Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dancing on lava with a dakini - Vajrayogini

On a trip to Hawaii recently, where fast-flowing lava rivers carve up the landscape, I decided to paint the fiery goddess Vajrayogini. I had just finished when my man, Way came back from a volcano hike. He took one look and with wide eyes said,
‘Woah. She’s stunning and savage and sexy and scary.”

Vajrayogini isn’t technically a person, but she is still a heroine of mine. Anyway, if she was a person, you probably wouldn’t want to go near her. She’s not the kind of girl you could visit next door to ask for a cup of sugar. Like a cross between Tina Turner in the middle of a live show, and that volcano Way just climbed, erupting.

A Tibetan Buddhist deity, she is a Dakini – a wisdom goddess. She’s naked, wild, armed with fangs, a spear and what looks like a meat cleaver, although the Tibetans call it a vajra-chopper. She is always pictured dancing with wild abandon and she carries a cup made from a skull.

When I first heard about her I nearly ran a mile. I was new to Buddhism, and was frolicking at the wonderful Buddhafields festival in Devon…

After an afternoon of ecstatic dancing, I heard there was a Vajrayogini Buddhist ritual happening. Which sounded like a good way to relax for a while. Very wrong. I poked my head around the tent flap to gusts of incense, heaving crowds of people and drums banging. And I nearly walked right back out of there. Horns were blowing, hands clapping, bodies swaying. It was a bit like the dance scene in The Matrix, just a little more British. Every now and then the madness would quieten and a polite, well-spoken voice would lead us onto the next part…

“and now we imagine Vajrayogini dancing, drinking the blood-red nectar from her skull cup…”

Before long, I was mesmerized. Buddhism suddenly became a lot more interesting. Who was this red, wild, dancing woman? Adrenalin still pumping through my body from my afternoon of jiving, I could relate to her. Much more easily than with the Buddha sitting calmly under his tree. But how could a polite English girl like me, be like her?

Over the next few years I’ve got to know Vajrayogini a little more. I learnt that the skulls around her neck represent wisdom overcoming illusion. That the ‘blood’ she drinks is a symbol of the delicious nectar of truth. Yet I admit I’m still a little terrified of her ferocity.

One of the traditional places to meditate on the dakinis is on an active volcano. So, in Hawaii, I walked to a mile away from the glowing lava flow and sat on the freshly laid black rock. It was still warm from the magmas latest adventure to the sea. The warmth felt both comforting and frightening - any minute the volcano could decide to lay another layer of 3000 degree molten rock. Over me.

I took in the burnt, barren landscape. Great black chasms and red rips in the earth’s crust. And I thought about how life sometimes requires this determined ferociousness.

I remembered Way’s second comment about my Vajrayogini painting…
“it looks like she wouldn’t suffer fools gladly… or take anything but the deepest truth and integrity”.

And I realized why I was so attracted to Vajrayogini, and why I wanted to be like her. She isn’t just fierce. She is fiercely confident, fiercely brave. Because she is on a fierce quest for truth and goodness, and she won’t stand for anything less. And in a world where I all too often swallow my own truth, to make it ok for others, that is something I could do with copying.

Can I lay my lava down, even though it might not be polite? I looked down at the new, green, sprouting ferns already taking root in the charred swirls and cracks, and realized I could. And that I should. Now where did I put that vajra-chopper…?


  1. This IS something! Yes, swallow your truth less my love...say what you ferocious! I for one am glad you are listening to what THIS heroine has to say! But with that chopper in your hand, I'm keeping out of your way!

  2. Vajrayogini seems to have what Finns call "Sisu" - "a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win" (quote from Time Magazine, 08/01/1940).

    For me the difficulty lies in being able to maintain constant respect and well-meaning for others while at the same time showing relentless ferocity and bravery. Perhaps in the Western tradition there is a want of clear role models who achieve this balance. The symbolic figures we do have tend to always be either too gutsy or too gentle.

    The BBC has a short piece (5 mins) on Khema, one of the Women of the Buddhist Scriptures. Her story focuses on the impermanence of beauty and sensory pleasures (