Honey On The Razor’s Edge

The Nature of Gender and Romance

by Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen

Intuition and logic; chaos and pattern – how do these words relate to romance? What significance do they have to ‘falling in love’? How do these word-pairs reflect the dance of relationship between men and women? The energy of these word pairs permeates every aspect of our lives: randomness and design; freedom and commitment; subjectivity and objectivity; gazing and scrutiny; non-rational and rational; appreciation and discernment; admiration and respect; sensitivity and strength; laterality and linearity; æsthetics and pragmatism; uncreated knowledge and active compassion; emptiness and form; wisdom display and method display.

What is there to be said about men and women that is beyond restrictive stereotypes? History is peppered with evolutionary, agricultural, and climatic forces that create their own slants on what is required of human beings. We cannot look to isolated historical periods for gender models which facilitate transformation. So is there a human male-female paradigm that lies beyond the individual cultures of the world? Eastern and Western cultures have devised models for women and men; but such models are all open to criticism, no matter how socially functional they appear. These cultural, or religious models become cages in which we trap ourselves and others. Some models are highly simplistic, and designed to maintain social order, and some reflect a patriarchal interest that is highly obvious. Both can be seen for what they are and rejected. Even models espoused by feminist women, appear to be adaptations of phalocentric models. We live in times of extraordinary heterodoxy, and are exposed to ever-changing ideologies of gender. Transpersonal psychology is exploring new gender models, in which men and women are free to evolve their own independent structures from the rich well of mythological archetypes. The interface of colourful antiquarian clues with psychological knowledge has generated new patterns as an interesting experiment with life; but according to Tantra, we should question our patterns, rather than evolving new patterns as reactions against previous ones.

With regard to the imposition of gender attributes, it is preferable for men and women to create their own models. But although this is obviously a way to break new ground, these models are also doomed to become prisons. The problem with new models, is that they are always ‘convex’. They are an imposition. They represent a smaller version of what we are. Convex definitions are always limiting. They are limiting, because they are defined. No matter how broad and subtle the definition – a definition, by definition, is always ‘a definition’. A definition is something brought within limits. A definition is a ‘defined area’ within limitless undefined space.

The ‘space’ of our being cannot be defined; all we can do is point beyond our current models. But how is that possible? In what way can we point beyond our models? The answer is that we cannot; but, we can allow ourselves to experience ‘concave’ definition. In contrast with the exploration of new definitions, the Tantric approach is somewhat radical; as it involves allowing ourselves to be defined by everything that is ‘other’. Tantra proposes relating with a gender-specific experience of reality. For men, the gender experience of the universe is female. For women, the gender experience of the universe is male. For yogis, phenomenal reality is female. For yoginis, phenomenal reality is male.

A ‘concave definition’ of what it is that constitutes masculinity or femininity, is one in which our ‘maleness’ or ‘femaleness’ is fundamentally beyond question. We do not need to be cajoled by modern-day savants of sexuality into believing that we have to ‘get in touch with our masculinity or femininity’ – it is already there. According to Tantra, ideas of ‘deep masculine’ or ‘deep feminine’ are actually just deeper dungeons. We do not have to define, or even know, what it is to be male or female, because being male or female is simply what we are. This is experientially evident to anyone who practises Tantra. There are no criteria to which the tantrika has to conform. If you are a yogini, a woman, that is simply what you are – and the same is true of a yogi, a man. According to inner Tantra, the ‘concave definition’ is that your gender is simultaneously fulfilled and transformed by your relationship with your environment. In the Tantric teachings of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, this is one of the primary vows. The vow is that we attempt to experience the entire spectrum of external reality, either as method-display (male) or as wisdom-display (female).

What do the terms method-display and wisdom-display mean? Our descriptions here will be finger-paintings of inner Tantra, so we should not be too impatient about defining these terms. We should not be blatant in revealing the visceral fire of relationships that are volcanic in their intimacy. When we speak of our lovers, we need to be cautious with our words. The knowledge that hovers above and below the surface of mundane expression should be left unspoken. Voluptuous landscapes of feeling should be left to be inferred. We do not intend to leave anything unsaid; but Tantra needs to disrobe itself according to its own precise passion – perfectly, and with fierce grace. It is neither wise nor practical to expose the heart of this sumptuous reality without creating a conducive atmosphere in which such shocking perspectives can disport themselves with vivid elegance.

