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Dakini: The Goddess Who Takes Form as a Woman

by Vicki Noble: The Tibetan Buddhist Dakini is a compelling icon of untamed female freedom. Like a trickster or the Fool in a Tarot deck, the dakini releases blockages in the energy field and melts frozen patterns, so that the door of the mind is suddenly ajar and something new can enter. Dakinis are often connected to the phenomena of synchronicity and inexplicable coincidences of fate. Tsultrim Allione wrote in her book, Women of Wisdom, “The dakini appears at crucial moments. These encounters often have a quality of sharp, incisive challenge to the fixed conceptions of the practitioner.” (Allione, 114)

Miranda Shaw’s exuberant descriptions of dakinis emphasize “flights of spiritual insight, ecstasy, and freedom from worldliness granted by the realization of emptiness.” (Shaw, 38) Shaw learned Sanskrit so that she could read texts herself, translating “dakinis” as “women who revel in the freedom of emptiness.” (19) An initiated tantric practitioner, Shaw explains: “A wild, playful, unpredictable quality erupts when experience is released from its predetermined patterns.” (95)

Tibetan historical and tantric texts refer to the famous “Land of the Dakinis,” a matriarchal place west of Tibet, where spiritual leaders were women. The place was called Odiyana or Uddiyana, which translates as “vehicle of flying.” Imagine an entire country of women who fly — gifted shaman women and magical priestesses — and the powerful yogis and magicians who companion them. It is from that legendary realm that the famous yogi, Padmasambhava, originally flew into Tibet with a “retinue” of Dakinis (his spiritual team) to “subdue the demons” and anchor Tantric (Vajrayana) Buddhism there for good. There he met and collaborated with a local princess and incarnate dakini, Yeshe Tsogyal.

Although historically dated to 8th-century Tibet, dakinis actually descend from far more ancient female supernatural beings from the time of our earliest human cultural origins. Tibetan scholar John Vincent Bellezza calls our attention to certain “extinct” Tibetan sisterhoods that provide “evidence suggesting the existence of a matriarchal culture and the supremacy of female deities in prehistory.” (Bellezza, 308)

Since earliest times, supernatural, shamanistic females in the ecstasies of soul flight have been depicted as able to “move through space” like birds. In soul flight, the invisible spirit body detaches from the physical in order to ascend to upper worlds or descend to the underworld for healing or soul-retrieval. This flight is a well-understood feature of traditional shamanism around the world. Women’s ancient, shamanistic work to facilitate the profound rites of birth and death quite naturally would have led to out-of-body experiences, soul flight, and the dissolution of boundaries between self and other that is a primary Buddhist goal.

The word “dakini” is Sanskrit; its inferred meaning has been borrowed from (and equated with) the Tibetan word khandro (“sky goer,” “she who moves through space”), and the two words are often used interchangeably. But unlike “dakini,” with its derived male form (“daka”), the Tibetan wordkhandro has no such twin and stands alone as a female being who moves through emptiness or flies through space — a kind of Tibetan Fairy Goddess or, as June Campbell named her in her book by the same name, A Traveller in Space. (Campbell) Khandro, Campbell says, “is quite a unique word, with no male equivalent, and would seem to have arisen not out of the Sanskrit background of Tantra… but apparently from the shamanistic roots of Tibet itself.” (145) And Miranda Shaw mentions several Indian scholars who “suggest that Tantra itself (both Hindu and Buddhist) originated among the priestesses and shamanesses of matrilinear tribal and rural societies.” (Shaw, 6)

But unlike “dakini,” with its derived male form (“daka”), the Tibetan word khandrohas no such twin and stands alone as afemale being who moves through emptiness or flies through space….

This is easy to substantiate, as winged women and “bird goddess” figures abound in many places around the world and through eons of time, going all the way back to the Paleolithic period (around 30,000 BCE) where they are part of the earliest human art. And we know from linguistics that the earliest shamans were women, described in an ancient root word meaning “female shaman” that relates to Earth Goddess, Mother Earth, and the two Bear constellations. All the various words for “male shaman” came into being much later, after the tribes had migrated from their place of origin. An early 20th-century Russian ethnographer surveying shamanism across Siberia wrote: “The woman is by nature a shaman” and “women receive the gift of shamanizing more often than men.” (Czaplicka, 244)

Hybrid bird-women, hugely pregnant, dance with the animals on a ceiling in the Paleolithic cavern at Pech Merle in the south of France. From the later Neolithic period, more than a hundred thousand female figurines have been unearthed from Old Europe alone, a large percentage of them depicted with wings or as pregnant birds; significantly, many are also covered with an extinct script. (Marler, 2008)
Egyptian vulture goddesses with raised arms pre-date three thousand years of dynastic empire in northern Africa. Intricate and colorful bird-women in flight are finely embroidered on remarkable textiles found in Peru and Bolivia, wrapped around mummies from extinct Andean cultures known to have practiced shamanism. At least one such textile has been shown to be a complex solar-lunar calendar. To me all these figures are khandro or female traveler(s) in space.

In my 2003 book, The Double Goddess: Women Sharing Power, I documented a long, possibly unbroken lineage of shaman priestesses that emerged in Crete and the Mediterranean area during the late Bronze Age, but were in fact the confluence of earlier streams from Africa, Europe and Asia. For at least 4,000 years, the Silk Road connected East and West across Central Asia. This exceptional channel fostered the migration of peoples and the cross-cultural exchange of ideas, symbols, and artifacts that ultimately must underlie any serious investigation of the dakini in Tibet, Nepal, and India. Iron Age Burials found near the Black Sea and all the way east to the Altai Mountains have unearthed images of high-status shaman priestesses, sometimes covered in gold, often wearing elaborate headdresses, with the mirrors and portable altars that defined their spiritual leadership. Mummies from the late Bronze Age have been unearthed from oasis sites in eastern China’s Tarim Basin (once northern Tibet); they have Caucasoid features, including blonde hair and blue eyes, perfectly preserved by the combination of sand and salt from the desert floor.

Between 2000 and 500 BCE, at least three waves of Bronze and Iron Age settlers migrated from beyond the Black Sea, some of them bringing the knowledge and tools of weaving, along with a now extinct language (Tocharian) whose closest relative is an ancient Anatolian language (Hittite), also extinct. Buddhist texts hidden away in the Dunhuang caves a thousand years ago were written in Tocharian. Textile expert Elizabeth Wayland Barber presents evidence suggesting that the early migrants might have been related to others who went west to Crete and Troy, carrying the same distinctive weaving tools with them. (Barber) Women (and one man) buried at Cherchen, tattooed like Greek Maenads, wore red woolen garments like those worn by Tibetan monks and nuns today. One set of priestesses found buried at Subeshi (6th century BCE) were wearing tall pointy black hats; archaeologists dubbed them “the three witches.” (Mallory & Mair) Oasis towns like Khotan, Kucha, and Dunhuang were sophisticated places where Buddhism already flourished by the time Tibetans conquered them, assimilated their knowledge, and absorbed their pacifism.

(Yeshe) Tsogyal unites the sacred and magical “wild women” (Maenads) from Old Europe’s Mediterranean region with the yogini cults of India and dakinis of Tibet….

Yeshe Tsogyal was born in the northern city of Charchen (or Cherchen), one of the oasis sites where Caucasoid burials from 1200 BCE were unearthed. She is fondly remembered as the cofounder of Buddhism in Tibet, with her consort Padmasambhava, and as a direct emanation of Vajrayogini. Although they were separated by some two thousand years, I like to think that Yeshe Tsogyal might be descended from those shaman priestesses who traveled the Silk Road so long ago. I consider her to be the lineage holder from the point at which East meets West, and ancient meets contemporary. Tsogyal unites the sacred and magical “wild women” (Maenads) from Old Europe’s Mediterranean region with the yogini cults of India and dakinis of Tibet; their folklore, images, and stories overlap in many interesting ways, as I briefly described in The Double Goddess.

