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

A Fresh Perspective on Yeshe Tsogyal

9781611804348_1Yeshe Tsogyal is the foremost Tibetan woman associated with the advent of Buddhism in Tibet. This was a time of imperial power, when Tibet controlled vast tracts of Central Asia between the seventh and ninth centuries. A princess-turned-yogini in the lore of that period, Yeshe Tsogyal is remembered as the disciple and consort to the great Indian tantric master, Padmasambhava, and later a teacher in her own right. She has remained central to Tibetan art and ritual and continues to be a living presence for Tibetans amid pilgrimage sites associated with her, in the visions of realized masters, and through her emanations in each generation.

Until now, English readers have only had access to one version of Yeshe Tsogyal’s life story, revealed by Taksham Nuden Dorje in the seventeenth century. This August, a new translation came out from Shambhala Publications, translated by Chonyi Drolma, of a lesser known version of her life revealed by the fourteenth-century master, Drime Kunga.  The Life and Visions of Yeshe Tsogyal: The Autobiography of the Great Wisdom Queen also contains photographs of sites associated with Yeshe Tsogyal in central Tibet and a series of introductory essays:

  • “Inspirations from Yeshe Tsogyal’s Namthar” by Khandro Trinlay Chodron
  • “Our Incalcuable Debt to Yeshe Tsogyal” by Anam Thubten Rinpoche
  • “Yeshe Tsogyal, the Guiding Light” by Chagdud Khadro
  • “Mother of the Victorious Ones” by Judith Simmer-Brown
  • “In the Company of Angels and Saints” by Ngawang Zangpo
  • “Yeshe Tsogyal as Female Exemplar” by Holly Gayley

See an article I wrote on the “Many Lives of Yeshe Tsogyal” many years ago for the magazine, Buddhadharma.

An Emanation of Green Tara

Tara

The Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women took place in Hong Kong from June 22 to 28, 2017. There I presented a paper on “A Contemporary Emanation of Green Tara in Tibet,” exploring the newest (as yet unpublished) biography of Khandro Tare Lhamo (1938-2002), a contemporary female Buddhist visionary from eastern Tibet. This local version of her life story casts her as an emanation of Tara, her namesake, and focuses on her compassionate and visionary activities early in life, while still living in her homeland of Padma County in Golok, eastern Tibet.

My paper discusses the importance of local conceptions of the bodhisattva Tara, her enduring presence for Tibetans in the form of female emanations, and Tare Lhamo’s compassionate intervention in the lives of local community members.

The conference proceedings will be available soon in e-book format on the Sakyadhita website. See photos of the conference below (by clicking on “Continue reading”).

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