“Whether male or female, there is no great difference. But if a woman develops the mind of enlightenment, her potential is supreme.”
~Padmasambhava, pioneer of Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet
Tibetan Buddhism offers a unique premise: that to be a woman can actually be favorable on the path to spiritual realization.
Women, so the eighth-century trailblazer of Buddhism in Tibet reasoned, are better equipped to realize the wisdom of the teachings.
Modern teachers have echoed this sentiment. As Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, the most senior Western born Tibetan Buddhist nun, comments in her book Reflections on a Mountain Lake, “Many lamas have said that women make superior practitioners because they are able to dive into meditation much more easily than males.”
A female messenger of wisdom is called a dakini in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. Except what exactly is a dakini?
Dakinis are elusive and playful by nature; trying to nail them down with a neat definition means missing them, since defying narrow intellectual concepts is at the core of their wise game.
For my book Dakini Power: Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, I asked several of the foremost female Buddhist teachers in the West to share their understanding of the dakini.
Khandro Rinpoche is one of the very rare female reincarnations in Tibetan Buddhism, and her name literally means “precious dakini.” She points out: “Traditionally, the term dakini has been used for outstanding female practitioners, consorts of great masters, and to denote the enlightened female principle of nonduality which transcends gender.” Khandro Rinpoche defines the authentic dakini principle as “a very sharp, brilliant wisdom mind that is uncompromising, honest, with a little bit of wrath.”
The dakini principle must not be oversimplified, as it carries many levels of meaning.
On an outer level, accomplished female practitioners were called dakinis, and it is in this sense that the term is used in the title of this book. But ultimately, though she appears in female form, a dakini defies gender definitions.
“To really meet the dakini, you have to go beyond duality,” Khandro Rinpoche teaches, referring to an essential principle in Vajrayana that the absolute reality cannot be grasped intellectually.
The Tibetan word for dakini, khandro, means “sky-goer” or “space-dancer,” which indicates that these ethereal awakened ones have left the confinements of solid earth and have the vastness of open space to play in.
Thus, dakinis appear in many forms.
“The dakinis are the most important elements of the enlightened feminine in Tibetan Buddhism,” says American teacher Lama Tsultrim Allione. “They are the luminous, subtle, spiritual energy, the key, the gatekeeper, the guardian of the unconditioned state.
If we are not willing to invite the dakini into our life, then we cannot enter these subtle states of mind. Sometimes the dakinis appear as messengers, sometimes as guides, and sometimes as protectors.”
Tsultrim Allione has built her temple, Tara Mandala in Colorado, specifically as a manifestation of the enlightened feminine. It features an abundance of female figures:
Prajnaparamita, the embodiment of “transcendent wisdom,” sits in perfect meditation posture on a lotus, holding up a loose-leaf text of the wisdom sutras.
Tara, the female buddha known as the “One who Liberates,” sits with one leg stretched out indicating that she is ready to jump up and help beings whenever needed.
For lack of a better word, in English these buddhas are usually called “deities.” Yet, literally, the Tibetan word yidam means “holding the mind.” Unlike in other religions, such as Christianity or Hinduism, these archetypes of enlightenment are not externally existing entities whose blessings are invoked. Rather, deities in Vajrayana Buddhism are manifestations of mind the practitioners evoke to purify neuroses and connect with a deeper level of awareness.
Some of them are depicted as serene and peaceful like Tara and Prajnaparamita. Others, such as Vajrayogini, manifest as wrathful and fierce, flashing their fangs, baring their naked breasts and vaginas in a wild dance, and destroying ignorance without hesitation.
Because dakinis are said to break through blockages and obstacles, they are often associated with an uncomfortably fierce demeanor. “There is the aspect of compassion, embodied by Tara; then there is the mother figure and its aspects of love.
But then, in the Tantric tradition, there is the wild aspect of the dakini, untamed, and free, belonging to no man,” Tsultrim Allione explains. “Dakinis have a quality of playfulness, expressing emptiness and pulling the rug out from under you. This feminine quality of seduction and play makes you insecure and yet open.”
Tibetan Buddhists were not the first to meet the dakinis.
Like many elements of Vajrayana, the dakinis emerged first in the Indian Tantras, and those, in turn, had partly drawn on ancient pre-Aryan goddess traditions. When Tantra originated in India, the dakini was seen as wrathful and often described as a blood-drinking flesh eater who lived in charnel grounds or cemeteries, challenging the yogis to explode their fears. After Buddhists adopted tantric ideas and tantric Buddhism migrated to Tibet in the eighth century, this image softened somewhat.
A gentler, more sensual and accommodating female image emerged, one that nurtured and sustained the practitioners; though that enticing figure could still instantly resort to more dramatic, wrathful means when the peaceful approach of seduction didn’t work.
This enigma is embodied in Vajrayogini, who is often called the chief of dakinis. Usually depicted as an attractive teenage girl, naked except for a few bone ornaments, she glances invitingly while also swinging a curved knife, ready to cut through ego clinging without warning.
“When you want to accomplish something, you always invoke the presence of the dakinis,” says Tsultrim Allione.
“The dakini is not far away. We all have the dakini within us. Find her and play with her, and feel all the levels of her in us and in the world. We need her.”
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Assistant Ed: Dana Gornall/Ed: Bryonie Wise