Deity Practice: Feminine and Masculine Principles of Non-Dual Awareness
Qualities attributed to feminine or masculine can vary in many ways, and they all share deeply-inspirational potential and value. Qualities attributed to feminine or masculine can vary in many ways, and they all share deeply-inspirational potential and value. Those qualities, honoured, respected and worshipped as goddesses and gods, represent both internal traits and external entity forms. Their nature, counted by many authors both ancient and modern, reveal creation, wisdom, protection, fertility, beauty, grace, nurturing, compassion and victory—over war and ignorance or other divisive attributes. As goddesses and gods, we see that different cultural systems gathered similar characteristics with different names, and if we accept the connotations of the archetypical point of view, this seems ok. This perspective uses balances that make sense, and in a way, show the universality of those principles.
If using these principles in such a way, what might be awkward? When rendering them for spiritual practice, this theoretical shortcut might disrupt a person’s progress and create confusion, especially if they do not examine the key concepts or simply try to improve on their own. We need clarification on where and how such distinction starts if speaking about the feminine and masculine energies.
Since we know spirituality is about transformation, we use language, concepts and discourses to think and communicate about it, whether spiritual or worldly—not only the transformation of apparitions or approximations, but the transformation of thoughts, emotions, consciousness. Typically, we do that first by means of symbols—letters, language and concepts. If we skip that understanding and jump into the vast dimension of signs, archetypes, and deity forms, then we miss an important opportunity to lay a clear mindset to assess the new and unknown, and in some cases uncanny, field of knowledge.
In this article we’ll first examine our own pre-existing mindset to transform. Further, the relativity of gender will be discussed here first in relation to the contemporary gender-based spirituality discourse (i.e., the goddess movement) as it is understood in the West, its perception, and, more importantly, how we can compensate the inner and outer sources to reach a safe standing for self-transformation. Second, we’ll address Indo-Tibetan Buddhist practices of Deity Yoga and its view of gender to show how the distinction, or in this case, realization of non-distinction, can give a different perspective and provide a total guideline.
Gender: Spiritual and Worldly
The feminine principle in deity form or other mythological figures always ranks as a fascinating topic to discuss. In the West, this revival of interest re-entered the cultural hemisphere around the end of nineteenth century, when spirituality and esotericism became a public interest. Societies and organisations examined once adored or feared yet long-forgotten gods, goddesses and all types of other beings from a perspective other than monotheistic dualism or artistic inspiration.
During this time several disciplines were established as sciences (history, archaeology or anthropology) in the West, mostly due to the side effects of industrial colonialism and its cultural interactions with other parts of the world. The spiritual movement backed-up with the latest discoveries of ancient or other wonders—from Egyptian tombs to Polynesian folk customs, from Indian scriptures to European megaliths—fed itself with this diversity and interaction. Thereafter, in the early 1950s in England, an age-old, yet new, movement appeared known as Paganism or Neo-Paganism, and Wicca, quickly spread throughout Europe and the New World, ultimately becoming a religion on its own. Today, after the sixties’ freedom movement and critical feminism of the seventies, we can talk about “Revival of the Goddess,” a cultural phenomenon used from blockbuster Hollywood movies to the closest wellness center workshops. Once marginalized numbers now total many around the globe with their own networks, publications, civil services, and public gatherings.
Psychological concepts, especially Jung’s concept of archetypes, have had a significant effect upon this movement since he suggested the feminine and masculine sides (anima and animus) are innate in the human psyche. He called them parts of the collective unconscious, a domain of consciousness where humanity’s deepest memories of psycho-social development are stored. This theory was highly popularized, whether or not it was Jung’s intention, old pantheons became perfect examples: anthropomorphism (attributions of human characteristics to all non-human phenomena) to different parts of the human psyche and the interpretations of pantheons and all surrounding mythologies.
These were seen as nothing more than an outcome of humanity’s thousand-years-long quest to find meaning to the internal and external forces. Reconstructive Paganism and contemporary Goddess movements are influenced one way or another from this discourse, and since they were trying to find new ties with old roots, especially concerning the practices and ritual formations, they also turned to examples of living traditions. (Other ways are usually checking origins of folk customs, literary research or improvisations)
In the case of Eastern concepts, such as yin-yang and Shiva-Shakti, they were used as they died out or freshly reinvented by their Western counterparts, regardless of the fact that they were coming from traditions and cultures still alive and used very differently in their own context than Western attributions. This approach actually reflects the Western tendency of inadequate interpretation and highly contradictory in itself.
When we research a genealogy of phenomena, historical or cultural, we should first be careful about our conceptualisation and background. Those are the very lenses we use to investigate, and if not clear or preoccupied with their own images, we can easily end up patching our own pre-existing ways of thinking and background upon the phenomena completely different in context without giving reference to the particular tradition’s own values. In the end we are left only to be disillusioned by our own projections. Feminine and masculine in this context, just like the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, have all become tools of the same commodity logic. As Miranda Shaw argues:
These dualisms have a particularity and distinctively European pedigree that disallows attributing them uncritically to all cultures. Further, these interpretations assume conflictual, antagonistic relations between sexes and the inevitable dominance of one over the other in any social arrangement, again disallowing for cultural variations. (Shaw, p.9-10)
Therefore, the Western dualisms of gender and sexuality are already problematic, and they are greatly misplaced concerning Eastern traditions too. In a Foucauldian sense, the problem becomes deeply rooted in the fundamental ideas of selfhood, constructed in the West as solid, independent and self-existent. Once the self turns into an object of knowledge, the conceptualisation of gender, different from sexuality, becomes a natural outcome of the continuation of the same logic. If we remember the common Western stereotypes of masculine representative of the active agent, power, intellect, analytical, and the feminine as passive, inferior, emotional and nurturing, we can easily see the old school imprints in common everyday life and discourse, and of course, in our spiritual practice. The associations counted above are in fact qualities that all human beings share, regardless of their gender. The same condition applies to the qualities mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Therefore, we should acknowledge the importance and revere the struggle of the feminine spirituality movements since without their criticism, talking about these subjects would not be possible; equally important, be careful not to fall into the trap of gender discourse.
The necessity of deconstructing and analyzing discourses of self or gender are significant and may be considered among the first steps for any spiritual practice using gender symbolism. In particular, the very targets of spiritual practice reflect in our mental thinking, whether or not we agree with them consciously; those subtle, automatic, not-consciously known or examined convictions may still leak out of the unconscious. Transformation occurs only if we see through those and apply the antidotes. Questioning the validity of the common version of reality and its assertions can be a painfully slow process to come to fruition, but if we are persistent, we can disperse our own patterns of habitual thinking and develop the ground qualities of spiritual practice.
To Begin and Continue: Practice with Deities
“It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” says Epictetus. The most important thing is to have an open and questioning mind. The reasons for an individual to choose a particular spiritual practice can be many, but what we usually have is a sense of dissatisfaction, as Marcia Binder Schmidt describes:
Underlying our experience is a subtle uneasiness that we are unable to pinpoint. We have not totally bought into prevalent attitudes about the ways things are. Instead, we are seeking to redirect our energy and revaluate our lives according to a different standard. We see so many levels and types of suffering, both physical and mental, and we wish for some way to alleviate this pervasive anguish, as well as our own discomfort.” (Rinpoche and Rinpoche, p.18-19)
One more reminder from Epictetus can be useful here: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” A sense of spirituality in our lives can be transformative, inspiring and empowering. To be a seeker or an aspirant is very simple no matter male or female: The only requirement is an interest in spirituality, or specifically for this article, female spirituality. We may look for more ways once curiosity attracts us—dreams, personally-transforming experiences, images of the feminine and her symbols, monuments, and even after watching some movies or being captured by other products of mass consumerism.
Websites and forums, books, local groups might come next to deepen our interest. If our interest grows, studying theories or histories becomes a curious and delightful experience. Some people stop there, and some continue, perhaps looking for a workshop, seminar or open meeting around the neighborhood. Always productive, social interaction gives a sense of belonging, a subtle confirmation that we do not stand alone in our quest. For some, attendance at such gatherings meets their needs; yet for others, the world of continuous practice begins by taking one step forward. There’s no right or wrong here. After years of experience as a psychotherapist, lifelong spiritual aspirant, instructor, network moderator and national coordinator, I have seen some common stumbling blocks, so I’ll briefly mention a few for closer examination.
If we are using a particular deity-form or its symbol for our own spiritual progress, then we need to examine the following:
What does it represent?
What do we project on them?
How do we feel and think when we observe one?
What is the cultural context and background?
Which qualities are attributed to them and why?
Which parts of them are significant for us, and what might it mean?
Is there a personal difference and do we get a different sense about a Deity’s common attribution?
What are the likes and dislikes when we think about them?
Why do we use them: Why do we use a particular deity-form, and what do we expect to obtain—worship, insight, neither, both or something else altogether?
How do you think they might assist us whether as symbols or real beings?
Previously, I emphasized the importance to question one’s own pre-existing understanding of gender and to crave an intellectual understanding of it. The lack of motivation or simple laziness causes us to get stuck there. We have books, forums, techniques and other essentials obtained from multiple sources; yet, we see no transformation in our lives, maybe only a better understanding of our favorite subject until some other shiny object catches our attention—in the end, only the craving persists.
Check your inner dynamics. What exactly are you looking for or craving? Contemplate the very nature of the desire you feel. Desire or Tanhā, is the second of four Noble Truths as described in Buddhist literature about suffering, the core theory of Buddhist teachings.
Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory tells us that desire must have its objects perpetually absent to exist. When you feel that you get it, you don’t want it anymore. If you’re looking into spiritual practice only as something cool, different and fantasy like, then it is better to think twice and not to get involved with practice. Unrealistic attitudes create confusion and emotional distress. If you seek mere fantasy and not liberation or enlightenment from your path, then desire can blur our vision quickly. We don’t want liberation; we want the fantasy.
We might know many names of goddesses and gods and their attributions. We make connections between their myths and our own personal stories, but when we face an actual daily-life problem, we return to our old patterns. It’s easy to blame the materials’ uselessness or the person who presents the information, if we do not actively apply the lessons from all of it. Sometimes, we experience some deep transformative moments with a goddess or god, but don’t know how to continue it or even consider its effectiveness for continuous development. We remember them with heartstrings, hold them dear…leave it as a nice memorable moment of the past with no consideration to expand them into our ever-presence of consciousness. Yes, time is relative!
Deep inside, we actually all feel the same glimpse for solution: Practice, meditate, read and research which helps us understand, but application brings results and makes us realize it all. If you do not embrace any tradition and only possess a collection of data from creative suggestions to the most elaborate ritual texts, at least in the beginning, work on your own daily meditation practice and try to develop a routine until you meet a reliable teacher.
No textbook or forum can help you gain insight until you experience it for yourself. Usually, we give up easily for lack of confidence: questions about doing the right thing, laziness, inertia, a favorite TV show, and even fear of danger. Then consider the importance of lineage. Try to put aside your concerns of trust for a moment and think: Why do I practice? Simply, happiness is the goal. Whatever we do, we do over and over again because foremost, it makes us happy. If it makes us bored, exhausted, exploited, confused or angry, check your goals again. Maybe you have to look elsewhere. If we are content with our own practice, fine. The most important aspect of relying upon an unbroken lineage, however, is that we gain access to a vast set of information; checked, added, practiced, and perfected continuously until the present moment.
Its guidelines are clear and pure to follow; results are quicker than expanded phases of self-trial and error. Check the lineage; do you trust its founder and its lineage masters? If not, fine, continue your search. If yes, good. They will assist you on your own path of liberation and transformation.
Deity Yoga: Transforming Illusion
Tibetan Buddhism is a discipline that uses “truthful self-examination, meditation and other skillful practices to disperse habitual negative patterns and assist the growth of positive ways of being.” https://www.thewisemag.com/plugins/editors/jce/tiny_mce/themes/advanced/skins/default/img/items.gif); “> Studying the histories and theories of these practices are necessary to understand the different aspects of the path. To bring results, we need to apply and practice directly. A genuine teacher, inseparable from enlightened quality, is crucial to remind us what we are motivated for.
The Buddhist cosmology is unique in many ways for its detailed dimensions of existence: As there are many levels of existence in samsara—the cycle of life and death—there are many realms; the gods’ realm is one of them. This means they are subject to karmic suffering. They have a lifespan; even though, it is much longer than humans. Therefore, taking refuge in worldly gods is pointless since they cannot show you the way out of samsara. Breaking the cycle of samsara, and enlightenment, and full awakening from the samsaric illusion, is possible though. Buddhas of past, present and future, bodhisattvas and enlightened beings are examples of this awakened state. Their ultimate compassion is there to aid us to reach the same state. Therefore, the purpose of any practice is to reach enlightenment. The Deity Yoga practice is one of them. Here, Deity refers to a Buddha or Bodhisattva (or a manifestation of one of them) and, that one employs for the purpose of devotional exercises or visualization in a vajra practice and doesn’t mean a worldly god or goddess.
