The Significance of the Feminine Principal as the `Gound of Emptiness’ in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism
Steven Dark (31 March 1995)
The Prajnaparamita or ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ literature comprises thirty-eight books composed in India probably between 100 BCE to CE 600. The text epitomises the great yogic doctrine of the Void, shunyata, upon which the Prajnaparamita is mainly based. This scripture forms a part of the third division of the Tibetan canon of Northern, or Mahayana Buddhism which corresponds to the Abidamma of the Pali canon of Southern or Therevada Buddhism. The Mahayana interpretation of Buddhism presented in the Prajnaparamita avoids the extreme views of nirvana expressed in the Abhidharma. It is a Middle Path, also known as Madhamyika, that rejects claims of either a real existence or illusory existence on the basis that while the mind conceives in terms of a dualistic concept of existence or non-existence it remains in Samsaric bondage. Reality transcends all concepts of duality so the doctrine of the Plenum Void becomes the essential Mahayana doctrine. The formulation of the doctrine of Voidness as expressed in the Canonical Prajnaparamita is a philosophical compromise between the extreme views of superstition or nihilism in favour of a more phenomenological method of enquiry into the nature of Reality . One of the shorter texts of the Prajnaparamita, the Heart Sutra (Hridaya Sutra 54), contains the essence of the doctrine, `a re-statement of the Holy Truths, re-interpreted in the light of the dominant idea of emptiness.’1
The Sutra opens with an invocation, Om namo Bhagavatyai Arya-Prajnaparamita, which translated by Conze2 reads `Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, The Lovely, The Holy!’ Gyatso, on the other hand, states that the Tibetan text of the Essence of Wisdom Sutra opens with the title of the sutra and the homage paid by those who first translated the sutra from Sanskrit.3 The English translation of the Tibetan reads `Perfection of Wisdom : The Blessed Mother.’ The Sanskrit title Bhagavatiprajnaparamitahrdaya, as given by Gyatso, serves the purpose of identifying the text as an authentic teaching of Shakyamuni and not as a later Tibetan composition. The origin of Mahayana doctrines is less certain than Gyatso’s conviction regarding the authorship of the sutra. While the great Mahayana sutras are ostensibly the teachings of the Buddha and his immediate disciples, the style and subtlety of doctrines is of such a contrast to the Pali canon they may be assigned to a later date. In Gyatso’s rendition, the word `Essence’ signifies the brevity of the text as a distillation of the essential meaning of the much larger Wisdom sutras. Conze and Gyatso both translate Prajnaparamita as the Perfection of Wisdom, literally `wisdom gone to the other side’, while Watts’ version, `wisdom for crossing to the other shore,’ does not differ significantly from this.1
The `wisdom which has gone beyond’ is a literal rendering of prajnaparamita, prajna, wisdom; param, beyond; ita, she who has gone.2 This may also be expressed as transcendental wisdom. It is a wisdom that is above and beyond all dharmas, all duality and normal, intellectual, comprehension. In another sense it may also mean the wisdom that carries (the adherent) across, or beyond, to tanscendental realisation.
