Dakini's Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism

Dakini's Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism

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by Judith Simmer-Brown
     
 

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The primary emblem of the feminine in Tibetan Buddhism is the dakini, or
"sky-dancer," a semi-wrathful spirit-woman who manifests in visions, dreams,
and meditation experiences. Western scholars and interpreters of the dakini,
influenced by Jungian psychology and feminist goddess theology, have shaped a contemporary critique of Tibetan Buddhism in which

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Overview

The primary emblem of the feminine in Tibetan Buddhism is the dakini, or
"sky-dancer," a semi-wrathful spirit-woman who manifests in visions, dreams,
and meditation experiences. Western scholars and interpreters of the dakini,
influenced by Jungian psychology and feminist goddess theology, have shaped a contemporary critique of Tibetan Buddhism in which the dakini is seen as a psychological "shadow," a feminine savior, or an objectified product of patriarchal fantasy. According to Judith Simmer-Brown—who writes from the point of view of an experienced practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism—such interpretations are inadequate.

In the spiritual journey of the meditator, Simmer-Brown demonstrates, the dakini symbolizes levels of personal realization: the sacredness of the body, both female and male; the profound meeting point of body and mind in meditation; the visionary realm of ritual practice; and the empty, spacious qualities of mind itself. When the meditator encounters the dakini, living spiritual experience is activated in a nonconceptual manner by her direct gaze, her radiant body,
and her compassionate revelation of reality. Grounded in the author's personal encounter with the dakini, this unique study will appeal to both male and female spiritual seekers interested in goddess worship, women's spirituality,
and the tantric tradition.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Simmer-Brown (chair, religious studies, Naropa Univ.) has produced a comprehensive, scholarly, and intriguing study of "dakini," the feminine principle in Tibetan Buddhism. She defines dakini as a symbol "who personifies in Tibetan Buddhism the spiritual process of surrendering expectation and concept, revealing limitless space and pristine awareness." The methodology she employs in her study includes both scholarly preparation and training in Vajrayana Buddhist practice traditions. She is sensitive to and articulate about feminist issues related to her subject and on this basis finds the prevailing modes of feminist and Jungian paradigms lacking in there assessment of dakini. Therefore, she proposes more appropriate methodologies that draw on the disciplines of history of religions and gender studies. As she reviews the Indian historical background of dakini, she is careful to differentiate dakini in Tibetan tantric literature from dakini's "Hindu tantric cousins." While Thinley Norbu's Magic Dance: The Display of the Self-Nature of the Five Wisdom Dakinis is more poetic, Simmer-Brown's work is more scholarly and focused. It also includes an examination of the hagiographic lore about dakini and ends with a description of dakini as the protector of tantric teachings and midwife of the transmission of teachings. Recommended as a landmark study which will be a useful addition to any library's holdings on Tibetan Buddhism. David Bourquin, California State Univ., San Bernardino Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
"A comprehensive, scholarly, and intriguing study of 'dakini,' the feminine principle of Tibetan Buddhism. A landmark study."—Library Journal

"Simmer-Brown has written what is destined to be a classic among vajrayana practitioners, Buddhists of other schools, and readers interested in Buddhism."—Shambhala Sun

"Dakini's Warm Breath is not only readable, but exhilaratingly lucid."—Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

"A scholarly and fascinating exploration into the feminine principle in Tibetan Buddhism."—Bodhi Tree Book Review

"A book-length discussion of dakinis, who are one of the most elusive aspects of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, is a welcome edition to the growing literature on symbols of the feminine in Buddhism. Simmer-Brown skillfully interweaves traditional stories with commentaries by contemporary Buddhist teachers to provide the most complete discussion of this topic to date."—Rita Gross, author of Buddhism after Patriarchy and Soaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780834828421
Publisher:
Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Publication date:
01/21/2014
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
File size:
3 MB

Read an Excerpt

From
the Preface

When
I was nineteen,

I
was first enveloped by the feminine principle, albeit in a hidden form. As I
arrived on the Delhi tarmac straight from Nebraska and inhaled the scent of smoke, urine and feces, rotting fruit, and incense, I knew I was home. From that moment on, the sway of brilliant saris, the curve of water jugs, the feel of chilis under my fingernails, and the pulse of street music called me back to something long forgotten. As I gazed into the faces of leprous beggars,
wheedling hawkers, and the well-oiled rich, I was shocked into a certain equanimity I could not name. The only way I could express it was to say that I
suddenly knew what it meant to be a woman. On subsequent trips, I have had similar responses, the slowing of my mind and a deep relaxation in the pores of my body, calling me from ambitions of daily life to an existence more basic and fundamental, calling me home.

As a graduate student in South Asian religion in the late sixties, I discovered feminism. For many years, my feminist journey paralleled my academic and spiritual ones, and I found few ways to truly link them. Looking back at my papers and essays, I can see that I was trying to find a place for myself as a woman in academe. At the same time I began Buddhist sitting meditation practice,
zazen,
in the Japanese Soto tradition. In my first teaching job, I was the only woman my academic department had ever hired. When I was inexplicably terminated,
departmental memos gave as the reason that my husband was a university administrator and I "didn't need the money." I joined a class action suit against the university and eventually won. During the turmoil, Buddhist meditation gave me a quiet center from which to ride out the maelstrom.

