Kālacakra as the ‘ultimate pinnacle’ of all the tantras: Jetsun Tāranātha and 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje

The Kālacakra is often stated to be the ‘ultimate pinnacle’ of all the tantras in various traditions, and it claims so itself.

A new post here on this website, details the reasons for that assertion given by Jetsun Tāranātha and 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje. Includes exclusive, new excerpts from Tāranātha’s Kālacakra masterpiece ‘A Hundred Blazing Lights’.

“However, even compared to other Unexcelled Highest Yoga Tantras, the greatest and most supreme is the glorious Kālacakratantra; the only tantra of the ultimate, profound meaning of the vajra-yogas. It is the ‘ultimate’ or ‘pinnacle’ of all the vehicles of path and result, since it contains the results of the six branches of vajra-yoga, the ultimate pinnacle of all the vehicles of the Tripitaka teachings of the Buddha, is the glorious Kālacakratantra.”
– Jetsun Tāranātha, ‘A Hundred Blazing Lights: Commentary on ‘Meaningful to See’
For full article on this see here.

New Translation: ‘Eight Swirling Spears’ by Gotsangpa, with commentary by HE 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche

As an offering to the gurus on this Dakini Day, I publish for the first time, a new translation of a ‘song’ by Tibetan master, Gotsangpa Gonpo Dorje ( rgod tshang pa mgon po rdo rje) (1189-1258), a series of short verses that he calls ‘Eight Swirling Spears’ (mdung skor brgyad); together with a compiled commentary on the text by HE 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche. The small booklet, with introduction and footnotes, can be downloaded for free, here: The Eight Swirling Spears in Space.

Gotsangpa Gonpo Dorje

Gotsangpa was a mahasiddha of the Drukpa Kagyu school, well known for his songs of realisation and said to have been an emanation of Milarepa. He founded the branch of the Drukpa Kagyu school known as the Upper Drukpa (stod ‘brug). His students included Orgyenpa Rinchen Pal[i], who is considered to also be a great Kalacakra lineage master. According to the Nyingma master, Patrul Rinpoche when he was asked who were the two greatest practitioners in Tibet, of Shantideva’s Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, he said one was Gotsangpa[ii].

Gotsangpa states this ‘song’ was composed at a place called ‘White Garuda’ (khyung dkar) [iii] between the years 1233-1236.  These ‘eight spears’ he refers to in the text, represent the view, meditation, conduct, fruition, samaya, compassion, dependent origination, and enlightened activity.   Gotsangpa sings about how each ‘spear’ has three aspects. When these three aspects are all present, then the spear swirls freely in space, without obstruction. Meaning that particular ‘spear’ is accomplished, complete and free. In English, we might say ‘flying free like a kite’.

This commentary on the text here by HE 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche is an edited compilation of two public teachings Rinpoche gave on this text. The first was a teaching he gave in English in three sessions in Germany in 2011. I have transcribed and edited that teaching and included it here. The second teaching is from the pre-Kagyu Monlam teachings Rinpoche gave in Bodh Gaya in January, 2019. The teaching in Bodh Gaya was in Tibetan and the translation of that produced here is largely based on the English oral translation by David Karma Chophel, a transcript produced by Michele Martin and my own notes and additions, where the Tibetan had not been translated and so on.

The only English translation I have seen of the root text verses was by Jim Scott[iv], a student and translator of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist yogi master who regularly taught this text. HE 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche told me that he also received teachings on this text from Khenpo Rinpoche, when he was a student at Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim, India. I have done a new translation of the text, which is closer to the Tibetan original. I have also included the Tibetan script and phonetics for those who like to chant such songs in the Tibetan.

Out of respect for these two great masters who taught this text I have also included in this publication, two new translations of long-life prayers written by HH 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje. The first prayer is for 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche and the second for Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche.

Any errors are all mine, a simple woman. May it be of benefit!

[i] Orgyenpa Rinchen Pel (o rgyan pa rin chen dpal) (1229 -1309) also known as Orgyen Nyendrub, was also a teacher of the third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje. According to his biography: ‘For twelve years Orgyenpa studied Kālacakra, mainly in the traditions of Dro Lotsāwa (‘bro lo tsA ba) and Chak Lotsāwa (chag lo tsA ba), and the major Kagyu doctrines with Gotsangpa.’ Orgyenpa, who was also a disciple of Karma Pakshi, 2nd Karmapa Lama, became a great siddha who traveled to Bodhgaya, Jalandhar, Oddiyana and China. In Oddiyana he received teachings related to the Six Branch Yoga of the Kalachakra system known as the “Approach and Attainment of the Three Adamantine States” (rdo rje gsum gyi bsnyen sgrub) and, after returning to Tibet, founded the Orgyen Nyendrup tradition and wrote many works including a famous guide to the land of Oddiyana.  See https://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Orgyenpa-Rinchen-Pel/2733

[ii] This story was told by HE Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche in some mind-training teachings he gave in Nepal in April, 2014. He became known as Gotsangpa after meditating for several years at a cave near the border of Nepal called Gotsangpa cave. See also Gotsangpa’s biography translated by Dan Martin at https://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Gotsangpa-Gonpo-Dorje/3759.

[iii] This place name where Gotsangpa states he composed this text is called khyung dkar. I asked Dan Martin, who translated Gotsangpa’s biography, when Gotsangpa was there and he helpfully sent me chronologies from the following source:  Rare Tibetan texts from Lahul: Narrative Accounts of Rgod tshang pa Mgon po rdo rje, Chos rgyal G.yu sna Legs pa’i don grub & Sras Gu ru Chos kyi dbang phyug. LMpj 015,893. SB 5097. Set X.  The biography contained here, on pp. 1-325, has no specific title, but the colophon title is as follows (318.2):  Chos rje rgod tshang ba’i stod pa nyi shu rtsa lnga’i sgo gnas stod pa rnam par thar pa yon tan kun bsal zhes bya ba. It states that he was at that place for three years until age 38: de nas khyung dkar dang spang dkar gnyis su lo gsum te so brgyad / 1233-1236.

There is also a similar passage in Rgod tshang pa Mgon po rdo rje, 1189-1258, The Collected Works of Rgod tshang pa Mgon po rdo rje, the founder of the Upper Tradition (Stod) of the ‘Brug pa Dkar brgyud pa, Tango Monastic Community (Thimphu 1981).  5 vols.   LMpj 014,572.  Set VIII.  This also states that Gotsangpa was there for three years (1233-1236), de nas shri ri khyung dkar du lo gsum.

[iv] http://www.ktgrinpoche.org/songs/eight-flashing-lances.

Sakya and Kālacakra: the Galo, Śākyaśrī and Vajrayogini lineages and contemporary master, Chogye Rinpoche

The Sakya and Kālacakra: Lineage teachers of many Jonang masters, including Dolpopa. Also, holders of the most direct lineage of Kālacakra in the world today, given directly by Vajrayogini, the Sakya have a strong history and connection to Kālacakra.

In this short blog post, I discuss the Kālacakra lineages of Sakya, contemporary masters and post some photos of my recent visit to the late Sakya Kālacakra master, Chogye Trichen Rinpoche’s monastery (Jamchen Lhakhang) in Boudha, Nepal and his small kudung stupa housed in his former personal residence there.

Considering that much has been written the tradition of Kālacakra in relation to HH 14th Dalai Lama and Gelugpa and more recently, the Jonang, I have sought to balance this out, by writing about the Kālacakra traditions and masters in Kagyu: see here and here,  and Nyingma: see here and here.