The epithet Bhagavati Conze renders as `Lovely’ but notes it can also be translated as `Lady’ without further comment while Gyatso justifying his translation from Tibetan as the `Blessed Mother’ notes that although the term normally refers to enlightened beings3 the sutra is titled such because reliance upon its teachings leads to the final state of Buddhahood, thus the cause is named after its effect. The sutra is called `Mother’ since the Perfect Wisdom revealed within it is often called `Mother.’ Emptiness, shunyata, and the mind comprehending emptiness, citta, are referred to as `Mother’ since superior beings are borne by them. Superior beings (Skt. arya) are those who have directly realised emptiness, the Absolute or ultimate nature of reality. The implication is that all superior beings are born from emptiness and the wisdom that realises emptiness.4
`Mother’ functions as a transcendent female symbol of the Void, shunyata, or in Tibetan the great sphere, khong chen. It is a peculiarity of Tantra to personify the dual aspects of the generative forces in nature. The shaktas, or male gods are ascribed personified abstractions of metaphysical theology, a shakti or female aspect.5 Both are frequently displayed locked in sexual embrace. The psychic tension between male and female represents the creative principle in its dual aspect. In this respect the entire Tantric scheme, both in practice and iconography is dominated by a strong sexual element. Every Tantric deity has a shakti or consort though a few are commonly depicted as being without a shakti, for example Manjushri. In some cases the deity may wield a symbolic representation of a shakti. Female deities are not merely mythical figures but visualised symbols. Every aspect of the body is a focus for complex doctrines of Buddhist ontology, epistemology and teleology. The primordial reality or empty nature is of doctrinal and experientially deep significance. The deity symbolises a reality in which both men and women, divine and human, are equally grounded. The apparent dualism of such imagery,6 is resolved, in the single source of emptiness, the Plenum Void or shunyata of the Dharma-Kaya7, ultimately into a monistic philosophy. The Void is synonymous with the Dharma-Kaya and is therefore beyond all mental concepts, beyond the finite mind and the apparent dualism of samsara and nirvana. As Evans-Wentz observes, the doctrine of shunyata underlies the whole of the Prajnaparamita1. The Prajnaparamita, translated as the Mother of the bodhisattvas, is regarded as the personification of the Perfected Wisdom of Yoga, the Divine Shakti (Tib. Dolma) ‘The Saviouress’, the Great Goddess of Mercy’ (Skt. Tara).2
A representative sample of iconography can be drawn from the Great Sphere Heart Essence lineage of the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Nyingma is the oldest of the four main Tibetan orders and the Heart Essence is among the best known of its groups of practices. The Great Bliss Queen Yeshey Tsogyal, a deity appearing in variegated form and name throughout Asia features in ritual of the Heart Essence liturgies. She and other enlightened female figures illustrate elements of female symbolism central to Tibetan Tantric practice in general and current Nyingma practice in particular.
The metaphysical ground synonymous with emptiness is not purely negative in character, it is not a vacuum. Nothingness is a descriptive quality the antithesis of fullness both of which have substantive existence. As the ground of all things it is their source and therefore a womb. However, to infer from this that the Void is the source of origination would be incorrect. The analogy is confusing and misleading. It is perplexing that the `Ground’ of emptiness should be conceived as feminine if it transcends all dualities including femininity and masculinity. It is a conundrum, the key to which may be that as an archetypal womb it has the potential to sustain all things, so that although all in existence (samsara) exists within it and ultimately, upon enlightenment (nirvana) continue to exist within it. The Void is not causal of existence, neither, in the absence of the concept of extinction, is it a returning point, but a state of consciousness without conscious awareness. In most iconographical representations the entrance to the womb is clearly visible.3 The female sexual organ (bhaga/yoni) represents the metaphysical ground, the expanse of reality that is without limit or centre. It is also represented by other symbols, frequently two superimposed equilateral triangles, like a star of David. This symbol is the source of phenomena, the place of generation. Emptiness is the place of generation of all phenomena not because it is abstracted potential but because it is the quality of phenomena that makes it possible for them to be produced, function and cease in subjective terms. It is explicit in the Heart Sutra that objectively there is no origination, continuation or end.
All visualised symbols are understood as embodiments of the empty essence or primordial purity that is considered their true nature. Engagement with these symbols is aimed at realising this reality which is to be recognised as the actual substance of all symbols. In this way reality is classified as feminine indicating a relationship between female deity or imagery and the feminine ground of existence. Any ritual or meditation is unfulfilled, however skilful the visualisation or symbolic interpretation, unless the appearance is experienced as united with its primordial feminine base. All that is associated with the deity is to be seen as the ‘essence’ of emptiness (Skt. shunya or shunyata).