Later,
eschewing another full-time academic appointment for full-time intervention with rape victims, my feminism emerged full blown. I saw myself burning in all women's rage, rage against the violence, the brutalization and objectification of us all. Even as I became outraged, I continued to sit. Alternating confrontation therapy with convicted rapists and long periods of intensive meditation, I learned that rage is bottomless, endless, the fuel for all-pervading suffering in the world. I began to feel directly the sadness at the heart of rage, sadness for all the suffering that people—female and male,
rape victim and rapist—have experienced. I knew then that feminism saw a part of the truth, but only a part. Having experienced my own suffering, I began to sense its origin and to glimpse its end.

That is when I came to teach Buddhist Studies at Naropa University, at the end of
1977.

Several years earlier, I had met my teacher, Ven. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and recognized at once that I had everything to learn from him. He completely knew the rage and he knew the sadness, and yet he had not lost heart. He thoroughly enjoyed himself, others, and the world. And he introduced me to a journey in which I could explore rage, sadness, passion, and ambition and never have them contradict my identity

as a woman and a practitioner. My feminist theories wilted in the presence of his humor and empathy, and my consuming interests turned to Buddhist practice,
study, and teaching.

Ven.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was one of the first Tibetan lamas to teach in North
America. Born in the eastern Tibetan province of Kham in 1940,

he was recognized as an incarnate teacher
(tülku)
of a major Kagyu school when he was only thirteen months old.

He was enthroned at Surmang Monastery and rigorously trained in Kagyu and Nyingma
Buddhist philosophy and meditation until the Chinese invasion of his country.
Like many lamas in Kham, he fled Chinese persecution during the Tibetan uprising of 1959,

leading a large number of monks and lay devotees to safety in India. There he served as spiritual adviser to the Young Lamas Home School in Dalhousie, India, until 1963,

when he was encouraged by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to study at Oxford University.

In
1969,

after a solitary meditation retreat at the Padmasambhava cave in Taktsang in the kingdom of Bhutan, Trungpa Rinpoche radically changed his approach to teaching and meditation. Realizing that the Buddhist teachings would never take root in the West unless their cultural trappings were cut away, he gave up his monastic vows and married a young British woman. He also decided to teach in North
America and established meditation centers in Vermont and Colorado in the early
1970s.

The
America that Trungpa Rinpoche entered then was ripe with social and cultural ferment. Feminists were active and vibrant, but some did not find in political activism the experience of wholeness they sought. Many feminists like myself turned toward spirituality to complete their journeys, but most sought spirituality that did not involve the patriarchal oppressions of institutional religion.

From that perspective, I had made a peculiar choice. Tibetan Buddhism in its Asian and North American manifestations at that time had male teachers, strong hierarchical patterns, and neither sympathy for nor openness to feminism. I was fresh from the gender wars of lawsuits and rape trials, but still Tibetan tantra drew me. Meeting Rinpoche, I knew I could bring everything with me and that nothing would be confirmed or denied. And I knew that healing would happen only if I was willing to risk everything.

For his part, Rinpoche spoke inscrutably and enthusiastically of what he called
"the feminine principle" in Tibetan Buddhism. He presented this material in a completely unique way for a Tibetan lama, couching traditional and fundamental insights of tantra in language accessible to citizens of the late twentieth century influenced by feminism. In his public and private teachings, he wove in what he called the Mother, who "safeguards against the development of ego's impulses."

He said that because she was unborn she was also unceasing,


and his explanations did nothing to clarify this conceptually. I understood I could access these teachings only through deeper meditation practice. He encouraged me, teased me, and devastated me in a variety of ways; I can never forget the accuracy and warmth of his compassion. He introduced me to the dakini, and I
know that she is inseparable from his mind.

Whereas
Trungpa Rinpoche was best known to the public as unconventional in his lifestyle and teachings, with his students he was meticulous, generous, and exacting in his presentation of Tibetan tantra. He required rigorous practice as prerequisites, and he introduced the stages of practice in turn. He closely supervised the translation of ritual texts, standardizing the English in consultation with the most respected teachers of his lineages. And he monitored the progress of his many students both personally and through a network of his students who were trained as meditation instructors. He also insisted that the teachings be reflected in our everyday lives, our homes, families, and relationships, and

tested our understanding at every turn.

I
gratefully threw myself into this regimen, appreciating its demands for direct,
experiential understanding and commitment and for its accessibility to
Americans. My practice evolved and so did my study as Rinpoche gradually taught more traditionally and invited the greatest Kagyu and Nyingma lamas of the exiled Tibetan communities of India and Nepal to

teach his students. He also encouraged the development of my academic studies in
Buddhism. From the beginning, I was pushed to teach at Naropa University and within the Buddhist community, which forced me to integrate study and practice in a most public and personal way.

