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Buddhist Dakinis as Guides to Spiritual Travel
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Buddhist Dakinis - the Sky-dancers
and Expert Spiritual Travel Guides

Few religious groups explicitly emphasize spiritual travel as a practice for followers even though there are saints and leaders such as Mohammed in Islam and Elijah in Judaism who go on inner spiritual journeys that are clearly forms of spiritual travel. An esoteric side of the Hindu god Hanuman has him as one who is able to fly by riding the winds of prana (as he did on his trip from India to Lanka in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana). This yogic form of Hanuman can teach yogis to fly in the inner worlds but this yogic role as master of prana is little known in Hindu culture and mythology.

The world's great religions are often only indirectly or in hidden ways associated with spiritual travel, and only expect their followers to do it following their deaths.

Here we provide an example of a world religion that has a distinct focus on the practice which in addition provides guides and the equivalent of inner travel agents. Our exception to the above rule is Tibetan Buddhism where practitioners can adopt a practice of spiritual travel by following an inner female guru known as a dakini. Dakinis are sky-dancers who can instruct disciples in the art of spiritual travel as well as reveal new teachings. Because many of the more spiritual inner worlds do not have gravity and flight is symbolic of inner freedom, dakinis teach their students to fly, and are called sky-dancers. Contacting a dakini to gain one as a guide must unfortunately come through a specific initiation or in rare cases a revelation.

In this case, we are dealing with a dakini known as the Vajra Dakini who has many different manifestations with her bird forms being important examples of her many roles.

The number of people in Tibetan Buddhism that have access to this kind of inner guide is probably limited. It is an esoteric practice usually available to some dedicated disciples and monks. However it is instructive in that it could motivate seekers to request a dakini as a guide from Buddhist leaders by way of initiation in Tibetan Buddhism or other means. This form of Buddhism is also useful in describing a cosmology or map of consciousness that reveals some different layers or strata of the inner realms of consciousness. These strata also show a progression of experience as disciples become more advanced on the spiritual path.

The dakinis who are sky-dancers and guides often take on bird forms. Flying through and teaching disciples about the inner psychic and spiritual worlds is their specialty.

There are seven different bird forms of the dakini - each with a different function. This article will describe the role of each. However, only the first four dakini forms are directly related to teaching spiritual travel or spiritual flight.

Each dakini has the form of a bird, or a bird's head and a human body. Dakinis have the power of flight shown in avian form. They have forms of the eagle, the hawk or falcon, the vulture, the raven, the goose, the owl, and the sparrow. These are associated with the following seven different spiritual and psychic realms or areas of religious knowledge:

The high sky of awareness, the Clear Light, or the Buddhist Void for the eagle, the messenger role for the hawk, knowledge of death realms for the vulture, learning of supernatural powers and flight from the raven, religious knowledge for the owl, social interactions for the goose, and hiding one's powers to live in the material world for the sparrow.
Note that the eagle, hawk, vulture and raven are the forms of the dakini primarily associated with spiritual travel.

We begin by describing the eagle-headed form of the dakini.

The Eagle-headed Form of the Vajra Dakini

The eagle form has the largest body and wingspan, and the greatest strength of all the bird forms. This is needed to bring the soul through many planes to the Void, in which the soul disappears as an individual.

Some paths attempt to dissolve the soul while it is still incarnate. This is not a good practice. The person may feel liberated while alive, but at death, the reincarnation process becomes knotted and clumsy. With the soul's unity disintegrated, it reincarnates in pieces. People are not liberated because they imagine that they are. They must have moved through the joys and sorrows of many lives, and matured through many realms of experience. Premature claims of inner emptiness create chaos and disarray. People must become something before they become nothing.

So the eagle form of the dakini comes to the mature soul, familiar with responsibility as well as joy and sorrow. This is the soul who has fulfilled his or her obligations and been given such guidance as a blessing. This eagle form cannot be requested or chosen through meditation.

So the soul is guided by the eagle form of the dakini and rests atop the inner Buddhist Mt. Sumeru (the symbolic center of the Buddhist universe), and bows before the vast skies which are the realms of the Buddha worlds.

