‘DIFFICULT’ AND WILD WOMEN: THE INVISIBILITY AND OVERLOOKING OF FEMALES IN BUDDHISM, PAST AND PRESENT and WEBSITE SECTION DEDICATED TO FEMALE TEACHERS/LINEAGES

“Those who wish to attain supreme enlightenment in a man’s body are many, but those who wish to serve the aims of beings in a woman’s body are few indeed; therefore may I, until this world is emptied out, work for the benefit of sentient beings in a woman’s body.” –Noble Tara (Origin of the Tara Tantra by Taranatha)

“I like to say that Tara is the first “Women’s Libber” and that Green Tara is the spiritual leader of the Green Party, guardian of the forest, fast acting and compassionate, with one foot in the world and one foot in meditation; a place where many of us find ourselves.” –Lama Tsultrim Allione

“I think this idea that the world is out of balance and that the female input and voice is needed to restore the balance in the world, is really coming into consciousness nowadays. Buddhism like every religion has its rather misogynist side. It is  basically a quite patriarchal system, we have to admit. Nonetheless, certainly in Tibetan Buddhism, some of the most important enlightened figures or deities are feminine. For example, Noble Tara is very important for both men and women.” –Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

“Perhaps they think of a dakini as beautiful, humble, kind, mother-like and so on, but I do not think they have really met one. It’s not always a compliment! (laughs).’ –Khandro Rinpoche

Introduction

For Tara day today, I offer this short article on women in Buddhism, inspired by recent teachings on the Buddha’s life-story, which details his acceptance of women as full members of his spiritual community and as his main female disciples, including his aunt (the woman who raised Buddha) Prajapati who insisted that women should have the right to be fully-ordained members of the sangha (as detailed in Wendy Garling’s new book  The Woman Who Raised the Buddha: Mahaprajapti ). Also, as the story goes, Tara declared that she would always return in a woman’s body until she attained enlightenment! Despite this inclusion though, the status of women and nuns (since Buddha passed away) became significantly lesser than their male counterparts over the centuries.

This piece explores the theme of the noticeable lack of writing, research and inclusion of women within Buddhist histories, and also how (even now) female voices and experiences, except for a token few, are still going unrecorded, ignored or deliberately downplayed and made invisible. I give some of my own recent experiences of this too.

Reasons for this are complex and manifold, but a few are described here. This bias and discrimination is true of all religious cultures, not just Buddhism and there is no doubt that centuries of unchecked male privilege and patriarchal conditioning has led to this state of affairs, and perpetuates it even now.  

First, there is the patriarchal and sexist culture of many countries or societies that have managed to normalise seeing women and girls as inferior. Combined with the male, monastic takeover of Mahayana and Vajrayana lineages and practice that has led to seeing women as objects of desire and female sexuality repressed and despised by many. This has led to a toxic hypocrisy and masculinity where women are secretly desired and loathed at the same time. Yet, denigrating/disrespecting women (individually, or in general) is one of the fourteen root downfalls of Vajrayana.

Second,  the purity culture of women only being valued (or recognised) for certain kinds of ‘female’ virtues of purity, humility, ‘invisibility’ and/or being related in some way to a well-known male lama, as the only commendable qualities of a female practitioner.

Third, there is the ongoing systemic bias of academia, with all-male panels, edited collections, committees and conferences,  gender inequality and sexual harassment, where women are either treated as sex objects, or not worthy of inclusion or notice by (often less-qualified or talented) men.

Finally, all this is exacerbated by female tokenism and enablers, where even women (through nepotism, vested interests or simply going along with the sexist ideology, not ‘wanting to rock the boat’) perpetuate and maintain the inequalities and sexism, by turning a blind eye to the trials and tribulations of other women, or even worse (as happened in my case) actively ignoring or labelling as ‘difficult’ any woman who attempts to do anything outside of those controlled parameters, or expose or change it. 

This piece for a general audience, aims to raise awareness and debate about these issues. I include some of my recent personal experience too. A lot more could and should be said on such topics, and I hope to write more about this in the future.

