Womb = Woman = World: Gender and Transcendence in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism

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The cosmologies of many cultures use gender as symbolic for polar attributes of human consciousness. The author presents a developmental neurobiological theory to account for the non-arbitrary way in which this attribution comes about, and applies the theory to an explanation of the symbolic use of gender in Tibetan tantric Buddhism. He concludes by discussing the implications of the theory for understanding the effects of positive and negative pre- and perinatal experiences upon the development of gender identity.


1. This paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex in Chicago, November, 1983. We owe much to the ideas and suggestions, as well as editorial corrections, offered by John McManus, Peter Hertz, Shawn MacPherson, Steve Richer, Myra Mossman, Shelley Chubby, Karen Friedl, John Cove, Sheila Richardson, Iain Prattis, Elizabeth Allgeier, Radhika Sekar and Sheila Evans. A special acknowledgement must go to Michael Ling who did much of the library research for us and contributed to many discussions. However, none of these folks should be held responsible for our peculiar views.

2. The perspective taken here is that of biogenetic structuralism (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974; d'Aquili et al 1979). Biogenetic structuralism is an interdisciplinary approach that is grounded in evolutionary biology and the neurosciences, and that has tried wherever possible to integrate data derived from direct experience into models of neurocognitve process (see Laughlin, McManus and Shearer 1984). Our group is interested in how symbolism operates in the neurocognitive mediation of religious experience (Laughlin et al 1979, 1981; Laughlin and Stephens 1980; d'Aquili 1982, Webber et al 1983. The perspective most closely allied to our own are those of Pribram (1971,1977), Globus (1976), Piaget (1971,1977,1980), Crook (1980), and Count (1973).

3. In attempting always to integrate neurocognitive with cross-cultural behavioral and phenomenological data toward a solution to any particular problem, we have become sensitized to expect some form of direct, firsthand experience underlying even seemingly bizarre tales, myths, legends, ceremonials, mystical dramas and "superstitions." We feel that the human sciences must now come to credence the possibility that direct experiences are the source of cross-cultural symbolic material, as was suggested by Thompson (1935:201-202) for claims of psychic powers for saints in the middle ages, and as has been shown by Hufford (1982) for the so-called Old Hag phenomenon and by Greeley (1975) for a variety of psychic occurrences including deja vu, clairvoyance and contact with the dead.

4. Among the polemics encountered during this study were: free choice vs. right to life; Freud vs. Rank (is birth recall memory or mere fantasy?); the primacy of perception vs. the primacy of cognition in experience; clinical data vs. pure research (the usual applied vs. pure science squabble); "split-brain" vs. "working brain" models of neural asymmetry; nature vs. nurture (or nature vs. culture); gender as symbol vs. gender as role; mind and brain different vs. mind-brain identity. In order to bear in on the essence of the central thesis, we will sidestep most of these weighty issues where they do not directly bear on the thesis. However, to avoid possible misunderstanding, the views forming a background to our theory may be presumed from the following caveats:

a) Consciousness begins at or near conception. This is contrary to the dominant belief in North American culture that life and consciousness begin respectively at and after birth. The evidence in favor of pre- and peri-natal consciousness seems to be overwhelming and growing rapidly (see reviews by Verny 1982; deMause 1981; Chamberlain 1983; Stone et al 1973; Kessen et al 1970). The interesting questions center on the nature of consciousness and its constituent functions at the various stages of pre- and peri-natal development.

b) Consciousness does not equal response. The presence of behavior is not requisite for the presence of consciousness, or any of the other constituents of consciousness; i.e. attention, sensation, feeling, cognition, memory, etc. Requiring response as evidence of consciousness is a long-standing error in the human sciences, influencing even sophisticated researchers such as Piaget (see Gruber and Voneche 1977:Part V). It has reached the point in research with prenatal children and with animals where it is reasonable to presume consciousness until proven otherwise, rather than presume lack of consciousness.

c) Birth recall may be, and often is, veridical memory and not merely fantasy. A number of researchers have verified birth memory reports using a variety of methods (see Raikov 1980, 1982; Cheek 1974; Chamberlain 1980, 1982, see Chamberlain 1983 for review).

d) Interdisciplinary study is the key to understanding complex issues. In keeping with the views of Sherif (1977) on the social sciences, and more recently of Kirk (1983) on the study of neurocognitive processes, the trend in science is away from highly specialized treatments of complex subjects, and toward interdisciplinary collaboration. This pooling of information and insight must incorporate both the socalled pure and applied (clinical) approaches.

e) Nature vs. nurture is a false dichotomy. There is in reality no separation of nature and culture. As we will come to see, the conceptual opposition of these two aspects in the thinking of people is due largely to psychodynamic factors and not an accurate scientific description of experience.

f) "Mind" and "brain" are two ways of viewing the same process. "Brain" refers to the physiological-structural attributes of "mind," and "mind" refers to the ways "brain" experiences its own functions. To posit mind-brain dualism is yet one more false dichotomy. Mind you, this is not a simplistic reductionist or identity view in which brain may be treated as mind, or mind as brain. Rather it is a structural monist view in which mind and brain are treated as different windows for watching the same process-and the more windows the better.

5. Anthropologists recognize that cross-culturally the male parental figure is not always the male genitor, but may be mother's brother or some other category of kin. But for simplicity we will refer to "father" throughout this study.

6. We are refraining from offering any simplistic definition of consciousness. To define the term would imply we understand precisely what consciousness is. Rather, the question of consciousness is problematic: what consciousness is, how it functions, its relationship to physiology, how it develops, are all questions of primary concern.

7. The term "sensorium" is a common one in medicine and psychiatry meaning "any sensory nerve center; more frequently the whole sensory apparatus of the body" (Dorland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 23rd edition).

8. Towards the end of his career, Merleau-Ponty had concluded that even the organization of perception could be influenced by culture (Merleau-Ponty 1968:212; see also Bide 1983:109ff), thus bringing his thinking in line with a major theme in anthropological theory, the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (see Miller and McNeil 1969 for a review).

9. To put it in Greek terms, the organization of physis is both epistemologically and ontologically prior to that of logos.

10. Our use of prajna and vinnana agrees more with Suzuki (1967:66) than with Turner (1974:47ff) in that prajna reflects the order-as-given in the perceived lifeworld and not the fundamentals of social organization, although the latter may be presented to consciousness in the former.

11. We are ignoring for the sake of simplicity any process of individuation leading to a more androgynous personality.

12. Tom Verny (personal communication) has also considered the connection between birth trauma and sexual violence on the part of males. He has initiated research along these lines.

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Charles D. Laughlin, Ph.D.

Dr. Charles Laughlin is a professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1S 5B6. He is co-author of the recently published book, Brain, Symbol and Experience (Boston: Shambhala New Science Library, 1990).