There is no point claiming that the female form has not been the focus of prejudice and subjugation in the majority of times and places. However, this is not the invariable state of affairs in Buddhism.
Prajapati, Buddha's step-mother/aunt, walked over a hundred miles to request permission -- even, insist -- on the right of women to become monastics. After she was ordained, she attained the awakened state and Nirvana along with many of the nuns.
Padmasambhava, the eighth-century Second Buddha, said, "Male, or female there is no great difference. But when the aspiration for enlightenment is developed, the woman is superior." All of his consorts achieved the highest attainment, and Tibetan queen Yeshe Tsogyal was his chief disciple and lineage-holder. Naropa's 'sister' Niguma, and the dakini Sukhasiddhi, are the founders of the Shangpa Kagyu line.
One famous terton or treasure-revealer was Tibetan stock-woman, Jomo
Chokyi Drolma was the matriarch of the Drigung Kagyu lineage. Machig
Labdron was Padampa Sangye's disciple and founder of her own Chod lineage.
The daughter of Terdak Lingpa, founder of Mindroling Monastery near
Lhasa and the fifth Dalai Lama's teacher was the one to transmit the
A-yu Khandro, is only one of the many other Women of Wisdom. In 1953, aged 114 years, she attained the Rainbow Body in her hermitage in East Tibet.
Dzogchen master Chatral Rinpoche claims the Drigung Khandro as
one of his root gurus. Jetsun
Kushok Chimey Luding is a contemporary Sakya master in Vancouver
who gave her first empowerment at the age of 18.
One of the fundamental Vajrayana vows is not to denigrate women. We speak of sentient beings as our "mothers." Teachers have said that women practitioners have an advantage in that they are less likely to be wholly goal-oriented, to practice with a view to compete, or to force themselves, and this, coupled with an inclination towards openness, enables their progress.
Visit the Dakini as Shakti for a view of the active role of female gods.
These may be buddhas in female form, goddesses who are bodhisattvas,
historical figures such as lineage founders, and also yidams and
dharma protectors in peaceful, semi-wrathful or wrathful form.
manifestation is discussed in a separate series of articles. This is
not a definitive catalogue, by any means.
Arya [Noble] Tara is best known in her Green or White forms. She is depicted in various ways. Peaceful, semi-wrathful; alone or surrounded by her 21 manifestations or aspects.
Besides Green Tara and her various forms that are generally referred to by colour, some of the more distinctive female figures are:
Achi Chokyi Drolma, the peaceful white Drikung Kagyu protector on her blue horse or a blue-maned snow lion.
(Belwong) Kalasiddhi: Protegee of Yeshe Tsogyel and
youthful consort of Guru Rinpoche, she is considered an aspect of
The Wishful-filling Jewel form of Tara.
Dorje Yudronma, (Vajra Turquoise Lamp) the Longchen Nyinthig lineage-protector who bears an arrow tied with five-coloured silks in her right hand and a divination mirror in her left. In the life of yogi, Jigme Gyalwai Nyugu, she appeared when he was starving and offered him food.
Ekajati [Ralchikma], the Nyingma Dzogchen protector of mantras whose name, 'One Braid' [or, plait] refers to her initially terrifying appearance since she has only one eye, one tooth, one breast and so on.
Kurukulla is a 4-armed dancing red Tara, an archer whose bow made of flowers relates to the subjugation of ego and the use of love/attractionin the service of dharma. Hrih is her seed syllable and her mantra: Om Kurukulle hri svaha!
Kwan Yin (Cantonese: Goong Yam) is a Chinese manifestation of the bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara that is considered to be female. Legend relates how she was once a princess (Chin. miao shan) who was one of three sisters. Tired of the politics and conflict of palace life, she resolved to become a hermit and eventually benefited beings by becoming one of the Immortals/ a bodhisattva.
Lamanteri is the Mongolian semi-wrathful form of Green Tara with 8 arms sometimes depicted with the 21 aspects of the Praises to Tara surrounding her.
Machig Lapdron: White, dancing dakini, sky-clad but for her bone ornaments, holding a medium-sized drum in her raised right hand.
Mandarava: considered a speech emanation of Vajravarahi, she is the first wife of Padmasambhava.
Marichi (Ozer Chenma) is reddish-gold with 8 arms. Two of her hands hold a needle, and thread. Her most widely found image is the one with three faces, one of which is that of a sow, in which she drives a cart pulled by seven swine. She may represent the Vedic goddess Ushas, as the dawn deity was named. In ancient times, it seems the sun appeared rather differently, accompanied by lesser lights. Marici's seven-swine cart may derive from the Indian myth that describes Surya's vehicle as drawn by seven horses. Or, the seven smaller animals may represent the Pleiades, a constellation of stars known as the Seven Sisters in many cultures -- in Japan, they are the Subaru.
The embodiment of the first rays of dawn, Marichi is invoked by travelers for protection from robbers and other hazards of the road: Om Marichi svaha.
Tantric Buddhists tell of this bodhisattva's determination in the manner of Tara, Taoists see her as Queen of Heaven, and the Japanese, Amaterasu, the sun goddess.
Her origin lies in early Indian scriptures such as The Laws of Manu (Skt.: Manava Dharma Shastra) and the Puranas, where Marichi is one of 10 Prajapatis or primal parents /chief of the Maruts produced from the mind of Brahma. In this male aspect, Marichi is father of Surya, the sun and (with his wife Sambhuti) and also of Kashyapa 'Old Tortoise Man' one of the seven primordial sages. Thus, Marici, the beam of divine light that initiates creation of the physical world is not only illumination in a physical but also in the spiritual sense.
This 'illuminating' aspect of Marichi (Ozer Chenma: Queen of Light) is emphasized in an 18th century tangka of the Karma Kagyu at Tibet Art where she is crowned by a stupa, and instead of driving, she is seated on a great sow with its piglets. The accompanying Sakya verse emphasizes her ability to dispel the fears of the night.
Sometimes, other animals may be depicted drawing her chariot.
Marichi has another popular form in which she is depicted standing while threading her needle.
The third (male) incarnation of the Jain founder is also called Marichi.
Nairatmya 'One Absent-of-any-Self' is a sky-blue or dark-blue yidam and the consort of Hevajra. The wife of Marpa the Translator, and mentor of Milarepa was named for her.
Naro Kachoma: Vajrayogini in the "archer's
pose." (Andy Weber's
Palden Lhamo, the dark blue protector and only female among the Eight Guardians of the Law, who is also Mahakali. Her Sanskrit name Shri Devi means Great Lady, ie. Lady Goddess.
She is usually depicted in nakthang [black-ground scroll style] crossing the sea of blood riding side-saddle on a white mule. There is an eye on the left rump of the mule which is the place where her irate husband's arrow found a mark. She had killed her son and used his flayed skin as a saddle blanket.
"She is said to have been married to a bloodthirsty warring king who refused all her entreaties to stop his wanton killing. She finally issued an ultimatum: if he wouldn’t stop the killing, she would personally slay their child so the king would experience for himself the pain that
his warring caused to others." ~ Nitin Kumar, Feb. 2001 on Dharmapalas
Another explanation was only that the son was an enemy of Buddhism.
In tangkas, she is depicted with red hair to indicate her wrathful nature. Though she may wear the crown of five skulls symbolizing the transmutation of the passions, yet the serpent of wrath is there, too.
Unlike the support of the other 7 dharmapalas, she is atop or surrounded by the Himalayas. This not only indicates her association with the Tibetan region, but also her origin as Mahakali, daughter of Himalaya, the Indian deity. She also wears the garland of freshly severed heads characteristic of Kali.
The distinction is though, that the sea of boiling blood, the corpses, and entrails are not offerings to appease her. Her ultimate activity is that of support and protector of the way of compassion. The personal protector of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, Palden Lhamo is especially venerated by the Gelug denomination.
The Ladakhi thangka in the Koelz collection at University of Michigan shows her with four arms. She holds a curved knife and skull bowl in her lower hands, and brandishes a sword and a staff waving a banner of skin.
The sun shines from her navel and her hair is adorned with a crescent moon - peacock feather jewel. Her steed is bridled and trimmed with vipers (like that of a Norse deity) from which hang her bag of diseases, a ball of magic thread and her dice -- mo, the Tibetan system of divination by dice, is associated with her.
See tangka with description by Natalie Marsh from Kaladarshan, Ohio State U.
Rangjungma's mantra is at http://isis.ohio.voyager.net/rinpoche/palden.htm
Remati: Very wrathful form of Palden Lhamo is
depicted as dark blue, with
3 eyes, holding a sickle or a sandalwood club, and a blood-filled skull seated on her mule.
Prajnaparamita (Yum Chenmo) embodies the Supreme Wisdom of the Emptiness-Teaching. She is golden and is readily identified by the books that sit atop the lotuses, one on each side of her, at the level of her head. These sutras after which she is named are called by Nagarjuna (2nd century CE), Mother of Buddhas.
Sakya Dema ( Belmo Sakya Devi): Bhutanese dakini, an
activity emanation of Vajravarahi. Teen daughter of King Hamra who invited
Guru Padmasambhava to Bhutan. She offered milk and honey to
Yeshe Tosgyel who was meditating in
Nering Drak Cave. She follows her to Tibet and becomes a secondary consort of Guru Rinpoche. The tigress upon which Dorje Drolo is seated represents her.
It is said she took rebirth as Machig Labdron's daughter.
Salgye Du Dalma: Dakini who affords protection and insight during sacred sleep/ dream yoga. "She who clarifies beyond conception" sits on a blue 4- petaled lotus. She is seen as a luminous drop (Skt. bindu, Tib. tigle).
Samantabhadri (Kuntuzangmo) is the yum or consort of the ultimate Buddha. She is pure white or light, in contrast with his darkness.
Saraswati [or Sarasvati] is essentially an Indian goddess. She appears as a Buddhist yidam in her capacity as embodiment of culture, learning and the arts, especially music. Her mythology also includes an important purificatory aspect. In many regards, she shares characteristics with White Tara.
In Tibetan, Saraswati is Yang Chenmo, or when her musical aspect is emphasized, she is Piwa Karpo. In Mongolian she is Keleyin ukin Tegri, in Chinese she is called Tapien-ts'ai t'iennu or Miao-yin mu, and in Japan she is equated with Benten. The Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo is named for Saraswati.
She is often identifiable by her plain white garment, (though not in this image) her veena which is a stringed musical instrument, and her association with the consonants and vowels of the Sanskrit language. Her own seed syllable is haym.
In the Sadhanamala (162) Maha-Sarasvati's mantra
Om Hrih Mahamayange Mahasarasvatyai namah.
In Hinduism, she is the daughter of Durga and wife of Lord Brahma, and her vehicle is the celestial bird called the hamsha or kinnara, today portrayed as a swan but sometimes a peacock. She is called Sharda Devi or Sharada (Sarada) and the hymn to her says that her home is Kashmir, once famous for its pandits or learned scholars.
Saraswati means 'the one that flows' and is the name of a Vedic river that once flowed, but has vanished. That is the source of her connection with fluidity of all fertile kinds including speech, writing, song, music and thought. She is also known as Vak [speech.]
In India, grandmothers make a pentagram or Saraswati-sign
on the tongue of newborns to invoke the blessing of speech.
Hers is a spring [besant] festival falling on the fifth day of the new year's waxing moon. In Bengal, it is the custom of girls to wear the light orange shade called besanti on Saraswati Day.
Students of all kinds call upon her for success in their studies. She is depicted dressed in pure white without the usual adornments of goddesses as she, herself, is the source of illumination.
In Bengal, students are supposed to fast before the Book or Boi Puja as this time is also known, and writing materials, musical instruments and school supplies are placed before the deity's altar.
Books are considered sacred to Saraswati; if one accidentally sits or puts their feet on even a page of a book, it is necessary to pranam [bow with palms together] or touch it to the forehead with respect, as a form of apology for the misdeed.
Offerings end with a special floral and fruit tribute [pushpanjali] accompanied by the following mantra said three times:
Saraswati maha-bhage vidye kamala lochane
Viswa-rupe vishalakshi vidyangdehi namastute
Esho shachandana pushpa bilvapatranjali
Namo Saraswatvayi devyayi namo.
This puja is also the time that very young children are initiated into writing. An elder holds the child and guides its hand to write for the first time, the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet - Aum.
In Bengal at least, this festival is celebrated in all schools and colleges, and educational institutes are closed all day. Children participate feeling this will bring them luck in their exams.
Saraswati Puja is also plum-eating day. Amusingly to English-speakers, in Bengali the word for the fruit that epitomizes spring is Kool.
~ Source of Saraswati Puja in Bengal: Biswas Anirban, Calcutta.
In Buddhism, as well as being a yidam or inspirational deity Saraswati is sometimes considered the consort of Manjushri, the knowledge bodhisattva. She was the yidam of the reformer and founder of the lam-rim system, Tsongkhapa.
