Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

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

Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

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

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: 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.

Once I too sought expression; now I know my gods concede me only allusion or mention of a thing.

Jorge Luis Borges (1961).


The cosmologies and belief systems of many cultures use gender to label components of consciousness.1 Many peoples believe, for example, that the ground of consciousness in both males and females is fundamentally feminine. This paper presents a biogenetic structural2 theory explaining the relationship between early experience in the child and gender symbolism found in Tibetan cosmology and tantric meditation. The theory integrates data drawn from the neurosciences and cross-cultural research, as well as the author's direct experience as a practitioner of Tibetan tantrism.3 The theory will first be summarized and then will be discussed in depth emphasizing pre-and perinatal perception and Tibetan meditation.4 The paper will conclude with some implications of the theory for personality and gender identity.


The theory is simple and straightforward. We hypothesize that there exists in most cultures a causal relationship in development between pre- and peri-natal experience in the child and the non-arbitrary symbolic use of gender to label components of adult consciousness. Most cosmologies in some way make a fundamental distinction between those constituents of experience or reality that are considered male and those that are considered female (Neumann 1963, Eliade 1958, 1964). For example, one often hears of the "male" and "female principles" among consciousness-raising circles in our own culture. One also hears of yin (female) and yang (male) with reference to Chinese cosmology. In studying cosmology cross-culturally, the anthropologist is struck by the fact that the use of gender as symbolic of components of mind, experience or reality is regular and patterned. Rather than assigning gender arbitrarily to domains of consciousness, assignment seems to be lawful and regular cross-culturally.

The non-arbitrariness of gender attribution in cosmologies derives, we will argue, from a series of universal cognitive associations that occur during pre- and peri-natal neurocognitive development. The initial association by the child is between its totality of perceptual experience while in utero ("womb") with the maternal figure with whom he/she bonds, usually the one from whose uterus he/she emerges ("woman"). There is evidence that this bonding occurs before birth, that the child recognizes (note the advised use of the term re-cognizes) its mother if a birth is natural and relatively humane (see Chamberlain 1983:17 for relevant sources; see also Brazelton and Als 1979; Liedloff 1975). It even makes sense that the essence of mother-infant bonding is precisely this equation of the lifeworld (what is termed the lebenswelt for many phenomenologists; see Schutz and Luckmann 1973) of the pre-natal child with the mother. Thus, when mother becomes a differentiated object, conceptually distinct from all other subjects in a heretofore conceptually undifferentiated totality of unfolding experience, then mother becomes a symbol associated with memories of the entire pre- and peri-natal lifeworld. Mother is now the one form in the world that stands for the entire world of immediate experience, and, as psychoanalytic theory has held for nearly a century, mother also becomes the first and quintessential "woman." Thus the process of development during pre- and peri-natal life naturally produces the fundamental cognitive formula: womb = woman = world. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.