blog #3 – Reading for February 3, 2012

The Life of Milarepa by Tsangnyon Heruka, is a biography about Milarepa’s search for liberation on the path to buddhahood in one lifetime. Throughout the book, the role of females seems to be very prominent. Professor Garret raises the question: How are women and other non-human females characterized in the book? Within this blog, I am going to attempt to look at the representation of women in Tibetan Buddhism, and try to pull out examples from the text.

In a previous Buddhism course, I had learned about gender roles in a society and how it is represented in Buddhism. Gender is central to social relations of power, individual and group identities, the formation of kinship, etc. General observations of gendering females can relate to every culture or religious practice. When gender ideologies make distinctions between male and female sexuality, they are also likely to use this distinction as the foundation of gender hierarchy.

Gender construction in Buddhism is seen to be localized to time and place. Gender construction is particular to certain places and traditions within Buddhism. Sometimes the female body is associated with something dangerous that must be suppressed, marginalized and conquered. Although there are negative ideas, we also find positive associations as well. Women can sometimes act as a metaphor of speaking in wisdom, creative roles, and being passionate. These two associations of gender depend on division between the female and the male. Specifically in the Mahayana and Tantric traditions, constructions of femininity and masculinity are presented as complementary and integrative. The masculine and feminine are associated with opposing, but equally important parts of the path in the Mahayana. Mahayana did provide an all-embracing place for laywomen to practice, but still older suspicions persist from foundational Buddhism. The tantric movement creates a feminine role in Buddhist discourse, iconography and practice.

After reflecting back on this information, I found many examples of the role of women fitting this pattern within the book. The role of a female is very important in The Life of Milarepa. Milarepa is very attached to his mother. His mother is in fact the figure that encourages him to participate in black magic, and Milarepa obeys without hesitation. The role of Dakmema is very important as well. Milarepa constantly goes to her asking for help and guidance. She seems to be the only figure that can console him during his suffering.

The quote: “Rich husband, clever wife” (23) expresses the role of hierarchy and a woman being seen as knowledgeable at the same time. A man is shown to have a higher role than a woman as exhibited through Marpa’s constant ordering of meals from Dakmema. Women are also seen to be very compassionate, as Marpa continuously says so himself when describing Dakmema. The women seem to always cry and feel compassion for Milarepa, especially Dakmema. She continuously tries to help him obtain his initiation. I found that although Dakmema tried to help and was clever, Milarepa was mislead by “Dakmema’s foolishness” (83). Human females seem to be capable of becoming enlightened, but that they are still subordinate somehow to “good sons.”

Dakinis are defined as female figures that are represented as both human yoginis, and wisdom deities. As pointed out within the book, they are depicted as celestial goddesses who aid religious practitioners and give prophetic advice within The Life of Milarepa (249). Marpa continuously refers to the guidance and advice of the Dakinis, especially when he acknowledges higher wisdom in his songs. This ties in perfectly with Dakmema’s role as well. She is continuously trying to advise Milarepa and guide him to receiving his initiation from Marpa. As pointed out, Dakinis within the book are specifically celestial goddesses. The human female does not fall under the same regard within the book, yet they do share similar qualities.

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3 Responses to blog #3 – Reading for February 3, 2012

  1. Reply To: Erica Blog #3

    I agree with your comment “The role of a female is very important in the life of Milarepa”. Milarepa sought the advice of his mother and others such as Dakmema – Marpa’s wife. The role of a female in this narrative seems to be to confer wisdom and help individuals such as Milarepa find the true path to enlightenment. The exception to this was his evil aunt.
    Milarepa sought Dakmema’s advice as he was about to give up on Marpa’s commands of building and rebuilding the tower. Dakmema’s role was one of a nurturer, a diplomat and someone who ran interference with Marpa in order to find the true spiritual path.

    Michael M. Paterson

  2. ibrahim372 says:

    Erica,

    This was a good analysis of the role of women in our readings. It was good to see an analysis which covers both time and place with the role of women and how you made mention that the role is not constant throughout time and place. In regards to our text at first I was unsure of the role, whether it was positive or negative, because Milarepa did not seem happy with causing suffering to other people from his mother’s wishes and so I felt that he was being coerced into this with his mother threatening to kill herself; however, after reading your other comments regarding Dakinis I do agree with you that women play a positive role in Milarepa’s life as a source of wisdom and inspiration, I think our (often misogynistic) society has much to learn about the feminine as a source of divine wisdom as is depicted in our text.

    Best,
    Ibrahim

  3. rlg372austin says:

    I appreciate your insights on the role women play in regards to the interactions that are representative of this throughout the text. Pointing out that gender is a construct is essential if we are to understand the fluidity of this role in whatever context it may develop in. Although in most East Asian texts I have encountered (especially Confucian ones) women do mostly exist in a patriarchal society, so not only is this analysis a fresh take on the matter, but also offers sheds some light on cultural understandings of women and the role they come to take on.

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