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The Queer Feminist Rigden

Cutting through embedded patriarchy

Column: Critical Intent

By Alex Vlasic

Developing_Trans__Competence_in_Buddhism-296x300In my first couple of years working with the Shambhala teachings and community, gender didn’t arise as an issue for me. I heard “basic goodness” and it all felt very inclusive. Luckily, basic goodness is all-inclusive. As I have gotten further along the path and more involved in the community, however, the vestiges of cis-gender, heteronormative, male dominance within Shambhala have become more and more apparent. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. We are steeped in cultures and histories of oppression (not just in regard to gender) and the stench follows us into our centers. This oppression expresses itself both structurally in our community and interpersonally in our relationships. The aim of this article is to point out some of these structural problems, in the hope of expanding our community’s awareness and promoting further discussion. 

What initially caught my attention were the remnants of binary, gendered language within the Shambhala teachings and chants. Binary, gendered language is the construction of feminine and masculine; she and he; her and him. The power of language to reinforce power dynamics can be subtle, for example: here I have put the feminine first, while usually these binaries are presented the other way around.

The use of language is not neutral. It has inherent power. I am concerned by the use of this language because 1) it excludes people who do not identify as masculine or feminine: i.e. genderqueer and gender non-conforming people, and 2) masculine language such as “He” is still used to refer to ultimate principles such as the Rigden, perpetuating a male-dominated culture.

tantra_fem_masI have been grappling with why Shambhala uses this language. What is its purpose? In an effort to deepen my understanding, I approached a dear senior teacher in this lineage with my questions and she told me something that I found both simple and clarifying. She said that we use the concepts of the feminine and masculine principles to illustrate how through duality and the unification of these principles we come to understand the primordial, or ultimate. It is through the relative, the THIS and THAT of our every day experience as represented by masculine and feminine, that we come to know the ultimate. She also emphasized that the face of the Primordial Rigden is not androgynous, but rather represents the perfect integration of the feminine and masculine.

As a side note, but an important one, a friend of mine confided to me that while attending a Shambhala program, the teacher claimed that although the Primoridal Rigden is displayed as both feminine and masculine, it is actually a King (facepalm! heartbreak!). Why would the INTEGRATION of masculine and feminine manifest as a King? Can you imagine for a moment how that might affect someone who doesn’t identify as male? How sad or devastating that might feel? I’m under the impression that even our senior teachers are not all on exactly the same page.

Let’s return to the purpose of this feminine and masculine language as it relates to Shambhala dharma. We are using duality to understand the ultimate. What’s interesting is that it seems that these dual principles don’t totally merge into oneness. The feminine and masculine integrate. They unite, but in their union, they do not disappear. Within the ultimate we have the relative, and within the relative, the ultimate.

I would like to bring in an ally, Sera Beak, who in writing about the interplay of feminine and masculine divinity between Jesus and Mary Magdalene states:

“This spiritual Love Story isn’t a high-five to heterosexuality or a kudos to Christianity. It represents the spiritual relationship between the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine that struggles to flourish and integrate within every single one of us, no matter what religion or sex or gender or sexual orientation we are.” (Beak, 2013, Red Hot & Holy: 188)

THIS is what we should be emphasizing within our teachings and community: that divine feminine and masculine is within each of us and is not attached to some gendered hierarchy. We can all help elucidate this truth and wisdom regardless of how we identify. We can be allies for each other, and help bring this understanding forward instead of getting stuck in an antiquated notion of a masculine King.

This notion of the divine masculine and feminine in each of us, which struggles to “flourish and integrate,” can explain the use of gendered language to some extent. It offers us a way to present the teachings in ways that can be inclusive. We still have to be careful, however, with how we use this language, as well as how we present its meaning. Gendered language is triggering to many people, especially those who experience gender as a spectrum. People who do not conform to the feminine/masculine binary experience a lot of hardship, judgment, and oppression in our culture today. Just look at the recent bathroom legislation in North Carolina.

There are A LOT of other ways to express duality, and if gendered language is triggering or not helpful to you, I say go for the other options. We have the sun and the moon, space and form, emptiness and skillful means. How can we as a community support people in using the language that works best for them? And what language do we really want to use as a community if our goal is to be inclusive?

Yeshe_Tsogyal_SmallOur use of language in Shambhala not only affects genderqueer folk, but those who identify as female as well.

In my experience, the masculine principle is emphasized over the feminine in the teachings and the way the teachings are taught. I don’t think that this is a static fact, but rather a fluctuating dynamic. My senior teacher friend described the movement of this dynamic as “glacial.” So while it may be changing, it is changing very slowly. I think that it’s safe to say that this imbalance is due in large part to the inherited patriarchy of Tibetan culture and of our own cultures in the West.

