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Wisdom Dakinis, passionate and wrathful by John Myrdhin Reynolds

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In general, the Buddhist term “Dakini” can be taken to mean goddess. In the Tibetan language this Sanskrit term is translated as Khandroma (mkha’-‘gro-ma) meaning “she who traverses the sky” or “she who moves in space.”

Dakinis are active manifestations of energy.

Therefore, they are usually depicted as dancing, this also indicating that they actively participate in the world, or in the spiritual perspective, in both Samsara and Nirvana.

In the Tantric Buddhist tradition of Tibet, Dakinis basically represent manifestations of energy in female form, the movement of energy in space.

In this context, the sky or space indicates Shunyata, the insubstantiality of all phenomena, which is, at the same time, the pure potentiality for all possible manifestations.

And the movements of their dance signify the movements of thoughts and the energy spontaneously emerging from the nature of mind.

Being linked to energy in all its functions, the Dakinis are much associated with the revelation of the Anuttara Tantras or Higher Tantras, which represent the path of transformation.

What is transformed here is energy.

This method is quite reminiscent of alchemy, the transmutation of base metal into pure precious gold.

In this case, the energy of the negative emotions or kleshas, called poisons, are transformed into the luminous energy of enlightened awareness or gnosis (jnana).

These energies may be of a transcendent and spiritual in nature, in which case they are called Jnana Dakinis (ye-shes kyi mkha’-‘gro-ma) or wisdom goddesses.

Here “wisdom” or gnosis (jnana, ye-shes) means spiritual knowledge. Wisdom Dakinis are feminine manifestations of Buddha enlightenment and as such they transcend the conditioned existence of Samsara.

Or they may be of a worldly nature, in which case one speaks of Karma Dakinis (las kyi mkha’-‘gro-ma) or action goddesses.

As such they still belong to Samsara and are not enlightened beings.

These Dakinis live and move in the dimension of energy of the earth. Some of these worldly Dakinis, who were once local pagan goddesses and nature spirits, were subdued and converted in the past and now serve as Guardians of the Buddhist teachings.

Thus, there are basically two kinds of Dakinis.

The corresponding manifestation of energy in a male form is called a Daka (mkha’-‘gro).

The term Khandro, or more properly Khandroma, is also applied, especially in Eastern Tibet, to a woman Lama or spiritual teacher, and even to the wife or daughter of a Lama, as an honorific title much like “Lady.”

The designation Dakini is also found in Hindu tradition, but here it is applied only to very minor goddesses, resembling more what we would call witches in our Western tradition.

They appear as wild female spirits in the retinue accompanying the great goddess Durga.

In the early middle ages, Hindu theologians and philosophers came to speak of the goddesses as shaktis, that is, as the personified energy of their male divine consorts.

However, in the Buddhist tradition, the term has a much wider and more important usage.

The Dakini, as a manifestation of enlightened awareness, represents wisdom (prajna) and not just energy (shakti).

Wisdom (prajna) is that higher intellectual faculty of mind that penetrates into the nature of reality, distinguishing what is true from what is false, and so on.

We find here a phenomenon similar to the personification of wisdom as a female figure in the western tradition, as Hochmah or Sophia.

Moreover, this wisdom is not a young maiden who is sweet, sentimental, and passive. Rather, a Dakini is an active manifestation of enlightenment.

She is a manifestation of energy, although Buddhist texts do not use the term shakti.


Moreover, the Dakini is a manifestation of the energy of enlightened awareness in the stream of consciousness of the individual male practitioner, which awakens that consciousness to the spiritual path, thus playing the role of the archetypal figure the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung designated as the Anima.

The Anima represents the unconscious female side of the male personality. In a female stream of consciousness, the Animus or Daka is the figure that plays the corresponding role.

These male counterparts are called Dakas and are usually depicted as Tantric yogis with long matted hair, naked or attired in animal skins, wearing ornaments of human bone, and dwelling in cemeteries and cremation grounds.

At certain places of pilgrimage and in cremation grounds, the Dakas and Dakinis will gather at certain phases of the moon in order to celebrate the Tantric feast called the Ganachakra Puja.

These nocturnal rites under the moon are reminiscent of the Bacchanalia or the Witches’ Sabbat in the West.