The Sakya Lineages

The Sakya lineage are also important holders in the history of the Kālacakra tradition. As Jetsun Tāranātha writes in One Hundred Blazing Lights, there are seventeen identifiable lineages of Kālacakra that were brought from India to Tibet by Indian mahasiddhas. These were compiled by the Jonang master Kunpang Chenpo; see post about these lineages here.

Two of these lineages, distinct from the Dro and Rwa lineages that are mainly practised today, are clearly identifiable Sakya lineages. These are:

  • The six-branch yoga of the Hevajra mother tantra that Galo [Ga Lotsāwa  (1105/1110 – 1198/1202) was a great siddha and translator who visited India; also known as Palchen Galo [‘Galo’ is an abbreviation of Ga Lotsāwa, or “the translator of the Ga clan”] gave to the great Sakyapa Lama Kunga Nyingpo.[1]
  • That which the great Kashmiri Pandit Śākyaśrī[2] also gave to the Lord of Dharma Sakya Panchen[3], distinguished by the Six Vajra Verses of the hearing lineage.

In addition, Kunkhyen Dolpopa (1292-1361), one of the main Jonang master and founders, who was also considered to be an accomplished practitioner of Kālacakra, got the original transmission and instructions on it from Sakya lineage masters. As his Treasury of Lives biography states:

In 1309 he traveled to Mustang (glo) to study the treatises on the vehicle of the perfections, epistemology, and abhidharma with the master Kyiton Jamyang Drakpa Gyeltsen (skyi ston ‘jam dbyangs grags pa rgyal mtshan, d.u.). Kyiton soon left Mustang and went to teach in the great monastery of Sakya (sa skya) in the Tsang region of Tibet, and Dolpopa followed him there in 1312.  Dolpopa received many teachings from Kyiton at Sakya, the most important of which were the Kālacakra Tantra, the Bodhisattva Trilogy (sems ‘grel skor gsum), the ten Sutras on the Buddha-nature (snying po’i mdo), the five Sutras of Definitive Meaning, and the Five Treatises of Maitreya. He became an expert in the Kālacakra tradition he received from Kyiton and served as his teaching assistant for several years. He also received teachings and initiations from other masters at Sakya, such as the Sakya throne-holder of the Khon (‘khon) family, Daknyi Chenpo Sangpo Pel (bdag nyid chen po bzang po dpal, 1262-1324). From Kunpang Drakpa Gyeltsen (kun spangs grags pa rgyal mtshan, d.u.) he again received the Vimalaprabhā commentary on the Kālacakra Tantra.

In terms of contemporary Sakya masters, there appears to be few today alive who practise or give empowerments of it. I attended a Kālacakra empowerment in London in 2012, given by HH 41st Sakya Trizin, who has given the empowerments several times in different countries.

The only other contemporary Sakya master who practised and gave empowerment of it was Chogye Trichen Rinpoche (bco brgyad khri chen) aka Ngawang Khyenrab Thupten Lekshé Gyatso (ngag dbang mkhyen rab thub bstan legs bshad rgya mtsho) (1920-2007), who was also the root lama of one of the main scholars and translators of Dolpopa and the Jonang lineage, Dr. Cyrus Stearns. Chogye Rinpoche was the head of the Tsarpa branch of the Sakya school. He was born in Tsang in 1920 and was recognized by the Thirteenth Dalai Lamas the reincarnation of the previous Chogye Rinpoche of the Nalendra Monastery. For a more extensive biography of Rinpoche see this blog post here.

Chogye Trichen Rinpoche

Chogye Rinpoche and the direct lineage of Kālacakra from Vajrayogini

According to biographies, the previous Chogye Trichen Rinpoches, Khyenrab Choje (1436–97), beheld the sustained vision of the female tantric deity Vajrayogini at Drak Yewa in central Tibet, and received extensive teachings and initiations directly from her. Two forms of Vajrayogini appeared out of the face of the rocks at Drak Yewa, one red in color and the other white, and they bestowed the Kālacakra initiation on Khyenrab Choje. When he asked if there was any proof of this, his attendant showed the master the kusha grass that Khyenrab Choje brought back with him from the initiation. It was unlike any kusha grass found in this world, with rainbow lights sparkling up and down the length of the dried blades of grass.

This direct lineage from Vajrayogini is the ‘shortest’, the most recent and direct, lineage of the Kālacakra empowerment and teachings that exists in this world. Not much as been written or studied about this lineage, I am thinking of writing another post soon about this lineage and transmission in more detail, if the materials are easily accessible.

In addition to being known as the emanation of Manjushri, Khyenrab Choje had previously been born as many of the Kings of Shambhala as well as numerous Buddhist masters of India. These are some indications of his unique relationship to the Kālacakra tradition.

Chogye Trichen Rinpoche is the holder of six different Kālacakra initiations, four of which, the Bulug, Jonang, Maitri-gyatsha, and Domjung, are contained within the Gyude Kuntu, the Collection of Tantras compiled by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and his disciple Loter Wangpo. Rinpoche has offered all six of these empowerments to Sakya Trizin, the head of the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism.

Rinpoche has given the Kālacakra initiation in Tibet, Mustang, Kathmandu, Malaysia, the United States, Taiwan, and Spain, and is widely regarded as a definitive authority on Kālacakra. In 1988 he traveled to the United States, giving the initiation and complete instructions in the practice of the six-branch Vajrayoga of Kālacakra according to the Jonangpa tradition in Boston.

Chogye Rinpoche has completed extensive retreat in the practice of Kālacakra, particularly of the six-branch yoga (sadangayoga) in the tradition of the Jonangpa school according to Jetsun Taranatha.  According to one report, when Chogye Rinpoche was young, one of his teachers dreamed that Rinpoche was the son of the King of Shambhala, the pure land that upholds the tradition of Kālacakra. (See biography of Chogye Trichen Rinpoche in “Parting from the Four Attachments”, Snow Lion Publications, 2003.)

Cyrus Stearns, who translated for Chogye Rinpoche when he was in the USA for the teachings on the six vajra-yogas, told me that:

As far as I know, the Kālacakra and six yogas (Sbyor drug) are not practiced at all in the Sakya tradition these days. Chogye Rinpoche was the only Sakya lama who taught the six yogas and had a special interest in that practice. Early six yogas texts from India and Tibet, some of the later ones such as Taranatha’s Mthong ldan, Rtags tshad yi ge, etc., and more recent works by Kongtrul are included in the Gdams ngag mdzod and Rgyud sde kun btus collections. Chogye Rinpoche was the main holder of the Rgyud sde kun btus collection, which he passed to HH the Sakya Trizin. Other lamas were also present when Rinpoche gave the empowerment and taught the Mthong ldan, and gave the lung for all the six yogas texts in the collection and the Kālacakra Tantra, and all the other related texts in the Kangyur.

I recently visited Chogye Trichen Rinpoche’s monastery in Boudha, Nepal and went up to see his small stupa and personal room at the monastery, which is normally closed to visitors.  I spoke to an old lama, Lama Wangdu (who according to Stearns was always with Rinpoche and was his personal assistant during the Kālacakra empowerments and teachings), who stated, confirming what Stearns said, that there were no other Sakya lamas who could give the transmission of the six yogas text in Nepal. The Kālacakra six-yogas tradition appears to be dying out within the Sakya lineage. The 42nd Sakya Trizin gave the Kālacakra empowerment last year in the USA.

Since Chogye Trichen Rinpoche passed away in 2007, his two assistants, Chogye Shabdrung and Gar Shabdrung have been working together.  The Chogye Shabdrung Rinpoche is now the 26th Chogye Trichen.

