I met with longtime docent Antoinette Maclachlan, who is passionate about her topic of ancient female power, and leads the tours, which look at its roots in the Indic (both Hindu and Buddhist) tradition.
Maclachlan both shows and tells how, in Hindu more than Buddhist mythology, we find the mother-protector and furious warrior all in one. The Seven Divine Mothers (Sapta Matrika)—awesome, fierce, blood-drinking early goddesses—depict the wild side of women as they help the supreme Mother Goddess Durga battle demons.
I take in the fantastical banner painting of the Matrika Varahi, with her boar head
(symbolizing her god counterpart Varaha’s avatar of the great god Vishnu), and scrutinize her various accessories: a tantric fish icon, a dagger, as well as ribbons and trinkets of what look like tiny dangling skulls. I certainly would want her on my side!
As fascinating as these goddesses are, I want to connect with real women. For that, we have the four female mahasiddhas, or yogic adepts, of the Buddhist “84 Mahasiddhas” tradition (the other eighty are men), who achieved within their lifetime direct realization of the Buddha’s teaching to become fully enlightened beings.
Of the four, two are classic templates for women even today: the model wife and the princess who was “crazy like a fox.” Manibhadra, the model wife. performed her wifely duties without complaint, maintaining her Buddhist practices all the while. One day she saw the light, in the message of a cracked jug of water, and knew it was time to leave that life. She immediately flew up into the sky and became fully enlightened.
The mad Princess Lakshminkara, on the other hand, avoided marriage by her eccentric behavior. In the end, pretending to be insane, she went to live in a cremation ground, eating scraps thrown to the dogs, in order to continue her Buddhist sadhana.
You can't mention enlightened Tibetan women without talking about Yeshe Tsogyal, the most famous woman practitioner in the whole of Tibet, and a spiritual teacher in her own right. At the age of sixteen she was married to King Trisong Detsen, but then given as an offering to Guru Rimpoche (who brought Buddhism to Tibet), and he set her free. She became his most devoted disciple and ultimately his main tantric consort. When Guru Rinpoche left Tibet it was Yeshe Tsogyal who wrote his biography and spread his teachings. She is known as the “Mother of Tibetan Buddhism.”
We went up to view the spectacular and visually sly Demoness of Tibet, a symbolic depiction in a late 19th century painting on cloth which is actually the landscape of Tibet. Before Buddhism could take root there, the land of Tibet was seen as a demoness that needed to be subdued. It took thirteen temples to pin “her” (Tibet) down, with the largest, Lhasa’s Jokhang, directly over her heart. The idea of subduing virgin land by building tall edifices upon it is a common theme the world over, including Manhattan, Maclachlan explained. (Of course, look at Trump Tower!)
I really wasn’t sure about where women stood in ancient Buddhist society. I learned that Buddhism in Tibet was mostly a male-dominated, monastic society. Women could be viewed as a distraction for the meditating monks, but conversely, they also had the potential to become fully enlightened beings. Were men originally feeling threatened by women because of their power to give birth? My guide diplomatically altered my perception.
“I'm not sure about feeling threatened, I would say they were revered. There were fertility goddesses in many ancient civilizations and apparently some matriarchal societies on the borders of Tibet. At some point it must have been realized that woman needed man in the process of procreation and gods like Shiva rose in popularity, with the powerful phallic symbolism of the Linga and tall, vertical temple towers.”
I don’t want to give it all away here, because the story of the other two mahasiddhas, the Headless Sisters, is certainly worth the price of admission.
“Yes, we'll talk about women who literally loose their heads in Tour Three. There's some extraordinary imagery around decapitation and what that symbolizes. We see how the boar-headed Hindu Matrika, Varahi, inspires the imagery of the Buddhist dakini, Vajravarahi, and some of the powerful and strange ritual practices that surround her.”
Don’t miss this opportunity to pick Antoinette Maclachlan’s brain as she dishes on goddess power and shares stories of how a handful of enlightened women broke through the glass ceiling over the Himalayas in daring and dazzling ways, all those years ago.