‘If you know me, you know that I reside in the hearts of all beings.
Just summon me and I will return!’
~ Yeshe Tsogyal
‘Now until the dualistic identity mind melts and dissolves,
it may seem that we are parting.
Please be happy.
When you understand the dualistic mind,
there will be no separation from me.
May my good wishes fill the sky.’
~ Yeshe Tsogyal
*Image: ‘Yeshe Tsogyal’ by Robert Beer
“As spiritual practitioners we receive encouragement and inspiration by reading the lifestories of great and sublime teachers, and the inspiration we receive from their exemplary lives allows us to progress more swiftly along the path to liberation. Because the appearance of everything we can know and experience depends on causes and circumstances, ordinary individuals embarking on the path must do so through a gradual process. Princess Mandarava, however, already liberated from the cycle of suffering and perfectly omniscient, was not an ordinary individual. She intentionally emanated into realms of ordinary existence in order to inspire beings and lead them through this gradual process, teaching them how to practice through her example. … The accounts of Mandarava’s remarkable lives illuminate the experiences of a great wisdom dakini who inspired everyone she met, turning their minds irrevocably toward liberation.
In the thirty-eight chapters of this revelation [‘The Lives and Liberation of Princess Mandarava‘ is a treasure of Padmasambhava], one comes to know a nirmanakaya (emanated manifestation) dakini who chose numerous times to enter the world as an aristocrat. The purpose of this depiction is not to show us that only those of high status or wealth are fortunate enough to have such opportunities, but to reveal that Mandarava was able and willing to renounce that which is most difficult to renounce, namely attachment to the so-called pleasures of worldly life. In each of her lifetimes, she unflaggingly forsakes fame and pleasures to work for the benefit of others through example and skillful means. Her abandonment of the temporary pleasures that steal away precious time and opportunities for spiritual development mirrors the struggles facing modern day Dharma practitioners. Although Mandarava was a famous female practitioner, she ultimately defies gender distinctions, and her enlightened activities are timeless. The Dharma that Mandarava – and all sublime teachers like her – teach is the path that transcends all relative distinctions made by ordinary individuals based on the ordinary habits of dualistic mind.
The notion that Vajrayana Buddhism is male-oriented is misleading. Still, many women attempting to pursue the path may naturally become discouraged when they encounter the strong Tibetan cultural influence. The more Dharma takes root in the West, however, the easier it becomes to relate directly to the Dharma, which is perfectly pure and free from biased distinctions, rather than focusing on the habits of ordinary individuals from foreign cultures. It is my prayer that this book may be of some benefit in encouraging the many excellent female practitioners in the world to cultivate their noble qualities and, through the force of their practice, go on to become fully qualified teachers themselves. May this work bring immeasurable benefit to all living beings, who are all equal and able to realize their precious buddha nature.”
~ Sangye Khandro: From her preface to her translation of ‘The Lives and Liberation of Mandarava‘
*Image: ‘Mandarava’ by Dru-gu Choegyal Rinpoche
“This variety of desirous and hateful thoughts
that strands us in the ocean of cyclic existence
once realized to be without intrinsic nature,
makes everything a golden land, child.
If you meditate on the illusion-like nature
of illusion-like phenomena,
actual illusion-like buddhahood
will occur through the power of devotion.”
Source: “Path of Illusion” in ‘Niguma, Lady of Illusion’ by Sarah Harding.
“Give up the mind that wants to meditate and calm down. Focus on nothing at all.
Disturbing thoughts and lazy indifference are not liberation.
Remain unstained by thoughts and circumstances.
Rest relaxed in the uncontrived nature of mind, free of elaboration or alteration.
For the benefit of one and all, simply preserve peerless awareness.”
: The Story of Sukhasiddhi :
‘The life story of Sukhasiddhi is very wonderful. When she was about sixty years old, or maybe sixty-five, she experienced a great deal of suffering. Due to that, she engaged in the practice of vajrayana and attained a state where she appeared like a sixteen-year-old girl. Her story is that she and her family were very poor and they got to the point where they only had one container of rice left. So, her husband and son went out to look for food. They went all over, searching, begging for food. Though they went through a great deal of difficulties, they were unable to find any food. Thinking that they had one container of rice left, they went back home to eat it. However, while they were gone, Sukhasiddhi, out of great compassion, had given the food to a beggar. When her husband and son came back, they were very hungry and expecting to eat the last container of rice, but they found that there was no rice left, that she had given it away to a beggar. They were very upset and very angry with her, saying that though they were all experiencing a great deal of suffering, a great deal of problems, she had given their last food away. They were so upset with her that they threw her out of the house. Then she became very upset and cried about her husband and son throwing her out of her home. Leaving her town, she gave rise to a very strong renunciation for samsara, and based upon this very strong renunciation and good fortune, she was able to meet with a siddha from whom she received oral instructions. She meditated upon them and realized mahamudra, the supreme siddhi. Her mind was liberated within this state of luminosity, and her body became an empty form like a rainbow. She looked like a sixteen-year-old girl. She unified luminosity and the illusory body. It is said that even at this time she resides in India and can be found in various places there. So it is on the basis of having a lot of suffering and difficulties that one is able to
practice the dharma very well. In order to meditate upon mahamudra, one needs to have problems and difficulties. If one doesn’t have problems, but is just happy, one won’t meditate and will just be distracted.
Therefore, it is said that when one is meditating upon mahamudra, it is very good if one has a lot of suffering. Within the true nature, or essence, of mahamudra, there is no time, and therefore one does not need to think about needing a long time for these practices. It is enough just to realize the true nature of one’s present mind, mahamudra.’
“Upon receiving empowerment and instruction from Virupa, Sukhasiddhi, then a sixty-one-year-old, attained full enlightenment that very evening. Like Niguma, her body became rainbowlike. Niguma is remembered as a wrathful, dark-brown woman who wore bone ornaments, whereas Sukhasiddhi is portrayed as a peaceful, light-skinned sixteen-year-old.”
‘The Story of Sukhasiddhi‘, as told by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso Rinpoche:
Machig Labdrön མ་གཅིག་ལབ་སྒྲོན་ (1055 – 1149)
Supreme view is beyond all duality of subject and object…
Supreme view is free from reference point.
~ Machig Lapdrön’s Last Instructions
Machig Lapdrön was born in 1055, at a time of great innovation and development in Tibetan Buddhism. Since we will be looking at how to apply her teachings to our own lives I thought it would be helpful to tell her story, and convey something about the spiritual teachings that influenced her life and her work. Through Machig’s biography I learned she did not establish herself formally as a teacher. Although she began as a nun, she gave that up to become a mother. She was not a hermit either, and although she wandered as a yogini she spent most of her life in service of her students.
Machig had been an Indian yogi in her previous life. Through a series of visions this yogi left his body in a cave in India and his consciousness traveled to Tibet. This consciousness entered the womb of a great noblewoman. The night she conceived, this woman and her sister, and even her neighbors, had special dreams. When the baby was born, it was a girl with a third eye shape in her forehead. Her mother hid the baby behind a door, afraid of what her husband would say.
But he had heard the baby had been born and insisted on seeing her. He saw a sacred letter written very finely in her third eye marking and saw that she had all the signs of a wisdom dakini (feminine wisdom being). She grew rapidly and before she was three Machig knew many mantras and liked to do prostrations and make offerings. She learned to read easily, and became a speed-reader by the time she was five. She could read two volumes in the time it took an adult reader to read one. The King heard of her and tested her publicly, declaring she was a wisdom dakini, and recommended that she be protected from negative people.
Machig Lapdrön left home with her mother and sister and spent five years reciting the Prajna Paramita sutra. Then her mother passed away, and she and her sister began to study with various teachers. Machig studied with a teacher named Lama Drapa, who taught her in great depth about the Prajna Paramita sutra. He then asked her to stay with him for four years. She agreed and became the reader for his monastery, traveling to the homes of lay people and reciting this sutra. In this way she immersed herself in these teachings while serving her teacher.
The Prajna Paramita, or “Great Mother,” is a profound philosophical doctrine that began in India around the time of Christ. The Prajna Paramita sutra is the most important text of Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasizes the doctrines of emptiness and compassion. It formed the foundation of Mahayana Buddhism, which spread to China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea. The teachings were given to the great Buddhist scholar Nargajuna, who lived in approximately 100 AD and came from an area of southern India whose people were descendants of the dark-skinned ancient Dravidians. The text, its doctrine, and the virtues represented by it were personified by a female deity, a mother goddess who had been with humanity from its inception in the Paleolithic period. Statues of this Prajna Paramita were observed by the Chinese pilgrim Fa-shien in 400 AD.
The innovation that distinguished Mahayana from earlier Buddhism was the introduction of female Buddhas. In earlier Buddhism higher levels of spiritual life were considered beyond the reach of women, but in Mahayana the mother goddess Prajna Paramita was primary, often described as the “The Mother of all the Buddhas.”
Here is the most well-known quote from the Heart Sutra, an essential discourse on Prajna Paramita:
“Form is emptiness/Emptiness is form/Form is not other than emptiness/Emptiness is not other than form.”
Machig’s close identification with the Prajna Paramita from her childhood extends throughout her life. It is important to understand Prajna Paramita because Machig’s teachings are based on it in several important ways. First, the whole practice of Chöd is aimed at overcoming the ego’s self-clinging so we can perceive a state where there is no self and no other, which is what Prajna Paramita teaches. Secondly her understanding of the nature of demons came in part from rereading and studying the sutra. Thirdly we find in the act of feeding guests one’s own body the ultimate image of the nurturing mother, the Great Mother.
The Prajna Paramita teaches that, once we let go of conceptual thought, emptiness is revealed as fullness, not a dead nothingness but a vibrant womb of awareness. The teaching on emptiness shows us this is not mere self-sacrifice leading to depletion (that many women experience), but an open-hearted generosity based on an understanding of the essential impermanence of all forms.
While Machig was receiving in-depth Prajna Paramita teachings, a great Indian yogi named Dampa Sangye came from India, looking for her. Before they met she had had a dream about him, so in the early morning she went out and ran into him in the courtyard. She began to prostrate herself but he stopped her and touched foreheads with her, a sign of equal status and great intimacy. She asked him how she could help others and he replied:
“Confess all your hidden faults.
Approach that which you find repulsive.
Whoever you think you cannot help – help them.
Anything you are attached to let go of it.
Go to places like cemeteries that scare you.
Sentient beings are limitless as the sky.
Find the Buddha inside yourself.”
*Initial excerpt from Machig’s Story: An Unpublished Biography of Machig Labdrön by Lama Tsultrim Allione.
Read full biography here at Tara Mandala.
“The beautiful Lakshminkara was the sister of the great king Indrabhuti who ruled over the kingdom of Sambola in the land of Oddiyana. She was wise and through listening to the teachings of Lawapa, she became well versed in many tantras. When she was of age, her brother arranged to marry her off to prince Jalandhara, a son of the King of Lankapuri.
