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Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 161-164

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Dakini's Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism . By Judith Simmer-Brown. Boston: Shambhala, 2001. xxv + 404 pp.

For more than a century, the dakini of Hindu and Buddhist tantric literature and practice lore has intrigued, fascinated, beguiled, and confounded Western scholars. First described by Austine Waddell in 1895 as "demonical furies" and "she-devils," S.C.Das's ATibetan-English Dictionary, published just shortly afterward, defined mkha' 'gro ma (the Tibetan equivalent of the Sanskrit term dakini ) as "a class, mainly of female sprites, akin to our witches, but not necessarily ugly or deformed." More recently the dakini has been investigated by scholars as diverse as David Snellgrove, Rene Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Nathan Katz, Janet Gyatso, Miranda Shaw, and myself. Snellgrove suggested in his Buddhist Himalaya (1957) that "their [i.e., the dakinis' ] activities are generally so gruesome and obscene as to earn them quite properly the name witch," but he conceded that they entered Tibetan mythology "in a rather more gentle aspect." Even so, this ubiquitous, powerful, and yet ever-elusive figure —or symbol, image, motif, or principle—has remained, it seems, just beyond our reach. In a certain respect, this is exactly as it should be; for the dakini— at least within the systems of the Buddhist tantras—is the symbol of transcendent wisdom itself, direct and unmediated, hovering just outside the reach of all discursive language and reasoning.

Today one scholar, Judith Simmer-Brown, has given us a thoughtful, well-informed, and well-researched treatment of the history and functioning of the dakini (which she prefers to refer to as a "symbol" or "principle") that seeks to present a balanced discussion and overview of this feminine principle and steers clear of the essentializing and reductionist pitfalls of either Jungian interpretations or contemporary feminist ones. It is timely that we take a careful look at Simmer-Brown's work, not only because it represents the most complete exploration to date of the dakini in a single volume, but also because this valuable study has just been reprinted in paperback.

Though in the preface of her work Simmer-Brown characterizes her methodology as being "perhaps wildly messy," there is clearly both system and method in her [End Page 161] presentation. Her study begins with a careful delineation of what may be called the two extremes or poles of contemporary interpretations of the dakini: the one, influenced by Jungian psychology in which the dakini is seen as Jung's famed "shadow," and the other, influenced by feminist goddess theology, which has served either to see the dakini as a feminine savior or as the source of a critique of Tibetan Buddhism in which this feminine ideal reflects an objectified product of patriarchal fantasy. For Simmer-Brown, both poles of interpretation are inadequate; and in her first chapter, "Gender, Subjectivity, and the Feminine Principle," she argues powerfully and convincingly about why this is the case. Indeed, in many respects, this carefully argued opening chapter is the true centerpiece of the work.

With respect to Jungian analysis, while Simmer-Brown sees "some real benefits in employing Jungian ideas in interpreting the dakini, " she notes the skewing and distorting complications introduced by Jung's emphasis on contrasexuality. Ultimately, Simmer-Brown declares, "the pervasiveness of the Jungian paradigm in examination of the dakini emphasizes contrasexuality, the ultimacy of gender imagery, and psychological interpretation. These emphases have precipitated a blizzard of feminist objections, and no wonder. However, that critique may be directed more toward Jungian tenets than toward Tibetan Buddhism, which has not been properly represented in Western interpretation" (17).

Simmer-Brown's case is especially well made with regard to the second pole of interpretation. Here she notes that recent studies of the dakini that employ feminist considerations have generally taken two directions. Namely, "one identifies the dakini as a construct of patriarchy drawn by a primarily monastic Buddhism in Tibet into the service of the religious goals of male practitioners only. The second perspective identifies the dakini as a goddess figure in...


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