Miranda Shaw has a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University, is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, and is currently Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at the University of Richmond. Her book Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism, which will be published this summer by Princeton University Press, clarifies the importance of women in the tradition of tantric teachings and practices. Tantric Buddhism is a nonmonastic, noncelibate strand of Indian, Himalayan, and Tibetan Buddhist practice that seeks to weave every aspect of daily life, intimacy, and passion into the path of liberation. Historians have long viewed the role of women in tantric practices as marginal and subordinate at best and degraded and exploited at worst. Shaw argues to the contrary. In addition to interviews and fieldwork conducted in India and Nepal over a two-year period, Shaw recovered forty previously unknown works by women of the Pala period (eighth through twelfth centuries C.E.) and has used them to reinterpret the history of tantric Buddhism during its first four centuries. Shaw claims that the tantric theory of this period promoted an ideal of cooperative, mutually liberating relationships between women and men while encouraging a sense of reliance on women as a source of spiritual insight and power.

This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Ellen Pearlman in New York City.


 

Naro Kachodma (Naropa's skydancer), tanka painting (detail), Eastern Tibet, eighteenth century. The three corners of one pyramid represent the three marks of existence: suffering, impermanence, and egolessness. The three corners of the other pyramid represent the three gates of liberation: wishlessness, signlessness, and emptiness. Courtesy of Mokotoff Asian Arts, NY.
Naro Kachodma (Naropa’s skydancer), tanka painting (detail), Eastern Tibet, eighteenth century. The three corners of one pyramid represent the three marks of existence: suffering, impermanence, and egolessness. The three corners of the other pyramid represent the three gates of liberation: wishlessness, signlessness, and emptiness. Courtesy of Mokotoff Asian Arts, NY.

Tricycle: Are there certain overarching principles that one finds in the literature on tantric sexuality?

Shaw: Yes. The Tantras, or sacred tantric texts, make it clear that the purpose of the relationship is for the mutual enlightenment of both persons involved. It cannot be for the ego-gratification of one person. This purpose must be clear to both and agreed upon absolutely and explicitly by both. Another principle that could prevent the kind of exploitation that has occurred in the West is that the woman always takes the initiative in the Tantras. Always.

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