Site icon Sam Bartko, PhD

Shadow Work and Dakinis


[Note: This post, like all of the posts on this site, is based on personal experience and practice rather than scholarly knowledge of Buddhism. I do not claim to be anything more than an amateur Buddhist scholar.]


Dakini was originally the term used in ancient India for a Tantric priestess who transported the souls of the dead into the sky. As such, in English, dakinis are sometimes referred to as “sky dancers,” In more general usage, a dakini is a highly accomplished yogini – the feminine expression of enlightenment and energy. We can think of the term “dakini” as both an aspect of the mind’s nature symbolized as a female being and more tangibly, any great female practitioner. Tibetan Buddhism is rich with imagery depicting these great feminine practitioners – a feature decisively missing from Therevada Buddhist philosophy, which arguably assumes a monastic, male only, life denying flavor.

The teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism embrace all aspects of human life, often symbolized in imagery containing both masculine and feminine beings. The union of masculine and feminine essences is symbolic of the union and harmony of the various parts the human mind- embracing all aspects of reality and destroying distinctions of all kinds.

Khandro in consort with their Pawo

Dakinis were traditionally depicted as wrathful deities who challenged yogis to dispel their fears, inspired vigor and courage, and illuminated unseen obstacles, using any means at their disposal, including sexuality.

It appears that the feminine personification may be a cultural and pragmatic device, although it’s important to realize that dakini as a general term is not necessarily indicative of any particular gender. Regardless, images of these deities are typically femimine, fierce, mildly sexual, and provocative, albeit dignified and with a sense of reverence. Images of Vajrayogini, for example, typically show her bearing a necklace of skulls, with her feet trampling harmful, obscuring entities. Her skin is red, giving her a rather fierce appearance- in short – she looks like a being not to be messed with.

In my personal experience, such beings can and will manifest in the human form for an accomplished and extremely fortunate yogi. It seems to be that the union of a yogi with a dakini in human form is an extremely rare and fortunate fruition of karma for both parties. The terms Khandro and Pawo refer to the female and male manifestations of dakinis, generally used for human practitioners. The union of khandro and pawo is powerful catalyst for the spiritual growth of both counterparts.

For a yogi to find and establish a bond with such a counterpart seems to be in essence, a strong indication of a practitioner’s inclination toward a tantric path of practice. They allow for obstacles and hindrances which may otherwise remain hidden in the shadows to be seen clearly and excised, burned, and dissolved away. The khandro seems to have a magnetic, inexplicable attraction to the pawo and them finding each other is a supramundane phenomenon worthy of immense gratitude.

An unlikely and unconventional series of events and interactions led me to find and recognize the person I consider my khandro. I did not realize that this series of events would lead to the fruition of this supramundane bond, but nonetheless, karma has mysterious ways of manifesting. The resulting bond is one of immense strength and fortitude. The love and companionship we share is beyond anything I had ever dreamed of finding. This person has truly shown me another dimension of what it means to love and care for another person.

The spiritual catalysis that they have initiated in my practice and life has felt at times like a psychic surgery without anesthesia. It is extremely difficult and at times painful to be rigorously honest and vulnerable with another person, and this type of honestly is something I am learning to embrace more and more every day. It is said that a stream enterer will tend to experience a ripening of past karma at a faster rate compared to a practitioner who has not attained one or more noble paths. This has undoubtedly manifested in my practice, and the dakini that is the subject of this post has been a large part of that ripening.

My khandro has a unique neurological makeup, education, and conditioning, such that they are impossible to decieve (not that I would even want to) or present any kind of facade without being called out. They possess a bravery and straightforwardness that is extremely powerful. They are an intuitive and eclectic practitioner – apparently predisposed for energetic and physical practices, with a keen intuition and self-sufficiency in their practice that is quite rare. This yogini has talent in lucid dreaming, a propensity for psychic powers, and is interested in astral travel and has a passion and deep resonance with the Recognition Sutras. What I admire most about them is that they rely on their own direct experience and intuition, with an independence in their practice that is refreshing and rare for a modern practitioner. They are undoubtedly a stream winner, destined for full and complete awakening. Beyond their practice accomplishments, this person is an extremely rare individual, awesomely weird, and fantastically unique. Their ability to illuminate my blind spots and hang-ups has been quite frustrating at times, although very spiritually potent. They are undoubtedly involved in an ongoing karmic ripening happening in my practice, of which I view as a spiritual boon rather than a burden. I am learning new things everyday about the interconnected nature of all beings through our relationship.

After an awe-inspiring spiritual opening which contributed to the creation of this site, I came to recognize the need for what I called “shadow work” as my practice developed to the point of honestly uncovering and acknowledging certain unconscious patterns that were becoming obscurations and obstacles to further wisdom and growth. I had no idea that a person I once referred to as my “Shadow Angel” would prove to be such a treasured and catalytic force in my practice.

Allowing another accomplished practitioner to see my insecurities, fears, and ignorance from an outside perspective has allowed me to move forward in my life and practice in ways that would have been impossible without such a partner. They say in dharma circles that awakening is a team sport – after all, the Three Jewels of Buddhist practice are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Without inviting other practitioners into our lives, we can easily stagnate in a vacuum of our own ignorance. We must be willing to take criticism, allow others in, and most of all be honest with ourselves. Having a partner makes this process much faster and more powerful.

I have no advice on how to find such a person, other than embracing the Sangha aspect of the Three Jewels. This relationship has developed on its own, organically. We meditate together every day, sharing practice experiences and views, and literally shaping the mind and heart of one another. Clearly this type of relationship requires an extraordinary amount of trust and mutual respect like any other meaningful, loving relationship. They have helped to uncover a level of bravery and strength I did not know that I possessed, and I view them as a treasured spiritual companion. I am learning new things every day about myself and uncovering new levels of awake awareness that I did not realize was possible. My love for them is deep and boundless.

We dedicate our practice to the benefit of all sentient beings.
May it lead us to the union of wisdom and compassion,
of emptiness and aliveness.
May we always rest in awake awareness.
Om Ah Hung Soha.

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