with Lama Tsultrim Allione
Monday, April 27, 6:00-7:30PM
Hartley Conference Center, Mitchell Earth Science Building,
Stanford University, 397 Panama Mall, Stanford
Dakini Wisdom: Tracing the Emergence of the Feminine Principle and the Role of Women in Buddhism
When the prince Siddhartha decided to cease fasting and embrace the middle way, it was a woman who fed him his first meal of milk rice. When Mara, the demonic shadow figure, challenged Siddhartha to provide a witness for his right to take his seat under the Bodhi tree the night of his enlightenment, he reached forward and touched the earth. He invoked the goddess of the earth, Prithivi, who knows and remembers all that has happened on her vast body. She gave her testimony by quaking and roaring, and caused Mara and his hordes to retreat, opening the space for Siddhartha’s enlightenment. The precise way she intervened differs according to various accounts, but always the earth goddess bears witness and acts as the Siddhartha’s principal ally at this pivotal moment in his life.
The feminine entered Buddhism during the Mahayana period through Prajnaparamita (or Perfection of Wisdom) Sutra, which formed the foundational body of Mahayana literature. Prajnaparamita was envisioned as a cosmic feminine principle, mother of knowledge, source of all the Buddhas. She was the philosophiae regina, the Buddhist Sophia, representing transcendent wisdom. Even Buddhas and bodhisattvas paid homage to her as their mother. With possible historical connections to Sophia in the Mediterranean and certainly sharing many similar attributes, we find in Prajnaparamita the beginning of a philosophical inclusion of the sacred feminine in an essentially patriarchal tradition.
Later in the Tantric period of Indian Buddhism, the feminine as wisdom and women teachers burst onto the scene. Through stories of these wild and wise women, who came to be called Dakini (Sanskrit) or Khandro (Tibetan), we see the important presence of women in the sociological changes occurring within Buddhism at that time, and what changed in Buddhism as a result. Evolving from Indian Buddhism, in Tibet the primordial feminine became Yum Chenmo, the great mother. The role of the Dakini as deity developed in Tibet, as well as that of women holding the role of the Dakini in various manifestations and historical contexts. How then, is the feminine relevant as Buddhism migrates to the West?