Ending on a positive note, in order to address this ‘female’ imbalance, sexism and invisibility, I created this website, the first female-founded and led Dharma research and translation resource. There are two sections on the website specifically dedicated to female teachers and lineages here, and research connected to the female in Vajrayana and Buddhism, here

Music? So many to choose…  I’m A Woman by Koko Taylor, Girls Run the World by Beyonce, I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor and I’m Every Woman by Chaka Khan. ‘ It’s all in me, I can read your thoughts right now, every one from A to Z, any time you feel danger or fear, instantly I will appear……anything you want done baby, I’ll do it naturally’!

Keep dancing and singing your songs of love, life and experience, sisters (with your male friends and allies)! 

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 13th October 2021. Copyright.

Nuns and female practitioners in ‘Original Buddhism’ and male monasticism and incarnation (tulku) lineages
Shakyamuni Buddha with the first fully-ordained nun, Maha Prajapati

“For the Buddha, Gautama, his chief male disciples were Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana, while his chief female disciples were Kṣemā and Utpalavarṇā. According to the Buddhavaṃsa, all Buddhas of the past followed this pattern of selecting two chief male disciples and two chief female disciples.”

–Hecker & Nyanaponika Thera (2003)

As I wrote about recently here, it is well-documented that Buddha was a feminist, in that he was the first person in ancient India who agreed for women to be fully-ordained members of the Buddhist Sangha, with several main female disciples. This was radical and revolutionary at the time, and it is recorded that the Shakya men strongly objected to it. Buddha’s actions were nothing to do with a modern-day feminist movement. The Buddha also took the same view of lower caste people,  allowing them to be recognized as spiritual practitioners, in a society that had forbidden lower castes from being able to practice any religion. Even the Eight Rules that apply to nuns (often used by patriarchs to justify the gender inequality in Buddhism that followed) are challenged by scholars as not having been given by Buddha himself; that these rules were later amended by monks who wrote the Vinaya). Or as Garling (2021) points out :

“Recalling (and trusting) the Buddha’s hesitancy in ordaining women, perhaps the original eight rules flowed from his concern about their welfare and were in fact female-friendly, protective even, as he sought ways to ensure women’s safety as they transitioned from the protections of patriarchal society to homeless life. After all, the Buddha had a huge responsibility to get it right. Not wanting anyone to come to harm, the future and reputation of his ministry also was at stake. As elaborated by Analayo:

The Buddha’s refusal to grant women the going forth could have originally been an expression of apprehensions that conditions were not yet ripe for this move…it could have reflected concerns regarding how to accommodate women living the holy life in celibacy as homeless wanderers at this early stage in the development of Buddhist monasticism, when safe dwelling places for Buddhist monastics were still scarce and public recognition not yet widespread.”

Nonetheless, as Buddhism continued through the years, patriarchal and sexist culture ensured that nuns and women were given fewer and fewer opportunities to be educated, teach and practice than their male counterparts. The paradigm example of this is the male tulku system that developed in Tibet, and then branched out into Bhutan and Nepal, in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries there. The vast majority of tulkus were, and still are male (the few females ones are either invisible or seem to maintain the status quo – see below).

Combine that with the male monastic takeover of secret mantra Vajrayana in Tibet (whose origins are in India and Nepal with female yoginis and masters) and one is left with a predominantly male monastic kind of Buddhism. This is contrary to the fact that Buddha spoke about the importance of the four-fold community of: laywomen (1), laymen (2), nuns (3) and monks (4). In addition, Buddha had several main female disciples, such as Kṣemā and Utpalavarṇā. However, these days it is very rare for a Tibetan Buddhist master to have such prominent female disciples.

The 17th Karmapa recently spoke about the poor status of nuns in Tibet and some of the reasons why that happened, see here. The 17th Karmapa is the only senior Tibetan Buddhist male teacher who has actively spoken about and is making efforts to improve the status of Tibetan Buddhist nuns and bring back full ordination[i]. He also spoke several times about how the idea that women should have equality within Buddhist cultures and communities was not some new 20th century phenomenon but came from the Buddha and women of that era. 

Female scholars are also taking up the forgotten or invisible women in Buddhist history (see Further Reading below). Wendy Garling is the author of the critically acclaimed Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha’s Life (2016, Shambhala), and has recently completed her second book, The Woman Who Raised the Buddha: The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati (March 2021, Shambhala). She is also offering a 6-week class on Stars at Dawn: Deepening Our Connections with Our Buddhist Foremothers:

” For today’s Buddhist practitioners reconnecting with our foremothers is long overdue. Through re-telling these remarkable narratives obscured by millennia of Buddhist patriarchy, we’ll discover the tremendous sacrifices, commitments, and contributions the first generation of lay and monastic women brought to the Buddha’s original purpose of establishing an equal four-fold community of dharma practitioners. As active participants, these first women helped lay the very foundations of Buddhism. “
Forgotten and overlooked female yoginis, dakinis and lineage holders and female tokenism

The Dakini (Khandro, literally means ‘space-goer’) is spoken about with great reverence in Vajrayana circles and Tibetan Buddhism. She is often cited as an example of female power and influence in tantric practice. It is clear that dakinis and female yoginis were the originators and teachers of many Vajrayana and tantric practices, and yet whose influence has been ignored and diminished by scholars and historians.  I wrote about this in UNSUNG HEROINES, MOTHERS OF MAHĀMUDRĀ AND SOURCE OF SARAHA’S SONGS : Re-telling the (her)stories of the symbolic ‘arrow-maker’ Dakhenma, and the ‘radish-curry’ cook gurus of siddha, Saraha, an article that Miranda Shaw (author of the groundbreaking, Passionate Enlightenment) praised and supported in a private email.

As I wrote about here before in relation to dakinis and dakini script, the dakini is not a wife, daughter, sister or girlfriend of a male teacher. In fact, women who have been given  the name ‘Khandro’ (like a male lama given the name Rinpoche) are not necessarily practitioners or realized at all. They have to live up to their name and followers should examine them before accepting them as a worthy teacher.

However, these days, Khandro seems to be associated with being related in some way to a male lama, instead of signalling a qualified and realised female practitioner/yogini. Generally, Dakinis engage in and support Dharma ACTIVITIES. That does not only mean quietly sitting in the background, supporting her male husband or relatives, and/or rolled out like a token woman when needed by the males.

Female tokenism is an issue everywhere not just in business and politics. Female or male, the teacher MUST be qualified. However if a female teacher really is doing nothing much for other female practitioners and translators etc. And merely maintaining and upholding the sexist ideas and traditions of their patriarchal masters then they are not really a Khandro at all.

The term ‘Khandro’ does not mean a woman who is a token female to give the impression women have a voice and status yet does nothing to promote and support women themselves. Such women should also naturally (by their very presence and activity) actively rooting out sexism, patriarchal norms and supporting women who are doing the same. How many women like that have you heard of or seen in the last 50 years?

There are a few well-known non-Tibetan female practitioners and scholars outside of the Tibetan tulku system, such as Angel Kyodo Williams, Jan Willis, Rita M Gross, June Campbell, Miranda Shaw, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Tsultrim Allione who are have done excellent work in terms of writing, and founding and running Dharma centres and retreats for women, and actively supporting women privately and publicly. Two Bhutanese nuns also recently spoke out about sexual misconduct towards nuns, however, this number is too small and under-represents Asian women, such as Tibetan, Nepali and Bhutanese women in these fields.  Tenzin Palmo has spoken extensively on many occasions how nuns and female practitioners often find themselves with little to no support, and that women themselves must challenge the cultural sexism ingrained in monasteries, see here and here.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

For example,  a recently published website ‘Female Vajrayana Practitioners’, is connected to Chagdud Khandro, a white, American woman who received that name from her husband, Chagdud Rinpoche. It helpfully lists a timeline of renowned female practitioners in Tibet, some of whom were called Khandro.

What struck me most about that website, was not only how little information was on it about the women (most of whom are still unheard of), but also how few women there were listed (especially prior to the 20th Century).  It is essentially a LIST of names, but without much information about them. In addition, Chagud Khandro is connected to Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, a Bhutanese teacher who has several allegations against him by women of acting in inappropriate and hypocritical ways.

If anything is ‘difficult’ it is finding male teachers with compassion for all and genuine respect for women, who do not have such allegations against them. Yet we do not hear so many stories of sexual harassment and misconduct by female teachers towards their male followers? So perhaps it really is time women followed and supported female teachers and lineages instead.

Statue of Machig Labdron, Lineage holder and founder of Chod. Image from Tara Mandala website.
Passionate women, sexual double standards and slut-shaming: purity culture and lack of female Buddhist equivalents of the ‘male stud’
Madonna and child, said to be produced from a virgin birth. Madonna and Child is a painting by Johann Nepomuk Ender.

Another reason for the invisibility of women, is not just the lack of historical and biographical accounts of women, or their lack of current influence (outside of North America), it is also the ‘purity culture’ in which women are generally presented as valid and authentic, only if they are submissive, virginal and pure.

Drugpa Kunley and Gedun Chophel are both examples of male Buddhist teachers/practitioners who are celebrated in Tibetan Buddhism for their rampant sexual appetite and exploits, which nowadays, read more like sexism and misogynist stereotyping. Chophel, who is no doubt an amazing translator, scholar and travelogue, wrote a book called ‘The Arts of Love’ (newly translated by Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Thubten Jinpa) which is highly erotic, fun and useful for sexual play techniques. However, it is also full of sexist stereotypes about women and their sexuality, based on Chophel’s personal sexual experience of them.

Imagine a text written by a woman full of stereotypes about different men, or a white person writing about different races, do you think people would celebrate it so readily? Of course not. Male privilege and sexual objectification of women (of any colour) is what it is though, and just because people are not so aware of it, does not mean it does not exist.

The fact there are no well-known female equivalents of these men also proves the point. Even if yoginis (labelled as ‘prostitutes’) did behave in similar ways with men, they are not promoted as heroines, and there is also a sexual double standards in most patriarchal societies, that promotes the idea that men who are sexually active or promiscuous are ‘studs’ and similar women are ‘sluts’[ii]. This ideology that still pervades most cultures, has it’s roots in what Freud termed the ‘Madonna-Whore’complex. A psychological conditioning in which people (generally men) are unable to be sexually active with women unless they see them as sluts/inferior/impure and yet at the same time, put so-called ‘pure women’ or ‘virginity’ up on a pedestal as paradigms of female virtue. The double standards of purity and slut-shaming culture are misogynist, sexist inventions designed to keep women in ‘their place’ and in a ‘no-win’ situation.

The fact that many so-called Khandro (who are labeled such, due to their being a wife or family member of a male Rinpoche) are extolled for their virtues of humility, purity, lack of voice and presence (basically the more invisible the better) only lends weight to this sexist notion that women are better ‘seen and not heard’ rather than a sexually promiscious, Drugpa Kunley type character.

Gedun Chophel, Tibetan Buddhist translator, scholar and author of ‘Arts of Love’
‘Gender-blindness’ -spiritual bypassing and other sexist excuses

Some people immediately feign an air of ‘’gender-blindness’ (and spiritual superiority) when it comes to dialogue about sexism and misogyny in Buddhist culture and norms. Yet, those same people are first to cry out ‘racism’ where it exists. While actively benefiting from male privilege, they feign blindness but also spiritually bypass anyone who dares to suggest that Buddhist cultures are not female-friendly or -centred.

Even citing Dzogchen, or high views of emptiness to support their dualistic and deluded views, they pretend they are beyond such labels, as and when it suits them. However, the fact that many take it so personally (and even feel offended by such discussions, insulting the women who dare to raise the issue) shows that they still have a strong dualistic mind and outlook and that they only apply their lofty views in words (as an when it suits them) but not in inner realisations or practice.

I have lost count of the times men (and women) proclaiming themselves as ‘serious’ or ‘seasoned’ Buddhist practitioners quickly display reactionary, defensive and emotional responses when others express their concerns about sexism and misogyny in Buddhist culture and communities. What happened to their lofty view then?

