This short research article for Dakini Day today, inspired by a recent visit to the British Museum (London), considers ancient and modern representations of the bodies and sexuality of women in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist art and texts and how the excessive sexualisation and denigration of women’s breasts and genitals (exemplified by online porn), combined with purity culture and male religious patriarchies (as exemplified by monks) has led to such depictions of women being either ‘sexualised’ or ‘censored’ and thus drained of their inherent importance, power, life and passion. As exemplified by British censorship of a stunning Tara statue taken from Sri Lanka in the 19th Century. The article considers the following topics:
- BUSTY BUSTS – DEPICTIONS OF WOMEN AND GODDESSES IN ANCIENT BUDDHIST INDIA AND TIBET
- TOPLESS TARA STATUE– CENSORED BY THE BRITISH AS ‘OBSCENE’
- VAJRAYANA AND TANTRIC DEPICTIONS OF WOMEN, GODDESSES AND UNION PRACTICE
- TEXTUAL REPRESENTATIONS OF WOMEN AND GODDESSES IN BUDDHIST SCRIPTURES
- RELIGIOUS PATRIARCHIES AND PRUDISH PURITY CULTURE
- MAHASIDDHAS, TANTRIC UNIONS AND CELIBATE MONKS
- THE MADONNA-WHORE COMPLEX AND HOW IMAGES ARE BEAUTY ARE USED AGAINST WOMEN
- BREASTS, WOMBS, VAGINAS AND BLOOD: THE DOWNPLAYING AND DENIGRATION OF WOMEN’S BIOLOGY
The first half of the article considers artistic and textual examples of topless/naked women in Buddhist art and contemporary censorship. Despite the pornographic and explicit images of women easily and freely available all over the internet and Facebook, posts about Buddhist women are sometimes censored on Facebook/social media despite the fact, that they are ancient, sacred and beautiful images of Buddhist goddesses and yogini practitioners.
So what are the reasons for this objectification/prudishness/censorship? In the second half of the article I suggest three main reasons: Religious and monastic patriarchies, 2) purity culture, which categorises women into sinners or saints, sexual or virginal; and 3) the downplaying and denigration of women’s sacred and important biology and experience.
Naked breasts are not inherently sexual, anymore than a tantric union is. The fundamental purpose of breasts is to create and provide milk to babies (hence the term mammary glands and why humans are considered to be mammals). In addition, the vagina is also not only a source of entry for male visual and sexual pleasure. It is the door of life, emitting babies and menses blood. The fact that women (even in the ‘liberal’ 21st Century) are often asked to cover them up for ‘decency’s sake’ when breast-feeding, while having to tolerate all the sexual depictions of topless women around them, is an example of this double standards when it comes to women’s bodies and biology.
If people project ‘impure’ and ‘obscene’ qualities onto images (due to their own patriarchal and sexist social conditioning) that women’s bodies and functions are for the male gaze and like a ‘costume’ that can and should be ‘covered up’ in public these images (and women’s biology) lose their beauty, passion, potency and power to enliven, magnetize, instruct and awaken all beings! May women’s bodies and biology be respected and worshipped ‘nakedly’ for their inherent beauty and profound, important functions, as the source of life, birth and bliss!
Written by Adele Tomlin, 27th March 2022. Dedicated to women and girls, in particular L for being a ‘real friend’ when it was needed the most.
BUSTY BUSTS – STATUES OF WOMEN AND GODDESSES FROM ANCIENT BUDDHIST INDIA
Recently, I attended two exhibitions on Asian and Buddhist art in London (one at the British museum, the other at the Victoria and Albert Museum). I was particularly struck by the simple, busty beautiful ‘nakedness’ of the images of women in statues and friezes from ancient India, Nepal and Tibet. They were depicted topless with full, ample bosoms and only wearing a loin cloth (see yogini statue above from India). Depictions from the ancient Amaravati Buddhist stupa relics in the exhibition, featured many women in this state of undress (see image below).
Images of the Buddha’s mother giving birth also show her topless with topless attendants.
Even today, within indigenous cultures in Africa and Asia, women walk around topless, mainly due to the climate.
Other statues of goddesses, like this 15th Century Tārā (below), which I wrote about here, also defy conventional norms of 21st century beauty with a large hooked nose and less so-called ‘feminine’ features.
