The Female Voice and Principle in Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism: Female Scholars and Translators

Although this is not about Shentong or Kalacakra, as a female translator-practitioner-scholar, people sometimes ask me who I would recommend to read in terms of the best and/or original scholarly research, translation and writing on gender, the feminine principle, karmamudra, Tantra and female figures in Vajrayana Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhist culture. Here is my suggested introductory reading list (in alphabetical order). I have pulled together various online resources that focus primarily on women who have done original, scholarly translation and research in the English language that has been published. So I have not included well known female practitioners like Khandro Rinpoche, Tenzin Palmo or Tsultrim Allione. Apologies to any worthy scholars I may have left out. I am open to suggestions for inclusion.

I hope in the future more Buddhist Studies university departments will run courses that focus on gender, women and sexuality in Buddhism taught by female scholars. I recently wrote about my own experience of sexism in Buddhist Studies academia, and how the work of other women is often undermined and ignored by more powerful, male scholars. To read that see here.

Lion-Faced Dakini

June Campbell

June Campbell studied Tibetan Buddhism in monasteries in India in the early 1970s. Subsequently she traveled throughout India, Europe, and North America as a translator and interpreter for various Tibetan lamas, including Kalu Rinpoche. Her book Traveller in Space: Gender and Identity in Tibetan Buddhism ( Continuum, 2002) examines the patriarchy of Tibet’s political, religious, and social structures, and the real and symbolic role of women in Tibetan society.


With its cross-cultural stance, the book concerns itself with the unusual task of creating links between the symbolic representations of gender in the philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism, and contemporary western thinking in relation to identity politics and intersubjectivity. A wide range of sources are drawn upon in order to build up arguments concerning the complexities of individual gender roles in Tibetan society, alongside the symbolic spaces allocated to the male and female within its cultural forms, including its sacred institutions, its representations and in the enactment of ritual. And in the light of Tibetan Buddhisms popularity in the west, timely questions are raised concerning gender and the potential uses and abuses of power and secrecy in Tibetan Tantra, which, with its unique emphasis on guru-devotion and sexual ritual, is now being disseminated worldwide. 

Campbell also claimed that when Kalu Rinpoche was in his 70s, while she was a nun and acting as his translator, she engaged in secret sexual activities with him, which she later described as ‘abusive’. For an interview with Campbell about that time in her life see here.

Prof. Hildegaard Diemberger

Prof. Diemberger is the Director of the Inner Asia and Mongolia Unit at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow and Lecturer of Pembroke College, Cambridge. She has published several books and articles on Tibetan Buddhism and history. In particular, her work and research on the female lineage holder and reincarnate, Samding Dorje Phagmo is remarkable and the first of its kind on the subject in the English language. See When a Woman becomes a Religious Dynasty: the Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet, New York: Columbia University Press (2007):

”Diemberger builds her book around the translation of the first biography of Chokyi Dronma recorded by her disciples in the wake of her death. The account reveals an extraordinary phenomenon: although it had been believed that women in Tibet were not allowed to obtain full ordination equivalent to monks, Chokyi Dronma not only persuaded one of the highest spiritual teachers of her era to give her full ordination but also established orders for other women practitioners and became so revered that she was officially recognized as one of two principal spiritual heirs to her main master.

Diemberger offers a number of theoretical arguments about the importance of reincarnation in Tibetan society and religion, the role of biographies in establishing a lineage, the necessity for religious teachers to navigate complex networks of political and financial patronage, the cultural and social innovation linked to the revival of ancient Buddhist civilizations, and the role of women in Buddhism. Four introductory, stage-setting chapters precede the biography, and four concluding chapters discuss the establishment of the reincarnation lineage and the role of the current incarnation under the peculiarly contradictory communist system.”

For a list of Diemberger’s other publications see here

Kunzang Dolma

Born in 1980, Kunsang Dolma grew up in a remote village in the Tibetan borderlands. After becoming a nun, she escaped Tibet first to Nepal and then India. After giving up her nun’s robes, she moved to the United States, where she now lives with her American husband and two daughters.

