Dagmola Jamyang Sakya was born in a small village called Thalung in Jekundo in the Province of Kham. She fondly remembers her blissful childhood, spending summertime with the nomads and wintertime at home with her family. Her uncle, a reincarnate lama, admitted her to a school run by a private teacher, where all the other students were boys. In addition to learning reading and writing, she was taught Buddhist prayers.
Jamyang Sakya recounts that despite her family’s wealth and status, her mother insisted that she learn cooking, milking, knitting and spinning wool. During her childhood, she and her mother embarked on a 3-month pilgrimage and walked from Kham to the central and western parts of Tibet to visit monasteries and holy sites. She describes the challenging journey and the kindness of people along the way who offered food to pilgrims.
Jamyang Sakya recalls her first meeting with her husband, His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya, head of the Sakya Phuntsok Phodrang lineage. She describes the circumstances that led to their marriage when she was only 16 years old, despite his mother’s disapproval. She talks about the importance of the spiritual aspect of life and her experiences as a Buddhist teacher in the United States — a role she was reluctant to accept.
Jamyang Sakya: My name is Dagmo Jamyang Palmo. In English, in the passport, it’s Jamyang Sakya. But my name was given to me the day I married Dagchen Rinpoche. My father-in-law, Trichen Ngawang Thutop Wangchuk, gave me the name Jamyang Pema Palkyi Bhuti, long, which means the God of Wisdom, which is Manjushri, and bringer of lots of sons.
Question: And where were you born?
JS: I was born in Kham in the province of Jekundo, Ga Province, in a small village called Thalung in the wood-dog year in 1934. When I was growing there, there were about 50 families and below there was a big Thalung Monastery, belonging to my uncle, which had like 400-500 monks, and the town was just below.
Q: Tell us your father’s name.
JS: My father was Gonpo Tseten. I can’t remember much because he had to go back to Siling to his mission and then I never saw him again. Ga Province during Chang Kai Shek’ time was under the Chinese. It partly consisted of Tibetans, who were Buddhists, but it was under the power of Chinese. My father was the governor of Jekundo for three years. People loved him so much that he had a second term. During that time my mother married him.
Q: I see. And what is your mother’s name?
JS: My mother’s name was Phuntsok Dolma. She was from Kham.
Q: So was your family before that well off? Were they farmers? Were they poor? What was their status?
JS: Oh, I don’t recall the riches, but they were well off. You know, they all lived very comfortably and happily. I remember that in my youth they had farms and lots of nomad animals, so I spent summertime in nomadic camp and in wintertime, I stayed at home with my family. They were not nomads, but they had hired nomads. They had animals, lots of yaks, dri, or ‘female yaks’, and sheep, and in summertime, they used to go to the nomadic site and stayed there for about three months.
Q: How many children, besides your parents, were in your family?
JS: My mother had two sisters and two brothers. One was a tulku, or ‘reincarnated lama,’ and one was a monk. And from two sisters, one became a nun and the other one got married, but she did not have children. So I was the only child.
Q: Being the only child of your parents, were you treated in a special way?
JS: Yes, I was told that those times I was spoiled, but I was pretty much a tomboy. My life was a little unusual than a life of regular children because my uncle wanted me to study Dharma as well as reading and writing. During my time there were no girls’ school and many girls had no chance to study, except nuns, who had a nunnery. For example, my aunt lived in a nunnery. So I was sent to a private teacher with six young boys; six or eight — I can’t remember exactly, maybe eight. So I was the only girl there, and so that’s how I learned to read and write.
Q: How did the boys treat you?
JS: Not very good. I was the last one in everything. I think I was pretty smart because our teacher usually gave us the assignment to memorize lots of religious mantras, and I was always very good. When the teacher was sitting in the room, we had to do practice in another room. So when I recited my mantras, the boys were telling me, “We don’t want girls to sound too loud.”
Q: So you have to be brave. Did you ever say to your mother, “I don’t want to go to school?”
JS: Yes, it happened one time in the monastery. The teacher was our relative. Near the monastery, there was a big temple where we had studies. The students, all boys, became monks later. When Tibetan people get sick or someone dies, they always bring offerings to the monastery, including offerings for the monks — all kind of delicacies, soup, rice, and berries; Tibetan tea is also served in all the monasteries. In our class, we used to get that, but I did not get anything, because I was a girl. Sometimes my teacher shared some portion with me, but the boys always said, “See what we get if you’re a boy.” So, you know, I felt like very longing.
So I went back to my uncle and said, “I won’t go to the monastery, because I am not happy. I could not get all the drink and food.” Then my uncle said, “Come here.” He said, “Do you know where those offerings and all the delicacies come from?” I said, “Yes, I know. The families give all these offerings.” Sometimes it was a very small amount of money. He said, “That is brought if somebody dies or if somebody is sick and they ask to pray, and that’s poison if you eat that.” He said, “If you accidentally eat it or if the teacher shares it with you, you have to do some mantra, pray for this person. Otherwise, it becomes poison.” So I felt better. I did not take poison. So then I went back to the monastery again.
Q: When children were outside playing though, maybe outside the school, did the boys and girls get along better? Did they treat each other nicely?
JS: I remember my youth like it was yesterday. It’s was a really happy time. I did almost whatever I wanted. In Tibet, we have those times which they call harvest, hay was piled like a story high and we used to jump from there. I did everything that the boys did. And also we went ice-skating upon all the rivers. I got a lot of injuries, cuts, but I did like the boys. It was a really happy time.
Q: What age did you start your studies?
JS: When I was 5 or 6 until 10.
Q: And it was because your uncle was special. Was he a reincarnation?
JS: He was a tulku, head of the monastery. He was busy with traveling and giving teachings. But his uncle was the older one, he was my great uncle and he really supported me very much. He saw that I was different. When I was young I dreamt so many dreams like we usually do. Sometimes in my dreams, I saw a big house with wings that was flying and sometimes I dreamt of tall buildings, almost as high as the sky. Later I came to America and saw exactly that in New York. And then at those times I never even heard about airplanes. I think the house with wings was an airplane. When I told my uncle all my stories, you know, the dreams, he always wrote them down, but whenever I told my parents and my other family members about it, they said, “You always have funny dreams. Who cares?”
Q: So you went to school for about five years? Did you go every day?
JS: Almost every day. Sometimes in the summertime, I went to nomadic camp, otherwise almost every day. My mother used to send me to the field with servants to gather the harvest. I enjoyed that very much because they always treated me very well, carried on the back and made milk and butter… So I learned all of those. Everything was manual. I’m telling it to my niece who came from Tibet, but she knows nothing about that. She says everything is made by machines now. But we had to do everything by hand, and I learned all those things because my mother was very smart. My aunt said, “We only have one daughter and she has enough money for living. So don’t let her go to work or learn anything.” But my mother said, “Even if she doesn’t need, she will learn so she can teach later.” So my mother sent me to all these places. Cooking, milking, knitting, spinning… My grandmother was the teacher of spinning. She went from town to town to do the weaving. She would spin the wool and then weave and make different textiles, special ones not just regular ones. Of course, Tibetans, we wear only wool. We don’t have any of the outside material. So I learned to spin, to milk from the dri and how to make butter. I learned all of those.
Q: Well, let us go back to school. Did you learn how to write and read?
JS: We did not have so much writing. Only reading and then lots of memorizing, mostly Buddhist texts and prayers. I memorized a lot. I didn’t really know what I was doing. [Laughs] There were prayers, mantras.
Q: So you understood the words, but not the meaning?
JS: Religious words and regular language are different. The mantras are completely different, but we know that when we pray and recite mantras, it helps. For example, I memorized the so-called 100-syllable mantra. [Recites the mantra]
Om benzar sato samaya
Benzar sato tei no pa
Tistra dridho me bhawa
Suto khayo me bhawa
Anurakto me bhawa
Supo khayo me bhawa
Sarwa siddhi me prayatsa
Sarwa karma sutsa me
Tsittam shrihyam kuru hung
Ha ha ha ha ho Bhagwan
Benzar ma me muntsa
Benzi bhawa maha samaya sato ah
That’s 100 syllables. Most mantras were taught by the Lord Buddha Sakyamuni. We don’t translate them. We know it’s good, but we know that each deity has a different mantra. For example, Tara: Om tare tutare ture soha, and Chenrezig: Om mani padme hung, Manjushree: Om ara baza nadhi. We know which deity we are doing. So whatever we need, if we need some help like saving or anything, we pray to Tara, if compassion or when somebody passed away, we pray to Chenrezig. We know that, but we don’t know exactly word by word, but the 100-syllable which I said is kind of semi-translated because for every puja, or ‘ritual of worship’, that we do, Westerners do also the English translation and meaning.
Q: What do you usually teach little children?
JS: When children start to study, the first thing we teach is some kind of names like Om mani padme hum or Sangay kyab, the Buddha bless you. When they are 2-3 years old, they start to learn Om mani padme hum.
Q: Can you translate what Om mani padme hum means?
JS: Om mani padme hum is a 6-syllable mantra of the Lord of Compassion Chenrezig. And in the universe in which we live, there are six realms: gods, demi-gods, humans, hell realm, animal realm, and hungry ghosts. So each of those 6-syllable relieves their suffering. All of the six realms are suffering. Even the higher realms — the god realm, the demi-god realm, and the human realm. We are the ones who have the most opportunity to become and reach the Buddhahood. But we still suffer during birth, while aging and during death and there are lots of other sufferings. So this mantra helps with that. That’s taught from the very early age to the very end of one’s lives.
And if a child doesn’t speak very well, we teach him Manjushree’s mantra: Om ara baza nadhi, and also Tara’s mantra. So even if children don’t know the meaning, many of them know these mantras.
Q: Is this very important for the tradition and for their spiritual development?
JS: Well, in Tibet my husband’s father, His Holiness Ngawang Thutop Wangchuk, was the head of the Sakya school of Buddhism. So all Sakya lamas from Kham, from everywhere, many thousands of monasteries and heads of these monasteries had to go get some teaching from him; so by receiving some special blessing, they could obtain more knowledge. So my uncle Desung Rinpoche wanted to go to receive that blessing from His Holiness Ngawang Thutop Wangchuk, the 40th Sakya Trizin. So he went on pilgrimage a year earlier, and the following year all our family followed him.
Q: How old were you?
JS: I was between 10 and 13 when I was helping nomads and family and doing some other things, but I was 13 when I left for pilgrimage with the whole family.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the pilgrimage? Where did you go and what was that like?
JS: All the Tibetan Buddhist people say that the holiest sites are located in India. That’s where Buddha Sakyamuni was born. But on our pilgrimage, we visited mostly the southern part of Tibet, the holiest places of Sakya tradition, Padmasambhava’s caves, and other places where he built monasteries like Samye. We usually just go, take off if it’s a certain year of your age, certain obstacle year, and so forth. So I went on pilgrimage together with my mother, aunt, and some other people. We were twenty people and I was the youngest one in the group. So we went for about three months just walking all over central and western Tibet and visiting all monasteries.
Q: Can you please tell us what were the conditions? Did you walk? Was it cold? Was it exhausting?
JS: On pilgrimage, you wear some really warm clothes, not dressed up, with no jewels. That’s what you do — you walk, circumambulate some special places and pray as much as you can, doing prostrations. Some pilgrims do the prostrations with their whole body; they go all around and sometimes it takes months to reach Lhasa from eastern Tibet. Whenever you do the prostration, you have to visualize Buddha [touches joined palms to the forehead], Dharma [touches joined palms to the neck], and Sangha [touches joined palms to the chest], the Triple Gem, and then your body goes out flat on the ground. That kind of walk is called changtsa, but when you visit a temple, you don’t really lay down with the whole body, you can just kneel down. Either one is okay.
When we went on pilgrimage we did not do that on the road, only in the temples. We did that at each temple or at some statues or caves three times or more, walking and then praying. With your voice, you have to always pray mantras, think of doing something good for yourself and benefit others, and meditate and try to get the blessing and help all others. Sometimes I feel like, you know, at my age, I’m pretty healthy because of the pilgrimage.
When we started our way from Lhasa to Samye, it took us three days, and the walk to Samye was all sandy. You know, there is a river and lots of sand. You’re usually sucked, and I got many sores. My legs had a very hard time. We had one horse to carry our food and belongings. Then my mother put me on the horse and I felt kind of bad to miss that length of the path because on a pilgrimage you have to walk. But later I went on pilgrimage for the second time.
Q: What happened? Your body was not used to that kind of walking? You were young.
JS: I think it’s okay. I think it’s your mind. You can do everything; everything is good. Really, during the pilgrimage you sometimes don’t get food, don’t drink for a long time. If you have to drink a couple of tea, you have to make a fire which takes hours to make. And we didn’t have proper shoes either. There were boots with one layer of leather at the bottom. I remember that on pilgrimage sometimes you had to walk for hours, and now, after we had escaped, we don’t do that. Today, when I travel from here to California, if they don’t give me food I complain, but this is a couple of hours. Those times you might not get food and we had to drink water from the river.
Q: So you were very motivated?
JS: Yeah, motivated. Motivation is very important.
Q: And that’s it and you made it. So what happened? You were doing this pilgrimage and then did you meet anybody along the way?
JS: There are towns on the way. In some towns, we had to ask them to help us to feed our horses. We bought or sometimes we asked for some provisions like tsampa, or ‘flour made from roasted barley’. Some people were very nice. They treat the pilgrims in a special way because they say that we dedicate our lives to Dharma. They feed you, they give you everything, they are very, very nice. As I said, I was the youngest and my mother told me later, that some of the families wanted to keep me. They said, “Why taking this little girl and making her suffer? We’ll keep her. We want to take that kid.”
Q: Where did you meet your future husband, Dagchen Rinpoche, at and how old were you?
JS: I was 15, I think. Dagchen Rinpoche’s father and the whole family were in Lhasa doing some special prayers for the Tibetan Government and then returned. I visited them with my uncle. He was waiting to receive the teachings. So my uncle took our whole family to meet Dagchen Rinpoche’s father and his family. We brought a lot of offerings, presents and all kind of gifts, even horses and animals.
Q: I have often heard that many gifts are brought by the people to monasteries, to spiritual leaders. But they’re not kings, they’re not trying to become wealthy. They want to become spiritually wise. So why do the faithful give all this wealth?
JS: Buddha said that the teaching is so precious; it is priceless. So if you give something special, you will gain some kind of blessing, that’s why people make offerings. Most religious teachers, even if they have all the riches, they still send them to the religious temples, instead of for the family cause. They are used to build Buddha’s statues and for so many other things, which bring benefit. These offerings are not given as they do to some lawyers or some political leaders, which later go to the family. It’s different and depends on how these offerings are used. If you receive them and put them to good use which will bring benefit, for example, building and printing books and charity, then it helps for the giver and yourself.
Q: So your uncle went to visit Dagchen Rinpoche’s father who was very famous and a great teacher. Were you introduced to Dagchen Rinpoche there?
JS: No, I just met Dagchen Rinpoche’s sisters and mother. It was just a family introduction. That’s all. His Holiness Sakya Trinzin was very busy, and my uncle had to wait for a while to receive some teachings. He was waiting and waiting, so they put us in his summer palace, where we stayed. Dagchen Rinpoche had five sisters. One was young and two or three of them were almost of my age. So they went to study and then after the studies we used to played. I became their playmate. So then of course, when they visited us with their brother, we met and went along.
I didn’t know exactly, but then Dagchen Rinpoche sent his secretaries to my uncle. You know, I was only with my mother and my uncle, and there was no father with me. So, according to Tibetan tradition, in order to get permission he sent one of his secretaries to my uncle Dasung Rinpoche with a written letter, “Can you give me your niece, I want to marry.” He wrote that to my uncle and my uncle didn’t know what to say because Dagchen Rinpoche belonged to the Sakya Khon lineage. You cannot refuse, but what do the parents think? And he couldn’t say no, he couldn’t say yes. This secretary didn’t know what letter he had brought and said, “I want an answer right now.” So my uncle replied, “Whatever you wish”, or something like this, I don’t know exactly, but then Dagchen Rinpoche got happy because he got some kind of permission. But his mother strongly rejected.
Q: Did she have a reason why she was not happy?
JS: Of course. I was just a young Khampa girl, I didn’t know much, didn’t have much education, I didn’t even speak their language, because their dialect was completely different. I was just a young girl. I thought, “I want to go home.” [Laughs]. Dagchen Rinpoche almost fought to marry me, but his mother already had an arrangement with one lady, a high noble daughter, a princess from Sikkim. But Dagchen Rinpoche didn’t give up. I think he went to his father. He told me he would go to his father and if the father was against, then he would have to think because his father was his root lama. But his father said, “It’s your life. Do whatever you wish.” Then he really got the permission for the marriage. So then Dagchen Rinpoche told me he went to his mother and told her, “If I can’t marry the Kham girl,” you know, me “then I will never marry. I will become a monk.” So she was very hurt. She couldn’t give that up, because the elder son must marry to continue the Sakya Khon lineage. And if he became a monk the line would end. So then she gave up. She had to give in.
Q: And so how old were you when the wedding took place?
JS: I was 16. Yeah, I was a child. I remember the ceremony very well because we lived maybe a mile, maybe more than a mile from that palace. So a few of the government officials came really, really early in the morning with a horse to get me from my place. You know, a Tibetan wedding is not an easy one. You have to check the astrology and so many things, as well as timing. You have to do all kind of prayers and a special ritual. And they had done everything. Then they brought me a horse… I’m crazy about horses. I love white horses.
Q: Khampa girl!
JS: Yeah, the horse they brought hardly moved, like a cow. [Laughs]. So I was sad about that. They brought me a safe horse because I was wearing so many jewelry and two men accompanied me from each side. So I thought that today I have to ride this kind of horse. [Laughs].
Q: What kind of horse you wish they had brought you?
JS: A little bit wild. I love horses. I lived with horses in Tibet. I loved them, and I remember very clearly when I stepped out of the door, all the officials lined up, riding on horses… This was early in the morning, like at 6 o’clock in the morning, I think. There were some Sakya village people who went to the river to get water and were carrying some big buckets. So this is a good sign, they said. Everybody gave khata, or ‘ceremonial scarf’, to those people. They didn’t know what was happening because it was a secret. In the Sakya family when they bring wives it’s supposed to be very secret. They don’t want to make it public, because it’s not good for privacy. They celebrate a month later. So these people didn’t know why they were getting khata. That’s what I remember.
After we arrived at the palace Phuntsok Phodang, when walking in, there were two big dogs barking at us so badly and I remember one of the caretakers said, “Don’t bark. This is your owner coming.” So we went straight to the golden room to Dagchen Rinpoche’s father. And then he gave us blessings, new names, did purification, and so forth.
Q: Tell us the new name he gave you.
JS: My Tibetan name is Jamyang Pema Palkyi Bhuti. Jamyang means “Lord of Wisdom,” which is Sakya Khon lineage emanation of Jamphelyang. Pema is “lotus.” Pal means “all”. Bhuti means “bringer of sons.”
You know, this project of interviewing Tibetan old people, according to the His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s wish and with his permission (Tibet Oral History Project), is very beneficial because today young Tibetans don’t know how we lived, how we were raised, how happy Tibet was. There are this unique Tibetan culture and lots of positive things. Sometimes they think maybe in Tibet there is too much superstition but it’s not. I still, at my age, we still do important things like astrology or divination, we just don’t jump into things. So it is so important that this younger generation learns these things, which may bring benefit.
And we had such a peaceful, happy time in my youth because many Tibetans, like I said, especially such girls who lived in my time, even if there was no school, they learned from grandmother and every evening they taught stories. I remember when it was fall time we were sitting in the field, looking at the stars, my grandmother knew exact names of the stars, time the year around, seasons. They were so unique. They told all kinds of stories for children; very good stories, stories about animals. I tried to write them down, but then I stopped because they were too many.
Anyway, I think this project is really helpful, not only for Tibetans but for the whole world, because we live in a fast world. Today people don’t even think. They only think of tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. But you have to sit down and think. You know, in Buddhism we say that something comes out of cause and condition, and, of course, you shouldn’t think selfishly. If you help others, you always get good things. So this is for helping others. You don’t do for yourself, but help others a lot.
So when my understanding became a little better, I was told, if something bad comes into your life, just think it’s removing part of your karma, because maybe you did something wrong last time. If it’s something good, this is a blessing from the Triple Gem or Tara. I tell my students to think like that. Don’t blame someone or something, your practice or Dharma, because we have to live with this. This is the most important thing. It’s like His Holiness says, “My religion is love and compassion.” To others, not to oneself.
But the most important thing that I tell my students, “You have to take care of yourself, your self-esteem.” Like for example you [interviewer] — you are very intelligent lady and you want to help others. But if you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t help others. You should think, “Oh, I’m really special. I really can help others and myself too.” If you don’t have a strong self, but this one you have to have. Of course, you can do. You can do anything if you want to. Just don’t say I can’t do; I can’t do.
Even in my life I just tell people, “Yes, you can do it. You can do it.” We have freedom in our living condition here. Under Communists, for example, you couldn’t do many of things. But now we have an opportunity. In Tibet, as I mentioned, we say that there is the six-realm universe. Human realm is the one which has more opportunity. Buddhist teachings say, “Whatever you are, whatever you’ve done in your previous life, that’s why you’re here. Whatever you want to be, it’s in your hands.” [Joins palms]. We cannot make people become Buddhists because it’s their own wish but if somebody believes, really believes or have devotion, etc., then our duty is to teach what we know. That’s why I’m teaching.
Q: There are so few women teachers from Tibet. What’s it like to be teaching as a woman?
JS: In Tibet, there’s a lot of yoginis. For example, like my aunt who’s 94. She was 4 years old when she became a Buddhist and she does practice from morning till night. But she doesn’t really teach, just do her prayers. But, for example, there are so many lamas and monks who are men. Only when they receive a special request, then they teach. But I was pushed in by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and, you probably know him, Dongpa Rinpoche from Colorado. They told me, “You have to teach because you have been trained and you are a qualified person. In the West, there are many women who would like to receive teachings from a woman.” I refused in the beginning. And then many of my students wrote letters to me. I said I didn’t have permission from my teacher; my teacher never told me to teach. So they wrote letters to my uncle and other lamas saying, “We want to receive teachings from her, but she won’t teach because you didn’t give permission.” So they brought back answers, “See, here.” That’s why I started to teach.
Q: How does it feel to be teaching?
JS: It feels very good. I noticed a lot of benefits. For example, I’ll tell one. I helped my uncle, translating for him. It was a time when there were many hippies. One day they came together, boyfriend and girlfriend, and said that they didn’t get along with each other and had problems. My uncle had a translator, a Tibetan monk, and he didn’t really translate exactly what the girl said. He just said, “She needs help” and uncle replied, “Okay. I give you my blessing.”
Then one day I said to my uncle, “You did not answer their question.” They said that they have different problems in their relationship. Of course, they both lived a monks’ life and didn’t know anything about that kind of things. And then my uncle said, “Why don’t you tell them?” [Laughs]. So I was kind of counseling some students, and it helped a lot in their relationships.
Q: What kind of advice would you give people who are having conflict in relationships?
You just have to think for yourself. Don’t fight back right away, don’t argue. Who knows if it’s your problem or their problem? If you don’t get along, ok, don’t do that. That’s okay, but you don’t have to argue. You don’t have to fight. Treat each other nicely, happily. People always say, “I’m right, you’re wrong.” But it’s not like that. We all, human beings, are the same. There is no difference. Everybody wants to be happy. Everybody wants a peaceful world.
Beautiful message, thank you!
Source: Interview by the Tibet Oral History Project, edited by The Yogini Project.