Details of Yeshe Tsogyal’s supernatural birth and early childhood are contained in her autobiography, a transmitted work discovered and revealed as a treasure or “terma” a few hundred years ago in Tibet. Tsogyal’s primary occupation during her adult lifetime was the burying or hiding of terma (artifacts and mind treasures) which would be discovered in later times by designated reincarnated persons having the task of such discoveries. A terma-finder, called “terton,” is born to “pull out a treasure” and communicate it to a particular constituency of people in a particular time and place.

Three English translations of the autobiography have been published in the States over the past three decades, each containing the following remarkable narrative, in which Tsogyal tells us that when she reached the brink of death in her advanced meditation retreat and she called out to “the Teacher”: “Then I had a vision of a red woman, naked, lacking even the covering of bone ornaments, who thrust her bhaga against my mouth, and I drank deeply from the copious flow of blood. My entire being was filled with health and well-being, I felt as strong as a snow-lion, and I realized profound absorption to be inexpressible truth.” (Dowman, 71)

Dakinis are explicitly understood to take form as human women, and although not all women are dakinis, any woman at any time might be a dakini.

This is clearly a direct link to Vajrayogini, the red Queen of the Dakinis who is frequently depicted drinking her own menstrual blood from a skullcup held in her left hand. The essential female bodily substance, menstrual blood, is shown here to be spiritual nourishment par excellence, creating a striking metaphor for female-to-female direct transmission in a lineage of wisdom, in this case from the deity, Vajrayogini, to a dakini, Yeshe Tsogyal, in human form.
Dakinis are explicitly understood to take form as human women, and although not all women are dakinis, any woman at any time might be a dakini. The simplest way of understanding this is through the biological bloodline of menstruation, a legacy bequeathed from all mothers of daughters in every culture throughout time, all the way back to the beginnings of human evolution. Humans diverged from the primate tree when we abandoned estrus and established our bleeding and ovulation in synchronization with the yin-yang polarity of the Moon’s monthly cycles.

David Gordon White, an expert in Indian Tantra, tells us, “When the template is the body of a naked maiden and the medium her sexual or menstrual discharge, we are in the presence of the Tantra of the old Hindu ‘clans’ (the Kula, or Kaula) and their inner and East Asian Buddhist Tantric homologues.” (White 2000, 11) Kaula practices (known in India as the “left hand” path) took place in cremation grounds and involved “the communal consumption of blood, flesh, wine, and sexual fluids.” (White 1996, 137) White documents how the earlier centrality of the sexual fluids was later “cleaned up, aestheticized, and internalized in different ways,” and transferred to the “bliss of sexual orgasm.” (White 1996, 4) In Tibetan Buddhist tantric practice, certainly it has been interiorized into the potent visualization techniques surrounding the tradition of Vajrayogini.

Regarding Yeshe Tsogyal’s visionary experience of receiving and ingesting Vajrayogini’s blood, White grounds the story in this understandable tradition. “The cosmic force that activates and energizes every facet of tantric practice — that originates from the womb of the Goddess and passes through every link in the chain of transmission… is ultimately nothing other than a stream (ogha) or flow (scrotas) of sexual fluid.” And to this day, he says, the tantrikas in Assam “identify their ‘lineage nectar’ (kulamrta) with the goddess’s menstrual fluid or the commingled sexual fluids of Siva and the Goddess.” (White 1996, 138) White’s descriptions of yoginis in the early Indian tantric practices seem to resonate perfectly with representations of dakinis in Tibetan practice. For example, he writes that a “horde of wild goddesses… attracted by offerings of mingled sexual fluids, would converge into the consciousness of the practitioner, to transform him, through their limitless libido, into a god on earth.” (White 1996, 4)

Details and aspects of Vajrayogini rituals in Tibet are precisely matched by plentiful artifacts and evidence of the Maenads in Greece, Italy, and Turkey, which is the larger subject of my next book.

This article adapted from a longer piece to appear in Goddesses in World Culture, edited by Patricia Monaghan, to be published by Praeger in 2009.

Source: AWAKEN 


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