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.