One of my most recent experiences of this imbalance was the unveiling of the Shambhala lineage thangka. It is exquisite and sacred, and took 10 years to paint. I truly appreciate it. However, the Rigden King is front-and-center while the Rigden Queen, who is less than half his size, is off to the side. There are many ways to explain that, and you can remind me that these are representations of principles rather than people, but in my eyes there is still an imbalance. Visual representations hold meaning and express value. I see this image valuing the masculine over the feminine, holding it as more central and important. I see it and feel it as a continuation and reproduction of oppressive power relations within a patriarchal culture and society.

Visual representations are important and so are the subtle and sometimes obvious ways that we emphasize the masculine over the feminine within Shambhala. When I watched the recent teachings on Shambhala Meditation for Shambhala guides and instructors, the opening chants included “The Supplication to the Rigden Father” and did not include “The Supplication to the Mother Lineage.” This might not seem like a big deal, but it sends a message, and the accumulation of these little messages creates our culture.

Alex Vlasic is a white, cisgender, woman and a student of Shambhala Buddhism. She currently lives in central Vermont where she studies medicinal herbalism.

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24 responses to “ The Queer Feminist Rigden ”
  1. Danielle Loeb
    Jun 18, 2016

    Thank you so much Alex. I was so impressed with the issues you raised at Warrior Assembly. I am not sure how/why you came to these insights but they are powerful and they speak for me!
    Thank you!

  2. Alex Vlasic
    Jun 13, 2016

    I am feeling incredibly grateful for all of your reflections – they are deepening my own understanding. I cannot respond fully to everyone, but there are a couple of (hopefully) final comments I would like to make. First, this article is not meant to be just about my personal experience and obstacles, but about those of us who suffer under the societal ills of patriarchy and transphobic hate. It’s my intention to examine our forms to see if and how they unintentionally perpetuate those ills. I want to emphasize strongly that the obstacles faced by oppressed people are not just individual discomfort – I’m not talking about things that “just rub us the wrong way”. I’m talking about the ramifications of living in a society that systematically disenfranchises people based on their identity. I don’t see the adjustment of forms as caving to people’s desire for comfort (there is a wealth of discomfort for us to work with on the path), rather I see it as the compassionate recognition of injustice and how that injustice affects our fellow human beings. Rather than expecting each person to pull herself up by her bootstraps in the face of patriarchy, let’s recognize that these are problems we all share as a community, and work to create Enlightened Society together.

    I might also add that I am deeply devoted to the dharma, the Shambhala teachings, and the Sakyong. This article is an expression of that devotion. I am not casting a doubtful eye on the essence of the teachings but on some forms and structures in Shambhala. Above all, I want this article to help us open our hearts to each other across our differences and see the suffering caused by systemic injustice.

  3. Gracia Zanuttini González
    Jun 12, 2016

    Hi, ever since I started in Shambhala, part of the teachings that struck me the most, was the idea (very emphasized by Pema) that we must stop looking for a confortable place where everything is set up to make us feel good.

    On the contrary, we must expose ourselves to the world as it is and be able to stay open to what makes us feel uncomfortable. this way, we can see where our ego is holding back. Going back to a particular quote from you’re article: “Can you imagine for a moment how that might affect someone who doesn’t identify as male? How sad or devastating that might feel?”. Following the teaching’s logic, this ISN’T a reason to change the whole teachings to accommodate this “non-male” person, but ON THE CONTRARY, a reason for “her, him/her” to stay even MORE open to this, to open they’re heart to this uncomfortable feelings. This is what, in my opinion, differentiates Shambhala from the other spiritual materialistic trends of today’s new age market.

  4. Cara Thornley
    Jun 11, 2016

    Appreciate the article and thought provoking conversation it is generating..

  5. Sherab Gyatso
    Jun 9, 2016

    Although I do empathize with the difficulty of being different from everyone else, particularly given the suffering being created in North Carolina and other places, I disagree with any expectation that the teachings should be changed for our convenience. It seems to me that we have two options:

    1. We can be grateful and humble that these teachings that were created by enlightened minds to help beings stuck in delusion are available to us. We can practice them well, understanding that any change is difficult, and that change that rewrites the very fabric of our experience is nothing but uncomfortable and arduous. Only once we have achieved true realization, can we know how to create practices that truly help other beings.

