In Dakini Power: Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, Michaela Haas profiles and interviews twelve leading contemporary women teachers within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Ms. Haas is a journalist by training, who became a Buddhist practitioner herself after a visit to Bhutan. She eventually earned her Phd in Asian Studies and is now a visiting scholar in Religious Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. Her varied background is put to good use in this book, as she combines excellent historical research with moving and personal interviews with each of the amazing women featured.
Dakinis in Tibetan Buddhism represent the female principle of enlightenment, and each of the women included in this book embodies this in her own unique way. Pema Chodron is probably the most well-known, as she has had many bestselling books including When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times and Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves From Old Habits and Fears. In Dakini Power, she shares the story of how she came to Buddhism, in her mid-thirties as a single mother after learning her husband was having an affair. Plunged into deep despair, she embarked on a spiritual search that eventually led her to Buddhism, and a desire to stop “running around in circles pretending there’s ground where there actually isn’t any ground.” She discusses her time studying with her root teacher Chogyam Trungpa, and what her life is like now in retreat, where she spends most of her time.
All of the women’s stories are equally compelling. One of the Tibetan women featured in the book, Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, is one of the very few women trained as a full rinpoche in the Tibetan tradition. Another, Dagmola Kusho Sakya, was the first Tibetan woman to immigrate to the United States, and helped her husband found one of the first Tibetan Buddhist dharma centers in the West - while she also worked in a lab and raised the couple’s five sons. Their stories are entwined with fascinating insights into life in Tibet before the Chinese occupation, and descriptions of the tragedies that have befallen many Tibetans since.
Other women included in the book are Tenzin Palmo, the most senior Western-born Tibetan Buddhist nun alive today, who spent twelve years living in a cave, much of it in traditional solitary meditation retreat; Tsultrim Allione, a recognized emanation of Machig Labdron, and founder of the Tara Mandala retreat center; and Thubten Chodron, author of the bestselling Buddhism for Beginners. All of them share very personal stories about their lives and their spiritual journeys - struggles getting their families to accept their decisions (especially those who took monastic vows), struggles in their marriages and raising children, struggles with grief, illness, and injury. They speak of how these life experiences shaped their spiritual path, and how their Buddhist practice shaped their response to them.
These personal stories will make this book a must read for anyone interested in not only Buddhism but female biography, spiritual memoir, Asian culture, or religious history. And if you are a Buddhist practitioner, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, this book is a treasure trove of insight about many topics – the teacher/student relationship, true meditation, overcoming hurdles in practice, reconciling Buddhist beliefs with other faiths, and more. The book does not shy away from controversial topics either, as the women frankly discuss the challenges female Buddhist practitioners often face, including the lack of support and opportunity for Tibetan nuns, a situation several of them are actively working to change.
All in all this is an excellent book that not only profiles twelve inspiring, wise women, but also offers an in-depth look at the state of Buddhism today in the world.