Friday, 19 October 2012

Enlightenment in a woman’s body

I’ve been pondering recently something which no doubt many others have pondered before me. Namely, what influence, if any, does being male or female have on the attainment of enlightenment. Of course, being a woman I’m thinking mainly in terms of how this relates to my attainment of enlightenment with a female body. I also realize that―fortunately―whatever inequality there is in the social and cultural world between men and women, they are still equal in terms of mind. There is so much misogyny in Buddhist literature in general―and not only in literature!― that it’s rather surprising and noteworthy―in fact quite striking―that according to Padmasambhava, when Yeshe Tsogyal mentions the difficulties of being a woman, he counters this with the assertion that ultimately a woman’s body is in fact superior to a man’s for gaining enlightenment. The source for this is the treasure text revealed by Taksham Nüden Dorje in the eighteenth century where the colophon says that the text had been written down by one of her disciples, Gyalwa Changchub, during Yeshe Tsogyal’s own lifetime as she recounted her story orally to her disciples. In fact, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, who will be here at Lerab Ling next month to conduct the Kurukulla Drupchen, is the activity incarnation of Taksham Nüden Dorje.
Yeshe Tsogyal’s story was already well known in Tibet before this text appeared, as it had previously been recorded in biographies of Padmasambhava. This “secret” autobiography, revealed around 1,000 years after Yeshe Tsogyal herself existed, offers a rare glimpse into Tibetan spiritual life from a woman’s point of view (or, at the very least, from a man’s ideas of what a woman’s point of view would have been!). While it is clear that certain events in her life happened to her because she was a woman this in no way detracts from her ability to transcend all aspects of mundane existence―including gender―and attain enlightenment.
Of course, Padmasambhava wasn’t the first to declare the equality of men and women in terms of attaining enlightenment as the sutras record that Buddha himself also said this. In literature from the Pali Canon, namely the Stories of Elder Nuns, the Therigatha, there are inspiring stories of nuns who attained enlightenment at the time of the Buddha. They renounced the usual life of a woman of that time in order to become nuns and follow the path without being hampered by a husband or children and all that entailed. I’ve also chosen to follow the path that way for the same reason, having led that lifestyle earlier in my life and then renounced it to become a nun. In fact, a high percentage of nuns at the time of the Buddha were older women. This means that for me these stories resonate very much. For further reading see the following: "Therigatha: Verses of the Elder Nuns", edited by John T. Bullitt. Access to Insight, 23 April 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/index.html . Gyalwa Changchub and Namkhai Nyingpo, Lady of the Lotus-Born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal, translated by Padmakara Translation Group, Shambhala 1999. Keith Dowman, Sky Dancer: The Secret Life & Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel, Snow Lion, 1997 (first edition published in 1983). Nam-mkha'i sNying-po, Mother of Knowledge: The Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal, translated by Tarthang Tulku, Dharma Publishing, 1983.

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