The Dakas and Dakinis come to the feast, flying through the sky, and gather around the huge cauldron made from a gigantic skull, where they sing and dance and drink.

But because it has been mostly men who have written books and accounts of their meditation experiences throughout Tibetan history, the emphasis has been on Dakinis, rather than Dakas.

According to the system of the Buddhist Tantras, the practitioner goes to refuge not only in the Three Jewels (dkon-mchog gsum) of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, but to refuge in the Three Roots (rtsa-ba gsum) of the Guru,

the Deity, and the Dakini. In terms of meditation practices relating to these Three Roots, it is said the Guru or spiritual master grants to the practitioner the blessings or spiritual energy of inspiration and enlightenment.

The Devatas or Meditation Deities grant siddhis or psychic and spiritual powers and the Dakinis grant karma-siddhis or magical powers that are of a more worldly purpose.

Wrathful Deities

In general, the Buddhist Tantras are divided into four classes of texts and their corresponding practices.

In the three Lower Tantras known as the Kriya Tantra, the Charya Tantra, and the Yoga Tantra, the Buddha images and divine forms generally belong to the sunny daylight side of consciousness.

These Buddha figures are all peaceful, smiling, fashionably well-dressed, and sitting in the sky radiating light, like the sun itself on a clear sunny day.

Indeed, the compassion of the Buddha is often compared to the rays of the sun, which falls upon everyone equally, the sinner and the righteous alike.

These celestial hierarchies of radiant Buddha figures and choirs of great Bodhisattvas filling the heavens may be compared to similar celestial beatific visions in the monotheistic religions.

For an example of such a poetic celestial vision, one only has to read Dante’s Paradiso.

But human existence and consciousness is not always sunny and spiritual, attired in white robes and filled to overflowing with sweetness and light. There is also the dark side.


This twilight side or dark side of human consciousness is addressed in the fourth class or Higher Tantra, known as Anuttara Tantra. Although the archetypal figures, the Goddess and the Devil, have been expelled and banned from heaven by the monotheistic religions, a heaven we conventionally consider to be an entirely spiritual dimension, they reappear as darkly luminous figures in the Higher Tantras.

At certain times, the Dakinis, riding through the sky on the backs of wild animals and led by their queen, gather in the cemetery or cremation ground on the mountain and dance naked around their bubbling cauldron.

The predominant symbolism here is lunar rather than solar; it is nighttime rather than daytime.

The symbolism is chthonic, belonging to the earth and the underworld, rather than celestial and belonging to heaven.

In general, the iconography of the Anuttara Tantras is characterized by the presence of these witches or Dakinis and by these demonic wrathful deities.

In the Lower Tantras, wrathful deities occasionally appear, but they play a secondary and subservient role as body-guards and doorkeepers.

However, in the Anuttara Tantras these banned figures come to step forward and stand in the center of the Mandala.

These two suppressed archetypal figures, the Goddess and the Devil, re-emerge from the shadows of consciousness and are re-admitted into the light of heaven, which is our daytime consciousness.

Historical Evolution of the Buddhist Tantras

But the ascension to heaven of the Goddess and these Wrathful Deities was part of a historical process that reflected the social and political conditions that appeared in Northern India the thousand years after the time of the appearance of the historical Buddha.

According to Edward Conze, the evolution of Mahayana Buddhism was in part stimulated by the movement of Buddhism before the time of Christ into the south of India inhabited by Dravidian peoples.

Dravidian-speaking South India was precisely the area where the Prajnaparamita Sutra tradition of Mahayana Buddhism developed and where wisdom first became personified as the Great Goddess.

Indeed, even today, each village in the south of India has its own Amma or local Mother Goddess.

And according to Etienne Lamotte, the other core region for the development of Mahayana Buddhism was the northwest, in what is today Pakistan and Afghanistan, were the original Indian Buddhism came into an interface with Iranian culture, and even with the Greeks in Gandhara and Bactria.

It was Greek Buddhists in Afghanistan who, before the time of Christ, produced the first images of the Buddha, based on the icon of the Greek god Apollo.

Figures of Iranian inspiration also appeared in Mahayana scriptures and art, such as the future Buddha Maitreya, who is based on the Iranian savior god Mithra, and the Buddha Amitabha in his western paradise of Sukhavati, who appears to be similar to the Iranian high god Ahura Mazda.