    2. Or we complain that the practices are uncomfortable, and expect them to be adapted to our worldview, the very thing we are trying to change, and which grew from the very ignorance the practices are designed to counter. This, it seems to me, will most likely prevent anyone who wishes to follow a genuine map showing the path to the genuine truth from doing so in the future.

    In my experience, the practices are designed to rub us up the wrong way. When they do, they are showing us the areas where our view is limited rather than vast, the areas we need to work on. That makes them very practical, and “fixing them” to remove this irritation would be totally counterproductive. They show us areas we must contemplate and work on, not faults in the practice itself.

    We are not the only ones who are irritated by the Dharma. It was not easy for the Brahmins to treat Untouchables as equals, something for which Buddhism was (and still is) considered revolutionary. It is not easy for the monks and nuns to eat meat, drink liquor and visualize being in union. It is not easy for poor Tibetans to give their children up to the monastery so that they might become monks, depriving the family of an extra helping hand. It was not easy for Marpa (or Tripitaka) to walk from Tibet to India to gather genuine Dharma teachings. It was not easy to stay in solitary retreat at 17,000 feet, in the cold Tibetan winter, with very little food. People faced all these difficulties to become truly helpful to others. Were Shambhala only to become a happy new agey club, comfortable but without any real chance for transformation, it would be a great shame, as the world does not lack in ways to increase self-delusion but does lack methods to decrease it.

    And in no way should this be interpreted as a comment on anything other than practice. Creating suffering by discrimination, is quite different from how we choose to treat our reaction to a practice text which can lead us and others to liberation from suffering.

  6. Sylvie Stevenson
    Jun 6, 2016

    My understanding is that the chant you mention (“Suppliction to the Mother LIneage,”) is introduced to Shambhala students at Warrior Assembly. Since Shambhala Guides may not necessarily have attended this program yet in order to qualify for SG training, (if I understand the path these days,) the chant you mention may not be appropriate for SG’s to be reciting.. (There are a few other chants they may not know as well.)

    With reference to the “Supplication to the Shambhala Lineage,” the fifth line down honors Yeshe Tsogyal. Without Ven. Tsogyal, Tibetan Buddhism would hardly exist in the form we know it. Frankly, I’d much rather pay homage to this incredible female lineage holder than reflect on costumes, hair ornaments or aroma celebrated in “Homage to the Mother Lineage,” lovely as these accoutrements may be. (But that’s just my personal preference!) The intelligence and wisdom, not to mention skillful means of Yeshe Tsogyal with her ability to record the vajrayana teachings blasted into Tibet by Mahasiddha Padmamakara, to me is far more worth celebrating in the long run. We know she was an actual, historical figure. (Mother Lineage an abstract principle)

    Besides Tsogyal, vajrayana students know that Samantabhadra is completely unified with Samantabhadri, Vajradhara is usually portrayed with his consort (though not always,) and most of the other lineage holders mentioned are associated with documented female consorts who furthered their partner’s realization by engaging in skillful practices. It’s implicit, if not obvious. Granted, our Shambhala tradition, like most Buddhism in general stems from a highly patriarchal tradition reflecting cultures from which they evolved. Historically, quite true. (So does Judaism, Christianity, and about 90% of the world religions other than goddess-centers forms that are recognized but hardly prevalent today.)

    I know I personally felt blocked for years by the patriarchial language of much of our Shambhala material,(even warriorship!) before the Rigen King even was given visual form. However, I eventually found the idea of ruling one’s world, taking charge of one’s life, and discovering one’s own innate wisdom particularly in relating to helping others finally quelled most blockages. I hope you can resolve things to your own understanding and satisfaction so as not to miss the brilliance pointed to by our Shambhala teachings arising as they do from the unfathomable mind of an incredible being in human form, the Dorje Dradul.

  7. Janet Bronstein
    Jun 6, 2016

    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece. Isn’t it interesting, what is happening in contemporary culture, with the acknowledgement of the spectrum of “masculinity” and “femininity”, and the dance among biological body, sexuality, gender identity and gender presentation? This actually is in line with what we practice in the vajrayana, flexibly identifying ourselves in many forms and energies, and exploring the effect. But it is jarring for culture and society, as we are observing. Fixation happens from all points of view — the need to make males stay males in the bathroom is one fixation, the denial of the validity of the “feminine realm” of birth, space, caring and compassion, illustrated by (U.S.) societal insistence that there be no space in the workplace for family members to nurture, give birth and care for each other is another kind of fixation. Our good minds and hearts can figure out what Shambhala has to offer in the realm of moving beyond gender role rigidity, and embody and practice it ourselves. We can use the legacy of resistance within the Shambhala community to practice the skillful means needed to support transformation in the broader society.

