by Dan Green
Back in 2015, the most likely well known robed figure on the planet declared that he might reincarnate for the first time as a woman, and if he did so she would have to be an attractive one! This remark from HH the Dalai Lama caused quite a stir with accusations of ‘sexism’ placed his way. Knowing what I do of this figure, I felt it was more of a tongue in cheek remark coming from this global personality well known for his humour, mingled with a knowing and acknowledgement that being attractive as opposed to not, is a big plus in our commercial world of vanity and certainly gains you more attention as, unfortunately and unfairly, any job interview will demonstrate that.
The Dalai Lama as a child underwent strenuous training for his role, a function that at the time and as a very young person he perhaps had little understanding of what he was and where it would take him. His tutors were all male lamas as was the way in Tibet’s Buddhist Patriarchal system. Originally named Lhamo Thondup, which ironically literally means ‘Wish Fulfilling Goddess’, soon after he was recognized as the 14th Dalai Lama he was removed from the arms of his mother and from here on there was little imminent chance that this boy king would see much if any equality regarding the female gender. It might be easier to say that he would be being groomed to be sexist, a concept that would probably be meaningless to an innocent child so young.
Pic 1: The Dalai Lama aged 4
Today, starting in India, the 84 year old Tibetan leader to his credit constantly promotes equality for women all over the world. My own thoughts on this are that as he matured, and perhaps more so in elder years, he has realized the imbalance in opportunity for women world wide and has rallied against those earlier sexist teachings he had imposed on him – no fault of his own – to implore that balance and equal rights are restored, better late than never. This brings us to the present where he has on more than one occasion intimated that he may reincarnate as a woman.
To be fair, it is not Buddhism alone that is presided over Patriarchism as can be found when one makes a study of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikkhism, and Jainism. It’s quite amazing that we ever decided that this planet was female! However, because of the importance of our most celebrate robed figure and therefore Tibetan Buddhism, I will take a look at what appears to be quite a misogynist stance.
Pic 2: Rarity – female lama Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche
Tibetan lamas have a far greater precedence over monks, many of the latter having being sent by their families in the first instance for the purpose of assuaging financial difficulty within the household. It is not always the case that the boy child is interested in wanting to be a monk, or even when he is, tries hard at being it. What is a lama? Don’t we always conjure up a picture of a serene, wise and usually celibate male? (Although Tibetan lamas can marry) Let us start by looking at the meaning of the word, for it contains an etymological inconsistency. Given to those who have been identified as a reincarnation or gained through meritorious years of meditation, the syllable ‘La’ carries the meaning of ‘superior’, alternative meanings being that of ‘life’ and ‘soul’. However, the second syllable ‘ma’ is singularly to mean ‘Mother’. All in all, the word lama appears to mean ‘soul mother’, the highest form of motherhood. And yet this is a designation handed down to a male? Maybe the Dalai Lama should be a woman now! Wouldn’t it be more appropriate and accurate for the term to be ‘Lapa’ as ‘pa’ is Tibetan for male?
Pic 3; Dalai lama with lay nuns, Dudjom Nunnery, Ladakh 2017
Now, let us look at the tulku’s of Tibet, a system of divine succession by reincarnation and a guaranteed position of power in all aspects of their life – social and political, spiritual and esoteric (as lamas claim to have spiritual superiority over others) which traditionally came into play in 1205. A tulku is generally recognized by other lamas after a search based on information obtained by esoteric means. Once discovered, they are taken from the female influence of their mother to monasteries to be trained up. In this respect, a tulku gives the impression of being a self-born male without need for a mother’s attention, other than the ‘soul mother’ of fellow lamas. Surely this disregard for the female is the earliest dawning of sexism for the young child who will become a fully fledged man? The tulku system clearly has its dependency and expectation on female exclusivity and the metaphorical notion of male motherhood. When I was younger and far more impressionable I saw this system simply as a welcome confirmation for reincarnation, and did not see the bigger picture.
Pic 4: Hindu Tantra temple carvings, Khajuraho, India
Next, we move into the arena of Tantra and its aspect of sexual ritual designed, if practiced correctly, for long life and enlightenment. Originally, its promised intent was through the union of opposites, duality and all its manifestations could be transcended leading to a cessation of rebirth. Tantra has its roots in ancient Hindu where the prime figure was centralized on female energy and female priests carried out transmission of its teaching, with passivity donated from the male. Like so many other religions in the world, the importance and leadership of the female and female priests has either been stamped out or furtively eroded away from historical record as if it never happened, replacing it with male superiority and authority. Back in Tibet things took a radically different approach to that of ancient India with a one sided approach where male subjectivity was promoted through its patriarchal tulku system and gender equality not offered, thus an act of Tantric degeneration from its original concept was born. An in depth look into this accusation can be found in June Campbell’s daring 1996 book ‘Traveller In Space – Gender, identity and Tibetan Buddhism’.
