Desire for Enlightenment and the Feminine in Early Buddhist Myth

by André Zsigmond

Om Mani Padme Hum - Hail, the Jewel in the Lotus

The immaculate conception of BuddhaSolomon’s Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible has a rich, sensuous and erotic imagery that has been the subject of various allegorical interpretations, chiefly as relating to God's love for Israel, or Christ's love for the Church.

In fact, the poem is what it seems - an unashamed celebration of the feminine: erotic sexual love, both human and divine, rooted in the fertility religions of the ancient Near East, the sacred marriage rite. Janie “Oquawka” Rezner’s article: The Journey of the Soul into the Mother, in the Spring 2009 issue of this journal, looks at the dismissive comments made by the Dalai Lama on sexual love and reminded me of parallels in Buddhist religious doctrine and interpretation.

The mantra: Om mani padme hum1, is regarded as one of the most important in Buddhism.*  Volumes have been written by monks and religious leaders throughout the centuries about it, without ever revealing the true meaning of the mantra.

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The human soul has a unique experience with sexuality, perceived within the body. No religion or holy men can replace and occupy our individual human experience of sexuality. The experience is an overwhelming spiritual and physical experience; it needs no bizarre belief system. At the same time the experience is ecstatic and unique between two people.  Because of the intimate nature of the sacred and seemingly secret sexuality of humans, a lot of confusion has taken place. This has resulted in euphemisms or nebulous symbols and expressions of sexuality instead of clear speech or words. Thus, since ancient times, people have expressed their joy in the bliss of sexuality in symbols, myths and imagery that are universally recognisable metaphors.

In light of the above it is worth looking at the mantra that the Dalai Lama considers one of the most important in Tibetan Buddhism. The mantra Om mani padme hum originates from ancient Tantric tradition, which has always celebrated female sexuality and the sexual union between the Goddess and Her Divine Consort. The literal translation of the word mani is jewel, the traditional term for the lingam - the male sexual organ. The word padme (lotus flower), is universally known in eastern cultures as the word for the yoni, symbolizing the vulva - the female principle of the sexual union.

There can be little doubt that the original meaning of Om mani padme hum - Hail, the jewel in the lotus - refers to the high esteem in which the harmony of sexual union of male and female was held - fundamental to tantric thought and religious rituals that pre-date Buddhism by thousands of years.

It is very revealing however, that his holiness the Dalai Lama*, who is generally seen as the epitome of humanity and kindness, and who for many people represents true and authentic Buddhism, chooses to mislead his audience and interpret this important mantra entirely stripped and deprived of its original meaning:

  • “It is very good to recite the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM, but while you are doing it, you should be thinking on its meaning, for the meaning of the six syllables is great and vast.
  • The first, OM, is composed of three pure letters, A, U, and M. These symbolize the practitioner's impure body, speech, and mind; they also symbolize the pure exalted body, speech and mind of a Buddha…
  • How is this done? The path is indicated by the next four syllables. MANI, meaning jewel, symbolizes the factor of method- the altruistic intention to become enlightened, compassion, and love...
  • The two syllables, PADME, meaning lotus, symbolize wisdom…
  • Purity must be achieved by an indivisible unity of method and wisdom, symbolized by the final syllable, HUM, which indicates indivisibility…
  • Thus the six syllables, OM MANI PADME HUM, mean that in dependence on the practice which is in indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech and mind into the pure body, speech, and mind of a Buddha…”2

In line with other patriarchal religions there appears to be an obsession with “impurity”, which often refers to the sexual act between male and female, and/or the female body. Just as in Christianity, the word “purity” is often a euphemism for sexual asceticism, as made clear in the Christian Bible (Revelations 14:3-4):

“…No-one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure.”

Since women and sexual desire were considered a great hindrance in striving for enlightenment, Buddhist monks believed the only way to eliminate their desire was to make the objects of their attachment less attractive in their minds. The historical Buddha used this approach. There is a story about a courtesan who became a Buddhist follower and donated all her wealth to the cause. However, monks were too obsessed with her beauty and reputation to see her as a fellow disciple. When she died, the Buddha had her body put on display for those disciples and told them to observe the process of decay so that they would see how transient the qualities of beauty and sexuality were. Apparently, Buddha meant no disrespect to the woman herself - he knew that during her last years she had been a sincere follower of the Teachings. The problem for the monks was that in seeing women's bodies as repulsive, they also came to see all other aspects of women as unworthy, making it difficult for monks and men generally (even today*) to relate to women as human beings. The virtue attached to sexual abstinence as a sign of purity is also reflected in the myths created around the birth of Buddha himself.