I
presented my first academic paper on the dakini in the Spring of 1987,

a memorable time because it occurred within months of both the birth of my first child and the terminal illness and death of my beloved teacher. In the years since Rinpoche's death, I have had the opportunity to study with the best of the realized lamas of the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages, who generously took on the guidance of the "orphaned" students of their friend Trungpa
Rinpoche. Slowly during these years, as I continued my study and practice, I
became more committed to an extended work on the dakini, but because of teaching and domestic demands, this seemed impossible. Finally in the spring of
1993,

with two young children at home, I was granted a one-semester sabbatical from Naropa
University and began my work in earnest.

Impressed with the enormity of the challenges and depressed by my inability to meet them,
I scheduled an interview with the young and dynamic female incarnation Ven.
Khandro Rinpoche, to ask prepared questions on the dakini. A tiny, spirited woman with a penetrating gaze and gentle demeanor, Rinpoche spoke fluent
English in rapid staccato sentences. As the interview progressed, she questioned me closely about my project and its aim and intention, and generously urged me to persevere. I explained my doubts, but Rinpoche declared how necessary such a book would be, pointing out my particular qualities and responsibilities to write it. As a rare Tibetan woman
rinpoche,
she had experienced her own challenges in receiving a full monastic education and the respect accorded an incarnation. On her first American tour, she had been assailed with questions about women and the feminine wherever she taught. As a result, she had come to deeply understand the concerns that Westerners,
practitioners and nonpractitioners alike, share regarding gender in Tibetan
Buddhist practice.

At first I had approached Rinpoche out of curiosity. After all, her very name,
Khandro Rinpoche, means "dakini incarnation." As I came to see, if one looked only at her gender, most of what she had to offer would be lost. Her unusual background, combining traditional Tibetan monastic education with
Western convent-school training, made her a brilliant bridge between traditional and contemporary perspectives. And her own gifts in directly imparting her insightful, immediate understanding of the Buddhist teachings are remarkable. In wise and humorous counsel, she advised, "If being a woman is an inspiration, use it. If it is an obstacle, try not to be bothered."
When she departed, I sat down at the computer and in seven weeks had a rough skeleton of the book. Khandro Rinpoche continued in subsequent years to encourage the project, generously granting me repeated personal interviews,
communicating by letter, and reviewing an early draft of the entire manuscript.
To say that her inspiration has been essential is an understatement.

In the succeeding years, many doors have opened to me in support of this book. I
interviewed a number of lamas with whom I had studied and found them generous and helpful in countless ways, answering questions, guiding the structure of the work, correcting my mistakes and confusions, and encouraging me. I would never have undertaken such a project without the insistence and encouragement of these lamas, and I owe them a debt of gratitude for any measure of understanding of the dakini that I may have. The structure, design, and conception of the book have been shaped by their direct suggestions and guidance.

For me, the encounter with the dakini has inspired an intense personal journey. My early interest in her was born of my feminist sensibilities and concerns that women practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism need "positive role models"
on our spiritual journeys. Yet the journey took me much farther than those limited goals. I have sought her traces in my practice and study for over twenty-five years. Gradually my motivations for meeting the dakini have changed. I have seen that she required me to be willing to shed all these reference points of ego and identity in order to enter her domain. At the same time, she demanded that I bring everything along, all neurosis and confusion,
all arrogance and rage, all concepts of feminine and masculine, to offer into her blazing gaze. Even while she has shown her face to me in glimpses, she has become more elusive, taking me with her on a boundless journey. I pray that she remain my unanswerable question, my seed syllable, my Tibetan
koan,
for this life.

The inspiration of this book is my encounter with the symbol of the dakini, who personifies in Tibetan Buddhism the spiritual process of surrendering expectation and concept, revealing limitless space and pristine awareness. But while her feminine face drew me inward, what I have found is far beyond gender concerns. She is a powerful religious phenomenon, a fertile symbol of the heart of wisdom to be realized personally by every practitioner and to be respected and revered throughout the Tibetan tantric tradition. Her manifestations and meaning are profound, experiential, and hidden from rational strategy. Yet she appears everywhere in tantric literature and practice, mystifying and intriguing all tantric practitioners.



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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"A comprehensive, scholarly, and intriguing study of 'dakini,' the feminine principle of Tibetan Buddhism. A landmark study."—Library Journal

"Simmer-Brown has written what is destined to be a classic among vajrayana practitioners, Buddhists of other schools, and readers interested in Buddhism."—Shambhala Sun

"Dakini's Warm Breath is not only readable, but exhilaratingly lucid."—Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

"A scholarly and fascinating exploration into the feminine principle in Tibetan Buddhism."—Bodhi Tree Book Review

"A book-length discussion of dakinis, who are one of the most elusive aspects of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, is a welcome edition to the growing literature on symbols of the feminine in Buddhism. Simmer-Brown skillfully interweaves traditional stories with commentaries by contemporary Buddhist teachers to provide the most complete discussion of this topic to date."—Rita Gross, author of Buddhism after Patriarchy and Soaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues

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