Lola, the Goddess, and Extending the Eye Business

In several previous posts, I have mentioned the story of the Dragon King’s Daughter (aka The Naga Princess) from the Lotus Sutra, often cited as example of Buddhism championing gender equality.  I have never quite understood how that holds up because the girl must take a man’s form before she can attain enlightenment.  To me, the story still reinforces the notion of the male form as superior.

I think a better example of promoting the equality of women and men can be found in the Vimalakirti Sutra.  First, a little background:

Vimalakirti2Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra (“Instructions of  Vimalakirti) is a Mahayana Buddhist sutra most likely composed in India approximately 100 CE and rendered into Chinese in 406 CE by the famous translator Kumarajiva.  It concerns Vimalakirti, a wealthy lay practitioner and bodhisattva whose wisdom is equal to that of the Buddha.  Because Vimalakirti is a layperson, the sutra emphasizes the equality of lay practitioners and ordained practitioners, and in the passage I am sharing with you, it also stresses the equality between men and women.

Vimalakirti pretends to be sick so that other followers and bodhisattvas will gather around him and he will have an opportunity to instruct them on some finer points of the dharma.  It just so happens that a goddess lives in his house, and when she appears, Shariputra, one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, starts to question her.  Here is one of their exchanges that I have adapted from the translations by Robert Thurman and Burton Watson:

Shariputra: Goddess, Why don’t you change out of your female body?

[Poor Shariputra sure seems dense in some these sutras.  Here he assumes that any woman would naturally want to change into a man if she could, since Buddhism at that time often put forth the notion that woman could not become enlightened.]

Goddess: For the past twelve years, I have been trying to take on female form, but with no luck.  What is there to change?  If a magician were to make a woman by magic, would you ask her, “Why don’t you change out of your female body?”

Shariputra: No!  She would not real, so what would there be to change?

Goddess: Yes, all things are unreal.  So why have you asked me to change my unreal female body?

Then with her mystical power, she transformed herself into Shariputra and turned Shariputra into her.  The goddess asked Shariputra if he could change back to his own form.

Shariputra, now transformed into the goddess, said:  I do not know why I have turned into a goddess.  I do not know what to transform!

Goddess: Shariputra, if you can change out of this female body, then all women should also be able to turn into men.  Shariputra, who is not a woman, appears in a woman’s body.  And the same is true of all women, although they appear in women’s bodies, they are not women.  Therefore the Buddha teaches that all things are neither male nor female.”

The goddess changed Shariputra back to his original male body, and she returned to her original form.

Goddess: Shariputra, where is your female body now?

Shariputra: The form of a woman neither exists nor is non-existent.

Goddess: Well, now you understand.  All things are fundamentally neither existing nor non-existent, and that which neither exists nor is non-existent is the teaching of the Buddha.

Before the rise of Mahayana, all the Buddhist schools held that neither lay people nor women could achieve awakening.  Even within the Mahayana branch, while there was a significant focus on lay practitioners, there were still instances of misogyny that remain unabated.  However, it was inevitable that there would be a move away from that attitude, for the Mahayana’s concept of emptiness destroyed all concepts, all views.  It only makes sense that empiness destroys gender, too.  Gender differences belong to the relative world.

So, we have this example where the Vimalakirti teaches not only equality between lay people and ‘clergy’, but also emphasizes that within emptiness there is equality of women and men.

Shariputra cannot yet see the full truth because he still clings to relative distinctions.

Another way to look at it is that emptiness does not destroy things as much as it renders them conditional and relative.  According to Nagarjuna in his Treatise on the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra, to see things in this way is to extend our vision, use our eye of wisdom.  He called it the teaching of the emptiness of beginninglessness.

But then in The Precious Garland Nagarjuna said “may all women be reborn as males.”

Which may, or may not, be the reason why Ray Davies said,

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola
La-la-la-la Lola

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“extending the eye business” from Jack Kerouac, The Subterraneans, Grove Press edition 1981, p. 95

image: Vimalakirti Bodhisattva debating Manjusri Bodhisattva. Dunhuang, Mogao Caves, China, Tang Dynasty.