Her book, One Hundred Thousand White Stones: An Ordinary Tibetan’s Extraordinary Journey, is one of the first memoirs written in the English language about the life and struggles of a Tibetan woman living in Tibet and is a fascinating read for anyone seeking a first-hand account of the gender inequality and sexism in Tibetan culture within Tibet. Breaking the silence on sexual abuse and violence against Tibetan women, Dolma has been accused as having sold out to ‘western feminist ideas’. Yet Kunsang Dolma’s book is a tour de force as a personal memoir that speaks truth to power, reminding us that women’s rights are human rights, and not necessarily bound by place or culture.

I interviewed her for a piece on Huffington Post here in 2013 and here is an interview with her on Voice of Tibet.

Dr. Elizabeth English

Elizabeth English received her MA and PhD in Classical Indian Religion from Oxford University and is a member of the Western Buddhist Order. She is the founder and director of Life at Work, a right-livelihood business that provides consultancy and training for supporting people, teams, and organizations through communication skills and conflict resolution.

English’s ground-breaking book ‘Vajrayogini: Her Visualisation, Rituals and Forms (Wisdom Publications, 2007) delves into the origins of Vajrayogini, charting her evolution in India and examining her roots in the Cakrasamvara tantra and Indian tradition relating to siva.
The focus of this work is the Guhyasamayasadhanamala, a collection of forty-six sadhanas, or practice texts. One of the sadhanas, the Vajravarahi Sadhana by Umapatideva, depicts Vajrayogini at the center of a mandala of thirty-seven different goddesses, and is here presented in full translation alongside a Sanskrit edition. Elizabeth English provides extensive explanation and annotation of this representative text. Sixteen pages of stunning color plates not only enhance the study but bring the goddess to life.

Prof. Rita M. Gross

Feminist scholar-practitioner, Rita Gross, who recently passed away in 2015, is a pioneer in the English-language feminist analysis of Tibetan Buddhism. Gross was an American Buddhist feminist scholar of religions and author. Before retiring, she was Professor of Comparative Studies in Religion at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. In 1974, Gross was named the head of Women and Religion, a newly created section of the American Academy of Religion. She earned her PhD in 1975 from the University of Chicago in History of Religions, with the dissertation “Exclusion and Participation: The Role of Women in Aboriginal Australian Religion.” This was the first dissertation ever on women’s studies in religion.  In 1976 she published the article “Female God Language in a Jewish Context” (Davka Magazine 17), which Jewish scholar and feminist Judith Plaskow considers “probably the first article to deal theoretically with the issue of female God-language in a Jewish context”. In 1977 Gross took refuge with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, becoming a Tibetan Buddhist.  In 2005 she was made a lopön, ācārya, “senior teacher”, by Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche, and taught at Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche’s Lotus Garden Center, located in the United States.

Her book Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist Reconstruction (SUNY Press, 1992) is the ‘Female Eunuch’ of Tibetan Buddhism. Ground-breaking as a piece of research and thinking and a must-read for any man or woman, interested in an analysis of the patriarchy implicit in Buddhist cultures and rituals. This book surveys both the part women have played in Buddhism historically and what Buddhism might become in its post-patriarchal future. The author completes the Buddhist historical record by discussing women, usually absent from histories of Buddhism, and she provides the first feminist analysis of the major concepts found in Buddhist religion. Gross demonstrates that the core teachings of Buddhism promote gender equity rather than male dominance, despite the often sexist practices found in Buddhist institutions throughout history.