See below some photos I took of the stupa and room of Chogye Rinpoche at his monastery in Nepal.

The kundung stupa at Chogye Rinpoche’s former personal residence at his monastery in Boudha, Nepal.

Special thanks to Lordshri Gurung for his helpful suggestion to visit this monastery.

Photo below of Chogye Rinpoche with the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, HH 41st Sakya Trizin and HH 14th Dalai Lama.

 

[1] Sakyapa Lama Kunga Nyingpo (1092 – 1158) was the first Sakya throne holder and the founder of Sakya monastery.

[2] Śākyaśrī Bhadra (1127­- 1225), whose immense learning was incomparable even in India, was head of the famed dharma universities of Vikramaśilā  and Nalanda, and  who was continually blessed with visions of the mother of the buddhas, Arya Tara, was the last of the great Indian panditas to visit Tibet.

[3] Sakya Paṇḍita Künga Gyeltsen (chos rje sa skya paṇḍita kun dga’ rgyal mtshan (1182- 1251)) was a Tibetan spiritual leader and Buddhist scholar and the fourth of the Five Sakya Forefathers (sa skya gong ma lnga). Künga Gyeltsen is generally known simply as Sakya Paṇḍita, a title given to him in recognition of his scholarly achievements and knowledge of Sanskrit. He is considered to be the fourth Sakya Forefather and sixth Sakya Trizin and one of the most important figures in the Sakya lineage.

Noble Tara in the Jonang tradition: ‘The Four Mandala Offering to Definitive Tara’ and ‘The Eyes of Tara’ by Ngawang Lodro Gyatso

Here are new translations of two practice texts on Noble Tara from the Jonang tradition, composed by a twentieth-century Jonang master, Ngawang Lodro Gyatso.[i] These are the first English translations of either text. Tibetan script and phonetics are also included.

Wherever possible, I have approached the translations in a more literal, line by line version, that is helpful to the practitioner who wants to follow the meaning of the Tibetan  text and follow the order of each line in the stanza verse with the English translation.

The first text is called the Four Mandala Offering Ritual to Definitive Tara and her Retinue, that Swiftly Grants the Two Accomplishments.[ii]  It is regularly recited today by those in the Jonang tradition.  With various descriptions of the definitive and conventional twenty-one Taras, it is a beautiful and profound practice for both the generation and completion stages.

The second text is a short Tara sadhana called The Eyes of Tara.[iii]  It is a concise yet powerful homage to the ultimate primordial awareness eyes of Tara and also recommended by the author to be of benefit for the conventionally existent physical eyes too.

The translations are largely based on the oral instructions of elected Jonang head in exile, Chokyi Nangwa Rinpoche, who (in May 2017) kindly gave the oral transmission and instructions for both these texts, as well as for a commentary by Tāranātha on the definitive and conventional aspects, of the twenty-one Taras (which will be published online soon). These two texts were published in a book by the Kalacakra Six Yogas Monastery, Dharamsala, India in 2017.  I am now making these translations freely available for all online with this updated booklet version.

Download for free here. May it be of benefit! Sarva Mangalam!

 

This is a thangka of the eight-armed form of Tārā, one of the forms taken from Jonang Tāranātha’s famous compilation of yidam deities, known as the Ocean of Yidam Deities (Yi dam rgya mtsho’i sgrub thabs Rin chen ‘byung gnas). Among them are 42 aspects of Tārā.

 

[i] Khenpo Ngawang Lodro Dragpa (Ngag-dbang-blo-gros-grags-pa) (1920-1975) was a great Jonang master of the 20th Century. For more information on his life, see Treasury of Lives see: http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Ngawang-Lodro-Drakpa/8752

[ii]There are three extant editions of this text. First, Nge don dang drel wai je tsun ma tso khor mandala zhi yi chod pai thab drub nyi nyur tsol (nges don dang’brel ba’i rje btsun ma gtso ‘khor maN+Dal bzhi yis mchod pa’i thabs grub gnyis myur stsol) taken from the Zhel don chog drig (gnas mchog rdo rje gdan jo nang smon lam chen mo’i skabs kyi zhal ‘don phyogs bsgrigs rdzogs ldan chos kyi sgra dbyangs), published by the Jonang Well-Being Association (2010) a compilation of select writings by Jonang authors on various rituals, liturgies, and short practice texts used in Jonang monasteries. Compiled and arranged by Khenpo Ngawang Yonten Zangpo (1928-2002), who was the root lama of Khenpo Chokyi Nangwa Rinpoche.   I also checked this against two other editions, and the more accurate edition is from the Dzamthang block print edition nges don dang ‘brel ba’i rje btsun ma gtso ‘khor la maN+da+la bzhi yi sgo nas mchod pa ‘bul ba’i thabs grub gnyis myur stsol.

(TBRC Work: W19762; volume: 3520; pages: 251-263) and a pecha edition published in Beijing in 2002 (mi rig dpe krun khang) (TBRC Work: W23923; volume: 3528; pages: 665-679).

[iii]Drol mai mig gi khor lo’i thab (sgrol ma’i mig gi ‘khor lo’i thabs). The edition I have used for this translation is from the Dzamthang Samdrub Norbu Ling block print of Lodro Dragpa’s Collected Works (‘Dzam thang ba blo gros grags pa’i gsung ‘bum).

New translation: White Tara Commentary by HE 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche on root sadhana text by HE Tenga Rinpoche

I am happy to announce my new translation of a White Tara commentary by HE 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche on a root sadhana text by HE Tenga Rinpoche is now available for free download here.

Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche generously gave his feedback and comments on the translation after giving me the oral transmission and permission to translate it.  The booklet also includes a new English translation of the Seven Refuge Prayer to Tara (sgrol ma skyabs bdun ma) that is referred to in the commentary by Nyenpa Rinpoche and is recited regularly at Benchen Monastery.

Tenga Rinpoche was considered to be an accomplished master of White Tara and his kudung stupa at Benchen Monastery, Pharping (designed by HH 17th Karmapa) contains an exceptionally beautiful White Tara Mandala and Palace, surrounded by painted images of all the Taras on the inner walls of the stupa.

There is also  a Praise to the 21 Taras and White Tara chant by 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche available to purchase on Amazon.com here.

White Tara drawn by HH 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje
White Tara stupa constructed for the body and relics of Tenga Rinpoche, at Benchen Monastery, Pharping, Nepal. Designed by HH 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje.
HH 17th Karmapa with HE 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche and HE Tenga Rinpoche.

May it be of benefit and may all beings attain the wish-fulfilling wheel of White Tara!

Adele Tomlin, Copyright 2019, All rights reserved.

 

 

NEW: Colour and scale images of the Kālacakra Worldly Cosmos according to Jetsun Tāranātha and Bamda Gelek Gyatso

New and original computer-generated diagrams and English-language explanations of the Kālacakra worldly cosmos, especially useful during visualisations of the Mandala offering and generation stage practises are now available to view.

These new images have been designed according to the main commentaries by Tāranātha (Meaningful to See and One Hundred Blazing Lights) and Bamda Gelek Gyatso. The images, based on translations by Adele Tomlin and designed by Felipe Zabala, are now published in the new book ‘The Chariot that Transports to the Four Kayas‘ (LTWA, 2019).  This is the first time such graphic diagrams from the Jonang and Dro Kālacakra tradition, in proportion to the scale  and in accordance with the colours cited in these texts, have been published in a book format. The late Edward Henning created some 3D images of the Kālacakra worldly cosmos that can be seen on his website here.

