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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Tantra ... but Were Afraid to Ask

An interview with Miranda Shaw
by Craig Hamilton


Miranda Shaw

When Professor Miranda Shaw looks at women in Tibetan paintings, she does not see colorful two-dimensional figures born of an artist's mind. She sees "numinous, sky-borne women," "revelers in freedom," "enchantresses of passion, ecstasy and ferocious intensity"—radiant reflections of the powerful, enlightened women who helped to shape the world of Buddhist tantra.

She writes: "One can almost hear the soft clacking of their intricate bone jewelry and feel the wind stirred by their rainbow-colored scarves as they soar through the tantric Buddhist landscape." It was her encounter with these images at an art exhibit during her sophomore year in college that first captured her imagination and inspired the curiosity that fueled her life's first major work—a research quest that carried her from the Harvard Divinity School to the remote reaches of the Tibetan plateau in search of an authentic firsthand understanding of the theory and practice of tantra.

Raised by Methodist parents in a small town in Ohio, Shaw first became interested in Eastern religions at the age of fourteen when a family friend showed her a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. Despite having been raised with little exposure to religious thought, she found herself mesmerized, unable to put the book down. It was the beginning of a love affair with religious literature, the tokens of which still line the hallways and rooms of her small apartment near the University of Richmond, where she is now Assistant Professor of Religion. Her zeal for religious study eventually propelled her into the doctoral program at Harvard, where working on her Ph.D. dissertation, she found her way to the forefront of research into tantric Buddhism.

The culmination of that research is her 1994 book, Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism. Now in its fourth printing, Passionate Enlightenment has been hailed as a groundbreaking contribution to the study of tantric history. Drawing on her exhaustive study of the central tantric texts in their original languages, as well as two and a half years of field research in India and Nepal, Shaw's book presents a revolutionary reexamination of the nature of tantric practice, revolving around one simple point: In addition to serving the spiritual progress of men, tantra was also for the enlightenment of women. While there has been a great deal of scholarship on both Buddhism and tantra over the past quarter century, prior to Shaw's work, the assumption underlying that research had always been that women were included in tantric practice only to the extent that they could support men in their pursuit of enlightenment. By setting that assumption aside and taking a fresh, in-depth look at both written and living sources, Shaw discovered a world in which women not only lived and practiced on an equal footing with men in their own pursuit of spiritual transformation, but in many cases even led the way. In fact, Shaw learned that for the serious male tantric practitioner, women were to be worshipped, honored and revered as the bringers of enlightened energy into the world. Through this revolutionary reinterpretation of the tantric texts, Shaw was finally able to make sense of many of the seemingly disparate strands of this complex tradition and, in so doing, to create a foundation for a new chapter in the study of tantric theory and practice.

While this issue of What Is Enlightenment? is not directly concerned with the topic of gender in relation to spiritual practice, we knew as soon as we read Miranda Shaw's book that we wanted to speak with her. As a pioneering thinker in her field and a researcher with firsthand experience among traditional teachers, she appeared to be in a better position than almost anyone to help us sort through the confusing message of contemporary tantra. And, in a manner uncharacteristic of the writing of many scholars, her adventurous prose revealed a dynamic and seemingly personal interest in her subject. What intrigued us most of all, however, were the apparent ease and confidence with which she was able to shift from subtle and insightful explications of esoteric Buddhist teachings to detailed descriptions of the more graphic dimensions of tantric sexual practice without missing a beat. Miranda Shaw, we thought, must be an unusual professor.

But despite having read her work and having spoken with her a few times on the phone, the day Miranda Shaw picked me up at the Richmond airport, I think I was still expecting someone more closely resembling a librarian than the attractive, spirited woman who greeted me. "I didn't expect you to be so young!" she said, shaking my hand and smiling warmly. And as we sped into town from the airport, tires screeching around at least one corner, I began to get a sense of the Miranda Shaw who had found so much inspiration in the images of the sky-dancing tantric heroines. Later, sitting lotus-style in the living room of her apartment, surrounded by erotic imagery from both classical and contemporary art, she shared both her understanding of the views and practices of Buddhist tantra and the personal passion for her subject that had taken her to the far corners of the earth.


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