  8. Alex Vlasic
    Jun 5, 2016

    Kelly – thank you for your perspective. I absolutely agree, the point of the Rigden King is definitely not to oppress people! My concern is that because we live in a world where many people are oppressed daily, if we don’t acknowledge this and see how our Shambhala forms, images and words affect those people, if we are blind and silent regarding this oppression, we are participating in it. It takes extra effort to ensure that everyone can feel welcome in our society and in our Shambhala centers today. As you say, let’s do it better, let’s do society better. In order to do better we have to relate to society as it is, and recognize what isn’t working – patriarchy is definitely a part of that.

    Thank you to everyone who has read, related, and responded to this!

  9. Thanks for this article! Please keep writing more :)

  10. Thank you Alex for opening this discourse, may it continue.

    I want to share that from my experience the glacial movement feels quite unacceptable. As Dharma practitioners I don’t think there is any reason to swallow history without discrimination. At the Shambhala sadhana weekend asked the Sakyong how a warrior inherits history and he responded that the warrior inherits by participating. I think in fact that we always participate in history. Silence can be deafening to momentum and movement.

    I also want to respond to Jenny and say that how we personally relate to these issues on our path and how we contribute to a dialogue do not have to be mutually exclusive. While I work with these things on my own path by letting go and forgiving I also do not feel that that liberates me from participating in creating something as we move forward as a community.

    As a monastic I also want to correct the comment made about the Buddhist monastic lineage in one of the comments. The Buddha offered full ordination to both men and women. In some of the societies that inherited buddhism the lineage of ordination for women went extinct. This, in my opinion, was due to the patriarchal influence of the culture rather that the Dharma lineage. This happened because the societal views of that culture refused to participate with the dharma culture. What we see today is the nuns’ lineage being revived. This is also due to societal changes which gives me a lot of joy.

    Thank you!

  11. Linda Willow
    Jun 4, 2016

    After seeing your petition at Warrior Assembly, this was so exciting to see! Patriarchal privilege and power is a serious concern even in the “refuge” of this community; more so when minimized by or taken for granted by the privileged or those who defend it. I vacillate between seeing the gendered language as part of our heritage, to feeling seriously threatened by the worship of the masculine, to feeling the hurt and sense of exclusion you eloquently express in your fifth paragraph. I’m very proud of you and appreciate your bravery in writing this Alex!

  12. Thank you so much for this article, Alex. As a genderqueer person, myself, it is wonderful to hear someone articulate, in such a public forum, what I have been feeling for years. I have always loved the image of the Rigden because of its uniting of the “dualities” of feminine and masculine. I see so much potential in the Shambhala teachings, such as this, that in theory are very supportive of genderqueer people. However, I do not think these teachings are often enough applied to support actual people within the sangha. Applying Shambhala teachings to social justice and gender is an issue that I would love to see addressed more in the future, since it could open more doors towards allowing genderqueer people to feel welcomed in the sangha.

  13. Evan Silverman
    Jun 3, 2016

    Quite thought-provoking. Thank you!

  14. Kelly Mitchell
    Jun 3, 2016

    I really, really don’t think the point of the Rigden King is to oppress people. I do see how one can take the normative frustrations of society and smear them on Shambhala – most of us do this one way or another.

    My first practice was Vajrayogini. No one ever complained about gender issues. We just did feminine principle.
    IMO – Feminine principle (wisdom) transforms yourself; Masculine principle (skillful means) transforms the world.

    Shambhala is about using those imperfect forms to transform them into enlightened society. Dorje Kasung is a great example – it took the most hated form in Buddhist eyes and transformed it into a tool of enlightenment.
    So instead of saying Patriarchy Bad, must go, we have to relate to society as it is. And do it better.

  15. Kelly Mitchell
    Jun 3, 2016

    Jenny : +1

  16. Abbey Pleviak
    Jun 2, 2016

    very interesting article — thank you!

  17. Alex Vlasic
    May 30, 2016

    Jenny – thank you for opening up the discussion. I’d like to share my perspective on your points.

    It is my understanding that thinking critically and relating dharma to our own personal experiences is crucial to each of our paths, and that nothing should be excluded from this inquisitive eye, no matter how sacred. I don’t feel that I’m going after anything to make a point. I am simply sharing my experience. It is not useful to me (or, I think, to our community) to simply swallow images and dharma without question. We must be willing to examine everything – that is part of the practice.

