Female Consorts in 14th Century Tibetan Literature

For the full article – click here for Anatomy of a Dakini, Female Consort Discourse in a Case of Fourteenth Century Tibetan Buddhist Literature

For the abstract and Journal Issue visit the Journal of Dharma Studies here.

Short Abstract

In the wake of the brave voices of the #metoo movement Buddhist responses to sexual abuse have ranged from denial, to victim blaming, to doctrinal defenses.[1] Among these responses are also important questions about Buddhist sexual ethics and the female consort in Tibetan cultures. Such questions highlight the gaps left by the understudied history of the female consorts in Tibetan tantric communities. One of the issues raised by the current debates is the question of who is an appropriate consort, a discourse which has historical precedent. There is important scholarship on histories of yoginīs or ḍākinīs[2] in India, such as that done by White (2018) and Hatley (2016). However, for Tibet, much of what little is known about consort culture comes from scholarship focused on more recent figures from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as those studied by Jacoby (2014) and Gayley (2016). Despite that excellent, groundbreaking work on Tibetan consorts in the modern period, as well as Gayley’s (2018) important overview of perspectives on the “secret consort,” scholars have yet to address the early history of consort culture in Tibet. Without such research, the crucial historical contexts for #metoo debates about sexual ethics in Tibetan Buddhist communities remains missing and histories of women in Buddhism remain incomplete. My research addresses this gap by studying female consorts in fourteenth century Tibet, an important era when consort discourse was formulated in Great Perfection Seminal Heart literature (rdzogs chen snying thig).

About the Research

Monasticism has played a prominent role in Tibetan religious life, however it is not the only form of Buddhist practice in Tibet where non-celibate religious specialists have also flourished. This research focuses on the scriptures of such a community of tantric adepts for whom religious sexuality was part of their contemplative program and considered a crucial aid to the contemplative virtuoso’s journey. Religious sexual praxis was considered beneficial for the male adept’s health, longevity, soteriological progress and even valued for the sake of companionship. [3] This was sexuality mediated by ritual and ethical proscriptions that included detailed instructions for finding appropriate sexual partners. Consequently, these scriptures are a rich resource for examining discourse about female tantric adepts, their religious roles, the discursive elements which facilitated their inclusion and served to order knowledge about women. These are important resources to challenge stereotypes about Tibetan non-celibate praxis. Jacoby (2014) notes that due in part to the androcentric nature of these texts, as well as the highly esoteric nature of texts so heavy in symbolism, Tibetan consorts have been characterized as victims of a misogynistic religion or valorized as goddesses, but rarely as something more complex.[4]  Likewise, Gayley (2018) notes that the question is often framed in simple binary terms, as whether female consorts in Tibet were exploited or empowered by tantric sexual praxis, again overlooking the complexity of the numerous nuanced contexts of this discourse. The proposed research will contribute evidence towards a missing, more nuanced view, documenting and analyzing the complexities exhibited by consort literature in Tibet through a historical study of key scriptures.

This research focuses on the web of interlocking discourses that regulate consort culture, ordered knowledge about women and by extension controlled women and women’s bodies in consort communities. Discourse does indeed function to consolidate, implement and establish power.[5] Consort literature arose in patriarchal and misogynistic contexts. However, misogyny is shaped in different ways in different cultural contexts and time periods, especially in the context of Buddhist views which are diverse and contradictory from one context to another. Therefore, there is much to be analyzed in terms of how such elements are organized, in the context of complex scriptures that simultaneously attempt to promote religious sexuality and promote female inclusive tantric communities. As pointed out by Kandiyoti (1988), “…the term patriarchy often evokes an overly monolithic conception of male dominance, which is treated as a level of abstraction that obfuscates, rather than reveals the intimate inner workings of culturally and historically distinct arrangements between genders.”[6] To seek to understand the particularities of these dynamics, in context, is a post-colonialist approach. As pointed out by Kuokkanen (2007), from an indigenous studies perspective, sexual violence [and inequalities] must also be explained and understood within the frameworks of indigenous communities.[7] 

Sponberg (1992) theorizes an ‘ascetic misogyny’ generated by male celibacy in early Indian Buddhist contexts.[8] Yet, Langenberg (2017) notes that this paradigm does not address the simultaneous inclusion of women in these texts.[9] She argues that specifying what women are, however problematically, creates a space for them as legitimate members of the community such that misogyny has unintended consequences.[10] Considering this argument in the setting of tantric non-celibate discourse, this research accounts for an ambivalent expression of a tantric misogyny generated by male non-celibate discourse which simultaneously objectifies, constructs and promotes women.