Accompanied by a group of friends and attendants, Lakshminkara set out for Lankapuri with a large dowry. When she arrived, she was told to wait outside the palace because it was an inauspicious day. As she waited she looked at the people of the city and became deeply disheartened when she saw that they were not Buddhist. Then, as she thought she could not feel any worse, she saw a hunting party returning to the palace with many dead game animals and was told that the leader of this group was her husband to be. Seeing the numerous animals that had been killed for mere sport, she realized that her future husband was also not a Buddhist. Her heart was broken. She proceeded to give away all of her precious dowry to the poor of Lankapuri. Without any wealth, she took up residence in a cave, covered herself in mud, and began to act crazy. To sustain herself, she would scavenge food that had been discarded or left as offerings in the charnel ground outside of the city of Lankapuri. Despite her appearance, she was inwardly focused on concentration, compassion and the search for truth.
Lakshminkara continued to live in this manner and after seven years achieved a level of realization. She then gave instruction to a lowly toilet cleaner who worked in the royal palace and he also achieved success. No one knew of this mans attainment except for Lakshminkara and he continued to work in the palace as though nothing had changed.
One day, Jalandhara and his court went out on one of their many hunting trips. While deep in the forest, the prince became separated from his servants. He dismounted to rest while his subjects caught up with him. Tired from the hunt, he fell asleep under a tree and awoke several hours later, only to find that no one had yet found him. Needing to find shelter before nightfall, he began searching for a place of refuge and by chance came upon Lakshminkara’s cave. Upon entering, he was surprised to find Lakshminkara radiating light and being adored by an uncountable retinue of goddesses. This beautiful sight deeply effected Jalandhara who then began making regular visits to the cave. Despite his visits, Lakshminkara remained skeptical of his presence and eventually inquired as to his motives. He affirmed his faith in the Buddha and requested teachings from her. She taught him only one single verse of profound spiritual meaning and said that she was not his teacher. She informed him that his teacher is one of his very own toilet cleaners in the palace.
When Jalandhara returned home to the palace, he found the servant that would be his teacher and brought him to his chambers. Paying respect and requesting teachings, the servant that cleaned the toilets for the prince agreed and gave Jalandhara the initiation into the Transference of Consciousness and the practices of the Generation and Perfection Stage Yogas of the meditational deity Vajravarahi.
Both Lakshminkara and the toilet cleaner lived and taught for many years in the city of Lankapuri and performed countless miracles before they each departed in their physical bodies for the pureland of Khechara.”
“This teacher was known as a tulku of Yeshe Tsogyal. When she was five, her mother died and she had to tend the domestic animals. One day, in a vision, Vajravarahi Buddha, entrusting her with a sacred text, empowered her, wherewith she enjoyed a sacred feast with the assembly of practitioners. Since that time, a stream of sacred teachings burst spontaneously from her with no need of learning. She continually danced and sang sacred dances and songs as if she were a born dancer and singer. She was able to see what thoughts people were having. She became the consort of the great terton Guru Chowang, and they helped each other to decode sacred ter teachings. Wandering in many places in South, West, and Central Tibet, she served many beings. Finally, at the age of only thirty-six, accompanied by two realized attendants, they flew up into the sky higher and higher and went toward Zangdog Palri without leaving their bodies behind. Nomadic girls and boys tending domestic animals in nearby grassy valleys saw them flyging away. Children picked up and ate the remains of the feast offerings that they left, and these caused all of them to experience a deep meditative state.”
Source: “Incarnation” by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche
Machik Kunga Bum was born in a monkey year in the thirteenth century in a place called Tashi Dokhar in the On region. Her father was named Tsangpa Dorje Wangchuk and her mother was named Lhakyi Peldzom, who was said to have been an incarnation of Shekarza Dorje Tso, a legendary disciple of Yeshe Tsogyel. She stayed at Densatil until she was six, and later took ordination from a Nyingma lama named Drakpa Gyeltsen, receiving from him the name Kunga Bum.
She studied with many lamas of multiple traditions and received numerous empowerments and instructions, which she practiced until mastering. She entered a retreat in the so-called Clear Light Cave at the Drak Yongdzong cave complex for seven years, seven months, seven days and seven hours. While there she received various prophesies from ḍākinī, including one from Vajravārahī that she would reveal a treasure text there titled the Secret Mother Tantra, Daily Practice Cycles . She transmitted this treasure to people across the U region.
She transmitted her treasures to Dungtso Repa, with whom she is said to have engaged in consort practice, and they collaborated on teaching.
Kunga Bum attracted considerable numbers of disciples, and taught widely. At the end of her life she entered another retreat at Tashi Yanggon in On and at a hermitage near the Jemo Stūpa. She passed away after seven days, reportedly amidst signs of accomplishment such as the attainment of the rainbow body.
By the nineteenth century her lineage had been lost, but was revived by Jamgon Kongtrul and Chokgyur Lingpa. Kongtrul reported in his One Hundred Treasure Revealers that he located a copy in Yarlung Sheldrak and another in Drakyongdzong, which she is said to have reconcealed as treasure. In the same source Kongtrul reports that Chokgyur Lingpa revived the transmission by claiming to have received it in a former life. In his autobiography Kongtrul relates a dream from 1859 in which he saw himself in the form of Dungtso Repa, and that he thereby received the transmissions for both Dungtso Repa’s and Kunga Bumpa’s treasures.
Source: Treasury of Lives
Jetsün Mingyur Paldron
“This great teacher is known as a tulku of both Yeshe Tsogyal and Machig Labdron. She was a daughter of Minling Terchen, the famed luminary terton and author of important texts of the Nyingma lineage. As soon as she was born, sitting up, she sang the sacred syllable HUM.
