Women and Sexuality in Dzogchen (rdzogs chen); A Study of the Seminal Heart of the Dakini (mkha' 'gro snying thig)

Cape, Kali Nyima, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Germano, David, AS-Religious Studies (RELI), University of Virginia
Schaeffer, Kurtis, AS-Religious Studies (RELI), University of Virginia
Braun, Erik, AS-Religious Studies (RELI), University of Virginia
Kinney, Anne, AS-East Asian Language Literature and Cultures (EALC), University of Virginia
Klein, Anne, Religious Studies, Rice University
Kachru, Sonam, Religious Studies, Yale

One of Tibet’s own most distinctive contributions to Buddhist philosophy, the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen) has been largely left out of conversations on gender in Buddhist Studies. Germano (1994) has argued that classical Great Perfection represented novel post-tantric reinterpretations of key elements of Buddhist philosophy and praxis, producing an extensive body of literary masterpieces that constituted an indigenous Tibetan reinvention of Buddhist tantra. However, how these innovations extended to topics of gender and sexuality is a question yet to be answered. The history of women and gender in Great Perfection has yet to be studied, leaving a gap in understanding of how the most influential post-tantric movement in Tibet factors in the history of Buddhist women. Significant questions loom such as what are post-tantric views of women? What were roles for women in Great Perfections communities who subsisted outside all-male monastic learning centers? How did this differ from or overlap with normative tantric formulations of women’s roles? Therefore, this research addresses that missing history by analyzing scriptures of pivotal importance to Tibetan Great Perfection, known as Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī, one of the major scriptures that shaped the Seminal Heart (snying thig) genre, the genre that came to define Great Perfection in Tibet.

This research presents the most detailed study of the Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī to date. It begins, in the first chapter, “Buddhist Sexualities,” This chapter introduces the Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī and its origin narratives, which came to be centered around the role of consorts. This is contextualized through a historical overview that offers an examination of the major tropes of Buddhist sexualities from early Indian Buddhist monastic legal literature up to the celebration of religious sexuality in fourteenth century Tibetan Great Perfection. The second chapter, “Anatomy of a Ḍākinī,” contributes an analysis of the genre of Buddhist taxonomy, and an examination of the Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī’s innovative taxonomy of consorts to demonstrate how this literature transformed tantric discourses about Buddhist women to facilitate women’s inclusion through managing concerns about the dangers of sexual relationships, illustrating a disctinctive perspective of post-tantric literature. The third chapter, “Human Women and the 21 Disciples of Pema Ledreltsal,” analyzes the taxonomy of female disciples and argues that taxonomy is an inductive framework. It shows that female disciples of Great Perfection were considered capable of realizing buddhahood in one lifetime in female bodies, a departure from previous Buddhist discourses. They were also considered capable of conferring buddhahood as well, a capacity tied to their role as sexual partners. The fourth chapter, “Interview with a Ḍākinī,” documents female figures in the lineal successions and the instructions given to the ideal consort, Yeshe Tsogyal. It documents evidence of additional rules for female consorts. The fifth chapter, “When Ultimate Reality is a Woman,” analyzes female cosmogenesis both as gnosis and in terms of the female figures in the buddha couple, yab yum symbol. It shows that ideas about how to treat women were framed within the link between female ontology and female adepts in the ritual literature. The sixth chapter, “Reflections on Misogyny and Mimesis,” addresses the contemporary context of interpretations of consort literature in light of Buddhist #metoo revelations, analyzes questions about misogyny and violence in the scripture, and demonstrates that the literature both promoted and subordinated women.

I argue that inclusion of women in this literature was facilitated by theories about women’s sexuality. However, beyond brief statements against violence towards women, the texts in this scripture do not focus on the analysis of sexual ethics. Sexuality in these texts was instead constructed through multiple discourses, of which ethics is just one facet. This omission left a gap, which through the lens of aesthetics, may be understood as being explored through a mimesis which subsequently (and dangerously) accommodates a wide range of ethical interpretations. Yet, it is mimesis that allowed the scripture to transform pre-existing discourses about Buddhist women, repositioning them, expanding them, and repurposing them in ways that facilitated women’s inclusion and advancement in unprecedented ways.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Buddhism, Women, Gender Studies, Buddhist Women, Buddhist Sexuality, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibet, Tibetan Women, Consort, Dakini, Dzogchen, rdzogs chen, Buddhist Studies, Taxonomy, snying thig
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