A Monk and a Goddess Exchange Bodies: Gender Fluidity in Early Buddhism (article)

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„For example, when Shariputra says to her, “Is not liberation the freedom from desire?” She replies, “For the truly liberated, the very nature of desire is itself liberation.” Shariputra is befuddled by this statement.“

Always fascinating to find in such classic sutric canons hints of dzogchen-teachings.
For the truly liberated (i.e. those who have experientially realized understanding of the emptiness of phenomena) the nature of desire (i.e. the energetic expression of emptiness) is itself liberation (i.e. realization that phenomena self-liberate into their empty nature).

On another note to the actual subject of the article: as is commonly known, method is associated with the extrovert, male energy and wisdom with the introvert female energy. Like a bird needing two wings to fly, both method and wisdom is needed.

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Love this, Barry! Thanks for posting

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I don’t see the value in associating extroversion or method with “male energy” and introversion or wisdom with “female energy.” Such qualities are not equivalent to or limited to “male/female.”

Why is there such a strong tendency to gender everything? It’s possible to talk about extroversion, method, introversion, wisdom, and other concepts without associating them with “male” and “female.”

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@ArthurG That is the classical buddhist way of describing the qualities of method (or skillful means) and of wisdom.
In every being both qualities are present but not necessarily equally balanced or developed.
Wisdom for example is traditionally said to arise from introspection which has a passive quality. In introspective meditations like shamata and vipashyana it is vital to view the object of meditation without controlling or modifying it and without preferences. This takes a quiescent, vivid and passive state of mind. Insight and wisdom can only arise if mind“s tendency to actively project upon mental objects and to clutter mind space is relaxed.
I see personally no issue with buddhists associating these qualities traditionally with female.

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How very male of you! :wink:

“Female” and “male” are biological designations. Calling qualities “male” or “female” when they are not exclusive to “male humans” and “female humans” is a category error and doesn’t do individuals or groups of people any favors. But then, Buddhism has a lot of sexism in it (both traditionally and currently), so it’s not surprising that this way of talking about qualities is common.

During my years as a Buddhist teacher, I taught this story of Shariputra and the goddess frequently, and I expand on it in more detail in my book, E very B reath, New Chances . I like the story for several reasons. First of all, its manner of telling is lighthearted, and humor is all too rare in religious texts. Also, the second-class status of women in Buddhism is not an ancient relic; it still exists in Buddhism today, even in Western countries where one would think an egalitarian sensibility might prevail. I have known many talented women teachers of Buddhism here in the U.S. who have struggled to hold their place in a scene dominated by men. And lastly, the goddess in the story is truly powerful; her understanding is profound and she prevails over a high-status man. [ A Monk and a Goddess Exchange Bodies: Gender Fluidity in Early Buddhism]

Thanks, Barry, this is an interesting article. I decided to search for other interesting Buddhist commentary on this topic and found another great article, 5 Things Buddhism Contributes To Our Understanding Of Gender And Sexuality by Lee-Anne Gray, which starts out:

“It’s all drag really.” – Jay Michaelson, 2014

According to the late Buddhist teacher, Rita Gross, gender is not fixed. Realizing this fluidity, and the non-binary nature, leads to freedom of expression and relief from suffering (Gray, 2016.) Gross applied the concept of impermanence to gender and helped us see the ways it is not fixed, and may be rather different than the male/female label applied by examining genitals.

Annata is the state of self that is always changing. From one moment to the next, so much change arises and subsides in the mind, body, and soul. By noticing this ever-changing aspect of our being, we can see how one’s gender and sexuality may also change.

It’s an excellent article, a good complement to the article you posted, and speaks to my current understanding of gender as very complex, ambiguous, fluid, changing etc. – and not at all the same thing as physical form. A lot of people say “gender” when they actually mean “sex” (e.g. “gender-reveal parties”) or mash the two concepts together.

Glenn Mullin goes into a little male/female riff at around the 0:55 mark of the video that I posted earlier. He speaks of various tantric practices such as the Chakrasamvara or Hevajra tantras where men will envision themselves as female deities and vice versa at times.

He goes into pretty good detail about why the differences are actually important if one is to achieve a healthy male/female balance within.