She received extensive teachings and transmissions from her father, her uncle Lochen Dharmashri, and many others. At the age of sixteen, her father passed away. At the age of nineteen, the forces of Dzungar Mongols destroyed Mindrolling Monastery and assassinated Lochen Dharmashri along with many masters. However, Jetsun with her mother and two sisters, escaped to Sikkim.
After the defeat of the Dzungars in Tibet, she went back and devoted her whole life to rebuilding Mindrolling and giving teachings and sacred transmissions. She also remained in retreat for many years at Khachod Dechenling. At the age of seventy-one — now even more youthful and radiant than before — sitting up in lotus posture and glancing up into the sky, she passed away. After passing, her mind and body remained in meditation for three days.
During the cremation, a ball of white smoke rose upward and moved toward the western direction. Some birds kept circling the smoke in the sky throughout the cremation ceremony. Every seventh day after her passing, for many weeks, the amazingly clear sky appeared filled with beautiful white rainbow lights. Monks and nuns of the monastery made three ceremonial visits to her sacred body. Each time five-colored rainbow light arched around the temple. Also a beam of very bright five-colored light rainbow light appeared linking one mountain to another, and linking one major temple to another. Many colorful lights appeared in the forms of various offering objects, such as a wheel, a horse, and flowers with four petals. On her cremated bones the images of many deities and sacred syllables appeared.”
Source: “Incarnation” by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche
Jetsün Thrinley Chödron
Jetsün Thrinley Chödron was born as the daughter of Tri Thrinley Namgyal. As an ordained nun, she received all the profound instructions from the lineage holders of Mindrolling and many great masters of the period. She taught widely, contributing greatly to the preservation of the Dzogchen lineage, particularly the Semde and Longde transmissions.
Jetsün Thrinley Chödron was one of the main teachers of the great Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.
Source: Female Masters Of Mindrolling
The First Samding Dorje Phakmo, Chokyi Dronma
Chokyi Dronma was born in the year of the tiger, most likely 1422, in Mangyul Gungtang. Her father was King Tri Lhawang Gyeltsen (1404-1464), who claimed descent from the Emperors of the Yarlung Dynasty. Her mother was named Dode. Her paternal grandfather was named Tri Sonam De (c. 1371-1404), and her younger brother, who took the throne after their father passed away, was named Tri Namgyel De (c.1422-1502). A biography of Chokyi Dronma by a colleague named Pel Chime Drubpa offers a contemporary glimpse into her extraordinary life.
Her birth was a moment when an heir to the throne of Gungtang was keenly awaited. The priest to the royal court considered her to be a divine incarnation and gave her the name that, according to a prophetic dream by her mother, she had already given herself: Konchok Gyelmo or Queen of the Jewel — a title that reflected both her commitment to become a royal supporter of the dharma and the prospect that she would be ‘victorious in all directions’. This initial effort to imply that she had a sacred role may in fact have been part of an attempt by the court to present her as a potential royal heir in case no son was born to the king.
The scenario changed radically a few years later. When Chokyi Dronma was about six a son was born to a junior queen, a woman from the Bongdzog ruling elite (in what is currently the upper Rasuwa valley in Nepal). This is said to have deeply troubled Chokyi Dronma and her mother, and this is the first point in her life at which she is supposed to have expressed a wish to renounce the world and become ordained. The birth of her brother meant a change of position in the royal family; not only would it mean that Chokyi Dronma faced the prospect of being sent away as a daughter-in-law, but it also signaled great anxiety for her mother, the main queen, since she had produced only girls while a junior queen had produced the much awaited male heir. Throughout her life Chokyi Dronma was concerned about the position of her mother as potentially vulnerable and felt responsible for ensuring that she would be looked after at all times. These were issues that might have had a bearing on her daring decision to pursue a religious life, and also on her later commitment to support Buddhism as a religion that provided assistance to women.
Despite these considerations, as an infant princess she enjoyed a happy and lively childhood, dividing her time between the capital of the kingdom and the lush valleys of Kyirong, which she loved. She would go there often, especially in the winter when the upper areas were frozen and stricken by blizzards while the lower Himalayan valleys were still rich with flowers and fruits. Chokyi Dronma seems to have been an energetic and adventurous child; the biography also describes her as compassionate towards animals, aware of worldly impermanence and daring in her choices. She is said to have showed a strong character early on, perhaps a prelude to the fact that throughout her life she never shied away from physical hardship or risky enterprises. Nevertheless, she seems to have also suffered in her early childhood from some health problems and illness seems to have repeatedly marked difficult periods in her life.
Chokyi Dronma appears to have been a clever and precocious child, even given the conventions found in traditional Tibetan biographies of Buddhist figures according to which extraordinary qualities are highlighted in childhood in order to anticipate their later accomplishments. At around the age of three she is said to have learned to read and write, activities which she pursued with dedication throughout her life. She is also said to have been able to speak Sanskrit, a claim which would have been related to her “secret” identity as the Indian tantric deity Vajravārahī.
She grew up in an environment with easy access to the Buddhist classics, and these became an important source of inspiration for her and are mentioned in some detail in her biography. Her mother seems to have taken special care of her education and the biography describes how Chokyi Dronma fondly used to read books to her. Throughout her childhood she was beloved by her family and by the citizens of the kingdom. Her mother and sister were particularly close to her, but she also enjoyed an affectionate relationship with her father although it was somewhat more distant and formal. Her paternal grandmother also seems to have been very fond of her since, much later, she supported her religious deeds and eventually expressed great sorrow when she decided to leave Gungtang to go to the east.
Around 1438 Chokyi Dronma reached the age of seventeen and was of marriageable age. As a child she had expressed a wish to be married out to Guge; a wish that was probably influenced by her mother and by the former regent, who was from the house of Guge, an area that was seen as pleasant and wealthy region and that also had long-standing genealogical links with the house of Gungtang.