Gross’s recent article, ‘What Were They Thinking?’ responding to an all-male panel on the ‘risks and benefits of opening Buddhist leadership to women’ is exemplary and brave, and a reminder why gender equality is still a long way off in most Buddhist cultures. Other publications by Gross related to gender and feminism are:

  • Buddhism beyond Gender: Liberation from Attachment to Identity, Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 2018.
  • Religious Diversity: What’s the Problem? Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014.
  • A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Reflection, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009.
  • Religious Feminism and the Future of the Planet: A Buddhist-Christian-Feminist Conversation (with Rosemary Radford Ruether), New York: Continuum, 2001.
  • Soaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues, New York: Continuum, 1998.
  • Feminism and Religion: An Introduction; Boston: Beacon Press, 1996; Korean translation, 1999; Chapter One “Defining Feminism, Religion, and the Study of Religion” reprinted in Theory and Method in the Study of Religion, ed. by Carl Olson (Belmont, CA:Wadsworth, 2004), pp. 511–20

Lama Sarah Harding

Sarah Harding is a qualified lama and teacher in the Shangpa Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Since 1972, she has been a student and translator of Kalu Rinpoche (1905-1989).  Harding completed the first traditional Kagyu three-year three-month retreat three day for westerners under the guidance of Kalu Rinpoche in 1980.  Harding works as a teacher, oral interpreter and translator. She has been an instructor in the Religious Studies Department of Naropa University since 1992 and lives in Boulder, Colorado with her two children. She is currently working on translations of Tibetan Buddhist texts as a fellow of the Tsadra Foundation. Harding has published a book about the 11th Century female teacher Niguma whose teachings are at the core of the Shangpa Kagyu Vajrayana Buddhist lineage. She has also published two books on Machig Labdron and the Chod practise and lineage. Her publications include the following:

Labdron, Machik; Chöd: The Sacred Teachings on Severance: Essential Teachings of the Eight Practice Lineages of Tibet, Volume 14 (The Treasury of Precious Instructions), Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications (2016).

Labdron, Machik; Machik’s Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chöd (Expanded Edition), Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications (2013).

Niguma, Lady of Illusion, Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications (2012).

Kongtrul, Jamgon; Creation and Completion, Wisdom Publications (2003).

Prof. Hanna Havnevik

Hanna Havnevik is assistant professor at the University of Oslo and is the author of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns: History, Cultural Norms, and Social Reality Oxford University Press, 1990) and The Life of Jetsun Lochen Rinpoche (1865-1951).

Havnevik’s study on Tibetan Buddhist nuns is the only monograph to date concerning Tibetan Buddhist nuns, examines the history and present condition of their lives. Carefully outlining the early history, Havnevik presents an account of nuns and nunneries in Tibet and an anthropological description of an exile nunnery in India. Throughout the text, Havnevik analyzes the relationship between the normative view of women in Buddhism and how Tibetan nuns have adjusted to and altered these norms.

Prof. Sarah H Jacoby

Associate Professor Sarah Jacoby studies Asian Religions with a specialization in Tibetan Buddhism. She received her B.A. from Yale University, majoring in women’s studies, and her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Virginia’s Department of Religious Studies. She joined Northwestern University in 2009 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University.

Her recent monograph Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro (Columbia University Press, 2014) is the winner of the 2016 E. Gene Smith Book Prize from the Association of Asian Studies for books on Inner Asia and a finalist for the 2015 American Academy of Religion Book Award for Excellence in Historical Studies. Love and Liberation is the first study in any language of the autobiographical and biographical writings of one of the most prolific female authors in Tibetan history, Sera Khandro Künzang Dekyong Chönyi Wangmo (also called Dewé Dorjé, 1892–1940). She 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 both a story of love between Sera Khandro and her guru, Drimé Özer, and spiritual liberation.

For more on Jacoby’s background and research see here.

Prof. Janet Gyatso

Janet Gyatso is Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard University Divinity School. She is the author of Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary and In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Remembrance and Mindfulness in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Gyatso attended the University of California at Berkeley for her BA, MA and PhD. She received her PhD in 1981 “in the department of South and Southeast Languages and Literatures [,at Berkeley,] with a dissertation on Thangtong Gyalpo and the visionary tradition of Tibetan Buddhism”. Prior to her PhD, she completed her Master of Arts in 1974 in Sanskrit, and her Bachelor of Arts in 1972 in Religious studies at Berkeley.

