the monastic institutions often guarded jealously, how was their loyalty bought and what was in it for them, to bind them to the secrecy of a sexual relationship with a man of power? Was it simply profound faith in the lama-as-Buddha which helped them remain silent about their role, as they went unheeded and unrecognised as the 'dakinis' of high lamas? Or were the conditions surrounding the liaison, created by the powerful men at the heart of the system, such that women found it difficult to do anything other than acquiesce?

In my own experience, despite the absence of a Tibetan cultural upbringing, there were quite specific motivating factors which helped to keep me silent over many years. These factors were probably similar to those which influenced Tibetan women over the centuries, and which would have provided for them the personal sense of participation in societal rites which normally excluded women altogether. Firstly, there is no doubt that the secret role into which an unsuspecting woman was drawn bestowed a certain amount of personal prestige, in spite of the fact that there was no public acknowledgement of the woman's position. Secondly, by participating in intimate activities with someone considered in her own and the Buddhist community's eyes to be extremely holy, the woman was able to develop a belief that she too was in some way 'holy' and that the events surrounding her were karmically predisposed. Finally, despite the restrictions imposed on her, most women must have viewed their collusion as 'a test of faith', and an appropriate opportunity perhaps for deepening their knowledge of the dharma, and for entering 'the sacred space'.

For Tibetan women, raised and conditioned in a culture whose whole centre was the Buddhist dharma and the elaborate tulku system of rule by lamas, the acceptance of these factors and the idea that such an involvement would create 'good karma' for future lives must have been utterly compelling. For a western woman like myself, however, as a convert to Buddhism in adulthood, the motivation and conditions which supported secrecy could never have been as strong as theirs. Without such a background, it was difficult not to question the purpose of secrecy which affected the role of the woman in the whole affair, and also not to doubt the contemporary value of such practices, outwith archaic Tibetan society. At the outset, it was abundantly clear that any secret activities, whether they were to do with initiation rituals, or personal relationships with lamas, were always bound by vows of secrecy (damtsik, Tibetan dam.tshig.). These vows were often formally spoken as part of a ritual, whilst at other times became an unspoken agreement to secrecy. In my own case it was only when I became involved with a lama of very high status who was openly living as a monk, that it was plainly emphasised that any indiscretion in maintaining silence over our affair might lead to madness, trouble, or even death.

As an example of what might happen, I was told that, in a previous life, the lama I was involved with had had a mistress who caused him some trouble, and in order to get rid of her he cast a spell which caused an illness, later resulting in her death. I was also told that this woman must have been a powerful demon, and that the lama had only invited her to participate in sexual acts through compassion, but her trouble-making had become impossible to bear and posed a threat to the lama's position. This kind of information was compounded by a more concrete example of what might befall me. Some time into my own relationship with this high lama, a young Tibetan woman in her late teens, who had been taken as a second songyum, unexpectedly died suddenly from -- it was said -- a heart attack. The fears engendered by such events ensured that my own view of the situation into which I had entered became similar to that of someone living under a taboo.
For outsiders to traditions such as this, these fears may seem unbelievable, but in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a closed group such as many of these religious sects become, the culture of the 'insider' can quickly predominate. It seemed that within the protecting environment of secrecy and esoteric ritual, safety would be guaranteed, whilst any step outwith these boundaries would be tantamount to breaking a taboo, with all its subsequent ramifications. In her account of the workings of taboos, Mary Daly astutely points out that,

Women are terrified by phallocentric Taboo and thus are kept back from Touching the 'object' -- our Selves -- in which the demonic powers (our own Elemental powers which are disguised by the Possessors) lie hidden. Women are paralyzed by this injected fear that our powers, if we Touch them or use them 'unlawfully', that is in ways contrary to the Lecherous State, will take vengeance by casting a spell over us as 'wrong-doers'. (Italics mine)11

The imposition of secrecy therefore, in the Tibetan system, when it occurred solely as a means to protect status, and where it was reinforced by threats, was a powerful weapon in keeping women from achieving any kind of integrity in themselves, for it seems clear that the fundamental and ancient principles of Tantric sex -- the meeting together of two autonomous individuals as partners for sexual relations to promote spirituality -- was tainted by the power wielded by one partner over the other. So whilst the lineage system viewed these activities as promoting the enlightened state of the lineage-holders, the fate of one of the two main protagonists, the female consort, remained unrecognised, unspoken and unnamed. Shaw's implication that this very state of being encapsulates the female experience, and is a necessary part of a woman practitioner's path to the subjugation of ego, nonetheless does not take into account the fact that this imposed hidden role meant that, within the Tibetan monastic system which dominated the Vajrayana, for other women practitioners, there were no overt role models and no open system of exchange between women.

The extent of the bounds of secrecy concerning not the nature, but the context of these kinds of practices, meant that often women were more knowledgeable about the 'underside' of the system, and of the nature of the men involved, than most of the men who constituted the establishment itself. It is only since the death of the lama with whom I was involved that I have been able to see the elaborate mechanisms which lay behind his secret relationships, and can now question them in the light of their transposition to the west, where, I am sure, many western men would happily adopt such practices, as part of their 'dreams of power'.12 It is certainly intriguing to know that despite Kalu Rinpoche's activities with women, and even quite some time after his death, several Tibetan scholars in the west continued to show complete ignorance of the hidden life existing within the lama system. In his study of the history of Tibetan Buddhism, and in particular the difference between married lamas and celibate monks, Geoffrey Samuel wrote in 1993, 'Kalu Rinpoche was a monk, however, not a lay yogin, and most of his career took place in the celibate gompa setting of Pelpung'.13 Whilst it is true that Kalu Rinpoche spent many of his early years in the monastery of Pelpung in Tibet, it is also true that, after escaping Tibet in 1959 when the Chinese annexed the country, he spent many more as the abbot of a monastery in India, and during many of these years was not a monk, yet was afraid of the consequences of revealing his secret life.

My aim in naming him here arises out of a wish to clarify the extent to which this kind of practice was endemic within the system, and in order to de-mythologise the harmful forces which prevail to the disadvantage of both the women who were involved and the men who were excluded from the knowledge of what their gurus actually required of the women students around them. At issue is not the question of what particular individuals may have done in the belief that they were pursuing their religious practice, but rather the context and implications of these beliefs and practices, once mythologised and used to the detriment of others. It is patently clear, through examples in the past, that the potent combination of religion, sex, power and secrecy can have potentially disastrous effects on individuals and groups, and that any system which bases itself on these forces may be open to abuse.

The revelations pertaining to the sexual activities of lamas once dead, are, however, nothing new, for it has always been the case that stories concerning the prowess of lamas, particularly their use of so-called dakinis to further their enlightenment, have been told after their death. Certainly, with the passage of time, it may be easy to mythologise the real women who participated in these events, and, by romanticising what happened, the stories quickly take on mythological proportions. In retrospect, it may also be easier to view their sexual activities (in the absence of real knowledge as to what actually took place, that being in the ken of the women only) as a Tantric method used by divine beings, rather than ordinary humans. In the case of the most famous of Tibet's yogis, e.g. Padmasambhava, Milarepa and Drugpa Kunley, details of their liaisons with dakinis appear in their biographies, and are accepted because people believe that their spiritual realisation was so great that any activities which they undertook, including sexual, would be for the benefit of all beings. The extraordinary stories which are written about their miraculous exploits certainly portray these individuals not as humans, but as being of divine form.

So what made the imposition of secrecy -- not just about the content of the sexual practice, which is one issue, but also about the actual non-celibacy of a lama -- take on such importance in the Tibetan Buddhist world? The clue is in the most common explanation given by lamas about their secret lives. When asked why details of sexual encounters often emerge after a lama's death, I have often been told that it is because ordinary people might misconstrue events, and lose faith in their lama, thus breaking their own personal vow of faith in him, and also helping to bring about the lama's downfall. Naturally any fall in the status of a lama who outwardly maintained a position of celibacy would threaten the whole hierarchical system of theocratic rule, itself dominated since the 1500s by monasticism, and as a consequence the heart of the society itself.

As I have already discussed, the tulku system lay at the centre of the monastic way of life, and symbolically depended not only on the exclusion of women, but also on the metaphorical idea of male motherhood and divine succession. Seen in this way, any lamas outwardly transgressing the rules of the system threatened the very life of the system itself. For those close to the power bases, who had privileged knowledge of anomalies in the system, their method of dealing with such information was simply to employ a mechanism of denial, or adjust their view in order to accommodate what could not be acknowledged. Most lay people preferred to believe in their lamas as celibate and therefore superior beings, and the practices as symbolic, to be undertaken as meditational visualisations rather than actual physical actions. Only one school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma, openly acknowledged throughout its structures the importance of women within the system, and for this reason the lama lineage-holders are usually married. Despite this fact, however, it is known that many of the tulkus within its school do conduct 'secret' affairs before or after marriage, and that promiscuity in the name of Tantric teachings is not unknown. This either means that many lamas use sex as a justifiable method of religious practice, or that it becomes the excuse for undertaking illicit relationships which are usually brief, non-committed and keep the woman hidden from public view.

It is my contention that the secrecy factor in any of these relationships has little to do with the Tantric rites as such, which, in any case, are well documented in other schools of Tantrism, such as in India or Nepal.14 My view is that the secrecy was invoked, not just for protection of the lineage, but in order to allow the lamas to maintain control over the women who became involved, so that any decision-making which should concern both of them regarding the duration of the relationship, and the conditions under which it was perpetuated, were all made by the lama himself. The consort, as a non-person, was restricted by the authority of the lineage and the teachings, which decreed her role as secondary. Clearly the dangers of such a system operating in the west, where religious and therapeutic relationships carry the imperative of ethical behaviour in sexual matters, are obvious. There would certainly be questions about a situation in which a lama engaged in secret sexual liaisons with his female students (or male, as has been known) using deception which implied that ordinary sex with him would naturally constitute Tantra, or even that a secret relationship with him would automatically be spiritually beneficial (i.e. make good karma) because of his alleged spiritual status. All of these approaches would deny the integrity of the woman as an autonomous individual wholly capable of relationships in which mutuality and interdependence are the key factors, and not as one constrained to the passivity and submission demanded of her in the secret arena.

A final point which is just as crucial to this debate is the fact that many women in their longing for closeness to the father figure who is the lama, often actively desire (either consciously or unconsciously) physical intimacy with their teacher. Depending on the nature of their own previous life experience, and their own ability to deal with the break in the fiduciary relationship, the outcome of fulfilling such a fantasy as having secret sex with an idealised father figure, then being replaced by another woman, could, in certain cases, be traumatic. Additionally, where the woman concerned already had a sexual partner or husband, the stress involved in splitting off a part of her life from her partner could have significant consequences, especially if the man involved became aware of his wife's obligation to the guru.

But what of the actual nature of the sexual practices themselves? In Tibetan society, the representation of the sexual encounter signified the union of opposites, and the possibility of enlightenment through transcending duality and all its manifestations. But in addition to this symbolism it was widely recognised that actual sexual relations afforded the opportunity, through the Tantric teachings, of attaining special realisation, provided the lama had undergone a yogic training. So, given that a lama could be trained in the yoga of breath control, and therefore retention of semen, (the prerequisite for Tantric yoga),15 and that the fear of losing power, and his desire to maintain control, motivated him to insist on secrecy, were the subsequent secret activities in which he engaged with his consort of any benefit to the woman concerned? In order to consider this, I will firstly discuss the importance placed on Tantra in the Tibetan Buddhist system, then examine in some detail the actual nature of the practices which were kept so secret, and speculate on what relevance they had for women.

It is known that in Tibetan society there existed Tantric texts which contained teachings pertaining to the philosophy and methodology of sexual ritual, and that there was also a plethora of colourful paintings and statues which depicted adequately the importance of sexuality in the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Despite this, monasticism was viewed as the most appropriate vehicle for the transmission of power by three of the four main schools. As far as the Vajrayana was concerned, the sexual images portrayed the highest facet of the religion, for it is the case that each deity, in its secret aspect, is represented in yab-yum with its counterpart in sexual union. Even deities such as the benign and compassionate Chenrezig have a secret aspect, Pema Garchi Wongchuk (Tibetan padma.gar.gyi.dhang.phyug.), who is represented, red in colour, with his Tantric partner. In the visual representations of the Tantric act, the overwhelming number of images show a male deity, standing or sitting, face towards the viewer, with a female deity, back to the viewer, united with him in sexual union. This image, known as yab-yum, literally 'father-mother', is used in visualisation by many celibate monks in their practice of meditation. As part of the enormous range of practices available in the Vajrayana, the essentiality of sexual practice was confirmed by all the great scholars and yogis throughout history.

Milarepa, who determined to renounce all worldly things after sleeping on his mother's bones, later resorted to the practice of the karma mudra16 or secret consort. His biography provides us with details of his sexual encounters, as does that of the so-called 'mad yogi' Drugpa Kunley, who is said to have used sexuality almost exclusively as a means of raising spiritual awareness. In Milarepa's biography, he reiterates the necessity of sexual relations for the practising yogi, 'It is said in the Supreme Tantra, [That the qualified yogi] should attract the maids of heaven. . . . It also says that of all services the best is Karma Mudra.'17 Elsewhere, the fourteenth-century philosopher Longchenpa states, 'Since enlightened understanding does not come without resorting to a mudra, we are fettered to the triple world without such understanding.'18 Similarly, the Indian mystic Naropa writes, 'Without Karma Mudra, no Mahamudra,19 thus confirming the concept that, for the male practitioner, complete enlightenment is impossible without sexual relations with an actual woman, as opposed to a visualised, imaginary sexual relationship in meditation practice.

It is well known that these kinds of practices had their origins in the ancient Hindu Tantra, which proposed that female energy was primary, active and symbolised in the dance. The early Indian system, however, allowed for a transmission of its teachings through female priests. Pupul Jayakar, who researched worship of the Great Mother in India, wrote of bone images of the Mother Goddess which were found in caves in Utter Pradesh and carbon-dated to 20,000 BC. She concluded from her work that the transmission of myth and initiation in very early Indian society was actually from mother to daughter. There seems little evidence to support a theory that this mode of transmission ever existed in Tibet in Buddhist times. Accounts of the lives of female practitioners of great fame like Yeshe Tsogyal, Machig Labdron and Drenchen Rema show that their achievements were incorporated into the male lineage system, and functioned as part of it. They were never depicted as members of an all-female lineage exclusively. In spite of this, the ancient diagrams, iconography and symbolism pertaining to a more ancient philosophy survived to a certain extent, giving a degree of autonomy to women and the potential for positive identification.

However, it is my contention that the onset of the particular kind of patriarchal power which evolved through the tulku system promoted male subjectivity as primary, and this was ultimately responsible for eroding images of female subjectivity, excluding the possibility of such an all-female lineage, and reducing women's role in the system to a secondary (and inferior) position. Clearly the imposition of secrecy by the one party in the relationship who perceived himself to have much to lose if his sexual activity became public, and the kinds of real and textual evidence which support the view that women were actually threatened with dire consequences in order to retain silence, meant that the Tantric relationship was not one of equals, and that women were rarely in a position to take the initiative. The consequences of this one-sided aspect to the relationship was, in my view, the degeneration of the principles of the Tantric practices, and therefore of the potential benefits of two individuals participating in ritualistic rites on a basis of true mutuality.
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