Academic male privilege, sexual harassment and all-male panels 

Some might counter-argue that outside of Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal, there are now many women in the academic field who are making great strides, such as Rita M. Gross, June Campbell, Janet Gyatso and so on. There is no doubt that the presence, and voices, of female Buddhist scholars and translators is much greater than before.

However, the fact that there are still publications and conferences where panels are predominantly male as well as academic departments, further shows that men still dominate in such fields, and women who manage to get a foot in the door, have to maintain that inequality to perform well and get funding. Two female Buddhist scholars recently spoke about the male tendency to diminish their work here.

Some Buddhist men (and women) are quick explain this absence (or lack) by glibly saying that women just don’t want to be teachers, or practitioners, or translators etc. They prefer to remain anonymous or in the background. That is a sexist stereotype though. Or they cannot find sufficiently well-qualified women to do it. This of course is the classic lame excuse of those used to male privilege and gender inequality. We couldn’t find anyone!

As Sylvia Mishra writes in The Logic of Calling Out Manels:

“First, conference organisers who decide whom to call as experts need to be aware that there are a number of women experts who are equally, if not better qualified, to engage in discussions on these issues. Of course, the situation is actually worse because this often happens despite awareness of women experts. Organisers tend to consciously or unconsciously pass over them despite their acknowledged expertise. Highlighting the works of women experts and promoting visibility via conferences and panels is essential because these habits are unlikely to be broken unless consciously exposed…..”

I recently queried the translation choice by two well-known male academics and the lack of women in their recent edited publication and conference panel. Again, despite one of the men working in North American academia (with all its political correctness) I was met with the response of ‘we couldn’t find anyone suitable’.  In addition, religious conferences held on Tibetan Buddhism in Dharamsala, India are generally all-male events. I also recently  wrote about how male scholars can hijack women’s stories and voices, even blocking access to material and support of other female scholars in the field working on the same topic. This is just the tip of the ice-berg that most women remain silent about in order not to be blacklisted and excluded by such men in that field.

Combine that with widespread reports of sexual harassment in academia, of female students by male professors, and perhaps it is all-too understandable why women in academia end up leaving in a huff. This issue is spoken about in ‘When It Comes to Sexual Harassment, Academia Is Fundamentally Broken‘.

Then, there is the accusation that an attractive woman must have slept with a man to have got any powerful or influential position. Either way, it is yet more proof that women are still viewed as sex objects, more than talented and able women. The same is no doubt equally an issue in all academic fields, not just those connected to Buddhism.

Thankfully there is now a website, called ‘Congrats you have an all-male panel’ that mocks and documents the sadly, all too common experience of male-only panels, which encourages people to report them. As well as the Gender Avenger Tally app  ‘to help amplify the voices of people who witness an all-male event and want draw attention to—and hopefully convince the organization to correct—the imbalance.’

Congrats you have an all-male panel
Female tokenism and enablers with a vested interest or conditioned sexism

Sadly it is not just men who maintain the status quo though. Women with influence, power and name often do too. There are also several female scholars (even those who claim to be supporters of survivors or doing academic work on religious clergy abuse) who I personally have experienced  ‘turning a blind eye’ to the sexism within their field, and the abuse of women by male Buddhist teachers, due to a greater concern with self-preservation and losing their connections and funding from institutions (such as the Khyentse Foundation) connected to those teachers. Intellectual integrity goes right out the window. In fact, that is one of the reasons female survivors don’t speak out more, they have too much to lose from it and will be punished by those who are supposed to be a source of refuge and friendship.

As one of the very few  survivors of lama misconduct and abuse to actually write about it, one of the noticeable things about speaking out (apart from the loss in  funding and ‘friends’) was the amount of ‘Buddhist’ educated, ‘intelligent’ men (and women), some of whom were established scholars or translators (or even worse than that, those working on sexual misconduct in Buddhism), who without knowing me or even knowing the facts, preferred to turn their back on my testimony and experience and pretend I didn’t exist at all (or worse, was a liar, mad or bad).  Mistakenly thinking that was part of guru devotion, rather than being unethical and like a cult, some women who had even been subjected to similar treatment by the same (or different) teacher, even went so far as to victim-blame and shame me, and paint me as the enemy. It’s a strange world indeed!

