22 Jun 2011 spirit   » (Journeyer)



Chapter 6
At One with the Secret Other

Alongside the absent mother, whose gender-specific role of giving birth and mothering became symbolically usurped by the system, there existed also in the sacred space the secret consort or songyum, whose female sexuality was essential for those lamas wishing to practice Tantric sex secretly. Whist the word songyum is an honorific title meaning 'wife' which is applied to the actual wives of those lamas belonging to the lay tradition, it is also used to mean the 'sexual partner', and means literally in Tibetan, 'secret mother'. The fact that in the Tibetan language the words for 'wife' and 'mother' are synonymous, is not, as I hope to prove, insignificant. The purpose of the secret songyum was, in the context of the monastic establishment, to provide for male practitioners the opportunities for sexual activity, without the disruption of the structures of the system. So while a lama would, to all intents and purposes, be viewed publicly as a celibate monk, in reality he was frequently sexually active, but his activities were highly secret. Even highly prestigious lamas of the status of the fourteenth-century scholar, Longchenpa, resorted to this method. 'Outwardly wearing the habit, but inwardly a yogin of the Mantrayana, he took that nun as his secret consort so that nobody knew about it'.[1] These actions were only achieved, however, with the collusion of the women involved, and also of those monks who were particularly close to the tulku or lama, and who would protect him so that his activities would not be subject to public disclosure.

This shroud of secrecy extended also into the literature where most references to actual women in biographical accounts of lamas' lives were omitted, or given metaphorical status. Even in contemporary works by Tibetans or their followers, the songyum is often described as the visualized deity of the monk's imagination, the female consort to a male deity, whose presence had to be conjured in order for the meditator to realize certain insights pertaining to the symbolic union of so-called opposites, the male and female. However, this aspect of the practice was only part of the whole story, for in the actual social world of the monastery, the lama often acquired the secret services of a real woman in order, allegedly, to achieve these insights. In my own experience, as the songyum of a tulku-lama of the monastic Kagyu order, Kalu Rinpoche, only one other person had knowledge of the relationship, which lasted for several years, and which took place within the strictest bounds of secrecy. When the biography of this high lama was written it included periods of time during which I acted as his songyum, yet there was no mention whatsoever of my name in the text, or even references to a metaphorical 'consort'.

The Tibetan system was to all intents and purposes a 'secret society', as confirmed by the synonym for its religion, Songwa dorje Tegpa (Tibetan gsang.wa.rdo.rje.theg.pa.), which means the Secret Vajrayana, or Secret Diamond Vehicle. There is no doubt that secrecy played a large part in the religious practices of Tibetan Buddhism, and that this secrecy extended not only to the requirement that only initiates could attend certain rituals, but also to the fact that certain activities took place which even other initiates did not know about. That these activities concentrated on sexual acts is hardly surprising, because the institution, with its outward appearance of monasticism, could hardly have survived in the form it did, had the importance of the woman's position and status within it been openly acknowledged. The two elements which I believe helped to sustain the secret society of Tibetan Buddhism were the downgrading of the mother to a 'receptacle' for holy tulkus; and the hidden status of the songyum in the monastic system which made use or her. As Mircea Eliade observes in a study of secret societies, whilst they always 'emphasize the sexual element' they also 'constitute an attempt by men to establish life independent of women, a rejection of feminine power and influence'.[2]

iranda Shaw, in her book "Passionate Enlightenment," sets out to rationalize historically the status and the role of women within Tantra, by providing examples from ancient texts, many more than a thousand years old, in which details are given about Tantric women teachers, and the emphasis on the importance of viewing the female as an equal partner in sexual rituals. Shaw points out at the beginning that the secrets of the Tantric tradition in which she was most interested, i.e. the sexual aspect, 'are counted among its most esoteric and closely guarded features',[3] yet she describes them in great detail in her book. This is done in order to support her case that the women involved in Tantra, a thousand years ago at least, had equal status with the men, and were at least as responsible as the men for the propagation and continuation of the tradition. She believes that her research counteracts the work of many other commentators who have 'attempt(ed) to project a mood of male domination onto this movement'.[4] Shaw further criticizes 'Western scholarship and feminism for their emphasis upon domination and exploitation'[5] in their reading of the Tantric tradition, suggesting instead that culturally they could not appreciate the 'highly nuanced balances of interdependence and autonomy that can characterize gender relations in other societies'.[6]