The dakini in eagle form descends from the sky, and brings the soul before a chosen form of the Buddha. This celestial Buddha will be in the midst of a crystalline world colored according to one of the colors of the five Celestial Buddhas.

The paradise will be half in the manifest world and half in the Void. The celestial world is like foam floating upon the ocean of the Void.

If the Buddha judges that the soul is unattached to objects and persons, the skandhas or components of the soul will fall around it like flower petals opening and then dropping to the ground. At the center is pure awareness, which is the soul's true nature without its marks of individuality. The soul's components will fall away in whirlwinds, and the person will dive into the Void. The Eagle Dakini will return him or her to the physical body later.

The Buddhist Void is one of the most profound experiences available to the spiritual traveler and experience of this realm will likely alter the spiritual traveler's world view in extreme ways.

The Hawk-headed Form of the Vajra Dakini

The hawk form of the dakini could be called the prophetic form in the sense of bringing forth divine information. Of the various forms or dakini rupas, the hawk is the one most involved with ideas and practices.

The hawk or falcon form of the dakini may fly free, or it may bring objects to its owner. In the secular world, it is often associated with hunting and brings downed birds back to the hunter. But in the spiritual world, it is also an explorer, finding new worlds to investigate and guide the yogi through. It may also bring messages from one world to another, as it is an expert spiritual traveler and knows the pathways through the skies.

The eagle form flies vertically, without exploring intermediate worlds, while the hawk form represents the flow of information between realms. As a hawk may carry objects in its beak, the hawk form of the dakini may also serve as guide and carry both the yogi and the teachings to new realms.

The Invocation of the Hawk Dakini

Vajra Dakini first appears as a crystal vajra, then a beautiful woman with the head of a hawk. She wears jewelry on her human body, which is different from her previous image.

The Vajra Dakini says,

When we travel through many worlds, I wear the robes of an ascetic. But for giving teachings, I wear jewels of interpretation and elaboration, the ornaments of raw ideas, the alankara. So how is meditation done in this realm? We may observe how hunting is done with a hawk. First you have to find the hawk, and then learn to harmonize yourself with it.

Where is the hawk to be found? It is located out in the hills and mountains far from human habitation. The seeker must leave behind human concerns, and focus only on attaining the goal.

So the yogi goes out alone, under the canopy of stars. His or her mind branches out like a living tree. His body is rooted in the ground. His seat is stable, and will not move whatever happens.

The mind branches into the heavens, into the land of clouds and wind. Far in the distance are the birds of spirit who can respond to the call of the yogi and shaman. Winds blow through the branches, calling the spirit birds. The winds begin to spin like a waterspout or tornado. Concentration moves the winds. The name Vajra Dakini shows up in flashes of lightning. Then the hawk form is visualized, with images of hawks taken from many cultures. They fly around the center, where a great stone statue of Vajra Dakini appears. She is human and animal. She is the lion-headed Sekhmet, Medusa with snakes, and the surrealist image of a body with a light bulb as its head. She spins the great wheel of transformation like the wheel of the Dharma but with more spokes, each leading to body after body. It stops on the hawk form, the messenger of the Buddhas. The bodies stop changing and stabilize on this one form.

Now she takes on the ascetic's body, wearing rags to ride the winds. The yogi must learn the pathways of the inner worlds. His or her mind fuses with the dakini's mind and the seeker gains her ability to see inner worlds. They are linked by mantras.

The sky opens to the hawk form, with vast clouds spinning around a central axis. The great stone form is of a Hindu apsaras (heavenly dancer) with the head of a hawk. Here is where I leave my lower body. From this form, the travel form is emanated. I appear as an ancient crone in rags, and my hawk eyes see through many worlds. Now I am in complete bird form. My rags are turned to feathers. I will be a guide for the yogi or spiritual traveler who will travel with me.

Within the whirlwinds, the different worlds appear one over the other with the winds blowing away the clouds that obscure them. They each have different colors of clouds. They are separated by mantric locks, like combination locks on safes. Each cluster of mantras open a different lock and each lock opens the door to a world.