The new colour, 2D images available in the book are:

FIGURE I: The worldly cosmos, a side view

FIGURE II: The worldly cosmos, a view from above

FIGURE III: An alternative image of the worldly cosmos, according to the tradition of Kunkhyen Chokle Namgyal

FIGURE IV:Mount Meru, the eighteen continents, oceans and mountains and the ‘great golden ground’

FIGURE V: The twelve continents on the ‘great golden ground’

FIGURE VI: The abodes of the six classes of sentient beings (including their divisions) in the worldly cosmos

FIGURE VII: An above view of the nine-heap Mandala offering within the Dro Kālacakra tradition

FIGURE VIII: The seed syllables for the guru yoga practice

These images will also be reproduced in the forthcoming publication of my English translations of ‘Meaningful to See’ and its Supplementary Commentary, ‘One Hundred Blazing Lights’ by Jetsun Tāranātha. These texts were translated according to the oral instructions of Jonang elected head in exile, Chokyi Nangwa Rinpoche.

I have reproduced FIGURE I and II here below as a taster of what is in the book. Many thanks to Felipe Zabala for creating these images for free.  Any mistakes or errors are all mine, please forgive them.  May these images and translations be of benefit and may the Kālacakra lineages and tradition flourish and bring peace, harmony and awakening in the world!

Kālacakra worldly cosmos according to the Jonang and Dro tradition –

from above, proportional to scale cited

 

side view, proportional to scale cited

 

For more on the meaning and measurement of the term ‘yojana’, please see the footnotes in the new book.  The publication is restricted access to those with the requisite empowerment and teachings from a qualified lama.

New translation of Karma Lingpa Short Confession Prayer and Life Force Chakra diagram distributed at the Longchen Nyinthig Transmission, April 2019,

I was recently at the Longchen Nyinthig empowerments given by HE Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, at Shechen Monastery, Boudha Nepal from April 22-28 2019. Although this is not about Shentong or Kalacakra, I thought it would be of benefit to translate a short text that was handed out during the empowerments for those who do not read or understand Tibetan, as well as explain the images that were handed out too. For more on the root volumes of the Longchen Nyingthig, see here.

Click on the photos and download to enlarge the text below.

 

The colophon of this short text states it is from the Great Terma (Terchen) of Karma Lingpa. Karma Lingpa (ka rma ling pa) (1326–1386) was the tertön (revealer) of the Bardo Thodol, the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead.Tradition holds that he was a reincarnation of Chokro Lü Gyeltsen, a disciple of Padmasambhava.

When he was fifteen years old, he discovered several terma texts on top of Mount Gampodar, including a collection of teachings entitled “Profound Dharma of Self-Liberation through the Intention of the Peaceful and Wrathful Ones”(zab-chos zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol, also known as kar-gling zhi-khro), which includes the two texts of bar-do thos-grol, the ”Tibetan Book of the Dead”.

The English translation of this prayer can also be downloaded as a pdf file here. I have not seen any prior English translation of it and used the text that was given to me during the empowerment.

 

Short Confession Prayer by Karma Lingpa

Not recognising the guru as Buddha

Not realising their instructions as nectar

Underestimating the guru

I confess and repent!

Not recognising one’s mind as Buddha,

Not realising thoughts are the Dharmakaya,

Extracting these from one’s mind,

I confess and repent!

Not recognising one’s body as the deity form,

Not realising the body is the complete mandala;

Positing one’s body as vulgar

I confess and repent!

Not recognising the master as the spiritual friend

Not realising that samaya is a lamp

Competitive jealousy of friends,

I confess and repent!

Not recognising wealth and riches as illusions

Not realising such hoards will be spent

Greed and miserliness for riches

I confess and repent!

Not recognising that dwellings are on loan

Not realising what is built becomes ruins

Clinging to ownership of dwellings

I confess and repent!

Not recognising that wandering about is samsara

Not realising actions arise from karmic obscurations

Lost in going and staying

I confess and repent!

Not recognising that death is definite

Not realising that human life will be exhausted

Postponing practice of Dharma

I confess and repent!

OM, degeneration of vajra body samaya

I confess and repent!

AH, degeneration of lotus speech samaya

I confess and repent!

HUM, the degeneration of perfect mind samaya

I confess and repent!

HRI, the degeneration of the victor’s body, speech and mind samaya

I confess and repent!

OM AH HUM HRI

Then repeat the 100 syllable mantra of Vajrasattva as much as possible.

This from the Terchen of Karma Lingpa is to be done until samsara is completely emptied. May it be virtuous. Sarva Mangalam. May the blessings of Dharma increase.

Translated by Adele Tomlin on the Dakini Day morning of 29th April 2019 while staying in Swayambunath, Nepal.

May it be of benefit!

 

The Longchen Nyinthig Life-Force Chakra

Also handed out at the Longchen Nyingthig empowerments was this image revealed by Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa called the Longchen Nyinthig Sogkhor (klong chen snying thg srog ‘khor). Sogkhor means ‘life force chakra’.  It is for keeping around one’s neck or home for protection and benefit at the time of death. However, the person should also practise the ‘three roots of the longchen nyingthig’ every day too. A downloadable, printable version of it is uploaded here.

For more on the three roots (lama, yidam and dakini) of the Longchen Nyinthig see here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Public Lecture on Taranatha’s Commentary on Heart Sutra now available online

Happy to announce that, despite some technical difficulties with the sound recording on the day, the public lecture on Tāranātha’s Commentary on the Heart Sūtra, a Shentong commentary on the Heart Sūtra is now available to listen to on the Rangjung Yeshe Institute website here. Any questions or feedback please let me know. May it be of benefit!

The ‘nature’ and ‘meaning’ of mantra, tantra and the ten-syllables in Kālacakra by Jamgon Kongtrul

The Tibetan word for mantra is ngag (sngags) and translators often mistakenly translate this as meaning tantra.  Sometimes referring to the Tantra vehicle, for translating mantrayana (sngags kyi thegs pa). However, the Tibetan word for tantra is gyu (rgyud) and both words do not necessarily mean the same thing.

I have been reading Book Six, Part Four, called the Infinite Ocean of Knowledge (Shes bya mtha’ yas pa’i rgya mtsho), of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye’s (Kong sprul Blo gros mtha’ yas, 1813–1899) Treasury of Knowledge (shes bya kun khyab)  in preparation for the upcoming teachings on this text by HE 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche in October 2019, Nepal. The Tibetan version of the text I referred to is a computer print (W28978, vol. 4982), uploaded onto TBRC.

My reading of the Tibetan source text has been greatly aided by the only published English translation of it, by the Kalu Rinpoche Translation Group, called ‘Systems of Buddhist Tantra: The Indestructible Way of Mantra’ (Snow Lion Publications, 2005). I have pulled out relevant parts from that translation here, but also re-translated bits myself.

Having spent the last couple of years immersed in Tāranātha’s view of Shentong (gzhan stong) and Kālacakra, I was not surprised to see that Kongtrul, an avid student of Jonang Shentong and Kālacakra and huge admirer of Tāranātha, refes to them in several places in this text.  For this short post, I decided to pull together some of what Kongtrul talks about in relation to the nature of mantra, tantra and its relation to Kālacakra and the powerful ten-syllable mantra.