However, the court decided that she should be married out to the rulers of Lato Lho. The strategic relationship between Gungtang and Lato Lho was more crucial than that with Guge, so Chokyi Dronma’s father accepted the marriage request from these important allies, who were also potential enemies. A very detailed description is given in the biography both of the grand celebrations held in honor of the marriage and of the great sorrow felt at her departure from her homeland.
The lords of Lato Lho sent a grand procession from Shelkar, their capital, to fetch the future bride and this was welcomed in the royal palace by Chokyi Dronma’s father and brother, seated on their thrones, with all the people of rank seated in rows. The princess was seated in the middle of the crowd, absolutely still and shedding tears, as is required by Tibetan marriage customs. The sorrow in this case seems indeed to have been deep, as she was parting from her beloved mother, and from all the people who had great affection for her. The biography describes everyone as broken-hearted, and lists the gifts with which she was showered. Her brother gave her one of his precious earrings; others offered jewels, rosaries and precious stones. According to the biography, the sense of loss affected not only the human population, but also all the other beings in the area, and the features of the landscape. In the words of her biographer: “All the living beings of Ngari felt as if they had lost their protector. It was as if the whole essence of the earth had been taken away and the earth had turned bleak.”
The biography carries the reader along with the weeping marriage procession leaving the royal palace and climbing the steep pass that leads towards the Porong (spo rong) plains and eventually to Shelkar. At the top of the pass, she prostrated for a last time towards her home, more than a thousand meters below, taking a last look at the royal palace. She would have seen it surrounded by the lush fields of the Gungtang plain, overlooked by the snow-capped peak of Jowo Kulha (jo bo sku lha), the ancestral mountain of her family and her kingdom, and she would have been able to make out the deep gorge leading to the south, across the Himalaya, to her beloved Kyirong and beyond it to Nepal. She offered a katak scarf with flowers towards the palace; her people seeing this, could not control their tears.
After crossing the pass the party reached the Pelkhu lake and the high plains of Porong, a vast plain, inhabited by nomads and surrounded by snow-peaks. It was a long journey, with the constant threat of attacks by bandits. At first the princess was withdrawn and shy about meeting the bridegroom’s retinue that had been sent to receive her, but eventually she accepted their request to be introduced to them. Leaving the shore of the lake behind, the procession passed near Porong Pelmo Choding Monastery, the seat of Bodong Chokle Namgyel (1376-1451). Chokyi Dronma sent some messengers to the monastery asking if she could visit the master. He suggested, instead, that they meet along her route.
Eventually the party from Gungtang that was escorting her took its leave and she proceeded on her journey surrounded by a large number of people who had come to greet her from Lato Lho. The marriage procession presumably crossed the Dingri plain, following the Pumchu river and the holy Tsibri range until they reached Shelkar. From afar they would have seen a mountain rising from the plain, Shelkar Dorje Dzong. On a ridge was a forbidding fortress below which was the monastery Shelkar Chode, established in 1385 by the great lord of Lato Lho, Situ Chokyi Rinchen, the grandfather of her bridegroom.
As the bridal procession approached the capital a group of Bonpo priests came out to meet her and celebrate some customary marriage rituals. Chokyi Dronma’s bridegroom was particularly keen on the local ancestral cults, even though his parents were great supporters of Buddhism. As a committed Buddhist Chokyi Dronma had very strong views on non-Buddhist practices; according to her biography she was openly jubilant when the Bon priests were driven away by her retinue, dropping their ritual instruments as they made a hasty retreat.
Once in the palace, she further intimidated the Bon priests by meditating and empowering herself as Vajrayoginī. This episode and a number of other details introduce a slightly dissonant note in what otherwise seems to have been the perfect fulfillment of her role as a royal daughter-in-law. She behaved respectfully towards her parents-in-law and her husband and was generally seen as a bringer of prosperity, beautiful and well behaved, even though she sometimes challenged conventions of royal protocol. For example, she sometimes dealt with secular dignitaries without the expected deference and made a point of showing maximum respect to members of the monastic community, whatever their standing. The early stages of her married life are described in an utterly glorious light, though, the real situation could not have been easy for her as a young, newly married woman in an unfamiliar place. Her father-in-law was particularly fond of her, but her mother-in-law was somewhat more critical and her husband suffered from goiter, a widespread health problem in the region even in modern times, as well as from various character disorders.
According to customary practice, after a period in the new home she was allowed to make a visit to her family. The biography reports that she was welcomed with great affection by her parents and by the whole kingdom. She stayed there for only three months since her husband kept sending messengers asking her to come back, and eventually she returned to Lato Lho with another splendid celebration that resembled her first journey there as a new bride. According to Tibetan marriage customs, this sealed her acceptance of her new status.
According to the biography she became pregnant in her nineteenth year, which would have been about 1440, and gave birth to a girl. No difficulties are described during the delivery of the child, and at first everything seemed to proceed serenely. She enjoyed being with her little daughter, living in a very comfortable residence and assisted by several nannies. When her husband expressed his wish to appoint a Bon teacher for the child, she was able to negotiate that the girl should be educated according to Buddhist principles.
When her child was more or less one year old Chokyi Dronma went to a nearby hot springs with her retinue. There she fell so gravely ill that she almost died; her eventual recovery was ascribed to a miracle. Meanwhile a major dispute had broken out in her father’s kingdom and she decided to help in mediating the conflict. She left for Gungtang escorted by one hundred horsemen, leaving her little daughter behind with her parents-in-law, her husband and the nannies.
