The Great Man and the Shrieking Woman

We say “Mother Earth,” acknowledging “the feminine” energy of our planet which gives birth to all life, as a mother gives birth to her children.  This mother earth is now being rapidly degraded and destroyed by a crisis of climate caused by human-created runaway technologies. While it may be obsolete to assign certain aspects of nature or the world to either masculine or feminine energies, that is how the mythological viewpoint of the ancient world saw it. If earth is the mother, the feminine, then could the forces destroying it be, in a mythological sense, attributed to the masculine? The following story illustrates this proposal.

Naropa was a pre-eminent Buddhist master and scholar, living and teaching in 10th century A.D. India.  He is revered in Tibetan Buddhism as one of the Mahasiddhas, or great teachers.  There are many traditions and legends associated with the life of Naropa; his Wikipedia entry recounts the conventional biography.  The story I cite here, in which Naropa encounters a wild woman on the road who is a wisdom goddess in disguise is told in many sources and with many elaborations; the one in the Wikipedia article is only one version.  The version I tell here I learned from Lama Palden Drolma, an American woman Tibetan Buddhist teacher.

Naropa, so the story goes, was traveling on a country road when he encountered an old, bent-over woman shuffling along in the opposite direction.  The woman stopped him and said, “Oh, wait, kind sir.  Are you not the famous Buddhist teacher Naropa?”

Naropa cleared his throat, impatient to move on.  “Well, yes, I am.”

The woman continued, “They say you know every Buddhist scripture by heart. Is that so?”

Naropa drew himself up to his full height, every inch the Great Man.  “Yes, it is.”

“And do you understand their deep meaning?” the woman persisted.
“Yes, of course!” Naropa said.

At this the woman began to shriek and tear at her hair, so much that blood flowed down her face.

Naropa didn’t know what to do.  He could not stop the woman’s shrieking, and she was blocking his way.   At last, in desperation, he blurted out his secret truth. “No, I really don’t understand their deep meaning.  I try, but I don’t.”

The woman stopped shrieking, and suddenly transformed into a goddess in the form of a beautiful young woman.  She touched Naropa’s shoulder gently and said, “You must study more. Find a good teacher.”

That very day, so the story goes, Naropa resigned from all his high positions and went into the deep mountains to find an enlightened teacher to help him.

If we apply the perspective of modern psychology to this story with its clear mythological elements, we could say that the woman was a projection of Naropa’s own unconscious feminine energy, concealed beneath his male bravado and pride at his own accomplishments. At first he didn’t take the woman at all seriously; that is why she exploded with such powerful energy. She was not some shy and servile housewife, the kind Naropa was probably used to.  Instead, she was wrathful, powerful, bloody and terrible.  She needed all that power to cut through Naropa’s high opinion of himself.

Where do we find such an emanation of the wrathful feminine today?  Perhaps in the present-day visage of Mother Earth herself—the fertile planet out of which we are all born. Blistering heat, mudslides, floods, fires, tidal waves, rising seas—these are the modern expressions of the shrieking woman.  Mother Earth has had enough, and she now resembles the wrathful feminine figure in the Naropa story, wreaking death and destruction.  We could also say that while Naropa had knowledge—he was famous for his mastery of scripture—he did not have wisdom. 

Knowledge is a feature of the intellect. It is analytic and focused; it defines how the world is put together piece by piece.  It sees everything as distinct and separate. Science and technology are its most developed expressions, along with all their elaborate inventions–from nuclear bombs to oil drilling rigs–that have transformed our world.  Wisdom, by contrast, is a function of intuition.  It does not comprehend reality in pieces, but as a whole. It sees everything as connected, as aspects of one great being.  Mathematics is an example of a descriptive language of knowledge; myth is one descriptive language of wisdom.

It is no accident, then, that the ancient world and its myths portrayed wisdom as feminine, as a woman.  In Buddhist iconography, Transcendent Wisdom is portrayed as a young, beautiful woman.  Athena in Greek mythology and Minerva for the Romans portrayed comparable feminine emanations of wisdom.

The lesson of the Naropa story for us is that knowledge, while useful, is insufficient, and on its own can run amuck.  Without wisdom, knowledge becomes prideful, haughty, and greedy—as Naropa was.  What Naropa needed, and what we need now so desperately, is Wisdom, the intuitive, to understand how to reconnect and make whole what our genius and knowledge has torn apart.  Where will we find it, this wisdom? That is what we need to find out.