Lama Tsultrim Allione shares how embracing the rising feminine can help bring our world into healthy balance.
Sarah Zabrodsk: What was the Buddha’s relationship to women and the feminine?
Lama Tsultrim Allione: The Buddha’s relationship with the feminine was compromised at the time of birth, because in the stories he was born from his mother’s armpit, which implies that the vagina passage was impure, so this tells us something about the attitude toward women at that time. The armpit birth is a bit like virgin conception, reflecting an attitude that separates feminine sexuality from the spiritual. Then his mother, Mahamaya, died a few days after he was born, and he was raised by his aunt, Mahapajapati, so there was a loss of the mother very early.
When the future Buddha, a young man named Siddhartha, left his palace to search for the cause of suffering, he left his devoted wife, Yasodara, and his baby son, Rahula, in the middle of the night, abandoning them. Again this shows a disregard for the feminine over the enhanced value of transcendence. During his search for enlightenment, when he practiced asceticism with five other men, including extreme fasting, we see values of transcendent spiritual experience historically aligned with a disregard for the feminine and nature.
The acceptance of the feminine coming back into his life occurs when he has been practicing ascetism and is offered milk rice from Sujata, a village woman who appears dressed in dark blue in a village near the Bodhi Tree. Kheer, the thick, sweet, creamy porridge of milk rice made in India, has a similar quality to mother’s milk. He accepts it from Sujata, breaking his fast, and it gives him the strength to go and sit under the Bodhi Tree and reach enlightenment. This is significant in terms of his relationship to the feminine because during his quest he was surrounded by men and practiced extreme denial of the body, which are typical in patriarchal religions. But here the feminine comes back into his life, and he accepts it, and this leads to his philosophy of keeping the middle way between extremes. It’s almost as though the balance in own psyche that occurred by being able to be nurtured by a woman””and being able to soften to the feminine in himself””gives him the strength go to the Bodhi Tree and reach unsurpassable complete enlightened.
When the Buddha went to the Bodhi Tree and was about to take his seat, Mara, his nemesis, appears to him and says, “This isn’t your seat. This is my seat.” The Buddha replies, “No it’s mine, and I’m going to sit here until I reach enlightenment. This is my right due to all my past lives as a bodhisattva.” Then Mara, knowing the young Siddartha is alone, replies, “Who is your witness for all these lives?” The Buddha leans forward, touches the ground with his hand, and says, “The earth is my witness.” The earth trembles in response, and Mara slinks back into the darkness. In ancient Buddhist sculptures the goddess of the earth, Prithivi, reaches up and touches his hand from under the earth as he leans over to touch her. The story of the earth supporting him is an example of the force of the feminine in mother earth supporting him at this crucial juncture, and he goes on to reach enlightenment that night. Metaphorically, he reaches the balancing of his own psyche.
The next time we see the feminine in a major juncture in the Buddha’s life is when his stepmother, Mahapajapati, who raised him after his mother died, comes to him and requests ordination as a nun. There were male monks, but there were no nuns at the time. He refuses, and she goes away but comes back awhile later. She has shaved her head and walked barefoot for hundreds of miles with many of her handmaidens. She wants to prove that she really is a renunciate. She comes to the Buddha and asks again, and again he refuses. But then Ananda, his cousin and attendant, inquires further: “Do women not have Buddha nature? Do they not have the capacity to reach enlightenment? Is that why you’re refusing?” The Buddha says, “No, they do have the capacity.” Ananda then asks why they can’t join the sangha. At that point the Buddha actually changes his mind. It’s the only recorded time when the Buddha changed his mind, and the female sangha begins with the ordination of Mahaprajapati.
When did the sacred feminine in Buddhism emerge?
In the Tantric period from 700 to 1200, during the Pala Dynasty in India, there was a shift from the earlier Buddhist focus on renunciation to the path of transformation using the energy of the five poisons to transform them into the five wisdoms. Historically this was a paradigm shift, and at this time, the presence of the feminine asserted itself in Buddhism, and with it came the concept of embodiment as sacred. The attitude to the body shifted from focusing on it as being putrid, decaying, and impermanent””in order to facilitate renunciation””into the body as a sacred mandala. Practices of the subtle body, such as yoga, breath control, and sacred sexuality were key in the Tantric Buddhist path. This shift was important in terms of female empowerment, and you begin to see female gurus, female deities, and female buddhas in the Tantric period. Historically all over the world, whenever embodiment rather than transcendence is honored in religion, so is the feminine.
What are the parallels between the Tantric period and our world today?
The Tantric period allowed the feminine to come forward. In the story of Naropa, he is outside reading a book on logic and epistemology, and the shadow of an old hag falls across the book. She tells him that he doesn’t understand the meaning; he just understands the words. So there’s a more intuitive relationship being called for””a more direct, nonconceptual relationship with the world. The hag is old and ugly in this story; Naropa actually analyzes her thirty-seven ugly features, looking at the yellow hair growing from her chin and her drooling mouth. She symbolizes the neglected feminine, and the way he analyzes her demonstrates his obsession with logic.
I see our world in a similar situation. As the feminine rises, as she is now, she might appear to be ugly or angry. That’s because she has been neglected and repressed. Naropa goes through the process of shifting into and accepting a more direct, intuitive part of himself when he leaves the monastery to find his guru. His story relates to ours in the sense that we’ve been caught in a very logos-dominated culture. We worship science. Perhaps there is another way of knowing that is working with the meaning, symbolic language””not the words””which is the distinction the hag makes. This is an aspect of the sacred feminine.
Are there other stories like this?
There is another story about Saraha and the radish curry. He is also a promising scholar like Naropa. One day he is walking through the marketplace, and two maidens come to him with two glasses of beer and they offer him a drink. He is a monk and not supposed to be drinking, but he drinks all the beer. Then the maidens say to him, “Your teacher is in the marketplace, and she is an arrow smith.” Then they disappear. Afterward he has a similar experience as when Naropa meets the old hag””his whole world shifts. He goes to the marketplace to try to find the arrow smith woman. After searching he comes upon a woman who is very mindfully looking at an arrow, and something about the way she’s doing it makes him feels that this is the teacher he is looking for. So he approaches her and tries to make small talk, and she says, “The Buddhist teachings are not understood through words but through symbols.” He recognizes her as his prophesized teacher, and he goes to live with her as his teacher as well as his consort.
At a certain point, he requests her to make radish curry for dinner. She agrees. He says, “I’m going to go meditate before dinner while you make the radish curry.” He goes to meditate in another room and enters deep meditation, and he stays in samadhi for twelve years. She keeps checking on him, and he’s still in samadhi, so she just leaves him. The radish curry has long come and gone when he comes out of samadhi, but the first thing he says is, “Where is my radish curry?” She says, “It’s not even the season of radishes anymore. If this is the result of your years of meditation practice, then you are really no different than a marmot who goes into hibernation and then comes out and just starts thinking about food.” He gets irritated and says, “Okay, well I’m just going to go to the mountains to meditate then.” She says, “Go ahead, but if this is what comes out of your meditation, there’s not going to be a great deal of benefit for you to go alone into the mountains.” He bows to her wisdom, does not leave, and continues to study with her. She teaches him within the framework of their relationship in everyday life.
This is an interesting story in several ways, because she is teaching him through everyday situations rather than lofty studies, and there is a shift in him from logos into a more intuitive experience that’s similar to Naropa’s transformation.
What can we take away from these stories for our own historical moment?
First, the destiny of women and the destiny of nature have historically been parallel. When women have been abused, so has nature. We are in a situation now where the abuse of nature is coming back at us, with a vengeance, with climate change, pollution, environmental illnesses, and so on. The repressed feminine is coming back at us with her anger and the parallel anger of women with the Women’s Marches and #MeToo.
In my book Wisdom Rising, I talk about the dakini””a sky-dancing female deity””as a manifestation of the fierce feminine, but her fierceness is imbued with wisdom. It’s not just anger. I describe how there is a way to transform the anger into empowerment through the meditation practice of “in”powerment. In the Mandala of the Five Dakinis practice, through visualization and sound we can identify with the embodied wise feminine in her fierce form. This offers a process of transformation for our anger that transforms it into both empowerment and “in”powerment, inner power.
