Machig Labdrön མ་གཅིག་ལབ་སྒྲོན་ (1055 – 1149)

Machig’s Story

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.
Be aware.
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.