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Extract from: The Buddhist Female Deities
from The Goddess Re-Awakens, Shirley Nicholson 80
Until the early years of the Christian era, the male principle reigned supreme and unchallenged in both Buddhism and Brahmanism. The Hindu deities who were inherited and taken for granted by Buddhists were almost exclusively masculine. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas-the "gods" so to speak-belonging to early Mahayana Buddhism were entirely masculine. The first feminine deities to enter Mahayana Buddhism were Tara and Prajnaparamita. Tara, the Savioress, appearing in the second century, is the epiphany of the Great Mother whose worship had in ancient times extended over a vast Afro-Aegian-Asian territory and who has always been worshipped by the pre-Ayran population strata of India. Prajnaparan-dta, "The Perfection of Wisdom," appearing in the fourth century, is the personification of the sutra of the same name. The Prajnaparamita Sutra consists of discourses addressed by the Buddha to Subhuti and other celestial beings, believed to have been hidden away in the custody of the nagas (serpent demigods) until mankind was sufficiently enlightened to comprehend them. In the second century of the Christian era, the Prajnaparan-dta Sutra as expounded by the Indian sage Nagaijuna became the Madhyamika or "Middle Path," the basic text of all the schools of Mahayana. In this famous sutra, which preaches the essential sameness of all opposites and the voidness of all concepts and phenomena, the Buddha declares again and again that Prajnaparamita produced all the Buddhas and is their mother and instructress.
For she (The Perfection of Wisdom) is their mother and begetter, she showed them the all-knowledge, she instructed them in the ways of the world. From her have the Tathagatas come forth. For she has begotten and shown that cognition of the all-knowing, she has shown them the world for what it really is. The all-knowledge of the Tathagatas has come forth from her. All the Tathagatas, past, future and present, win full enlightenment thanks to this very Perfection of Wisdom. It is in this sense that the Perfection of Wisdom generates the Tathagatas and instructs them in this world .... How does Perfect Wisdom show up the world for what it is? She shows that the world is empty, unthinkable, calmly quiet. As purified of itself, she shows up the world.
Prajnaparamita symbolizes the supreme liberating wisdom which is the full consciousness of the Absolute, called Shunya, the Void. She is the divine mother of the infinite space. Her mantra (invocation) has the wondrous effect of opening the mind to enlightenment. During the first mmenium of the Christian era, the mystical-occult development called Tantrism swept over India, obliterating many of the differences between Hinduism and Buddhism. Many Hindu deities were admitted to the Buddhist pantheon as Bodhisattvas and Dharmapala (Defenders of the Doctrine). In the later Tantric Buddhism, especially the Vajrayana (Diamond Path) which has survived only in Tibet, each male divinity is endowed with a feminine partner, as in Hinduism, but the philosophic meanings are different. In Hinduism the feminine deity is the active partner, the shakti (power or energy) of the Lord Shiva, who without her would have remained in the deep sleep of the Absolute. Buddhism reverses these roles in accordance with the mystic philosophy of the Prajnaparamita. The feminine deity is not shakti but prajna (wisdom), which is equated with shunya, the Void. Prajna is the quiescent, the passive, the contemplative. The Buddhas and male deities are the active partners, symbolizing kanna (compassion) and upaya (method or skilful means), the essential characteristics of a Bodhisattva. The mystic union of the world's dualities and especially the inseparable union of wisdom, the feminine principle, and compassion, the male principle, is vividly symbolized in Tibetan art and ritual, most potently perhaps by the vajra and the bell, and by the sacred embrace of the deities, called in Tibetan yab-yum (father-mother). With the aid of these symbols the meditating adept transcends the dualities within his own nature. The final synthesis of compassion and wisdom is his realization of the Absolute.
In Vajrayana, each deity has his place in the divine hierarchy, his mantra, his mandata (sphere of influence, symbolized by a cosn-Lic diagram), his deputies and messengers. Each is recognized by his post, body color, number of heads and limbs, mudras, garments, emblems, ornaments, and accessories. All the above must be clearly and precisely visualized by the adept in order to bring the deity into manifestation. Each deity has peaceful and fierce aspects. In peaceful aspect, the deities, whether masculine or feminine, wear the crown, jewelry, and flowing scarves characteristic of a Bodhisattva. They stand or sit on lotus pedestals and have halos and auras of light rays. In their fierce aspect, they tend to be dynamic in pose and heavy in stature, treading on demons, frowning, having fearsome emblems and omarnents, enveloped in flames.
Prajnaparamita is described as young, serene, grave, and majestic, her golden body emitting millions of rays of light which fill the whole universe. In Tibetan Buddhism, where she is the mystic partner and mother of the Adi (first) Buddha, she may be two or four-armed. One hand holds a volume of the sutra which she personifies. Prajnaparamita's worship extended to Java, and she enjoyed great popularity in Cambodia where she had a Tantric form with eleven heads and twenty-two arms. In Japan she is called HannyaThe noble Tara is described as the "color of the moon, calm, smiling, senuous, radiating five-colored light.... Filled with love for all beings Tara carries her worshippers safely across the ocean of phenomenal existence.
In China and Japan ... the male principle is considered of primal importance, since no woman, without gaining masculinity through incarnation may enter the Pure Land. Tara as the Princess of Moon wisdom said: "Since there is no such thing as a man or a woman and no such thing as a self or a person or awareness, this bondage to male and female is hollwOh how worldly fools delude themselves! ... Thos who wish to attain supreme enlightenment in aman's body are many, but those who wish to serve the aims of beings in a woman's body are few indeed; therefore may I, until this world is emptied out, serve the aim of beings with nothing but the body of a woman".
As a great Bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara may manifest in any form suitable to his beneficent purposes. The educated Buddhist says that the true Kuan-yin is by nature sexless and formless, but is capable of assuming or appearing to assume all forins. Fenollosa expresses this view when he states that " a great Bodhisattva is in its own nature indeterminate as to sex, having risen above the distinction, or rather embodying in itself the united spiritual graces of both sexes. It is a matter of accident which one it may assume upon incarnation.
The chief mother-goddess of Hinduism, the wife of Shiva, enters Tibetan Buddhism in her destructive aspect as Kali as late as the fifteenth century, and soon merges with indigenous Tibetan deities of hke nature. Palden Lhamo, "The Glorious Goddess," is worshipped primarily as a wrathful protectress, enveloped in flames, riding her mule over a sea of blood, and using the flayed skin of her son as a saddle blanket. She is the only feminine deity among the "Eight Terrible Ones," a group of the most powerful Dharmapala (Defenders of the Doctrine).