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ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 4 1997

A Review of Traveler in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan Buddhism

Traveler in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan Buddhism. By June Campbell. New York: George Braziller Incorporated, 1996, x, 225 pages, ISBN 0-485-11494-1 (cloth), $27.50

University of Virginia

This book presents a challenge to those who would argue that gender equality prevails in the Vajrayāna tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. June Campbell intends in this work to promote debate about the transmission of teachings that relate to gender and sexuality. She raises pertinent questions about the role, power, and status of Tibetan Buddhist teachers in the West and about the concept of female identity in Tibetan Buddhism. This quest for female identity, rooted in her own past experience studying Tibetan Buddhism, branches out to incorporate her more recent involvement with feminism and psychoanalysis. She uses the interpretive principles of psychoanalytic and feminist theory (notably that of Irigaray and Kristeva) to examine the history and social context of Vajrayāna Buddhism in Tibet and its reception in the west.

June Campbell describes the West's fascination with Tibetan Buddhism in the first of the book's nine chapters. She argues that the patriarchal character of Tibetan Buddhism remained hidden because few Tibetan or western scholars chose to explore it and because the "first wave of Tibetans to teach publicly in the West were all men, and many of them celibate monks" (p. 29). The two chapters that follow discuss evidence of goddess worship and archaic female images that existed in Tibet prior to Buddhism's official establishment in the 8th century C.E. Campbell speculates that ancient Indian and Iranian religious beliefs reached Tibet and influenced indigenous shamanic practices through the Bon religion, whose followers migrated into the West, perhaps as early as the fifth century B.C.E. (p. 36-44). She claims that the similarity between Bon and Buddhist texts proves that Bon was an earlier form of Buddhism that combined elements of Iranian Mithraism and Indian Tantric practices "focused upon the worship of the Great Mother" (p. 47). The introduction of orthodox Buddhism, with its tradition of monasticism and misogyny, suppressed an ancient belief in the power of goddesses.

In chapter three Campbell attempts to prove that the male Bodhisattva Chenrezig has undergone a significant sex change. The lotus, the symbol most closely associated with him, links him with the ancient Lotus Goddess who dates back to the prehistoric Indus Valley civilization. The lotus symbol represents female sexuality, and his mantra om mani padme hum can be interpreted to refer to a female deity called Manipadma. "Read in this way," she claims, "the invocation would be a powerful mantra to the essential sexuality of the female, i.e., the deity of the clitoris-vagina" (p. 64). Campbell concludes that the Lotus Goddess's transformation into a male counterpart served social and political interests of the male priesthood.

Chapters four and five critically examine the monastic hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism and the methods it employs to consolidate its religious and political authority. This authority, she argues, derives from the tulku system and its "virtual deification of certain high lamas and their subsequent successors" (p. 68). The young male child identified as a tulku is separated from his mother at an early age and raised by celibate monks ("the male motherhood") in an atmosphere of adulation that elevates him to divine status. The absent mother's "collusion in both ascertaining divine events during conception and pregnancy and her cooperation in giving up her son were crucial to the maintenance of the whole system" (p. 90).

This unusual upbringing, Campbell suggests, may impair the young tulku's future relationships with women, either by his maintaining a disdainful distance from them or by "the desire to become involved with them in secret relationships which carried no responsibilities" (p. 88). These secret relationships between young women and lamas who were publicly celibate but secretly sexually active she exposes in chapter six. The secrecy serves not only to protect the lineage but also to maintain control over the women who participate in initiation rituals and activities designed to promote the enlightened state of the lineage holders. She rejects the customary description of secret consorts as "the visualized deity of the monk's imagination" (p. 94). Speaking candidly about her own experience as the secret consort of the late Kalu Rinpoche, she examines the reasons women enter into such liaisons. Women who assumed the role of secret consorts "must have viewed their collusion as 'a test of faith'" (p. 102). She concludes that the power wielded by one partner over the other diminishes the egalitarian principles of Tantric practice as a spiritual union of two autonomous individuals.

Chapter seven focuses on the significance of the dakini ("the traveler in space"). Many commentaries on the symbolism of the dakini, which regard her as the sexual consort and female helper in male-centered spiritual practice, reflect the personal experience and bias of the male interpreter. Campbell argues that Keith Dowman's interpretation ("It is Dakini's nature of complete receptivity, empty space that assuages male aggression; and it is the female organ's 'empty space' that is receptive to the symbol of his aggression") is of dubious value to women and "even hints at a symbolic rape of the female" (p. 137).

She argues further in chapter eight that the allocation of symbolic femaleness to concepts of "otherness" and "emptiness" is also problematic for women. The monastic tradition emphasizes the polluted nature of female bodies and encourages celibacy and physical distance from women. On the other hand, advanced Tantric practice encourages intimate relationships with women and advocates practices that use sexuality as a potent force for the realization of emptiness. Buddhist Tantric texts and iconography privilege male experience and deprive women of the ability to define themselves in terms of their own transcendence (see pages 147-53). Her final chapter explores Peter Bishop's account of the western appropriation of Tibetan Buddhism and proposes that "dreams of power" be extended to western women whose dreams involve open, autonomous, and egalitarian relationships. In her conclusion Campbell envisions a reality in which a different kind of spiritual insight prevails, a reality recognizing fundamental gender differences and the "unique subjectivity of each individual" (p. 191).

Campbell draws upon a wide range of materials, both textual and iconographic, in her exploration of female identity. She presents Tibet as a verification of the hypothesis that prehistoric cultures worshipped a Mother Goddess whose preeminence vanished with the arrival of an invading patriarchal culture. Those who are sympathetic to these ideas will find her arguments compelling. Others will be skeptical of the universality of this hypothesis and will regard her materials as open to alternate interpretations. I find much of the argument in the book's early chapters dependent on her uncritical acceptance of an uneven mix of sources and on superficial cross-cultural comparisons, e.g., Mithraic belief about sacrificial oxen and the killing of the Bon king Lang-dar-ma ("young ox") (p. 42). In a book whose arguments also depend on iconography, one wishes that the publisher had included line drawings or block print images of yoginis and dakinis. The dust jacket, however, has a splendid image of a dakini whose blue color is associated with space and whose wisdom is achieved through the enlightened transformation of anger.

The book succeeds in raising provocative questions about the training of past and future religious leaders, the use and abuse of power, and the virtual absence of women in positions of authority. It casts doubt on whether a religion steeped in the ancient patriarchal traditions of a non-western culture can address the needs and rising expectations of contemporary women in the West. Campbell's book should be of interest especially to those who are concerned with the direction western Buddhism is headed in the

twenty-first century.

Copyright 1997

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