Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Yeshe Tsogyel : Tibet’s First Enlightened Buddhist

(A Feminism Model in Ancient Form?)

A Comprehensive Exam

Andrea Vecchione ACS PhD.(ABD)
Professor Steven Goodman
Spring 2009/10

Supplication to Yeshe Tsogyel
Mother of all the victorious ones, dharmadhatu samantrabhadri
Very kind, only mother who protects the subjects of Tibet,
Bestower of supreme siddhi, chief among the Dankinis of great bliss,
Yeshe Tsogyel, we supplicate at your feet.

Grant your blessings so that outer, inner and secret obstacles may be pacified
Grant your blessings so that the lives of  the  Gurus may be long
Grant your blessings so that this Kalpa of disease, famine, and war may be pacified
Grant your blessings so that the casting of curses, spells and sorcery may be pacified
Grant your blessings so that life, glory and prajna may increase
Grant your blessings so that our wishes may be fulfilled spontaneously
- Khakhyap Dorje Karmapa XV
The Search for Yeshe Tsogyel
In 2008,  I was in Dharamasala working on a documentary film when a friend told me about Yeshe Tsogyel, the incredible Dakini, greatly responsible for carrying forth the lineage of  the teachings from Padmasambhava, and, possibly, the first documented "enlightened" Buddhist of Tibet. I was amazed to hear of her and many questions arose in me: Why had I not heard about her before? Who was this mysterious enlightened woman? Why was she not as revered as the Hindu goddesses or outwardly celebrated? Were their special temples and practices related to her?
A year later, I had the opportunity to visit the land where her consort Padmasambhava is most well known outside of Tibet. (Due to my political views, I have accepted the fact that, at least for now, venturing into Tibet is too risky even if I was able to cross the border). Sikkim is a sliver of gorgeous land of Himalayan peaks and waterfalls in the northeast of India with a deep Buddhist history. It has many active Nyingma, Kagyu and Bon monasteries and is the current seat in exile of the Kagyu Lineage.
There are many stories of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) coming through Sikkim, as he left Tibet. He graced many places and in the process left many Termas to be discovered for future generations. Yeshe Tsogyel accompanied him with his other twenty-five disciples. In one of these stories she is said to have helped erect a "Stupa of the Nomad Women", one of three under the direction of Guru Rinpoche.[1]
In search of her outer presence, I thought that through getting closer to Padmasambhava I would get closer to her. Having pilgrimmaged to many temples throughout India, I thought this would be an easy task. I believed that as an important figure in Tibetan Buddhist history and culture, it would not be difficult to find a temple, or monument dedicated to her form.  I felt destined to stumble upon a great find, a treasure, like the terma (hidden treasure which Tsogyel left behind for future generations to discover). At last I thought I had not only found this mythic figure, but another role model whom I could relate to, aspire toward, and embody.
My excitement grew as we trekked from monastery to monastery, town to hill and cave. I knew in this land I would eventually walk into a Temple where there was some ritual being performed for Yeshe Tsogyel and I would find what I had been searching for in Tibetan Buddhism. Would this be the land of  Yeshe Tsogyel? If it is, I did not find it in the way I expected. In all of the monasteries I only found rather small depictions of her seated at the right side of her guru, Padmasambhava, with Mandarava, his other famed consort and student, to his left. He was prominently displayed throughout the monasteries along with many other male practitioners and Buddhas of the lineages. Thangkas, statues, and monuments were well placed to remember who inspires the land of the "rivers". There were many yidams in powerful female forms, but virtually no females in nirmanakaya form, the form most accessible to a normal human, like me.
My research and questioning also revealed little, I am sure in no small part due to my lack of Tibetan language skills. At the Research Institute of Tibetology  in Gangtok, I was greeted by a lovely Tibetan Sikkimese man with a great smile. I was amazed to look down on his desk and to see a copy of the "Life of Yeshe Tsogyel" manuscript written in Tibetan. I told him about my research, and although his English was good, he explained that none of the texts in that library were in English. He suggested I go to the library next door. The librarian there was extremely helpful, copying documents, recommending places to visit, and people to contact-the vast majority centered on Guru Rinpoche. There was one high Tantric lama he recommended I visit who had an English translator but I was unable to make an appointment in the time our visas lasted. I believe if I spoke Tibetan better I may have uncovered more opportunities to learn and connect with her presence in the land and hearts of the people. But regardless, her importance in Tibetan Buddhism felt completely unreflected in the very few representations I found in the temples. Though I was disappointed and, admittedly, unfulfilled as I had wished to pilgrimage to an outer place where I could come into contact with an experience of her, I was not dissuaded from finding out more about her. On the contrary, my interest piqued. New questions birthed out of the old, based upon both my curiosity and frustration. Why did I find her presence so considerably absent? Was her absence an oversight? Or was her incredible life considered inconsequential? Where would I go to find more about her? What do other scholars, writers and practitioners say about her?
This paper is an inquiry into these questions through the lens of a practitioner /scholar coming into a new experience of Buddhism. It is an effort to discover who Yeshe Tsogyel was, what she symbolizes today, and how she impacted Tibetan Culture and impacts the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism into the West. It is also a personal inquiry into the importance of role models and examples of female figures in Buddhism, and how this has also affected me along my spiritual path. 

Personal Paths to the Goddess
My own personal history is important to this story and is a key to this scholarship, (as many scholars have their own personal or political agenda). I was raised in what I call "the shadow" of the Roman Catholic Church; an organization that I believe grew from beautiful teachings, but became corrupted by power, money, and monarchy. Many other religious groups seem to have a similar story: The oppressed becomes the oppressor.
When I was very young, I felt a deep spiritual devotion and put my heart into the faith. By my teens, though, I began to question how women participated in this religion altogether. "Why," I wondered, "Could woman only participate in ritual on a base level?" They seemed to lurk in the background or pray quietly in the aft, incidental to the powerful ritual magic that happened center stage. The priests appeared to take all the glory. Although I knew of the good work many sisters of the clergy had done and were doing around the world, I still felt a strong disparity and discomfort with it all. Later, I recognized that much of my discomfort, even revulsion with the church stemmed from a lack of role models of women, as saints or active members, combined with gender specific language for a "God" which is identified with a paternal form and name. Where were the female deities? Where were the women and saints of power? Due to the lack of role models, the message I received was that women were not allowed or capable of having a powerful spiritual presence.
When I was old enough to understand that woman could not be ordained as priests, I became even more disillusioned. I could not accept it. Since Catholicism was the only spirituality I had known to that point, abandoning it left me in limbo. I felt no kinship with a faith, which I believed had no place for me. I had no role model to aspire toward, no invitation to invoke. (I did later learn about female deities, the usurpation of those deities and the oppression of women in the Church, but that was well after this time.)[2]
By the age of seventeen, I had completely renounced my faith. I went off to college to study environmental science. This was where I felt strong connection to the divine--through nature and creativity. Up to this point in my spiritual evolution, I had made no conscious connection between nature, spirit, and creation. It seemed to come from an intrinsic part of life that knew there was something deeper, beyond the self. I had no God realization, nor guide to lead me down this path. But I was blessed with loving parents who appreciate nature, and we spent our summers and weekends in our country house hours away from the hustle of the city. I would play for hours in trees that were my friends, pilgrimage to certain rocks I climbed, visit the pond down the road and watch the wildlife communing and interacting with each other. Through observation I realized that everything was connected to everything else. I had not read any Joanna Macy who makes that connection of "Deep Ecology" with Buddhism and causal reality. I simply immersed myself in the natural world, and it showed itself to me.
            One day while at college, I read an interview in a local progressive magazine about a woman who called herself a witch and worshipped goddesses. Something within me woke up. I felt compelled to know more. My boyfriend at the time had a roommate named Maggie who I was getting to know. As if by some cosmic arrangement, I mentioned to her the article about witchcraft and she said "Would you like to come to one of our meetings?" I automatically agreed.
            Thus began my love affair with the goddess. I practiced 'Wicca' every full moon, with a group of women that changed throughout the next ten or so years of divination. We still kept it on "the down low," fearful of persecution in this country for pagan goddess worship (so-called "witchcraft") even two hundred years after the witch hunts. I loved the ritual, the gathering, the “occult” of the practice, and, of course, the connection with the goddess I had always sought but had not quite known what it was. 
My devotional path deepened in India through encountering Kali. I found myself overwhelmed with her form from almost the moment I stepped off the plane. Never in my life had I experienced a culture so accepting of the female form as deity before. Countless times I was overwhelmed with tears when entering her temple, and sitting among groups who were only there to get a glimpse of her eye, and to pay homage to her brilliance. As I began to practice her sadhana, looking deeper into my own beliefs, and into the texts, philosophies, and teachings, I began to appreciate the universality of the form of this Deity. I undertook a series of pilgrimages over several years to many of her holy places. I had no sense of looking back from where I'd came, only a strong sense that this was where I belong. I believe there are many Western women who feel the same as I do, who have been drawn to the fierceness of this goddess as a contrast to the male imagery and patriarchy of the Church which do not meet their needs for validation and reflection of a part of their internal being.

My experience of Buddhism began with meditation sessions at the Nyingma temple in Berkeley, and ravenously reading whatever books I could find with a Buddhist bent (starting with Suzuki Roshi, Thich Nhat Hahn, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Jack Kornfield, and Pema Chodron). I was captivated by the wisdom of the teachings embedded in the words, but I eventually lost interest or connection for much the same reason I had rejected the Catholic church when I was young. Where was the goddess among the Buddha and his followers?
The writing on the "list-serv walls" I read often called Buddhism a "good old boy club", providing little room for women with an under-represented number of goddesses who are second-class to their male embodied gods. Based on my limited experience, I tended to agree with these notions. And, even though I'd many times packed up my bag for India to study the Hindu goddesses, I had seldom visited or sought refuge in any Buddhist monasteries, temples, or teachers.
This changed during that that three months I spent in Dharmasala 2008, working on the documentary about the Tibetan uprising and what it meant to Tibetan immigrants in India. For several days, I was fortunate enough to receive a teaching and be in the presence of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. From the moment I heard His Holiness speak, I was incredibly enthralled. I understood and felt the wisdom he embodies. Tears of joy and laughter, absolute humility, and genuine love flowed out of this body toward someone whom I had never personally met. I felt transformed in his presence and wanted to be a part of this copious wisdom. But what of the absence of goddesses? What of the patriarchy in the monastic world? Were are the feminine deities reserved for the secret practices of Tantra and so hidden from view?
As I delved into the life of Yeshe Tsogyel I learned that there are many Western women who come to the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism through Kali's gate, in particular with the practice of Vajrayogini.[3]  Enlightened quasi-mythical figures like Tsogyel not only provide inspiration for Western women, but perhaps for both female and male spiritual seekers everywhere.  

Tibet: Pre-Yeshe Tsogyel: Context

                        Buddhism was first introduced to Tibet during the reign of emperor
tSong-tsen-Gampo, (roughly 600-649 c.) At the time, Tibet "was not a sleepy land of simple yak herders. As strange as it may seem to us now, Tibet was then a rogue state and a dangerous superpower. (Zangpo 70) En route to being remembered as the first Tibetan Buddhist King and pacifist, tSong-tsen Gampo sacked China, Nepal, and India. These conquests exposed him to the Buddha's teachings and  converted him from warring ways to temple building. He sent emissaries to learn Sanskrit, sponsored  the creation of a written Tibetan language, built one hundred and eight temples and made Lhasa the capitol. To unify and bring peace to the lands under his domain, he also married two princesses, one Chinese, and one Nepalese who were given by their respective kings.
            Not all Tibetans were thrilled with the King's shift in focus and religious conversions. Rather than seeing his actions as that of an enlightened ruler, they feared Tibet's loss of power and the influence of a foreign religion. This tension considered long after the King's death and the subsequent reigns of many others. It was the work of many beings over many centuries that eventually turned Tibet into a region where the Buddhist teachings were thoroughly embraced.
Underneath this Tibetan renaissance, there we ongoing schisms between the BonPo ministers, the indigenous religious factions of Tibet and the Buddhist monarchy. This is the context under which King Thi-Shron-De-tsan, (c. 743-48), asked Padmasambhava  to come to Tibet. The king De-tsan, like his grandfather, wanted Buddhism to secure its place in the culture, yet obstacles persisted that prevented this from happening.  The Buddhist king even resorted to tricking his Bonpo head minister into spending the night in a grave, which was subsequently covered with a boulder. He was replaced with a Buddhist minister. Others, however, who still subscribed to the Bonpo arranged other ways to haunt Tibet through “evil omens” that drove even Shanirakshita, the great Buddhist pandit from India, out from Tibet to Nepal. When asked to come back and clear the land of these demons, Shantarakshita answered, “The sprits of Tibet are evil and will not allow the Buddhist way of life. In order to tame them invite the greatest sorcerer in Jambudvipa, master Padmasambhava.” (Hoffman 47).
            Considered a heretical figure by some and a  “crazy Indian ascetic” by others, Padmasambhava's “magical powers” were needed for the task of liberating the demons from being able to build a monastery.  Padmasambhava agreed to come and subsequently subjugated every evil spirit he came into contact with. There are many stories about his various exploits. In the end, he cleared the way for the monastery of Samye, the first teaching monastery to be built in Tibet.
Padmasambhava became a cornerstone of Tibetan religious tradition that has continued on to this present day. Without going into great detail about his life (an entire magnum opus unto itself), I will discuss the significance of his importance to Tibetan history, and the magnitude of his legend. 
             Padmasambhava is said to be an incarnation of Amitabha. (“Buddha Amitabha sent from his heart center a golden vajra marked with the letter HRIH into the bud of this lotus flower, which miraculously turned into a small child of eight years of age…” [Tsogyel xviii]).  He is quoted to be  “the father of Lamaism” (Hoffman, 51).  Many Tibetans consider him to be the "Second Buddha."
The “Lotus Born” eight year old baby was adopted by kind Indrabhuti of what was called “Udyana” somewhere in the Swat valley (although I was told, by a professor from Amritsar, that there is a plaque dedicated to his origin there) and was given the kingdom to rule when the tantric king left his post to a life of asceticism. Just like Gautama Buddha, Padmasambhava ended up leaving his kingdom to become a monk, to study all the teachings of the Hinayana, and then to master the Tantras.[4] He became an adept by all initiations of the Dakinis’ and was given the spiritual name. He defeated being burned at the stake by the former king Indrabhuti, turning the fire into a lake, from which he and his Shakti, Mandarava, were saved inside of a lotus bud. During his travels in India he defeated many Brahmins in contests, and won the Mahamudra over demonic forces who tried to defeat him.
In coming to Tibet at the king’s invitation he met the resistance of the Tibetan nobles. He not only subjugated the demons,  he demanded that they come serve the Dharma, subduing them for his own purposes. There is even a story of the Bon god Yar-lah Sham-po who turned into a white yak, shaking the beast with “holy iron shackles” (Tsogyel, 55).  After this, he rid the area around Samye of other demons of the native religion. Although he committed such deeds, he aroused disapproval from the nobles and the Bon ministers. He greatly exacerbated this disapproval when he was granted Yeshe Tsogyel in exchange for empowerments given to king De-tsen.
Why was there superstition and objection to Guru Rinpoche’s involvement in Tibetan affairs from the Tibetan nobility? One obvious reason is, as Robert Thurman points out, the nobles feared that with the adoption of Buddhism,  Tibet may fall into pacifism, and loose its stronghold as an empire.[5] At the time Tibet ruled over Central Asia, including Padmasambhava’s home of Udayana.  This fear was to come true. De
-tsen and his heirs became more and more distracted by Buddhism, and Tibet’s battles became internal rather than on the battleground. The subsequent kings died tragic deaths one after another, and Tibet’s power over the subcontinent waned. Meanwhile, monasteries were being built and the armies of young warriors were becoming armies of monks.
            "Guru Rinpoche was responsible for transforming Tibet from an imperial power to a pacifist, de-centralized state…” (Zangpo 72).  Thus his coming to Tibet was regarded as a venerable and auspicious blessing for some, but the beginning of the end of Tibet as an imperial power to nationalists.

The Introduction of the Lady of the Lotus Born

            After he was finished with the temple bSam-yas, Padmasambhava “vowed to make the teachings of the Dharma rise and shine like the sun” (Tulku, 12). He then “reflected”… “Now is the time for the goddess Saraswati to manifest and spread the Mantrayana teachings” (Ibid). 
            “Great bliss of the Yab-Yum [then] penetrated everywhere, into all the realms of the world, and great tremors and earthquakes shook the universe.” (Tulku, 13). It was the vibration in the form of the color red, and the sound “AA”, and spiraling from that all the sounds of the vowels in a white garland. Finally, the consonant  vam” appeared, and spiraled a chain of red consonants, which then struck the ground like a shooting star hitting Tibet.[6]
            Padmasambhava then summoned her to him and she responded;

Heruka, Buddha Hero, Heruka, Pleasure God!
When you the great dancer, dance the nine dances of life,
The pure pleasure of the sacred lotus is everywhere discovered,
And in the vastness of the bhaga there is no anxiety;
It is time to project an emanation into the savage.

‘Samaya Ho!’ exclaimed the Guru. ‘The bond is formed.’
‘Samayastvam!’ I replied. ‘You are the bond.’
‘Samaya Hri!’ exclaimed the Guru. The bond is strong!’,
‘Samaya Tishta,’ I replied. ‘The bond is strong.’
‘Raho Ham!’exclaimed the Guru. ‘Let the fire burn.’
‘Ragayami.’I concluded. ‘We are burning together.” (Dowman 8-9)

And so Yeshe Tsogyel is introduced as an incarnation of Saraswati, (the goddess, of Hindu origins, who is most devoted to mantra, and to dedication sadhana or religious practice). As a practitioner, one is often encouraged by a teacher or guru to pray to her first before beginning one’s practice. In the life of Yeshe Tsogyel, and those who practice her sadhana, she embodies all of this goddess’s characteristics. From “Hindu” Puranic lore, Saraswati is the “patroness of learning, giver of intelligence to the newborn, source of the Sanskrit alphabet, bestower of poetic skill, and granter of knowledge and wisdom.” (Shaw, 235).  Tsogyel clearly embodies Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge because of her adept nature of learning and mastering the teachings. Tsogyel “woos” her captives many times and again with her beautiful singing voice, another quality of Saraswati.  In Buddhism, Saraswati is often associated with Prajnaparamita the goddess of perfect wisdom.

Meditation and ritual practices centering on Prajnaparamita are current in both Tibetan and Newar Buddhism, in accordance with the enduring importance of Perfection of Wisdom thought in those settings. In Tibet she is known by the Tibetan translation of her name or simply Sherchinma, ‘Wisdom Mother,’ or Yum Chenmo, ‘Great Mother.’ Many visualization practices and associated initiation rites are maintained by the Sarma sects. In the Nyingma order her practice is largly replaced by that of the Yeshe Tsogyel, whose name means ‘Victorious Ocean of Primordial Wisdom.’ (Shaw, 182)

The first Buddhist text in which Saraswati appears is the Golden Radiance Scripture (4th-5th c. CE). There she is praised as the “great goddess” (Mahadevi) and from there becomes a fixture in the Buddhist pantheon.  By the time Yeshe Tsogyel was born, Saraswati been widely adopted in Buddhist iconography and practice throughout India, including Oddiyana, the land of Padmasambhava.
The story of Yeshe Tsogyel is nothing short of an epic heroine’s journey. Embedded within the text, as seen in the incantation and description above, are Tantric teachings only the learned practitioner can decode. In addition, the story is told on two levels, as Gross writes:

…on a ‘mythic’ level narrating the life of a great human religious teacher and on the level of ‘sacred history’ narrating how enlightenment manifested in the form of Tsogyel. These two forms of the story can seem far apart and the ‘sacred history’ is often based on esoteric concepts. (Gross 1995, 12)

Tsogyel’s life is filled with incredible feats. How much of this story is true? And how much is hyperbolic folklore? As Dowman writes, “Again it should be emphasized that attempting to derive history from legend is to treat an orange as if it were an apple.” (338) Yet each part of the story is deliberate, and in each the reader is guided from teaching to teaching, from pre-conception to Buddhahood. The translation of her biography is broken into eight parts of her life, with many stories along the way. 
            Her birth was in a similar vein to Padmasambhava’s. Before she was born, both parents had visions. Her father dreamed of a golden bee who was singing sweet melodies, and of his wife at the age of eight, holding a lute and singing the vowels of the Sanskrit alphabet, disappearing before an earthquake, and light shone around him. Her mother had a dream about an inexhaustible white-red ambrosia, which an “inestimable crowd of people came and drank to satiety…” (Dowman, 11).
Auspicious signs followed. During Tsogyel’s birth the queen was showered by flowers, which dropped from the sky. When the princess was born, she recited the alphabet, and chanted, “ ‘Orgyen Chempo Khyeno!’- Homage to the great sage of Orgyen!" "Sitting in half-lotus posture with my knees planted on the floor I opened my eyes wide and raised my pupils in adoration.” ( Dowman, 12).  Not only did she speak immediately after her birth, she was born with hair that fell down to her waist, and a full set of teeth. Like the Buddha, it was declared that “…either Tsogyel ( Dakini of the ocean) will become a mahasiddha of the Bonpo or Buddhists, or she will become a queen of the Emperor.” ( Dowman, 14).
Because of her extreme difference, she was kept hidden from view for ten years until she was ready for marriage. When the time came for her betrothal, two princes wanted her hand. Tsogyel knew she wanted no part in this worldly life. “ ‘I would go with neither of them…If I was to go I would be guilty of incarcerating myself within the dungeon of worldly existence. Freedom is so very hard to obtain. I beg you, my parents, to consider this.’” (Dowman 15).  But her parents would not relent, and Tsogyel was given to the first suitor who could hunt her down.
Though caught and beaten to a bloody pulp, Tsogyel managed to escape her captor and return to live in the forest alone. When the other suitor-prince, Kharchupa, learned of this, he was ready to go to war over Tsogyel. In order to end this potential conflict, Tsogyel’s father, Pelgyi Wongchuk, then sent a letter to the Emperor Det-sen begging him to take his daughter as his bride. The Emperor accepted. She was given elaborate feasts, appointed custodian of the Dharma, and educated in languages, arts and sciences, secular and religious arts. It was in De-tsen’s palace that Tsogyel encountered Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava.
The emperor had already called and brought Rinpoche to his palace to quell the demons and finish Sam-ye. He had begged Guru Rinpoche to initiate him in the art of Tantra, to teach him the shortest path to enlightenment in one lifetime, yet Rinpoche would not grant him this wish. He was finally persuaded when as payment for his initiation, the king offered Tsogyel and his empire to Rimpoche.[7] The Bon ministers were,  “provoked to the point of open rebellion by the kings gift of Tsogyel to the Guru.”(Dowman,  315). Soon after the exchange, Tsogyel was given initiation, empowerments by Rinpoche and became his consort.
Tsogyel studied and lived with her Guru for the next part of her life. During this time, she mastered many of the Guru’s teachings. The text also explains the different practices which were taught to her, as Rinpoche’s consort, until time had come for her, upon Rimpoche’s instruction, to take a consort herself. At this point she sets out to the valley of Nepal alone. On the way, she encountered seven thieves, who became her first students after she sang them a song and opened their heart to the Dharma.
 She goes on to find her consort Atsala Sale, who was a slave at the time, and liberates him from bondage. He then stayed by her side till the end of  her life.
Tsogyel went on to practice many austerities, almost to her death several times. On her own she mastered the knowledge overcoming the body in meditation. She describes one account of all the demons, wild animals, humans, all trying to take her out of her samadhi. With skills of great concentration she was able to overcome these obstacles that demons and gods put before her. No humans were able to touch her, so she was named “Invulnerable Tibetan” and they stopped trying to harm her. During this time a girl who brought honey and milk wanted to come with Tsogyel to be come a disciple. This girl turned out to be the daughter of King Hamras of Bhutan, and came with Tsogyel to Paro Taktsang.
Once Tsogyal had gained all the siddhis (mastery of a skill) which are laid out sequentially in the text (and may be spelled out as a litany in the form of teaching tool for the order of teachings one should follow), Tsogyel returns with her Guru, and the other disciples to Tibet. There, they to face off with the Bonpo ministers in the Samye debate and are victorious in exiling the Bon extremists, and establishing the Dharma of Buddhism as victorious. (See next section,  “Significance of Historical Figure of Yeshe Tsogyel”). This event opened the floodgates of Buddhism in Tibet. Thousands of monks entered the academy in Samye, and many other thousands in total entered other meditation centers and academies throughout Tibet. King Det-sen passed into light, knowing that his kingdom had been transformed from a warring, barbaric society, to that being guided by the Dharma.
Eventually, Guru Rinpoche gives Tsogyel her leave. Rimpoche gave her custodianship of his hidden teachings (termas) for the future of humankind. Tsogyel dedicated herself completely to the practice of absolute compassion, literally giving parts of her body to cannibals, acting as a wife of a leper, and many other truly selfless acts. At the end of her life, Tsogyel gives clear instruction as to what to do with the teachings, where to put these treasures, and gives a full prophecy to what is to become of the teachings in Tibet.

The Multiple Messages of ‘The Life of Yeshe Tsogyel’

            Yeshe Tsogyel tells her story clearly, with a youthful approach. She does not ask for either pity or admiration for her works though she recounts tales of dire circumstances and extraordinary accomplishment. Many messages are embedded in the story. Some, as mentioned earlier, seem meant to be decoded by the initiated. Others come across through her speech, her story, and her teachings. In particular, she seems to emphasize her femininity, her commitment, the way that relationships served her path and, in her teachings, the ultimate non-dual nature of reality.
            Throughout the text, Tsogyel seems to be reminding the reader at every chance that “She”,  “The Lady Tsogyel” is capable of such austerities and accomplishments. Is she boasting about her abilities? Is she speaking to the point and demonstrating that despite her “low birth” women can obtain enlightenment? Tsogyel herself is perfectly aware of the prejudice that is imbedded within the culture. She refers back to her womanhood especially in moments of empowerments, teachings, accomplishments, her difficult journey to Nepal, and throughout her commitments to the Tantras. “I the woman, Yeshe Tsogyel” becomes a mantra for the reader as well. I cannot help but think this emphasis deliberate for her followers to note, while the entire time, coming back to the teachings by modeling pure emptiness, seeing each hardship as an opportunity to gain further wisdom and transformation.  In this way, she is also riding a line beyond male-female role models. As many commentators are quick to point out, it is a also a story of her ability to go beyond gender, to reach an utterly transcendent Buddhahood. According to Dowman,  she died at the age of approximately 60 (although in the text she says she lived to be the age of 211) she had obtained the highest spiritual achievement than anyone previously recorded to that moment in Tibet, and was the first woman to obtain Buddhahood in Tibet.
 In her telling of her own story, Yeshe Tsogyel also sets herself as a clear example of one who is completely devoted to the teachings and continually works without fail. It is her determination, her clear will and intent that drives her further into service. She is inspiringly committed to her journey. This both drives her transformation and is what makes her life extraordinary. Throughout her difficult life, her unwavering fire of determination prevails. From the age of twelve, she knew she wanted to spend her life dedicated to her spiritual path, defying her parent’s wishes to be married. Through episodes of extreme austerities of fasting, extreme temperatures, and involved difficult practice, she perseveres. After being confronted and raped by seven robbers, she uses her speech to convert her aggressors to the dharma.  In the final stage of her practice, for twelve years (that magic number), she gave herself to service as a sadhana, taking the form of anyone in need. She selflessly gave her body to take on the extreme suffering of others. She gave her body to carnivores, clothed and gave medicines, gave all of her wealth, and sex to those who sought. She even lived as a wife for a leper who asked for companionship. ( I relate this practice is very similar to the bhakti  or devotional practice through service that existed in many Hindu traditions).
Tsogyel used her relationships to aid in her spiritual development (Gross 1987, 13), be it villains who wished to harm her, her consort Sale, many women, several of whom were with her at the end of her life (two of whom became realized emanations of Vajravarahi, as well as two queens Liza  Jangchub Dronma, and Shelkar Dorje Tsomo and countless others).  Throughout her practice she is able to use her relationships to dissolve issues of clinging, or confusion in her mind, therefore not only ridding herself of the ego-driven fixations, but gains enlightenment and enlightened relations. She had no need to cloister herself away from men or women. On the contrary she moves toward those situations and gains liberation by working through them. Is her story setting an example for women to discover liberating through relationships, a path that was perhaps not accessible or shown to women in that culture before? What is implicit in the text is a model for enlightenment that includes relational means. Was this story an effort for her to demonstrate to the world that enlightenment is possible by being in the world, and using our interactions with others as a means to progress? Her twelve years of complete service to others is a bhakti path. Through this service she finds the last piece to ultimate liberation. Through her experiences with thieves, robbers, rapists, and demons she converts to the Dharma, she gains merit, and when whole villages, animals, and demons, even her body, turns on her she remains committed to her path. Furthermore, it is mostly through her relationships that her story is told. In the context of a 20th century Western woman reading this text, I can understand that it is a within my relationships where I find the greatest advancement. I feel as though this is true for other women as well. Is she laying a blueprint particularly for women to emulate? At the same time Tsogyel does emphasize not to be lost in the body, ego, or emotions within it. She uses her body and relationships to understand “emptiness”, using the form to get to the formless. 
Perhaps the greatest spoken message Tsogyel comes at the end of her life.  She leaves her followers some of her greatest teaching about the essence of what is important, and how to proceed.  When they ask, “What can we tell Tibet? What can we do?” Tsogyel answers,
“For Pity listen to me, O faithful Tibetans!
Tell the people I am absorbed in inner space, the omnipresent ground,
And the aches and pains of corporeality have ceased.
Tell them that the mortal Tsogyel has finally attained an immaculate state,
And that the agony and ecstasy of embodiment is over.
Tell them that the illusory body of flesh and blood has been transfigured,
And the need for diagnosis, prescription, moksa, bleeding and hot needles, has gone.
Tell them that when the truth of impermanence is finally made plain
The seemingly concrete and permanent must vanish.
Tell them that the end of the way is a body of light,
And this black corpse, this bag of water and mucus must pass.
Tell them that Ama Tsogyel has melted into the primordial A,
And cries of anguish have ceased.
Tell them the outside and inside, mother and son, have united.
And the material superfluity, flesh, and blood, as vanished.
Tell them that the Lama’s compassion never fails;
His apparitional hosts of welcome encompass the universe.
Tell them that this incorrigible women, this wonton uninhibited woman,
This woman has achieved the impossible nine times over.
Tell them that the daughter of Tibet, this unlovable spinster,
Now is Queen of Kunzang’s absolute, empty being.
Tell them this woman, over extended in vanity and deceit,
Successful in her final deceit, has gone to the Southwest.
Tell them this passionate woman, repeatedly fallen in her maze of intrigue,
Through intrigue has vanished into the sphere of inner space.
Tell them that this widow of Tibet, rejected by Tibetan males,
Has captured the state of Buddhahood…”(Dowman 179)

And with that, she tells them, “She will never leave them, not to despair”, and to “go home and pray!” (180). Certainly this is the standard message of most of the masters, when they are leaving their nirmakaya form to their disciples, however, this is the first teaching of its kind to these who have not studied Buddhism. Her followers were probably not chanting the Heart Sutra, defining themselves by what they are not.  The message to her followers is to not be attached to this form, that the form has karma and weight. She continues that now she is, “Buddha in the lotus light of dynamic space” (Dowman, 181) was incredibly radical for the context of early Tibet.  As Dowman writes in his “Commentary” on “Women and the Dakini,”

Finally, in the non-duel reality of Buddhahood all phenomenal appearances are space and Emptiness on one hand and magical illusion, fairyland, and the reflection of the moon in water on the other hand. Understanding this, following Tsogyel, a yogini-practitioner will know that her body-mind is empty of a substantial, discrete ego ant that her individual personality is an integral part of a dynamic field of relativity encompassing all living beings embodied and disembodied, in all time and space. (257)

The Significance of the Historical Inference of Figure: Yeshe Tsogyel
The historical account of Yeshe Tsogyel comes from the  Termas, (selected religious texts hidden away for hundreds of years) and is verified by historical chronicles of the Chinese pilgrim Tun Huang, (the Red Annals) which confirms pieces of early Tibetan history that can be put together to create a fuller picture.  As Dowman writes;
...the story which forms a temporal background to Tsogyel’s timeless sadhana in The Life, the political drama enacted throughout her lifetime in Tibet, can be sifted for new historical data and for evidence to support existing hypothesis; it can also be enjoyed simply as historical legend. Although the temporal theme is of secondary importance to the principle purpose of The Life, which is to instruct and inspire in the Tantra, in so far as a religion and a yoga is a function of the needs of a human community at a specific time and place, knowledge of social institutions, the politics and economics of that time and place provide insight into the purpose of religious modes and their evolution. (Dowman  307).

One question about the significance of Yeshe Tsogyel  as a historical figure relates to her political relationship to Tibet and her people. “Was part of the purpose of her story devised to convert the people of Tibet away from the Bon by creating such an impact?” As mentioned before, Yeshe Tsogyel came into being when Tibet was at the height of its military conquest of Central Asia. While Buddhism filled the hearts of  some Tibetan nobility, it angered the priests of the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, clan leaders, and created a “power play” between the Buddhists and the Bonpos ministers. Many of the temples that emperor Songsten had built were destroyed after his death. When Trisong Detson came to power, the dharma was struggling to remain alive. It is suggested that historically, there was at least a twenty year gap between sending away the first Buddhist Shantaraksita, the first monk invited by the king Songsten, and the consecration of Samye by Padmasambhava.[8] This is theorized because of the opposition that the Bon ministers placed as an obstacle to it being built. The act of giving the bride of the king to Padmasambhava, a wondering Indian Tantric, in payment for king Det-san’s Tantric Buddhist initiation infuriated the Bon ministers even further.
            Is it possible that the story of Yeshe Tsogyel, both the real and epic heroine, was designed in a manner that was then used to convert and impress the people into the Buddhist religion and away from the old Bon religion? Was she a tool or a skillful means to propagate and spread the Dharma? This line of inquiry brings a different perspective to the challenge between Buddhist scholars and adepts, and the Bonpo. In the text The Life of Yeshe Tsogyel, King Det-sen declares,
I have tried to establish Buddhism and Bon in equality like my ancestor Songsten Gampo, but Buddhism and Bon are inimical, and mutual recrimination has credited doubt and suspicion in the minds of the King and his ministers. Now we will compare and appraise their metaphysics and whichever system gains our trust will be adopted as a whole. Whoever refuses to embrace the winners’ doctrine will be forgotten in this land. (Dowman 108).

Although the Bon were able to prevail with ‘riddles’ the Buddhist defeated the Bon with magic, debate, and other incredible feats. Yeshe Tsogyel is called up to defeat the yogini Bon Tso.
Levitating in lotus posture, etc., I demonstrated my full control over elemental forces. Spinning fire wheels of five colors on the tips of the fingers of my right hand, I terrified the Bon, and then ejecting streams of five-colored water from the lips of the fingers of my left hand, the streams swirled away into a lake. Taking a Chimphu boulder, breaking it like butter, I moulded it into various images. Then I projected twenty-five apparitional forms similar to myself, each displaying some proof of siddhi. (Dowman, 113).

After Tsogyel caused the Bon to lose face in the public eye, there is a burst from the crowd, “These Bon cannot even defeat a woman.” Highlighting her unique nature again. Even though there were Bon females who learned the craft, such as the yogini Tso, the idea of empowered female adept was still a new and wild concept for the people of Tibet.
The story could have read very differently, Padmasambhava could have taken on the Sam-ye Debate all by himself. Yet, introducing such a powerful figure as Tsogyel appears to have been an excellent political move. To have the dharma represented by someone with such skill and ability, and that person to be in the form of a woman, meant that this knowledge is accessible to all. I am not discounting that Tsogyel was an extraordinary person by any means. However, the fact that she is a woman, and reminds the reader about this point throughout the story, at the most emphasizes the greatness of the Buddhist teachings, at the least, creates a heroine, who one may sympathize with.  Eventually, the “Bon-shaman” (read: “fanatical extremists”) were defeated, and banished to the boarder countries.[9] The “Reformed Bon” were allowed to stay since they were in alignment with the Buddhist doctrines. After this,  the King ordered the shamanistic books to be separated and burned, and the Reformed Bon’s books were hidden for “future revelation”. The “Reformed Bon” were  themselves sent back to Zhang-zhung and the provinces, while the Bon-Shamans were sent to Mongolia.[10] 
            If the “Samye Debate” did occur as recorded according to “The Life ...”, then it was probably one of the most important events in Tsogyel’s life. She prevailed in such an undertaking only fifteen years after she was a student to Guru Rinpoche and initiated into the Tantric arts. One could assert that a Tibetan born female would have the fortitude to not only stand up to the Bonpo ministers and priests, but be better accepted in the minds of the people of Tibet,  over an Indian ascetic such as Padmasambhava. 
Because of the defeat of the Bon at Samye, Tsogyel had many enemies. Tsogyel  is poisoned by the Bonmo Tso who was under orders by the queen of Mutri Tsempo. After she transformed this poison into nectar and foiled the plan, Tsogyel was then banished again from Lhasa. However, by this time Tsogyel herself had many followers, and this banishment brought more her devotees throughout the country. By the end of the story she ordained and taught over three hundred monks, many with similar capacities of sided to hers. She also established a nunnery, trained one thousand nuns, where five hundred attained siddhi, and seven became her equal.

The Legacy of Yeshe Tsogyel

As an historic and spiritual figure Yeshe Tsogyel bridged several theological worlds. Even if she never actually existed in body,[11] her presence was absolutely important for the socio-political entry of Buddhism to Tibet. The story and triumph of the great Samye debate illustrates her importance for Buddhism to flourish over the indigenous Bon faith. Historically, one could hypothesize that her incarnation as a female adept may have been in and of itself a factor in sending the Bon packing after the last debate and altering the fabric of a warrior culture forever.
            Questions around the role of women in the Buddhist sangha date back to its origins. The Buddha himself was reluctant to include nuns to his sangha, and did so in his last three years of life, to the dismay of many of his closest allies. Even to this day the nuns have to abide by a stricter code than the monks due to their “unfortunate” karmic births, to which much has been written about. In the article “When Buddha Was Woman” author, Karen Derris validates the medieval story where Buddha was reborn as a nun as Princess Jaataka;

            Merely casting the Bodhisattva as a woman in this story was radical in the
face of Theravada tradition, but for what ends? Does this addition of a female lifetime to the Buddha’s biography reflect a positive evaluation of women? Did the Bodhisatta’s female identity offer valuable resources for Theravada women in shaping their lives in Buddhist societies? These kinds of questions must be posed if we are to assess if this story valorizes women and supports women’s potential to make progress along the stereological path to Buddhahood. Buddhist perspectives on identity are formulated over lifetimes rather than within the frame of a single life. Thus the representation of the Bodhisatta in her lifetime as the princess is shaped by her past and future lives. Karma (actions and the             results of actions) determines, in large part, the form and quality of a person’s
next birth, but determining karmic formulations requires complex calculations that are rarely exact or singular. (Derris,  40).

However, she later explains that in order for Princess Jaataka to “fulfill her aspiration” she must agree to eight conditions, one of which is to be reborn as a male, so that her lineage ends with her feminine rebirth. There is a thread that being born a women is a “low birth” which permeates throughout Buddhism. According to Campbell, “In Tibetan there are considerably more words for ‘woman’ than for ‘man’.” (32) She goes on to quote from the Tibetan-English dictionary,  “The two most common words are kyemen…which means ‘inferior birth’, and pumo…which means ‘female man’. Other synonyms for ‘women’ include tsamdenma…’ she who has limitations; chingchema..’she who has shackles’; dodenma…she who has lust’…” (Campbell 32).
The existence of a woman such as Yeshe Tsogyel, the story of her achievements and her inseparability from Guru Rinpoche would seem to be powerful antidotes to this view that women are somehow "inferior" or "she who has limitations."  In the Story of Yeshe Tsogyel, Guru Rinpoche even says to Tsogyel that “… if a woman has strong aspiration, she has a higher potential ( for enlightenment).” (Dowman 86). It appears that although her teachings have survived, the legend of the “enlightened female figure” as a role model for others to obtain Buddhahood in this lifetime did not greatly shape the Buddhist institutions that followed. Was her presence deliberately minimized over the years? Some scholars point to the Tulku system as a source of disempowerment for women as it narrows the breadth of recognition of re-born masters to male from far more often than female incarnates. When the Tulku system came into place in Buddhist doctrine, the ability for future women to be realized as incarnate beings as in Tsogyel’s case evaporated due to the ongoing belief that to be born in a woman’s body is “less fortunate” (Havnevik 1990, 134-135). 
For some, legends like Tsogyel can provide that source for female empowerment. Orgyan Chokyi (1675-1729) is an example of an acknowledged enlightened incarnate nun. Chokyi, suffered greatly at the hands of their family who did not understand her. In her autobiography, in the last days Orgyan Chokyi was living, she wrote that she was now a “Dakini”, yet she was born a “low-born girl.”  But because of Chokyi’s knowledge of female role models, (Tara, Dorje Phagmo, Nangsa OBum, and Gelongma Pelmo) she was able to use this knowledge and  with it, “explicitly take courage” against the forces which were oppressing her. (Gyatso  2005, 22). 
In considering the questions of the self-conscious agency of Tibetan women, we find ourselves looking for the ideals that would inspire it, and female gender norms-ideas about special female virtues, special female connections, even special female handicaps- are the first things that come to mind. There can be no questing that historical Tibetan women have taken lessons from such ideals. (Gyatso, 2005, 21).

Tsogyel also faced many obstacles as a women,  although she was not supported in her enlightenment quest by the heavily monastic society which Chokyi was a part of. In Tsogyel’s life, although women of royalty of that time had some influence and stature in Tibet at that time, this greatly depended upon fulfilling one's expected roles. Through what seems to have been sheer force of will and devotion to her own enlightenment, Tsogyel carved another path. This is powerfully evidenced by her opening act of defiance of her parents wishes, as she successfully escapes her husband to be, only to be caught again away as payment for a teaching by her King-husband. She prays to Padmasambhava to be rescued, and not given away in marriage as chattel.[12]
Her will towards autonomy and aspiration toward enlightenment is further evidenced in her role as consort to the great master. By virtue of her ability to choose her consorts, suggests she chose Padmasambhava as much as he chose her. The tone of the language of their union which Dowman calls, “Twilight language” is riddled with double-entendre’s and metaphors, both celebrating and cloaking its significance and symbology.  She also takes another consort, enlightening many others in the process and being recognized as a Dakini. Because Tsogyel was able to liberate her consorts, she was established in a distinguished position of “Guru” that afforded her choice. She was “sexually liberated” in terms of not having any ego attachments, and hence free from sexual ownership of any kind.
In searching for what I considered Tsogyel to be, I believe I fell into what I now consider to be the same trap as other Feminist writers of our time. I have routinely judged the role as consort to be one dimensional, to only serve her Guru for his advancement and pleasure. Although Tsogyel takes on the consort role, as a “Sky dancer”, she flies above and beyond any limitation by using this position to her own means. In fact, Padmasambhava himself was also dependent on her for his own advancement.
She was essential to his full manifestation as a Vajrayana teacher, to his Buddha activity, to his creation of the collection of Termas or hidden treasure teachings, and to his effective subjugation of obstacles to dharma practice. As practitioners, we would do well to take Tibetan sensibilities as a model for ourselves. Even if Yeshe Tsogyel’s life were not established historically, we still must tell her story because Guru Rinpoche’s life and activity would be incomplete without her (Gyatso 2006, 9).

The role of consort also seems to continue to be shrouded in mystery with many, many women, who served recognized lamas, never receiving recognition or having their personal stories of transformation told and celebrated. These ‘private’ roles as consort or songyum continues today to be held currently with the utmost clandestine nature. [13]
Times do, however, seem to be changing. In 1967 in Sikkim a baby girl was born, who was immediately recognized as an incarnation of Khandro Ugyen Tsolmo, a consort of the Fifteenth Karmapa, Khakhyab Dorje (1871-1922). After she was recognized she immediately began her training, taking up her line as a recognized Rinpoche.  Rita Gross writes about how different her experience was when she encountered Khandro Rinpoche in 1995.
…Kandro Rinpoche, is the first female guru and lineage holder we have encountered. And,  obviously, she is not merely doing and saying only the same things male teachers say, though she presents the gender-neutral teachings of Buddhism in ways that both men and women appreciate. But, in addition, she holds audiences for women at which, unlike male teachers, she owns up to the fact that in the relative world and in the patriarchal system, women do have a more difficult time than men. (Gross 1998,  222)

More women are being recognized as masters and are giving teachings that are inclusive of the faults of a system caught up in long-term beliefs of patriarchy. Under a system such as this, women will experience a more difficult time, unless they are taught differently, with role models that they can relate to.
            Rita Gross in a roundtable discussion given at a conference, speaks about  her interpretation of the Western appropriation of Yeshe Tsogyel;

I am working on the project of ensuring that Buddhist heroines face no more obstacles than do their male counterparts, thus ensuring that they are not tokens because of their rarity. My use of history, like that of every other contemporary person, is political, and I know what I want to do with history. Within the limit of not making up heroines who did not exist, I want to use historical examples to empower contemporary women and men to imagine what Buddhism after patriarchy might be.” (Gross 2006, 73)

In conclusion, based on the historical record and the male-dominated Tibetan Buddhist culture we see today, on the surface it appears that women took a "back seat" to men in Tibetan Buddhism. Although this “heroinic” figure, Yeshe Tsogyel, may have continued to inspire women to overcome the obstacles they faced, she did not greatly impact the landscape for women or women practitioners in Tibetan society. However, what is needed is to revisit historical texts and cultural accounts to get a better view and to deeply access the history and current times. From this, a clearer picture of the roles and spiritual practices of women will surface. In particular, I believe this scholarship must come from voices of Tibetan women and practitioners.


         The first strategy used by historians in rethinking women’s history in the
history of Christianity is inclusion. Recent interest in women’s experience has
prompted the publication of women’s writings that were, until recently, unknown.
Together with many scholarly monographs that explore and interpret
women’s social experiences, these writings are an invaluable resource, providing
some—albeit limited—access to women’s interests, beliefs, and thoughts.
Mainstream Christianity can now be redefined by the inclusion of women’s history. It need no longer be conceptualized as what Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza
calls the “malestream.” Both the voices of women and the prohibitions that
limited and often failed to preserve their expressions can be recognized.
 (Miles 2006, 50)

Although my search for Yeshe Tsogyel was incomplete in a land where I thought  she would be easily found, and a place of her belonging, her absence created more questions within me. The feminist within me, although privileged to arrive there, was outraged. She was certain that the reason for her absence was rooted in sexist denial. Tsogyel, I felt, was not given the proper respect and adoration that I felt fitting for a person of her stature. Yet, I was blind to see, unable to ask the right questions in the right language, and had a limited understanding of the culture. My anger was rooted in a place that was neglected within me as a young spiritual aspirant in my formative years. If I had only known about Tsogyel at sixteen, I wonder how different my life would be. Was I was projecting this sadness on to my young Tibetan sisters, believing they have a yearning for a similar spiritual identity? Was this projection necessary? Perhaps not. Perhaps Yeshe Tsogyel lives in the hearts of Buddhist monk, nun,  and laypersons, and is an intrinsic part of their practice. Perhaps they don’t see her as separate as I do. Maybe it is through this Western lens that I am looking for identity in the form of this fierce and capable figure.

According to Tibetan Buddhists' versions of their own history, in Tibet Padmasambhava met his most important student (who also became his consort), Yeshe Tsogyel. According to Tibetan sources, her role in establishing Buddhism in Tibet is so great that the two are usually invoked together as cofounders of Tibetan Buddhism. Yet Western accounts of the origins of Buddhism in Tibet, claiming to be more empirical by weeding out layers of legend, almost never mention Yeshe Tsogyel. In the eyes of Western scholars, she is part of the legendary overlay that must be excised to obtain accurate history. For Tibetan Buddhists, however, it would be impossible to think of their origins without thinking of Yeshe Tsogyel. These differing assessments of Yeshe Tsogyel show, one more time, something I have often discovered in studying non-Western materials: the accounts of these societies that we receive from Western scholars are much more andocentric than the indigenous accounts. If that is the case, with what accuracy could Western (feminist) scholars then evaluate other cultural situations as sexist? Where is the sexism: is it in the materials themselves or in the glasses through which these scholars are looking at other religions and cultures? (Gross 2006, 72)

If Tsogyel is inseparable from Guru Padmasambhava (the Queen of the Lotus Born), I was unable to see her and unable to find peace within her grace because of my own obscurations. Perhaps I was carrying resentment from my encounter with Buddhism in a Western context with me to Sikkim, along with expectations of failure, and lacked the faith which believed that the voice that would be more honoring is the voice that is closer to source, more authentic. It was the response to my Western education which was the seed of my discomfort. Is it only too true that we as Feminist scholars seek those who we most relate to in their (s)heroic forms?  Did I succumb to such a similar demise? [14]
Unlocking some of my questions may happen only when Tibetan women begin to write for English speaking audiences. For those women who are Buddhist, layperson or those whom have taken the cloth, can candidly refute or confirm what these feminist scholars have been writing about the meaning of Yeshe Tsogyel in the Tibetan context. Until this time, those of us, no matter how well the knowledge of language, or how long our practice, will write from our personal situation regarding the value of the figure of Tsogyel, the significance of her meaning, presence, and form. 
When I was sixteen, I was forced to go through the ritual of Confirmation. Although my faith in the Church had already waned, I went through the motions. I chose the saint Anastasia. I took her Confirmation name because the idea was we were to choose someone whom we wanted to emulate. She was the only saint that I discovered though a great deal of investigation, who defied her parents who wanted her wed, and instead ran away and joined a nunnery.  Tsogyel reminds me of that saint, whose story is as old and repetitive as women who have been sold off into marriage, or a life cloistered behind stonewalls. Yet Tsogyel was different. She not only defied her culture by pursuing her spiritual life above all else, she achieved Buddhahood. In this respect she is an ally for all people aspiring toward a spiritual goal.
I can only speculate how different my life would have been if I had learned about Tsogyel at the age of sixteen. If I could speak to myself at that age now, I would say, “Don’t be discouraged. There is a world of women out there for you to discover, many of whom have never been written about, and the greatest wisdom does live inside of you. You will find out about them. Either way, be brave, and never give up your aspirations seeking a higher spiritual self. She is there, waiting to embrace you.”
            Did I find Yeshe Tsogyel? I can’t honestly say, but I did find the part of me looking for her.

Literary Review

Gyatso, Janet, and Havnevik, Hanna. Women in Tibet. New York, NY : Columbia University Press, 2005.

            In this book the authors predominantly focus their attention on a collection of essays about the women of Tibetan society who have not been given prior attention to in western scholarship. These women highlighted through essays by various contributors in their book are; women from politics, spiritual practitioners, oracles, nuns, artists, and practice Tibetan medicine. They are from 8th century Tibet, to current day, including Tibetan Diaspora. Although they offer no feminist discourse in the text, implicitly, the authors have brought to light an important feminist portrayal of real life Tibetan women in their own roles giving a voice to the voiceless. I found this book to be incredibly helpful to learn about historical and current Tibetan women, and their function in Tibetan society. The book includes translations of primary source autobiographical information which aids in research what was going on for women at various times. What I also felt helpful was the realistic portrayal of the biographies of the women in Tibet. “All the articles of this anthology consist of genuine historical or ethnographic research, not theoretical or speculative comments on ‘the feminine’ in Tibetan Buddhism. As a result, the portrayals we are given are considerably less romantic than some speculations about Tibetan women’s lives based on Vajrayana Buddhist texts and art, with their strong and positive feminine imagery.” (Gross, 2007, 353) Although the authors are not explicitly choosing to write about feminist issues they do address that “Tibetan women live in a context of pervasive androcentrism and misogyny, indicated especially by the most common Tibetan term for woman, which literally means one with a ‘low birth’” (Gyatso , and Havnevik,  9). Most of all Schaffer’s essay demonstrates the difficulties of the Medieval Tibetan Hermitess: Orgyan Chokyi, who clearly suffered in her autobiography due to internalizing her experience of being female. These essays provide material about Tibetan women and their experiences outside of the popular realms of Yeshe Tsogyel, and Machig Labdron. This chapter, and three others that concentrate on Tibetan Buddhism, all reflect the prejudice against women again “as lowly” as nuns, or in   marginalized religious roles. 

Campbell, June. Traveler in Space, Gender, Identity, and Tibetan Buddhism. Revised Edition, London England: Continuum. 2002 (1996)

            June Campbell, a practicing Buddhist since 1967 when she took refuge, and became a student and interpreter of  Kalu Rimpoche. It was being a part of his monastic community, and that she began to “study the symbolic structures of Tibetan Buddhism in more depth.” (Campbell 2) Part of her interest came from the dualistic lifestyle of her teacher, Kalu Rimpoche, a celibate monk, who “secretly had sexual partners.” (2) Campbell offers a unique perspective from the inside out, merging western psychology and Tibetan Buddhism, the dynamic between the two cultures, and the issues of gender difference that involves teaching related to sexuality.  “In this book I have tried to link the personal experiences of key individuals, both women and men, to the complex belief systems of which they were a part, in an attempt both to recognize the humanity in all of us, and as a way of understanding something of the historical concept of gender identity and how it has expressed itself through religion in particular…” (Campbell 23).  From this perspective she begins with the cross pollination between the west and Buddhism and introduces psychological constructs I found to be interesting yet unrelated to my work.
            What I found most intriguing and related to my work is the investigation Campbell explores as she dives into what happens in Tibetan Buddhism subsequent to emerging power structures, “Campbell argues that such symbolism has evolved and become redefined within a patriarchal Buddhist tradition, and the emergent power structures in Tibet have further eroded the potency of female symbolism.” (Cheetham 371). She  identifies Buddhism as the beginning of patriarchy over the animistic pre-Buddhist indigenous spiritual traditions, and the subsequent merging of these into a monastic structure as in Tibet. From there she expands her theory to the Tulku system which continues to function in Tibetan Buddhism to this day at the exclusion of women, although this appears to be changing.
            Campbell tends to stay away from the non-gendered neutrality of Gross, and Klein when writing about Yeshe Tsogyel, particularly her aspirations toward Buddhahood terms of being a woman practitioner, and dwells on the differences therein. “In the context of the enlightened state, this kind of disregard for the importance of gender or sexed categories, seems much more in the spirit of the Buddhist teaching than the disenabling emphasis which is placed on gender in other areas of Tibetan Buddhist thought. But the problems of representation still pertain, because, for women, the issue is not about gender and its limitations, but about the ways in which the ‘truth’ is written on the female body.” (Campbell 134) And continues “In the context of this examination of issues of gender and identity, the question of ‘basic human nature’ presupposes that there is, beyond the unique and individual experience as men and women, a unitary experience of humanity, which does not take into account sexual difference. This notion fits very well into Gross’s Androgynous Vision of Buddhism…It is my view an idealistic conception of androgyny which did not acknowledge difference and separateness as fundamental, would ultimately be detrimental for women, because…this kind of merging would reinscribe the loss of both male and female bodies to ‘the phallic economy’ (161-162).  With her insight, and experience as a practitioner, I found this text to be very helpful to my study.
            I believe that fifteen years ago, when Tibetan Buddhism was taking a strong hold on the culture of the West, the points Klein makes in this book are appropriate. However, with all of the teaching that we are exposed to in various mediums, the danger she writes about is of less concern, and not completely relevant to this study.

Shaw, Miranda. Buddhist Goddesses of India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2006

            Miranda Shaw in her epic collection and synthesis endeavors on highlighting twenty-two goddesses and Buddhas within the Buddhist/Hindu pantheon. She endeavors to right misconceptions and “errors regarding the identification, iconographic manifestations, and attributes of a given deity.” (Shaw, 4). For those goddesses who are taken from Hinduism, Shaw is able to ride the line between the origins of these deities rooted in Hinduism, yet not dwell here, diving predominately into their focus in Buddhist adaptation and appropriation.  The main purpose of the text is to be used as a reference for both scholars and educators, for research and instruction. “…readers expect to find attention to the origins, iconography, and religious roles of each goddess and discussion of her place in Buddhist history and practice.”(4)
            In the manner in which Shaw proceeds into this work, is to give greater depth and dimension to the breath of Buddhist goddesses, not often found in western scholarship. Other than the introduction, Shaw does not venture into the debate around why or why haven’t goddesses been a topic of research or scholarship in the western literature unto this time. “She notes that, while mention of Goddesses is widespread and long-term in works on Buddhist art and history, Buddhist studies in general has not paid much attention to goddesses, and the same basic information has been repeated over and over, with few advances in interpreting and understanding these figures.” (Gross 2008, 176). Although Shaw’s intent in this compendium is to be informative, her perspective is to promote the scholarship of these goddess, and to bring forward the “..field of goddess studies, which is emerging as a serious branch of academic inquiry.” (Shaw, 12).
Shaw’s relevance to my study from the text, is mostly from the information which she has graciously provided about Yeshe Tsogyel’s embodiment of Prajnaparamita, and of Saraswati. However her implicit reasons for writing this book, as well as her introduction have validated my own theories about the role of goddess in western Buddhist  scholarship. Shaw draws attention to the feminine divine in an effort to legitimize this area of study, and is successful in her attempt, bringing the term “goddess” along with her to this place.

Shaw, Miranda. Alf,  “Is the Vajrayogini a Feminist?”  Is the Goddess A Feminist? The Politics of South Asian Goddesses. Erndl M. Kathleen, Hiltebeitel eds, 166-180. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, (2000)

            In this essay, Shaw takes on the similar question as in Passionate Enlightenment, about whether or not the Tantrika, in this case Vajrayogini, can be considered feminist as opposed simply a consort, slave, or a marginalized female character. Shaw uses the same revisionist approach as she did in Enlightenment, researching female voices and ultimately elevating what she calls “Tantric feminism”, which is “not previously recognized in andocentric scholarship because the evidence was rendered invisible by the absence of an interpretive framework in which to locate it.” (Shaw 173). This scholarship is a bid outside of the box of this study, yet could be included in an expanded view.
Simmer-Brown, Judith. Dakini’s Warm Breath, the Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston Massachusetts: Shambala Publications, 2001

Reading Judith Simmer-Brown’s extensive study into the Dakini reminds me of the expression: “All newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts”, in the sense that “All women are dakinis' , but not all dakinis’ are women.” Brown dives extensively into the throngs of what is and isn’t, what makes and does not make the definition of the Dakini for the western mind. The point she makes is neither feminist, nor psychological, (using Jung’s shadow as her preferred psychoanalytical model). She rides the metaphor that she cannot be defined, and thus uses stories and accounts of dakinis’ throughout history to illustrate her thesis.
What I felt most helpful were the stories of various  dakinis’ following the term from India to Tibet, giving examples along the way. She uses examples from Yeshe Tsogyel, Khandro Rimpoche, Sukkhasiddi, Mandarava, Macig Lapdron, Milirepa, and many others that punctuate her Decalogue. Her insight into Prajnaparamita also furthered my understanding of the “maternal” role in Tibetan Buddhism.

Klein, Anne Carolyn. Meeting the Great Bliss Queen. Boston, Massachusetts:Beacon Press. 1995

            I found Anne Klein’s book bridging the gap between Feminist theory and Buddhism. Her middle way approach, Klein meets feminist perspective with one foot in the bathtub, while reaching for the towel of Dharma. “I continue to negotiate all the divides and fissures within the Buddhist and feminist conversation, as well as the uncharted spaces between them… Am I more a sculptor or a gardener? Can I be both?” (Klein 18).  One hand she feels more “connectedness” upon visiting her first female teacher, Ani Mu Tso, yet on the other hand she refuses to acknowledge that Tsogyel may serve as a role model for women like her. She is mostly concerned with appropriation of Tsogyel as a ‘”matriarch” or “role model” (22), than she is about asking why this may be of importance.  It is a testimony to the intellectual power of Klein's writing that rather than seeming ridiculous, these pairings are quite compelling, suggesting new angles of vision on the Buddhists, the feminists, and the questions of personhood. Klein also invokes at the beginning of the book-and then returns to throughout as a kind of touchstone-the semi-mythical figure of Yeshe Tsogyel, consort of Padmasambhava and great yogini who symbolizes the enlightened state or Buddhahood in the form of a woman. The "great Bliss Queen" of the title is seen by Klein as neither a goddess nor female role model but as a symbol of enlightened selfhood: meeting her is meeting oneself in a ritual evocation of the always already enlightened qualities intrinsic to awareness itself.” (Kerafin 230)
            I agree with Klein that one must begin with the “self” as a self, and of a particular culture. However, if searching “meeting the Great Bliss Queen is meeting oneself” (22) then what is the danger of seeing Tsogyel as a “role model” for those first becoming interested Buddhism? Yes, culturally there are significant differences between a Western woman in the 20th century, and Tsogyel, however,  to the novice there appears to be significant differences between themselves and the Buddha as well.

Paul, Diana. Women in Buddhism, Images of the Feminine in Mahayana Tradition. London, England: University of California Press, 1985

            In her groundbreaking 1979 work, Diana Paul takes on the issues of Women in Buddhism throughout various primary texts. What I found most interesting in the second edition, Paul opens the “preface” which reads, “Since the first edition of Women in Buddhism was published in 1979, there still has been virtually no research by scholars on this very important subject matter within the field of Buddhist Studies.”(Paul ix). If there were any doubt, the bulk of this literature began after 1985, and she opened the door for this discourse.
Paul guides the reader through an appreciation of the wide varieties of ways in which the feminine has been understood within the Buddhist tradition, from “Temptress, daughter of evil”, to “mother”, to “the nun”, “Bodhisattvas both with and without sexual transformation”, and onto the “Female Buddha?”. Paul clearly states that she is interested only in “gender definition” and in so casts light on all realms of “Women in Buddhism” where little is unaccounted for, including Buddha’s mother herself. 

Gross, Rita. Buddhism After Patriarchy. A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism. New York: State University of New York. 1993

            In this book, Gross takes the moniker of a “feminist Buddhist Theologian…I also work both as an insider and an outsider” (Gross 5).  She aspires to a simple primary task of writing a “feminist revalorization of Buddhism.” (3) In her fearless endeavor, Gross takes on many aspects of gender and Buddhism. The work reflects a career combining scholarship, critical engagement, advocacy, and feminist concerns.
            Gross makes the case that other women Buddhist scholars, and male scholars alike oppose, that the neutrality in the form of emptiness is in reality can carry a danger of latent androcentrism. “Despite the ways in which insight into emptiness cuts clinging and fixation, people unsympathetic to prophetic criticism of the status quo, attempt on the basis of the idea of emptiness, to defuse feminist objections to the conventional ways of proceeding and to undermine feminist objections to the conventional ways of proceeding and to undermine feminist visions to transformation.”(179). I agree with Gross on this  topic, that often neutrality lends itself to at best neglect, at worst exclusion.

Shaw, Miranda. Passionate Enlightenment, Women in Tantric Buddhism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994

            Shaw presents women as shapers of history and interpreters of their own experience by revisiting texts and from this perspective exposes many assumptions that have marginalized women in Buddhism, and reclaims the exploitive stories created by men. In return the reader is given an engaged picture of Tantrisim formed and shaped equally by women practitioners engaged in sacred sexuality.
            “In accordance with my hypothesis that women contributed to the development of Tantric Buddhist practices, theory, and iconography..”(Shaw 131). Greater study here could include more of this research to expand and grow and inform my area of study.

Gross, Rita M. “Enlightenment Consort, Great Teacher, Female Role Model.” Feminine Ground, Essays on Women and Tibet. Ed, Janice Willis, 11-32. New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1995, (1987).

            This article speaks directly to my topic of inquiry. Gross highlights Tsogyel’s ability to transform and become enlightened through her skillful means of relationships. “Her biography demonstrates a proper balance or prioritization of relationship and spiritual practice. She seeks enlightenment and gains both enlightenment and enlightened relationships.” I in turn have suggested that this is path that Western women whom I believe are more relational in their lives can be inspired and guided by Tsogyel’s experience and skill, therefore gaining in their own practice.
            Another question Gross interjects is the question of Tsogyel as a role model, and why there are so few like her? This is a theme that runs throughout my study. Especially because “…there were a lot of women like her! Four of her eleven root disciples were women and the text constantly narrates her interactions with female students, both laywomen and nuns.” (Gross 31).  She continues, “Models are much more our inspiration than they are something that once existed separate from us.” (ibid). I do not agree with her statement that “..Buddhist critique requires different categories of explanation than does feminist Christian critique”(31), because if one is searching for inspiration in a nirmakaya form, whether it be a Dakini, yogini, or saint, one is using a  dualistic path to achieve a desired outcome.

Miles, Margaret. “Roundtable Discussion: Feminist Religious History: Mapping Feminist Histories of Religious Traditions.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 22, No. 1 (April 2006): 45–52.
 In this “roundtable discussion” Miles sites three strategies of methodology in researching a more complete history of women’s involvement in the Catholic tradition (1) inclusion of undiscovered/under-discovered primary source monographs, (2) reconstructed women’s social experience (3) notice the absence of women from theological texts.  This is applicable to the method of inquiry that I have engaged upon. “For ultimately, if feminist scholars have learned anything from our labors, it is that it takes the perspectives and contributions of many people to change the way a body of thought is conceptualized and communicated.” (52)

Gross, Rita. “Roundtable Discussion: Feminist Religious History, Response.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Apr 2006): 67–74.

Gross’s response to Miles and this discourse is of crucial importance to my own work. Gross explains, “Religious practitioners, however, know that, in the present, a religion constitutes itself, at least in part, on the basis of the past it remembers. If women are represented as having fared badly in the tradition’s past, there is less warrant for improving their situation in the present. Consequently, practitioners are interested in finding a usable past, a past that includes women with whom contemporary feminists can identify and women whom they find inspiring.” (Gross 68). She calls upon the validity history and accuracy important in examining feminist history. Her claim that “Western androcentrism” is the most devastating and “constitute the fundamental obstacle of doing feminist history.” (70).  
            Gross also alludes to the problem of Western scholars omitting important stories like the one of Yeshe Tsogyel, due to the andocentric views, as opposed to looking deeper into Tibetan Buddhist version which incorporates Tsogyel as a part and as significant as Padmasambhava. “Yet Western accounts of the origins of Buddhism in Tibet, claiming to be more empirical by weeding out layers of legend, almost never mention Yeshe Tsogyel. In the eyes of Western scholars, she is part of the legendary overlay that must be excised to obtain accurate history. For Tibetan Buddhists, however, it would be impossible to think of their origins without thinking of Yeshe Tsogyel.” (72). (Although here she makes the point that accounts of Tibetan sources are inherently less andocentric, and more research needs to be done in this area). She concludes with that her motives are political, and wants her examples to empower contemporary women, (like me).

Gross, Rita. Soaring and Settling : Buddhist perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues. New York: Continuum.1998
In this book Gross has grown changed her perspective, alluding to healing and being drawn into new understandings, maybe even beyond feminism. In this, she is perhaps saying that being beyond feminism is neither being fixated with nor fixated by what being a woman means in a patriarchal world. Being beyond feminism but still feminist means being liberated to work with the conditions of one’s being, perhaps where female expresses validity through articulation of its different conditions of expression. Cautioning against a reductionism that seeks feminine solely in women and masculine solely in men, she remarks that her work with Vajrayogini “is like remembering or meeting again one’s true self.” (Gross 197)

Allione, Tsultrim. Women of Wisdom. London, England: Routlege and Kegan Paul, 1984

            One of the first books published by a woman on the topic of gender in Buddhism, from the vantage of a practicing Buddhist, Allione tells the biographies of six important Tibetan women; Nangsa Obum, Machig Labdron, Jomo Memo, Machig Ongjo, Drenchen Rema, and A-Yu Khandro. Although I ultimately did not source any of these stories, I found her the perspectives of her introduction helpful, and her personal story in the preface inspiring to me to include my own story in the introduction of my paper.


Dowman, Keith. Sky Dancer. The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel.  Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications. 1996 (1984)

            Keith Dowman takes liberty in his translation, “took poetic license to use the first person throughout.” (Dowman xvii).  Thus his emphasis in his translation was to “convey the precise meaning and feeling-tone of the original in fluent English, rather than to reproduce the peculiarities of the Tibetan style and diction.” (ibid). Perhaps this is what I found makes his translation most exciting and alive for the reader. Of these three translated published works, I felt closest to this text.
Doman’s research is extremely detailed,  and dedicates the second half of this book to the “Commentary” section, which I have found extremely informative to my research.  Within the “commentary”, he explores issues of historical importance, (both political and that of the Nyingma lineage), as well as the issue of “women and the Dakini”. He also includes a lengthy chapter on “The Path of Inner Tantra” a difficult topic to decode for the uninitiated western audience. (Although I think his translation was designed for the lay, and scholar, and practitioner alike).
            Other than the translation of the text itself and the historical information,  the commentary on “Women and the Dakini”, Dowman  takes the position of the woman,  Tsogyel  and stresses the kind of woman she may have been given her circumstance and her accomplishments. I agree with Dowman’s assertions about her character and skill throughout this part of the commentary. “The Dakini sees all men as Guru; it is the sexual metaphor describing her lack of discrimination and her willingness to unite with all men that gives her a reputation for promiscuity. Lastly, confronting every situation on the path, both adversity and good fortune, with equanimity that permits a spontaneous response free from fear and emotively, seeing every movement through the ‘third eye’, the eye of non-duel awareness, the Bodhisattva Vow automatically motivates the Dakini’s word and action.
What is lacking of Dowman’s work is an effort to understand to a greater extent where she he names as “..the greatest female Mystic”,  how a woman of such stature fits into the Buddhist pantheon after seeking Buddhahood. He skirts around this topic, by remaining in the past without regard of her prominence and future implications. 

Tulku, Tarthang. Mother of Knowledge, The Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyel.  Berkeley: Dharma Publishing. 1983

            Tarthang Tulku orally translation the text which was than edited by Jane Wilhelms. I found this translation to be much different than the other two in the respect that there was a richer quality in the tone of being told a story by a learned teacher such as Tarthang Tulku. The transliterations peppered throughout were challenging and also somewhat more poetic. Tarthang Tulku dictated this to spread the message of Tsogyel as “clearly and simply as possible.”(xviii). The translator admits his faults in over simplifying the text and hopes that Western students of Tibet logy and the Dharma will publish more in-depth translations. I agree with his assessment, yet it was good to read this through eyes of a Tibetan Tulku. This book is a labor of love, and of devotion, and it is from this perspective that the translation was written.
Tulku does not explicitly go into the debate around women in Buddhism, his implicit understanding that her form in that of a women is clear. “It is good to remember that is through a woman that these teachings have come down to us; and that the great Buddhist teachers have always emphasized the importance of the wisdom nature of women.” (xxvi).

Nyingpo, Namkahi & Changchub, Gyalwa. Lady of the Lotus Born. The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications. 1999

            In the “Forward” of this translation, Jigme Khentse Rinpoche acknowledges the other two translations which came before it, and write, “…that in these early days of Buddhism in the West, to produce another translation, as a way to further acquainting ourselves with the life of Yeshe Tsogyel, may be of some benefit.”( Jigme Rinpoche viii). I can only interpret this statement to mean that this translation be a more accessible one to the Western reader(?).  He continues to write, “..It is clear that Yeshe Tsogyel consciously decided to tell her story as a help to us in our own lives.” (ibid). I believe the perspective of this version to be as an inspirational story for the average practitioner, or Buddhist enthusiast.
            In the “Translator’s Introduction” he Jigme Rinpoche brings in the issue of gender. “Nevertheless, although the book is naturally of particular significance for women, in that it vividly refers to many of the difficulties and frustrations that have beset religious women down through the centuries, it is important to realize that it is of wider import and embodies a universal message her far beyond considerations of gender. It is not our intention to get involved in controversy arising from the complex and sensitive issues raised by the current feminist debate. And yet within the context of Buddhism as a whole, it is impossible to overlook the fact that Lady of the Lotus Born is unusually outspoken.” (xxviii).  He goes on to state that there have been issues of “parity of status and opportunity to women” (ibid).  Yet is quick to point out  that “It would be a mistake and an impoverishment to read Lady of the Lotus-Born as if it were merely a feminist tract.” (ibid). Yet if it were so, why is her gender stressed repeatedly? From an engendered place this would not have been necessary.
            Ultimately, I found this version oversimplified, and ambivalent of its perspective.  
Zangpo, Ngawang. Guru Rinpoche, His Life and Times. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. 2002

            Contains both the Bon and the Indian account for the life of Guru Rinpoche. Useful information from the perspectives of a scholarly, and as a long time practitioner under Kalu Rinpoche. I found this information useful to inform the background of Guru Rinpoche, some historical and anecdotal information. Overall, this was a good source for the life of Guru Rinpoche, as well as the supplication and visualizations for Yeshe Tsogyel. Zangpo mentions Tsogyel in the introduction to the supplication chapter, (210) but other than that there is little reference to her. 

Das, Sarat Chandra. Contributions on the Religion and History of Tibet. New Delhi, India: Manjuâsri Pub. House. 1970.

This lovely old Indian text by Sarat Chandra Das, (1849-1917), was said to be the “leading authority on the Tibetan language, religion and history” of his time. I was able to glean some valuable historical information, although I cannot speak to the scholarship of his work. I assume that it has withstood the test of time, and was affirmed by other sources.

Hoffman, Helmut. The Religions of Tibet. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. London, England: George Allen & Unwin LTD. 1961

            An interesting account of the Bon and pre-Buddhism in Tibet mingled with the historical accounts. Hoffman reaches into the heart of Tibetan debate and goes for the sometimes brutal takeover by Buddhist ruling monarchy. His opinion of women, dakinis’ and other gendered related topics is non-existent. He likens dankinis to a “Witches Sabbath” (54)  and lumps Padmasambhava’s “wives” altogether (55) in a clutch, (a gesture both inaccurate, and undeserving for each one is very different). Nevertheless I found his pictures, and his musings about the historical debates and accounts both interesting and detailed. I cannot speak to the accuracy of his facts however.
Tsogyel, Yeshe. Dakini Teachings, Padmasambhava’s Oral Instructions to Lady Tsogyel. Translated according to the oral teachings of Kyabje Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche by Erik Pema Kunsang. New Delhi, India: Rupa & Co. 2007 (1999)

            It was good to understand the teachings to Tsogyel from this translation. This text was not completely relevant to my study as much as it was informative about the teachings, dialogue, and the teachings which later were hidden as treasures.

Allione, Tsultrim. “The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist Women On the Edge. Contemporary Perspectives from the Western Frontier.  Ed., Marianne Dresser, 105-116. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1996.

            This article is adapted from her book Women of Wisdom, yet Allione adds a preface which brings her perspective twenty years after her first book. She makes a point about the current problems which continue to face women practitioners; non-inclusive language, exploitation by male teachers, nuns treated with inequality, and “those who feel that bringing these problems up is “dualistic” ( Allione 107).  This article is encouraging in the respect that women Western have only begun to translate and be recognized as practitioners relatively recently.

Derris, Karen. “When the Buddha Was Woman. Reimagining Tradition in the Theravada.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 24.2 (2008) 29-44
            Although mostly referring to the early Theravada medieval story where Buddha was reborn as a nun (Jataka) this article brings to life the possibility of female boddhisattas striving for Buddhahood. In her article she quotes Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a contemporary American Buddhist scholar-nun reclaiming Buddhist textural traditions; “To repudiate the canonical texts altogether is problematic for Buddhists. Not only is it an affront to the sensibilities of orthodox adherents, but it also calls into question the validity of the texts as a whole. Even a revisionist view ruffles feathers among the orthodox, yet a reevaluation of the texts is essential if women in Buddhism are to meaningfully apply and actualize the teachings the texts contain.” (38)
            This article informed me of the workability of those nuns and practitioners that are actively engaging by redefining roles of women in Buddhist societies. Yet it also informed my research in many ways. “Merely casting the Bodhisatta as a woman in this story was radical in the face of Theravada tradition, but for what ends? Does this addition of a female lifetime to the Buddha’s biography reflect a positive evaluation of women? Did the Bodhisatta’s female identity offer valuable resources for Theravada women in shaping their lives in Buddhist societies? These kinds of questions must be
posed if we are to assess if this story valorizes women and supports women’s potential
to make progress along the stereological path to Buddhahood. Buddhist perspectives on identity are formulated over lifetimes rather than within the frame of a single life.” (40). Although her questions are warranted, yet the author concludes that women and men can reclaim their stories that will enable them to live full lives as Buddhists, such as creating their own path as Bodhisattas.

Gyatso, Janet. “A Partial Genealogy of the Lifestory of Ye shes mtsho rgyal”. Journal of International Association  of Tibetan Studies,  2 (August 2006), 1-27

            This article is of particular importance to my inquiry due to its current and relevant material. The author explores the perspectives of historical, and the significance of Yeshe Tsogyel in regard to significance of the female image in Tibetan Buddhist practice by surveying multiple sources (some which are newly discovered). Also, she follows the text through the hundreds of years where it appears and reappears in slightly different versions, sighting the version by Taksham Nuden Dorje to be “strikingly pro-woman” as opposed to the Drime Kunga’s version which she claims “is tailored for a male audience.” Further study in this area is open for investigation.


Allione, Tsultrim. Women of Wisdom. London, England: Routlege and Kegan Paul, 1984
_______“The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist Women On the Edge.
Contemporary Perspectives from the Western Frontier.  Ed., Marianne Dresser, 105-116. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1996.

Boord, Martin J. Bulletin of Tibetology, Sikkim Research Institute of Tibetology. Gangtok, Sikkim. 2003, p. 43

Cambell, June. Traveller in Space, Gender, Identity, and Tibetan Buddhism. Revised Edition, London England: Continuum. 2002

Charleux, Isabelle. “Padmasambhava’s Travel to the North: The Pilgrimage to the Monastery of the Caves and the Old Schools of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia”. Central Asiatic Journal 46, 2 (2002) 168-232

Cheetham, David. Book review of, Traveler in Space: in search of female identity in Tibetan Buddhism, London, and Continuum. Revised edition, by June Campbell. Journal of Beliefs and Values: Studies in Religion and Education ­­­____

Christ, Carol. “Micea Eliade and the Feminist Paradigm Shift.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 75-94

Dalton, Jacob. “The Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend in Tibet”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 124.4 (2004) 759-772

Das, Sarat Chandra. Contributions on the Religion and History of Tibet. New Delhi, India: Manjuâsri Pub. House. 1970.

Derris, Karen. “When the Buddha Was Woman. Reimagining Tradition in the Theravada.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 24.2 (2008) 29-44

Dowman, Keith. Sky Dancer. The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyal.  Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications. 1996 (1984)

Drachille, Rae Erin. Book review of Women in Tibet, Columbia University Press  by Janet
Gyatso and Hanna Havnevik (eds.). Buddhist-Christian Studies 27 (2007): 172- 174

Gross, Rita. Book review of, Buddhist Goddesses Of India, Princeton University Press,  by Miranda Shaw. Buddhist-Christian Studies 28 (2008) : 178
______ “Enlightenment Consort, Great Teacher, Female Role Model. Feminine Ground, Essays on Women and Tibet. Ed, Janice Willis, 11-32. New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1995, (1987)
_______ “Roundtable Discussion: Feminist Religious History, Response.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Apr 2006): 67–74.
________. Book review of Women in Tibet, Columbia University Press  by Janet Gyatso and Hanna Havnevik (eds.). Reviews of Religion and Theology 14:3(2007)
_________ Buddhism After Patriarchy. A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism. New York: State University of New York. 1993
_________ Soaring and Settling : Buddhist perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues. New York: Continuum. 1998

Gyatso, Janet, and Havnevik, Hanna. Women in Tibet. New York, NY : Columbia University Press, 2005.
_________ “A Partial Genealogy of the Lifestory of Ye shes mtsho rgyal”. Journal of International Association  of Tibetan Studies,  2 (August 2006),

Havnevik, Hanna. Tibetan Buddhist Nuns: History, Cultural Norms, and Social Reality. Oslo: Norwegian Press, 1990

Hoffman, Helmut, The Religions of Tibet. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. London, England: George Allen & Unwin LTD. 1961

Houstan, G.W. Sources for a History of the bSam yas Debate. Germany: Hans Richarz Publikations-Services. 1980

Martin, Dan. “Unearthing Bon treasures: A study of Tibetan sources on the earlier years Journal of the American Oriental Society; Oct-Dec 1996; 116, 4; ProQuest Religion, 619

Miles, Margaret. “Roundtable Discussion: Feminist Religious History: Mapping Feminist Histories of Religious Traditions.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 22, No. 1 (April 2006): 45–52.

Nyingpo, Namkahi & Changchub, Gyalwa. Lady of the Lotus Born. The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications. 1999

Paul, Diana. Women in Buddhism, Images of the Feminine in Mahayana Tradition. London, England: University of California Press, 1985

Poseman, Ellen. Book review of Women in Tibet, Columbia University Press  by Janet Gyatso and Hanna Havnevik (eds.). Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75: 1 (Mar 2007): 216

Ray, Reginald. “Tibet Buddhism as Shamanism?” Journal of Religion (1995) 90-101

Rinpoche, Tulku Thondup. Hidden Teachings of Tibet, an Explanation of the Terma Tradition of the Nyingma School of Buddhism. London, England: Wisdom Publications. 1986

Shaw, Miranda. Buddhist Goddesses of India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

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[1] Boord, Martin J. "A Pilgrims Guide to the Hidden Land of Sikkim, Proclaimed by as a treasure by  Rig'zin Dro God Kyi  Ldem Phru Can."  Bulletin of Tibetology, p. 43, 2003

[2] Miles, Margaret. “Roundtable Discussion: Feminist Religious History: Mapping Feminist Histories of Religious Traditions.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 22, No. 1 (April 2006): 45–52. Noticing women's roles in the history of Christianity also calls into question traditional periodization, as exemplified in the late Joan Kelly's article "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in which Kelly demonstrates that, in fact, women lost ground in public and private roles during the so-called Renaissance. (46)

[3] Rita Gross, Soaring and Settling : Buddhist perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues. (New York: Continuum. 1998), 199. The prolific Feminist writer, turned Buddhist practitioner/scholar is one such person. She claims that she came to Vajrayogini through her love for Kali, “her favorite Hindu goddess then and now.”

[4]Tsogyal, Yeshe. Dakini Teachings, Padmasambhava’s Oral Instructions to Lady Tsogyal. Translated according to the oral teachings of Kyabje Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche by Erik Pema Kunsang. New Delhi, India: Rupa & Co. 2007 (1999) Jamgon Kuntrol in his version of this story notes that Padmakera killed a son of one of the ministers and was cast out to the charnol grounds for punishment, p. xvii

[5]Thurman, Robert. On Tibet (1999), Epic Films. Thurman says this during an aside in his lecture series

[6]Dowman, Keith. Sky Dancer. The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyal.  Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications. 1996 (1984),  “Thus ends the first chapter which describes how Tsogyel, having recognized the propitious time for the conversion of all beings, projected an apparitional form.” (9)
[7]Dowman, Keith. Sky Dancer. The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyal.  Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications. 1996 (1984)  “The empire that Trisong De-tsen offered his Guru included China, Jang (south of Lithang), Kham, Jar, Kongpo, Bhutan, Purang, Mengyul, Guge, Hor, Mongolia, and the Northern Plains (Jang-thang).”  (314)
[8]Dowman, Keith. Sky Dancer. The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyal.  Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications. 1996 (1984) The above passage summarizes the entire twenty-year period between the King’s Buddhist awakening and the great convocation and the consecration of Samye. ( 312)

[9] One could make the argument that the Bon were closer to “nature loving” and more embracing of the feminine aspect than Buddhism at this time, and in so even suggest that Buddhism was a patriarchal takeover of the animistic, indigenous Bon rites. In this way, Tsogyel although female, is easily accepted to the people as an embodiment of the new thought, yet in female form.
[10]Dowman, describes the various places the Bon retreated to, yet there invariably were those practicing the Bon rituals, which later influenced and shaped the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. (114)
[11]Gyatso, Janet. “A Partial Genealogy of the Lifestory of Ye shes mtsho rgyal”. Journal of International Association  of Tibetan Studies,  2 (August 2006). p. 3 Regarding first the most basic matter – is Yeshé Tsogyel a historical figure? – we are still not in a position to assert without doubt that there was an early Tibetan female master of tantric yoga called Yeshé Tsogyel or even Kharchen Za. I can say at least that there is consistency throughout the sources discussed below in locating her birth date in a bird year and her birthplace in the district of Drak, but there are discrepancies in these same sources concerning the names of her parents and suitors. There is a brief mention of Kharchen Za Tsogyel in some versions of the Chronicle of Ba (Bazhé). Interestingly, this work seems itself to be responding to the historical question of why there are no inscriptions about her by saying that she was one of the wives of Tri Songdé Tsen who was engaged in meditative practice and therefore left no legacy (chakri). However, this statement is not to be found in the apparently earlier version of the Chronicle of Ba recently published.
[12]Gyatso “A Partial Genealogy of the Lifestory of Ye shes mtsho rgyal”. Journal of International Association  of Tibetan Studies,  2 (August 2006). The writer makes a distinction that she is in control of her own faculty by her prayers being answered, and having the faith or merit to ask to be liberated from her current circumstance. (9)
[13]Cambell, June. Traveller in Space, Gender, Identity, and Tibetan Buddhism. (Revised Edition, London England: Continuum. 2002).  “In my own  experience, as the songyum of a tulku-lama of the monastic Kagyu order, Kalu Rinpoche, only one other person had knowledge of the relationship, which lasted for several years, and which took place within the strictest bounds of secrecy.” (99)
[14] See Miles, “Feminist historians tend to seek historical women who resisted victimization and found ways to achieve distinctive subjectivities and authorization for their work—individualists, in the context of their societies. In other words, we seek historical women characterized by those qualities that we—rightly or wrongly—believe ourselves to possess. Yet feminist historians, like other women, are heavily inscribed by a society in which media culture replaces and strengthens
 earlier societies’ face-to-face socialization. And socialization informs not only behavior but also subjectivity.”  (52)