Love and Liberation, reviewed

Books Buddhism around the World Buddhist Psychology Practice! Tibet Vajrayana Women

love and liberationLove and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro
Sarah Jacoby

Columbia University Press, 2014
456 pages, 6 x 9
ISBN: 978-0231147682

From the publisher
Love and Liberation reads the autobiographical and biographical writings of one of the few Tibetan Buddhist women to record the story of her life. Sera Khandro Künzang Dekyong Chönyi Wangmo (also called Dewé Dorjé, 1892-1940) was extraordinary not only for achieving religious mastery as a Tibetan Buddhist visionary and guru to many lamas, monastics, and laity in the Golok region of eastern Tibet, but also for her candor. This book listens to Sera Khandro’s conversations with land deities, dakinis, bodhisattvas, lamas, and fellow religious community members whose voices interweave with her own to narrate what is a story of both love between Sera Khandro and her guru, Drimé Özer, and spiritual liberation.

Sarah H. Jacoby’s analysis focuses on the status of the female body in Sera Khandro’s texts, the virtue of celibacy versus the expediency of sexuality for religious purposes, and the difference between profane lust and sacred love between male and female tantric partners. Her findings add new dimensions to our understanding of Tibetan Buddhist consort practices, complicating standard scriptural presentations of male subject and female aide. Sera Khandro depicts herself and Drimé Özer as inseparable embodiments of insight and method that together form the Vajrayana Buddhist vision of complete buddhahood. By advancing this complementary sacred partnership, Sera Khandro carved a place for herself as a female virtuoso in the male-dominated sphere of early twentieth-century Tibetan religion.

The Sumeru Review
Since Sumeru is about to publish an anthology of writings by Canadian Buddhist women, I was particularly excited to be given the opportunity to read and review Ms Jacoby’s book, Love and Liberation. It is a complex work, rewarding in many ways and frustrating in others.

Imagine living in a world with an entirely different psychological construct from our secularized, contemporary world, a construct in which our experience of the world is normally expressed as the interplay of deities, both within and without ourselves. Now imagine that within this world your spiritual aspirations bring you a never-ending stream of mystical revelations as a Treasure-Revealer. This is not an easy perspective for modern Western Buddhists to grasp. Jacoby does an excellent job bridging the chasm, by juxtaposing clear translations from Sera Khandro’s auto/biography with astute scholarly insights. This is a rare window into a world so different, and yet so historically recent.

Following Sera Khandro’s difficult life and exploring the ways in which she dealt with those challenges (such as self-imposed exile, an unhappy marriage, a child who died, community obloquy, ill-health, separation from her spiritual life-partner, etc.), Jacoby parses Sera Khandro’s writings to bring into focus the way she viewed all these experiences through the lens of one who lives constantly within the mandala. It is an insightful glimpse into the heart of Nyingma Vajrayana.

As a woman, Sera Khandro faced particular resistance to being recognized as a religious specialist, although she did eventually garner many students and a legacy that is strong to this day. Jacoby’s book tackles the difficult subject of gender politics in traditional Tibetan culture, and more specifically the role of sexuality in tantric Buddhism, with candor. That’s a topic of great relevance today as we witness a steady succession of sexual scandals within Buddhist communities in North America.

By Jacoby’s take on it, the intersection of celibacy and non-celibacy in Buddhism is was very much a contested (and permeable) border in the past, as it is today. Sera Khandro’s life and writings offer no easy answers. She was constantly negotiating her role in a patriarchal society, walking a fine line between love and liberation where the path to each was never clearly defined and where those paths often led in unexpected directions. While her vision of liberation was in many ways orthodox, her perspective as a woman should be invaluable to us today as we look beyond our conditioned notions of gender to a more open view of what it means to be an advanced practitioner and a teacher.

I admit that sometimes I was frustrated by Jacoby’s format of alternating between selections from Sera Khandro and scholarly interpretation. I found myself wanting to experience her mystical writings in a more visceral and direct way, uninterrupted by analysis. However, on balance, that is a small quibble. Jacoby brings lots of food for thought and fresh new ways of seeing the familiar.

Love and Liberation is a rich contribution to the literature of Vajrayana practice, and a valuable exploration of Buddhism through the eyes of an advanced female practitioner.

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