'Dakini's Warm Breath' by Judith Simmer-Brown

Noelle Oxenhandler

© Shambhala PublicationsDakini's Warm Breath
The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism
Judith Simmer-Brown
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 2001
352 pp.; $29.95 (cloth)

If you took the Virgin Mary in all her apparitions—from the carpenter’s gentle wife through the radiant Madonna to the transfigured miracle-maker—and gave her full angelic powers, you’d then have to add Athena, Aphrodite, Medusa, the race of Amazons, the Sirens and Muses, together with all the wicked witches, jealous fairies, and evil stepmothers that you could dredge from western lore, and even then you wouldn’t have equaled the multidimensionality of Tibet’s dakini.

Foul-smelling, flesh-eating hag. Exquisitely fragrant, voluptuous consort. Bringer of motherly comfort and succor. Temptress and teacher. Supreme obstacle and divine guide. The dakini is all of these forms, and also infinitely more—and less. For as Judith Simmer-Brown presents her, the dakini is the ultimate symbol of the ultimate wisdom of Buddhism: Form is emptiness and emptiness form.

How to approach such a figure? Anything you say about her must be immediately un-said, or at least qualified, amended, expanded, contradicted. If you did manage to write a book that did justice to the entire spectrum of her forms, and to the mode in which these forms arise ceaselessly and pass back into emptiness, what are the chances that such a book would be readable?

Few indeed—yet Dakini’s Warm Breath is not only readable, but exhilaratingly lucid. If there is one word to convey the essence of the book, it is a word that recurs throughout its pages: multivalent. The book is a painstakingly multivalent approach to a dazzlingly multivalent icon. It is hard to think of anyone more qualified to write this book, for the author is herself multivalent: a rigorous thinker, a meticulous scholar, and a committed practitioner. It is in this last capacity that she invokes the “warm breath” of the dakini and assures that it pervades the entire text. The image refers not only to the Vajrayana tradition of oral transmission that has preserved the vital essence of the dakini, but to the meditative and devotional practices through which individuals breathe life into a symbol, engaging with it as a vehicle of transformation.

Though for Simmer-Brown this inner transformation—experienced within the subjectivity of the individual practitioner—is the crux of the dakini’s significance, she is concerned to give the fullest possible rendering of the dakini as symbol. In the book’s opening pages she cautions that her methodology “is perhaps wildly messy”—but what comes through to the reader is the immense care she has taken to examine her subject through a full spectrum of lenses and to allow the kaleidoscope of views so obtained to shed light on one another. She begins with an exploration of the two predominant modern views of the dakini in Western culture. For Jungians, the dakini has figured primarily as the dark anima, representing a core of disavowed feminine qualities. For feminists, the dakini—when not celebrated as goddess figure—represents an appropriation of the feminine for predominantly male consumption.

Seeking a more fundamental, and less polarizing, approach to the dakini, Simmer-Brown turns to the work of Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher of psychoanalysis and religion. She explains, “Ricoeur suggested that encountering a symbol requires a dynamic engagement made up of two aspects. First, the subject must consent to the symbol, engaging with its power and letting it reverberate in her or his experience. . . . At the same time, the subject must allow the emergence of a critical quality that Ricoeur terms 'suspicion.’ This attitude of suspicion requires us to question aspects of our experience of the symbol, identifying its essential qualities as opposed to phantasms created by cultural overlay.”

This dual attitude of consent and suspicion so deeply informs Dakini’s Warm Breath that, for this reader, there was a point at which the book’s method began—in a way that brought great relief and pleasure—to equal its content in significance. For, in page after page, the book demonstrates that we can bring our whole selves to spiritual practice, that a skeptical mind and a discriminating intellect need not be enemies of ardor and devotion, but rather complementary and illuminating qualities. Thus, just as the dakini represents the fullest possible interpenetration of qualities, so this study of the dakini is itself a kind of dakini: rigorous and pliant, rejecting and surrendering, guarded and open. The danger of such an enterprise would indeed be that it is “wildly messy.” But Simmer-Brown has a highly systematic mind that provides a very lucid map for the reader. Having articulated her method in the first chapter, she moves in the second to trace the history of the dakini—departing from roots that begin in pre-Buddhist India and travel through both Buddhist and Hindu traditions, coming at last to flourish as a central symbol within the tantric path.

Acting as a kind of prism, the next four chapters present the dakini in the light of four central manifestations. The “secret dakini” is the most subtle of these: as the Great Mother Prajna Paramita, she conveys the luminous essence of the awakened mind. While the “inner dakini” gives visionary form to the seeker’s longing and discovery, the “outer dakini” manifests in the seeker’s subtle body experience as the movement of breath and vital energy. The “outer-outer dakini” manifests in the engaged life of an actual human woman in the world. Through each of these manifestations, the dakini remains quintessentially feminine, while simultaneously transcending the category of gender.

The last two chapters explore the lore surrounding the dakini as she directly engages with the individual seeker and as protector and transmitter of the tantric teachings. The conclusion returns to a reflection on the book’s central image: the warm breath of the dakini as the medium of authentic spiritual transformation.

It’s hard to imagine that anything might be missing from this book, given the depth of its analysis and the breadth of its scope. Yet, in her conclusion Simmer-Brown insists that “there are, of course, many unresolved or unfinished areas of meaning for the dakini that must be elaborated in further studies.” Among these, she includes the heruka, or masculine principle, whose qualities “arouse the dakini in all her manifestations.” She also raises the question of homosexual models of relationship and how they are to be treated, given the contrasexuality of dakini and heruka.

While these particular unanswered questions are intriguing, there is a more profound open-endedness that pervades the book from start to finish. Though Simmer-Brown does not share many details of her personal relationship to the dakini, she shares something more essential: the sense that, for the practitioner, this relationship is infinitely ongoing, inexhaustible, fresh. How rare the work of rigorous scholarship that can simultaneously open our eyes to the sacred mandala of everyday life. ▼

Noelle Oxenhandler is the author of The Eros of Parenthood (St. Martin’s: New York, 2001). She began Buddhist practice in 1970.

Image: Turn Chenmo, the Great Mother Prajnaparamita.

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