Gyatso has edited a book called Women in Tibet (Columbia University Press, 2006) a compilation of essays on the topic. Gyatso and her fellow editor, Hannah Havnevik put this book together to draw attention to the lack of research in the area of women in Tibet.

Lama Shenphen Hookham

Susan Kathryn Rowan, known as Shenpen Hookham is a Buddhist teacher who has trained for over 50 years in the Mahamudra and Dzogchen traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. In the early 1970s, on the advice of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Lama Shenpen went to India where she lived as a nun for six years, ordained by the 16th Karmapa. There she studied and meditated in retreat under the guidance of Tibetan teachers such as Karma Thinley Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche and Kalu Rinpoche. Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa and head of the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, subsequently instructed her to return to the West to teach Mahamudra. She met her main teacher, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, in Europe, and he encouraged her to teach and transmit Mahamudra, the innermost teachings of the Kagyu tradition. On her later return to England, she met and married Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche (Michael Hookham), an early pupil of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Dharma Director of the Longchen Foundation (formerly the Chöd Group) since its inception in 1975.  Lama Shenpen is fluent in Tibetan and was the translator for many Tibetan teachers, including Gendun Rinpoche.

Her excellent book based on her Oxford University PhD thesis, ‘Buddha Within, Tathagatagarbha Doctrine According to the Shentong Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga’, SUNY Press, (1991) is worth a read for anyone interested in Buddha Nature and the Shentong view of emptiness.

Prof. Anne Carolyn Klein

Anne Carolyn Klein (Lama Rigzin Drolma) is Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas and co-founding director and resident teacher at Dawn Mountain, a Tibetan temple, community center and research institute. Klein has translated and authored several books on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and practise.

In particular, for this list, her book Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self (Beacon Press, 1996) is an interesting read for anyone interested in feminism and Buddhism.

Here is an interview with Klein about that book in Tricycle in 1996.

Jamyang Kyi

Jamyang Kyi is a Tibetan-born woman writing in Tibetan language about feminism and gender inequality in Tibet. Her book ‘The Suffering of a Female Eunuch: A Mix of Snow and Rain’ has not yet been translated into English as far as am aware but her work and thinking has broken through into English-language media sources, see here.

Prof. Miranda Shaw

Miranda Shaw has a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University, is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, and is currently Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at the University of Richmond. 

Shaw’s book ‘Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism’ (Princeton University Press, 1994) is one of the only books published on the karmamudra or consort practise from the female perspective, written by a woman.

Historians of religion have long held that enlightenment in tantra was for men only, and that women in the movement were at best marginal and subordinated and at worst degraded and exploited. Miranda Shaw argues to the contrary, presenting extensive new evidence of the outspoken and independent female founders of the Tantric movement and their creative role in shaping its distinctive vision of gender relations and sacred sexuality.

For recent interviews with Shaw about her life and work see here and here.

Prof. Judith Simmer-Brown

Judith Simmer-Brown, PhD, is Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University, where she has taught as a Founding Faculty member since 1978. She studied at Cornell College (BA), Florida State University (MA), Columbia University, University of British Columbia, and Walden University (PhD). She has practiced Tibetan Buddhism for forty-five years and is an Acharya (senior dharma teacher) of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage of Sakyong Mipham, Rinpoche and Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, Naropa’s founder. For a list of her published articles see here.

Her excellent book, The Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism (Shambhala Publications, 2007), is ground-breaking classic in its discussion of the dakini and the feminine principle.

Prof. Karma Lekshe Tsomo

Karma Lekshe Tsomo is a professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of San Diego, where she has taught since 2000.[ After fifteen years studying Buddhism at Dharamsala, she did her postgraduate work at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, gaining a PhD in Comparative Philosophy in 2000. Her research has primarily concerned women in Buddhism, death and dying, and Buddhist philosophy and ethics.


In 1985 Karma Lekshe Tsomo founded the Jamyang Foundation, a non-profit organisation that works to improve the education of women and girls in the Himalayan region and currently runs several schools and study programmes. At a gathering at Bodh Gaya in 1987 she became one of the founding members of the international organisation Sakydhita(Daughters of the Buddha), which campaigns for gender equality in Buddhism.

