Female Deities in Buddhism: A Concise Guide – Vessantara
Windhorse Publications, 2003, 126pp, 1899579532.
Women have an interesting place within Buddhism. You get patriarchal Buddhist cultures (and all that comes with that) that embrace a beautiful diversity of female figures. In this book Vessantara explores the nature and the role of these divine women, specifically focusing on the context of Vajrayana Buddhism, as the gender roles in different forms of Buddhism are as diverse as the rest of their beliefs. He explains why these figures are important to the tradition, as well as why they are important and relevant to practitioners of all sexes and/or genders. Some of his opinions are idealized, Vajrayana Buddhist cultures have that odd mix of sexism/patriarchy and veneration of divine feminine, and Vessantara focuses on the latter, though giving a complete/honest presentation of women in Vajrayana Buddhism would quickly swell into another argument altogether.
The “primary” or most common female figures are discussed -your Taras and Prajnaparamita and Quan-Yin- along with a nice sampling of more uncommon ones, such as my dear Machik Labdrön. The histories of the figures are discussed often from multiple perspectives. You get the history of their practice, when it arose and how it has changed, where they came from. You get the history of the figure’s life, if she was human, or took human form, how that life played out. And you get the mythic history, where she emanated from, what was the cause of her creation and why she is here to help. They’re discussed with their descriptions, their role in the traditions, and practices related to them. It doesn’t include how to perform the practices, that is beyond the scope of the text, but lets you know what practices are associated with whom, and when they share similar practices how they vary.
As is to be expected with any text there are a few issues, most of them are not problematic but there is one I want to call attention to. In the section on Machik Labdrön the text says that Machik was taught chöd by her teacher Padampa Sangye. No early text supports this idea, Machik was the founder of the tradition, and is the only female founder in Vajrayana, attempts to attribute her amazing system to her male teacher seem to be more about reducing the power and prestige of this woman. I might not have felt the need to comment, but chöd is obviously important to me, and I find it unfortunate that in a book that tries to revere the female figures of Buddhism that it supports a patriarchal erasure of the genius of one of Tibet’s greatest female saints. (It’s worth noting while other female figures have specific texts referenced in the Selected Reading section, the book by Machik (supposedly, unlikely) or books about her are lacking)
Each section tends to include some poetry about the different figures too, at first I was put off by Vessantara inserting his own poetry into the text, but I came to appreciate a modern, personal connection and expression of devotion to the female figures of Buddhism. Poetry to the female divinities in Buddhism isn’t uncommon, but translations out of Sanskrit and Tibetan rarely do it justice, so original English poetry does make sense. The book is nothing in-depth, it is a concise guide as it says, but it is enough if you’re looking for an introduction to the figures. Personally I felt the book could have been longer, with a bit more focus on each figure, but will admit unless Vessantara was an expert on some of the figures it would be difficult. If you’re looking for a way into the figures of Buddhism, especially, but not limited to, the female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas then this text will serve that purpose. There is also a selected reading list in the back of the book that if you find any of the figures particularly appealing you can use the reading list to direct your study toward her. The book is barely more than 100 pages, but for what it does and what it’s for it’s a pretty good hundred pages.
(Edit: Since some people may be looking into information on a specific figure I decided I might as well list who is discussed in the text.
Tara: Green, White, Red, Yellow, 21 Taras. Vijaya. Prajnaparamita/Yumchenmo. Vajrayogini, and Vajravarahi. Kurukulla. Machik Labdrön. Yeshe Tsogyal. Simhamukha. Palden Lhamo. Ekajata/Ekajati. Kuan-Yin.)