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.

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”).

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: