“If being a woman is an inspiration, use it.
If it is an obstacle, try not to be bothered.”
~ Khandro Rinpoche
Lama Tsultrim Allione writes in the “Preface” to Women of Wisdom, her landmark collection of the stories of Tibetan yoginis, “My favorite thing to study was the biographies of the great teachers of Tibetan Buddhism. Since I was trying to follow the same path I found the stories of their struggles and the ensuing realizations that they gained tremendously helpful and inspiring. I found tidbits of stories of women here and there and I reread them many times, but there was nothing very substantial. Now it is obvious to me why I longed for stories of women and amazing that I did not consciously wonder about the lack of women’s biographies.”
On her journey to Nepal to collect the biographies of women, including Machig Labdron, Jomo Menmo, and A-Yu Khandro, she met a disciple of Shuksep Jetsunma Chonyi Zangmo (1865-1951) named Yudron who was once a nun. When Allione explained what brought her to Nepal, “She immediately understood the need for the stories of women gurus, and when she began to talk about her teacher tears ran down her face.”
Though female practitioners and scholars like Tsultrim Allione, Judith Simmer-Brown, Sarah Jacoby and many more have faced criticism for their seeming-fixation on gender, their efforts have inspired countless women to continue on the path and we are very supportive of and grateful for their efforts. Allione explains the situation quite frankly in her “Introduction” to Women of Wisdom:
“The tenacity of women seeking spiritual depths is also demonstrated in Buddhism, where nuns were again given second-rate status and therefore received less alms than monks and less esteem. Yet they have continued to take ordination and strive for liberation within a system which taught them they were less likely to reach this goal than men.
The point is that women under patriarchal systems have to continue to prove that their spiritual needs and capacity are as great as men’s, maybe even greater; however, they have been relating to religious systems created by men and intended to fulfill male needs. Though women have found ways of circumventing this situation, they have lacked stories of women’s experiences to relate to their own understanding and experiences. Though one might say that when one deals with the development of the mind, there is obviously a transcendence of the differences between men and women, we must still realize that our experience is largely conditioned by the stories we hear.”
Thanks to the yoginis who courageously told their stories, contemporary practitioners are able to reflect on these stories and understand the uniquely female experiences of Vajrayana. The paragraphs that follow will explain why we also owe immense gratitude to the innumerable dakinis who encouraged these along the way. Judith Simmer-Brown‘s seminal text, Dakini’s Warm Breath, explains the distinct ways that dakinis manifest to support yoginis:
“Yogini encounters with the visionary dakini contain several themes that point out the continuity of her own nature with the yogini’s. The dakini consistently appears as an ally and support, even when wrathful. She mirrors the yogini in embodiment, explicitly accentuating her feminine qualities, and eventually the yogini herself manifests as the dakini with special powers and characteristics. In contrast to her interactions with yogins, the dakini confirms the yogini’s practice and realization instead of serving as an oppositional force…
We have seen in the yogin accounts that the dakini may appear in horrific guise, especially when confronting intellectual or class arrogance or intractability. She is especially likely in these contexts to appear as an ugly old hag or a wretched woman of low caste or disgusting profession. No such accounts occur in the available yogini records. Rather, the dakini appears in supportive or confirming roles, accepting the yogini as a sister or ally. The thirteen-year-old cowherd Jomo Menmo is ushered into a terrifying charnel ground by Vajravarahi and her retinue with the words ‘Welcome! girl of our enlightened family.’
She is then immediately empowered and entrusted with an important dakini text and invited to feast with the hosts of dakinis. When Machig is overcome with the vision of Tara in the form of the dakini, she wonders whether an ordinary person like herself could benefit beings in any way. Tara responds by revealing to her that her basic nature is the Great Queen Prajnaparamita herself, and encourages Machig to persevere in her practice.”
In the biography of Sera Khandro, we also see dakinis featured prominently as supportive rather than deconstructive. Sarah Jacoby writes in Love and Liberation, her thorough and skillful analysis of the autobiography of Sera Khandro:
“More than her male colleagues, [Sera Khandro] engages in extended dialogues with dakinis in which they lavish encouragement upon her, refuting her every complaint about being inferior on account of her sex. Dakinis cheer her on with the most fervor just at the lowest moments in her life—when her father insists on her marriage, when her partner Gyelse chastises her, and when she feels powerless to gather together the necessary auspicious connections to reveal her Treasures. As in other Treasure revealers’ biographies, dakinis prophecies are not always easy to understand, but their support for Sera Khandro is unequivocal.
For Treasure revealers such as Jikme Lingpa (1730-1798), one of the effects of dakinis’ elusive talk was to emphasize the empty and unformulatable nature of selfhood. However, in Sera Khandro’s autobiography, dakinis words destabilize only her low opinion of herself, focusing instead on boosting her self-confidence and countering her numerous critics. Perhaps dakinis’ supportive words were especially necessary for female Tibetan Buddhist religious specialists such as Sera Khandro, who mentions knowing of only one other female Tibetan religious master teaching in her era.”
Simmer-Brown offers further elaboration on the distinct characteristics of female encounters with dakinis: “Second, the dakini bestows her body gifts on the yogini in characteristic ways different from the way she gives them to yogins. She acts as a mirror for the yogini, transforming her own view of her body as a dakini’s body, which is by nature radiant, empty, and beautiful…
[For example], when Yeshe Tsogyal was on retreat in the desolate mountains of Tibet, she practiced the austerities of tummo while completely naked, fasting for a period of one year. Suffering greatly and near death, she prayed fervently to the Three Roots, the guru, yidam, and dakini, for guidance and support. At that moment, a brilliant red dakini appeared to her completely naked, without even bone ornaments, and thrust her bhaga against Yeshe Tsogyal’s mouth. Drinking deeply of the copious flow of blood, the yogini experienced nonconceptual bliss. Her health was restored and she felt as strong as a lion…
The unique way in which the dakini is experienced by the female practitioner is in relation to her own body and manifestation as woman. She serves as the seal and blessing of women’s physical embodiment and as an ally and support in their practice. She endeavors to inspire women to practice authentically, and when women become enlightened they themselves manifest as the dakini.”
Throughout Dakini’s Warm Breath, Simmer-Brown touches on the significance of dakinis with regard to consort practice. For instance, she writes: “In the body gift of sexual yoga, the dakinis counsel yoginis to couple with particularly appropriate consorts, or they serve as matchmakers, delivering messages from prospective siddha consorts. Machig Labdron received visits from a succession of dakinis counseling her to unite with Thopa Bhadra.”
The autobiographical writings of Sera Khandro, however, offer unprecedented insight into the subjective female experience of consort practice. Jacoby explains: “Sera Khandro’s writings are exceptional among Tibetan texts for presenting a female perspective on life as a Tibetan Buddhist religious specialist who engaged in Tantric consort practices. Taken as a whole, her auto/biographical works endorse neither the view that women in Vajrayana Buddhism are deified nor the view that women are debased; they contain firsthand descriptions of both serving as a consort for male lamas and utilizing male consorts for her own spiritual benefit. In her autobiography Sera Khandro explicitly writes about attaining spiritual realization for herself through contemplative practices that included sexual liasons with multiple male consorts. Her forthright accounts of sexual yoga from the standpoint of female physiology flip the familiar Buddhist paradigm of male subjectivity and female subordination on its head, suggesting that at least in some cases, women did gain religious realization from participation in sexual rituals, a claim prominent Vajrayana Buddhist masters have made for centuries.”
Each year we have access to more and more stories of women who attained supreme realization through the practice of Vajrayana, and thereby benefited countless beings. You can find a list of books we recommend here, including those cited in the paragraphs above.
The Yogini Project was established in order to directly support the greater emergence of realized women in our time. To this end, we aspire to promote the translation, publication, and proliferation of as many stories about women as possible. Please consider becoming a member and joining our efforts to inspire, encourage, and support women on the path.
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