The Meaning and Nature of ‘Mantra’ and ‘Tantra’

Kongtrul has a discussion about the terms ‘mantra’ and ‘tantra’, first discussing the meaning of the Sanskrit word ‘man-tra’, which literally means mind (man-) protection (-tra). Then the ‘essence’ or ‘nature’ (ngo bo) of mantra as being the union of the wisdom-emptiness and the method-compassion.  He cites a section from the Kālacakra Tantra (my translation):

Mantra protects the realms of

Body, speech and mind;

The term 'mantra' refers to

The unchanging, primordial awareness-emptiness.

Mantra arising from merit and primordial awareness,

Is that emptiness-compassion itself.


ལུས་ངག་སེམས་ཀྱི་ཁམས་རྣམས་ནི ། །

གང་ཕྱིར་སྐྱོབ་པར་གྱུར་དེའི་ཕྱིར།

སྔགས་དོན་སྔགས་ཀྱི་སྒྲ་ཡིས་ནི། །

སྟོང་ཉིད་ཡེ་ཤེས་འགྱུར་མེད་དེ། །

བསོད་རྣམས་ཡེ་ཤེས་ལས་བྱུང་སྔགས།

།སྟོང་ཉིད་སྙིང་རྗེའི་བདག་ཉིད་ཅན། །ཅེས་སོ། །[1]

Kongtrul then discusses the difference between mantra and tantra:

How does one differentiate between mantra and tantra? All aspects of secret mantra and the pristine awareness of great bliss (bde ba chen po’i ye shes) are referred to as mantra. Applications (sbyor ba) of secret mantra (the collections of [rituals] for activations and powers) are known as tantra. However, the tantras (continuums) of the ground, path, and result (the content of mantra), as well as the collection of teachings that express and expound [the meaning of mantra], are referred to as tantra. Thus, there are contexts in which no distinction is made between mantra and tantra.

Here, Kongtrul talks about tantra as generally having three meanings either:

  1. the ‘applications of secret mantra’,
  2. the ‘continuum’ of the ground, path and result; and
  3. the collection of teachings that express and expound the meaning of mantra.

So depending on the context a distinction between them can be made or not. Kongtrul states that:

From the perspective of a direct translation, mantra means “secret utterance” because it is accomplished with secrecy and in concealment; or, from another perspective, because it cannot be understood by those unqualified to be its practitioners. Thus, it is called “secret mantra” (gsang sngags). Accordingly, the master Shraddhakaravarman’s Short Guide to the Meaning of Highest Yoga Tantra explains:

It is secret because its practices are accomplished with secrecy and in concealment, or because it cannot be understood by unqualified persons.

Later, in the section on Highest Yoga Tantra (bla na med pa) , Kongtrul goes into detail about the meaning of tantra in terms of the second meaning: a ‘continuum’ of the ground, path and result. He cites the Continuation of the Guhyasamaja Tantra (‘dus pa’ rgyud phyi ma las).

Tantra denotes ‘continuum’[2].

It is composed of three aspects:

Ground, nature, and inviolability[3].

When distinguished in this way,

The nature aspect is the cause;

The ground aspect refers to the method;

And inviolability, the result.

These three contain tantra’s meaning.

རྒྱུད་ནི་རྒྱུན་ཆགས་ཞེས་བྱར་བརྗོད། །

རྒྱུད་དེའང་རྣམ་པ་གསུམ་དུ་འགྱུར། །

གཞི་དང་དེ་ཡི་རང་བཞིན་དང༌། །

མི་འཕྲོགས་པ་ཡིས་རབ་དབྱེ་བས། །

རང་བཞིན་རྣམ་པ་རྒྱུ་ཡིན་ཏེ། །

གཞི་ནི་ཐབས་ཞེས་བྱ་བ་ཡིན། །

དེ་བཞིན་མི་འཕྲོགས་འབྲས་བུ་སྟེ། །

གསུམ་གྱིས་རྒྱུད་ཀྱི་དོན་བསྡུས་པའོ། །

Kongtrul goes on to explain:

The term “tantra” [“continuum”] denotes the mind of awakening, Ever- Perfect (Samantabhadra), which has neither beginning nor end, in nature luminous clarity. It is “continuous” since, from time without beginning up to the attainment of enlightenment, it has always been present without any interruption. Tantra has “three [aspects]”: the “nature” or causal continuum, from the perspective of being the fundamental cause [for awakening]; “ground” or continuum of method, from the perspective of being the contributory condition [for awakening]; and “inviolability” or resultant continuum, from the perspective of being the awakening that is the perfect fulfillment of the two goals [of one’s own and others’ welfare].

The nature of the ten-syllable Kālacakra mantra

 Later on in the text, Kongtrul discusses the nature of the ten syllable mantra of Kālacakra , haṃ kṣaḥ ma la va ra ya  and three other elements.  The ten letters of the root mantra of Kalachakra are:

  1. h
  2. kṣ
  3. m
  4. l
  5. v
  6. r
  7. y
  8. the visārga in kṣaḥ, which features as the cresent below the anusvāra
  9. the anusvāra in haṃ
  10. the vowel a, which is the “life” of the consonants.

However, according to Tāranātha, and in the generation stage practise of Kalacakra, the following images below represent the ten-syllables (see www.kalacakra.org for a discussion of these images).

The Kalacakra ten-syllables as represented by Tāranātha (from www.kalacakra.org)

The mantra is referred to in Tibetan as namchu wangden (rnam bcu dbang ldan), literally ‘the powerful one possessed of ten aspects’.  This consists of seven individual syllables combined together (ham, kshya, ma, la , va ,ra, ya), in Indian Lantsa characters (ornamental script, or Ranjana script.) In addition there are three other components that make a total of ten elements within the image – these are the crescent (usually red) known as a visarga, the disk or doughnut shape (usually white) known as a bindu or anusvāra, and a deep blue nāda, or wisp with three twists, at the top.

In brief, the ten syllables are representations of, and describe, the outer (inanimate world), the inner and other/alternative realities. For an excellent explanation and visual description of how the ten syllables are stacked up and their various meanings in Kālacakra, as described by Jonang and Rime master, Bamda Gelek Gyamtso, see http://www.Kālacakra.org/namcu/namcu.htm

The Causal Continuum

Jamgon Kongtrul states:

The causal continuum (rgyu’i rgyud) manifests as the powerful ten-letter mantra and Kālacakra.

What does Kongtrul mean here by causal continuum?

The causal continuum denotes the natural condition of mind from the level of a sentient being to the state of a buddha, which abides, like the sky, without ever changing. There are any number of expressions for this, such as “nature,” “essence of enlightenment,” and “naturally present affinity,” found in the sutras; and “essential principle of oneself,” “awakening mind,” and “mind of Ever-Perfect,” found in the lower tantras. In this system of highest yoga tantra, however, the causal continuum may be explained in conjunction with the meaning of the union of e and vam.

The natural condition of the mind is possessed of three features: remaining unchanged from the level of a sentient being until the state of a buddha; being an inner knowing, whose characteristic nature is one’s intrinsic self awareness [i.e., awareness that cognizes its own nature]; and being supreme immutable great bliss.

That which has the nature of these manifold forms is called “emptiness endowed with the supreme of all aspects,” or “totality of forms,” “totality of faculties,” and so forth, and is represented by the syllable e.

The union of what is represented by e and by vam is referred to as the “causal continuum,” “cause” in terms of being the fundamental stuff of awakening and “continuum,” because it exists from time without beginning as the nature of the mind and continues from the level of a sentient being until the state of a buddha. 