At least the two modes of female symbolism are exhibited in Tibetan religious imagery; the female metaphors occurring in liturgy, which to some extent reflect cultural sex roles and the transcendent female symbols of the great sphere (khong chen) which is emptiness; the present context is a brief outline of three closely related features; female deities; explicitly female body imagery where aspects of the body of the deity symbolise specific philosophical concepts; and the characterisation of the ground of existence as female.
This essence or great sphere is accessible through the flexibility of symbolic structure, varied in nature according to culture, yet identical in form to all persons. In Tibetan Mahayana this essence comprises compassionate wisdom or primordial purity toward which the whole tradition is directed. The Great Bliss Queen can be understood on numerous levels particularly in external, internal and esoteric aspects. External and internal refer primarily to her mythical elements, Sarasvati (Yeshey) Tsogyal and the venerable Lady Tara respectively, while the esoteric concerns her more practical aspect; the level at which contact is made not only with the symbol and its meaning, but also with the primordial purity that is literally considered to be the true content.
Evans-Wentz suggests yoga forms one of the main sources of Tantra, so defines it as a school of ‘eclectic esotericism based fundamentally upon yoga practically applied, both to esoteric Brahmanism and to esoteric (or Mahayana) Buddhism.’1 In this respect Tibetan Buddhism blends the highest Buddhist principles with the esoteric tantric scriptures of the esoteric Hindu schools of mysticism. Tantra expounds an elaborate cosmology describing Adi-Buddha and the emanations from this primordial principle of Dhyani-Buddhas and their Dhyani-Bodhisattvas. It properly belongs, if it is not sui generis, to the Mahayana group yet it is distinguished in its symbolism by the glorification of female embodiments of wisdom (dakini). The feminine principle is essential to the practice and understanding of Tibetan Buddhist symbolism and Tantric practice.
Conze, Edward. (1955), Selected Sayings from The Perfection of Wisdom, Colorado: Prajna Press.
Conze , Edward. (1988), Buddhist Wisdom Books, The Diamond and The Heart Sutra, London: Unwin Hyman Limited.
Evans-Wentz, W. Y. (1957), Tibetan Book of the Dead: or, The after-death experiences on the Bardo Plane, according to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering, London Oxford University Press, 3rd. Ed.
Evans-Wentz, W. Y. (Ed. ) (1967), Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Evans-Wentz, W. Y. (1968), The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, Oxford: Oxford University Press,.
Gyasto, Geshe, Kelsang. (1989), Heart of Wisdom, A commentary to the Heart Sutra, London: Tharpa Publications.
Paul, Diana, Y. (Comp.) (1985), Women in Buddhism. Images of the feminine in Mahayana Tradition. University of California Press.
Watts, Alan. (1957), The Way of Zen, Middlesex: Penguin.
1Edward Conze, (1955), Selected Sayings from The Perfection of Wisdom, Colorado: Prajna Press, p14.
2Conze (1988), Buddhist Wisdom Books, The Diamond and The Heart Sutra, London: Unwin Hyman Limited, p99.
3Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (1989), Heart of Wisdom, A commentary to the Heart Sutra, London: Tharpa Publications, p3.
1Alan Watts (1957), The Way of Zen, Middlesex: Penguin, p82.
2Conze, op. cit. p100.
3The masculine form Bhagavatam is usually translated as Lord.
4Gyatso op. cit. p6.
5Explored quite fully by Arthur Avalon, the pseudonym of the late Sir John Woodroffe, himself a Tantric initiate and arguably the foremost authority in the West on Tantricism.
6Evans-Wentz, Tibetan Book of the Dead, p121,n4.
7The Dharma-Kaya is the highest of the Three Bodies of the Trikaya doctrine, the other two being the Sambhoga-Kaya, ‘Divine Body of Perfect Endowment’ and the Nirmana-Kaya or ‘Divine Body of Incarnation.’
1W. Y. Evans-Wentz (Ed. ) (1967), Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2Evans-Wentz op. cit. p352.
3Reminiscent of the Celtic/pagan Sheila-na-gig found on many church carvings.
1Evans-Wentz (1968), The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p58.