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Anatomy of a Ḍākinī: Female Consort Discourse in a Case of Fourteenth-Century Tibetan Buddhist Literature

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In the wake of the brave voices of the #metoo movement, Buddhist responses to sexual abuse have led to important questions about Buddhist sexual ethics and the female consort in Tibetan cultures. One issue raised by current debates is the question of who is an appropriate consort, a discourse that has historical precedent. These debates highlight the gaps left by the understudied history of consorts in Tibetan tantric communities. This research addresses that history through a study of female consort discourse in key scriptures of the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen) from the fourteenth century. The text studied is The Ḍākki’s Path and Fruit (dakki lam ‘bras skor), which is part of a corpus known as The Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī. The scriptures are analyzed in terms of taxonomic discourse, interpreted with attention to structures of knowledge production as described by Foucault. It addresses the discursive transformations that facilitated the inclusion of women in the androcentric world of esoteric Tibetan Buddhism. Overall, the argument is made that this scripture sheds light on how knowledge of women and sexuality was constructed in a web of ever-changing, contradicting, competing discourses that reflect an ambivalent misogyny that simultaneously promoted and subjugated women.

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  1. Gleig and Langenberg (2020)

  2. Ḍākinī is a multivalent term referring to accomplished women, goddesses, spirits, protectors, and more.

  3. Jacoby, Love and Liberation, 189–190.

  4. Germano (1994), Architecture, 206.

  5. There are various enumerations of dates for Pema Ledreltsal; these are sourced from Germano (2000), Possession, 244.

  6. ‘od-zer, snying (2009), 339.

  7. ‘od-zer, snying (2009), 399.

  8. ‘od-zer, snying (2009), 344.

  9. Pollock (2009), Future, 954.

  10. Foucault (1980), Two Lectures, 93.

  11. Kandiyoti, Bargaining, 275.

  12. Quoted in Olsen (2016), Gender, 514.

  13. In the context of Buddhism in India, (1992). See Sponberg, 29, 1992.

  14. Langenberg (2018), Birth, 154.

  15. Langenberg (2018), Birth, 154.

  16. Germano (1994), Architecture, 270.

  17. Germano and Gyatso (2000), Possession 244.

  18. Germano and Gyatso (2000), Possession, 245.

  19. Germano and Gyatso (2000), Possession, 248, dates for Longchenpa are listed variantly elsewhere.

  20. There are numerous editions extant today which also include: sde-dge, a-‘dzom, rdzogs-chen shri-seng par-khang, bla-rung, and numerous digital versions.

  21. Foucault (2002), Order, 128–129.

  22. Foucault (2002), Order, 130.

  23. Gyatso (1998), Apparitions, 263.

  24. See Gyatso (1998), White (2003), Hatley (2016)

  25. Gyatso (1998), Apparitions, 305.

  26. Gray, Cakrasamvara, 84; White, Ḍākinī, 22.

  27. Gyatso (1998), Apparitions, 246.

  28. Hatley, Converting, 4-5.

  29. Gyatso (1998), Apparitions, 246.

  30. Gray, Cakrasamvara, 86.

  31. ‘od zer, snying, 369.

  32. Gayley, Revisiting, 2018.

  33. Kay (1971), Taxonomy, 868.

  34. Foucault (2002), Order, 81–82.

  35. Kay (1971), Taxonomy, 867.

  36. Kendig and Witteveen (2020), History, 40.

  37. See Zubin and Kopcke (1986), Taxonomy, 152.

  38. See Chonam, Guhyagharbha (2011), 469–473.

  39. Rab ‘byams, theg (1999), 298–305.

  40. Lopez et al. (2018), Passion, 10–12. In addition to the shared categories of lotus, conch, and elephant, this source also includes a typology of four types of males. See Vogel (1965) for another example with a typology of males.

  41. Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle adds a cow type and an ox type, whereas Longchenpa’s commentary to the Guhyagarbha lists six types: lotus, conch, patterned, deer, elephant and variegated. Rab ‘byams, theg (1999), 470–471.

  42. Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle posits an alternate classification of demon girls, god girls, naga girls, priestly girls, and the Indra girls.

  43. See Hatley, Converting, 10.

  44. Davidson, Indian (2003), 324.

  45. Gray, Cakrasamvara, 88.

  46. White, Ḍākinī, paragraph 8, 16.

  47. Gray, Cakrasamvara, 90.

  48. Gray, Cakrasamvara, 90–91.

  49. This could be interpreted as one who was previously a local guardian and reincarnated as a human.

  50. ‘od-zer, snying, 214.

