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.

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.” Some highlights include:

  • Forward by Ringu Tulku
  • “Facing Your Mind” by Jamgön Kongtrul & Dudjom Lingpa (trans. John Canti)
  • “Playful Primers on the Path” by Patrul Rinpoché (trans. Joshua Schapiro)
  • “A Letter to the Queen” by Jikmé Lingpa (trans. Jann Ronis)
  • “Advice for Solitary Retreat” by Do Khyentse and Disciples (trans. Holly Gayley)
  • “How to Practice While Ill” by Jikmé Lingpa (trans. Wulstan Fletcher)
  • “A Meditation Instructor’s Manual” by Patrul Rinpoché (trans. Sarah Harding)
  • “Pointing Out the Nature of Awareness” by Ju Mipham (trans. Douglas Duckworth)

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”).

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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:

Ethical reform in eastern Tibet

circumambulating-at-larung-garBuddhist ethical reform has become a major force in eastern Tibet, spearheaded by Larung Buddhist Academy in remote Serta, also known as Larung Gar. A new set of “ten virtues” (dge bcu), first formulated in 2008, have spread to neighboring areas in Kandze Prefecture and beyond. In “Reimagining Buddhist Ethics on the Tibetan Plateau,” I trace the ideological basis for this reform movement in the writings of Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro, one of the main successors of Larung founder, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok (1933-2004).  And, with Professor Padmatso in “Nonviolence as a Shifting Signifier on the Tibetan Plateau,” I explore a new articulation of nonviolence in the “amulet for peace” (zhi bde rtags ma) introduced by Khenpo Rigdzin Dargye in 2012.

Sadly, the state-mandated demolition of numerous monastic residences has been underway at Larung Gar since July. For the most up-to-date information, visit Radio Free Asia. For more photos and a short essay on the importance of Larung Gar, see my “Why Larung Gar, the Buddhist institute in eastern Tibet, is so Important” on The Lion’s Roar.

Monks circumambulating the Jutrul Temple at Larung Gar, photo by Holly Gayley.

Dharma Gathering at Nyenlung

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Photos © Holly Gayley

Since 1996, each year Nyenlung Monastery holds a dharma gathering (chos tshogs) during the auspicious month of Sagadawa. When Tare Lhamo was alive, the couple sat side by side on a peacock throne in the outdoor pavilion to give teachings to large gatherings of a thousand or more seated on the hillside below. These photos come from the dharma gathering I attended in 2006 with Namtrul Rinpoche presiding. It shows the crowds gathered and its varied activities, including an elaborate procession to consecrate anew the sacred structures on the monastery grounds. Today, Namtrul Rinpoche’s son, Tulku Laksam, presides over ritual occasions at Nyenlung.

Read an excerpt from Love Letters from Golok describing this event:

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