‘Goddesses of Ecstasy’ (1999)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

5 minutes

The May/June 1999 issue of Common Boundary included an article by Jean Latz Griffin about the work of Miranda Shaw, author of Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism (1994) and Buddhist Goddesses of India (2006). Shaw was one of the presenters during the second Buddhism in America Conference in 1998, where she focused on Tantric Buddhism, as an ‘alternative and often controversial challenge to the monastic, heady Buddhism of India.’

About the role of women in tantra, Griffin wrote:

“Tantric Buddhism, with its erotic goddesses, its openness to people from all walks of life, and its teaching that sexual intimacy can be a path toward enlightenment, has long been considered the naughty stepchild of Buddhism. To Western eyes, it has looked like an excuse for male spiritual teachers to coerce women students into having sex. The Victorian British who came to colonize India found the images of men and women meditating and reaching enlightenment while clearly engaging in sexual intercourse to be jarring, to say the least. Practitioners of the more cerebral forms of Buddhism weren’t comfortable with a spirituality that ritualized sexuality. The scholars who wrote about the sexual rituals of Tantric Buddhism portrayed the women as strumpets—necessary partners to the men for sexual union—but with no value in their own right, and certainly with no spiritual attainment.

Over time, a negative interpretation of Tantric Buddhism emerged, and much of its spirituality was lost except in the villages where it is still practiced. In the West, the Tantric branch of Tibetan Buddhism was relegated to the level of self-help sex technique books.

But Shaw, who received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1992 and is now an associate professor in religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia, never bought that interpretation. From the time she saw a Tibetan art exhibit while studying for her degree in art history at Ohio State University, she was captivated by the Tantric goddesses. She remembers thinking of them as ‘women leaping and flying, clothed only in their hair, looking passionate and ecstatic and free.’ Finding those goddesses and telling their stories fit into her search ‘for a tradition in which being female was not seen asa liability.’

‘I was compelled to discover what insights lay behind these images. I would look at the goddesses and their eyes would grip me and hold me,’ Shaw said. ‘Look for us,’ they would command. ‘Look for us and you will find us.’

Shaw’s conclusion based on what she has found about those goddesses is that women are, and have always been, the queens rather than the pawns in Tantric Buddhism.

The Tantric goddesses alternately reflected and inspired a religion in which the role of the woman was to recognize her own divinity and the role of the man was to worship that divinity in her. In the living Tantric tradition, these goddesses are worshipped and embodied. Women pass on the goddesses’ teachings, healings, and blessings to other women and to men all across India, Tibet, and Nepal.

The ritual sexual activity, rather than being coercive or a means of oppression, involves spiritual partners, or consorts, who become experts at yoga and meditation and understand the Buddhist concept of emptiness. When they mutually agree to engage in union in a deep meditative state, they can achieve enlightenment.

Shaw says for this to take place, both the man and woman must be proficient enough at yoga to draw what is called ‘the wind’ into the central channel of their bodies. The wind, according to Indian yogic teachings, is a subtle energy that flows in the body and carries a person’s thoughts and energy. It is rare for this stream of energy to enter the central channel, which runs vertically along the spine to the crown of the head. However, when both partners are able to gather this energy at one point in their bodies, bring it into their central channels, and then combine it in a sexual union, ‘all the energy that supports dualistic thought is withdrawn and the mind can experience nondual states of awareness,’ Shaw said.

This view of sexual enlightenment is a sharp departure from previous interpretations, which in some cases taught that the images of meditative sexual union didn’t represent real men and women, but different aspects of the male psyche. That, Shaw says, is an example of falsely contorting the obvious to downplay the role of women in this form of spirituality.

Tantric Buddhism, Shaw said, came from a merger of women’s earth-based religions and Buddhism sometime in the seventh century in India. The early Indian women’s religions have a great deal in common with European Wicca.

‘Both Wicca and Tantric Buddhism teach that the spirit and matter are intertwined,’ Shaw said. ‘The divine can be manifest through the body, heart, and mind. You don’t have to leave or escape the world to discover spirituality. You don’t have to repress emotions, physical desires, and instincts. If you follow them to their source, their root, you will find spiritual knowledge and power.’

Looking at the contemporary world, Shaw can see both a benefit and a danger in a renewed interest in Tantric Buddhism. If understood and practiced properly, it can be a safeguard against sexual abuse of students by spiritual teachers. ‘The power to choose a consort or spiritual companion rests in the hands of the woman,’ Shaw said. ‘The man is not even allowed to ask. All he can do is make known his availability and convince her of his worthiness. And the union must be mutual and voluntary.’

But some unethical spiritual teachers, Shaw said, ‘have sexually abused their students and have tried to hide behind a vague sense that Tantric Buddhism involves sexual activity. One of the goals of my work is to clarify that misconception so teachers who abuse students cannot hide behind Tantric Buddhism. I have talked to women who have been abused, and as they describe the relationship, there is nothing Tantric about it.’

Shaw eschews labels, declining to give her age, marital status or to tie herself down to a specific religion, although she says that ‘the two traditions that inspire me most directly right now are Buddhism and goddess worship.’

Shaw’s 1994 book, Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism, won the Breasted Prize for Asian history from the American Historical Association and the Tricycle prize for Buddhist Scholarship in 1994. Her next book, Buddhist Goddesses of India, Tibet and Nepal, is due to be published this year.

‘I think Miranda’s work is very lively and inspiring and fun,’ said Yvonne Rand, one of the senior members of the San Francisco Zen Center in its early days and now a meditation teacher at the Redwood Creek Temple in Muir Beach, California. ‘She brings a delight and joy to her scholarly work that I appreciate. | think her proposition that women historically held a very significant role in development of Tantric practices is valid. It feels right to me as a Buddhist practitioner.’

Raised in Ohio in a university community, Shaw became interested in Eastern religions when a family friend gave her copies of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads when she was in junior high school. ‘I felt a great resonance with those philosophies,’ Shaw said. ‘It was what I already believed, but did not have the words to express. It was like a homecoming.’

That laid the groundwork for the search that has taken up most of her adult life, starting with her wonder at the Tantric paintings of dakinis, whom she calls ‘naked, dancing, ecstatic and ferociously intense female enlighteners.’ At 22, Shaw realized that the knowledge she sought was ‘deeper than what could be found in books of art history,’ when she dreamed she was staring at an image of a goddess with the head of a wild sow and the body of a woman.

‘I kept asking, “Who are you?”‘ she recalls. ‘As I stared at the picture, the body melted away and the picture became a mirror. I was gazing at my reflection and heard a voice say, “I am you.”‘ (pp. 14-17.)

Griffin - Goddes of Ecstasy (Common Boundary May-June 1999 pp. 13-17) REDUX-BW

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.