    We do each need to work with our egos and with those things that rub us the wrong way, absolutely. I think however that it is unjust to expect those who are oppressed under patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity, etc, to simply work with it as a part of their path, as if it is their individual problem and not a societal/cultural problem that we must all face. Rather than putting the responsibility on the individual to deal with it, can we as a community take a bigger perspective and work to accommodate everyone? I find you make a huge and inaccurate assumption in supposing that these societal shackles do not inhibit people on their spiritual paths. If we as a community do not proactively work to be anti-sexist, anti-racist, etc, those forms of oppression lurk in our centers and can cause (and have caused) dedicated practitioners to leave. It’s not “their” problem, its our problem. By accepting that it is our cultural, communal, societal problem, we can transform it together.

  18. Dia Ballou
    May 29, 2016

    I sort of love about Shambhala that I get to see myself as red, yellow, white, green, blue, with a mustache or with extra breasts, newly lotus-born or withered old sage, beefy or skinny….gender fluid, skin-color-fluid, age-fluid, even species-fluid, as we know we have been and will be of many different realms, and have been and will be the mothers of all beings at some point or other. I would say that tantric buddhism has a lot to offer to the identity politics people of today, and Shambhala warriors should be proud to share our practiced and maybe only partial but still genuine understanding of identity fluidity and indentity-lessness.

  19. Jenny Squire
    May 29, 2016

    I feel that thinking about gender is important, and maybe studying the teachings is heightening your awareness of gender and how it represents various things: power, heirarchy, male dominance. But I feel that we need not go after some of the most sacred images in the community to make a point-that’s going too far. Buddhism has had a long history of patriarchy, but also of being more inclusive of both male and female, even at times when it was more patriarchal than now. Buddha allowing women to practice and become ordained (although not fully) for example.

    My main point is not about gender or debating certain points.There were good ones in the article. It has to do with how we relate to our egos. If you get rubbed the wrong way by a pronoun, in our current world you can make a philosophy as to why you reject it. Go for it. But if we step onto the spiritual path we need to be willing to remove our personal fight for whatever it may be, and to think bigger. The path is about surrendering and letting go of concept and ego, not adding more. All language we use has some connotations, but there is no way to remove it all and probably impossible to do so. Even if we could-what’s the point?

    Shambhala sees every form we currently have in society as the stuff to transform and use, not reject. Originally some of the main deity practices in the community were female forms, yet people still wore suits and dresses at events (very gender confirmative). I’m sure there were people who were uncomfortable, or didn’t feel included, but they worked with it. And honestly it didn’t block their spiritual attainment or experience. That’s the point for me–working with it.

  20. Thank you so much, Alex, for being brave and writing these things. I, too, am challenged about relating to a male Rigden. One day many decades ago I was told, while still a teenager, that it was “too bad” I was female, because if I were male I would have been a great spiritual leader. Since that day I’ve struggled to understand how gender was important in my life, and how it could/should manifest. I find that Shambhala teachings have a long way to go in helping us understand gender issues. And although basic goodness could be considered “neutral” and universal, I as a holder of basic goodness, am not neutral and don’t want to manifest that way.
    Rock on!

  21. Hudson Shotwell
    May 29, 2016

    Dear Alex, The glacier inches forward! Thanks to the Shambhala Times for publishing pieces as relevant and thought-provoking as yours and Bryan’s.

  22. Craig Adams
    May 28, 2016

    Thank you Alex for your article and for making me think about this issue. I often have a conflict with myself because I inhabit a male body, yet wonder how useful that is in a teaching role (teaching to women primarily) who have to deal with males all the time who do not affirm their female divinity. Sometimes I wonder if I should just step aside or get out of the way, so they will be able to find their divinity as women. On the other hand I am proud of my feminine energy and affirm it in myself when I am able. Yes, it is extremely important we create a culture that appreciates the energy that gives birth to everything!

  23. Christine Labich
    May 28, 2016

    Thank you for writing this, Alex. These are dynamics that I’ve been working with in my practice and wondering about for a long time, as I’m sure many others have been. I was also particularly struck by the omission of the Supplication to the Mother Lineage during the Shmabhala Meditation program, and by the seemingly last minute inclusion of one female teacher in front of the room.

    I often feel similar to how I did in the Catholic Church lately–both a powerful longing and resonance with the deepest meaning of the teachings, and a need to constantly translate the language into something that relates to my own life experience as female and as a caregiver. This is how a lineage stays alive, though: we practice, wonder, look at our own experience, and find how the deepest meanings of the teachings manifest in our lives. And then we bring that forth, discuss with others, and write about it. We change the culture by claiming our place in the stream of goodness. Right on.

  24. Great article Alex! Thank you so much.

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