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@ArthurG
I respect your opinion.
I think traditional buddhist language of positively connotated qualities of both “male” and “female” energies is very far from sexism.
In many buddhist practices female and male energies are united by the individual practicioner (e.g. Tummo or Phowa) regardless if the practicioner is male or female.
Male or female is just a name, of course, but to deny that there are distinct energies or qualities which can be experienced and worked with, would be to close one’s eyes to what is there. This is the experience of many buddhists and non-buddhists, yoga practicioners, etc., people who work with their energy bodies.

The patriarchic structures of many societes in which buddhism happens to be the dominant religion, are of course sexist, no doubt. That is sadly the case in many other non-buddhist societies as well.
If such structures are found, one has to speak up against them.

Nevertheless, in not a single teaching or canon text or in any other action of the many lamas I have come in contact with was any sexism.
So, to link sexism to buddhism as a religion/philosophy seems to be a tall order to me.

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Of course there are distinct “qualities which can be experienced and worked with,” I just don’t think it is helpful or accurate to identify them with “male” or female." If you think it’s important or inconsequential to so identify them, then I reckon that’s the way you should talk/write about it.

From the original article at the top of this thread: “Some ancient Buddhist sects held that in order to be fully enlightened, a woman must first be reborn as a man. This may be partly because Buddhism evolved in a patriarchal society where women were considered inferior to men.”

“If a female Dalai Lama comes, she should be more attractive,” he had told foreign correspondent Rajini Vaidyanathan, who had asked the Dalai Lama to clarify similar comments he’d made in a past interview with the BBC, when he said that a female Dalai Lama would have to be “very, very attractive.” Otherwise, he added, there would be “not much use.” The Dalai Lama first made similar comments in 2015, which received wide backlash at the time.

In the new interview, the Dalai Lama laughed while repeating the sentiment. People prefer to not see a “dead face,” he told Vaidyanathan while twisting his face into a grimace. He also said that she should “spend money on makeup.” (LINK)

Combining historical, textual, ethnographical, and linguistic approaches, the authors of this collection explore and problematize what it means to be a woman in Buddhist contexts. One particularly thorny issue in a discussion of Buddhist feminism is women’s spiritual potential for, and access to, enlightenment. When Mahaprajapati, the Buddha’s foster mother, requested to be ordained and become a nun, the Buddha is said to have denied her request three times. In some sources, when the Buddha eventually concedes—after Ananda’s intervention—he stipulates extra rules for nuns to follow and laments that the demise of his teaching will come sooner now that he has allowed women into the sangha. Male disciples of the Buddha are warned of the danger of women and instructed to meditate on the foulness of the female body, while female disciples are encouraged to contemplate their own mortality. And although enlightenment is said to be devoid of all characteristics and distinctions, gender included, Mahayana sutras commonly depict aspiring female bodhisattvas transforming into a male body before reaching full enlightenment. In the Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Verses , for example, the Buddha praises the goddess of Ganges for her virtues and achievements, then makes the prophecy that when she dies, she will be reborn as a man, traveling from one buddha-land to another until she reaches perfect enlightenment. (LINK)

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Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary, whom Andrew interviewed recently, mentions in her book Sound Medicine that her Guru, Aama, was born a man but became inhabited by a goddess and was now living as a woman. She didn’t go into any details in her book, but I thought that was interesting in light of this discussion.

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That’s fascinating. It would be interesting to know more about that. Just from what you said it sounds like they are a transgender person with spiritual characteristics.

Yes, I do think it makes sense in certain contexts such as Chöd practice, Tummo practice, Tara practice and many similar buddhist tantric practices to talk about feminine energy because of the very specific energetic way these energies are being experienced. In these contexts the practicioner either transforms into the female Dakini or in case of Tummo unites male and female energies.
So, yes, from a phenomenological point of view, it is in these contexts actually absolutely helpful and accurate to talk about feminine energies. My female senior meditation teacher - a feminist by the way - teaches very naturally about feminine energies. Honestly, I really can’t see how this could be “sexist”…
Perhaps an actual first person experience of femine energies in any of these contexts could be interesting to you? For me I can honestly say it is very enriching and brings certain qualities to my practice which were dormant before.

Of the original article there are some views of the author which I don’t agree with and which I interpret totally differently:

Shariputra represents the traditional patriarchal understanding, while the goddess represents an awakened sensibility that is beyond status, logic, rules, and gender.