The hawk carries or transports the spiritual traveler to many inner worlds and the traveler can be more passive when he or she accepts this kind of guidance. Guides to spiritual travel such as the dakini in her hawk form can play a unique role in the development and evolution of the spiritual traveler.

The Vulture-headed Form of the Vajra Dakini

The hawk form is also useful for dream meditation. It carries information from one realm to another, and can carry the soul through the world of dreams and half-dreams. If a person becomes awake in a dream, the person can call on the dakini's hawk form.

Another of the dakini's bird forms is the vulture. In the West, the vulture is seen in a negative fashion, as ugly and impure. People would avoid vultures as they avoid thoughts of death.

But in Tibet, where the dead are exposed to the elements instead of buried, vultures serve an important function. They take on the dead flesh so the earth will not be made impure. They sacrifice their own purity so that others may live in a healthy and spiritually clean way. They are sacrificial animals, as Hindus have the goat and Mithraism had the bull. All take on the sin and impurity of the world, and may thus be known as sin-eaters.

Sacrifice is not pretty, it is ugly. Those who have chosen to live among the poor and diseased cannot ignore this. They may claim that their gods are to be found among the poor and diseased, but that does not change the ugliness. It just means that they learn to look past it.

The dakini's vulture form is ugly, and so is her crone form. Age destroys beauty as death does, for the life energy is leaving the body and flowing slowly into the soul.

But the crone form is useful for spiritual travel, for it negates attachment to the body and can thus serve as a role model for one who seeks such detachment. It can also test the inner sight of the novice. It tests whether the novice can ignore the obvious in favor of the hidden.

The vulture is a bird of transition, both of the body and the soul. It takes the body from something to nothing. It also takes the soul from attachment to non-attachment, from embodiment to dissolution in the Void.

The Tibetan chod rite ritual of giving away the body and the skandhas (or elements which hold together an individual identity) imitates this function, making the human being similar to a vulture, and gaining the merit of self-sacrifice for others. However, while this may appear to be a positive ritual (and one that is easier than compassionate action in the world where one may confront actual physical danger and hostility), I do not recommend performing this ritual. It destabilizes the skandhas and can easily bring inner chaos.

It is particularly bad for reincarnation, when the soul is like a bag of blocks that no longer fit together. Conflict within the soul at the moment of death can bring unhappy future lives, with less harmony and sanity. Even people who congratulate themselves on their abilities at sacrifice [who perform this ritual] may gain attachment to the ego, choosing the ritual instead of true detachment.

Invoking the vulture form of the dakini can be an addition to the Tibetan chod rite. In this ritual, the individual sacrifices attachment to body, mind, and speech. Then the vulture form may come to reveal the origins, physical and spiritual, of what has been sacrificed.

Or a person may go out to a deserted place where no one will disturb the meditation. He or she should think, I no longer reject all the imperfection and impurity of my past lives. I will take responsibility for the evil deeds that I have committed. I will not claim the perfection of body, speech, and mind. Instead I will swallow my imperfections and become a sin-eater.

He or she absorbs the darkness that has been projected onto others. He sacrifices attachment to the ego, for the sake of all living beings. He accepts the light and darkness of the universe.

The acceptance creates a whirlpool in the heart. Here is where the vulture-headed dakini descends, as goddess of sacrifice. The heart becomes the yogi's fire, and as the flames rise, the smoke forms a path to the ancestor world.

In my vulture form, the vulture dakini flies the soul to the land of the ancestors. She oversees their interactions. If either party becomes violent, she moves the soul to the next ancestor group. People, especially yogis, have lived many lives with many religious and cultural groups. When the blessings and sins of each life have been absorbed, the soul can continue its travels.

Not only the past lives themselves but also their social and cultural contexts must be learned and integrated.

This is the vulture meditation.

The vulture form is skilled at visiting ancestors. This will be discussed in greater detail next.

The Vulture Dakini and the Ancestors

The wheel of transformation is also a spiral staircase whose stages spiral out into infinity. Vajra Dakini can take on a vast number of forms. Today the form will again be the vulture.

Vajra Dakini says,

Today's vulture form has wide, strong wings. We fly into the lands of the past.