Thai Bhikkhunis: Shareholders of Faith

Most scholars believe the Theravada Bhikkhuni (female monastics) lineage died out between the 11th and 13th centuries. In recent years there have been attempts to reestablish the Bhikkhuni Sangha but this movement has encountered obstacles and created controversy. The main problem seems to be that many high-ranking males in the tradition maintain that according to the Vinaya (sangha rules) women must be ordained by both the Bhikkhuni Sangha and the Bhikkhu Sangha. Since there is no existing  Bhikkhuni Sangha in Theravada, some of these guys say there can be no ordination for women. It is a classic Catch-22 situation and quite absurd.

Sri Lanka and Thailand are countries where Theravada is the dominant Buddhist tradition. In the former, the ordination of women is permitted, in the latter it is not. According to an Associated Press report “Thailand’s top Buddhist authority bars women from becoming monks. They can only become white-cloaked nuns, who are routinely treated as domestic servants. Many here believe women are inferior beings who had better perform plenty of good deeds to ensure they will be reborn as men in their future lives.”

It should be mentioned that the male sangha in Thailand is thoroughly corrupt and scandal-ridden. In addition to financial fraud at temples, there have been reports of embezzlement, extravagant lifestyles, murder, wildlife trafficking; not long ago a monk was found with 120,000 methamphetamine pills in his possession, another was kicked out of his temple for investing over a million dollars in the stock market, and there has been so much alleged sexual abuse that these Thai monks seem to make the Roman Catholic clergy look like a bunch of Boy Scouts.

In Thailand, the ordination of women is actually illegal and violators can face fines or imprisonment. Despite this, last November Sri Lankan clergy ordained eight Thai women, which led the Thai Sangha council to petition the government to ban Sri Lankan monks and nuns from entering the country.

One of the leaders of the Thai Bhikkhuni movement is Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a woman who is better known by her Buddhist name Dhammananda.

Dhammananda-2Dhammananda was the first bhikkhuni ordained in modern Thailand but she is not the first modern Thai bhikkhuni. That honor belongs to her mother, Voramai Kabilsingh who was ordained in Taiwan in 1971 and who returned to her country to establish the Songdhammakalyani Monastery. Dhammananda is now the Abbess at the monastery, the only bhikkhuni temple in Thailand.

Dhammananda is also a University Professor in Philosophy and Buddhism, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, a published author, and a former TV host. The Thai bhikkhunis have a website (here) where Dhammananda is described as a “a rebel and a trailblazer.”

According to legend, after some initial reluctance the historical Buddha agreed to the creation of the bhikkhuni sangha. Dhammananda says the sangha during the Buddha’s time was a four-legged stool of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen but “we are now sitting on just three legs.”

The AP notes that some of those who opposed the bhikkhuni movement in Thailand see them as “ Western-educated feminists out to undermine traditional Buddhism.” Obviously, they have a warped view as to what constitutes traditional Buddhism.

Historically, there has been much misogyny in Buddha-dharma. We especially find rather ugly remarks about women in the literature. But, there are also stories of remarkable, inspiring women. An excellent example is the tale in the Dhammapada about Dhammadinna, which I will share with you in a highly condensed version:

In Rajagaha, there was a lay-disciple Buddha named Visakha, who after listening to the Buddha’s dharma talks, attained Anagami (“non-returning”, a partially enlightened stage). He said to his wife, “You can have all my property. From today on, I give up the householder’s life.”

Dhammadinna, his wife, replied, “If that be so, I will not accept what you, with such disgust, even as it were but spittle and vomit, have cast aside. Give me leave, too, to forsake the life of a householder.”

She then left to become a bhikkhuni and went to a monastery in a small village to practice meditation with other bhikkhuni. Within a short time, she surpassed her husband’s attainment and returned to Rajagaha.

When Visakha learned that Dhammadinna had come back, he went to see her and threw a barrage of questions her way, all about the paths leading to the realization of nirvana.

When her husband finished, Dhammadinna answered by saying, “Yisakha, you will not be able to understand the answers to questions on things beyond your limit, even such as nirvana, the discipline wayfarers must maintain, and the paths to nirvana. However, if you wish, you may go to the Buddha and ask him these questions.