Thus, this research explores the history of the construction of the consort in the context of key scriptures of esoteric Tibetan Buddhism. It analyzes the history of the concept of an appropriate consort, an idea which has been displaced and transformed in different contexts. It highlights that there is historical precedent for the complexities, dangers and discontinuities manifesting in regards to Tibetan Buddhist consort culture today. Indeed, the argument is that such tensions are the necessary ground from which sexual ethics are constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed.

Literature and Sources

The primary sources to be studied are key texts of fourteenth century Seminal Heart literature, an influential corpus of Great Perfection (rdzogs chen) scriptures. These are known as The Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī (mkha’ ‘gro snying thig) which are studied alongside Longchenpa’s redaction of those scriptures, The Seminal Quintessence of the Ḍākini (mkha’ ‘gro snying thig) and other excerpts from Longchenpa’s works addressing consorts. These are scriptures which played a central role in the culmination and systematization of the Great Perfection movement which took place in the fourteenth century.[11] The authors include scriptural revelation by Pema Ledreltsal, (pad+ma las ‘brel rtsal, 1291-1315/1317),[12] and writings of Longchenpa (klong chen rab ‘byam pa, 1308-1363) among other attributions in central figures of Tibetan mytho-historical memory via scriptural revelation convention, Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal (ye shes mtsho rgyal, eighth century). A scripture that these authors derived their consort instructions from is also included in this study, The Tantra of Unimpeded Sound (sgra thal ‘gyur), one of the Seventeen Tantras, (rgyud bcu bdun), which Seminal Heart literature built upon. The primary criteria for selection of these texts was the significance of these texts in terms of their introduction of female adepts into Great Perfection contemplative circles.[13] Case in point, Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī scriptures were notable for their departure from earlier Great Perfection circles which omitted female adepts. In contrast, these scriptures include female adepts in major roles as teachers, transmitters and consorts. Thus, it presents an era of formative discourses about women in tantric circles in an influential lineage of esoteric Buddhism in the Nyingma sect of Tibet.

Due to androcentric record keeping practices, there are few materials detailing the lives of actual women in early non-celibate tantric communities outside the monasteries and the dynamics of male-female relationships therein.[14] Yet, Martin (2010) argues that female religious leaders may have been more common during this period than in later times.[15] Though such evidence is scarce, there are records of women who played significant roles as prophets, disciples, leaders of popular religious movements, disciples, teachers, nuns and lineage holders in the period leading up to the thirteenth century described by Martin (2005). Additionally, Martin (2010), Germano and Gyatso (2000) and Bessenger (2016) also study materials featuring narratives of women in this era. The Blue Annals is another important early source for Tibetan history written by Go Lotsawa Zhonnupel (gos lo tsa ba gzon nu dpal (1392-1481), where evidence of women’s religious roles is apparent. The aforementioned groundbreaking work on consorts in the pre-modern and modern period by Jacoby (2014) and Gayley (2016, 2018) are also consulted as are studies of Indian yoginīs or ḍākinīs such as that done by White (2018) and Hatley (2016).



This research takes a philological approach in terms of Pollock’s (2009) suggestion that it is the work of the philologist to make sense of texts in terms of the many meanings of a text from the perspective of how it would arise in its own context.[16] Therefore, these scriptures are analyzed in four topics, the first is the introduction in which the text and its historical context are introduced. The second section is the analysis of the discourse itself including taxonomic structures and discursive techniques featured in the various iterations of consort typologies and instructions for non-celibate adepts. These are interpreted with attention to structures of knowledge production as described by Foucault. His theories provide numerous useful tropes for illuminating the scriptures, including attention to building blocks of discourse such as representation, resemblance, analogy, sympathy and antipathy, classification and taxonomy. This analysis asks what instruments are deployed for ordering knowledge about women, how consorts were classified and described through these instruments and what tensions are exhibited therein. Following Foucault, attention is also paid to irregularities, complexities and internal contradictions in Seminal Heart consort discourse. Indeed, its discursive formations are regarded here as constituted by tensions within which competing discourses about women and sexuality are negotiated.

The third subject analyzes the web of pre-existing discourses upon which the concept of the consort relies. These scriptures exhibit discursive transformations which facilitated the inclusion of women in the androcentric world of esoteric Tibetan Buddhism. It hones in on contingencies, namely the multiple Buddhist pasts this scripture recruits in its efforts at ordering knowledge about women and sexuality, as well as the doctrines it builds on and transforms. This research analyzes what makes consort discourse sound true. It identifies the pre-existing doctrines are deployed, transformed (or disrupted) by consort discourse to construct the ideal consort and along with it their sanctioned sacred sexuality. It examines the fields of knowledge that construct the validity of consort practice. The goal is not to examine all the discourse about consorts, but to pay detailed attention to Seminal Heart scriptures as a case study of key scriptures which participate in the construction of the female consort in Tibet. The final topic is the conclusion. Overall, the argument presented is that consort literature sheds light on how knowledge of women and sexuality was constructed in a web of contradicting, competing discourses. It suggests that this was accomplished within a particular context of discursive praxis which is not necessarily translatable to current contexts, yet can inform them.


This research is being conducted during a time in which Tibetan Buddhist sexual ethics are being vigorously debated. Buddhist studies scholars may contribute the complex historical contexts necessary to understand these issues. This study does not presume that consort culture in Tibet has been homogenous in all times and places nor does it attempt to trace consort discourse to its origins. Instead, it argues that consort literature evidenced ever-shifting definitions of female consorts and sexual misconduct. The research thereby contributes a study to locate a complex Tibetan indigenous construction of consort discourse. This is done with the intention that such studies may possibly provide an alternative to colonialist tendencies to discursively vacate or oversimplify indigenous ideologies while also confronting the challenging task of a feminist appraisal of indigenous literature. It is hoped that research in this area has the potential to shed light on current debates on sexual ethics in religious communities and could serve to fill in aspects of the missing histories of women in Tibet.

Thus, this research contributes to debates in Buddhist Studies about women, consort-culture and sexual ethics, sexual exploitation, and gender equality. It also contributes to the subjects of women in global indigenous studies and histories of women in Tibet. By arguing that the tensions exhibited by these records were the necessary ground from which sexual ethics were constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed in their indigenous setting, it demonstrates that there is a historical precedent for the complexities, contradictions dangers and discontinuities manifesting in Tibetan Buddhist consort cultures today, albeit in radically different contexts.

This research engages in a subject central to the understandings of Buddhism past and present, women and sexuality. It contributes to development of further scholarship on consorts in Buddhist culture and women in Buddhism. It is hoped that this research will also contribute public scholarship which beneficially complicates and contextualizes the pressing present day questions about sexual ethics and consorts in Tibet.


Select Bibliography

Tibetan Language Sources

bi ma la mi tra, dpal brtsegs. (2000) “ka rin po che ‘byung bar byed pa sgra thal ‘gyur chen po’i rgyud/.” In rgyud bcu bdun/ a ‘dzom par ma/. TBRC W1KG11703. 1: 3 – 208. dkar mdzes bod rigs rang skyong khul, dpal yul rdzong: a ‘dzom chos sgar.

las ‘brel rtsal, padma, mtsho gyal ye shes, Padmasambhava and other unknown others. (1976). mkha’ ‘gro sñin thig Part II. In rab ‘byams pa, klon chen (Ed.) sñying thig ya bźi volume xi. Reproduced from the a’ dzom ‘brug pa chos sgar blocks. Delhi: Mujeeb Press.

‘od zer, dri med. 2009. snying thig ya bzhi. TBRC W1KG4884. Pe cin: dpal brtsegs.

rab ‘byams pa, klong chen (1999). theg pai’ mchog rin po che’i mdzod. In mdzod bdun. 1-697. dpal yul rdzong, a ‘dzom chos sgar: dkar mdzes bod rigs rang skyong khul. 1-697

English Language Sources

Davidson, Ronald. (2003) Indian Esoteric Buddhism A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press. 194-201, 294-303

Hatley, Shaman. (2016) “Converting the Ḍākinī: Goddess Cults and Tantras of the Yoginīs between Buddhism and Śaivism” in Tantric Traditions in Transmission and Translation, edited by David Gray and Ryan Richard Overbey (Oxford University Press, Oxford University Press),

Hatley, Shaman. (2019) “Sisters and Consorts, Adepts and Goddesses: Representations of Women in the Brahmayāmala,” in Tantric Communities in Context, edited by Nina Mirnig, Marion Rastelli, & Vincent Eltschinger, pp. 47–80. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.

Foucault, Michel (2002) The Order of Things; An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines, 1966) New York: Routledge.

Foucault, Michel (1978) The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. Robert Hurley, Translator. New York: Random House.

Gayley, Holly (2016) Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gayley, Holly (2018) “Revisiting the “Secret Consort” (gsang yum) in Tibetan Buddhism,” in Religions 2018, 9, 179.

Germano, David (1994). Architecture and Absence in the Secret Tantric History of the Great Perfection. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Donald S. Lopez Jr., Editor. vol 17, Number 2, Winter 1994. 203-336

Germano, David (2018). Rise of the Lotus, Hidden Treasures and Tantric Sexuality in 14th Century Tibet. Lecture. University of Virginia. Dec 12 2018

Germano, David F. with Janet Gyatso (2000).  “Longchenpa and the Possessions of Dakinīs.”  In Tantra in Practice, edited by David White, Princeton University Press. 241-265.

Jacoby, Sarah (2014) Love and Liberation; Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jacoby, Sarah (2014) “To Be or Not To Be Celibate: Morality and Consort Practices According to the Treasure Revealer Se ra Mkha’ ‘gro’s (1892-1940) Autobiographical Writings,” in Buddhism Beyond the Monastery; Tantric Practices and their Performers in Tibet and the Himalayas. Sarah Jacoby, Antonio Terrone, Editors. Boston: Brill. 37-73

Kandiyoti, Deniz (1988). Bargaining with the Patriarchy. Gender & Society. Vol 2, No. 3, Sep., 1988. Sage Publications, Inc. 274-290

Langenberg, Amy Paris. (2017) Birth in Buddhism; The Suffering Fetus and Female Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Olsen, Torjer A (2016) “Gender and/in indigenous methodologies: On trouble and harmony in indigenous studies.” In Ethnicities 2017;17(4):509-525. 

Pollock, Sheldon (2009) The Fate of Disciplines Edited by James Chandler and Arnold I. Davidson (Summer 2009), in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 35, No. 4. University of Chicago Press. 931-961

Rabjam, Longchenpa.  (2011) Guhyagarbha Tantra; The Secret Essence Definitive Nature Just As It Is. Part One The Root Tantra Part Two: Commentary by Longchen Rabjam entitled Thorough Dispelling of Darkness throughout the Ten Directions. New York: Snow Lion

White, David Gordon (2003) Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

White, David Gordon (2013) “Dakinı, Yogini, Pairika, Strix: Adventures in Comparative Demonology,” Southeast Review of Asian Studies 35 (2013), pp. 7-31.

[1] Langenberg and Gleig.  “CRPL Seminar Series: ‘From Sudinna to the Sangha Sutra: Classical and Contemporary Buddhist Responses to Sexual Misconduct.” (Lecture, Religion in Public, Oct 15 2020).

[2] Ḍākinī is a multivalent term which refers to accomplished women, to female goddesses, spirits, protectors and female adepts serving as consorts.

[3] las ‘brel rtsal, 344

[4] Jacoby 2014 189-190

[5] Foucault 1980 93

[6] Kandiyoti 1988 275

[7] Quoted in Olsen 2016 514

[8] Sponberg 1992 20

[9] Lagenberg 2017 154

[10] Lagenberg 2017 155

[11] Germano 1994 206

[12] There are various enumerations of the dates for Pema Ledreltsal, these are sourced from Germano and Gyatso 2000 244

[13] Germano 2018

[14] Germano 2000 24; Martin, Illusion 2005

[15] Martin 2010 35

[16] Pollock 2009 954

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