Yet, for a testimony to be taken seriously, a woman is told she MUST lose her anonymity, but even when she has the courage to do so,  she is often disbelieved, punished or ignored. Also, most women do not want to be named at all and it takes huge amounts of courage (but also personal loss) to do so. So, why do people ignore or shun female survivors? Reasons are various. However, it is often because often they had too much vested self-interest at stake in their own privileged positions and status within those Buddhist communities, or worse were following the teacher themselves (or those connected to the teacher) and preferred to remain in blind denial or they privately join in the defamation and undermining of the women anonymously.

The origin of ‘Dakini Translations’ and the prevalent culture of nepotism, male translators and committees and being labelled a ‘difficult’ woman by anonymous sources

Generally speaking, my experience as a female scholar and translator in Buddhism is that most opportunities are still dependent on funding or organizations led and managed by men.  Many of these men are connected to, or followers of male teachers too. Translation and editing committees are a prime example of how male academics and translators can ignore, or make irrelevant the work of well-qualified and talented female scholars and translators.

For example, one of the reasons this website was created because (at that time) there were zero websites/organizations founded and led by women in connection with Dharma translations and publications. My work was also excluded and ignored by  male-dominated translation projects, despite my having a first-class degree in Buddhist Studies from one of the best departments in Europe and independent book publications with forewords by renowned Professors. I know I am not the only female scholar and translator this happened to, but perhaps the first to describe it in writing. This overlooking of my work only seemed to worsen after I spoke privately about my own experience of Tibetan Buddhist lama misconduct and hypocrisy and had challenged some male scholars on their translation choices.  

For example, several months ago I was not included as a translator for the new funded Khyentse Vision translation project. The manager, a white, Australian woman, who is the sister of the wife of one of the Khyentse Rinpoches, had initially been extremely enthusiastic about my work and inclusion, as I had already translated and published several Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo texts, see here . The reason her enthusiasm suddenly waned, and I was excluded (she wrote me afterwards when I requested a reason for it)  was that some anonymous people had told her I was ‘difficult’, but refused to share specific details or names when asked. She even went so far as to personally say I was ‘toxic’ despite the fact she does not know me and we have never even verbally spoken in person. 

Such blatant, hostile and discriminatory action (based on anonymous, unsbstantiated gossip) would be illegal in an employment context, but in the Dharma translation world such actions are taken without any consequences at all,  and is another reason why qualified and talented women are controlled or ignored. Women are quickly labelled by others as ‘difficult’ by people who do not even know them, let alone worked with them for such matters, or simply for having challenged their opinions or work, or the ‘worst crime of all’ survivors of lama misconduct. These reasons have nothing to do with whether or not someone is a qualified and capable Dharma translator or scholar though. 

When I contacted some of the ‘big name’ advisors on their project’s advisory committee (whom I knew) to inform them about it, they told me that they were advisors in name only and actually had little, if nothing, to do with the project in any practical way. In addition, the manager of the project herself, is neither a published or recognised scholar/translator in the field, so the fact she was appointed as project director, and her translation of a sadhana picked to launch the project, seems to be rather nepotistic and also without much substance and an example of female tokenism. She ‘leads’ the project but the anonymous men on the ‘vetting committees’ are making the decisions still.  ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’, as they say! 

It was not even they had an abundance of willing and qualified translators either, because she had told me they couldn’t get sufficient qualified translators for their new project, as the ‘qualified ones’ were all too busy with other projects, and so they even had to set up a translator training programme, so they could get more people. Yet, she thought nothing of excluding myself a qualified and published translator and practitioner with the full transmission of the Khyentse Wangpo works, because OTHER anonymous people had told her I was ‘difficult’.  It is not the first time Khyentse Foundation people have acted in unfair and unethical ways on such issues though, see here.

