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


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”).

Continue reading

Compassion for Animals

Liberated YakThough the 17th Karmapa may be more well-known in the west for his promotion of vegetarianism at the 2007 Kagyu Monlam, Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro has campaigned for the compassionate treatment of animals on various fronts since the early 2000s.

A renowned khenpo (cleric-scholar) at the helm of Larung Buddhist Academy in Serta, Tsultrim Lodro has called on ordinary Tibetans in nomadic areas to stop selling their livestock for slaughter, to minimize the suffering of animals when killing for their own consumption, and to reduce their own meat consumption with further encouragement for monastics to become vegetarian.

Due to his advocacy and that of the Karmapa, many Nyingma and Kagyu monasteries in eastern Tibet no longer serve meat from their monastery kitchens, though individual monks and nuns are free to follow their own dietary choices outside of communal meals. In some areas, ordinary Tibetan families observe meatless days on holiday occasions.

Tsultrim Lodro also promotes the protection of wildlife habitats and the traditional practice of “liberating lives” (tshe thar), which involves releasing fish into lakes or tying a ribbon to a yak to mark it as forever “liberated” from slaughter (as the photo above shows). Read more about Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro’s advocacy for animal welfare in my article, “The Compassionate Treatment of Animals: A Contemporary Buddhist Approach in Eastern Tibet” in the March 2017 issue of the Journal of Religious Ethics. 

Modern Miracles

Pema GarwangWhen traveling in Padma County, a Tibetan friend took me to meet her great uncle, Pema Garwang, a Tibetan doctor who survived eighteen years of prison during the Maoist period. To bolster his courage, he composed this aspiration prayer to Khandro Tare Lhamo:

Oh, from Tara’s pure and spontaneous display, Yulo Kopa,
Arises a magical emanation of noble Tara, mother of buddhas,
I supplicate the holder of secret mantra, Tare Lhamo;
Over many lifetimes without separation, you have accepted me.
Producing the wisdom of the four joys, bliss emptiness,
You are ultimately Kuntu Zangmo; in the land of the dakinis,
May I be liberated through dissolving into a rainbow body of light.

During that time, as protection, Pema Garwang stitched a piece of Tare Lhamo’s hair into his coat, and miraculously a gold ring that she had given him could not be forcibly removed.

I tell Pema Garwang’s story of his faith in Tare Lhamo in “Modern Miracles of a Female Buddhist Master,” for Figures of Buddhist Modernity in Asia, edited by Jeffrey Sameuls, Justin McDaniel, and Mark Rowe (University of Hawai’i Press, 2016).

Listen to this recording of his prayer, which varies slightly from this translation above of his written version: