THE SACRED FEMININE – BRINGING BACK THE BALANCE: An Interview Series
“I think there's a great longing in both women and men who come to Buddhist practice to find connection with the sacred feminine, even though it may not be conscious in them. I think there's a great longing for another way of being in the world on this planet.” –Anna Douglas
The following interviews with Spirit Rock teachers touch on the teachings of the Sacred Feminine. For more opportunities to explore this topic, check out our upcoming Residential Retreat The Way of the Sacred Feminine, and our daylong Celebrating the Feminine Divine. Or gather in a women-only group for A Daylong for Self-Identified Women of Color Only.
Anna Douglas (senior Spirit Rock teacher):
The principle of the Sacred Feminine is an archetype that has been present in all religious traditions throughout history. It is an archetype of the feminine as an awake figure. In the Buddhist tradition that archetype has been largely missing or has only appeared periodically.
The sacred feminine has a range of qualities. The first quality of what we could call the archetype of the sacred feminine is love, nurturing, warmth, mothering—Mother Mary, the Great Mother, Prajnaparamita, for example. It’s that motherly, nurturing aspect. And that motherly aspect is certainly present, but it’s not the only quality of the sacred feminine. The sacred feminine also has that clarity and quality of even wrathful compassion that’s part of many traditions—because it’s nondual, it doesn’t represent any one side of love. It represents love in all of its forms.
And I want to stress that this is not feminism, as there is no political agenda here. The feminine we are pointing to is firmly grounded in the understanding of Emptiness (nondual awareness). Therefore our Realization means ultimately letting go of identification with man or woman.
One way to describe the force of the feminine in human consciousness is that it is a force for intimate connection with the absolute nature of reality. There's a famous description of enlightenment from Zen master Dogen which says, "Suddenly she was intimate." This is the action of the feminine force. It is a way of knowing which is non-conceptual, intuitive, immediate and alive.
Vipassana practice encourages this way of knowing, but sometimes it’s presented in a style that doesn’t help women to relax and recognize themselves. Instead they feel inadequate or unworthy. Historically, the way most Buddhist teachings are passed on has been through a male monastic lineage, so the teachings are flavored by masculine ways of expressing them.
At Spirit Rock we have recognized how helpful it is for women to see a feminine figure on the altar. We have a figure of the Prajnaparamitta on the altar in the upper Retreat Hall. This activates in women a feeling of it being okay to be in a female body, because remember that the female body has often been denigrated in traditional Buddhist texts.
There's a Prajnaparamitta practice that some of us are doing now that has language in it that brings in the feminine, such as "Mother of all Buddhas," "pregnant with all phenomena" or "womb of totality.” This communicates that feminine experience is valued in a tradition that has often devalued female experience. Being pregnant or having a womb has been denigrated.
When the retreat center was built at Spirit Rock, it took us a long time to find the right female image for the new upper Retreat Hall. Finally Jack Kornfield, who from the beginning has been a very articulate supporter of women and the feminine, asked a master carver he knew in Bali to carve the image of Prajnaparamita, which now sits on the altar beside the image of the Buddha.
It is significant that this particular image was chosen for our hall. Historically, the Prajnaparamita teachings came in as a wakeup call, as a reminder that we are not to be attached to anything, even to the teachings and practices themselves. Eventually the Prajnaparamita teachings were personified as a female figure. So Prajnaparamita represents the nondual wisdom teaching which is spacious enough to hold the pairs of opposites, the apparent duality of the world. This is the wisdom which sees that there is male and female, and also no male and no female. She is that inclusive wisdom which knows that there is personal and universal, self and no self— that both are true and that neither is true in the ways that we have imagined.
Prajnaparamita is called the “Mother of All Buddhas” because she represents the wisdom which the Buddha—and each one of us—must recognize in order to awaken, in order to be free. The image of the Buddha represents the one who is awake. Prajnaparamita represents the liberating awareness wisdom which is the door to awakening.
My interest in teaching about the Sacred Feminine is to help to bring this balance into our community, into our expression of dharma. Spirit Rock is already at the forefront of this in western dharma. There are so many ways that the feminine principle is being expressed at Spirit Rock and it’s beautiful to see. But there’s more to go.
When we gather as women in these circles on Sacred Feminine retreats, it’s so beautiful. It’s just beautiful to be there, and there’s a specific energy—everyone feels held and safe. By the end of the week you can feel there’s a sort of radiance and embodied aliveness. Women feel from the inside that, “The way I am as a woman is sacred, beautiful, important, powerful.” It’s valued.
We want men and women to understand what the feminine principle is and to see where we can bring that into balance. But we also particularly want to help women reconnect to the fact that the expression of their life as a woman is sacred, and that it’s not just something for men.
This article is excerpted from ‘The Sacred Feminine: Restoring Balance in Challenging Times’ by Walt Opie, published in Spirit Rock News, Feb-Aug 2009 issue.