Slippery Slope

I’ve been home with a prostate infection, of all things, and so managed to get through all except the last two chapters of Judith Simmer-Brown’s Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s been a difficult but enlightening read. I have some concerns with the methods of the path as she describes it.

First, though, the positive: Tibetan Buddhism has a deep model of the manifestation of sacred principles in the world. Simmer-Brown traces that through secret, inner, outer, and outer-outer manifestations.

I related the essence of the secret dakini in my last post. Prajnaparamita manifests as space, wisdom and knowledge. As she builds the lore, Simmer-Brown explains that possession of these qualities makes the feminine principle dominant in Tibetan Buddhism, for skillful means (the use of compassion to transform experience) is both inspired by and guided by them. The secret dakini can be neither visualized nor understood, only known.

The inner dakini manifests as the deity Vajrayogini. Vajrayogini confronts the practitioner with the fear of death, and transforms it into acceptance and freedom. As a deity in Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrayogini is depicted in mandalas that define her relationship with the world. The most important elements in her depiction are the instruments of the charnel ground: skulls, flames and sharp implements. The logic of this depiction reflects the hazards of the sacred knowledge known to Tibetan practitioners. To advance, an acolyte must find a living guru that channels the sacred experience into the world, a yidam (devotional deity) to meditate upon, and a protector of the teachings that guides or violently transforms the personality to prevent corruption by residual grasping of the self.

The outer dakini mediates the transformation of the subtle energy system, similar to the system of prana or acupuncture. In Tibetan lore, all of our bodily functions are manifestations of energy flow through these channels. The central channel flows along the spine, but has two side channels that focus masculine and feminine tendencies. The goal of the practitioner is to merge the side channels into the central. In this process, the practitioner must cultivate relationships with twenty-four dakinis that originate the energies of the subtle body system. In a sense, the practitioner becomes a living mandala, and calls these energies into the world to create and transform experience.

The outer-outer dakini is the dakini in human form. In this section, Simmer-Brown celebrates the female figures in history that contributed to development of Tibetan wisdom. Here is where tantric sex comes to the fore, as well as validation of authority through esoteric action (magic). Both are cast in a positive light. Tantric sex is a method for mutual inspection and transmission of traits that facilitates personal growth. Magic is described as the means by which the physical infrastructure of the tradition is protected, including the bodies of practitioners meditating without food or shelter.

Through this summary, I hope that I reveal my respect for this tradition, whose richness and depth reflects a careful construction of interlocking elements that ensure the outcome of practice is compassionate engagement with all living beings.

However, I perceive certain issues.

First and most important is the conflation of space and mind. Mind existed long before this reality came into being, and is the realm of pure spirit to which we will return. Space exists in this realm only as a means to protect compassionate personalities from experiences more intense than they can mediate. To serve in this way, space was designed to capture and localize mind. Where that occurs, we find matter. This is the truth that Tibetan wisdom shares as the secret and outer dakinis.

Secondly we have the sense of privilege accorded to advanced practitioners. This manifests itself in the characterization of them as heroes rather than servants (the term used in Christianity) of humanity. The thanotic imagery of the inner dakini is particularly troubling. Death maintains the disintegration of spirit, something obvious in the description of the outer dakini. It’s adoption as a protector of privileged knowledge seems a dangerous compromise.

Personal privilege also seems evident in the rather sterile rendering of the relationship between tantric consorts. The gurus celebrate commitment, but not monogamy, each relationship broken off when the mutual benefits are exhausted.

This flies in the face of the most serious problem with the tradition. Simmer-Brown recounts that the assignment of a yidam (devotional deity) is driven by the tensions that exist in our lives. Meditation on the yidam resolves obstructions in the subtle energy system that manifest as perceptible heat in the body. Simmer-Brown refers to this in the title (warm breath), but never stops to wonder what tension is attendant to that heat.

Simmer-Brown gnaws at the bone of the problem throughout the book, defending Tibetan Buddhism against charges of patriarchy while postulating that its dominant spiritual forms arose from a prehistoric matriarchy. She decries the traps of feminine physicality that bring life into the world, seeing them as simultaneously a personal and cultural impediment to spiritual advancement.

This error is the cause of the warmth felt by those that meditate on Parjnaparamita, the secret dakini.

From the Christian perspective, the answer to this dilemma is obvious: all things are joined in love. Coitus is not necessary to transmission of masculine and feminine virtues, only love. Relationships persist because the love between the couple expands to include the society, and their shared experience is essential to greater service to humanity. And the dangers of esoteric knowledge are lessened because love – the source of all creative power – is unknown to those that would abuse its energies.

In patterning the female path to enlightenment on the masculine path, Tibetan Buddhism does women a terrible disservice. These are precious gifts: the ability to bring life into the world, the determination to preserve it, and the social rewards for their devotion. Any proclaimed feminine spirituality should provide practices that strengthen those gifts, rather than sacrificing them on the altar of death.

Contrast that with the promise of Spirit and his Bride:

“Come! And let all that hear say: ‘Come!’ Let all who desire come and drink of the free gift of the water of life.”

Considering the  filters and constraints of Tibetan Buddhism, this confidence is marvelous!