Immaculate Conception and Virgin Birth - the Buddhist Way

As the sexual act becomes impure and the female body inferior in Buddhist thought, just as later, in Christianity, the need arises to create a mythology around the birth of the founder that is pure and devoid of the beauty of love and intimacy of the sexual act between male and female. In the West we are familiar with the myth of the Holy Spirit impregnating Mary so Jesus can arrive in this world pure and untainted - a neat solution to the ‘problem’.

The fourth century Church Father, Jerome, expands further on the issue of the female body’s inherent impurity in connection with the virgin birth in his influential letter (Letter 22. to Eustochium, § 39)3

 “For our salvation the Son of God is made the Son of Man. Nine months He awaits His birth in the womb, undergoes the most revolting conditions, and comes forth covered with blood…

According to Buddhist mythology, the immaculate conception of Buddha occurred as a dream experienced by his mother, Maya. In this dream, a white elephant approached and touched her right side with its trunk. Through this act, a seed entered the womb of Maya and impregnated her.  The choice of an elephant as a symbol of her impregnation is a Buddha's birthwell-thought-out metaphor because elephants are known for their intelligence and wisdom. The white colour of the elephant adds to this an element of purity and immaculacy.

Buddha’s birth is just as miraculous as his conception. Unlike ordinary human beings he does not have to endure the indignity of emerging through a woman’s vulva, between her legs, covered with blood like Jesus. Buddhist tradition tells us that he just popped out of his mother’s hip. His mother, Maya standing by a tree, with her hand holding a branch, delivered Buddha, who emerged from her right side.

Buddha begins his search for enlightenment

Buddhism emphasizes non-attachment as a way to liberation and enlightenment. Non-attachment is a way to rid life of unnecessary unhappiness. It's a means of becoming happier. But is it possible to be in a committed, loving relationship and follow the Buddha’s example and teachings on non-attachment?

Buddha leaving his familyThe account of Buddha's search for enlightenment clearly starts with the founder of Buddhism effectively abandoning his wife and newly born son:

“…Siddhartha’s (Buddha’s birth name) mind was made up: he would leave his life of luxury and search for truth and enlightenment. Knowing he would not receive consent, that very night as everyone lay sleeping, he bid a silent farewell to his wife and son. He mounted his horse and set out for the forest in the far reaches of the land where the holy men gather.”

Is abandoning one’s family an acceptable path to awakening? Detachment from wife and child, need and desire is part of the way, it seems. Now, I am not Buddha and I would also like enlightenment, but should one follow his example and in the search for enlightenment desert loved ones, family and children?

In the Bible, Jesus seems to confirm the merit and reward of such devotion in Christianity, and offers eternal life for such a pious act  (Matthew 19:29): And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”

Buddha’s final awakening and the hidden feminine divine

According to the legend, after six fruitless years seeking the ultimate meaning of life, Siddhartha sat cross-legged under the peepal tree4 - a sacred fig tree (Latin: Ficus Religiosa), and entered a deep meditation. During the course of the night he attained enlightenment and became the Buddha (the Enlightened or Awakened One). The tree is also called the Bodhi tree or 'tree of enlightenment' by Buddhists, who consider this spot the centre of the universe. Even today this place in India is one of the holiest places of pilgrimage of Buddhism.

Western readers may be more familiar with the fig tree growing in the Garden of Eden - Adam and Eve placed fig leaves over their genitals after “their eyes were opened (Genesis 3:7) and became enlightened. A simple coincidence of another enlightenment or perhaps there is something unusual about the presence of fig trees?

figEarly rabbinic sources suggest that the forbidden Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was in fact a fig tree and not an apple tree, also implying the possibility that the forbidden knowledge was specifically female sexuality, which patriarchal religions have always tried to suppress. It appears Buddhism is no different. Fig leaves and the fruit of the fig have always been symbols of the sacred feminine in the ancient world, from Rome, where Juno was known to be the Goddess of the wild fig tree, to the Far East.

In India, ancient rituals, folklore and religion where the sacred feminine is celebrated are still alive.  In the state of Tamil Nadu, for example, some villages still perform a symbolic marriage between the neem and the peepal tree (sacred fig tree), which are usually grown near each other. Although this practice is not prescribed by any religious text, there are beliefs about the significance of 'marrying' these trees. In one such belief, the fruit of the neem represents the lingam - the male. The yoni-shaped leaf of the sacred fig tree represents the vulva, the power of the female. The elongated fruit of the neem tree is placed on a peepal leaf to depict creation through sexual union, and so the two trees are 'married'.

