Before the female buddha Tara came into being, she was a princess named Wisdom Moon, who was very devoted to the Buddha’s teachings and had a deep meditation practice. She was close to reaching enlightenment, and had developed the intention to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.
Her teacher, a monk, approached her, saying, “What a pity it is that you are in the body of a woman, because of course there is no possibility you can attain enlightenment in a woman’s body, so you will have to come back as a man before you can become enlightened.”
The princess answered back brilliantly, demonstrating her understanding of absolute truth, saying, “Here there is no man; there is no woman, no self, no person, and no consciousness. Labeling ‘male’ or ‘female’ is hollow. Oh, how worldly fools delude themselves.”
Related: “The Matter of Truth”
She went on to make the following vow: “Those who wish to attain supreme enlightenment in a man’s body are many, but those who wish to serve the aims of beings in a woman’s body are few indeed; therefore may I, until this world is emptied out, work for the benefit of sentient beings in a woman’s body.”
From that time onward, the princess dedicated herself to realizing complete enlightenment; once she accomplished that goal, she came to be known as Tara, the Liberator. I like to say that Tara is the first feminist, and I joke that in her form as Green Tara, she is the spiritual leader of the Green Party: guardian of the forest, fast-acting and compassionate. Tara is depicted with one foot in the world and one foot in meditation—a place where many of us find ourselves.
Like Tara, I firmly believe that at the absolute level we are beyond gender, and any notions of gender are limited and not our true nature. At a relative level, men and women are different, and that difference is precious. But when I use the terms “masculine” and “feminine,” it doesn’t matter whether you identify as male, female, or nonbinary, or what your sexual orientation may be: the masculine and feminine energies are alive within each of us and in our world. That said, there are rules and laws and cultural messages worldwide that specifically affect and disempower women. My wish is that we not lose touch with that unique magic of the primal feminine, the unique power we can bring to bear on the challenges of these times.
Feminine models of strength have been largely lost, repressed, or hidden from view, particularly images that are not acceptable or are not safe in a patriarchal society. Those images of the sibyl, the wise woman, the wild woman—women who are embodiments of specific powers of transformation, magical, spiritual, and psychic—become “wicked witches.” Estimates of the number of women executed as witches from the 15th to the 18th century—primarily by being burned alive, as it was considered a more painful death—range from 60,000 to 100,000. Those were times of puritanism and sexual repression, and the women burned as witches were often independent or rebellious women who lived alone and practiced herbalism, or women who disobeyed their husbands or refused to have sex with them.
Images of the devoted, peaceful mother have always been safe. Such images have always been acceptable in all cultures, even patriarchal ones; but there’s another level of reflection of the primal feminine experience that has not been present and that both men and women long for. And this is an experience that comes from the intuitive sacred feminine, a place where language may be paradoxical and prophetic, where the emphasis is on the symbolic meaning, not the words; a place where women sit in circles naked wearing mud, bones, and feathers, women who turn into divine goddesses and old hags—who turn into the fierce dakinis.
The Sanskrit word dakini in Tibetan becomes khandro, which means “sky dancer,” literally “she who moves through space.” The dakini is the most important manifestation of the feminine in Tibetan Buddhist teaching. She can appear as a human being or as a deity, often portrayed as fierce, surrounded by flames, naked, dancing, with fangs and a lolling tongue, and wearing bone ornaments. She holds a staff in the crook of her left elbow, representing her inner consort, her internal male partner. In her raised right hand, she holds a hooked knife, representing her relentless cutting away of dualistic fixation. She is compassionate and, at the same time, relentlessly tears away the ego. She holds a skull cup in her left hand at heart level, representing impermanence and the transformation of desire. She is an intense and fearsome image to behold.
The dakini is a messenger of spaciousness and a force of truth, presiding over the funeral of self-deception. Wherever we cling, she cuts; whatever we think we can hide, even from ourselves, she reveals. The dakini traditionally appears during transitions: moments between worlds, between life and death, in visions between sleep and waking, in cemeteries and charnel grounds.
Observing my two daughters’ four labors, which produced four marvelous grandchildren, two for each daughter, and remembering my own three labors, I think of the dakini in the time called “transition” during childbirth, when the cervix must open the last few centimeters for the baby’s descent into the birth canal. Transition is generally the most painful and most challenging period during labor, and during this time the woman must touch her wildness, take charge, and enter her deepest primal power. She often becomes fierce and must access the powerful dakini within, in order to move through transition, the tunnel of darkness, and bring her baby into the light. No one else can do it for her.
I remember during my first labor, witnessing the potency of the dakini unleashed and in her full power. It was only months after coming back from India with my husband, and less than a year since I’d disrobed from being a Buddhist nun. Living on Vashon Island in Puget Sound off the coast of Seattle, I chose to have a natural birth at home. We were living in a small berry-picker’s cottage, which had housed migrant workers harvesting currants on the island. Our heat and cooking came from a small woodstove.