Mipham Rinpoche invokes Saraswati in the introduction to The Blazing Lights of the Sun and Moon [Sherab Raltri]:
In the expansive lotus-garden of speech of all the conquerors,
With 100,000 melodious blooms of holy Dharma,
You are a singing swan that shines as bright as moonlight,
May you now enjoy the vast lake of my mind.
Sometimes considered the peaceful form of Palden Lhamo, which may derive from the connection with Nila Saraswati, a dark blue emanation of [Durga] the Mahakali of Hindu tantric tradition, Yangchenma is sometimes associated with White Tara since she is white with one face and, sometimes, three eyes. She can be depicted with only two hands, knees bent with crossed ankles as she sits playing her instrument, but often with four when one holds a book of scripture and one a mala - the mala symbolizes the string of letters of the alphabet.
There is also a red Sarasvati - Yangchen Marmo and a vajra or Dorje Yangchenma.
The mantra of her form as Arya Vajrasarasvati (sadhanas no.161 & 163) is:
Om, pichu pichu prajna vardhani jvala jvala medhavardhani
~ mantra information courtesy M. B., Nepal
Link to Newbery's Ocean of Sound page about Tibetan Buddhist music in which the form of flowing or melodious chant is called yang after Saraswati.
(Sengdongma), Lion-face Dakini, is a wrathful manifestation of Padmasambhava [Guru Rinpoche]. Besides his wives, Yeshe Tsogyal (Dechen Gyalmo) and Mandarava, who also function as deities, there are other consorts.
Sinhavaktra: Dark blue Lion-head Dakini dispels obstacles to enlightenment. She holds a broad-bladed knife and skull cup.
Sukhasiddhi: Power-of-Bliss dakini
Tseringma is the protector of Bhutan, the embodiment of Mount Chomolhari.
Ushnisha-sitatapatra is the embodiment of the white parasol of royalty that appears as a symbol of glory as described in the Shurangama Sutra. She has one thousand faces, arms and legs; each face has three eyes, and there is one in each of her palms and feet.
Usnisha-vijaya [Tibetan: Namgyelma] at
left, is a longevity deity. Like all Buddhist deities, she is
essentially a manifestation of Emptiness acting as a bodhisattva.
She is thought of as able to bestow longevity on beings; not for selfish
reasons, but for the purpose of helping all others towards
Namgyelma: her mantras
Vajrayogini (Dorje Naljorma):
Slightly wrathful red dancing goddess with flowing
black hair. One aspect is known as Kechari, another is Vajravarahi, associated with the Kagyu school. As consort of Chakrasamvara she differs slightly from the linked image on the Dakini: Bliss Queen page. From an interview with Jetsun Sakya Kushog:
Q: Are there similarities and/or differences between the various traditions of Kachoma (Vajrayogini)?
A: I think in the Gelugpa the Vajrayogini practice is very similar to ours, because it comes from the Sakyas. Maybe there are different lamas with different sets of sadhanas, different ways of teaching, some of them more detailed, but it come from Sakya, so it is very much the same.
The Kagyupa's Vajrayogini is actually not Vajrayogini. They call it Vajrayogini nowadays, especially among Westerners, but in fact it is Vajravarahi. In Tibetan it is called Dorje Phagmo, and not Naro Kacho. Therefore, the Kagyu practice is not Vajrayogini.
Q: Are they very different?
A: They are different, but both Vajravarahi and Vajrayogini, are Chakrasamvara tantric practices and originally come from Naropa. Naro Kacho means that it comes from Naropa.
Vishvamata: Consort of Kalachakra. She is yellow, with 4 faces each with 3 eyes. The 8 hands hold: a curved knife, a hook, a small drum, a mala, a skull cap, a lasso, a lotus flower and a jewel.
Yeshe Tsogyal (form of Samantabhadri or Kuntuzangmo) legendary spiritual consort of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) considered a dakini (Sky Dancer by Dowman is her story) and mind emanation of Vajravarahi/Saraswati. Said to have had a perfect memory, she was a treasure-concealer of Guru's Rinpoche's treasures (termas.) She is said to have lived 211 years before attaining the rainbow body.
*The word deity is understood in a rather unique way by Buddhist practitioners. It is used for lack of a better word. The expression 'tutelary deity' for the Tibetan yidam is misleading as it implies a teacher-student relation.
These mythic figures are understood to arise and return to Emptiness; they have no inherent reality. They are not worshipped in the sense of idolatry, though certainly it may seem to be so, as for example, when one first encounters people doing prostrations before images on a shrine. That is one reason for not using the term 'altar', by the way.