Buddhism, which emerged in India about 2,500 years ago, preserved such traditions in its mythology, as myths often arise to accommodate the outlook of ordinary people of the age. According to such a mindset, Buddha’s enlightenment would have been inconceivable and incomplete without the presence of the feminine divine. The apparent likeness of the fig leaf to the traditional representational image of the yoni may account for the use of the fig tree as a symbol of Buddha's awakening - enlightenment that traditionally comes through union with the sacred feminine.

In conclusion, one cannot help but wonder if the actual name of the place where Buddha’s enlightenment occurred is also a hidden reference to the Goddess. The very location of the sacred fig tree is called - Bodh Gaya - “Gaya (of the) Enlightenment”. It is a short distance from the today’s city of Gaya, in the Indian state of Bihar. The spelling of the name Gayais a transliteration from the original Hindi script5, but it would have been just as accurate to transliterate it as Gaia.

Gaia, as Mother Earth, will be familiar to the reader and there is no doubt that Her name would have been universally known throughout the ancient world. In Indian traditions the Mother of all Creation is called ‘Gayatri’6, an unexpectedly close variation of ‘Gaia’ - but I do not wish to speculate any further.

I also doubt the Dalai Lama would see this in the same way. But then, neither would his holiness see the contradiction in his own title of Lama, which I believe to be the ultimate paradox: the word "Lama" invariably conjures up a masculine image. Its etymology, however, paints a different and paradoxical picture. The first syllable 'la' means 'superior', while the second 'ma' is the word for 'mother' and denotes the feminine nature of a word. Practitioners confirm that the 'ma' in lama refers to the mother, and that the explanation for this is that the lama is viewed as the highest form of motherhood.

In the universally acknowledged Tibetan-English dictionary by Chandra Das7, the word 'lama' is literally interpreted as 'soul mother' or the all-sustaining mother of the universe.

©André Zsigmond

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  • Buddhism emerged in India about 2500 years ago and pre-dates Christianity by around 500 years.
  • The oficial residence of the Dalai Lama is at present in India, Dharamsala.
  • In one of India’s most comprehensive studies on health: The National Family Health Survey (2007), that also examined domestic abuse, Buddhist women reported the highest level of domestic violence (41%) followed by Muslim and Hindu women (34%-35%) and Sikh and Christian women (26%-28%). (www.nfhsindia.org/chapters.html) Link no longer active - November 2015.

1. Om mani padme hum - literal translation: ‘Hail, the jewel in the lotus’. ‘Om’ is also translated as ‘praise’ or ‘behold’.  There are versions of the mantra, as sung by Buddhist monks in youtube – see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJX0S3m1om0&NR=1 (Link no longer active November 2015)

2. http://www.tibet.com/Buddhism/om-mantra.html - website of the office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in London (Link no longer active November 2015)

3. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001022.htm

4. Peepal - also spelled as ‘pipal’ - sacred fig tree - Latin: ficus religiosa - Buddhists also call it Bodhi tree

5. Hindi script uses the Devanagari alphabet and lettering - this alphabet is also used in Sanskrit and Nepali languages.

6. Some sources, such as the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas and Barbara Walker, suggest that Gaia as the Mother Earth is a later form of a pre-Indo-European Great Mother who had been venerated since Neolithic times.

7. Cited in June Campbell - Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan Buddhism - Continuum International Publishing Group – 2002

André Zsigmond

André Zsigmond

André writes: "I’m a complementary therapist, living in London, working mainly with people experiencing emotional, psychological problems and trauma; stress, depression, anxiety, addictions, body image problems, eating disorders, etc. I became interested in complementary therapies while researching aspects of Eastern religions as a postgraduate student of Religious Studies at the University of London. Further studies of the close relationship between religion and health in Eastern cultures have inspired me to train in Reflexology and in various Oriental and European styles of Massage and Therapeutic Bodywork. I studied Psychology, and later Occupational Therapy at the London Hospital Medical College, and have also participated in research relating to the psychological aspects of therapeutic bodywork, touch and touch deprivation. My academic studies of Comparative Religion including Tao and Tantra and have also guided me to discover the Goddess. See:  www.bodywork-londonvienna.co.uk
André Zsigmond