The contemporary ‘Barbie-fying’ images of women, dakinis and yoginis I have written about here, in relation to Miranda Shaw’s depiction of them (see image below) in her ground-breaking book: Passionate Enlightenment. in her ground-breaking English language book: ‘Passionate Enlightenment’. When I challenged Shaw on this, she greatly praised my research and agreed with me that such depictions are not necessarily accurate portrayals of the women, as they were not always referred to as ‘physically beautiful’ in the texts.
TOPLESS TARA – CENSORED BY THE BRITISH AS ‘OBSCENE’
Censorship and objectification of naked breast images and artworks is not a new phenomenon associated with social media though. In the British Museum, this Tara statue from Sri Lanka (see image above), who is topless with stunning, full breasts and small waist, with only a loincloth covering her. was also censored. In an online review by Shannine Daniel (2021) she writes that the Tara statue, which had been taken by the British in the 19th Century, had been censored from public display for ‘obscenity’:
“Although it is difficult to determine exactly when and where the statue may have been sculpted, some scholars date it back to somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries. It is 143cm in height, without its plinth, and it is believed that the statue was skillfully designed to depict what would have been perceived as the epitome of feminine beauty and grace. Cavities found on parts of the statue suggest that it was originally decorated with gems — including one large gemstone on the crown that adorns the goddess’s head — which, over time, may have been lost, or perhaps stolen. Some also believe that the goddess was once depicted to be holding a lotus flower in her left hand.
This particular statue was found in the Eastern Province of Ceylon — as Sri Lanka was then known — between the years 1812 and 1822, when the country was under British rule. The Governor at the time, Robert Brownrigg, gifted the statue to the British Museum in 1830. However, it was initially never displayed and instead hidden away, the statue’s nudity was considered “too obscene” and therefore inappropriate for the British public at the time.
So instead, the statue of the goddess was placed in a secret storeroom in the Museum, called ‘the Secretum’ for around thirty years or so, along with other treasures from across the world deemed inappropriate for the Victorian public. Only highly esteemed scholars with special permits were allowed into the Secretum to study the statue of Tara and the other treasures acquired — not necessarily with the consent of the native people — from foreign lands.
It was only in 1960, more than a century after it was taken away from the land of the people that worshipped her, that the statue of Tara was finally displayed to the public. She is now a resident of Room 33 at the British Museum, surrounded by artefacts from other ancient civilisations from across South Asia.”
This censorship reminded me of issues on Facebook with posting images of topless women, or deities in union, which were then ‘mistakenly’ classified by the Facebook computer algorithm as ‘sexually explicit’ or ‘selling sexual services’. It was only when making a direct appeal to a person to check the images and ascertain they were not as they had been swiftly categorised, that the decision was reversed. However, the fact that a woman’s breasts or nipples are being considered automatically ‘sexual’ is something worthy of challenge.
VAJRAYANA AND TANTRIC DEPICTIONS OF WOMEN, GODDESSES AND UNION PRACTICE
As for ancient representations of tantric deities and goddesses, as anyone who has visited sacred Buddhist places and temples in India, Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal will testify, they are full of topless and naked women (and men), dakinis and goddesses, in union and alone. The archetypal example is Vajrayogini (see contemporary depictions of her above and below) who is represented as a youthful, full-breasted woman with a very lustful and wrathful expression. Her vulva/vagina are clearly represented in many images.
Yet, as I have written about before here, the hypocrisy/contradiction of having these images openly displayed in temples and monasteries, while celibate monks are taught to see women’s bodies as filthy and objects of aversion and suffering, is quite obvious to anyone who might think about it. No wonder many monastics end up becoming confused about their sexuality and relationships with women, and women feel used and abused by them as consorts and partners in the name of Vajrayana.
For example, the 17th Karmapa’s new painting of the goddess, Marici (as I wrote about here), based on a previous work by the 10th Karmapa (see below), adds a sheer blouse to cover her prominent breasts. The reason for this is not clear, but is it another example of monastic prudity or the wish for it not to be censored online? I suspect the latter! 🙂
TEXTUAL REPRESENTATIONS OF WOMEN AND GODDESSES IN BUDDHIST SCRIPTURES
The descriptions of female yoginis, siddhas, dakinis, consorts and goddesses in the scriptures and texts are also highly sexualized, naked, and talk about their passion, power, wrath and lust. This does not mean all women are represented that way, there are peaceful goddesses like White Tara and so on, who are less sexualized but still appear topless and half-naked.
