Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine
Updated: Sep 4, 2019
As a young nun, one day I was distractedly flipping through a series of small cards that depicted, in the artistic style f a Thai temple, the trajectory of the Buddha’s life. In the middle of the pack there was a picture of the emaciated Siddhartha, then him receiving milk rice from Sujata, then enlightened under the bodhi tree, peaceful, with a radiant halo. What leapt out to me was this: the Buddha only reached enlightenment by going through the portal of the feminine, or more broadly speaking, the sacred feminine.
Generally, the term “sacred feminine” is not part of Buddhist lexicon. The place of the feminine, and of women, in Buddhism is indelibly marked by historic ambivalence. And while there are realized women, dedicated scholars, nuns, teachers, and practitioners, their contribution is mostly invisible.
The current interest in reconnecting with the sacred feminine reveals a yearning for something missing in Buddhist practice. Yet when we try to define what that may be or look like, there’s often confusion. This is not that surprising given that 2,500 years of Buddhist transmission has been primarily through men, shaping not only Buddhism’s outer forms but the internal landscape of our psyches as well. So when it comes to understanding the sacred feminine, we are really talking about reclaiming a dimension of our being that has mostly been lost or submerged beneath the conscious mind.
Where we do find the sacred feminine elevated is in ethereal, disembodied deities. Deity practice at least brings in some access to the energies of the awakened feminine: Prajnaparamita as wisdom, Tara as compassion, and Vajrayogini as the transformer of poisons. However, the feminine relegated to the imaginal realms tends to replace embodied, relational experience with idealized projections.
The feminine and masculine within each of us, regardless of gender, can be seen as different ways of knowing. The masculine is linear and rational, the feminine global and intuitive. Intuition is the essence, the fruit of dharma itself, which nourishes and liberates through quantum shifts of intuitive insight. This is why the Heart Sutra, the supreme text of direct, intuitive awakening, points beneath cognition, beyond both attainment and knowledge. We are called to leave dream thinking far behind and leap beyond the walls of the mind. This is a teaching from the deeply compassionate one who listens at ease to the sounds of the world, where all resides within the womb of awareness and where all is intimately known. This is the knowing of the clinical observer, where all is “out there.” Instead, it is this immediacy of direct experience that inducts us into the greater mystery, where all phenomena are miraculous appearance.
Often what we call Buddhist practice is really what the Buddha practiced before his awakening. We practice to disconnect, to “get out of this mess,” not unlike when Siddhartha was fixated on subtle meditative absorptions. When that failed, he used extreme will to crush reliance on his body, food, and even the breath. In the end he declared this approach useless, but not until he brought himself to the gates of death. The unconscious pull toward non-existence, fueled by aversion toward life, can often masquerade as spiritual liberation. It’s important to know the difference, especially in the context of our times, when we need to understand how our disconnect impacts our ability to embody deep compassion.
As a Buddhist community, rather than assume we have a complete picture, we need to realize that because the feminine is obscured, our transmission is incomplete. This great wound generates a considerable gap in our understanding in ways that are rarely understood. Yet this is an increasingly vital question, because underlying our planetary emergency is the loss of the sacred, the denigration of the feminine, and the brutalization of the masculine.
Excerpted from an article of the same title in Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly. Special Women’s Issue, Fall 2019. Buddhadharma is edited by Tynette Deveaux, member of our WoW study circle.
Thanissara trained for 12 years as a nun in the Thai Forest Tradition and was a founding member of both Chithurst Monastery and Amaravati Buddhist Monastery. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches at Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock. Her most recent book is Time to Stand Up: An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth.