New Anthology: Voices from Larung Gar

Just released in April!

Voices from Larung Gar is the first collection of talks and writings by the leading voices of Larung Gar, the largest Buddhist institution on the Tibetan plateau. The book offers a compelling vision for Buddhism in the twenty-first century by some of the most erudite, creative, and influential Tibetan Buddhist luminaries today. In everyday language, these leaders delve into an array of contemporary issues, including science, ethics, gender equity, and animal welfare.

This collection features contributions from a range of prominent figures who are forging dynamic, modern paths forward for an ancient tradition. Included are the internationally renowned Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, founder of Larung Gar, his distinguished successors Khenpos Sodargye and Tsultrim Lodro, and erudite nuns holding the scholarly title Khenmo, who are becoming known for their impressive publishing projects. Larung Gar is thus one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most vital communities, actively balancing cultural preservation and innovation.

AVAILABLE FOR ORDER NOW at Shambhala Publications
Enter code VOICES30 for 30% off before May 15, 2021.

“This anthology gives voice to the amazing leaders of the most dynamic Tibetan Buddhist institution of the last century. It illustrates vividly the remarkable ways in which Larung Gar monks and nuns are engaging modern social issues while remaining deeply grounded in their beloved Buddhist traditions.” —David Germano, Executive Director of the Contemplative Sciences Center at the University of Virginia

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Karma and Female Agency in Bhutanese Novels

Congrats to Sonam Nyenda and Tshering Om Tamang for the inaugural issue of the International Journal for Bhutan & Himalayan Research!

I am honored to be the guest editor for this special issue on “Contemporary Bhutanese Literature,” featuring academic articles by Sonam Kinga, Sonam Nyenda, Tshering Om Tamang and myself, along with an essay by leading Bhutanese writers, Chador Wangmo, Rinzin Rinzin and Namgyal Tshering, and other contributions. Also included is an important Preface on “Why Bhutanese Literature Matters” by Dorji Thinley, President of the Paro College of Education, Royal University of Bhutan.

My own article on “Karma and Female Agency in Novels by Bhutanese Women Writers” engages in a comparison of the novels, Circle of Karma (2005) by Kunzang Choden and Kyetse (2017) by Chador Wangmo. There are a number of parallel features in these works that make for a salient comparison. Both center on female protagonists who begin their lives with keenly-felt religious aspirations and, following a series of misfortunes that propel them from their homelands, eventually become nuns. Both are unflinching in confronting gender issues, including sexual abuse and human trafficking, through the lived experiences of an array of female characters. In addition, both use karma as a narrative devise, though to different effect, at pivotal moments in the narrative as the protagonists attempt to make sense of their predicaments. In analyzing these novels, my article examines the gendered deployment of karma and its relationship to female agency.

The PDF of the inaugural issue of the International Journal for Bhutan & Himalayan Research (Fall 2020) is available here:

Buddhist Visions of the Feminine

Buddhist Feminisms and Femininities (cover)

When recounting the life stories of female visionaries, male cleric authors build on specific gendered ideals of sanctity. What is the rationale for and impact of their choices? My chapter in the newly published volume, Buddhist Feminisms and Femininities (2019), edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, compares three different versions of the life of Khandro Tāre Lhamo (1938–2002), a contemporary visionary from the Tibetan region of Golok. Each version was composed by Tibetan cleric-scholars from different regions and offer divergent perspectives on her life. Whereas in earlier hagiographic writings, Tāre Lhamo’s life is to a large extent subsumed into that of her second husband, Namtrul Rinpoche (1944–2011), the newest namthar (or story of “complete liberation”) by Khenpo Rigdzin Dargye from Tsimda Gompa, the monastery founded by her father, presents her story on its own terms. Based on interviews with locals in her homeland, especially female companions in youth, this namthar sheds new light on Tāre Lhamo’s early years and local understandings of her religious vocation and standing. A comparison of these three versions of her life promises to reveal the surprising ways that attention to geographic and institutional situatedness can nuance our understanding of the models male authors choose to depict their female subjects.

New Book of Translations: Inseparable Across Lifetimes

inseparable across lifetimesAwarded the Kayden Translation Award at CU Boulder.

An inspiring and intimate tale set against the turmoil of recent Tibetan history, Inseparable across Lifetimes offers for the first time the translations of love letters between two modern Buddhist visionaries, Khandro Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche. The letters are poetic, affectionate, and prophetic, articulating a hopeful vision of renewal that drew on their past lives together and led to their twenty-year partnership. This couple played a significant role in restoring Buddhism in the region of Golok once China’s revolutionary fervor gave way to reform.

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“An instant classic, Gayley’s translations of contemporary love letters between a Tibetan visionary couple are luminous. The couple’s spiritual courtship animates a relationship that bridges the traditional and modern, transcendent and mundane. This is an inspiring page-turner that shows mutually transformative love is really possible.”

—Judith Simmer-Brown, author of Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism

Inseparable across Lifetimes tells the amazing personal stories of two Buddhist masters in twentieth-century Tibet, and their love letters are skillfully translated here into soaring yet intimate English. Few publications record this crucial time period after the cultural devastation of Tibet, and fewer still offer such visionary hope for some kind of transformation.”

—Sarah Harding, author of Niguma, Lady of Illusion

“In a love relationship that was not just based on ordinary passions, but rather the union of incisive knowledge and skillful means, Namtrul Rinpoche and Khandro Tāre Lhamo came to know the pure essence of wisdom exaltation as the sacred union of male and female. They used this unobstructed power to work for the welfare of others through their enlightened deeds. I am grateful to Holly Gayley for bringing their exemplary life stories and songs of profound union into the English language so that readers can glimpse the best of our Tibetan Vajrayana tradition.”

—Lama Chonam, teacher and translator, Light of Berotsana Translation Group

Secrecy & Tantric Consorts

Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal in YabyumWith the global #MeToo movement underway, and recent disclosures of sexual improprieties and alleged abuse within Tibetan Buddhist communities, it seems timely to revisit the topic of sexuality in Buddhist tantra.

My newly published article, “Revisiting the Secret Consort (gsang yum) in Tibetan Buddhism” (Religions, June 2018) offers a historical lens on consort relationships to help inform contemporary contexts and controversies. I discuss shifting views and practices toward sexuality and secrecy in Tibetan Buddhism and provide examples of 20th century women who have engaged in consort relationships.

Is the consort relationship (heterosexually conceived) empowering or exploitative to women? I try to complicate this question, first raised by feminist scholars in the 1990s, by showing the variety of experiences women have had across spacial and temporal distances–from eastern Tibet to North America.

I also call attention to current voices advocating for greater transparency around sexual misconduct and alleged abuse in Tibetan Buddhist communities in Europe and North America.

Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal in union, photo by Holly Gayley.

Buddhist Ethics in Contemporary Tibet

Amulet of PeaceIn the last decade on the Tibetan plateau and in the diaspora, several movements have emerged that interlink Tibetan identity and Buddhist ethics. These include the new “ten virtues” (dge bcu) promoted by Larung Buddhist Academy in eastern Tibet, the Lhakar or ‘White Wednesday’ (lhag dkar) movement underway since 2009, trends in Tibetan pop music, the ‘amulet for peace’ (zhi bde rtags ma) introduced in 2012, and more.

I trace these in a chapter on “Buddhist Ethics in Contemporary Tibet” published in the new Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Ethics (2018). The chapter explores ethical reform as a constructive process of subject formation in which loyalty to Tibetan culture and devotion to Buddhist teachers overlap. It is the culmination of several publications on Ethical Reform in Eastern Tibet.

Photo: The image for the “amulet for peace” combines global symbols for peace (dove and peace sign) with Buddhist imagery, a bodhi leave with the seed syllable Hrih on it. On this sticker, the Tibetan reads: “Friends, let’s create harmonious relations together.” Read more about the amulet for peace in an article I co-authored with Professor Padma ‘tsho, “Non-Violence as a Shifting Signifier on the Tibetan Plateau” in the journal, Contemporary Buddhism. Photo Credit: Holly Gayley.

Coming Full Circle

Kunzang Drak PilgrimageVisiting Bhutan again after fifteen years felt like coming full circle. My first research project explored the revelatory career of Pema Lingpa (1450–1521) after Sarah Harding invited me to write the introduction to her book of translations, The Life and Revelations of Pema Lingpa (2003).

In February, it was wonderful to revisit Pema Lingpa’s homeland in the Tang Valley of Bumthang. Auspiciously, on his parinirvana day, we toured Kunzang Drak, his retreat hermitage (photo on right); Tamzhing, the temple he founded; and Pema Choling Nunnery, a monastic college for nuns in the Peling tradition, established by Gangteng Tulku. Construction had hardly begun on the nunnery when I last visited, so it was heartening to see it flourishing.

While in Bumthang, we had the opportunity to visit and stay at Ogyen Choling, the manor belonging to descendants of Dorje Lingpa, now transformed into a museum and heritage guesthouse. There we had the opportunity to spend time with Ashi Kunzang Choden, who spearheaded the transformation and is a pioneering Bhutanese writer, perhaps best known for her novel, A Circle of Karma (2005). The novel follows a woman’s journey from betrayal in marriage to the challenges of making her way in the world, venturing on pilgrimage throughout Buddhist Himalaya and finally returning to Bhutan as a nun.

This trip launched a collaborative project on contemporary Bhutanese literature with Sonam Nyenda, my host and Director of the newly established Bhutan & Himalayan Research Centre at Royal University of Bhutan. While in Thimphu, I gave the inaugural lecture for the center on “Translating Buddhist Advice on Meditation across Languages and Cultures” and was able to meet several other leading women writers. It turned out to be a fruitful research trip and pilgrimage.

Paperback release of Love Letters from Golok

love-letters-from-golokThe paperback is now out for Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet, which chronicles the lives and letters of Khandro Tare Lhamo (1938–2002) and Namtrul Rinpoche (1944–2011). This Buddhist tantric couple played a significant role in revitalizing Buddhist teachings, practices, and institutions in the Tibetan region of Golok during post-Mao era.

Get 30% off at Columbia University Press with discount code: GAYLEY.
Read select letters in current issue of Tricyle Magazine.

I began this research project in 2004, when I first visited Golok. On that occasion, Namtrul Rinpoche kindly gave me their published corpus of revelations and an extra volume containing his correspondence with Tare Lhamo over more than a year, beginning in 1978. Their letters are almost entirely in verse, containing prophecies about their future revelations and intimate expressions of affection. The interplay of love and destiny in their letters and lives is a central theme in the book, alongside strategies for narrating cultural trauma related to their coming of age during the Maoist period. Read more

Advice for Solitary Retreat

Gathering of Brilliant MoonsPithy works of advice on meditation practice can often be difficult to find in translation. Just published by Wisdom, A Gathering of Brilliant Moons: Practice Advice from the Rimé Masters of Tibet contains nearly twenty such works by favorite authors including Patrul Rinpoche, Ju Mipham, Jamgön Kongrul, Dudjom Lingpa, Do Khyentsé and other Buddhist masters from nineteenth-century Kham in eastern Tibet. Lively, poignant, and practical, these are gems of wisdom to guide and inspire an ecumenical approach to Buddhist practice.

New anthology of translations! To purchase, visit: Wisdom Publications

You can view a sample translation on the Wisdom Publications blog, a letter that the Third Dodrupche, Jigmé Tenpai Nyima wrote to a disciple about solitary retreat.

I worked with my colleague, Joshua Schapiro, on editing this anthology, contributing three of my own translations, and co-authoring an introduction. In introductory essays  by master translators and scholars alike, we explore the genre of shaldam or “personal advice,” the art of translation, and the ecumenical bent of this nineteenth-century circle of luminaries.

Experiences, happy or sad, good or bad–whatever may arise,
not fabricating or changing them, just let them be;
to recognize but not cling to them, that is the crucial point;
this is the very pinnacle of all instruction. – Dudjom Lingpa

The anthology came about as a result of a conference in April 2013 at the University of Colorado Boulder, “Translating Buddhist Luminaries: A Conference on Ecumenism and Tibetan Translation.” See book review on Reading Religion.