It is obviously not easy to relate to the vows that exist within inner Tantra. It is not a straightforward endeavour to deliberately see in a different way – to see the entire fields of the senses as either male or female. It is not a practice, with specific rules that can be followed. There is literally no way in which a man or a woman could follow such oblique directives. However, it can be attempted. The ways in which it can be attempted are not immediately obvious; but, in terms of our discussion, we can look at the freedom allowed by letting go of ‘convex definitions’. We can reflect on the powerful sense of liberation that exists in not having to conform to limited gender guidelines of any kind, in relation to our individuality. The rapturous visionary context of Tantra is no place for conventional rationale. Within this poetic paradigm, we can only immerse ourselves in the efflorescence of our sense fields, and learn directly from the energy of what we are in relation to our lovers.

We need to be able to encounter Tantric theory in the same way as we might encounter poetry, painting or music. It has been said that Buddhism has much in common with science, philosophy and psychology; but Buddhist Tantra cannot be confined by such tight objectifications. Tantra has more in common with art. 20th century art, celebrates the uncomfortable counterpoint of conflicting notions, as an exploration of human experience. Art regards paradox as a convention rather than a challenge to convention. From this perspective the relationship of men and women presents a tremendous artistic challenge – the possibility of discovering the innate undividedness of intuition and logic; chaos and pattern; randomness and design; freedom and commitment; subjectivity and objectivity; wisdom display and method display. To arrive at such a preposterous realisation we need to be able to enter the view of Tantra, as art. Within this field of intuitive openness, the paradoxical undividedness of these word-pairs relate to romantic love as enlightened dance.

As we explore the perceptual field of romance, we discover that the intrinsic eroticism of being plays itself out in every aspect of existence. Tantra is often misconstrued as being a degraded form of Buddhism which focuses on coital positions. But although Buddhist Tantra includes human sexuality, its parameters are far broader than the perverse phalocentric methodologies which deify techniques and systematic approaches to love. Buddhist Tantra is fundamentally sexual; but the sexuality it expresses concerns the coital union of existence and non-existence. It explores the non-dual matrix of emptiness and form. It delves into the dramatic dimension of dance, in which we cannot extricate ourselves from the vast and subtle sexual embrace of each shining moment.

As human beings, within the perpetual prison of duality, we experience form-reality in terms of distorted gender. We experience ‘division’ in terms of mutually destructive patterns of attraction and aversion. Our relationships with each other reflect our estranged relationship with enlightenment. According to Tantra, the primary difference between women and men lies in the reversal of the outer and inner qualities of being. Women have outer wisdom qualities and inner compassion qualities. Men have outer compassion qualities and inner wisdom qualities. When we realise these qualities, we dance together as khandros and pawos; and our energies mirror each other. But when this realisation is not present we merely teeter and clump.

Within the Tantric vision, all women are secretly pawos, and men are secretly khandros. Khandro means ‘sky-dancer’. The sky dancer is at home in the fluid play of chaos – uninhibited by the need to concretise or define. She expresses the inexpressible through whimsy, the non-rational, and the unexpected. Pawo means hero or warrior, and signifies the pure appropriateness that has no need for the illusion of firm ground. The warrior is fearless, not because death has been nonchalantly objectified, but because death is experienced with every moment. For the warrior the birth and death of every Mind-moment are fully experienced – enabling him to live with totality in the present moment.

The khandro quality of women, manifests as outer wisdom-space in which her internal compassion plays. In relative terms; outer wisdom/sensitivity reflects itself in both the overt and subtle appearance of women as displayed through: intuition; fluidity; flexibility; resilience; adaptability; reflexiveness; empathy; confluence; facilitation; resonance; sensitivity; receptivity; harmony; delicacy; softness; obliqueness; devotion; laterality of apprehension; plurality of perception; inchoate understanding; radiance and openness. But, when the connection with inner compassion/power is obscured through dualistic perception, the outer wisdom/sensitivity becomes weak, aimless and prey to manipulation.

The pawo quality of men manifests as outer compassion/power, which arises energetically from inner wisdom/sensitivity. In relative terms; outer compassion/power reflects itself in the overt and subtle appearance of men displayed through: intellect; objectivity; productivity; performance; angularity; acuteness; accuracy; precision; sympathy; methodology; systematisation; inventiveness; structural creativity; persuasiveness; directiveness; conclusiveness; linearity of apprehension; singularity of perception; reductivity; discrimination; discernment and rationality. But, when the vital connection with inner wisdom/sensitivity is obscured through clinging to dualistic perception, the outer wisdom/power stiffens into aggression, intolerance and manipulation. Unless a man is a true warrior, he finds the khandro terrifying – she completely undermines him with her inchoate spaciousness. Unless a woman recognises her pawo potential she finds the pawo overpowering – she is utterly overawed by his unending effectiveness.