There are two forms of ancestor that the soul should know. One is the biological ancestor, the origin of the body. The other is the spiritual ancestor, the origin of the soul. The first deals with others who have placed their imprint on the body at birth. The second deals with previous forms of the self, the past lives that have cursed or blessed the soul.

To examine physical ancestors, we look at the elements of the body. These can hold memories, especially dark ones that are strong enough to become embodied. They are the stresses of race and history, which stunt or mangle the body's cells, which stretch or distort it, which strengthen or weaken it.

Sometimes the ancestors are powerful and demanding. Suffering can increase their desire and can cause a soul to be born into a network of passion and revenge. There is suffering and starvation in many lands, with traumas that have been carried down through the generations. Many people choose to forget, but traumas cannot be completely forgotten. They stay dormant until a member of the line chooses to know his or her past. Then the trauma can emerge in full force and be strong enough to dominate the personality of the individual.

These are examples of things that can occur with physical ancestors, but there are also the soul's ancestors who create the memories from past lives. While the physical ancestors affect the body's weakness and strengths, the soul's ancestors are the layers of the self which remember ancient joys and sorrows. They also contain curses and blessings.

To progress beyond the ancestor worlds, all responsibilities and obligations must be fulfilled.

The ancestor realms often contain a great deal of complexity of past relationships from different past lives. Becoming free of obligations to ancestors can be a major developmental step for the spiritual traveler since these obligations and conflicts can weigh down the soul and prevent it from more advanced forms of spiritual travel. Having a guide and mediator to deal with ancestors and their demands can be a great advantage for the spiritual traveler.

The Raven-Headed Form of the Vajra Dakini

It is in the steep mountains that the vultures have their nests. Vultures focus on both new life and old, death purification, and preparation. It is only after that purification that the soul is made ready for knowledge. Without it, the ancestors may take control of the powers gained and misuse them. Once the ancestor bonds are broken, the dakini can move on to her next role, the raven-headed dakini.

The raven too is associated with death, but in the sense of paralysis of the body during meditation, as the soul exits and explores as a spiritual traveler. It is a simulation of death, not real death. But the path of the soul is a true one.

The raven guides the soul through the dark, lower, supernatural worlds. It is the guide for those who die suddenly or by violence as well as those who sleep. In Tibet, it guides those who cannot make it to the burning ground or the place of exposure of corpses. It brings spontaneous and non-institutional exploration to the soul.

It flies in the twilight, calling the soul to explore. The bird images of the dakini are symbolic of the stages of the Buddhist path which must be fulfilled. Yogis can skip them but it is not to their benefit. They just have to return to them and do them later. Dealing with the stages in the correct order is more efficient.

The raven is associated with darkness, but not the ancestral worlds. It goes to the world of siddhis, of supernatural flight and psychic powers. The raven is not dull black but shyam - a Hindu term for a dark green, blue, and purple color which has subtle, reflective highlights which appear in the black feathers. The raven is associated with the subtle worlds, reached through the sounds of flight in the winds. The raven is the bird of magic and enchantment.

The yogi should meditate on the raven in a dark, secret place such as a cave or a forest at night.

The dakini comes in raven form to educate the soul about the intermediate realms. The dakini can help the yogi find plants which represent the caverns of power, the pathways of telepathy, and the ways of transforming the emotions. The raven is also the bird of war, and for those who died in horror and despair. She shows the dark worlds. Dakinis work in the whole spectrum of worlds from dark to light. The dakini in the raven form specializes in the dark worlds.

Souls should not seek to dwell in these worlds, but they should know about them. If they do not, then the darkness will force itself upon the soul, for to be only light misses much of the universe. The raven dakini is the face of the other side.

Most sacred texts tell the soul to avoid the siddhis or magical powers, in fear that they may become fascinated by them. This is not good, for souls become captivated by what they avoid. It is comparable to being told to not think about a pink elephant. The image will return in meditation.

So how should the soul deal with darkness? From the raven's perspective, one must fly over both gardens and burning grounds, knowing the nature and expanse of each. The soul must know the paths of the winds as they traverse the worlds, and be aware of all potentials both good and ill. One need not live out all possibilities, but one should know them.