The ten powerful syllables are explained by Kongtrul as follows:

The true-nature aspect of the impure environment and its inhabitants, which exists grounded in the causal continuum, is the pervading agent, the indestructible awakened body, present as the nature of the powerful [mantra] of ten letters. The powerful ten-letter [mantra], which serves as the symbol of the causal continuum, is formed of the following: a, i, ri, u, li (the five root vowels); ma (seed of the collection of the inanimate); ksha (seed of the collection of the animate); ha (seed of the four formless realms) (these form the connection to [vowels known as] qualities); the simple sign of aspiration (the crescent moon); and the sphere and tip of pristine awareness, which stand above them. Thus is formed [the mantra] called ham ksha ma la va ra ya [written one above the other].

The causal continuum, the luminous clarity nature of mind itself, cannot be divided into separate substances or parts. However, when distinguished from the standpoint of conceptual categories, the unobscured aspect of that luminous clarity nature exists as the essence of the ten letters or signs, or “ten visions.” This aspect serves as the ground for the arising of the impure environment and its inhabitants, which are manifestations of the powerful ten-letter [mantra].

Kongtrul then goes on to give a brief summary of the ten-syllable mantra, as presented in Kālacakra:

There are extensive expositions on how the essence of the meaning of the name [Kalacakra], the causal continuum itself, manifests as Kalacakra in its three dimensions of outer, inner, and alternative.  At this point, however, will be provided a synopsis, noting only the essence [of this topic].

The ground-of-all causal continuum, the union of e and vam in its complete form [of the deity’s body], is called “Shri Kalachakra (Wheel of Time),” wherein “time” (kala) refers to immutable bliss [method], and “wheel” (chakra), the emptiness [wisdom] endowed with the supreme of all aspects. By virtue of being the inseparability of bliss and emptiness, [Kalachakra] is said to be “glorious” (shri). That Kalachakra itself manifests as the attributes of the outer world, the inner vajra body, and the alternative circle of [deities of ] the [Kalachakra] mandala.

 

 

[1] This is cited in the Stainless Light Commentary on the Kālacakra Root Tantra, D1349

དཔལ་ལྡན་དྲི་མ་དང་བྲལ་བའི་འོད་ཀྱི་རྒྱུད་ལ་འཇུག་པའི་བཤད་སྦྱར་སྙིང་པོ་སྣང་བ, rgyud ‘grel, na 20a3-72b5 (vol. 13).

[2] rgyun chags

[3] Mi ‘phrog pa, I have re-translated here as inviolability instead of ‘inalienableness’. I think this gets across the etymology of ‘phrog, which normally means ‘robbed of’ or ‘taken away’. So here it means that the result cannot be ‘robbed’ cannot be violated or reduced in any way.

The Female Voice and Principle in Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism: Female Scholars and Translators

Although this is not about Shentong or Kalacakra, as a female translator-practitioner-scholar, people sometimes ask me who I would recommend to read in terms of the best and/or original scholarly research, translation and writing on gender, the feminine principle, karmamudra, Tantra and female figures in Vajrayana Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhist culture. Here is my suggested introductory reading list (in alphabetical order). I have pulled together various online resources that focus primarily on women who have done original, scholarly translation and research in the English language that has been published. So I have not included well known female practitioners like Khandro Rinpoche, Tenzin Palmo or Tsultrim Allione. Apologies to any worthy scholars I may have left out. I am open to suggestions for inclusion.

I hope in the future more Buddhist Studies university departments will run courses that focus on gender, women and sexuality in Buddhism taught by female scholars. I recently wrote about my own experience of sexism in Buddhist Studies academia, and how the work of other women is often undermined and ignored by more powerful, male scholars. To read that see here.

Lion-Faced Dakini

June Campbell

June Campbell studied Tibetan Buddhism in monasteries in India in the early 1970s. Subsequently she traveled throughout India, Europe, and North America as a translator and interpreter for various Tibetan lamas, including Kalu Rinpoche. Her book Traveller in Space: Gender and Identity in Tibetan Buddhism ( Continuum, 2002) examines the patriarchy of Tibet’s political, religious, and social structures, and the real and symbolic role of women in Tibetan society.


With its cross-cultural stance, the book concerns itself with the unusual task of creating links between the symbolic representations of gender in the philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism, and contemporary western thinking in relation to identity politics and intersubjectivity. A wide range of sources are drawn upon in order to build up arguments concerning the complexities of individual gender roles in Tibetan society, alongside the symbolic spaces allocated to the male and female within its cultural forms, including its sacred institutions, its representations and in the enactment of ritual. And in the light of Tibetan Buddhisms popularity in the west, timely questions are raised concerning gender and the potential uses and abuses of power and secrecy in Tibetan Tantra, which, with its unique emphasis on guru-devotion and sexual ritual, is now being disseminated worldwide. 

Campbell also claimed that when Kalu Rinpoche was in his 70s, while she was a nun and acting as his translator, she engaged in secret sexual activities with him, which she later described as ‘abusive’. For an interview with Campbell about that time in her life see here.

Prof. Hildegaard Diemberger

Prof. Diemberger is the Director of the Inner Asia and Mongolia Unit at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow and Lecturer of Pembroke College, Cambridge. She has published several books and articles on Tibetan Buddhism and history. In particular, her work and research on the female lineage holder and reincarnate, Samding Dorje Phagmo is remarkable and the first of its kind on the subject in the English language. See When a Woman becomes a Religious Dynasty: the Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet, New York: Columbia University Press (2007):

”Diemberger builds her book around the translation of the first biography of Chokyi Dronma recorded by her disciples in the wake of her death. The account reveals an extraordinary phenomenon: although it had been believed that women in Tibet were not allowed to obtain full ordination equivalent to monks, Chokyi Dronma not only persuaded one of the highest spiritual teachers of her era to give her full ordination but also established orders for other women practitioners and became so revered that she was officially recognized as one of two principal spiritual heirs to her main master.

Diemberger offers a number of theoretical arguments about the importance of reincarnation in Tibetan society and religion, the role of biographies in establishing a lineage, the necessity for religious teachers to navigate complex networks of political and financial patronage, the cultural and social innovation linked to the revival of ancient Buddhist civilizations, and the role of women in Buddhism. Four introductory, stage-setting chapters precede the biography, and four concluding chapters discuss the establishment of the reincarnation lineage and the role of the current incarnation under the peculiarly contradictory communist system.”

For a list of Diemberger’s other publications see here

Kunzang Dolma

Born in 1980, Kunsang Dolma grew up in a remote village in the Tibetan borderlands. After becoming a nun, she escaped Tibet first to Nepal and then India. After giving up her nun’s robes, she moved to the United States, where she now lives with her American husband and two daughters.

Her book, One Hundred Thousand White Stones: An Ordinary Tibetan’s Extraordinary Journey, is one of the first memoirs written in the English language about the life and struggles of a Tibetan woman living in Tibet and is a fascinating read for anyone seeking a first-hand account of the gender inequality and sexism in Tibetan culture within Tibet. Breaking the silence on sexual abuse and violence against Tibetan women, Dolma has been accused as having sold out to ‘western feminist ideas’. Yet Kunsang Dolma’s book is a tour de force as a personal memoir that speaks truth to power, reminding us that women’s rights are human rights, and not necessarily bound by place or culture.

I interviewed her for a piece on Huffington Post here in 2013 and here is an interview with her on Voice of Tibet.

Dr. Elizabeth English

Elizabeth English received her MA and PhD in Classical Indian Religion from Oxford University and is a member of the Western Buddhist Order. She is the founder and director of Life at Work, a right-livelihood business that provides consultancy and training for supporting people, teams, and organizations through communication skills and conflict resolution.

English’s ground-breaking book ‘Vajrayogini: Her Visualisation, Rituals and Forms (Wisdom Publications, 2007) delves into the origins of Vajrayogini, charting her evolution in India and examining her roots in the Cakrasamvara tantra and Indian tradition relating to siva.
The focus of this work is the Guhyasamayasadhanamala, a collection of forty-six sadhanas, or practice texts. One of the sadhanas, the Vajravarahi Sadhana by Umapatideva, depicts Vajrayogini at the center of a mandala of thirty-seven different goddesses, and is here presented in full translation alongside a Sanskrit edition. Elizabeth English provides extensive explanation and annotation of this representative text. Sixteen pages of stunning color plates not only enhance the study but bring the goddess to life.

Prof. Rita M. Gross

Feminist scholar-practitioner, Rita Gross, who recently passed away in 2015, is a pioneer in the English-language feminist analysis of Tibetan Buddhism. Gross was an American Buddhist feminist scholar of religions and author. Before retiring, she was Professor of Comparative Studies in Religion at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. In 1974, Gross was named the head of Women and Religion, a newly created section of the American Academy of Religion. She earned her PhD in 1975 from the University of Chicago in History of Religions, with the dissertation “Exclusion and Participation: The Role of Women in Aboriginal Australian Religion.” This was the first dissertation ever on women’s studies in religion.  In 1976 she published the article “Female God Language in a Jewish Context” (Davka Magazine 17), which Jewish scholar and feminist Judith Plaskow considers “probably the first article to deal theoretically with the issue of female God-language in a Jewish context”. In 1977 Gross took refuge with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, becoming a Tibetan Buddhist.  In 2005 she was made a lopön, ācārya, “senior teacher”, by Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche, and taught at Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche’s Lotus Garden Center, located in the United States.

Her book Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist Reconstruction (SUNY Press, 1992) is the ‘Female Eunuch’ of Tibetan Buddhism. Ground-breaking as a piece of research and thinking and a must-read for any man or woman, interested in an analysis of the patriarchy implicit in Buddhist cultures and rituals. This book surveys both the part women have played in Buddhism historically and what Buddhism might become in its post-patriarchal future. The author completes the Buddhist historical record by discussing women, usually absent from histories of Buddhism, and she provides the first feminist analysis of the major concepts found in Buddhist religion. Gross demonstrates that the core teachings of Buddhism promote gender equity rather than male dominance, despite the often sexist practices found in Buddhist institutions throughout history.

Gross’s recent article, ‘What Were They Thinking?’ responding to an all-male panel on the ‘risks and benefits of opening Buddhist leadership to women’ is exemplary and brave, and a reminder why gender equality is still a long way off in most Buddhist cultures. Other publications by Gross related to gender and feminism are:

  • Buddhism beyond Gender: Liberation from Attachment to Identity, Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 2018.
  • Religious Diversity: What’s the Problem? Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014.
  • A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Reflection, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009.
  • Religious Feminism and the Future of the Planet: A Buddhist-Christian-Feminist Conversation (with Rosemary Radford Ruether), New York: Continuum, 2001.
  • Soaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues, New York: Continuum, 1998.
  • Feminism and Religion: An Introduction; Boston: Beacon Press, 1996; Korean translation, 1999; Chapter One “Defining Feminism, Religion, and the Study of Religion” reprinted in Theory and Method in the Study of Religion, ed. by Carl Olson (Belmont, CA:Wadsworth, 2004), pp. 511–20

Lama Sarah Harding

Sarah Harding is a qualified lama and teacher in the Shangpa Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Since 1972, she has been a student and translator of Kalu Rinpoche (1905-1989).  Harding completed the first traditional Kagyu three-year three-month retreat three day for westerners under the guidance of Kalu Rinpoche in 1980.  Harding works as a teacher, oral interpreter and translator. She has been an instructor in the Religious Studies Department of Naropa University since 1992 and lives in Boulder, Colorado with her two children. She is currently working on translations of Tibetan Buddhist texts as a fellow of the Tsadra Foundation. Harding has published a book about the 11th Century female teacher Niguma whose teachings are at the core of the Shangpa Kagyu Vajrayana Buddhist lineage. She has also published two books on Machig Labdron and the Chod practise and lineage. Her publications include the following:

Labdron, Machik; Chöd: The Sacred Teachings on Severance: Essential Teachings of the Eight Practice Lineages of Tibet, Volume 14 (The Treasury of Precious Instructions), Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications (2016).

Labdron, Machik; Machik’s Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chöd (Expanded Edition), Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications (2013).

Niguma, Lady of Illusion, Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications (2012).

Kongtrul, Jamgon; Creation and Completion, Wisdom Publications (2003).

Prof. Hanna Havnevik

Hanna Havnevik is assistant professor at the University of Oslo and is the author of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns: History, Cultural Norms, and Social Reality Oxford University Press, 1990) and The Life of Jetsun Lochen Rinpoche (1865-1951).

Havnevik’s study on Tibetan Buddhist nuns is the only monograph to date concerning Tibetan Buddhist nuns, examines the history and present condition of their lives. Carefully outlining the early history, Havnevik presents an account of nuns and nunneries in Tibet and an anthropological description of an exile nunnery in India. Throughout the text, Havnevik analyzes the relationship between the normative view of women in Buddhism and how Tibetan nuns have adjusted to and altered these norms.

Prof. Sarah H Jacoby

Associate Professor Sarah Jacoby studies Asian Religions with a specialization in Tibetan Buddhism. She received her B.A. from Yale University, majoring in women’s studies, and her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Virginia’s Department of Religious Studies. She joined Northwestern University in 2009 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University.

Her recent monograph Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro (Columbia University Press, 2014) is the winner of the 2016 E. Gene Smith Book Prize from the Association of Asian Studies for books on Inner Asia and a finalist for the 2015 American Academy of Religion Book Award for Excellence in Historical Studies. Love and Liberation is the first study in any language of the autobiographical and biographical writings of one of the most prolific female authors in Tibetan history, Sera Khandro Künzang Dekyong Chönyi Wangmo (also called Dewé Dorjé, 1892–1940). She was extraordinary not only for achieving religious mastery as a Tibetan Buddhist visionary and guru to many lamas, monastics, and laity in the Golok region of eastern Tibet, but also for her candor. This book listens to Sera Khandro’s conversations with land deities, dakinis, bodhisattvas, lamas, and fellow religious community members whose voices interweave with her own to narrate what is both a story of love between Sera Khandro and her guru, Drimé Özer, and spiritual liberation.

For more on Jacoby’s background and research see here.

Prof. Janet Gyatso

Janet Gyatso is Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard University Divinity School. She is the author of Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary and In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Remembrance and Mindfulness in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Gyatso attended the University of California at Berkeley for her BA, MA and PhD. She received her PhD in 1981 “in the department of South and Southeast Languages and Literatures [,at Berkeley,] with a dissertation on Thangtong Gyalpo and the visionary tradition of Tibetan Buddhism”. Prior to her PhD, she completed her Master of Arts in 1974 in Sanskrit, and her Bachelor of Arts in 1972 in Religious studies at Berkeley.

Gyatso has edited a book called Women in Tibet (Columbia University Press, 2006) a compilation of essays on the topic. Gyatso and her fellow editor, Hannah Havnevik put this book together to draw attention to the lack of research in the area of women in Tibet.

