Nairatmya: The Transcendent Feminine Wisdom of Non-self
Imagine that it’s a very pleasant afternoon and you’ve decided to go out for a stroll. The air feels clean and there is just the right amount of warmth radiating from the sun for you to feel perfectly comfortable. Things are going well in your life. At this moment, there are none of the concerns that may sometimes creep into your daily thoughts. Imagine that you are, in fact, on the verge of a great, long-awaited event. Your heart is so full of joy for this, yet simultaneously you are utterly at one with this present moment. You feel love for every sentient being and in this moment, everything feels at ease.
The teachings of non-attachment slip into your thoughts. It’s an easy thought. Your spirit feels light, as if your body could vaporize and your spirit merge with the subtle energy of the universe. Detached from the petty carryings on of trivial worldly matters.
Another thought. You ask yourself, is this how bliss feels? Is this a feeling of awakening? You watch as daily life continues around you. Simply witnessing it all. There’s both a feeling of love and you wonder what that other feeling might be—sympathy? No. The term is compassion. Yes, that’s it. Compassion. The sympathy is knowing the suffering many may be experiencing. But you’re detached from such things in this moment. You remind yourself of karma at one level, and no inherent existence on another. Human suffering is as much an illusion as worldly gain. It’s all Maya.
You’re feeling too light, too beyond all the mundane. You’re just feeling too good!
Nairatmya, 15 x 11.5 inches. Ahimsa silk with 24-carat gold, wrapped over
canvas and mounted onto an aged ahimsa silk and gold surround.
Image courtesy of the author
In this moment of utter detachment, a very young child sees a squirrel on the other side of a fast-flowing thoroughfare, lets go of their mother’s hand, and races toward it. The mother hasn’t seen the mortal danger hurtling toward the child. You are close enough to the child to race into danger’s path and push them to safety, although there’s a high likelihood of you being hurt.
How detached are you now?
Interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. — His Holiness the Dalai Lama
We’re all responsible unto each other.
Then you realize that the feelings of bliss you were experiencing was just as much an illusion as the material world. You were drowning in ego.
I have noticed over the years that too many people completely misconstrue the Buddhist teachings of non-attachment. Sadly, this has all too often been a sort of holier-than-thou hedonism. At worst, it is used to promote a personal sensual or self-indulgent agenda. I have been involved with a spiritual collective and it slowly came out that the Machiavellian head honcho has been benefiting nicely at the literal expense of other members of the community—not that you’d believe it to hear them speak! One can only guess that they actively believe their own words.
And non-attachment has long been cited for sexual proclivities and, sadly, abuse:
I was at a lunch with the Dalai Lama and five Buddhist teachers at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. We were sitting in a charming room with white carpets and many windows. The food was a delightful, fragrant, vegetarian Indian meal. There were lovely flower arrangements on the table.
We were discussing sexual misconduct among Western Buddhist teachers. A woman Buddhist from California brought up someone who was using his students for his own sexual needs. One woman said, “We are working with him with compassion, trying to get him to understand his motives for exploiting female students and to help him change his actions.”
The Dalai Lama slammed his fist on the table, saying loudly, “Compassion is fine, but it has to stop! And those doing it should be exposed!” All the serving plates on the table jumped, the water glasses tipped precariously, and I almost choked on the bite of saffron rice in my mouth.
Suddenly I saw him as a fierce manifestation of compassion and realized that this clarity did not mean that the Dalai Lama had moved away from compassion. Rather, he was bringing compassion and manifesting it as decisive fierceness. His magnetism was glowing like a fire.
I will always remember that day, because it was such a good teaching on compassion and precision. Compassion is not a wishy-washy “anything goes” approach. Compassion can say a fierce no! — Tsültrim Allione, from her book Wisdom Rising: A Journey into the Mandala of the Empowered Feminine (Atria/Enliven Books 2018)
The Middle Way between attachment and non-attachment: Upaya (Skt. skillful means); right action at the right time for the appropriate reason taken through compassion and wisdom.
Yet we know the teachings of the Prajnaparamita (perfection of transcendent wisdom) texts and how modern physics echoes what has been long known to ancient wisdom traditions: that truly, phenomenal existence does not exist inherently. That even by what we can measure, only a measly four per cent of the known universe constitutes our “reality.” So it would seem that there is already a lot of “unknown” to which we can awaken.
At the core of nearly every religion, of every spiritual practice, is an esoteric wisdom. And these wisdoms share many a comfy sofa with modern science. In Buddhism, the Vajrayana tradition has a personified practice that we can all attain. Although not before we generate and realize bodhicitta, the selfless concern for others.
This is the crucial key to unlocking the doors to the open space of liberation.
She is the selfless Buddha mother. She is a mother in that she gives birth to the wisdom of liberation to which we aspire. In Tantric Buddhism, she is a most highly considered spirit.
Stemming from very early India is the female Buddha from the early Vajrayana tradition, the wisdom component to the compassion of her personified partner Hevajra—the yogini Nairatmya represents the bliss attained from realizing “egolessness.”
She is seated upon the dead ego in a relaxed pose, one leg extended over the symbolic lotus. She holds her right hand in a mudra that wields the traditional Chod implements of a kartika, the ritual flaying knife symbolically cutting through ignorance and cutting away the detritus of ego impeding enlightenment, and the wisdom-nectar-filled skull cap known as a kapala in her left.
I’m not sure that many of us are really ready for the unfettered reality of Nairatmya, but we can certainly start cultivating the key.
Tilly Campbell-Allen (Dakini as Art)
Related features from Buddhistdoor Global
Maithuna: Reflections on the Sacred Tantric Union of Masculine and Feminine
Art and Evolution: The Feminine and the Sacred
Tara: A Powerful Feminine Force in the Buddhist Pantheon
The Fierce Power of the Divine Feminine: Lama Tsultrim Allione