While she was away the child had died and her parents-in-law sent her a message to this effect. She is said to have taken the news calmly, replying that there was no reason to worry since the child would soon be reincarnated. She further blamed deeds against Buddhism for the child’s untimely death. Yet she was clearly shaken, inspired by the horrible loss to pursue a radical change; before leaving Gungtang and returning to Shelkar she formally announced her wish to take religious vows as a nun.
A short while after returning to Shelkar she announced her wish to take religious vows to her parents-in-law and sent a letter to this effect to her father. Neither of the parties agreed. Predictably, her father argued strongly with her about this decision and refused to approve it, saying that at the age of twenty she had just started her life and expressing his hope that she would postpone this decision. Chokyi Dronma remained resolute in her position. This marked the beginning of her long and momentous struggle to free herself from her secular obligations.
Meanwhile she had started to take care of the property and the interests of the Porong Pelmo Choding monastery that was located in Shelkar. She read the compositions of Bodong Chokle Namgyel and received teachings from him when he came to Shelkar, after which she felt a powerful devotion to him. After he left she read the Lalitavistara, which tells the story of Śākyamuni Buddha, and felt a strong wish to emulate Prince Siddhartha, giving up her royal life to strive for enlightenment. She repeatedly requested permission from her father and her father-in-law to become ordained, but to no avail.
Eventually she decided that she had to take drastic action to achieve her aim. At first she tried to escape from the castle, without success. In desperation she unbound her hair and started to tear it out, injuring herself in the process. When her shocked parents-in-law found her in this condition she threw the hair at their feet. The sight of her, standing in the middle of the royal fortress covered in blood and with her hair disheveled, led her parents-in-law to allow her to leave and to renounce her secular obligations.
Her father-in-law calmed her down and promised to agree to all her wishes provided she would not present herself in this state to her husband, who had recently suffered some kind of mental crisis of his own. She therefore arranged a makeshift wig to cover her hair and dressed in her best clothes to meet him. At first he did not understand the situation, but eventually went along with the decision, allowing her to leave the palace and him to marry another woman.
Chokyi Dronma’s action in feigning or experiencing mental instability in order to achieve a radical change in her life places her in a long tradition of women in Tibet who had to resort to this drastic measure, whether nuns, tantric practitioners or oracles. She may have been the most prominent to do so, but she was not the first: the act of unbinding the hair as an expression of madness and transgression features prominently in the life of several female (and male) Indian Buddhist figures.
Eventually the princess was allowed by her husband’s family to leave. The biography describes her riding off into the rising sun towards the high pastures and the monastery of Porong Pelmo Choding, delighting in her newly acquired freedom. At the monastery she was welcomed by Bodong Chokle Namgyel, who ensured that she had arrived with proper permission from her family before admitting her formally. After receiving the confirmation from both Shelkar and Gungtang, she was allowed to take part in her first ritual as a member of the monastic community. The biography records that she dressed sumptuously for the ceremony — perhaps a sign that she intended to preserve her high status — had the remains of her hair cut by an attendant, and took her vows as a novice. She was then given the name under which she became famous, Chokyi Dronma, ‘the Lamp of the Dharma’ (Dharmadīpa).
She used the occasion to announce her commitment to support religious practices for women. He biography records her statement as follows: “Generally there is no significant difference between those who succeed [in being born as male] and those who fail [and are born as female]. However, from now on, I will focus on supporting Buddhist practices for women, [especially those who follow a religious path], as they are the most trustworthy among women.”
Chokle Namgyel was later to face sharp criticism for having admitted a woman into a monastic institution, but he always defended his choice staunchly. Chokyi Dronma’s life revolved around him from around 1442, when she joined the community, until his death in 1451. During this time she moved between the monastery and her homeland, to which she loved to return from time to time. In the monastery she pursued her religious training and eventually was fully ordained as a bhikṣuṇī. The biography describes the event as follows:
“Then she went to [Pelmo] Choding, the great center of meditation, to be fully ordained. She took along numerous monks whom she had invited from the religious colleges of Gungtang. [Chokle Namgyel], who was particularly skilled in teaching the eighthy-four thousand dharmaskanda, performed the role of the abbot (upādhyāyai; khenpo). Seated on his throne, wearing his headgear the Venerable Chokyi Wangchuk, who was an expert of the Tripiṭaka, acted as the master of ceremonies (karmācārya; loppon). Surrounded by enough monks who were fully qualified, she reached the final stage and became a real bhikṣuṇī . Further training in the monastic discipline had filled the vase of her mind, and she became an object of worship for all living beings.”
Chokyi Dronma was one of the rare examples of a fully ordained woman for whom contemporary accounts confirming the ordination survive; her biography seems to imply that this practice was more widespread at that time than is now assumed on the basis of the existing records.
Presumably in an effort to follow the example of the Buddha, Chokyi Dronma also spent a great deal of time travelling around as a begging nun. Although this was an established practice, seeing their princess in this guise provoked a great deal of surprise in the local population. From simple nomads to aristocrats, most people became great supporters and she was extremely successful in collecting all sorts of donations with which she was able to support the religious activities carried out by her master. She was often joined in her begging by a nun called Delek Chodren, who became her trusted companion and close disciple and followed her for the rest of her life. It was this woman who was to become one of the key figures in the process of identifying her reincarnation and probably also in the compilation of the biography.
Throughout the period during which her life was centered around Bodong Chokle Namgyel and Pemo Choding Monastery, Chokyi Dronma devoted herself to the recruitment and training of nuns. Often these were inexperienced young girls and the biography underlines the point that since they were ‘free from worldly concerns’ Chokyi Dronma had to consider all their practical needs. It appears that she even oversaw the weaving and sewing of their clothes, while at the same time being deeply committed to their education. She apparently taught them proper reading skills and introduced a very effective system of teaching the Buddhist doctrine.
Bodong Chokle Namgyel himself was particularly sensitive to women’s issues and was a great innovator in this respect. Just as he had insisted on bestowing the full ordination on Chokyi Dronma, so he also established new ritual traditions for women. He encouraged Chokyi Dronma to initiate the performance of ritual dances by nuns at a time when female roles used to be performed by monks. A lengthy passage in the biography gives a very vivid description of the social and cultural challenges that this innovative enterprise entailed and of her skill in successfully overcoming them:
“At one point the Omniscient [Chokle Namgyel] said to her: ‘If the tantras are practiced in a complete way, the vajra-dance is indispensable. However this practice does not exist in Tibet. Nowadays people do not follow the original tradition completely and the teachings have been transformed from tantra into something else. Therefore the Buddhist rituals have been declining. Although, after listening to the doctrine of the Buddha, I wrote about his teachings and practiced them comprehensively, I have never managed to establish a dance performed by women. If you, the Great Woman, cannot set up this tradition, who else could do it in the future? It seems that there was such a tradition in India, but women have not been able to do the same thing in Tibet so men usually perform female roles, wearing wigs and female masks. Now, the time has arrived in which we can enjoy the Vajrayāna according to the vows. Great Woman, you have attained the highest perfection, you should be the first practitioner to set up this tradition and let the nuns learn from you. Then during our ritual meditation and offering you will perform it for the sake of the Buddha.’
“According to the instructions of the great lama she started to teach her retinue. However some nuns said: ‘We don’t know how to do it and even if we did know how to practice it we wouldn’t be able to perform in public, in front of a crowd.’ Chokyi Dronma said: ‘There isn’t anything else that would please our lama more than this, therefore we will do it. I’ll try my best as well.’ Then she asked some craftsmen to make the masks, including those for the sixteen tantric consorts. She earnestly told sixteen nuns, under the lead of the great woman Delek Chodren, that they should learn by heart the words of the rituals of the four classes of tantra.”
They eventually managed to perform the dances at Pelmo Choding with great success.
As long as her master was alive Chokyi Dronma seems to have been constantly torn between her wish to be with him and her desire to return to Mangyul Gungtang. Even though the closeness to her master made bearable the harsh, high nomadic areas where Pelmo Choding was located, she apparently preferred the more hospitable agricultural environment of her homeland and the hermitages in the lower, forested valleys of the Himalayas. In Mangyul Gungtang she was also more effective in mobilizing networks of support for religious enterprises and was able to count on the availability of skilled craftsmen.
In the last period of Bodong Chokle Namgyel’s life, she seems to have spent most of her time in Mangyul Gungtang, returning to Pelmo Choding whenever her master’s health deteriorated. The biography gives a striking description of how she rushed back after having been summoned by Delek Chodren with the news of the master’s fatal illness. The two women, together with Chokyi Dronma’s father, rode in great haste by day and night through icy storms over the 5,200 metre pass that separates Gungtang from Porong. They all succeeded in reaching the monastery before the demise of the great lama, and Chokyi Dronma’s father was able to receive important teachings. He returned to Gungtang, while Chokyi Dronma remained to nurse her master.
In 1451, at the end of the third month in the year of the sheep, she was summoned to Chokle Namgyel and joined him in meditation so as to be with him at his passing. She joined other close disciples in supervising the funeral rituals, and she mediated disputes that arose over the distribution of the relics from his cremation. She distributed the bone fragments among all members of the monastic community and had little figurines (tsa tsas) made of clay mixed with his ashes which were given to the lay disciples and patrons.
Chokyi Dronma was deeply disturbed by her master’s death and, according to her biography, lapsed into a period of several months of erratic behavior. She wandered the hills of her homeland and practiced meditation, the faithful Delek Chodren alongside her. Her friend is said to have felt distress and helplessness at seeing Chokyi Dronma in extreme disarray, covered in lice and randomly praising her master in front anyone she encountered even if that person would not understand what she was talking about. In due course she recovered from this extreme distress and was able to take care of other disciples of Bodong Chokle Namgyel.
After a while, probably sometime in 1452, she mobilized her whole retinue, all the disciples of Bodong Chokle Namgyel and the people of Mangyul Gungtang, in order to fulfill her pledge to collected the entire writings of her master, and to have them edited and published. While it is unclear whether print copies were made on this occasion, she is reported to have edited for printing (spar zhu dag) teachings her master gave. Chokyi Dronma played an important part in supporting the use of printing technology in Tibet — specifically the carving of woodblocks — when this technique was not yet widespread.
Following this endeavor Chokyi Dronma embarked on an irrigation project to create fields that would in turn support the establishment of a center of Buddhist learning and practice. She was, reportedly, discussing moving on to other places, and the plan was an effort by the people of Pelmo Choding to convince her to stay. Construction was begun and the details of the work are described in the biography; some surviving traces of channels and ruins are still attributed, by some of the Porong people, to these efforts. However, things were not carried out as well as she envisaged and she eventually gave up on this plan.
By this point she had made contact with Tangtong Gyalpo (1361?-1464?), the extraordinary Nyingma master who had become famous both for his religious deeds and miracles and for the production of iron-chain bridges over the Tsangpo River. She had sent Delek Chodren as a messenger and, sometime after she had received his reply to her request for guidance, she decided to visit Tangtong Gyalpo herself. She set out from Gungtang and never returned. Chokyi Dronma had wished to take her mother with her but this was not permitted by the court. However, both her mother and sister were allowed to escort her up to the pass that leads to the Porong plains, where they had a moving farewell.
After staying briefly at Porong Pelmo Choding she left for Lato Jang where Tangtong Gyalpo was then residing. She probably arrived some time in 1452 or 1453, and met the great siddha at Chung Riwoche, where with her support he would later complete the famous stūpa. She stayed with the master until the autumn of 1454, less than two years in all.
Tangtong Gyalpo appears to have had a decisive impact on her life and is said to have delivered famous prophecies according to which she would enjoy a long life but would have few disciples if she remained in her region, but would have an uncertain life span and a multitude of followers if she were to leave for the east. This prophecy is mentioned several times in the biography and is considered the reason for her final journey to south-eastern Tibet and the holy mountain of Tsari.
By this point in her life Chokyi Dronma was, like Tangtong Gyalpo, already engaging in the tradition of the “crazy saints”, using transgressive behavior to convey essential religious messages. Such a path was not unheard of for female masters of the time. For example, her biography reports the story of a female teacher of Tangtong Gyalpo who was meditating in a cave in Lato Jang and was visited by a scholar who was utterly shocked by the way she looked: “She had a frightening appearance with all her hair light-blue standing on her head. He prostrated to her and asked for blessings. She did not pay much attention to him and gave him her blessing with her hand that looked like the foot of a black crow. Having lost all devotion he thought: ‘Who was able to take me to this? Perhaps I was blessed by a demon.'” It seems that the scholar, by later reflecting on his first reaction, learned the importance of not being dependent upon appearances and conventions in assessing religious value.
Chokyi Dronma remained in Lato Jang until the end of the rainy season, presumably of 1454 (this tentative date is based on the time of her encounter with Vanaratna), and then set out towards central Tibet. A number of letters sent to the local rulers and a letter of introduction Chokyi Dronma took with her enabled her to take advantage of Tangtong Gyalpo’s large network of followers and rely on their support along the way. The text of the letter is quoted in her biography:
“All former scholars and members of the monastic community acted for the benefit of other living beings, but now there is nobody who cares. In particular since the death of Machik Labdron (1055-1149), there has not been a woman who was dedicated to the benefit of other living beings. Now there is a lady who stems from the royal lineage of the Gods of Clear Light who turned her back to worldly life, and is committed to spiritual liberation and to the benefit of all living beings. Her outer name is Lady Queen of the Jewel; her inner name is Female Teacher Lamp of the Doctrine; her secret name is Vajravārahī (Dorje Phagmo). Her residence is undefined. Her companions are undefined. And foremostly her lama is undefined. Since all elements are empty and have no essence, she practices selflessness. Now she is coming to your place, so please welcome her and give her adequate support at her departure. Follow the solemn commitment (dam tshig) of religion. Refrain from shameful worldly customs. Wherever she stays, teaching place and meditation place, do not feel jealous about what is mine and what is yours. People living in the east, you have always showed great kindness to my followers, the King of the Empty Plain (Tangtong Gyalpo). In return for your kindness, the Female Teacher and her retinue are coming. Renounce to any jealousy and provide harmonious conditions.”
Chokyi Dronma travelled from Lato Jang to Shigatse, Rinpung, the Gampa La pass, Lhasa and eventually Tsari. On her journey she encountered several political and religious personalities such as the Lord of Rinpung, Norbu Zangpo, and the Indian paṇḍita Vanaratna (1384-1468). In Lhasa she visited the Jokhang Temple, paid respect to the holy statue of the Jowo and had complex interactions with the local rulers who were utterly surprised by some of her informal behavior, especially since she was wandering around on her own. At the time of Chokyi Dronma’s visit to Lhasa the fame of Tsongkhapa (1357-1414), the founder of the Geluk tradition, was rapidly spreading, and Chokyi Dronma was deeply impressed.
After leaving Lhasa she visited Ushangdo, a temple established by her ancestor, the King Relpachen, in the ninth century. She then went to Chakzam Chuwori where she stayed for a few days next to the iron-chain bridge built by Tangtong Gyalpo. Here she received an extraordinary visit from a lama called Riksum Gonpo, a disciple of Tangtong Gyalpo who had been appointed as the first abbot of his monastery at Tsari Tsagong Nesar. He told her the astonishing story of how he had come to be there: while at Tsari he had experienced a vision of Chokyi Dronma and her retinue who summoned him to Chuwori. According to his instructions she continued her journey along the southern bank of the Tsangpo river. Here, just as she had left Tsetang to travel towards Tsari, her biography ends, and the final part of her life must be reconstructed on the basis of other sources.
She travelled to Tsari Tsagong Nesar, where she stayed for several months and expanded the meditation center of Menmo Gang. As she arrived there was a heap of iron rings for the bridge that had been ordered by Tangtong Gyalpo. She gave great gifts to the Kongpo people because they had fulfilled the orders of the master, and escorted the loads of iron as far as Orsho. When the iron arrived at the Nyago ferry landing, the master was delighted. Soon after, in 1455 or 1456, in Tsari Tsagong, Chokyi Dronma passed away at the age of thirty-four. Alternate dates for her death are given as 1467.
After her funeral her skull was declared to be one that Tangtong Gyelpo had prophesied: “A skull with special features will come to this sacred place, together with a mountain dweller from Ngari.” Chokyi Dronma’s skull is also mentioned in a short text attached to a painting currently preserved in Samding Monastery, the Shangpa Kagyu monastery that is the seat of her incarnation line. Her companion, Delek Chodren, located her rebirth in the person of Kunga Zangmo 1459-1502), who was born in eastern Kongpo, thus initiating the incarnation line of the Samding Dorje Pakmo.
*Source: Hildegard Diemberger at Treasury of Lives.