The dakini, the feminine principle in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, is depicted as an unpredictable, semiwrathful, dancing spirit-woman who appears in visions and dreams of yogins or yoginis. Her demeanor changes in various contexts: she may be playful, nurturing, or sharp and wrathful. She guards the most private details of meditation practice.

The word dakini is also used in other senses. On a secret level, she is seen as the manifestation of the mind. On a ritual level, she is a meditational deity. On the physical level, she is the vital breath of tantric yoga. She is also spoken of as a living woman: a guru on a brocaded throne, a powerful teacher of meditation, or a guru's consort. Finally, all women are seen as some kind of dakini manifestation.

Dakini lore has sparked enormous interest in recent decades, as Western scholars and interpreters have endeavored to comprehend her meaning. Speculation about the dakini has been an implicit part of scholarship on Varayana Buddhism from its inception as a Western academic discipline. Nevertheless, there is little consensus concerning her meaning, and she has for the most part not been recognized.

A dakini depiction
There have been fine preliminary studies of the dakini, tracing her development from her gruesome and obscene origins to more her gentle aspects as symbols of transcendent wisdom. In symbolic context, she is associated with teachings on emptiness and the spiritual goals of tantric Buddhism.

Yet biases remain. Two pervasive paradigms have prevailed. The first is that of the anima in Jungian psychology, an archetype of the feminine closely associated with the unconscious, embedded in the psyche of the male. The second, more recent, model derives from feminist sources, which treat the dakini as a female goddess figure. She may be, on one hand, a creation of patriarchal fantasy or, on the other, a remnant of some prepatriarchal past who champions women.

Each of these paradigms has obscured an accurate understanding of the dakini in her Tibetan sense. And ambiguity about the dakini's identity is not only found in Western scholarly sources. Tibetans also consider the dakini ambiguous and often hesitate to formulate her meaning.

Tibetan lamas and rinpoches who travel and teach in the West are increasingly troubled by the dakini's appropriation by various Western communities. They are particularly bothered by feminist criticism. At a recent dinner with several Tibetan lamas, one remarked to me, "Everywhere we go, everyone always asks us about dakinis." Yes, I replied, Western students are very interested in dakinis and in enlightened women teachers. "No," he corrected me. "They don't ask because they are interested. They ask to embarrass us. They want to criticize our tradition." He and the other lamas went on to describe how they felt that such questions were attacks on Tibetan Buddhism and how they perceive feminist critique as a rejection of the very heart of their tradition.

How can this concern be heard? Just as Tibet has captured the utopian imagination of American culture, the romance of Tibet has sparked deep ambivalence in American Buddhists and others that is surfacing in a variety of ways. Especially at issue are questions regarding spiritual authority and potential, imagined, or real "abuses of power."

Feminists within, but especially outside of, American Vajrayana communities have been among the most vocal critics of the spiritual authority of the Tibetan guru. At the same time, the dakini has been appropriated by some as a symbol of either female power or patriarchal exploitation.

This appropriation has been met by Tibetan lamas with a mixture of disappointment and outrage. Just when the esoteric Vajrayana teachings have been made most available to Western students, these teachings have been used as weapons against the very teachers who presented them. The dakini, traditionally viewed as the most precious symbol and secret of the inner spiritual journey, has been reshaped into a pro-woman crusader or a victim of sexism. The irony of this dilemma holds little humor for Tibetan lamas around the world making an effort to safeguard and propagate their own precious traditions. The gender wars in American Buddhism are viewed as a fundamental distortion of the teachings.

From a feminist point of view, one might consider their responses to be patriarchal entrenchment that deserves no sympathy. But the complexity of these matters reflects the sorry state of gender relationships in Western culture. Women's and men's liberation movements have remained primarily in an oppositional mode that has promoted a political vision incapable of healing the whole wound.