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Book Review - Traveller in Space

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1997, Volume 14, Number 1, pages 155-156. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan Buddhism. 

June Campbell. George Braziller, New York, 1996, 240 pages.

Anyone who has followed the recent histories of Zen and Tibetan Buddhist teachers with Western devotees knows that, too often, these same teachers have been criticized for both authoritarian and sexual indiscretions. It is easy to play the cynic who believes that these ostensibly celibate or married men--the teachers are almost always monks--find it hard to resist "sexually liberal," White Westerners who dote over them. And it is easy to degrade devotees who submit "totally" to such gurus as no more than naïve seekers who should have known better. In Traveller in Space, June Campbell delivers us beyond superficial cynicism into a scholarly study of the unusual patriarchal system of Tibetan Tantra and its relevance to female subjectivity.

Although Campbell speaks from extensive personal experience--she was a consort of an important Tibetan lama (priestmonk) for several years and an accomplished translator of Tibetan texts--this book is not another exmember exposé for lay readers. This is an important study that utilizes sophisticated psychoanalytic, religious, and cultural theory. Campbell explains and criticizes how the female role, the dakini, in Tibetan Tantra (Vajrayana) has diminished the individual female integrity to comply with a maledominated, maledefined tradition. Campbell invokes feminist scholarship, especially that of Luce Irigay, as well as such scholars of religion and mythology as Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell (no relation to the author), and Agehananda Bharati, to reinforce her perspectives.

In certain terms, Campbell points out the vulnerabilities of Tibetan Tantra to Western influence. Tibetan dakinis have been acculturated to accept their roles as unequal, if revered, "objects" useful to lamas in their sexual rituals. The latter, usually secret, are said to provide powerful opportunities for the lama to attain "enlightenment." Western ethics (conditioned by a long history of JudeoChristian influence) and feminist philosophy conflict with this secret patriarchal system. Western women have long complained about sexual exploitation by certain gurus who invoke an "enlightened" status, one that "entitles" them to have sexual contact with devotees. Campbell provides a scholarly and psychoanalytic basis for such complaints, as well as a new standard for women within the Tibetan tradition. She admits that if this new standard--one that accepts women as selfdetermining "subjects" in their own spiritual destiny--were incorporated, Tibetan Tantra would either revolutionize or disappear.

More than a crosscultural critique, Traveller in Space is a good primer on Lamaism and Tantric religious history with its roots in Indian philosophy. Campbell analyzes how separation from their mothers at a young age has certain emotional effects on "reincarnated" lamas and their ensuing needs for "nurture" from consorts. The title is a translation of the Sanskrit word dakini (Tibetan khandro), which means "skygoer." The implication is that the submissive dakini is unattached to anything and functions as an empty "space" to afford the partnerlama an experience of "enlightenment," but, in tradition, this does not work in reverse. Campbell systematically discusses and deconstructs such malegenerated notions as untenable and "illogical" within and "outwith" the system if Tibetan Tantra is to incorporate status integrity for women. She also points out how lamas manipulate their consorts, or dakinis, by suggesting that if they reveal the affair or rebel, the dakini will suffer "madness, trouble, or even death." The fact that this manipulative behavior is somehow sanctioned by a centurieslong tradition, largely unchallenged by the females within Tibetan culture, demonstrates how completely the "feminine" has been politically framed by both malegenerated symbology and signature, according to Campbell. The effects of Campbell's study may be difficult to predict, but the need for it in light of the continued attraction of Western seekers, particularly women, for exotic "enlightened" teachers is inestimable.

Joe Szimhart

Cult Information Specialist

Pottstown, Pennsylvania

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1997