And that is what Visakha did, and after the Buddha heard all the questions, he said, “Dhammadinna is wise, Visakha. I cannot add anything to what she has already told you.”

The Buddha’s comment confirms that Dhammandinna had realized a high degree of wisdom and could be interpreted as suggesting that women can also become Buddhas.

On the Thai Bhikkhuni website, Dhammananda says,

I am not interested in equality as such, being a Bhikkhuni is not about equality it is about what’s right, it’s about what Buddha believed, his original vision for the faith. We are shareholders of the faith just as a Bhikkhu (male monk), a lay man and a lay woman. We all have a share and we are 25% of that. We should be four brothers and sisters working together”.


Yeshe Tsogyal, Who Attained Enlightenment in the Supreme Body of a Woman

In Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy,* Professor R. Howard Bloch writes,

The ritual denunciation of women constitutes something on the order of a cultural constant, reaching back to the Old Testament as well as to Ancient Greece and extending through the fifteenth century. Found in Roman tradition, it dominates ecclesiastical writing, letters, sermons, theological tracts, discussions and compilations of canon law; scientific works, as part and parcel of biological, gynaecological, and medical knowledge; and philosophy. The discourse of misogyny runs like a rich vein throughout the breadth of medieval literature.”

It ran through the course of ancient and medieval life as well, not only in the West, but also the East, and until recently the position of women in society has improved only slightly. In Buddhism, for centuries woman, especially nuns, have endured the sufferings of discrimination and oppression, and this, too, has only recently began to turn around.

Regarding Buddhist literature, I don’t think we can say that it is dominated by misogyny, but it was certainly a frequent theme. Women represented sexual desire and therefore they were considered the “root of ruin” and the “destruction of destructions” and men were advised to “ever avoid women if he desires happiness for himself.” (Saddharmasmrtyupasthana Sutra) There are passages in the early Buddhist sutras that lean toward affirming the equality of women, like this from the Samyutta Nikaya, “Whoever practices this vehicle, whether woman or man, it is the only vehicle that can reach the shore of nibbana.” Yet many such passages are ambiguous and few and far between.

The prevailing attitude in traditional Buddhism was that a masculine body was better suited for enlightenment. In the sutras and commentaries, women are encouraged to pray to be reborn as a man, and certain sincere women believers were predicted never to born a man again. Even in the story of the Dragon King’s Daughter from the Lotus Sutra, often cited as example of Buddhism championing gender equality, the girl must take a man’s form before she can attain enlightenment.

Yeshe Tsogyal
Yeshe Tsogyal

That story is mythological, as are those of other female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, such as Kuan Yin and Tara. However, there were some remarkable Buddhist women who were historical figures, and one of these was Yeshe Tsogyal (757-815). This woman, who was the wife of Indian master Padmasambhava, the de facto founder of Buddhism in Tibet, has left a legacy all her own, and it is for that reason, rather than her connection to the famous guru, Yeshe Tsogyal is often called the “mother of Tibetan Buddhism.”

In John Steven’s book, Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex, Padmasambhava is quoted as saying to Yeshe Tsogyal

The basis for realizing enlightenment is a human body. Male or female, there is no great difference. But if she develops the mind bent on enlightenment the woman’s body is better.”

Elsewhere, Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, offers these final words to Yeshe Tsogyal:

In the supreme body of a woman
You have gained accomplishment;
Your mind itself is Lord . . .”

One Yeshe Tsogyal story has her entering into a meditation retreat for 9 years and emerging as a fully enlightened Buddha. This is almost certainly a mythological tale, but at least in this one, unlike the story of the Dragon King’s Daughter, she does not have to transform into a man before attaining enlightenment. This is significant, regardless of the story’s reliability, because it offers an example of a woman who realized Buddhahood with her present body (Jp. sokushin jobutsu), the “supreme” body of a woman.

