Dakini (Sanskrit): A female messenger of wisdom
Tibetan Buddhism offers a unique premise: that to be a woman can actually be favorable on the path to spiritual realization. Padmasambhava, the eighth-century pioneer of Buddhism in Tibet, reasoned that women are better equipped to realize the wisdom of the teachings. Modern teachers have echoed this sentiment. As the Western nun Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo comments, “Many lamas have said that women make superior practitioners because they are able to dive into meditation much more easily than males. This is because many males are afraid of dropping the intellect, especially monks who have been studying for a long time. To suddenly just let that go and be naked in the meditation experience is frightening for them, whereas women seem to be able to manage it naturally.”[i]
A female embodiment of enlightenment is called a dakini in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. But 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.
“To me the special female quality (which of course many men have as well) is first of all a sharpness, a clarity,” says Tenzin Palmo, who has vowed to attain enlightenment in a female body. “It cuts through—especially intellectual ossification. It . . . gets to the point. To me the dakini principle stands for the intuitive force. Women get it in a flash—they’re not interested in intellectual discussion which they normally find dry and cold with minimum appeal.”[ii]
As Khandro Rinpoche, whose very name literally means “precious dakini,” 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.” This, to me, is a very exact description of the qualities of the teachers who are featured in this book. Despite their gentleness and humor, I experience many of the female teachers as direct, sharply intelligent, radical, and courageous.
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.
Practitioner-scholar Judith Simmer-Brown differentiates four levels of meaning:
“On a secret level, she is seen as the manifestation of fundamental aspects of phenomena and the mind, and so her power is intimately associated with the most profound insights of Vajrayana meditation. In this her most essential aspect, she is called the formless wisdom nature of the mind itself. On an inner, ritual level, she is a meditational deity, visualized as the personification of qualities of buddhahood. On an outer, subtle-body level, she is the energetic network of the embodied mind in the subtle channels and vital breath of tantric yoga. She is also spoken of as a living woman: she may be a guru on a brocaded throne or a yogini meditating in a remote cave, a powerful teacher of meditation or a guru’s consort teaching directly through her life example. Finally all women are seen as some kind of dakini manifestation.”[iii]
Thus, dakinis appear in many forms. “The dakinis are the most important elements of the enlightened feminine in Tibetan Buddhism,” says American teacher Tsultrim Allione.[iv] “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.”
The Himalayas were always a nursery for highly accomplished female practitioners and to some extent still are. The yoginis might live in remote hermitages or nunneries as devoted practitioners, or as the wives, mothers, or daughters of famous teachers. Students often sought their advice informally, but women rarely wrote books, sat on high thrones or assumed lofty titles of their own. “There were certainly many great female practitioners in Tibet,” says Tenzin Palmo. “But because they lacked a background of philosophical training, they could not aspire to write books, gather disciples, go on Dharma tours, and give talks. When we read the histories, we will notice that nuns are distinguished by their absence. But this doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”[i]
While iconic archetypes of feminine enlightenment were erected on shrines, few women in Tibet were actually emboldened to follow in their footsteps. Despite the encouraging quote of the pioneer of Tibetan Buddhism that women’s potential to attain liberation is supreme, most Buddhist cultures throughout the centuries perceived women as lesser beings. The few encouraging statements are outnumbered by plenty of passages in the writings attributed to Padmasambhava and other masters that lament the hardships of womanhood. Commonly used Tibetan words for woman, lümen or kyemen, literally mean “inferior being” or “lesser birth.” Some orthodox masters doubt to this day if women can attain realization at all, and age-old liturgies have women pray for a better rebirth in a male body.
Therefore this book is dedicated to the female practitioners and teachers. The intention is to honor their lives and accomplishments as shining examples of dedication, compassion and realization.
[i]. Reflections, p. 78.
[i]. Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2002), p. 78.
[ii]. Tenzin Palmo, as quoted in Vicki Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow: Tenzin Palmo’s Quest for Enlightenment (New York: Bloomsbury, 1999), p. 133.
[iii]. Judith Simmer-Brown, Dakini’s Warm Breath (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2001), p. 9. This is a very thoroughly researched scholarly exploration of the dakini principle. See also her important article about how Tibetan Buddhism's divine feminine plays a role in American Buddhism's gender wars
[iv]. Some of the teachings Tsultrim Allione has given on the topic have been recorded and distributed as The Mandala of the Enlightened Feminine (Louisville, CO: Sounds True, 2003). I quote from the recording here.