Men need to be in contact with their sensitivity; and women need to be in contact with their power. Without this, we become distracted from awareness of our essential nature. Our energies become distorted and we flounder in a fog of forgetfulness, in which our outer qualities become discordant. The person who could be our opportunity for liberation becomes our co-dependant imprisoned prisoner.

When a man loses contact with his inner-quality, his outer-quality becomes distorted. Disconnected from his inner khandro (his secret wisdom) his outer-quality becomes distorted. What should be spontaneously manifested compassion, becomes neurotic assertiveness. This assertiveness ranges from dominance to violence, depending to what extent his inner khandro has become occluded. With regard to his spiritual life, he could becomes an academic or a great debater. He could become a ‘cosmic gorilla’ with ‘spiritual muscles’ – a guru who claims to be the ‘world teacher’.

When a woman loses contact with her inner-quality, her outer quality becomes distorted. Disconnected from her inner pawo (her secret compassion) her outer quality becomes distorted. What should be spontaneously manifested wisdom, becomes decorativeness. This decorativeness ranges from inconsequentiality to superficial obsession with surface appearance, depending to what extent her inner pawo has become occluded. With regard to her spiritual life, she seems satisfied to arrange the flowers in the shrine room. She becomes a ‘delicate devotee’. There is no sense that she will ever actually practise; but if she does, she cultivates ‘beautiful experiences’ with which to ornament her psyche.

Women are attracted to the distorted male image, because they seek to reconnect with power. Women have a natural relationship with power; but if they fail to realise it, they become drawn to seeking it externally. However, women are also attracted to men through recognising the reflection of their inner pawo. Both happen simultaneously.

Men are attracted to the distorted female image because they seek to reconnect with sensitivity. Men have a natural relationship with sensitivity; but, if they fail to realise it, they become drawn to seeking it externally. However, men are also attracted to women through recognising the reflection of their inner khandro. Both happen to both: simultaneously – enlightenment and unenlightenment flicker.

As long as a woman attempts to find her inner pawo vicariously through seducing a man by means of her distorted outer sensitivity, she is likely to lose her power. She stands a good chance of being dominated by an emotionally inarticulate aggressor. As long as a man tries to obtain his inner khandro through wooing or coercing a woman by means of his distorted outer power, he is likely to encumber himself with a vacuous household servant whom he has stripped of inspiring qualities. Although these are caricatures of people who have worked hard to obscure their inner qualities; everyone finds themselves on a continuum that includes these caricatures. It is not possible to obtain what we want through getting what we want. We need to look within ourselves for completion rather than trying to find completion in other incomplete people. If we already have the connection with our inner pawo or inner khandro then we no longer need to find anything outside ourselves.

At this point, we can begin to dance with each other. Something else arises, which replaces our unrequitable need. Once this need dissolves into its own empty nature; a tremendous appreciation for each other can arise. This sense of appreciation arises, because we catch glimpses of completeness in ourselves. No matter how distanced we are from our inner qualities, our enlightened nature continually sparkles through. The frequency of sparkling depends on how much we cooperate with the sparkling or how much we resist it.

For a Ngakpa, one of the most important vows is never to disparage women. For Ngakpas, women are the source of wisdom, and their practice is to see the phenomenal world as female – as wisdom-display. When the world is seen as the scintillating dance of the khandros, the inner khandro is incited. The vow for a Ngakma is to regard the entire phenomenal world as male – as method-display. Men and women who enter into this reality, relate with each other through appreciation of the dance of inner and outer qualities. When we waken to the nature of our inner qualities, we are able to mirror each other. We are able to undermine each other’s conditioning rather than entrenching each other in dualistic patterns. It is not possible to describe or explain how to see the world in this way, because fundamentally this capacity itself arises from the open dimension of being in love. Falling in love is a spiritual experience if we can recognise it. If we can catch the reflection of our inner qualities before we have begun to concretise our relationship, then falling in love is the most remarkable opportunity that life has to offer.

This article—written for a general readership—was commissioned by a magazine but was never published due to liquidation of the publishers. It was based on the book Entering the Heart of the Sun and Moon by Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen, a commentary on the Khandro Pawo Nyi-da Mélong Gyüd (mKha’ ’gro dPa bo nyi zLa me long rGyud), which is a Dzogchen men-ngag-dé teaching from the gTérma of Khyungchen Aro Lingma. Entering the Heart of the Sun and Moon, published by Aro Books, 2009.