Certainly there is much to be said for her observations, because it is apparent that the importance of the female within this tradition in ancient times implies a very different cultural ambience, in which it is possible that the relationships between the sexes were not the same as they are now, either in the west or the east. One can only conclude that the female prominence has either been suppressed throughout the last five hundred years or more, in the Tibetan tradition at least, or that there has been a degeneration of the teachings in general, which has resulted in women losing touch with their own powers and knowledge as Tantric lineage-holders. In her own search for a teacher who would transmit the details of the practices to her, and help with the translation of the texts, Shaw names the lama who agreed to cooperate with her, but fails to name any woman who could substantiate the teachings from a practice viewpoint, despite saying that 'it is necessary to obtain access to an oral commentarial tradition that is secreted in the minds and hearts of living masters (both male and female)'.[7] Clearly it begs the question, in the absence of actual commentaries by live women on their practices with actual men within the tradition, where are the living female masters of the Tantra in the Tibetan tradition, and if they exist, why must the woman's position, name and commentary be kept secret? It is obvious from Shaw's work, and the work of many others, that the actual details of the so-called 'secret' practices are in fact known and have been published many times. If, therefore, the secrecy is not in the details of the acts themselves, where is it? My contention is that the secrecy is in the 'hidden' subjectivity of the female, either as a participant in the acts, or as a symbolic figure whose mystical presence, though necessary for the continuation of the lineage, was gradually eased out of the picture, so that live women would not be seen to accede openly in the human form to the status of 'Buddha'. Shaw herself puts forward this same view in a way which implies the necessity of the woman's hidden nature, as if a kind of essential female nature was to be found in her suppressed or hidden status.

The women of Tantric Buddhism and their divine counterparts are often called dakinis, translatable as women who dance in space, or women who revel in the freedom of emptiness. As their name suggests these are not ladies who leave a heavily beaten path. At times their trail disappears into thin air where they took flight on their enlightenment adventures, but sometimes the trail resumes in the dense underbrush of ancient texts, amidst the tangled vines of Tibetan lineage histories...The traces of women of Tantric Buddhism are sometimes obscure, enigmatic, even hidden and disguised, but they are accessible to anyone who discovers where to look for them.[8]

However, it is not just the organizational context of the system which is of relevance in the diminishment of the prominent role and purpose of women's spiritual lives. The power of that particular system lay in the hands of men who themselves had often been traumatized by unfortunate childhood experiences which separated them from their families, and in particular their mothers. Obliged as they were to be later locked into their role as monks or tulkus, with very little freedom of will until adulthood, the effect of their removal at an early age from the maternal environment into the harsh reality of the masculine world of discipline in the monastery must have produced conditions where many of them may have harbored secret longings for their mothers and for the intimacy of the female world. Even in Lacan's account of the socialization of any young child, he believes that, 'With the entry of the named subject into language and the social order, the unnamed, repressed desires of the subject are driven underground'.[9] The kinds of yearnings which these young boys must have felt would have been doubly taboo in the environment of the monastery, especially where the monks of a lower status than the tulku dealt with their passions by viewing women as inferior and unclean. Despite this, there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that often secret meetings and liaisons with their mothers or sisters took place during childhood and adolescence, with the knowledge of only the closest disciples.

These kinds of experiences, in which feelings for women were habitually channeled underground in an openly masculine environment, meant that the tulku became accustomed to associating women with secrecy, and later, when opportunities for sexual liaisons arose, whether in the context of Tantric practices, or quite simply as an expression of their own longings, they already perceived this kind of liaison as a norm. It is interesting that Irigaray categorizes all patriarchal cultures in this way, by pointing out that "Such traditions as these do not encourage love between women and men. Lovers fall back into a mother-son relationship, and the man secretly continues to feed off the woman who is still fertile earth for him'.[10]

From the patriarchal point of view, however, it is easy to see why this degree of secrecy developed, and why men colluded, in the name of the lineage and its power, to protect one another. But what of the women involved? In the absence of a female lineage of knowledge about Tantra and woman's role in it, and the difficulty of gaining access to texts which the monastic institutions often guarded jealously, how was their loyalty bought and what was in it for them, to bind them to the secrecy of a sexual relationship with a man of power? Was it simply profound faith in the lama-as-Buddha which helped them remain silent about their role, as they went unheeded and unrecognized as the 'dakinis' of high lamas? Or were the conditions surrounding the liaison, created by the powerful men at the heart of the system, such that women found it difficult to do anything other than acquiesce?

In my own experience, despite the absence of a Tibetan cultural upbringing, there were quite specific motivating factors which helped to keep me silent over many years. These factors were probably similar to those which influenced Tibetan women over the centuries, and which would have provided for them the personal sense of participation in societal rites which normally excluded women altogether. Firstly, there is no doubt that the secret role into which an unsuspecting woman was drawn bestowed a certain amount of personal prestige, in spite of the fact that there was no public acknowledgement of the woman's position. Secondly, by participating in intimate activities with someone considered in her own and the Buddhist community's eyes to be extremely holy, the woman was able to develop a belief that she too was in some way 'holy' and that the events surrounding her were karmically predisposed. Finally, despite the restrictions imposed on her, most women must have viewed their collusion as a 'test of faith', and an appropriate opportunity perhaps for deepening their knowledge of the dharma, and for entering 'the sacred space'.

