Tibetan cultural chauvinism among lamas and abuse of women seekers
My review of Traveller in Space by June Campbell (1996; 2002)
Anyone who has followed the recent histories of Zen and Tibetan Buddhist teachers with western devotees knows that, too often, these same teachers have been criticized for both authoritarian and sexual indiscretions. It is easy to play the cynic who believes that these ostensibly celibate or married men--the teachers are almost always monks--find it hard to resist “sexually liberal,” white, westerners who dote over them. And it is easy to degrade devotees who submit “totally” to such gurus as no more than naive seekers who should have known better. In Traveller In Space, June Campbell delivers us beyond superficial cynicism into a scholarly study of the unusual patriarchal system of Tibetan Tantra and its relevance to female subjectivity.
Although Campbell speaks from extensive personal experience--she was a consort of an important Tibetan lama (priest-monk) for several years and an accomplished translator of Tibetan texts--Traveller is not another “ex-member” exposé for lay readers. Campbell lives in Scotland where she teaches Religious Studies. Hers is an important study that utilizes sophisticated psychoanalytic, religious, and cultural theory. She explains and criticizes how the female role, the dakini, in Tibetan Tantra (Vajrayana) has diminished the individual female integrity to comply with a male-dominated, male-defined tradition. Campbell invokes feminist scholarship, especially that of Luce Irigay, as well as religion and mythology scholars, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell (no relation to the author), and Agehananda Bharati among them, to reinforce her perspectives.
In certain terms, Campbell points out the vulnerabilities of Tibetan Tantra to western influence. Tibetan dakinis have been acculturated to accept their roles as unequal if revered “objects” useful to lamas in their sexual rituals. The latter, usually secret, are said to provide powerful opportunities for the lama to attain “enlightenment.” Western ethics (conditioned by a long history of Judeo-Christian influence) and feminist philosophy conflict with this secret patriarchal system. Western women have long complained about sexual exploitation by certain gurus who invoke an “enlightened” status, one that “entitles” them to have sexual contact with devotees. Campbell provides a scholarly and psychoanalytic basis for their complaints as well as a new standard for women within the Tibetan tradition. She admits that if this new standard, one that accepts women as self-determining “subjects” in their own spiritual destiny, were incorporated, Tibetan Tantra would either revolutionize or disappear.
More than a cross-cultural critique, Traveller In Space is a good primer on lamaism and Tantric religious history with its roots in Indian philosophy. Campbell analyses how separation from the mother at a young age has certain emotional effects on “reincarnated” lamas and their ensuing needs for “nurture” from consorts. The title is a translation of the Sanskrit word dakini (Tibetan khandro) that means “sky-goer.” The implication is that the submissive dakini is unattached to any thing and functions as an empty “space” to afford the partner-lama an experience of “enlightenment,” but, in tradition, this does not work in reverse. Campbell systematically discusses and deconstructs such male-generated notions as untenable and “illogical” within and “outwith” the system if Tibetan Tantra is to incorporate status integrity for women. She also points out how lamas manipulate their consorts, or dakinis, by suggesting if they reveal the affair or rebel, the dakini will suffer “madness, trouble, or even death.”
The fact that this manipulative behavior is somehow sanctioned by a centuries-long tradition, largely unchallenged by the females within Tibetan culture, demonstrates how completely the “feminine” has been politically framed by both male-generated symbology and signature, according to Campbell. The effects of Campbell’s study may be difficult to predict, but the need for it in light of the continued attraction of western seekers, particularly women, for exotic “enlightened” teachers is inestimable.
Review by Joseph P. Szimhart published in Skeptical Inquirer (July-August 1996) "A Wayward way to Buddhist Spirituality."