The Sacred Feminine

The Sacred Feminine


Worship of the female/feminine/femininity has a place in most any religious tradition. Buddhism specifically has relied on the worship of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas identified as female and vested with important attributes, notably transcendent wisdom and longevity. In some Buddhist traditions, such as the Vajrayana as developed in India, the female becomes central to both worldly practice and ritual, in addition to conceptions of the sacred. While central to Buddhist practices that championed what were perceived as feminine traits, the female as the focal point of eschatological rites appears to run counter to the celebration of the female or womanhood. Earlier scholarship sought both to critique androcentric biases in gendered representations, and to argue for representations of the feminine divine as a source of empowerment for female viewers. While not denying the importance of women’s search for the sacred “in her own image,” nor the mark of patriarchy on the representation of the female divine, this panel seeks to question these premises and explore different frameworks. Within the symbolism of the deity as mother, for example, what is the role of the biological mother? Can motherhood be conceptualized as transcending gender categories? How might non-essentialist notions of gender be applied to representations of the goddess or female deity?

These differences in the ways in which gendered representation is emphasized thus depend on the ritual or meditation context to which visual representations of female divinities relate. As such, portrayals of the divine woman depict a spectrum of qualities, the female being auspicious, sexual, lively, violent, grotesque, or even putrefying. Fundamentally, the contradicting negative and positive portrayals of the female body in text and image alike reject the applicability of a straightforward or universal understanding of gender in the Buddhist world. Are these female or feminized personas constructed from male or female viewpoints, or both? How might the sacred female in visual representations confirm or challenge the presence of misogynistic attitudes as interpreted by scholars of doctrine? How do gendered qualities reflect the worldly realities and divine aspirations of those who developed and represented visually these personas?

Presenters and Paper Titles


Discussant: Janet Gyatso

Ryūichi Abé - The Dragon Princess Episode in a Larger context early Mahayana literature

Ikumi Kaminishi - Buddhist Women Who Crossed the Cordon

Megan Bryson - Meeting the Multifaceted Goddess: Images of Baijie Shengfei

Ashley Thompson - Becoming and Unbecoming: Meditations on Gender and Form at Srei Santhor