SINCE 1971, religion scholar Anne Klein has been studying Buddhist philosophy and practice in various Asian traditions. She was a student of Gelugpa scholars at Drepung Monastic University in Southern India and studied with Nyingma teachers in Kathmandu and Dehra Dun. Currently, she is a Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas; she also teaches meditation practice. Klein’s books include Knowledge and Liberation; Knowing, Naming and Negation, and Path to the Middle: Oral Madhyamika in Tibet In Meeting the Great Bliss Queen, recently published by Beacon Press, she puts Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and meditation in conversation with feminist theory. This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Michele Martin, a longtime student of Buddhism and a translator of Buddhist texts and oral teachings from Tibetan.

Photograph by Nina Egart, Detail from the thangka Great Bliss Queen, Lama Gompo Tsayden
Photograph by Nina Egart, Detail from the thangka Great Bliss Queen, Lama Gompo Tsayden

Tricycle: Who is the Great Bliss Queen?

Klein: The Great Bliss Queen is a title that one Nyingma lineage gives to Yeshey Tsogyel, an enlightened teacher and the central figure of certain tantric practices. In a conflation of history and hagiography, she is described as a Tibetan queen but also the consort, student, and spiritual equal of Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century. According to legend, she buried Padmasambhava’s writings so they could be discovered later.

Why is she blissful?

Because the path is ultimately a blissful path. Throughout the centuries, it has been the experience of meditators that when the mind is calm, there is physical and mental bliss. That is just the nature of our being, but it doesn’t often manifest. Yeshey Tsogyel is also blissful because she knows that people have access to their own bliss and enlightenment. She has a passionate expression on her face because she is passionately engaged in helping others. And passion and bliss, of course, are deeply connected.

What about her sexuality?

She is clearly a sexual being, and it’s her female organs that are associated most explicitly with bliss and enlightenment. But hers is not a sexuality just of the body The tantric texts describing her emphasize that mind and body cannot be separated. Also, the practice associated with her engages all the energies of one’s being, and these cannot be neatly divided into the physical and mental. Compassion and wisdom are not qualities of mind alone, but take physical form. So her female organs have to be understood both physically and metaphysically. Her sexuality is not the stuff of tabloids—it doesn’t aim at tit-illation. In her, the female body expresses one’s mental and physical capacity for compassionate action.

How is this reflected in her body?

Her creative potential is symbolized by two triangles forming a six-pointed star (known as the “source of phenomena”) at the center of her womb-like mandala. The six points symbolize the six bodhisattva activities: giving, ethics, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom. And each triangle symbolizes the female organ, the opening to enlightenment. Her nakedness indicates that she is free from dualistic concepts and from any obstacles to full enlightenment. Understood in this way, her bliss expresses her freedom from the limitations of dualistic thinking. The opposition between self and other dissolves into her compassion. The opposition between conditioned and unconditioned dissolves in her wisdom; and the opposition between the ordinary and enlightened dissolves in the recognition that her enlightened mind is one’s own. Her bliss is an expression of being released from the limitations of these dualisms; her passion is to share this with others.

That’s slightly different from other Buddhist views of women.

The same body that other Buddhist traditions consider unclean becomes a source for enlightenment. Women are explicitly included in the divine circle: the female body itself is an image of enlightenment, and that is very powerful.

She is also associated with the expanse of wisdom, the womb from which a buddha, or enlightenment, is born.

Yes. And it’s a blissful place that they’re born from and into. So she is about all those things—the coalescence of the famous nondualisms of Buddhism: compassion and wisdom, bliss and emptiness, the conventional and the ultimate, action and quiescence. These are precisely the dyads that women are often saying should not dominate our thinking.

Because women are usually associated with the less valued side of any dyad.

Yes. Because in secular terms these are notjust dyads, they are hierarchies. But in Yeshey Tsogyel they are the dynamic union of all duality, they are conjoined, not hierarchical. She demagnetizes the polarities.

Would you say she represents an ideal?

In one sense, yes; in another, it’s better not to see her that way. Ideals can distract you from seeing who you actually are and accepting yourself in the present. Yeshey Tsogyel in a deep sense represents one’s own capacity for mindfulness, com-
passion, and wisdom. These are concrete qualities already available—the ideal is not something “out there.”

Would you say she is a role model?

 Not if the term “role model” suggests looking at someone from a distance. Here, it is important to feel you are in relationship with Yeshey Tsogyel, and with yourself as well. You could say that she, like any good teacher, is a catalyst for one’s own capacity. Meeting the Great Bliss Queen is not about meeting someone else, it’s about meeting yourself in a deep way. It’s not like going on a talk show and meeting some celebrity. That kind of meeting can encourage you to overlook your own life, your own issues. In the beginning of Yeshey TsogyePs ritual one says, “Having neither met with nor parted from you.” In other words, she is somehow one’s self. How she is one’s self is something each of us has to discover.

So while she is a model of a certain type of vitality, the suggestion that the answers are already there is problematic. In terms of a cross-cultural conversation, it is also a bit naive. The Great Bliss Queen is not like a blueprint for all areas of your life. There is a great deal that we can and must learn from what female and male practitioners have done in the past. But I think this is the first time that traditional Buddhist practice is coming into a culture where we are trained to value the new over the ancient, the individual over the collective, where we have unprecedented choices. And never has such a wealth of Buddhist texts, teachers, and practices become so quickly and widely available to a society that knows so little about the cultures from which they all came.


