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Consort Stories

by Susan Szpakowski


In our study circle, we have been exploring the lives of women practitioners and teachers. We want to know about their experience, how they express their path and understanding. But when we read about the lives of Yeshe Tsogyal and Mandarava, two 8th-9th century consorts of Padmasambhava (centre), we realize it's difficult to separate fact from fiction. Their stories are fantastical, with versions that are sometimes contradictory. How can we peer through the overlays of cultural filters added in the retelling (usually by men) over centuries? What can we learn about their role as spiritual consorts and what does that role have to do with women practitioners now? This is a big topic, relevant on many levels, which I hope we can continue to explore. For now, here are a few thoughts that continued to percolate after our meeting. 

From Sera Khandro's autobiography, written early in the 20th century, we learn that traditionally consorts were accomplished women practitioners who were sought after by their male counterparts. Through sexual union, both partners generated "bliss" or inner heat that could be used for achieving realization. Having a consort was also one of the conditions for revealing "treasure teachings" (wisdom relevant for the time) by either partner. And the consort relationship had the power to heal and increase longevity. Consort practice wasn't about ordinary desire and attachment, but a vehicle for realization. It was an expression of devotion and surrender to "suchness itself" through devotion to one's partner.

Consort practice is built into Tibetan Buddhism, but usually without the need for a literal partner. Through visualization and inner yoga, practitioners unite the feminine and masculine principles within themselves.

In her book Passionate Enlightenment, Miranda Shaw argues that early Western historians often misinterpreted consort practice as essentially one-way—with the male practitioner using sexual partners to advance his realization, with the woman either then left behind or becoming a disciple. Shaw counters that, at least in early history, the woman was most often in charge, as she held the missing key to realization. Shaw traces the early roots of Tibetan Buddhist tantra back to a time when Mahayana Buddhist scholasticism encountered Hindu tantra with its many sects, some devoted to goddess worship. I am not sure about Miranda Shaw's scholarship, as her book was published more than 20 years ago. But then again, who is to say which story (or history) is more real than any other. 

We can pick up other clues from founding stories of the Tibetan Buddhist lineages. In 12th-century India the great monastic universities had become bastions of scholarship, prestige and wealth. Naropa was one of the most famed scholars at Nalanda University. One day, while he was studying outside, a shadow fell across his text and a dakini in the form of an old hag asked if he understood the words of the teachings he was studying. He said he did, and she responded with a happy dance. When he added that he also understood the meaning she burst into tears, calling him a liar and saying the only one who understood the meaning was her brother, the yogi Tilopa. Then she vanished. Naropa set out in search of Tilopa and went through a journey of many trials in which Tilopa kept appearing to him in the form of his own demons of fear and attachment, and then disappearing from sight when Naropa fell for the bait.

Other stories from this era describe women-dakinis luring scholars and teachers out from behind a wall of monastic privilege, intellect, and security and into the earthy, messy, dreamlike realm of the dakinis. Those brave enough to follow ended up in the marketplace, brothels, cremation grounds. They were challenged, tested, and seduced into the forbidden zones and twilight edges of their own psyches. In the process they were invited—sometimes abruptly—to shed whatever was holding them back or keeping them separate from a direct and raw experience of reality.

The motivation to set out on these journeys was always a passionate love for the truth and a wish to end suffering for all beings. The union of Mahayana motivation and insights into emptiness (the view) with the yogic tradition of Hindu tantra (as fast-tracking methods) seems to be what was imported into Tibet. Machik Labdron's lineage is a very literal expression of this union, with its emphasis on the (Mahayana) Prajnaparamita view and (tantric charnel ground) practice of chod.  

So what do these stories teach us about the role of dakini/consort practice today? One line of inquiry relates to our Buddhist practice. Another line is more broad, outside the walls of Buddhism. If we imagine a dakini force set loose in our world, alive in the twilight edges of conventional reality, what would that look like? What would she do? Some first thoughts:

  • Point to the transformative potential within ordinary experience—birth, death, love, joy, pain

  • Discover wisdom that is needed and appropriate for this time

  • Heal the shadows, free up energy

  • Radiate boundless compassion and love for this world

  • Invite the masculine into union, so that he can express his sacred role

In June 2018 Holly Gayley published an excellent paper on this topic, "Revisiting the Secret Consort in Tibetan Buddhism."

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