  51. Cabezón (2017), Sexuality, chapter 5, paragraph 65.

  52. Powers (2009), Bull, 236 also notes hidden ankles in buddhas’ characteristics.

  53. Foucault (2002), Order, 174.

  54. Kendig and Witteveen (2020), History, 1–2.

  55. Vogel, Surūpa 18–21. The male types are classified as hare, bull man, horse man, and deer man.

  56. ‘od-zer, snying, 407.

  57. “Sex channel” is described in ancillary texts as something that protrudes and emerges from the genitals of female consorts and emits a red light sphere (thig le). This is an anatomical feature connected to tantric sexual techniques; the details of which are beyond the scope of this article. For a description, see Rab ‘byams, theg (1999), 300. The sex channel’s importance is definitive in another classification of consorts in the corpus that classifies consorts by the fitness of this channel. ‘od-zer, snying, 415–419.

  58. ‘od-zer, snying, 412; 413.

  59. ‘od-zer, snying, 412.

  60. Gyatso, One, 97.

  61. Cabezón (2017),  Sexuality, chapter 6, paragraph 68

  62. ‘od-zer, snying, 105.

  63. Foucault (2002), Order, 148.

  64. Foucault (2002), Order, 144, 146.

  65. mthong ba tsam gyis grib ‘byung. ‘od-zer, snying, 413.

  66. de dang ‘phrad na dngos grub zad/tse ‘phos mnar med dmyal bar ‘khrid. ‘od zer, snying, 413.

  67. de dang ‘phrad na dngos grub zad/tse la bar chad myur du ‘byung/od zer, snying, 413.

  68. reg-pa tsam gyis bde ba skye. ‘od zer, snying, 410.

  69. Foucault (1978), History, 71.

  70. Powers (2009), Bull, 9.

  71. Foucault (2002), Order 24–25.

  72. Foucault (2002), Order, 152.

  73. The Guyhagarbha represents Nyingma interpretation of Buddhist tantric MahāYoga scriptures.

  74. Chonam, Guhyagarbha (2011), 470–471.

  75. Wilson (1996), Charming, 17.

  76. Foucault (2002), Order, 27.

  77. Foucault (1978), History 26.

  78. ‘od zer, snying, 408.

  79. Loss of accumulated positive karma

  80. ‘od zer, snying, 411.

  81. nor dang longs sbyod snyan pa yang/de dag brten tsam gyis yang. ‘od zer, snying, 413

  82. See Changchub and Nyingpo (2002), Lady, xxxii.

  83. Gray, Cakrasamvara, 103, discusses the search for outcaste consorts in Buddhist India’s yoginī Tantra literature.

  84. Gayley, Revisiting, 6–8.

  85. Foucault (2002), Order, 150.

  86. Martin, Lay, 35.

  87. Germano, Possession, 241; Germano, David (2018). “Rise of the lotus, hidden treasures and Tantric sexuality in 14th century Tibet.” Lecture, University of Virginia. 12 Dec 2018.

  88. See Germano and Gyatso (2000), Possession, 244.

  89. For example, a familiar trope in tantric descriptions of religious sexuality, in which the consort is shared by both master and disciple as described in Davidson, Indian (2003), 198–199, 204, 222.

  90. Cabezón, Sexuality, chapter 5, paragraph 79.

  91. Asanga quoted in Cabezón, Sexuality, paragraph 82.

  92. ‘od-zer, snying, 364.

  93. khyed bud med las ngan pas mos gus byi pho la byed. ‘od zer, snying, 363.

  94. ‘od-zer, snying, 364.

  95. ‘od-zer, snying, 410.

  96. A point brought to my attention by Germano in 2017.

  97. Kandiyoti, Bargaining, 275.

  98. Foucault (1978), History, 101.

  99. Jacoby, Love and Liberation, 201.

  100. Jacoby, Love and Liberation, 230.

  101. Cabezón (2017), Sexuality, chapter five, paragraph 102.


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Conversations David Germano, Devin Zuckerman, Chris Hiebert, Amy Langenberg, Ann Gleig, Kurtis Schaeffer, Janet Spittler, Steven Weinberger, and Chuck Matthews were significantly conducive in shaping my approach to this subject.

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This research was conducted under support of the Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship.

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Correspondence to Kali Cape.

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Cape, K. Anatomy of a Ḍākinī: Female Consort Discourse in a Case of Fourteenth-Century Tibetan Buddhist Literature. DHARM 3, 349–371 (2020).

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