As a female translator, student and ‘practitioner’ (albeit not a very good one), reading past translations of sadhana texts about women, it was sometimes striking how some of the language is ‘watered-down’. For example, I was recently told by one female translator that they would feel uncomfortable using the word ‘aroused’ for breasts when that is actually what the Tibetan says. One person even challenged me on my use of the word ‘erotic smile’ and using images of topless women in my articles, despite the fact that was how women dressed in India and Nepal during the time of Shakyamuni Buddha and the spread of Tantric Buddhism.
INDIAN MAHASIDDHAS, TANTRIC UNIONS AND CELIBACY
Also, the male monastic takeover of Vajrayana and tantric union practice is a well-documented phenomenon, especially in Tibet. Prior to that, yogic Indian mahasiddhas such as Saraha, Tilopa and Naropa all had female teachers and consorts and had to leave the monasteries to engage in such practices, due to social misunderstanding and approbation. They are often depicted naked/topless and/or in union.
Then there are representations of Buddhist masters and deities in union, surrounded by naked goddesses, such as this one of Guru Padmasambhava:
That does not mean celibacy and tantric union are contradictory. In fact, they can be complimentary and essential if undertaken for the right reasons: love, compassion and the desire for full awakening (as I wrote about here). However, as documented in the Kalacakra texts, Karmamudra/tantric union should only be attempted at a very advanced level of the completion stage six yogas (4th or 5th yoga). The reason for taking a physical partner is not for ordinary physical pleasure, but to unknot the tightly-knotted heart chakra.
The previous Dudjom Rinpoche (see photo above) is said to have told students that unless the teacher can bring the thigle/semen back up the central channel at the brink of orgasm then they should not do it. He is said to have demonstrated this ability to a few students by weeing and then bringing it back up the urethra. I do not know if this story is true or not. However, the 14th Dalai Lama has stated publicly that unless a master has zero attachment for ordinary sexual pleasure and sees a plate of excrement in the same way as a plate of tasty food, then they should not practice union with a woman, especially if they are a monk.
So what are the reasons for this contemporary prudishness, which is completely at odds with the freely available pornography and sexual content online? In the second half of this article I suggest three main reasons: Religious and monastic male patriarchies, 2) purity culture, which categorises women into sinners or saints, sexual or virginal; and 3) the downplaying and denigration of women’s powerful biology and experience.
PRUDISH PURITY CULTURE AND RELIGIOUS MALE PATRIARCHIES
There has been much written and said about the male view and purity culture that insists women and girls be ‘pure’ and ‘virtuous’ in the eyes of men as mothers, sisters and daughters, yet men and boys are not held to the same standards. Some cultures and religions insist that women should even be covered up with nothing else showing other than their eyes.
As this photo “What if” by Yemeni photographer, Boushara Yahya Almutawakei shows below, if such religious puritanical culture was applied to men, it would be considered strange, outrageous and unacceptable by the majority of men, so why do women accept it as a cultural or religious requirement?
THE MADONNA-WHORE COMPLEX AND HOW IMAGES ARE BEAUTY ARE USED AGAINST WOMEN
From a non-religious perspective, this religious right, purity culture (also exemplifed by Catholicism and Christianity with the virgin Mary) connects to the Freudian idea of the Madonna-Whore complex, that men can only deal with women as individuals when they put them into two simplistic categories: pure madonna or impure whore. The latter then being seen as an ‘open target’ for disgust, denigration, sexual objectification and lack of compassion, as exemplified by the prostitute. If men were forced themselves to see women as living, feeling individuals,(comparable to their mothers, sisters and daughters) and not just pieces of flesh to be bought and used, it is said that punters (those who pay for sexual services) would decline. Use of prostitutes has been documented as requiring a lack of love and compassion for the woman, or a Jekyll and Hyde ability to switch it on and off at will.