Courtesy Wisdom Publications,Yeshey Tsogyel, fresco at Orgyen Tsemo, Para, Bhutan
Courtesy Wisdom Publications,Yeshey Tsogyel, fresco at Orgyen Tsemo, Para, Bhutan

And the Western sense of personhood is quite different from what is found in Asia.

Indeed. Buddhist teachings are directed at people who were constructed by their cultures in ways different than we are constructed by our cultures. For example, the Japanese feel that babies are born too independent and have to be nurtured into relationships, whereas in the West, we feel that babies are too dependent and have to be nurtured into individuality. In Tibet, connectedness among individuals was not the challenge it is for many of us today. When a single woman moves to a new city and closes the door of her apartment the first night in town, she is alone in a way that a Tibetan, even a meditator who spends years of solitary reflection in a cave eighteen thousand feet up, is never alone. They have spirits moving in and out of their lives. They know that the people in the village below think of them, will send food, probably pray for them, honor them, and are going to welcome them back, even if it’s twenty years later.

Is there something in Buddhist teaching that speaks of relationships?

I think there is. But it is a matter of interpreting the material and directing it at issues important today. In this culture, a big challenge is the challenge of connection. For many men, there is the challenge of being able to connect. For many women, the challenge is to not get so connected that independence of spirit is lost. Then there is the challenge to value connectedness as such in a culture that considers autonomy the acme of personal development. Buddhist teaching has long emphasized the interconnectedness of things, how nothing and no one exists except in dependence on causes and conditions.
Feminists are very articulate about the social, political, and historical con-structedness of persons. Buddhist philosophy has not specifically applied these principles to a detailed social, cultural, or historical analysis. The constructed nature of gender, a modern concern, has not received any real attention in Buddhism. There are sutras where males change into females, but in terms of gender analysis, it’s pretty thin.

How do the currents of feminist thought relate to Buddhism?

Across the centuries and across the traditions in Asia, one of the central debates in Buddhism is whether enlightenment is suddenly achieved or gradually developed. Within feminism there is a similar debate. The essentialists tend to believe that there is some central female character that all women share and simply need to discover, and the constructivists say that gender, like all other aspects of a person, is culturally constructed—some cultures see women this way, some cultures see them that way. To the constructivists, everything about oneself, even one’s deepest, most inner feelings, is culturally constructed. This resembles the Buddhist position that sees everything as utterly dependent on causes and conditions.

Will feminism have an effect on how Buddhism comes to the West?

Definitely. Feminism is a constellation of contemporary sensibilities and inspires vital questions: Will age- old venerated practices have different effects for men and for women? Will they have different effects for Westerners than for Asians? Direct input by women promises a wealth of information on how Buddhist teachings can be relevant in this culture. Women are developing and discovering ways of spiritual growth that involve the old idea of a companion on the path, not someone above you or below you, but with you. That kind of lateral support is something that women do very well for each other, and we benefit a great deal from it.

What about radical feminism? Is it contrary to a Buddhist view?

Being radical, naturally, is a matter of perspective. Most feminists are radical in that they are avidly questioning many of their cultural presuppositions. Buddhists are radical in that they question not so much the social or political status quo, but assumptions of wholeness, permanence, or solidity that shape how we experience ourselves, how we think about things in general. So in different ways, Buddhists and feminists are both questioning our nitty-gritty assumptions, and that is very radical. Feminists really understand about the pernicious power of external authority, which most traditional Buddhists don’t often think about. But Buddhists do understand about internal authority—mindfulness provides tremendous internal authority and strength.

Buddhist theory and practice talk a lot about the lack of a self but feminists are saying that women need a stronger sense of self Is there a conflict?

That’s a five-alarm question. It’s critical to understand that “self” as a Buddhist philosophical term does not mean, what “self “means in ordinary English. It also does not mean ego, either in the Freudian sense or the more vernacular use of the word as “prideful.” Originally, Buddhists emphasized “selflessness” to distinguish themselves from the competing Hindu doctrines of “self.” But we’d be better off not using the word “self at all. The Buddhist point is simply that we are wrong to feel, however subtly, that we are permanent, or that we have some kind of existence separate from causes and conditions. Such mistaken ideas make our place in the world more precarious, because they are at odds with our actual situation—we are mortal and deeply conditioned beings. Buddhist thought and practice is about destroying the illusion of permanence, but not the possibility of action and existence and effectiveness. Women today are looking for ways to be active in the world, to be heard, to know their individual choices, and to do all this without necessarily imitating male models of autonomy and hierarchy This is the kind of strength women are talking about. This kind of self and power does not conflict in any way with Buddhist understanding.

Can meditation help develop this kind of strength?

For me, and I think for many women, one of the important aspects of mindfulness is self-acceptance. This means that you are willing to see yourself and be with yourself as you are. Settling the mind is physically grounding as well as mentally stabilizing. It can be a real source of strength and personal ease. Mindfulness also reveals that you are not just thoughts or feelings, but that you have a vast dimension that is not particularized, not conditioned.

How are changes within Buddhism going to happen?

One step at a time-—it’s a natural process. Teachers always respond to students, and women’s concerns today will shape how the teachings are presented. This is nothing new. Buddhism has always been able to respond to people’s needs. How else could it succeed? 

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .