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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blog #2 – Reading for January 27, 2012

This week’s reading from “My Perfect Teacher” written by Patrul Rinpoche, focuses on the topic of refuge. The reading also discusses the role of teachers on the path to achieving enlightenment. Professor Garrett outlined some very interesting questions about this information. Within this blog, I would like to address two of the topics she had provided.  The blog will discuss the role of the teacher in Tibetan Buddhism, and the arguments given to encourage practitioners to generate compassion even for their enemies.

Rinpoche’s outline of compassion ties in perfectly with the discussion of the role of bodhicitta. In the historical context of Tibetan Buddhism, general personal responsibilities lead to all beings from samsara. This then further developed into bodhicitta which means ‘yearning for enlightenment’. This is a feeling of personal responsibility to lead all beings from suffering. This then becomes the basis for the actual defining internal state of the Mahayana. How to help all others is to accomplish buddhahood and one’s own enlightenment. This develops from the simple notion of compassion to benefit all beings, which Rinpoche highlights. Compassion is very important in Buddhism. Rinpoche outlines arguments to encourage Buddhist practitioners to have compassion for their enemies throughout the entire reading, as it ties into every story and encounter he provides. What stood out for me was the statement: “How could we practice patience if there were no-one who made us angry?” (180). The more and more I reflected upon this statement, the more it began to make sense. A thought that came to mind was that of obstacles. Within the reading, Rinpoche tells tales of faith. Each character within the stories benefits greatly from having a deep-rooted faith. For example, the story of the magical tooth. Even though the woman’s son had lied about it being a sacred object, her faith made the object extraordinary. Another kind of example is that of Daughter’s karmic experience. Daughter has compassion and believes his mother each time she lies, and still ends up in the right profession. Daughter then faces the obstacle of curiosity, and his karma pushes him to his punishment for kicking his mother. Daughter’s realization of his karma and his wrong actions lead him to the bidhicitta practice of “ exchanging oneself with others” (226).  Going back to what I have stated above, what struck me most within Rinpoche’s arguments for having compassion for one’s enemies, was his explanation of the existence of patience because of enemies. I found this convincing because of the way this argument fits into the very importance of the general Buddhist belief in the Four Noble Truths, overcoming temptation, and clearing the mind of negativity. There is always suffering in life, as was stated clearly in last week’s reading. Practicing within Buddhism is almost in a way a type of practice that is trying to overcome obstacles and work toward enlightenment, and to escape samsara. Your enemies could be seen as  another one of those obstacles.

I have touched upon the role of a bodhisattva and the idea of bodhicitta. This is a form of teaching. A bodhisattva is someone who has developed bodhicitta and vowed to become enlightened in order to benefit all sentient beings. As Rinpoche states, “ the teacher who gives you the pith instructions on arousing bodhicitta is setting you on the path of the Great Vehicle, so his kindness is greater that that of the teachers who give you any other instructions” (221). Rinpoche also stresses that one must put all of their faith into their teacher and trust them completely, as they can do no wrong. I find this to be a little bit dangerous. There seems to be a lot of the accepting of others’ views and ignoring one’s own views to reach enlightenment. This to me seems a bit dangerous as I can’t help but wonder if this could lead to one losing themselves on the path. I also found that Rinpoche’s story about Atisa and his preference toward Lord Suvarnadvipa, as he had a different kind of kindness, somewhat contradicts Ricnpoche’s statements of trusting each teacher completely and never questioning them. There is obviously preference here, as I think is valid when picking someone to help guide you along the path to enlightenment.

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blog #1 – Reading for January 20, 2012

The subjects of impermanence, samsara, actions, and following a teacher or a spiritual friend are discussed and outlined within the reading titled Words of My Perfect Teacher. Although each of these topics are discussed in separate chapters, I feel as though each of these go hand in hand. I want to put my main focus on the second chapter of the reading highlighting impermanence. This has always been a factor of Buddhism that has caught my interest. The idea of impermanence is very important in Buddhism, and although meditation (which interrelates with all of the chapters within this reading) is performed by the living, I wish to use the reading and interpret it through connecting each chapter together and exploring the ways in which meditation not only leads to the acceptance of death and the path to enlightenment, but how it can connect the living and the dead, and importantly, teachers to the dead as well as highlighting the importance of teaching about death.

