Interview with Miranda Shaw
In Tantric Buddhism, I see the male principle as the consort to the female…If you look in a dictionary, consort implies subordination. So I use this term for the male because, in the Tantric text, the male is subordinate to the female, in the sense that the female is more likely to have a direct unalienable relationship with reality, by virtue of having a female body which is an extremely complex intricate instrument of reality calibration.
An Interview with Tantra Author – Miranda Shaw by Tashi Powers
Miranda Shaw is an Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at the University of Richmond. Her forthcoming book, “Passionate Enlightenment“ is a controversial and thought-provoking look at the origins of the Tantric Tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. This interview took place in the summer of 1995 in Richmond Va. I heard about Miranda through a Tibetan Buddhist student who had heard her speak in NYC. I had been a student of Kalu Rinpoche’s since 1972 and was patting down the goosebumps when I set up the interview over the phone. I had found myself disillusioned with Male Patriarchal Hierarchy and lost my interest in Tibetan Buddhism when Kalu died. As Miranda had also taken an exodus from the Male Patriarchal aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, the resonance was great. What follows are excerpts of our talk on the full moon Eclipse day of May of 1995. Ms. Shaw is a compelling speaker whose presence commands your focus, at the same time a feeling of delight permeates as she shares her insights as if they were sacred treasures. Her subject is of interest to men and women, as we both rediscover the mystery of the feminine. So many enlightening people speak about the need to recognize our divinity through the very act of being human: Herein lies another perspective on that path, one of great interest to everyone, that of the sacredness of sexuality.
(Tashi) Tell me about the origins of your interest in Tantra.
(Miranda Shaw) I was a lost sophomore at college, already interested in Hinduism when I went to an exhibit of Tibetan paintings and became fascinated by the female figures that I saw in the art. They looked very powerful to me and they also seemed very mysterious because I’d never seen anything like them, so I wanted to find out who they were and what they were. Academically this led me to major in Art History, specifically Asian Art History to try to understand the sacred meanings. Spiritually this led me to search out some Tibetan Lamas at the earliest opportunity and I started to study with them.
I was studying the art academically and then I also studied with a Lama, Khenpo Karthar who had just come to the US and showed up in Columbus, Ohio. I met him and was very impressed by him and so I helped to found the Buddhist Center in Columbus Ohio which is still there. But before I graduated I had become very disillusioned with the masculinist orientation and presentation, that even though there were these fantastic female images in the art it seemed like most of the teachers were men. There was a hierarchical structure that seems to be very appropriate perhaps to feudal Tibet but didn’t quite resonate with me as an American
. And the hierarchy was also very gender-oriented with men at the top and women at the bottom. So I became extremely disillusioned with the institutional side of Tibetan Buddhism because it really didn’t work. I basically left Tibetan Buddhism as a practice. I retained my intellectual fascination with it and I still wanted to understand who these women were, and I had a very strong intuition that there were… that the origins of the movement must have been very different for them to have produced art like that; of these totally blazingly powerful females.
The Tantric tradition arose in non-hierarchical circles led by women and in which there was a preponderance of women to which men aspired to be admitted and on occasion were and then those men became the great “founders” of the tradition. So women have a historical basis for questioning discriminatory institutional arrangements. it is not simply that they are modern discontented feminists as they are sometimes labelled, but they are drawn by the vision, the egalitarian vision at the heart of the spiritual tradition that they instinctively recognize. They are drawn by the heat of that vision.
I really set out to explore the origins of the tradition rather than the modern Tibetan expression of it. After I completed my degree in Art History, I decided that the way to explore the religious meaning more deeply would be to actually study religion, the discipline of religion. I went to Harvard Divinity School and pursued Sanskrit and Tibetan languages and studied the available texts and translations.
I really didn’t know this was going to be a life-long search at this time, I really thought it was going to be a matter of going into the available scholarship and the available translations but it did dawn on me as I reached the end of my master’s degree that no one else had done this work and that if I didn’t do it, no one else was going to do it, and so I applied to the Ph.D. program at Harvard University, and I admitted that this was my goal; to document women and gender at the origins of Tantric Buddhism in India.