This phenomenon has been explored and depicted recently by artist, Elizabeth Heyert (2019), see here:
Additionally Bill Yuan writes about the damaging effect of this simplistic categorisation of women in the Damage of Porn Usage Beyond Bedroom: Madonna-Whore Complex (2021): “Pornography, beyond sexual dysfunction, promotes sexless love, loveless sex, by creating a gulf between emotional intimacy and sexual desire.”
The ‘male gaze’ and objectification influences women too, as Naomi Wolf wrote about in the Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (1991) Beauty contests for women are also supported by women, even though the entry conditions are sexist and ageist, for more on that see here.
“The beauty myth posited to women is a false choice: Which will I be, sexual or serious? We must reject that false and forced dilemma. Men’s sexuality is taken to be enhanced by their seriousness; to be at the same time a serious person and a sexual being is to be fully human. Let’s turn on those who offer this devil’s bargain and refuse to believe that in choosing one aspect of the self we must thereby forfeit the other. In a world in which women have real choices, the choices we make about our appearance will be taken at last for what they really are: no big deal.”–Naomi Wolf, ‘The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women’
WOMEN AS SEXUAL ‘PIECES OF MEAT’ AND THE DOWNPLAYING/DENIGRATION OF THE FUNCTION OF WOMEN’S BIOLOGICAL BODIES AS HUMANS AND IN RITUALS
In the same way, as Carol J Adams writes, in The Pornography of Meat and The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. producing and eating meat, also requires a ‘looking away’ and lack of compassion for the animals bred and killed for that purpose, as does the sexual objectification of women bodies as pieces of ‘meat’:
The focus on women’s bodies and the fragmenting of individual body parts causes women to become sexual objects, just as animals become objects when eaten as “meat.” When a man identifies himself as a “breast man,” “leg man” or “ass man” he reduces women to their body parts, consumed like meat.
In fact, it has been argued by many biological women that trans women activists and their insistence on ignoring biological sex and the inner workings of the female body when defining a ‘woman’, while emphasising regressive, gender stereotypes, has only exacerbated this idea that women’s biological bodily functions are nothing much to revere or focus on. Hence, British author JK Rowling’s recent assertions about the importance of defining women by biological sex and not in terms of gender and the statement by African feminist, Chimananda Adichie that ‘trans women are trans women’. For them (and others), breasts, wombs, ovaries, vaginas are not some ‘costume’ one wears/feigns to look ‘female’ they are a biological reality with important and essential physical and social functions. Indeed. For example, no matter how much people protest, biological heterosexual men are not being forced to consider a trans woman the same as a biological woman when it comes to sexual intercourse and making babies, so why are biological women being forced to accept them as such in sporting events and changing rooms etc?
As I wrote about here before, tantric union practice is biological male-female for a reason and nothing to do with heteronormativity or transphobia but with inner channels and biology. Even rituals have often been associated with menstruation cycles, blood and giving birth:
To conclude then, let us ‘turn away from’ this sexual objectification, degradation and dismissal of women’s biology and functions and emphasise and praise their spiritual, sacred and practical purpose!
Tara: The Sri Lankan Deity At The British Museum by Shannine Daniel (Roar Media, 2021)
The Female Nude, Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality by Lynda Nead (Routledge, 1992)
Art Review: 15th Century Tibetan Tārā with the ‘Roman nose’ by Adele Tomlin (2022)
The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf (Harper Perennial 2002, first edition, 1991)
Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism by Miranda Shaw (Princeton, 1995)
Dakini’s Warm Breath, the Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism by Judith Zimmer-Brown (Shambhala Publications, 2022)
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 by Adele Tomlin (2021)
Tantric Buddhism, vows, sex and women – the importance of love, respect and consent by Adele Tomlin (Dakini Publications, 2020)
The male-female tantric union: Homophobic heteronormativity or biological inner essences? by Adele Tomlin (2021)
 The former Dudjom Rinpoche famously was said to have taught his students that unless a person had ‘equal taste ‘ of all phenomena without disgust and with a tsa lung practice that draw up urine/semen at the point of expulsion, back up the genitalia (as he is said to have demonstrated when asked to do so) then they should not attempt it. For that reason, it has been said, by HH Dalai Lama and others, that only very few people are qualified to engage in such a practice. The consort also has to have specific qualities, as I have written about before here.