Women of Wisdom by Manfred Ingerfeld
"The body is the basis of the accomplishment of wisdom. And the gross bodies of men and women are equally suited. But if a woman has strong aspiration, she has higher potential."
(page 86, Dowman, K., Sky Dancer: The secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyal, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984).
This quote is from Padmasambhava himself. What the great Guru Rinpoche is saying is that women bring special talents to the spiritual path, talents which in the end may give them a greater potential. It follows that women should be valued and encouraged as spiritual practitioners so that their talents and potential can unfold to everyone's advantage. The names of some great female teachers of the past come to mind: Sukhasiddhi and Niguma in India, Yeshe Tsogyal and Machig Labdron in Tibet, but why are comparatively few recognized?
There is no simple answer to this question. Certainly, societies, both historically and more recently, have tended to trivialize women's accomplishments. Their life stories have not been recorded and are now lost to us. The style of Buddhism also has a bearing on this situation. The Sutra tradition of Buddhism emphasizes strict rules of conduct as well as controlling and transforming the disturbing emotions which produce suffering. Sutra Buddhism has tended to be dominated by monks. Communities of nuns in Tibet and elsewhere were small. Generally, both financial support and spiritual instructions were of a poorer quality than that available to the large monasteries, reflecting the cultural background of the time. Even today, Asian societies hold firmer views on an individual's, especially a woman's, role in life than in the West. We should take care not to transplant these cultural aspects of Buddhism into the West.
The situation is different in Vajrayana, the Diamond Way, Buddhism. The Kagyu Mahamudra and the Nyingma Maha Ati are based on the idea that we are fundamentally already enlightened. Through transmission from an empowered teacher and working directly with our energy, luminosity and vision are reawakened and the primordial state of illumination shines through. Disturbing emotions are experienced "as they are" and without transformation; they are liberated on the spot like snow falling into water. Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche explains that women have a natural affinity for working with energy and vision1 and Garab Dorje, the founder of the Dzog Chen tradition, went so far as to say that the majority of those who could reach ultimate level of the Dzog Chen teachings, the manifestation of the body of light, or rainbow body, would be women.2
On the outer level, the attitude of male colleagues towards women practitioners has always been better in the Vajrayana than in the Sutra tradition. Firstly, the Diamond Way is often practiced by yogis and yoginis on their own or in small groups, outside the influence of the male dominated monastic system. Secondly, since the Diamond Way works with the totality of one's being, including both male and female principles, holding disparaging views towards women would block a male practitioner's own development and has therefore always been a transgression against the tantric vows.
In the Vajrayana, women in general are held to be the essence of wisdom and the numerous female manifestations of different energies are known as dakinis.
There are fully enlightened wisdom dakinis such as the different forms of Tara and Dorje Phagmo (Skt. Vajravarahi) - the red dakini so important in the Kagyu tradition - as well as worldly dakinis. Accomplished female practitioners may also be called dakinis. These dakinis played a key role in the life of many of the great masters of the past. The following story from the life of the Mahasiddha Saraha is a good example of this and also shows the free and direct way in which important Mahamudra instructions are often given, even today:
One day Saraha asked his wife for some radish curry. She prepared the dish, but in the meantime Saraha entered a deep meditation from which he did not emerge for twelve years. He then immediately asked for his radish curry. His wife was astonished, "You have been in meditation for twelve years; now it is summer and there are no radishes." Saraha then decided to go to the mountains for more meditation. "Physical isolation is not a real solitude," replied his wife. "The best kind of solitude is complete escape from the preconceptions and prejudices of an inflexible and narrow mind, and, moreover, from all labels and concepts. If you awaken from a twelve year samadhi and are still clinging to your twelve year old curry, what is the point of going to the mountains?" Saraha listened to his wife and after some time attained the supreme realization of the Mahamudra.
(Dowman, K., Masters of Mahamudra, State University of New York Press, 1985).
The wisdom of Saraha's wife is acknowledged but the nature of her role was not made clear. The meaning and timing of her comments make it likely that she had already understood Mahamudra. This would make her Saraha's most important teacher, yet we don't even know her name. In more recent times there are many accounts of highly accomplished women in living memory as well as alive today. Some are reported to have manifested the rainbow body, a rare achievement. Few have a place in the hierarchies. From a more expansive viewpoint, we can see that institutions and hierarchies, while very useful, are only one way of expressing spiritual realization and active compassion. We must, however, strive to ensure that we take advantage of the input of these special women, take the opportunities to learn from them and document their life stories for the future.