They did admit me and then I spent several years really learning how to translate texts, and I thought that once I knew how to translate the texts for myself that I would have the key to what I was looking for. And it slowly became clear to me that I couldn’t translate those Tantric texts unless I had guides to their meaning…because Tantric texts are very mysterious.
(Tashi) And secret, it’s an oral tradition.
(Miranda Shaw) Yes, so then I realized that I would have to go to where they were written, in India, in the Himalayas and try to find living masters. And so that is what I did in 1987 and 1988. So I had a physical journey as well.
And I went from one teacher to another, trying to find someone who was familiar with the Yogini Tantra teachings and all the passages in the texts on Women. So it took me six months to find someone. I found him in Ladok. When I first met him I was consciously simply looking for someone who could guide me in my intellectual, and historical search, but he saw me not only as this scholar but also as a spiritual seeker and so our work together quickly attained a spiritual dimension because that is the level on which they are used to working.
I had already decided that if I did turn to the practice of Tantric Buddhism that it would be with a teacher who fully respected the spirituality of women and the inherent Buddhahood of women and the capacity of women to attain Buddhahood in the present lifetime and in the female body. So I interviewed him at great length about his views on women and gender and he passed all my contemporary twentieth-century tests.
(Tashi) Which were?
(Miranda Shaw) I questioned him at great length about the female body, the innate capacity of the female body, was there any great incapacity. Was there any emotional incapacity? Did they see any inherent problems?
(Tashi) Because I guess you had heard that they say things like women have a lower birth?
(Miranda Shaw) No! They absolutely do not.
(Tashi) Somewhere they do.
(Miranda Shaw) In Tibet they say things. But there is a difference between what ancient texts say and what living modern Tibetan Lamas say. So my search was to find out what the ancient texts say. There was no statement like that anywhere in any Tantra. The reason is that the Tantras have a Gynocentric World View. They focus on women as worthy of honour and respect, and those who practice Tantra must follow and accept this philosophy. They must honour women and femaleness in order to follow the Tantric path. If you want to denigrate femaleness then there are ascetical paths and monastic paths. The modern people who do pronounce upon the inferiority of women are generally monks who had to build up psychological resistance and barriers to women. That has nothing to do with Tantra. This was some of the confusion that I wanted to unravel
(Tashi) And so he was definitely not in that league?
(Miranda Shaw) No, he had studied the Tantras in great depth. He took me to his hermitage in Ladach and we spent hundreds of hours going over these texts; The Cakrasamvara Tantra especially. So I spent hundreds of hours going over these texts with a Tantric Master.
(Tashi) How do you see the male and female aspects of Tantric divinity?
(Miranda Shaw) I see women as an enlightener. In Tantric Buddhism, I see the male principle as the consort to the female in the sense of a supporter, an upholder, a honorer, and a respecter. I see the female as a consort to the male in the sense of an enlightener, a guide, a bliss-bestower. I don’t use the same word for male and female. I simply don’t use the term “consort” for the most part for the female, because for women I use spiritual companion, spiritual guide, and Guru. Because in the West if you look in the dictionary, consort implies subordination. So I use it for the male because in the Tantric texts, the male is subordinate to the female in the sense that the female is more likely to have a direct unalienated relationship with reality, by virtue of having a female body which is an extremely complex, intricate instrument of reality calibration.
(Tashi) How do you translate the Tibetan terms, “Daka and Dakini”?
(Miranda Shaw) In Sanskrit, there is only one word, Dakini. There are only female Dakinis. If you are talking about both males and females, they have other sets of terms, such as hero and heroine, yogi and yogini, sadhaka and sadhaki. But there is no male Dakini. It is an impossibility and a contradiction in terms.
(Tashi) Pictorially don’t the Dakinis have consorts?
(Miranda Shaw) The consort of a dakini is a hero, a yogi. In Sanskrit, daka is simply an abbreviation of Dakini, because, in Sanskrit texts, in sacred texts, every line must have the same number of syllables. So if they needed to drop one syllable they would simply say Daka instead of Dakini.
(Tashi) In modern times, these times that we live in, what advice do you have for women who are on the spiritual path? Say, for instance, they are studying with very enlightening teachers who happen to be male.