Another example, is Adam Pearcey (of Lotsawa House  – an excellent resource no doubt) who, when  I queried why there were so few female translators published on his website, told me that 28% of the translations were done by women. Despite that clear imbalance though, he  also would not publish any of new translations of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo texts (freely offered), other than saying he didn’t have time to check/edit them. Too busy checking those of his male translator buddies perhaps? 

In one Facebook discussion, I was even called ‘disgusting’ by a white, male translator (‘Dzogchen’ practitioner and lama), merely for querying whether or not his translations were accurately sourced (which they are not). Despite this irrelevant personal insult, the rest of the men in the online discussion did not take any issue with it, and proceeded to gang up on me further, for what? Merely querying the accuracy of this man’s work. Demonstrating how misogyny, sexism and insulting women and their work are the norm, not the exception.

I could go on with other examples, but it would just get too boring for you (and me :-)). Whether or not this blatant discrimination is related to being unfairly labelled ‘difficult’, a woman, or a survivor of lama misconduct is not always clear, but these are all examples of  how qualified and willing females face many obstacles (and sexist denigration) in getting their work into the public domain.

Thus, the name ‘Dakini Translations’ arose out of necessity and was a deliberate strategy to put a female energy and name on such activity. Yet, even then, accusations were thrown by a few men (and women) of labelling myself a dakini, and as an example of my arrogance and pride. Yet, it had not occurred to these people that Wisdom Publications or Lotsawa House had also given themselves ‘grand’ titles. Why did they not face similar accusations? Probably because men founded and ran them and men generally don’t get accused of arrogance or self-promotion, unlike equally (if not more so) talented women who create such initiatives.

I write about this not to complain per se but to give direct, first-hand examples of such bias and blatant discrimination (and even denigration) of women within Buddhist communities. Also, to show how women can (and should) overcome these obstacles by creating their own projects and spaces, where they take the decisions and do the work.

In any case, it is not all negative, aside from these very few people in these very small, self-serving power cliques, the relative popularity and success of this website and the huge amount of support and praise I get for it (from Buddhist students, scholars, translators and teachers) is inspiring indeed, and depends solely on the content and value to others, which is as it should be.”

Cutting through deception and illusions – dakinis, goddesses and women with talent, power, wisdom, presence and activity

The history, iconography and stories of female goddesses, dakinis, yoginis and female lineages is anything but one of submissive humility, subservience, enslavement and so on, to male practitioners and teachers.  They are icons of female ambition, determination, passion, intelligence, sexual power and brilliance and also as teachers of many male siddhas. Vajrayogini is not someone to be ignored or denied! Yeshe Tsogyel took her own male consorts and faced many life-threatening challenges due to her gender.

Male ‘celibate’ monastic culture and privilege (with its all too often misogyny and repression/denial of female sexuality and power) has led to state of affairs where qualities of integrity, courage, intelligence, activity, confidence in women have not been promoted or valued.  To re-dress this, I have created a whole section on this website dedicated to female practitioners and their lineages here and hope to do more work on this in the future.

Like white people and racism, clearly men with male privilege have created much of the culture and institutions that promote sexism and misogyny. However, both men and women participate in this promotion when they maintain the status quo or look the other way when courageous women try to speak out, or do something creative and female-led. 

However, this piece is also a call-out to the women who do have a name, position and privilege to help support and encourage other women facing challenges or worse, abuse. Please do not get to the top and push the ladder away. Some women may now have a seat the table (when before they did not) but it is only when women are at least half the people at the table (if not more) and when their voices are listened to with the same respect and time as men, that we will start to see a genuine progress and female-friendly Buddhist culture. If the women at the table continue to listen to (or emulate) men and ignore women, there will be no real progress at all.

Why would anyone collude in their own denigration and oppression? Is it not time for women to abandon and resist sexist, patriarchal religions and cultures and distance themselves from the men (and women) who promote, maintain and benefit from those gender inequalities?

To end this short article, here is a quote from Khandro Rinpoche-  said to be the incarnation of the 15th Karmapa’s consort. When asked what a dakini is, she replied, many people do not understand what one is, but it does not necessarily mean a pretty, young woman, and it is not always a compliment! 

