Quarterly Electronic MagaZine from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 12, Fall 2016
Dr. Victor Gabriel is Chair and Assistant Professor of the Department of Buddhist Chaplaincy at the University of the West. Dr. Gabriel holds an applied masters equivalent in Counseling Psychology from Curtin University, Australia, a Masters in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism from Naropa University, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Buddhist Studies from University of the West. His dissertation explored how feminist Buddhists found integration and healing through the symbols and images present within the Tibetan Buddhist ritual of Chӧd. He has had previous experience as a special education teacher and a psychotherapist. He is also a lay minister and a meditation instructor.
What I see is a great flowering of women practitioners. We have made a good start in the West. There are still disturbing notes, like translators who duplicate non-inclusive language in their translations, insisting that “he” means “we” and that “Buddha’s sons” means all practitioners. There are still women being exploited sexually by teachers who use their power and mystique, imbued in them by their traditions, to seduce their students. There are still many ways nuns are not treated equally. There are also those who feel bringing these problems up is “dualistic.” Mostly, though, such issues are being recognized as problems and are being addressed.
— Tsultrim Allione, “The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism,” in Buddhist Women on the Edge: Contemporary Perspectives from the Western Frontier1
Much has been written about women and Chöd. Chӧd is a combination of Tibetan wisdom philosophy, meditation, and tantric ritual that I discuss in more detail later. Here I want to focus on one episode in that on-going relationship between women and Chöd. From October 26 to 28, 2012, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje bestowed the empowerment of Chöd and its commentary. This was the first time that the Karmapa had bestowed the Chöd initiation. However this occasion was important in many additional ways. It was the first time a Tibetan Buddhist hierarch bestowed an initiation in response to a formal request made by a Western Buddhist woman on behalf of all women practitioners everywhere. It was the first time an American Buddhist organization, Tara Mandala, based in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, sponsored this event. The Karmapa offered the torma empowerment (an important ritual substance) personally to both Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, a British nun, and Lama Tsultrim Allione, an American Chöd teacher. It was the first time this major honor was given to Western female practitioners. Both Jetsunma Palmo and Lama Allione are feminist Chöd practitioners and teachers.
During his commentary, the Karmapa also made significant remarks. Before I turn to his remarks, I’d like to remind readers that Anne Klein in her work on Yeshe Tsogyal, Meeting the Great Bliss Queen, stated that Tibetan women do not consider Chöd a female practice or that the practice of female yi-dams (meditational deity) is in any way supportive of women.2 Indeed this position was also held by many Tibetan teachers of Chöd, i.e., that Chöd and the practice of female yi-dams is neither supportive nor not supportive of women. Their position, related by Judith Simmer-Brown in Dakinis’ Warm Breath, is that the practice of female yi-dams is a meditative technology, and since this practice builds upon the wisdom of sunyatā, it is not concerned with the reification of gender.3
However, as quoted in Lara Owen’s blog on women’s spirituality, the Karmapa said:
Since the time of the 3rd Karmapa, who wrote the first commentary on Chöd, the Karmapas have maintained a close connection to this practice. I, myself, feel a deep bond with these teachings coming from Machig Labdrön. She is the perfect embodiment of wisdom and compassion and has inspired Buddhist practitioners for many centuries. I am especially pleased that I can offer this encouragement and support to female practitioners from around the Himalayan region and the world, and pray that the good merit from this event generates peace.4
Here, the Karmapa acknowledged (the first time for a Tibetan Buddhist hierarch) that Machig Labdrön’s gender was an important factor in the popularity of Chöd among (Western) women Chöd practitioners. Many Western feminist Chöd practitioners have considered Chöd a positive feminist ritual for Western women. The two most popular reasons given were, first, that Chöd was developed and popularized by a woman, Machig Labdrön, and, second, that Chöd employs the female yi-dams of Prajñāpāramitā, Vajrayogini, Vajrāvarāhi and Krodha Kali.
In response to the Karmapa’s remark, many Western feminist Chöd practitioners felt that their experience was finally heard by a major Tibetan Buddhist hierarch, and they felt vindicated by his words. For example, Lara Owen in her blog writes:
This is a historic moment for women in Buddhism and by extension, for women around the world. What is so awesome about the Chöd is that it is a practice for feeding our demons, for turning to face that of which we are most afraid and offering it our attention, indeed ourselves. This is a major aspect of feminine spirituality, this deep compassion that can transform apparently impossible situations, and also that we can practice towards ourselves and our own beings, as we do with birth, menstruation and menopause, finding that when we give them our all, these mysteries of female life transform into nectar, blessings, enlightenment.5
In her commentary of this event, I find that Owen has made a number of important connections that are highlighted by Western feminist Chöd practitioners. She has related the aspect of lu-jin (gift of the body) present within Chöd, where the body is imagined as ambrosia and offered to various enlightened and unenlightened beings, with the practice of “turning to face that which we are most afraid and offering it our attention.” She then valorizes this practice of facing fears as “feminine spirituality.” This aspect of using the technologies of Chöd to face our fears has been popularized by Lama Tsultrim Allione’s book, Feeding Your Demons and its corresponding workshops. 6
Owen further associates this feminine spirituality with female biological processes of birth, menstruation, and menopause (“mysteries of female life”), which can be very frightening. By associating lu-jin with these ordinary (but frightening) female biological processes, Owen shows how female practitioners are already practicing Chöd without even knowing it. This association frames Chöd as a practice of feminine spirituality. Facing fears is also contextualized as a practice of deep compassion that has the power to transform situations. Finally this, transformative process births or leads to “nectar, blessings, enlightenment.”
Chöd’s connection with feminine spirituality is strengthened by the practice of female yi-dams of Prajñāpāramitā, Vajrayogini, Vajrāvarāhi and Krodha Kali. The practice of female yi-dams is expressed through two meditative technologies of front-visualization and self-visualization. In front-visualization, practitioners imagine various enlightened beings as standing before them and themselves being the recipient of their prayers. The result of this meditative technology is that practitioners come to realize that their bodies, energy, and mind are in fact inseparable from the body, energy, and mind of their Chöd teachers and the front-visualized deities. They also come to realize that other beings are inseparable from their Chöd teachers and the front-visualized deities, and that their environment is inseparable from the celestial palace of these front-visualized deities.
In self-visualization, practitioners imagine themselves as clearly as possible as the yi-dam while remembering the meaning of the various parts of the yi-dam’s body and their ritual implements as well as holding onto the confidence of embodying these enlightened beings. This technology has resonance for practitioners on three levels. It reminds practitioners that their bodies signify either compassion for men or the wisdom of śūnyatā for women. Next, the body is seen as an instrument/vehicle for the realization of bliss that is used to realize the wisdom of śūnyatā. Finally, the body is seen as inseparable from the divine and indestructible body, energy, and mind of the yi-dam.
In looking at this one event, this paper has tried to capture the pivotal role played by the Karmapa in promoting and vindicating the experience of Western female Chöd practitioners and the past and present landscape of this relationship between women and Chöd. In the progression of this relationship, Chöd has become the best representation of female spirituality through its emphasis on encountering fears, the biological processes of female life, and the meditative technology of female yi-dams.
1 Tsultrim Allione, “The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism,” in Marianne Dresser, Buddhist Women on the Edge: Contemporary Perspectives from the Western Frontier. (Berkely, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1996), 105.
2 Anne Klein, Meeting the Great Bliss Queen, (Boston: Beacon, 1995), 191.
3 Judith Simmer-Brown, Dakinis’ Warm Breath, (Boulder: Shambhala, 2001), 4-8.
4 Lara Owen’s blog on women’s spirituality (there are three references to Lara Owen’s blog) http://laraowen.com/2012/10/26/machig-the-chod-and-the-karmapa/ (Page no longer available.)
5 Lara Owen's blog. (Page no longer available.)
6 Tsultrim Allione, Feeding Your Demons, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2008).
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