The second chapter of Words of My Perfect Teacher outlines the seven meditations, highlighting the factor of impermanence. The seven meditations are the impermanence of the outer universe in which beings live, the impermanence of the beings living in it, the impermanence of holy beings, the impermanence of those in positions of power, other examples of impermanence, the uncertainty of the circumstances of death, and intense awareness of impermanence. As the title of the chapter (“the impermanence of life”) implies, the theme of death is very important in Buddhism. The impermanence of beings living in the universe as explained in the second meditation stands out to me. I have studied the Bardo Thodol in previous courses. The Bardo Thodol or commonly known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is an ancient funerary text that is used to guide the consciousness after death between the physical death anrebirth. The bardo is the interval between death and rebirth, containing many bardo states the spirit must pass through. The text describes the intermission between death and rebirth, and explains the funerary rituals performed by the friends and family of the deceased. It also explains the physical signs of death and the rituals that take place when death has occurred. Although the Bardo Thodol contains text that pertains to the deceased, the doctrine also plays an important role in the guidance of the living as well as through the funerary process, but also through the grander scheme of accepting and learning about death and liberation. It guides both the living and the dead along the path to liberation and enlightenment. The different stages explained within the Bardo Thodol seem to have a similar foundation found in the texts outlining the structure of Mahāyāna meditation. The different sections of the Bardo Thodol embody many of the same themes or goals found in the structure of meditation. Within texts and doctrines of Mahāyāna meditation, sections such as “Compassion,” “The Thought of Enlightenment,” “The Return to the World,” and “The Stages on the Path” are outlined.

The act of meditation can again be linked to the idea of suffering seen on page 86 of the reading, where the idea of fearing the loss of a loved one is discussed. We suffer when we think of losing a loved one. Caring for a loved one and almost pampering them leads to the question of it being a set up for samsara. Either way, the connection between loved ones can help, in my opinion. The meditation of the living plays a great part in their role of assistance. The living physically meditate in order to help the spirit of the deceased stuck in bardo, as this specific time within the Bardo Thodol readings (which are meant to be read by a monk directly to the body for forty-nine days) is the strongest for the aiding by the living. The living not only assist the deceased through meditation, but also aid in overcoming their own grieving stages by doing so.

Starting on page 33 of the reading, the benefits of liberation and enlightenment are outlined. Meditation is the act performed in order to help follow the path to enlightenment, which in turn can be liberation. Through reviewing the text of the Bardo Thodol, one can see the meditative instruction and function of the Bardo Thodol act as a guide to the living just as it is a guide to the dead while in bardo. Each instruction that is to be read from the text as well as each bardo description can be related to the being of a living meditator, or even that of a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is “a being who seeks enlightenment.” The bodhisattva is a being with the intent of achieving full Buddhahood for the welfare of all beings through attaining enlightenment.  The path of a bodhisattva bares resemblance to the living (in most cases the monk) that are reciting and using the Bardo Thodol to guide the deceased. The living that are reciting the text to the body are focusing on helping another spirit reach its enlightenment or the best path to rebirth. The role of a bodhisattva can be compared to the living assisting the deceased, but can also be compared to the spirit of the deceased in bardo. As outlined in Words of My Perfect Teacher starting on page 137 in the sixth chapter, following a spiritual friend and the role of a teacher is very important. Within the reading it highlights that once one finds a true spiritual friend, one must not be afraid to follow them. In the case of impermanence within the reading, the important role of a spiritual teacher or leader can be interrelated.

Within each chapter of the reading the idea of impermanence is visible. Whether the chapters are separated from each other or not, impermanence and meditation interrelate with each topic of the separate chapters (samsara, action, liberation, and following a spiritual leader).

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