The Womb Realm

Esoteric Buddhism (Vajrayana) imagines two realms or worlds (dhatu), the Diamond Realm (Vajradhatu) and the Womb Realm (Garbhadhatu), mystical spaces that represent certain principles, different bodies of the Buddha, and various celestial Buddhas and bodhisattvas.  They could be called “buddhaverses.” The two realms correspond to the concept of the Two Truths as presented by Nagarjuna.

And they are presented graphically as mandala, which are diagrams, geometric patterns and art depicting or mapping out a buddhaverse and are used primarily as an aid to meditation.  In Japanese Buddhism, mandala is frequently used in the Shingon and Tendai schools.

The two realms are not separate (just as the Two Truths are not really two) but rather manifest one reality, and this oneness is represented in the Mandala of the Two Realms.  The individual mandala are the Diamond Realm and the Womb (or Matrix) Realm Mandala.   The Womb Realm (Taizokai) symbolizes the world of embryonic truth, and the Diamond Realm (Kongokai), the world of ultimate truth.

As you can see from the above image of the Womb Realm Mandala, various Buddhas and celestial beings are grouped together in halls or courts surrounding the central 8-Petal Hall and the central figure, the cosmic Buddha Dainichi (Mahavairocana), representing the Dharma Body of the historical Buddha.

Recently I put together a piece of ambient music that to me sounds like the Womb Realm.  Ambient is defined as “a genre of instrumental music that focuses on sound patterns more than melodic form and is used to create a certain atmosphere or state of mind.”

You can also listen to the piece on my YouTube channel.


Attaining Buddhahood with this very body

Although there seems to be some debate as to whether or not Kukai (774-835), also known by his posthumous title Kobo Diashi, was ever ordained as a Buddhist priest or monk, there is no question that he is one of the most important figures in Japanese Buddhism.


Kukai was so inspired by the Mahavairocana Sutra that in 804 he took advantage of an opportunity to go on a government-sponsored trip to China in order to learn more about the text. There he encountered the Chen-yen (“Mantra” or “True Word”) school, an esoteric from of Buddhism, and he became the student of two masters, the Indian monk Prajna, and Hui-kuo, a tantric monk. Kukai received various initiations while in China, and returned to Japan carrying copies of important Buddhist sutras and commentaries. He eventually founded the Japanese version of Chen-yen, the Shingon sect, which is still around today.

A key feature of esoteric or tantric Buddhism (also known as Varjayana “Diamond Vehicle”) is the focus on the role the body plays in awakening the mind. As Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta notes in An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism, the tantric schools “hold that the body is the abode of all truth; it is the epitome of the the universe or, in other words, it is the microcosm, and as such embodies the truth of the whole universe.”

In his book, The Bodymind Experience in Japanese Buddhism: A Phenomenolgical Perspective of Kukai and Dogen, David E. Shaner coined the compound “bodymind” to express the non-duality of body and mind: “A close examination of the relation between body and mind in our lived prereflective experience reveals that there is no mediate relationship. We experience and live body and mind as one.”

It is this basic understanding that forms the core of Kukai’s teachings. He expressed the nonduality of bodymind with the term sokushin jobutsu, also the title of a work he composed in his middle forties, Sokushin jobutsu gi. Translated literally, the term is rendered “immediately (soku) mind (shin) become Buddha (jobutsu).” In later times, immediately would truly mean immediately, as in ichinen jobutsu (“buddhahood in a single moment”), but for Kukai it mean in this existence, this lifetime, more or less. Considering that traditionally enlightenment or Buddhahood is attained after many lifetimes, this idea was a bit radical to say the least.

Kukai was not alone in promoting this concept. Saicho, Kukai’s one-time friend and counter-part, who was founder of Japanese Tendai, also used the term. Probably both men were introduced to the concept while in China, and it may have originated in Indian Buddhism, as Kukai used as a source for his treatise a work attributed to Nagarjuna, Aspiration to Enlightenment (very likely apocryphal), that contains the phrase, “we can attain enlightenment in this very existence.” Saicho’s source was the fable from the Lotus Sutra of the Naga king’s daughter, who in a single moment becomes a buddha (unfortunately she must transform herself into a man first).

The Japanese word shin (from the Chinese xin) can mean “mind” or “heart,” and also “body.” For this reason, Kukai’s sokushin jobutsu is often translated as “attaining Buddhahood with this very body.” Yoshito S. Hakeda in Kukai: Major Works explains why:

Judging from the contents of the work by this title, the word ‘body (shin)’ clearly does not mean the body as opposed to the mind but stands for ‘existence’ or ‘body-mind-being’ The choice of the word ‘body’ over the normally expected mind underscores the basic character of Kukai’s religion: emphasis on direct religious experience through one’s total being and not merely through the intellect. Kukai required that any religious teaching withstand the test of actual meditation and of daily life.”

This forms an interesting connection to what I wrote in the last post in regard to the late Ruth Denison and her “body-centered” approach to meditation. When practicing meditation we are often very mindful of the mind, but less mindful of our body. And yet, most of us are aware that body and mind are one, and for that matter, it is not really possible to have any experience that is mind sans body, or vice versa. Denison learned the importance of body awareness in meditation from U Ba Khin who developed a “sweeping” method to focus on the deep interrelationship between mind and body.

How to integrate body awareness into a meditation practice is not a difficult subject, but one that needs to be dealt with another time. For now, these words by Kukai provide the perfect summation:

The Buddha Dharma is nowhere remote. It is in our mind; it is close to us. The element of original enlightenment is nowhere external. If not within our body, where can it be found?”


Yeshe Tsogyal, Who Attained Enlightenment in the Supreme Body of a Woman

In Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy,* Professor R. Howard Bloch writes,

The ritual denunciation of women constitutes something on the order of a cultural constant, reaching back to the Old Testament as well as to Ancient Greece and extending through the fifteenth century. Found in Roman tradition, it dominates ecclesiastical writing, letters, sermons, theological tracts, discussions and compilations of canon law; scientific works, as part and parcel of biological, gynaecological, and medical knowledge; and philosophy. The discourse of misogyny runs like a rich vein throughout the breadth of medieval literature.”

It ran through the course of ancient and medieval life as well, not only in the West, but also the East, and until recently the position of women in society has improved only slightly. In Buddhism, for centuries woman, especially nuns, have endured the sufferings of discrimination and oppression, and this, too, has only recently began to turn around.

Regarding Buddhist literature, I don’t think we can say that it is dominated by misogyny, but it was certainly a frequent theme. Women represented sexual desire and therefore they were considered the “root of ruin” and the “destruction of destructions” and men were advised to “ever avoid women if he desires happiness for himself.” (Saddharmasmrtyupasthana Sutra) There are passages in the early Buddhist sutras that lean toward affirming the equality of women, like this from the Samyutta Nikaya, “Whoever practices this vehicle, whether woman or man, it is the only vehicle that can reach the shore of nibbana.” Yet many such passages are ambiguous and few and far between.

The prevailing attitude in traditional Buddhism was that a masculine body was better suited for enlightenment. In the sutras and commentaries, women are encouraged to pray to be reborn as a man, and certain sincere women believers were predicted never to born a man again. Even in the story of the Dragon King’s Daughter from the Lotus Sutra, often cited as example of Buddhism championing gender equality, the girl must take a man’s form before she can attain enlightenment.

Yeshe Tsogyal
Yeshe Tsogyal

That story is mythological, as are those of other female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, such as Kuan Yin and Tara. However, there were some remarkable Buddhist women who were historical figures, and one of these was Yeshe Tsogyal (757-815). This woman, who was the wife of Indian master Padmasambhava, the de facto founder of Buddhism in Tibet, has left a legacy all her own, and it is for that reason, rather than her connection to the famous guru, Yeshe Tsogyal is often called the “mother of Tibetan Buddhism.”

In John Steven’s book, Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex, Padmasambhava is quoted as saying to Yeshe Tsogyal

The basis for realizing enlightenment is a human body. Male or female, there is no great difference. But if she develops the mind bent on enlightenment the woman’s body is better.”

Elsewhere, Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, offers these final words to Yeshe Tsogyal:

In the supreme body of a woman
You have gained accomplishment;
Your mind itself is Lord . . .”