When the day came, I went into labor in the morning, and right away it was intense. By evening, I had been in hard labor for eight hours when the doctor arrived from Seattle. My labor wasn’t progressing, and he thought the baby’s head was in the wrong position. Suddenly I thought: I have to get this baby out! It’s up to me; no one else can do this. What do I need to do?
I tuned in to my body, got off the bed onto the floor on my hands and knees, and told the doctor to leave me. I began weaving and shaking back and forth, up and down. My husband tried to approach to tell me to be calm and breathe quietly, but I told everyone to get out of the way. I wasn’t nice or calm; I was fierce and clear. I was like a primal animal: sweating, shaking, and moaning, swaying back and forth wildly.
The labor began to move forward. I got wilder as I entered transition, my body shaking while still on all fours. And before long, I held my newborn daughter in my arms. Had I done what I was told, I would not have turned her position; it was all the wild movement on all fours that helped to shift her. Had I not taken it on, becoming fierce and clear and guiding myself from within, I might have had to be airlifted to a hospital in Seattle for a cesarean section.
Fierce compassion is not limited to women; in fact, the Dalai Lama is a good example of it.
I was once at a lunch with the Dalai Lama and five other Western Buddhist teachers at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California. We were sitting in a charming room with white carpets and many windows. The food was a delightful, fragrant, vegetarian Indian meal. There were lovely flower arrangements on the table and gentle, graceful students serving the meal. We were discussing sexual misconduct among Western Buddhist teachers. A woman Buddhist from California brought up someone who was using his students for his own sexual needs.
One woman said, “We are working with him with compassion, trying to get him to understand his motives for exploiting female students and to help him change his actions.”
The Dalai Lama slammed his fist on the table, saying loudly, “Compassion is fine, but it has to stop! And those doing it should be exposed!”
All the serving plates on the table jumped, the water glasses tipped precariously, and I almost choked on the bite of saffron rice in my mouth. Suddenly I saw him as a fierce manifestation of compassion and realized that this clarity did not mean that the Dalai Lama had moved away from compassion. Rather, he was bringing compassion and manifesting it as decisive fierceness. His magnetism was glowing like a fire. I will always remember that day, because it was such a good teaching on compassion and precision. Compassion is not a wishy-washy “anything goes” approach. Compassion can say a fierce no! Compassion is not being stupid and indulging someone and what they want. The renowned teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called that “idiot compassion,” like giving a drug addict drugs.
The way I am using the word fierce is in the sense of how a mother animal defends her young—a laser beam of fierceness, of pure energy that when harnessed and directed is powerful and unstoppable. It is fierceness without hatred or aggression. Sometimes a wrathful manifestation is more effective than a peaceful approach. It is by understanding the dakini’s fierceness as a productive and creative source of raw energy that we see the dakinis in action—wielding the power to subdue, protect, and transform.
We must find the sources to access this fierce dakini power and bring it to bear on what matters to us in our lives, be it emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or political. Meeting our strong feminine energy, we will develop as women. The powerful, fierce feminine is very much a part of the psyche, but it is repressed; and when it is not acknowledged because it is threatening, it can become subversive and vengeful. But when it is acknowledged and honored, it’s an incredible source of power.
Until recently, being a feminist carried something of a stigma. I encountered this myself and was criticized by my Buddhist teacher for being “too feminist,” when actually I was only trying to bring balance to Buddhism and talk about the empowered feminine, sexual abuse, and patriarchal aspects of Buddhism. Later he changed his view and was very supportive, but it was a challenging time then, when feminist was a dirty word. Some women have been quick to distance themselves from that title, afraid of being labeled “an angry feminist” and being unattractive to men. But if you ask those same women who say they are not feminists if they believe in equal pay for equal work, reproductive freedom, and protection from male violence? Most will say, “Yes, of course.” So actually they are feminists but afraid of being seen as anti-male.
Now this is changing. Feminism is coming back as a label to be proud of, for both men and women. Both Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau call themselves feminists. Trudeau said he was “proud” to stand as an advocate for “He for She,” a UN movement of men standing up for women. Feminism’s comeback is especially true as the movement is becoming more inclusive and intersectional, taking into account the unique experiences of women of color, transgender women, and low-income women.
Remember the “such a nasty woman” insult Donald Trump used to denigrate Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential elections? It didn’t work. Women took it and turned it into a slogan of empowerment: Never underestimate the power of a nasty woman. We transformed this intended offense into something women wanted to own. We stopped asking for permission to be forceful, outspoken, and decisive. We chose to band together within our power, standing up to obnoxious patriarchy.
