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Traveller in Space: Gender, Identity and Tibetan Buddhism Paperback – Jun 18 2002
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"essential reading for anyone concerned with a creative encounter between Tibetan Buddhism and the West" Kirkus Review; "Certainly one of the most important books on Tibetan Buddhism which has been written in the last years" Adelheid Berrmann-Pfandt, Numen" --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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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
On the psychological level, such a system would have a tendency for creating men who are disconnected from women while having the very normal biological impulse to have sex. Unfortunately, motherless monks and tulkus would have no idea how to deal with women except from a position of cultural-spiritual authority and, Campbell would say, domination. Tulkus have been raised into cognitive dissonance: women are polluting, they are an obstacle to practice, at best women can serve others and at worst they are a nuisance - yet women are also transformed into dakinis, female aspects of being that men must associate with in order to reach enlightenment. Part of this paradox has been sublimated through tantric practices imported from India and China that used imagined spiritual consorts. Another part, however, resulted in the tradition of real people-consorts and mistresses kept by lamas. They would rationalize this as a recapitulation of the famous union between Padmasambhava and his consort Yeshe Tsogyal that represents the bedrock of Vajrayana despite the fact that female lamas like Yeshe Tsogyal have not been seen in Tibet for hundreds of years due to suppression of female assertiveness and power by the tulku system. Subcontracting a religion to men alone is usually a bad, very bad, idea as we can clearly see in the West.
The Kalachakra tantra (practiced by Kalu), for example, has frightening apocalyptic aspects that reflect the male psyche under duress including religious warfare and extreme violence against women - something that few Western bliss bunnies eager to get initiated into the practice comprehend. Nor was the pre-China Tibet a bed of roses. Critics such as Michael Parenti would say that Tibetan hierarchy had been no less venal, autocratic, power-hungry and brutal towards its serfs (peasants and herders) than the medieval Catholic Church. Serfs were taxed upon getting married, taxed for the birth of each child and for every death in the family. They were taxed for planting a tree in their yard and for keeping animals. They were taxed for religious festivals and for public dancing and drumming, for being sent to prison and upon being released. Those who could not find work were taxed for being unemployed, and if they traveled to another village in search of work, they paid a passage tax. Monasteries lent peasants at 50% interest. If the peasant could not pay, they were made into slaves. All this was an integral part of "religion".
The Tibetan religio-political setup has been dismantled in a brutal if not genocidal, manner by the Chinese in what is one of the great tragedies of the XXth century. However, reverberations of old chauvinist attitudes have trickled up to this day, as can be seen by the Naropa cult around Trungpa (another tulku) who cavorted intoxicated with his female devotees ("dakinis"), and Campbell's interaction with Kalu RInpoche. Kalu's father was a tulku and his sons have inherited the teacher mantle, which may be relevant with respect to the scandal caused by the intergenerational and intercultural psychological drama described by June Campbell. June, acting as Kalu's translator, was asked to become his "consort". When tantric sex is practiced between equals, energy flows in a circle to the great benefit of both partners. Practiced between unequals, the flow is in one direction, essentially a transfer of life force from the weaker less aware partner to the stronger one. Essentially a form of vampirism or to put it more mildly, a way to prolong the life of a highly respected teacher at the expense of a devotee who will no doubt accrue great merit and be rewarded in a future incarnation. While this was a clear case of cultural misunderstanding, it is just as clear that Kalu's entourage was aware that the situation was not kosher as they swore Campbell to secrecy (family secrets again; a trademark of any cult).
If this happened within the Tibetan community, it would have been part of a cultural setup that is taken for granted. The Western psyche, however, does not work that way. It is much more individualized, and subsumed with shame, anger as well as an innate belief in inviolate human integrity. It was not until years later that the sheer anger at the disrespect she was shown and revulsion forced Campbell to speak out. This book thus that paints a historical, cultural, psychological, sexual and personal portrait of a fascinating religion that looks behind the lines of its ordinary glow. A religion which represents a pinnacle in the human ability to establish a relationship between the sacred and the profane and nudge us towards conscious evolution. As such, however, Vajrayana is also ever so human, depending on its messengers represented in this book by both Kalu Rinpoche and June Campbell. The two teach us about equally important aspects of incarnation. Blind devotion and uncritical acceptance of hierarchy is, in this context, anti-spiritual and an aspect of ignorance. In some visualizations practiced by Campbell, the Lama (spiritual teacher) was made into an authoritative diety in the mind of his students. How could you refuse to have sex with your own deity, especially in the context of increased prestige within the cult? Will Westerners groveling at the feet of ever-so-human holy men eventually learn this lesson, which is a precondition for becoming self-aware?
I found her assertion that Avalochiteshvara was originally a female diety called the Lotus Diety fascinating. It dovetails with my understanding of how mantras are constructed in Tibetan Buddhism as often taking the form OM + (fill in the blank with the name of the diety) + the bija mantra of the Buddha family the diety belongs to or something similar. This mantric forms fits her assertion nearly perfectly, while the traditional designation does not. It seems that her assertion has much validity and is at least worth further inquiry. She is careful to state many times that she is mainly raising questions, rather than to substitute one dogma for another.
One question she deeply raises concerns the effect of taking male children away from their mothers very early in their life, and having them being raised in an all male priesthood, on their view of woman. The outcome seems at times to be a tendancy to view actual women as inferior and lesser status and to form a view of an idealized feminine from visualizations and philosophical texts. This dual sense may have made western scholars able to overlook the Tibetan social structures which are entirely male and exclude women completely. The idealized feminine may seem to indicate a positive view of woman, but does not seem to translate into actual gender equality in practice.
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