The raven dakini brings supernatural knowledge of death and rebirth, and the workings of karma and curses. Only when the yogi or spiritual traveler understands them can he or she transcend them and travel on.

The realms of death and darkness are important areas of knowledge for the spiritual traveler, and may be difficult and dangerous to explore without a guide such as the Vajra Dakini in her raven form.

The Owl-headed Form of the Vajra Dakini

The owl-headed form focuses upon traditional knowledge, and the ability to see through the shadows of the night. I take on the form of a white owl that flies in the moonlight. The owl form is less associated with sky dancing and spiritual travel and more associated with traditional religious knowledge.

Like the hawk, the owl is a messenger. However, it does not bring new information, or new sadhanas. Instead it brings commentaries and interpretations of existing texts. It is not a prophet but more like a rabbi, studying and debating the ways that revealed teachings may be understood.

While the owl form may be associated with mystery, it is a specific type of mystery. It moves from the raw to the cooked, from inspiration to explanation. It would be a bird of teachers but not of wild yogis.

This bird is an inspiration to scholars and scribes. It is a creature of translation, of one language or one skill to another. The original revelation is one stage of knowledge, but it must be transmitted and spread.

So it must be written or drawn or composed. Revelations can be expressed in many media. But once initial teachings have been given, something must be done with the information.

The owl will mix the ink and paints, help stretch the drum, and polish the horns (used in Tibetan ritual). The owl will protect the translator or scribe, giving encouragement and a sense of mystery.

This is the safest form of the dakini for those which wish to tread the spiritual path slowly.

To meditate on the owl form of the dakini, the yogi should sit amid trees by the side of a clear lake. There should be a full moon and the yogi should focus on the moon reflected in the water. There will be circles that emerge, and a grid. The yogi must enter it full of enthusiasm. It opens a door, and as he or she flies in, he or she will be with me in bird form. I will teach the yogi as I fly.

The owl form can be associated with luck, for it sees past the darkness and flies into the light. It is lucky for people to see past misfortune and the darkness of resentment and ignorance, and be able to see the clear light that shines beyond it.

The Goose-headed Form of the Vajra Dakini

The next form is the goose, a bird who looks heavy and earth-bound but can fly high into the clouds. This is my social form, for geese migrate in groups and communicate well with each other. This is the form suited to interaction with persons, whether in a monastery, a convent, or a town for householder practitioners. Geese can both fly high and also work with others, traveling and helping each other in the tasks of life. Again, this form is less associated with spiritual travel.

Geese can live in the air, on water or land, and act as models for adaptation. They have the universality of the four noble truths, not that all beings suffer but that all being seek to avoid suffering. The goose form is the inspiration for modern Vajrayana, which has left the renunciants behind in favor of wealthy householders who also wish to escape from suffering.

This is not a choice for hedonism, but for survival. It allows modern money to go to monks in exile, and it allows the teaching to be transmitted through computer archives and printed texts.

However the problem is that the religion becomes so simplified as to be unrecognizable in this desire to be broadly accepted. In this practice, I am Mother Goose, with little stories and parables that make people feel better. We see such simplification of Vajrayana in the spread of Theravada mindfulness meditation becoming simply relaxation, and the disappearance of Yidams.

I do not condemn the desire for survival by fitting in with other cultures. But when deeper ideals and values are sacrificed, this is a problem.

The goose form travels en masse, migrating from place to place, through time and space. There can be strength in adaptation, spreading knowledge as we shed our feathers in the high winds over the mountains.

The goose is more nurturing that the vulture or the hawk. The yogi should meditate on migrating together, traveling the spiritual worlds with other sincere practitioners.

For the goose form, the yogi should meditate in a group with others. He or she should contemplate enlightenment as shared by all sentient beings, and on the willingness to help all others who suffer. The meditation is the sharing of awareness with all living beings, first nearby and later through time and space.

Here, humanity is not a construct by an individual, but by the deepest collective identity of incarnate souls. It may be limited to those with human bodies, or expanded to all beings who think and feel.