Trump’s insult became a movement. Never underestimate the power of a nasty woman went viral; women tapped the fierce part of themselves and bonded in the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration. Women together with many supportive people of other gender identifications marched to protect women’s rights, human rights, and the rights of the earth. They had a sense of humor, wearing pink knitted hats with cat ears and carrying signs with the slogan Pussy Power. The marchers were nonviolent and joyful, but not to be deterred; never before had there been such a huge global protest.
Worldwide participation in the Women’s March of 2017 has been estimated at five million. At least 673 marches were reported across the globe, on all seven continents. In Washington, DC, the protests were the largest demonstrations since the anti–Vietnam War protests in the 1960s and 1970s. It was the busiest day on record in the city’s Metro. There were no arrests; all remained peaceful and nonaggressive, with the marchers carrying an array of provocative placards reading Nasty Women Rule, Save the Planet, If You Take Away My Birth Control I’ll Just Make More Feminists, Fight Back, Bitches Get Stuff Done, Misogyny Kills, We Are the Grnddaughters of the Witches You Didn’t Burn. A 90-year-old woman held a sign saying Ninety, Nasty, and Not Giving Up.
Men of a variety of races and cultural backgrounds who walked in solidarity with women during the march held signs saying I Also Feel Strongly about This, Men of Quality Do Not Fear Equality, Real Men Are Feminists, This Feminist Has Balls, Teach Boys They Are Not Entitled to Women’s Bodies, Real Men Get Consent.
A middle-aged man carried a little boy, the two of them holding signs that read I Am Committed to Raising My Son to Resist Misogyny and Embrace Feminism. A young, grinning couple, both wearing pink “Pussy Power” hats, held a sign together that said Patriarchy Is for Dicks.
There was tremendous energy and cohesion expressed in the Women’s March, but afterward I noticed that the energy seemed to dissipate somewhat, although the conversation is still very much alive. I have also talked to some women who were feeling discouraged, unsure, and frustrated. Perhaps we don’t know what next steps could be effective? What I saw was a need for an inner resource of empowerment and inspiration with which to build from the momentum the march generated.
We need to have a method to build on that energy, an inner practice to sustain and take it beyond protest and into full embodiment. We need to tap into the potent, untamed, yet wise energy of the dakinis. We can do this by journeying through the Vajra Dakini Meditation as well as other dakini meditations, taking that sacred feminine—which has been relegated to the unconscious, to the negative, to the “shadow,” the “hag,” the “witch,” the “bitch,” and, yes, the “nasty woman”—and bringing her energy forward and applying her positive potential in our lives.
From Wisdom Rising: Journey into the Mandala of the Empowered Feminine by Lama Tsultrim Allione. Copyright © 2018 by Joan E. Allione. Reprinted by permission of Enliven Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Vajra Dakini Meditation for Transforming Anger into Wisdom
After Tamara, a 33-year-old software engineer, was sexually harassed by her boss, she decided to quit her job. For fear of retaliation, she didn’t report him to HR. But when the dam broke in late 2017 with the #MeToo movement and scores of women came forward with stories like hers, Tamara finally was able to feel the anger that had been stewing inside her for so long. Her anger was justified, but it was also challenging because it was so intense and came with a lot of fear. She asked me for help, and I recommended she practice transforming anger into wisdom through the Vajra Dakini meditation. She agreed to try it.
Related: “Mind the Gap“
Tamara was not alone in feeling the force of repressed anger surfacing these days. Anger can be a powerful and necessary force for change. But to use it skillfully, we need methods to transform it. This requires us to be centered and to create the change within ourselves that will lead to wise action in the world.
The word for “dakini” in Tibetan is khandro, literally “she who moves through space.” The most important manifestation of the feminine in Tibetan Buddhism, a dakini can appear as a human being or as a deity. She is depicted as fierce, surrounded by flames, naked, dancing, and wearing bone ornaments. The dakinis are interesting in the current environment as we see the upsurge of women’s anger and resistance, because although the powerful fierce feminine is very much a part of the psyche, it has been repressed and forbidden. The dakini energy allows us to take that anger and transform it into wisdom and fierce compassion. The Vajra Dakini is one of five dakinis that correspond to the five buddha families: vajra (indestructible), buddha (spacious), ratna (enriching), padma (magnetizing), and karma (accomplishing). Each family represents the transformation of a negative emotion into a corresponding type of wisdom energy.