According to the Chinese pilgrims who visited India in 5th-7th centuries, the Buddhist monasteries in north-central India were still largely Hinayana in outlook. Mahayana was strongest on the periphery, in the south and in the northwest.

This was equally true for the development of the Tantras a thousand years after the historical Buddha.

According to Tibetan historians, such as Taranatha (b. 1575) and Pema Karpo (b. 1527), the Anuttara Tantras originated not in north-central India, the original field of activity of the historical Buddha, but to the northwest in the mysterious land of Uddiyana.

G. Tucci, basing himself on two medieval Tibetan accounts written long after the historical Uddiyana had vanished in the Muslim invasions of India and Afghanistan, believed that Uddiyana was the small Swat valley in modern day Pakistan.

But there is ample evidence to show that Uddiyana was a much larger region including a goodly portion of Eastern Afghanistan.

According to Tibetan historians, the Buddha visited Uddiyana at the invitation of its king Indrabhuti and in response to the king’s request for a spiritual path that did not require him to renounce the world and his kingship in order to become a monk, the Buddha taught the Guhyasamaja Tantra, the Tantra of the Secret Assembly.

This is one of the central Tantras in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition according to both the Old and the New Schools and some Western scholars generally regard the Guhyasamaja as the earliest of the Anuttara Tantras.

Alex Wayman would even place it as early as the 4th century of our era.

It is said that king Indrabhuti and his court practiced the methods of this Tantra and that the people of the country attained enlightenment in such numbers that the country nearly became depopulated.

Even today among the Tibetans, Uddiyana remains the legendary Land of the Dakinis, that is, a land of exceptionally beautiful and independent women.

In the early medieval times, many of the Mahasiddhas or great adepts, who were largely responsible for the revelation of the Buddhist Tantras, were said to have personally visited Uddiyana in order to receive initiation into the practice of the Tantras from the Dakinis.

This included famous names such as Nagarjuna the alchemist (the reincarnation of the earlier philosopher Nagarjuna), Saraha, Tilopa, and others.

It was said that Nagarjuna recovered from a stupa beside the Danakosha lake the original text of the Tantras written down by Indrabhuti himself.

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The texts of the Tantras had been guarded and preserved there by the Nagas, the serpentine spirits of water who dwelled in the lake. He returned with these texts to India and transmitted the Higher Tantric teachings to the Brahman Saraha and other Mahasiddhas.

Moreover, it appears that these Dakinis in Uddiyana were not just goddesses or symbols, but actual flesh and blood women practitioners of the Tantras. [5]

The names of some of them survive, such as the princess Lakshimkara, the sister of king Indrabhuti, because they wrote texts that have survived. Otherwise, most of these women Tantrikas remain veiled in myth and legend.

The Transformation of Wrath

Beside the Dakini, the other striking figure in these Higher Tantras is the Krodha or wrathful deity. In the earlier Mahayana Sutras and the texts of the Lower Tantras we find only the peaceful beatific visions of the Buddhas in the celestial mandala palace.

How was it that the religion of a peaceful non-violent order of monks and mendicants gave rise to these visions of terrifying wrathful deities, which would be considered demons and devils by most Westerners?

The monastic Sangha always depended on outside patronage because the monks themselves had renounced the world and did not engage in commerce or productive labor.

Historically speaking, the earliest source of large-scale patronage for the Buddhist Sangha was the Indian merchant class.

This began in the time of the historical Buddha himself when certain donations of land were made for places of residence for the monks during the rainy season retreat.

 Within a few hundred years these hermitages grew into large monastic universities with thousands of monks.

With the Emperor Ashoka, the Buddhist monastic community came to experience royal patronage.

This royal patronage by kings and princes continued off and on until the collapse of the Pala dynasty and the destruction of the Buddhist monasteries in Northern India in the 13th century by the invading Muslim armies.

But much earlier, the kings in the northwest who patronized Buddhism experienced invasions by Scythians, Huns, Turks, and Iranian speaking peoples, as well as by the Arabs in Sindh province.

The invading Muslins from the West had no respect for indigenous Indian religious culture, considering it mere idolatry, and, moreover, the Muslims possessed a proselytizing religion of their own that they sought to impose upon those peoples they conquered. Both Hindus and Buddhists suffered grievously in these invasions.