For Tibetan women, raised and conditioned in a culture whose whole centre was the Buddhist dharma and the elaborate tulku system of rule by lamas, the acceptance of these factors and the idea that such an involvement would create 'good karma' for future lives must have been utterly compelling. For a western woman like myself, however, as a convert to Buddhism in adulthood, the motivation and conditions which supported secrecy could never have been as strong as theirs. Without such a background, it was difficult not to question the purpose of secrecy which affected the role of the woman in the whole affair, and also not to doubt the contemporary value of such practices, outwith archaic Tibetan society. At the outset, it was abundantly clear that any secret activities, whether they were to do with initiation rituals, or personal relationships with lamas, were always bound by vows of secrecy (damtsik, Tibetan dam.tshig.). These vows were often formally spoken as part of a ritual, whilst at other times became an unspoken agreement to secrecy. In my own case it was only when I became involved with a lama of very high status who was openly living as a monk, that it was plainly emphasized that any indiscretion in maintaining silence over our affair might lead to madness, trouble, or even death.

As an example of what might happen, I was told that, in a previous life, the lama I was involved with had had a mistress who caused him some trouble, and in order to get rid of her he cast a spell which caused an illness, later resulting in her death. I was also told that this woman must have been a powerful demon, and that the lama had only invited her to participate in sexual acts through compassion, but her trouble-making had become impossible to bear and posed a threat to the lama's position. This kind of information was compounded by a more concrete example of what might befall me. Some time into my own relationship with this high lama, a young Tibetan woman in her late teens, who had been taken as a second songyum, unexpectedly died suddenly from -- it was said -- a heart attack. The fears engendered by such events ensured that my own view of the situation into which I had entered became similar to that of someone living under a taboo. For outsiders to traditions such as this, these fears may seem unbelievable, but in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a closed group such as many of these religious sects become, the culture of the 'insider' can quickly predominate. It seemed that within the protecting environment of secrecy and esoteric ritual, safety would be guaranteed, whilst any step outwith these boundaries would be tantamount to breaking a taboo, with all its subsequent ramifications. In her account of the workings of taboos, Mary Daly astutely points out that,

Women are terrified by phallocentric Taboo and thus are kept back from Touching the 'object' -- our Selves -- in which the demonic powers (our own Elemental powers which are disguised by the Possessors) lie hidden. Women are paralyzed by this injected fear that our powers, if we Touch them or use them 'unlawfully', that is in ways contrary to the Lecherous State, will take vengeance by casting a spell over us as 'wrong-doers'. [11]

The imposition of secrecy therefore, in the Tibetan system, when it occurred solely as a means to protect status, and where it was reinforced by threats, was a powerful weapon in keeping women from achieving any kind of integrity in themselves, for it seems clear that the fundamental and ancient principles of Tantric sex -- the meeting together of two autonomous individuals as partners for sexual relations to promote spirituality--was tainted by the power wielded by one partner over the other. So whilst the lineage system viewed these activities as promoting the enlightened state of the lineage-holders, the fate of one of the two main protagonists, the female consort, remained unrecognized, unspoken and unnamed. Shaw's implication that this very state of being encapsulates the female experience, and is a necessary part of a woman practitioner's path to the subjugation of ego, nonetheless does not take into account the fact that this imposed hidden role meant that, within the Tibetan monastic system which dominated the Vajrayana, for other women practitioners, there were no overt role models and no open system of exchange between women.

The extent of the bounds of secrecy concerning not the nature, but the context of these kinds of practices, meant that often women were more knowledgeable about the 'underside' of the system, and of the nature of the men involved, than most of the men who constituted the establishment itself. It is only since the death of the lama with whom I was involved that I have been able to see the elaborate mechanisms which lay behind his secret relationships, and can now question them in the light of their transposition to the west, where, I am sure, many western men would happily adopt such practices, as part of their 'dreams of power'.[12] It is certainly intriguing to know that despite Kalu Rinpoche's activities with women, and even quite some time after his death, several Tibetan scholars in the west continued to show complete ignorance of the hidden life existing within the lama system. In his study of the history of Tibetan Buddhism, and in particular the difference between married lamas and celibate monks, Geoffrey Samuel wrote in 1993, 'Kalu Rinpoche was a monk, however, not a lay yogin, and most of his career took place in the celibate gompa setting of Pelpung'.[13] Whilst it is true that Kalu Rinpoche spent many of his early years in the monastery of Pelpung in Tibet, it is also true that, after escaping Tibet in 1959 when the Chinese annexed the country, he spent many more as the abbot of a monastery in India, and during many of these years was not a monk, yet was afraid of the consequences of revealing his secret life.

(to be cont'd.)

Latest blog entries     Older blog entries

Share this page