The five buddha families exist within a mandala, a circular template of the awakened mind with four quadrants and a center. The vajra family is located in the eastern quadrant of the mandala. This family’s color is the blue of the autumn sky, and its element is water. Its symbol is the vajra, a handheld scepter with a spherical hub in the center and five prongs emerging from either end from the hub, symbolizing indestructible skillful means and the union of the five male and the five female buddhas. Each family has an obstructing emotion or afflicted pattern. An afflicted pattern is a strategy our ego-clinging develops to try and affirm itself and its safety. These include emotional patterns like anger, grasping, pride, and jealousy. The afflicted pattern of the vajra family is anger, which manifests as sharpness, austerity, coldness, and fear. The wisdom of the vajra family is mirror-like wisdom. The mirror is an important metaphor in Tibetan Buddhist teachings: it is a symbol of the nature of mind. A mirror reflects everything, yet it is not altered by what it reflects and does not judge those reflections. If the mind is like a mirror, it is not conditioned by what appears in front of it. When you are in the mirror-like wisdom of the vajra family, there is clarity without the cold heartlessness of anger; there is clarity with compassion. The state of mirror-like wisdom is, in fact, the very same energy that manifests as anger, but with the struggle of ego-clinging removed. When the struggle is released, the wisdom of the pure vajra energy is right there where it has always been, unencumbered by the struggle of the ego to maintain its ground. In this way it is like gold, which is almost unrecognizable in its raw state, but emerges pure when purified of the dross.
VAJRA DAKINI MEDITATION
In order to transform anger into mirror-like wisdom, you can practice a meditation in which you embody the Vajra Dakini. Although she is female, all genders may do the dakini practice. Please note, however, that this meditation serves as an introduction to the dakinis and the mandala from the Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana tradition; it is not a substitute for traditional transmission through empowerment (wang), reading transmission (lung), and explanation (tri) from an authorized teacher.
• Begin by sitting on a cushion with your legs crossed or sit on a chair. Cultivate the intention to do this practice for the benefit of all beings.
• Begin by thinking of a time when you were angry or irritated. Take a moment to recall the details of that event and perhaps the feelings of fear and humiliation that often lurk beneath anger.
• Now notice where you feel the anger in your body.
• Then sound the seed syllable of the Vajra Dakini, which is HA, slowly so that it reverberates in your body—as though you are directing the sound inside your body instead of projecting it out. Visualize this sound emanating from your heart chakra in the center of your chest. Accompanying the sound, blue light is radiating out from your heart and penetrating into the sensation of anger in your body.
• Repeat the HA three times in a low voice, letting the sound flow out for the entire length of a full exhalation. Your body becomes the body of the dancing blue Vajra Dakini, emanating mirror-like wisdom.
• Notice the moment of transformation, when the sensation of anger dissolves into the blue light and you become the Vajra Dakini, who is pure blue luminosity.
• In your raised right hand, you hold the crescent-shaped hooked knife (trigug), which represents cutting through subject/object fixation.
• In your left hand, you hold a skull cup (kapala) at your heart, a symbol of impermanence, a cauldron of transformation. Your right leg is raised and your left leg extended in the dancing posture.
• You are holding the khatvanga staff in the crook of your left elbow. This staff symbolizes the “hidden consort.” It is the dakini’s inner masculine, and at the top of the staff is a vajra symbolizing the phallus. The staff is an interesting metaphor, because it can serve multiple purposes: as a tent pole, a protective spear, or a walking stick. With it, she has the power to stand alone; she has internalized the masculine.
• Take a moment to feel the support of your khatvanga staff, your inner masculine, and the feeling of holding the hooked knife and the skull cup.
• Feel the mirror-like wisdom—clarity without struggle—emanating out of you so intensely that it creates blazing wisdom flames around your body.
• When you have a felt sense of embodying the Vajra Dakini, imagine your normal self appearing in front of you, caught in anger.
• Observe your normal self from the Vajra Dakini’s point of view.
• Then, as the Vajra Dakini, imagine yourself turning away; when you turn back, you are holding a gift for your ordinary self.
• As the Vajra Dakini, offer this gift to your ordinary self, explaining the meaning of the gift and why you are giving it.
• Then your ordinary self asks the Vajra Dakini for an essence phrase that will help her work with anger, such as “move, play, and know you can create change through clarity.”
• As the Vajra Dakini, you respond, offering an essence phrase—just a few words—a reminder of how to transform anger to mirror-like wisdom.
• Now sound the syllable HA again with a long exhalation, and your luminous blue body dissolves from the top and bottom into your heart, until only the sound and a blue sphere of light remains. Eventually, that too dissolves.
• Rest in the open awareness that appears after the dissolution.
• Enjoy the clarity until discursive thoughts begin to arise again. Then mentally dedicate the merit—the accumulation of positive energy that has accrued from the meditation—imagining that it spreads out from you to benefit all beings.
• Take a moment to jot down the gift and its meaning, as well as the essence phrase.
You can do this anger practice in an abbreviated form“on the run”—for example, when you are at a meeting and someone triggers your anger or when you get an irritating email. Simply close your eyes, feel the anger, and then sound the seed syllable HA, imagining that blue light is spreading through your body and mirror-like wisdom is arising. If you are in a place where you can’t sound the seed syllable out loud, imagine the sound and light spreading through your body.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.