At first the foreign invaders adopted the native religions, both Buddhism and Shaivism.

Around the time of Christ, Buddhism and Shaivism were keen rivals in Afghanistan and the Buddhists frankly modeled their principal wrathful meditation deity called Heruka on Bhairava, the wrathful form of Shiva.

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Therefore, in the Buddhist meditation practices offered to these princes, or even more likely, actually developed by them, the body-guards and the doorkeepers figures such as the Bodhisattvas Vajrapani, Hayagriva, and Yamantaka, came in from the periphery and occupied the center of the mandala as the wrathful manifestations of Buddha enlightenment.

To a besieged aristocracy on the frontiers of Indian civilization, there wrathful deities, who have the power to overcome, subdue, and destroy enemies, whether evil spirits or foreign invaders, had a certain appeal.

In the Greek art of Gandhara before the time of Christ, Vajrapani, the personal body-guard of the Buddha, appeared in the guise of a very human Heracles with his club. But five hundred years after Christ,

Vajrapani and the other Krodharajas appear in almost demonic form—dark blue in color like storm clouds, baring their fangs, with flame-like reddish or blond hair, garlanded with serpents and necklaces of human skulls.

At the same time the northwest of Greater India fell into chaos as army after army invaded from the West.

But whether the central deity in the mandala palace is wrathful or feminine or both wrathful and feminine, as is the case with the Dakini Simhamukha, this terrifying figure is a manifestation of the enlightened awareness and compassion of the Buddha.

Even a terrifying wrathful deity, such as a Krodharaja, is the expression of the compassion of the Buddha in terms of his skillful means.

At certain times, it is necessary for the Buddha, although all-loving and all-compassionate in himself, to show an angry and wrathful face, just as a parent might have to show an angry face when disciplining a naughty child.

Otherwise, the willful child will ignore his mother’s or father’s request. In the same way, the evil spirits and the invading barbarian armies from the northwest were not impressed in early medieval times by the eloquence and the peaceful non-violent manner of Buddhist monks.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Muslim armies from the west invaded Northern India and totally destroyed the flourishing monastic universities of Nalanda, Vikrmashila, and Odantapuri.

In the process, they massacred tens of thousands of monks who did not resist the invaders. This slaughter was justified because the saffron-robed monks were regarded as infidels and idolaters.

The temples were destroyed, the books burned, and the Buddha images melted down for their gold.

All that remained in the wake of these armies was death and desolation from Uddiyana to Bengal.

And Buddhism ceased to be a functioning religious culture in the lands of the West.

The Jains and the Brahmans, however, were able to survive this onslaught because they did not concentrate their clergy and intelligenzia in a few large monastic-universities.

They remained decentralized in the villages throughout Northern India and did not usually become the targets for these marauding armies.

But that was history and conditions were different in Tibet when Buddhism became established there in the 8th and 9th centuries. Wrathful deities were just part of the Buddha Dharma imported from India and therefore accepted.

And moreover, the Tibetans, in their pre-Buddhist shamanistic culture, had plenty of experience with evil spirits.

The subduing and exorcising and casting out of evil spirits were traditionally always a part of the healing work of the shaman.

The commentaries to the Tantras composed by the Lamas, however, explain that it is because there is so much anger and hatred and violence abroad in the world during this Kali Yuga, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have created such a profusion of wrathful deities for meditation practice.

But in every case, the purpose is the same-- the transformation of the energy of the negative emotion of anger and hatred, which breeds violence, chaos, and destruction into something positive, into enlightened awareness, itself.

This transformation is par excellence the method of the Anuttara Tantras: the transformation or alchemical transmutation of the energy of negative emotions (klesha) into positive enlightened awareness (jnana).

It was not that Buddhists ever worshipped demons, but rather that the negative energy symbolized by these demons was transformed.

This is possible because energy and phenomena have no inherent existence, and that is true also of the energy of our emotions.

Phenomena and manifestations of energy are empty (shunyata), so therefore the transforming of the negative into the positive in always possible.

This contrasts with the method enshrined in the Sutras, that is to say, the renunciation of life in the world and avoidance of the negative emotions or passions at all costs, like a man would seek to avoid touching a poisonous plant.