“Whether male or female, there is no great difference. But if a woman develops the mind of enlightenment, her potential is supreme.”
~Padmasambhava, pioneer of Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet
A Dakini (Sanskrit: “sky dancer”) is a Tantric priestess of ancient India who “carried the souls of the dead to the sky”. This Buddhist figure is particularly upheld in Tibetan Buddhism. The dakini is a female being of generally volatile temperament, who acts as a muse for spiritual practice. Dakinis can be likened to elves, angels, or other such supernatural beings, and are symbolically representative of testing one’s awareness and adherence to Buddhist tantric sadhana.
What is Dakini?
According to legend, members of the Indian royal castes and the wealthy nobility brought their deceased to the far North to visit the Shrine of the Dakini (located at the foothills of the Himalaya). Other legends mention a Tibetan myth which says Dakini first appeared in a remote area “pure of man”.
Dakini are timeless, inorganic, immortal, non-human beings who have co-existed since the very beginning with the Spiritual Energy. In some New Age belief systems, they are angelic. This New Age paradigm differs from that of the Judeo-Christian by not insisting on angels being bona fide servants of God.
Moreover, an angel is the Western equivalent of a Dakini. The behavior of Dakini has always been revelatory and mysterious; they respond to the state of spiritual energy within individuals. Love is their usual domain – one explanation for Dakini or angels supposedly living in the sky or heaven. Manifestations of Dakini in human form occur because they supposedly can assume any form. Most often they appear as a human female. By convention, a male of this type is called a ‘daka’.
Classification of Dakini
Dakinis may be enlightened or unenlightened. An unenlightened Dakini is sometimes called a “worldly” Dakini. A worldly Dakini is still caught in the cycle of samsara and may manifest as a kind of trickster. But most of the time when we’re talking about Dakinis, we’re talking about enlightened ones, also called “wisdom” dakinis.
Dakinis play many different roles in Vajrayana and can be identified in many ways, but often they are sorted into four major classes. These four are secret, inner, outer, and outer-outer.
On the secret level, the Dakini is a manifestation of the most subtle state of mind experienced intimately in highest tantra yoga. At the inner level, she is a meditation deity or yidam, an expression of the most basic nature of the practitioner. The outer Dakini manifests as a physical body, which may be the physical body of the practitioner who has realized himself as her, as self-other dualities melt away. And the outer Dakini is a Dakini in human form, possibly a teacher or yogini.
Dakinis also are classified according to the five Buddha families, illustrated by the Five Dhyani Buddhas.
Representations of Dakini
Iconographic representations tend to show the Dakini as a young, naked figure in a dancing posture, often holding a skull cup filled with menstrual blood or the elixir of life in one hand, and a curved knife in the other. She may wear a garland of human skulls, with a trident staff leaning against her shoulder. Her hair is usually wild and hanging down her back, and her face often wrathful in expression, as she dances on top of a corpse, which represents her complete mastery over ego and ignorance.
Practitioners often claim to hear the clacking of her bone adornments as the Dakinis indulge in their vigorous movement. Indeed these unrestrained damsels appear to revel in freedom of every kind.