Holly Gayley, Associate Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, is a scholar and translator of contemporary Buddhist literature in Tibet. Her research areas include gender and sexuality in Buddhist tantra, ethical reform in contemporary Tibet, and theorizing translation, both literary and cultural, in the transmission of Buddhist teachings to North America.
I became interested in the study of Buddhism through my travels among Tibetan communities in India, Nepal, and China. I completed an M.A. in Buddhist Studies at Naropa University in 2000 and Ph.D. at Harvard University in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies in 2009. My first book titled, Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet, was release in 2016 by Columbia University Press. The book chronicles the lives and letters of a contemporary Buddhist tantric couple, Khandro Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Jigme Phuntsok (locally known as Namtrul Rinpoche), who played a significant role in revitalizing Buddhism in eastern Tibet since the 1980s. Examining Buddhist conceptions of gender, agency and healing, Love Letters from Golok recovers Tibetan voices in representing their own modern history under Chinese rule and contributes to burgeoning scholarly literature on Buddhist women, minorities in China, and studies of collective trauma. My translations of their lives and letters can be found in a second book, Inseparable Across Lifetimes: The Lives and Love Letters of a Visionary Couple, Namtrul Rinpoche and Khandro Tare Lhamo (Snow Lion Publications, 2019), which was awarded the 2021 Kayden Translation Award at CU Boulder.
As a second project, I have explored the emergence of Buddhist modernism on the Tibetan plateau and a new ethical reform movement led by cleric-scholars at Larung Buddhist Academy in Serta. This project crystalized in the publication of an anthology of translations, Voices from Larung Gar: Shaping Tibetan Buddhism for the Twenty-First Century (Snow Lion Publications, 2021). My other publications on the topic include:
- “The Compassionate Treatment of Animals: A Contemporary Buddhist Approach in Eastern Tibet” (Journal of Religious Ethics, 2017)
- “Controversy over Buddhist Ethical Reform: A Secular Critique of Clerical Authority in the Tibetan Blogosphere” (Himalaya Journal, 2016)
- “Non-Violence as a Shifting Signifier on the Tibetan Plateau” (Contemporary Buddhism, 2016 with Padmatso)
- “Reimagining Buddhist Ethics on the Tibetan Plateau (Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2013)
My interest in recovering Buddhist women’s voices in Tibetan and Himalayan literature has more recently extended into three distinct research projects. (1) “Karma and Female Agency in Novels by Bhutanese Women Writers” (published in 2020 in the International Journal of Bhutan and Himalayan Research) analyzes female-authored Bhutanese Anglophone fiction tackling women’s issues, including domestic violence, rape, and sexual trafficking, through a Buddhist lens. (2) “The In/Visibility of Nuns and Yoginis in Dudjom Lingpa’s Songs of Advice” (in press) seeks out the presence of women in Tibetan religious circles at the margins of writings by and about male Buddhist masters. I look for glimpses into the life circumstances of female practitioners, the gendered challenges they faced, and male attitudes toward them in Nyingma circles in nomadic Golok through songs of advice explicitly addressed to nuns and yoginis in the literary corpus of the nineteenth-century visionary Dudjom Lingpa. (3) “Parody and Pathos: Sexual Transgression by ‘Fake’ Lamas in Tibetan Short Stories” (in progress, co-authored with Somtsobum) explores gendered approaches to critiquing sexual transgressions by Buddhist lamas (or those posing as such) in modern Tibetan-language fiction.
In 2015, with CU Boulder colleagues Emily Yeh and Carole McGranahan, I co-founded the Tibet Himalaya Initiative (THI), an interdisciplinary hub for the study of this rapidly changing region. In addition, I served as member of the Steering Committee for the Tsadra Translation and Transmission Conferences held in Colorado in 2014 and 2017 and have organized two more translation conferences at the University of Colorado in 2013 and 2018. The first resulted in an anthology of translations, which I co-edited with Joshua Schapiro A Gathering of Brilliant Moons: Practice Advice from the Rime Masters of Tibet (Wisdom Publications, 2017). The second is a work in progress, Longing to Awaken: Exploring Buddhist Devotion in Tibetan Poetry and Song, under contract with the UVA Press in their series on Traditions and Transformations in Tibetan Buddhism.
For a complete list of my publications, visit: www.colorado.edu/rlst/holly-gayley