My understanding is that Shariputra acutally represents the sutric understanding, while the goddess represents the dzogchen view, which is seen as the highest view in buddhism.

So, for me, this is not about some old patriarchic fart being embarassed by “awakened sensibility that is beyond status, logic, rules, and gender” but rather another beautiful anecdote of two distinct seamingly opposing teaching dogmas in budhism.

While a follower of sutra would avoid desire in order to attain liberation, the follower of dzogchen would practice to let desire self-liberate and thus find liberation.
Since this is a common discourse between sutra and dzogchen schools, I seriously wonder how a buddhist teacher such as the author would not at least also mention this classical interpretation?
I wonder how one can primarily see this anecdote of this amazingly deep teaching by the goddess/dakini just as an example of patriarchy?

As I wrote, over the years I have never come in contact with any form of sexism. The teachings are given equally to men and women, no difference is made whatsoever in teachings, rituals etc.
This does of course not mean, that there are no buddhists that would be sexist. Let’s be rather concrete instead of vaguely anecdotal:

So if the author writes " Some ancient Buddhist sects held that in order to be fully enlightened, a woman must first be reborn as a man" then, first of all I would like to know which sects these are, and, if it is true, then it is of course totally inacceptable, sexist and plain stupid.
But to vaguely refer to ancient Buddhist sects as “anecdotal evidence” is too weak proof in my opinion to warrant calling a whole religion/philosophy to be sexist.

I was not present when the Dalai Lama supposedly made these remarks, and yes, if he did, then these comments are sexist. Does this mean that buddhism is sexist?

It is very common that spiritual teachers deny teaching the student three times before taking them as student. This happened also to many male students in the pali canon.

I would be interested in the specific source quoted here and the translation. B.Alan Wallace referred once to exactly this story, where supposedly a very beautiful woman joined the buddhas entourage.
All the male students were infatuated. The woman died at an early point in time and the Buddha instructed the students to go to the charnel grounds to watch the decay of the body of the once so beautiful woman as a teaching for understanding transience of phenomena.

I think one has to carefully examine the sources and translations. When Alan Wallace recaps this story, there was no mention of sexist view of this female student. He usually is quite outspoken on sexism and ignorance…
By the way, contempation on one’s own mortality is standard Ngöndro practice in almost all buddhist schools regardless of gender.

Which lineage is referred to here?
In our lineage there is a whole female line of enlighted female dzogchen masters, having reached enlightenment in one life time having achieved rainbow body.

I am absolutely sure that there are examples of sexism of buddhist males which are absolutely deplorable and totally ignorant. Does this make buddhism sexist?

Since this discussion is also starting to become a bit ideological, I respectfully opt to discontinue my commenting on this thread.

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For me, this is closure.

I inadvertently took this thread in a direction I hadn’t intended, when I opined that “Buddhism has a lot of sexism in it.” For the sake of (non-)argument, forget I said that.

The main point I was trying to make is that “female” and “male” are not synonymous with “feminine” and “masculine.” Generally speaking, “female” refers to someone born with a vagina, and “male” refers to someone born with a penis. What you are referring to as “feminine” energy can and does exist exist in both “male” and “female” people, as you yourself have pointed out. Thus “female energy” does not make sense to me – unless you equate “female” with “feminine,” which would be problematic.*

Previously I used to mash a lot of concepts together, like “sex,” “gender,” “gender identity,” “gender expression,” “sexual attraction” etc. Over time I’ve been disambiguating them, which I consider important because those are very different qualities. That’s the aspect of this topic that I find most interesting and worthwhile – so “gender fluidity in Buddhism” piques my interest.

Sounds great. As noted it went in a direction I’m not interested in pursuing further.

~ArthurG


  • Personally I even find the terms “masculine” and “feminine” somewhat problematic, because people tend to default to equating “masculine” with “male” and “feminine” with “female.” So if you are a woman, for example, people would expect you to act in a certain way, i.e. “feminine.” In integral forums I used to hang out in, I saw examples of women being criticized for being argumentative (“You’re too ‘in your masculine’”) in ways that were apparently just fine for men in the forum. People who took issue with that would then likely be called too green or even, horror of horrors, “not integral.”