One Yeshe Tsogyal story has her entering into a meditation retreat for 9 years and emerging as a fully enlightened Buddha. This is almost certainly a mythological tale, but at least in this one, unlike the story of the Dragon King’s Daughter, she does not have to transform into a man before attaining enlightenment. This is significant, regardless of the story’s reliability, because it offers an example of a woman who realized Buddhahood with her present body (Jp. sokushin jobutsu), the “supreme” body of a woman.

Although I don’t believe notions of “supreme perfect enlightenment” (Skt. anuttara-samyak-sambodhi) or Final Nirvana are realistic or verifiable concepts, I do accept that rather high plateaus of wisdom and mindfulness are reachable over the course of the spiritual journey.  Given this, we can assume that whatever Yeshe Tsogyal attained was authentic and acceptable as a historic truth. Gyalwa Changchub and Namkhai Nyingpo in their biography of Lady Tsogyal (see below) write, “The first Tibetan ever to attain complete enlightenment was in all probability the woman Yeshe Tsogyal . . .”

Yeshe Tsogyal’s name means “Victorious Ocean of Wisdom.” The details of her life vary, according to the source. In some accounts, her early life was harsh, and she suffered considerable abuse, including rape. In other accounts, those early years were happy and peaceful, and she was so popular that when she turned 13, a number of noblemen requested marriage with her, but her parents would not consent to any of their proposals. There are many legends, and most are quite epic in nature.

It’s said she lived a life that was independent of Padamsambhava. Although she compiled many of his teachings, she also authored works of her own, including an autobiography.

In Tibet, Yeshe Tsogyal is considered a female Buddha. Some Tibetan traditions regard her as a reincarnation of the Buddha’s own mother, Maya Devi, while the Nyingma tradition considers her an emanation of Samantabhadri, the primordial female Buddha.

Yeshe Tsogyal is one of a number of actual women and mythical female figures whose presence furthered the development of Tibetan Buddhism, and Tantric/Vajrayana Buddhism in general. While in what we call “traditional” Buddhism, women were viewed as impure beings, generators of desire, and their bodies unfit to serve as vessels of enlightened mind, the Vajrayana/Tantric branch of Buddhism, which is also traditional, had a different view.

Dr. Miranda E. Shaw, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Richmond, argues that in Tantric Buddhism, enlightenment was not just for men, nor were women always marginalized and kept in a subservient position. In Passionate Enlightenment Women in Tantric Buddhism, she says that

Tantric biographies portray bold, outspoken, independent women. Tantric texts describe how women should be respected, served, and ritually worshipped. Tantric literature introduces practices performed solely by women and others performed by women and men together. Tantric theory advances an ideal of cooperative, mutually liberative relationships between women and men.”

Shaw says the founders of Tantric Buddhism included independent women who made a significant and valuable contribution to shaping a unique outlook on gender roles, attitudes, and interaction. Unfortunately, Tantric Buddhism is too often associated with physical sex, a largely mistaken notion, which causes many people to form a rather negative view of tantra. For others, Vajrayana may seem to contain too much mysticism for their liking. But regardless of whether Tantric Buddhism/Vajrayana is our cup of tea or not, Buddhists from every tradition would do well to try and capture this vision of gender relations, for in a world where women are still not fully equal, there is much more work to do, and in my opinion, Buddhists should lead the way in dismantling the parameters of inequality, not just for women, but for all people.

There is a growing corpus of research and literature on women in Buddhism, tantric and non-tantric. For those interested in learning more about Yeshe Tsogyal, here are two books worth taking a look at:

Sky Dancer: The Secret Life And Songs Of Lady Yeshe Tsogyel by Keith Dowman

Lady of the Lotus-Born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal by Gyalwa Changchub and Namkhai Nyingpo

Other books of interest, including those cited in this post:

Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex by John Stevens

Passionate Enlightenment Women in Tantric Buddhism by Miranda Shaw

Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism by Judith Simmer-Brown

Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet by Reginald A. Ray

An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism by Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta 

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* Bloch, R. Howard, and Frances Ferguson, editors Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy. Berkeley:  University of California Press, c1989 1989.