Although I don’t believe notions of “supreme perfect enlightenment” (Skt. anuttara-samyak-sambodhi) or Final Nirvana are realistic or verifiable concepts, I do accept that rather high plateaus of wisdom and mindfulness are reachable over the course of the spiritual journey.  Given this, we can assume that whatever Yeshe Tsogyal attained was authentic and acceptable as a historic truth. Gyalwa Changchub and Namkhai Nyingpo in their biography of Lady Tsogyal (see below) write, “The first Tibetan ever to attain complete enlightenment was in all probability the woman Yeshe Tsogyal . . .”

Yeshe Tsogyal’s name means “Victorious Ocean of Wisdom.” The details of her life vary, according to the source. In some accounts, her early life was harsh, and she suffered considerable abuse, including rape. In other accounts, those early years were happy and peaceful, and she was so popular that when she turned 13, a number of noblemen requested marriage with her, but her parents would not consent to any of their proposals. There are many legends, and most are quite epic in nature.

It’s said she lived a life that was independent of Padamsambhava. Although she compiled many of his teachings, she also authored works of her own, including an autobiography.

In Tibet, Yeshe Tsogyal is considered a female Buddha. Some Tibetan traditions regard her as a reincarnation of the Buddha’s own mother, Maya Devi, while the Nyingma tradition considers her an emanation of Samantabhadri, the primordial female Buddha.

Yeshe Tsogyal is one of a number of actual women and mythical female figures whose presence furthered the development of Tibetan Buddhism, and Tantric/Vajrayana Buddhism in general. While in what we call “traditional” Buddhism, women were viewed as impure beings, generators of desire, and their bodies unfit to serve as vessels of enlightened mind, the Vajrayana/Tantric branch of Buddhism, which is also traditional, had a different view.

Dr. Miranda E. Shaw, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Richmond, argues that in Tantric Buddhism, enlightenment was not just for men, nor were women always marginalized and kept in a subservient position. In Passionate Enlightenment Women in Tantric Buddhism, she says that

Tantric biographies portray bold, outspoken, independent women. Tantric texts describe how women should be respected, served, and ritually worshipped. Tantric literature introduces practices performed solely by women and others performed by women and men together. Tantric theory advances an ideal of cooperative, mutually liberative relationships between women and men.”

Shaw says the founders of Tantric Buddhism included independent women who made a significant and valuable contribution to shaping a unique outlook on gender roles, attitudes, and interaction. Unfortunately, Tantric Buddhism is too often associated with physical sex, a largely mistaken notion, which causes many people to form a rather negative view of tantra. For others, Vajrayana may seem to contain too much mysticism for their liking. But regardless of whether Tantric Buddhism/Vajrayana is our cup of tea or not, Buddhists from every tradition would do well to try and capture this vision of gender relations, for in a world where women are still not fully equal, there is much more work to do, and in my opinion, Buddhists should lead the way in dismantling the parameters of inequality, not just for women, but for all people.

There is a growing corpus of research and literature on women in Buddhism, tantric and non-tantric. For those interested in learning more about Yeshe Tsogyal, here are two books worth taking a look at:

Sky Dancer: The Secret Life And Songs Of Lady Yeshe Tsogyel by Keith Dowman

Lady of the Lotus-Born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal by Gyalwa Changchub and Namkhai Nyingpo

Other books of interest, including those cited in this post:

Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex by John Stevens

Passionate Enlightenment Women in Tantric Buddhism by Miranda Shaw

Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism by Judith Simmer-Brown

Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet by Reginald A. Ray

An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism by Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta 

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* Bloch, R. Howard, and Frances Ferguson, editors Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy. Berkeley:  University of California Press, c1989 1989.


The Story of The Dragon King’s Daughter

I’m trying to read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, the best-selling book by late Swedish author and journalist Stieg Larsson that has become quite a phenomenon in the world of crime and mystery fiction. I say trying because I’m not terribly impressed with the translation so I am finding the book to be a bit of a chore.

The title refers to one of the main characters, Lisbeth Salander, a young woman who is a troubled anti-social misfit and sports a tattoo of a dragon on her left shoulder blade.

In Eastern mythology, dragons represent wisdom, power, nobility, divinity, and benevolence.  In Western cultures, however, dragons are usually depicted as being rather ill disposed, symbolizing evil. Interestingly, the word “dragon” comes from the Greek word, drakon, formed from the verb drak which means “to see clearly.”