(Miranda Shaw) My advice is to be very careful in choosing a teacher. There is always an element of surrender in the teacher-student relationship because you are surrendering your present personality and your present ego structure for the higher realizations that will emerge. Therefore before they enter the level at which surrender will occur, I advise women to scrutinize and test the teacher very carefully for his views on femaleness and women. I would question the teacher at great length.
Don’t just ask one simple question: ”Do you think men and women are equal?” Anyone can just say “yes” to that question, and it may not be true! Women may not be equal to men, but women may be superior to men in some way and he should know that. Test very carefully before accepting them. I really tested my teacher daily for a number of months, before really accepting him.
(Tashi) In terms of your worldview on men and women and the soul, do you think that men and women need each other in modern life? Many men have gone off to caves historically. Do women need to self-empower, finding their own way to go to their own caves?
(Miranda Shaw) Men and women definitely need one another. And if we don’t learn to cooperate and enlighten and uplift one another, I don’t think we’ll survive as a race. Women need to empower themselves because men will not empower them. But once we have empowered ourselves it is important to share what we have learned with everyone, each other and the men in our midst. The men who have the wisdom to apprentice themselves to us. Because we have something to teach them, a perspective that they have lost.
(Tashi) What do you think that is, essence-wise?
(Miranda Shaw) The value of human life, the purity and blissfulness of the human body, the capacity for a harmonious complementarity between the sexes rather than a relationship of domination or exploitation, and the capacity for communication and sensitive interactions with other creatures and nature and the earth itself.
(Tashi) What about sex?
How do you see sex in terms of modern spirituality?
Obviously, you regard sexuality as sacred…
Tantra teaches us that it is the gateway to transcendence.
(Miranda Shaw) Sexuality can be central to one’s spiritual path because sexuality is the paradigm of how one relates to life on every level.
In other words, whatever problems you have with life, with your body or with your emotions become magnified and symbolized in the realm of sexuality.
And similarly, as you work to enlighten your sexuality, you are enlightening your being on every level. And so I feel that sexuality is the key to spiritual growth in these times.
(Tashi) So you don’t recommend that people be celibate?
(Miranda Shaw) If people choose to become celibate they have to do so with the realization of the perils of that path. The perils are profound alienation from themselves and from life and from the opposite sex. People may become celibate for a short time in order to emphasize or explore some other dimension of their being, but I think when people take on celibacy as a lifetime path they should simply consider the over-arching philosophy which would render that celibacy desirable. Often such a philosophy is a life-denying, anti-matter and often anti-female gynophobic philosophy because women create bodies. We create and nurture life. We often become the target of life-denying, ascetical philosophies. And so I think people should question what is being offered by such a philosophy, what would they be gaining? And just evaluate it.
(Tashi) I think people have a lot of questions about sexuality and intimacy in terms of Tantra. Many people are offering Tantric workshops, there are a lot of books out there with Tantra in the title, which is more about the location of the G-spot than about the path of transcendence.
(Miranda Shaw) There are a lot of books which have Tantra in the title which are about sex, which is not about spirituality. There are very few which are genuinely about spirituality. It’s a very hot topic right now and I think it just represents the fact that people are lost sexually right now, that we have had so much sexual freedom and it simply made us realize that we are still not getting it. And so we are looking, we are open to other paths.
(Tashi) Would you agree though that Women have for so long denied their enlightening states? Do you walk your talk?
(Miranda Shaw) It’s not something one needs to say directly. If people find you enlightening then you are enlightening. It’s not something you need to announce.
(Tashi) Do you have students? Do you teach anyone?
(Miranda Shaw) I teach at the University of Richmond. I teach Buddhist studies and Goddess traditions and World Religions so of course I have a ready-made audience for spiritual principles that can bring wholeness and healing of women as women and the relations between men and women. If anyone reads my book or attends a talk and finds that enlightening, to that degree I am enlightening.
(Tashi) Do you think it’s important for women to actively entrain, even though once you reach a certain level of awareness you aren’t doing anything anymore, it’s either happening or not happening.
(Miranda Shaw) Yes and I think it’s important for women to remember that in the Buddhist tradition,