Publications on women and gender in Buddhism include:

Sylvia Wetzel

Born 1949, Wetzel states on her website that she experiments with paths to inner and outer liberation since 1968 and practices buddhism since 1977, mainly in the Tibetan tradition. For fifteen years she was board member of the German Buddhist Union and for twelve years editor of the Buddhist Quarterly “Lotusblätter” (lotus leaves). She helped inaugurate the International Association of Buddhist Women Sakyadhita (Bodhgaya 1987), is founding member of the Network of Western Buddhist Teachers (Dharamsala 1993) and is currently President of the Buddhist Academy Berlin Brandenburg (Berlin 2001).

I first came across Sylvia Weitzel when I saw a Youtube video of her bravely publicly questioning HH Dalai Lama and other male lamas at a 1993 conference about the inequality inherent in many rituals and cultural practices of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s worth a watch here. As Tenzin Palmo, who was at the conference recalls in her book Cave in the Snow, Wetzel:

‘….invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the assembled throng of luminaries to join her in visualization. ‘Please imagine that you are a male coming to a Buddhist center. You see the painting of this beautiful Tara surrounded by sixteen female arhats and you have the possibility to see too Her Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama who, in all of her fourteen incarnations, has always chosen a female rebirth,’ she began.

‘You are surrounded by very high female rinpoches —  beautiful, strong, educated women. Then you see the Bhikshunis coming in, self-confident, outspoken. Then you see the monks coming in behind them — very shy and timid. You hear about the lineage of lamas of the tradition, who are all female, down to the female Tara in the painting.’

‘Remember you are male,’ she reminded them, ‘and you approach a lama, feeling a little bit insecure and a little bit irritated, and ask “Why are there all these female symbols, female Buddhas?” And she replies, “Don’t worry. Men and women are equal. Well, almost.  We do have some scriptures which say that a male rebirth is inferior, but isn’t this the case? Men do have a more difficult time when all the leaders, spiritually, philosophically and politically are women.”

‘And then the male student, who is very sincere, goes to another lama, a Mahayanist from the Higher Vehicle School, and says, “I am a man, how can I identify with all these female icons?” And she replies, “You just meditate on Shunyata (Emptiness). In Shunyata no man, no woman, no body, nothing. No problem!”

‘So you go to a tantric teacher and say, “All these women and I am a man. I don’t know how to relate.”  And she says, “How wonderful you are, beautiful Daka, you are so useful to us practitioners helping us to raise our kundalini energy. How blessed you are to be a male, to benefit female practitioners on their path to enlightenment.”

It was outrageous but delivered in such a charming way that everyone, including the Dalai Lama, laughed.  ‘Now you have given me another angle on the matter,’ he said. In effect Sylvia Wetzel had voiced what millions of women down the centuries had felt. In spite of the mirth, the dam holding back more than 2,500 years of spiritual sexism and pent-up female resentment was beginning to burst. Others began to join in. A leading Buddhist teacher and author, American nun Thubten Chodron, told how the subtle prejudice she had met within institutions had undermined her confidence to the point that it was a serious hindrance on the path. ‘Even if our pain was acknowledged it would make us feel better,’ she declared.’’

Prof. Jan Willis

Janice Dean Willis, or Jan Willis is Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University, where she has taught since 1977; and the author of books on Tibetan Buddhism. She has been called influential by Time MagazineNewsweek (cover story), and Ebony Magazine. Aetna Inc.’s 2011 African American History Calendar features professor Willis as one of thirteen distinguished leaders of faith-based health initiatives in the United States.

She is the author of the following books:

  • Dreaming Me: An African American Woman’s Spiritual Journey. New York: Riverhead Books, 2001.
  • The Diamond Light: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
  • On Knowing Reality: The Tattvartha Chapter of Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhumi. Columbia UP, 1979.
  • Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition. Wisdom Publications, 1995.
  • Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet. (Editor, and contributor of two of six, essays) Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1989
Vajayogini

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