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.

For anyone, feminist or otherwise, who wishes to step into the spiritual power of a contemplative tradition like Tibetan Buddhism, a certain nakedness is required. One's politics, convictions, gender identity, and emotions are exposed to a perspective that transcends all other aspects of one's identity. Yet all are potent fuel for the spiritual journey. If one is ready to include every political instinct, every conviction, every emotional reaction in one's spiritual practice, staying with all the painful aspects, there is possibility for transformation, both personal and situational. Only this can heal the gender wars in American Buddhism.

When political or oppositional methods are carried into religion, religious communities are the battleground. This has been the case in recent developments in American Buddhism, which threaten the transmission of Buddhist teachings. Certainly, there are important aspects to this warfare: the social and political dimensions of patriarchal institutional religion need adjustment in order to respond to concerns about gender equality. But there is enormous danger that the gender wars will obscure the central point of a spiritual path.

It is probably beneficial for the dakini lore to be made more explicit in Western Tibetan Buddhism. Dakinis represent the domains conventionally attributed to women, such as embodiment, sexuality, nurture, and relationship. When dakinis take human form as teachers and yoginis, they deal with many issues that are obstacles to ordinary women, such as discrimination, rape, social limitation, and abuse. But these dakini women serve as models for how obstacles may be turned into enlightenment. In short, the dakini lore provides genuine support for women practitioners, whether Tibetan or Western, to develop confidence and inspiration in their meditation practice.

Another point must be addressed. In a traditional Tibetan context, until recently, it would probably be inappropriate to write about the dakini. The lore has been passed on from teacher to student for centuries in an intimate setting that would not be appropriate to share publicly. This is not because there is anything scandalous, shocking, or dangerous in its content. Rather, its secrecy is based upon the spiritual power implicit in its understanding. When the practitioner has insight into the nature of the dakini, Vajrayana practice has the potential to become transformative.

As this tradition has been brought to the West, and indeed depends for its future survival upon Western support, it is important that fundamental misunderstandings of the dakini lore be addressed. These teachings may have the potential for liberating the very views of gender that have blocked much spiritual progress in Western culture.

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