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This book is highly readable, accurate, and informative. Beyond that, it is true to the essence of Vajrayana Buddhist teaching. Judith Simmer-Brown is both chairwoman of the religious studies department of Naropa University, and an acharya, an empowered teacher, of the Shambhala lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. It is inspired and useful reading for the practitioner of Vajrayana teachings, and should also be of benefit to someone who is contemplating that path but has not yet joined it. Her sources include personal meetings with and the oral and written teachings of several great modern teachers including Chogyam Trungpa, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, and Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, as well as many great historical teachers and texts, and the existing academic literature on the subject.
It is written so as to meet all the requirements of an academic contribution to religious studies, and I expect that other reviewers will praise it from that point of view also. There are excellent notes and a bibliography at the end. The subject of the dakini principle has been approached in a variety of ways in recent literature which gives one every opportunity to misunderstand it. So it is necessary to explain that this is not a Jungian interpretation of the feminine as the anima, it is not about goddess worship or modern paganism, it is not a feminist complaint that the Vajrayana exploits women, nor does it interpret Vajrayana as the worship of women (although Vajrayana offers profound respect for women). All of these views are currently available, and Simmer-Brown treats each sympathetically, but the essence of what is to be understood transcends all of them and all interpretations. Judith Simmer-Brown offers up her own feminist background as part of the feast of insight into the dakini.
Vajrayana wisdom is based on the Mahayana view of the three turnings of the wheel of dharma. The first turning of the wheel teaches the four noble truths, and analyzes how grasping and fixation on what we desire leads to further suffering. The second turning of the wheel teaches the emptiness of any true self, and the emptiness of all phenomena. When this vast and profound insight dawns, one is inspired to seek spiritual perfection not just for oneself but for all sentient beings. The third turning teaches that beyond emptiness, beyond any selfness of oneself or the external world, is wisdom and luminosity, inconceivable to the conceptually bound mind. It teaches that all beings have buddha nature, or the inherent capacity to evolve so as to realize this. Vajrayana Buddhism can only be understood within the context of these teachings, otherwise it degenerates into shamanism, magic, or pleasure seeking for personal ends. This book is constantly grounded in this understanding.
Vajrayana is the path of skillful means. It is designed to quicken the progress of those of us with female and male human bodies, and it uses many techniques to engage our bodies, our thoughts and our emotions to achieve realization and liberation. In Buddhist Vajrayana, wisdom is the feminine principle, and skillful means is the masculine principle. The feminine principle, wisdom, is primordial space, the source or womb which gives birth to all phenomena. Therefore it comes first. But both these principles are found in men and women, and their union is what sets the world on fire and produces liberation. The dakini is the personification or symbol of the feminine principle, but in some sense is also beyond gender. This is the core subject of Simmer-Brown's book.
Simmer-Brown's treatment of the dakini is organized around a poem by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, reprinted in the book, which speaks of the secret dakini, the inner dakini, the outer dakini, and the outer-outer dakini. The last of these is the dakini as a human woman. The discussion of these four is powerful and leisurely, and diffuses many possible misunderstandings along the way. The book really covers the entire vajrayana path. It discusses the three roots: guru, yidam and protector. It contains an amazingly lucid discussion of the mandala principle. It discusses the generation and completion stages of vajrayana practice. It explains how the transmission of the dharma across generations is kept both authentic and up-to-date by means of both the ear whispered lineage and the discovered treasure (terma) lineage, and discusses the role of the dakini in both of these. Indeed, the book appears to give away too many secrets, but what keeps it pure is the author's veneration of her teachers, her profound respect and insight into the subject, and the constant grounding of the Vajrayana in the view of Mahayana Buddhism.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants an introduction to the authentic essence of Buddhist Tantra, as well as someone whose specific interest is in the feminine principle or dakini. The title of the book suggests the freshness and living presence of the dakini, the breath as the ear-whispered teachings of Vajrayana, and the breath as the very essence of Buddhist meditation. If you want to know more than what Judith Simmer-Brown's book teaches, you will have to find a personal teacher.