How do we reconcile the concept of non-duality with female power?
There is absolute truth and relative truth, which are very important to distinguish. At the absolute level, gender has no relevance. In fact, there is no gender. In the story of Tara, she is told she can’t become enlightened in the body of a woman; she has to come back in the body of a man. She responds, “I know that all concepts of gender are just for fools, but since there are few who have reached enlightenment in the body of a woman and so many who have reached enlightenment in the body of a man, I will reach enlightenment in the body of a woman.”
Some have the belief that feminism is dualistic, and that if you really are an advanced practitioner, you can’t possibly be a feminist. But that is a misunderstanding of relative and absolute truth. Gandhi said that anyone who thinks that politics are not spiritual doesn’t understand spirituality. Our political or sociological values are directly imprinted by and associated with our spiritual values. If we look at the situation of women today, so much of the oppression of women comes through religious values. Those attitudes are also dualistic””the split between spirit and matter””with women needing to be controlled and dominated to reach transcendence. That’s the split””not understanding the difference between the absolute and the relative truth””because at the absolute level gender is absolutely irrelevant. And at the relative level it is absolutely relevant.
How has your experience of the sacred feminine shifted over time?
I hadn’t really thought that much about the sacred feminine until I lost my daughter to SIDS, and her death was a wake-up call because afterwards I really needed the stories of women. I wondered how did other women in Buddhism deal with this kind of experience? Certainly it would be different than men. The story of the Buddha wasn’t helping me. He left his wife and son in the middle of the night and went on his quest. I wasn’t going to leave my children. That was the beginning of the awakening for me of an awareness about the sacred feminine and women.
In preparation for writing my first book, Women of Wisdom, I started to study the history of women in Buddhism and found extremely misogynist ideas. Then I discovered the dakinis, and I could relate to them because I was not a nun at that point. I was a woman; I was sexual; I was a mother. I was not a renunciate. The dakinis had long hair and they were dancing and they were wild. They were undomesticated, and I could never really identify with the domesticated female even though I was a wife and a mother. I always felt a wildness in me that I didn’t want to lose.
Once you’ve been awakened to the injustices and the oppression and the abuse of women, which I became aware of while doing the research for my book, it’s very hard to turn that off and stop seeing sexism.
What is one step that someone could take toward embracing and cultivating their inner female power, regardless of their gender identity?
One of the main ways that the female wound expresses itself is in our attitude toward our bodies””the feeling that the female body is problematic and somehow never quite right so you have to keep fixing it. I recommend an exercise in which you lie down and touch parts of your body, sending each part acceptance. Starting with your feet, move up to your calves and your thighs, then gradually touch your whole body, embracing your body as sacred and sending it love and appreciation. This can also be done by men, because this split of our spirit and body is part of spirituality for men too, though women have a harder time accepting their bodies. The process of going through and accepting each part of your body as sacred can be very emotional for some people and also very healing.
Any final words?
It would be great to move out of male hierarchy in Buddhism (and in the world) and into a more inclusive power structure and have women be fully trained to lead. This is beginning to happen in Asia and in America. If there were more women teachers perhaps there would be less sexual abuse and less of a “power over” relationship and more of a “power with” approach.
I use those words, because when some people hear or read a book like Wisdom Rising, they think I just want women to take over. That’s not what I suggest. I want a partnership society. And a partnership society is power with, not power over. My emphasis on the feminine is in order to come into healthy balance.
About the Contributors
Lama Tsultrim Allione is an internationally known Buddhist teacher and the founder and resident lama of Tara Mandala Retreat Center. She is the author of Women of Wisdom, the national bestseller Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict, which is now translated into twenty languages, and Wisdom Rising: Journey into the Mandala of the Empowered Feminine. She has a Master’s degree in Buddhist Studies/Women’s Studies from Antioch University, and she was named Buddhist Woman of the Year in 2009.
Sarah Zabrodski is the editor and publications manager at the Rubin Museum of Art.