Or as Jane Goodall eloquently put it :-):

 

Further reading

Allione, Lama Tsultrim (2000). Women of Wisdom. Shambhala Publications.

—-https://www.lionsroar.com/tara-the-first-feminist/

Devdutt Pattanaik (2016) There’s a Misogynist Aspect of Buddhism that Nobody Talks About (Quartz India)

Diemberger, Hildegard (2007). When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty: The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet. (Columbia University).

Garling, Wendy:

(2016) Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha’s Life (Shambhala),

(2021) The Woman Who Raised the Buddha: The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati (Shambhala).

Palmo, Tenzin Jetsunma:

https://www.buddhistdoor.net/video/a-conversation-with-tenzin-palmo-on-nuns-and-challenging-sexism

—Conversation with Tenzin Palmo on Nuns, Laywomen and the Future https://www.buddhistdoor.net/video/a-conversation-with-tenzin-palmo-nuns-laywomen-and-the-future-

—Waking Up to Patriarchy:  Gloria Steinem and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo talk candidly about the personal challenges they’ve faced, the progress they’ve seen, and why there’s still more to be done.

Breaking Through (Lion’s Roar) Interview with Kelsang Wangmo, a German-born Tibetan Buddhist nun, who became the first woman to receive the prestigious geshe degree. 

Schneider, Nicola (2015) Female incarnation lineages: some remarks on their features and functions in Tibet, in H. Havnevik und C. Ramble (Hgg.), From Bhakti to Bon: Festschrift for Per Kvaerne. Oslo: Novus forlag (The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture), pp. 463-479.

Shaw, Miranda (1994). Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Tomlin, Adele (2020) and (2021):

Tantric Buddhism, vows, sex and women – the importance of love, respect and consent

UNSUNG HEROINES, MOTHERS OF MAHĀMUDRĀ AND SOURCE OF SARAHA’S SONGS : Re-telling the (her)stories of the symbolic ‘arrow-maker’ Dakhenma, and the ‘radish-curry’ cook gurus of siddha, Saraha

DAKINI SCRIPT (Khandro Da-yig): Mysterious Symbolic Key to Hidden Treasures

THE ‘GREAT DAKINI OF TSURPU’ KHANDRO RINPOCHE, ON THE ‘FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS’: FIRST TURNING OF DHARMA WHEEL (CHOKOR DUCHEN)

IN PRAISE OF THE HEADLESS, FEMME FATALE ‘SCARLET WOMAN’: Male monastic privilege and appropriation, denigration of women, female lineages, ‘feminist’ male consorts, and Vajrayoginī with severed-head and reversed Yum-yab union

A Woman’s Voice : the Autobiography of Kunga Trinley Wangmo, (Zhentong lineage holder and secret consort of Tāranātha)

Timme-Kragh Ulrich (2011). APPROPRIATION AND ASSERTION OF THE FEMALE SELF: Materials for the Study of the Female Tantric Master Lakṣmīṅkarā of Uddiyāna . Journal Feminist Studies of Religion, 27.2, 85–108.

African-American Women Buddhist Dharma Teachers and Writers on Self and No Self: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-94454-8_5

Swanepoel, Elizabeth The female quest for enlightenment: Compassion and patience in transforming gender bias in Tibetan Buddhism, with specific reference to Western Tibetan Buddhist nuns and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. PhD (2013) University of Pretoria.

 


ENDNOTES

[i] This is why the recent allegations by three Asian women of sexual misconduct, two of whom were nuns at the time, which has even led to a Canadian court case for financial support for a child conceived out of alleged sexual assault, is galling to hear. How is it possible that such a teacher who has done so much publicly and privately could act in such ways towards women? As a long-time follower of the 17th Karmapa, I can only hope that he will eventually make a statement in which these allegations and so on, are clarified and the truth reigns supreme.

[ii]   “He is a Stud, She is a Slut! A Meta-Analysis on the Continued Existence of Sexual Double Standards” https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/

https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868319891310

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