The goose form is an important counterweight to the hawk and eagle forms, who tend to be more independent. A full understanding of humanity needs both individual and group identification. The goose is less associated with spiritual travel than the first few bird forms above.

The Sparrow headed Form of the Vajra Dakini

The Vajra Dakini says,

The seventh and last of the avian dakini forms is the sparrow, the tiny bird that is easily overlooked. This brings the quality of humility, the willingness to work to help others without acknowledgement or appreciation. Having shared awareness with all sentient beings, the yogi must also be willing to give it all up. The sparrow is willing to live on the crumbs of others, to move unnoticed through land and air, and its tiny size makes it almost invisible.

The sparrow combats the sin of vanity. It is easy for the egos of spiritual travelers to become swollen with pride, for they have seen more of the universe than others. They can be proud of knowing more, like the Vedic rishis, but as Buddhists, they may also claim to exist less. One can be proud of being something, but also of being nothing. The universe may be an illusion, but somehow the ego manages to survive.

The sparrow barely casts a shadow. It can observe without anybody else observing it. It accepts being overlooked.

The sparrow deals with the sacrifice of the ego as the vulture deals with the sacrifice of the body. The vulture eats the manifestations of bad karma, the sins of the body, with its desires, hatreds, and compulsions. The sparrow casts off power and glory leaving the worlds of the infinite to make small changes in the manifest world.

The hawk and the eagle may be spiritual heroes, flying high towards enlightenment, and bringing back new spiritual knowledge. They can be models and prophets who stand above the crowd. But the envy of others will often get in the way, and their revelations may be attacked and destroyed. But the sparrow travels unnoticed, ignored, and demeaned. Yet he can help and feed others without their knowledge. He can care for and serve invisibly. He is good action for its own sake, which does not require thanks.

For this role, the yogi should be in the forest. He or she should recognize the ways that nature interacts, seeing its web of life from tiny insects to great trees to the sky above. It is the great net of interdependence, and those who are powerful and proud are as much a part of it as those who are tiny and sorrowful. All interact together. The sparrow has little focus on spiritual travel being it is an all but invisible bodhisattva helping those in distress. But the help given by such a being can have huge consequences echoing through societies benefiting many beings.

Call the sparrow dakini down as a living being in the web of universal life, as a tiny gem in the vast jeweled net, as a sparkling grain of sand on an endless beach. Call on the sparrow as one who helps others without recognition, a tiny drop of water in the midst of fiery clouds.

The Bird Dakini Forms - Conclusion

All of these dakini forms represent ways of working on the human identity and abilities, and the first four dakinis (the eagle, hawk, vulture, and raven) focus on spiritual travel in their teachings. These teachings are not from the emptiness school of Buddhism, where human beings are empty, dakinis are empty, and identifying with each other just makes us realize how empty and detached we are.

The Dakini is from the old Mahayana wing of Vajrayana, where sentient beings exist enough to make them worth caring about. Who cares about an empty shell? We are all conscious beings during our travels through the realms of rebirth, and we do not force final emptiness before its time. Like a mango, people ripen and become sweet, before we dissolve into the shining Void.

The bird dakini forms give a unique perspective on the concept of spiritual travel and show its many uses as part of a developmental system of educating the soul on its way to enlightenment.


Introduction | The Geography of Spiritual Travel | The "Travel" Analogy | Leaving the Body in Spiritual Travel | Spiritual Travel Versus Dreams | Sacred Light | Sacred Sound | Psychic States | Spiritual Travel in Western Religious Scripture | The Self in Spiritual Travel | Returning to the Physical Body | Near-Death Experience | Navigation During Spiritual Travel | Spiritual Matter | Method and Techniques To Induce Spiritual Travel | Shamanism and Spiritual Travel | After-Death Experience | Spiritual Travel as a Rehearsal for Physical Death | Beyond Spiritual Travel | The Landscape of Heaven | Lucid Dreaming and Spiritual Bodies | Charged Symbols | Scientific Reductionist Arguments about Spiritual Travel Experience | Ascended Masters and Their Role in Guiding Souls Through the Death Process | Awakening to the Hierarchy of Dreams | Buddhist Dakinis as Expert Guides in Spiritual Travel | Conclusion

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