Most people feel cozy enough in samsara. They do not really have the genuine aspiration to go beyond samsara; they just want samsara to be a little bit better…We are always looking to make ourselves comfortable in the prison house. We might think that if we get the cell wall painted a pretty shade of pale green, and put in a few pictures, it won’t be a prison any more.
…There are two basic reasons we follow a spiritual path and look for liberation. One reason is that we want to be free. Let’s take the traditional example of a burning house: Your whole house is on fire, and you run out from it. But all your family—your partner, your children, your parents, even your pet dog—are all still inside. What are you going to do? You don’t just say, “Well, I’m out. So too bad. Do your best to get out, too.” Naturally this leads to the second basic reason for following a spiritual path: we will try to pull them out as well. (Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, 2011. p.71)
The Indo-Tibetan Deity Yoga theory mentions a twofold ontological approach in which an enlightened Deity represents both an internal quality of mind and external existence of being. In Deity Yoga, practitioners try to combine the recognition of mind essence with deity practice and contemplate accomplishing the deity to become familiar with enlightened, non-dual awareness of phenomena. We see that compassion and skillful means are symbolized with the male, and wisdom or emptiness with the female; “yet, the elaborate practices of visualization, meditation, recitations, etc., are all relative practices in this sense, but through them realization is obtained”https://www.thewisemag.com/plugins/editors/jce/tiny_mce/themes/advanced/skins/default/img/items.gif); “> The state of enlightenment knows no difference as to male and female, since they are only approximations on the relative level—empty of existence, just like the self, as seen solid and permanent—in fact, artificial and nothing more than a mere imputation, non-existent from its own side (empty of any such nature or essence).
The idea of interdependent origination, the interconnectedness and impermanence of all phenomena is emphasized. “From a relative point of view, it represents the conditional existence of all phenomena, while from an ultimate point of view it expresses the emptiness or inherently selfless nature of all phenomena.” https://www.thewisemag.com/plugins/editors/jce/tiny_mce/themes/advanced/skins/default/img/items.gif); “> The clinging to the idea of a solid and permanent self is given as the reason of ignorance and suffering in the endless cycle of birth and death (samsara). Between the two extreme views of Nihilism in the sense of nothingness and Eternalism in the sense of seeking absolute and universal nature of reality, the Buddhist, especially Middle Way/Madhyamika system, emphasize the lack of intrinsic reality of phenomena, thus making them relative, empty from its own side. Therefore, one’s own mental formations and experiencing a world that reflects one’s “cultural background, personal neuroses and attachments, and habitual patterns of thought and behavior” (Shaw, p.26) known as karma can be transformed once we realize and develop awareness upon the phenomena, and breaking the cycle of death and rebirth becomes possible.
…distinguishing between the ontological and psychological levels at which identification with deity can function, as it serves both to deconstruct the unenlightened self and, on the psychological level, to dismantle conventional patterns of unenlightened experience while recovering, or creating, positive modes of thought and behavior.” (Shaw, p.194)
This essay is written to provide a multi-layered perspective upon the feminine and masculine principles as the description given by Miranda Shaw perfectly summarizes to use them for active agents of transformation. Tibetan Deity Yoga practice is an immensely unique method when studied carefully and used wisely. We have taken here some of its basic elements and are not intended to compare and contrast it with different traditions, but only to show how profound and exhilarating a practice involving feminine and masculine principles might be for people who seek to deepen and enhance their understanding and experience. Perhaps such exchange and interaction enrich one’s perception of reality and motivate them for ultimate liberation.
Skillful Grace: Tara Practice of Our Times, Teachings by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche & Trulshik Adeu Rinpoche. Translated and edited by Erik Pema Kunsang & Marcia Binder Schmidt.
Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Hong Kong. 2007
Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism, Miranda Shaw, Princeton University Press- Princeton New Jersey. 1994
Into the Heart of Life, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, NY. 2011
Mo: Tibetan Divination System, Jamgon Mipham, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, NY. 1990
 Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche & Trulshik Adeu Rinpoche, Translated and edited by Erik Pema Kunsang and Marcia Binder Schmidt, 2007. p. 18-19
 Teachings by, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche & Trulshik Adeu Rinpoche Translated and edited by Erik Pema Kunsang and Marcia Binder Schmidt, 2007. p.52)
 Mipham, 1990. see Glossary