Pic 5: Tibetan lay nuns fight for their equality 2019
What did this role reversal leave a female involved in the tantric act of a sexual union? Powerless through passivity and submission? A mere receptacle and necessary ingredient? Whilst the lama (often a recognised celibate but this sexual activity would have to be a sworn secret) would be well on his way to an upgraded state of consciousness, the woman, at best, would be left having to be grateful for this union with such a saintly being. How can this not be a sexist attitude? Clearly, these two areas of the dominant male in Tibetan society through the tulku system and the role reversal in the tantric sexual act, outline a sexism one wouldn’t expect from a way of life, Buddhism, that emphasis balance and equality. In Tibet, fully ordained nuns are not allowed and any newly ordained Tibetan monk instantly receives more respect than a lay nun who has held her position for years. For a more expansive exploration insight into this situation, I highly recommend ‘The Saffron Road – A journey with Buddha’s Daughters’ by Christine Toomey.
Pic 6; Beru Kyhentze Rinpoche – controversial statement or not?
And so, why is it that human beings always make excuses for what they do and for what they don’t do? Now, if one were looking for a ‘get out’ clause or explanation for the sexism shown by some lamas upon whom better behavioural conduct might be expected – especially at a time when there are more and more exposures of their suspect sexual behaviour and impropriety being reported in the world wide media – then you may like to find it here in what some will see as a controversial offering made by lama Beru Kyhentze Rinpoche; ‘ If your Guru acts in a seemingly unenlightened manner and you feel it would be hypocritical to think of him as a Buddha, you should remember that your own opinions are unreliable and the apparent faults you see may only be a reflection of your own deluded state of mind. Also you should think that if your Guru acted in a completely perfect manner, he would be inaccessible and you would be unable to relate to him. It is therefore out of your Guru’s great compassion that he may show apparent flaws. This is part of his use of skilful means in order for him to be able to teach you. He is mirroring your own faults.’
Pic 7: Guru Rinpoche 7 line prayer – 100,000 required
I made an observation having completed the seven line prayer to Guru Rinpoche – the lotus born Padmasambhava – the required 100,000 times. Having first sat with a lama to ensure that I would be pronouncing the 7 lines both adequate and accurately enough given the difficulties in translation, and breaking it all down into English phonetic spelling, from the opening two lines of which the Tibetan reads ‘HUNG URGYEN YUL GYI NUB JANG TSAM, PEMA GESAR DONG PO LA’, my version became ‘Hung Ojeen Yulljin Nubsung Salm, Pema Gaysarra Dong Polar’. Apart from marveling at the universality of such things with the interesting fragment ‘…sung Salm’ reminding me of the singing of a sacred song or hymn (a psalm), I first noticed the word ‘Gene’ contained within ‘Ojeen’, with ‘Hung Ojeen’ being very close sounding to the word ‘homogenous’, meaning of the same kind of nature. Also, ‘Gay’ within ‘Gaysarra’, ‘Dong’, and ‘Polar’. A gene, of course, is the basic physical and functional unit of hereditary – and here I think of the male Patriarchal Tibetan lineages – of ‘Gay’, a suggestion of ‘immorality’ in this word can be traced back to 1637, and its usage now referring to homosexual activity was documented at the start of the 1920’s. ‘Dong’ has now become a slang word for ‘penis’, and ‘Polar’ reminds us of ‘Polari’, a secret code language employed by what we now call ‘gay’ men in the first half of the twentieth century. I’m not alluding to homosexuality in the verse but clearly references of a male sexual nature appear evident.
Pic 8: Cosmic Balance – the Goal
It is one thing to rally up against this apparent homogenous sexism that is contained within Buddhism but we must also be mindful not to make the same mistake by an out of balance argument only favouring female exclusively, lest we do the very thing we hope not to do – create a sexism. Balance and equality is what we ought to be striving for. Also, I am not eroding at what good spiritual practices can be found amongst the vast and bottomless profoundly ocean of deep Tibetan exercises that are clearly valuable to any sincere and disciplined practitioner. There is more to take in than any lifetime could provide, and even if viewed only as a ‘Buddhist psychology’ as some now call it, it is easily the equal of any of our advancing modern day sciences of behavior and mind can offer. How it ever announced itself so accurately to its recipients thousands of years ago is in itself a world mystery. Of the 80,000 teachings preached by the Buddha over 50 years, I am appreciative of the one in particular allegedly attributed to him, and that is where he advocates not believing in anything even he has said, but to go out and find what is true and virtuous for oneself. Tibetan Buddhist practices and its wisdom producing experiences are there to do just that, and they can enhance this life and, potentially, any future. But not at the expense of a blatant sexism suggesting disregard for women.
Copyright 2019 by Dan Green