Lama Shenphen Hookham

Susan Kathryn Rowan, known as Shenpen Hookham is a Buddhist teacher who has trained for over 50 years in the Mahamudra and Dzogchen traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. In the early 1970s, on the advice of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Lama Shenpen went to India where she lived as a nun for six years, ordained by the 16th Karmapa. There she studied and meditated in retreat under the guidance of Tibetan teachers such as Karma Thinley Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche and Kalu Rinpoche. Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa and head of the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, subsequently instructed her to return to the West to teach Mahamudra. She met her main teacher, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, in Europe, and he encouraged her to teach and transmit Mahamudra, the innermost teachings of the Kagyu tradition. On her later return to England, she met and married Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche (Michael Hookham), an early pupil of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Dharma Director of the Longchen Foundation (formerly the Chöd Group) since its inception in 1975.  Lama Shenpen is fluent in Tibetan and was the translator for many Tibetan teachers, including Gendun Rinpoche.

Her excellent book based on her Oxford University PhD thesis, ‘Buddha Within, Tathagatagarbha Doctrine According to the Shentong Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga’, SUNY Press, (1991) is worth a read for anyone interested in Buddha Nature and the Shentong view of emptiness.

Prof. Anne Carolyn Klein

Anne Carolyn Klein (Lama Rigzin Drolma) is Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas and co-founding director and resident teacher at Dawn Mountain, a Tibetan temple, community center and research institute. Klein has translated and authored several books on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and practise.

In particular, for this list, her book Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self (Beacon Press, 1996) is an interesting read for anyone interested in feminism and Buddhism.

Here is an interview with Klein about that book in Tricycle in 1996.

Jamyang Kyi

Jamyang Kyi is a Tibetan-born woman writing in Tibetan language about feminism and gender inequality in Tibet. Her book ‘The Suffering of a Female Eunuch: A Mix of Snow and Rain’ has not yet been translated into English as far as am aware but her work and thinking has broken through into English-language media sources, see here.

Prof. Miranda Shaw

Miranda Shaw has a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University, is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, and is currently Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at the University of Richmond. 

Shaw’s book ‘Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism’ (Princeton University Press, 1994) is one of the only books published on the karmamudra or consort practise from the female perspective, written by a woman.

Historians of religion have long held that enlightenment in tantra was for men only, and that women in the movement were at best marginal and subordinated and at worst degraded and exploited. Miranda Shaw argues to the contrary, presenting extensive new evidence of the outspoken and independent female founders of the Tantric movement and their creative role in shaping its distinctive vision of gender relations and sacred sexuality.

For recent interviews with Shaw about her life and work see here and here.

Prof. Judith Simmer-Brown

Judith Simmer-Brown, PhD, is Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University, where she has taught as a Founding Faculty member since 1978. She studied at Cornell College (BA), Florida State University (MA), Columbia University, University of British Columbia, and Walden University (PhD). She has practiced Tibetan Buddhism for forty-five years and is an Acharya (senior dharma teacher) of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage of Sakyong Mipham, Rinpoche and Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, Naropa’s founder. For a list of her published articles see here.

Her excellent book, The Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism (Shambhala Publications, 2007), is ground-breaking classic in its discussion of the dakini and the feminine principle.

Prof. Karma Lekshe Tsomo

Karma Lekshe Tsomo is a professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of San Diego, where she has taught since 2000.[ After fifteen years studying Buddhism at Dharamsala, she did her postgraduate work at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, gaining a PhD in Comparative Philosophy in 2000. Her research has primarily concerned women in Buddhism, death and dying, and Buddhist philosophy and ethics.


In 1985 Karma Lekshe Tsomo founded the Jamyang Foundation, a non-profit organisation that works to improve the education of women and girls in the Himalayan region and currently runs several schools and study programmes. At a gathering at Bodh Gaya in 1987 she became one of the founding members of the international organisation Sakydhita(Daughters of the Buddha), which campaigns for gender equality in Buddhism.

Publications on women and gender in Buddhism include:

Sylvia Wetzel

Born 1949, Wetzel states on her website that she experiments with paths to inner and outer liberation since 1968 and practices buddhism since 1977, mainly in the Tibetan tradition. For fifteen years she was board member of the German Buddhist Union and for twelve years editor of the Buddhist Quarterly “Lotusblätter” (lotus leaves). She helped inaugurate the International Association of Buddhist Women Sakyadhita (Bodhgaya 1987), is founding member of the Network of Western Buddhist Teachers (Dharamsala 1993) and is currently President of the Buddhist Academy Berlin Brandenburg (Berlin 2001).

I first came across Sylvia Weitzel when I saw a Youtube video of her bravely publicly questioning HH Dalai Lama and other male lamas at a 1993 conference about the inequality inherent in many rituals and cultural practices of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s worth a watch here. As Tenzin Palmo, who was at the conference recalls in her book Cave in the Snow, Wetzel:

‘….invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the assembled throng of luminaries to join her in visualization. ‘Please imagine that you are a male coming to a Buddhist center. You see the painting of this beautiful Tara surrounded by sixteen female arhats and you have the possibility to see too Her Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama who, in all of her fourteen incarnations, has always chosen a female rebirth,’ she began.

‘You are surrounded by very high female rinpoches —  beautiful, strong, educated women. Then you see the Bhikshunis coming in, self-confident, outspoken. Then you see the monks coming in behind them — very shy and timid. You hear about the lineage of lamas of the tradition, who are all female, down to the female Tara in the painting.’

‘Remember you are male,’ she reminded them, ‘and you approach a lama, feeling a little bit insecure and a little bit irritated, and ask “Why are there all these female symbols, female Buddhas?” And she replies, “Don’t worry. Men and women are equal. Well, almost.  We do have some scriptures which say that a male rebirth is inferior, but isn’t this the case? Men do have a more difficult time when all the leaders, spiritually, philosophically and politically are women.”

‘And then the male student, who is very sincere, goes to another lama, a Mahayanist from the Higher Vehicle School, and says, “I am a man, how can I identify with all these female icons?” And she replies, “You just meditate on Shunyata (Emptiness). In Shunyata no man, no woman, no body, nothing. No problem!”

‘So you go to a tantric teacher and say, “All these women and I am a man. I don’t know how to relate.”  And she says, “How wonderful you are, beautiful Daka, you are so useful to us practitioners helping us to raise our kundalini energy. How blessed you are to be a male, to benefit female practitioners on their path to enlightenment.”

It was outrageous but delivered in such a charming way that everyone, including the Dalai Lama, laughed.  ‘Now you have given me another angle on the matter,’ he said. In effect Sylvia Wetzel had voiced what millions of women down the centuries had felt. In spite of the mirth, the dam holding back more than 2,500 years of spiritual sexism and pent-up female resentment was beginning to burst. Others began to join in. A leading Buddhist teacher and author, American nun Thubten Chodron, told how the subtle prejudice she had met within institutions had undermined her confidence to the point that it was a serious hindrance on the path. ‘Even if our pain was acknowledged it would make us feel better,’ she declared.’’

Prof. Jan Willis

Janice Dean Willis, or Jan Willis is Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University, where she has taught since 1977; and the author of books on Tibetan Buddhism. She has been called influential by Time MagazineNewsweek (cover story), and Ebony Magazine. Aetna Inc.’s 2011 African American History Calendar features professor Willis as one of thirteen distinguished leaders of faith-based health initiatives in the United States.

She is the author of the following books:

  • Dreaming Me: An African American Woman’s Spiritual Journey. New York: Riverhead Books, 2001.
  • The Diamond Light: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
  • On Knowing Reality: The Tattvartha Chapter of Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhumi. Columbia UP, 1979.
  • Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition. Wisdom Publications, 1995.
  • Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet. (Editor, and contributor of two of six, essays) Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1989
Vajayogini