In any case, the title of this book reminds me of the story in the Lotus Sutra about the Naga Princess, also known as the Dragon King’s Daughter. Not that there are any strong parallels, although there could be, but I’m not that far along with it.

The Sanskrit word “naga” actually refers to the King Cobra snake, but the Chinese translated it as dragon. In Buddhism, the Nagas are supernatural beings who live on Mount Semuru and in the depths of the ocean. It was from the underwater Naga Kings that Nagarjuna (“dragon-tree”) is said to have received the Mahayana sutras.

The story of the Dragon King’s Daughter is the lone example in Buddhist literature of a mortal being becoming a Buddha, with the notable exception of the Buddha himself. It’s meant to convey the universality of Buddha-nature. And it’s about a woman becoming a Buddha, which is significant not only for the statement it makes but also because it came out of a patriarchal culture that tended to view women as inferior.

Here is an abbreviated version of the story:

There was once a daughter of Sagara (“Ocean”), one of the great Dragon Kings who lived at the bottom of the sea. When the Buddha was teaching the Lotus Stura on Vulture Peak, Bodhisattva Chishaku stood up and said, ‘It took eons of practicing austerities and accumulating wisdom for even our own Shakyamuni Buddha to realize awakening. Is it possible for anyone to quickly attain Buddhahood?’

To this Manjusri Bodhisattva said, ‘With the Awakened One’s permission, let me tell you about the Dragon King’s daughter. She is just eight years old, highly intelligent, and well-versed in Buddha-dharma. In just a single moment, just one instant of time, after having generated the thought of awakening, she entered into meditation and became a Buddha.’

Bodhisattva Chishaku replied, ‘There is not even a spot as small as a poppy-seed in this universe where the Bodhisattva has not made efforts for the sake of all living beings and only after such efforts was he able to realize awakening. I find it hard to believe that a mere girl could become a Buddha so quickly.’

It was at that moment when the Dragon King’s daughter arrived and Shariputra asked her, “The Buddha Path is long; I too, have difficulty understanding how you could so speedily become a buddha.’

The Dragon King’s daughter turned, bowed to the Buddha and offered him a precious jewel. When he immediately accepted this gift, she said to Shariputra, “Did you see how quickly the Buddha took the jewel I offered. Was this action speedy?

All agreed that was most speedy. Then she replied, “Now, watch as I become a buddha even more quickly than that!”

And in a flash, she completed all the bodhisattva practices and sitting down upon a thousand-pedaled lotus, became a buddha.

At this, all in the assembly made reverent salutation, silently believing.

There is a part of the story I left out, about how it was necessary for the Dragon King’s daughter to change into the form of a man before becoming a Buddha. Diana Y. Purl, in Women in Buddhism: images of the feminine in Mahayana tradition, says that “[The] transformation of sex from female to male is a prerequisite for the Naga princess’ entrance to the path of Bodhisattvahood, presumably at the irreversible stage (because of the five kinds of status excluding females).” I think she is referring to “The Five Obstacles” which state a woman cannot become a Brahma, a Sakra god, a devil (Mara) king, a wheel-turning king, or a Buddha.

I left it out because it’s not important. It’s a piece from the past we can let drop off. It doesn’t change the prime point regarding the universal buddha nature. It certainly didn’t stop the women of Heian Japan, where the Lotus Sutra was extremely popular, from embracing the story’s message. During that period, women were barred from entering most temples and it was thought that they could never escape the realm of enlightened existence.

Yet, there were some who contested this. In Songs to make the dust dance: the Ryojin hisho of twelfth-century Japan, Yung-Hee Kim presents a number of homon uta (songs of Buddhist sutras) based on the story of the Dragon King’s daughter. One in particular he says “challenges the Buddhist theories and prejudices against women by insisting that women do posses an inborn buddha nature”:

If the Dragon King’s daughter became buddha,
why can’t we, too, somehow?
A thick cloud, the five obstacles, yes
but buddha nature shines through like the moon.

It does, indeed.

By the way, the jewel given to the Buddha by the Naga princess represents her precious life.