Powerful women in the history of Tibet

Laden Tshering Samdup

Laden Tshering Samdup

By Laden Tshering Samdup

KATHMANDU, Nepal, 12 March 2017

The story of women in Tibet begins with a story about the evolution of mankind. A rock ogress, the myth goes, forced the pious monkey to father six children on her. The siblings ultimately became the ancestors of the six clans of Tibetans.

Bhrikuti Devi brings Buddhism to Tibet

Tibet’s tryst with destiny began with the patronage of Buddhism by its first emperor Songtsän Gampo. This defining moment was ushered in at the instance and persuasion of the Emperor’s wife Princess Bhrikuti Devi of Nepal. She was proactive in this endeavor and made her Newari craftsmen construct the Red Palace, which was subsequently rebuilt as Potala Palace by His Holiness the Fifth Dalai Lama. She is also credited with building the Tsuglag Khang or the Jokhang, the most sacred temple in Lhasa, as well as various sacred statues in Samye and other gompas (monasteries) in Tibet.

Also, it was during Bhrikuti Devi’s reign that a team of Lamas including Thoni Sambhota was commissioned to India to develop the classical Tibetan written script using the current dialect. All Tibetan Buddhist scriptures are today available to us in this dialect.

Bhrikuti Devi’s legacy of Tibetan Buddhism has served her progeny well in these dark and turbulent times. It has become a source of sustenance for many, and a source of inspiration and aspiration for a separate identity of a nation for all. No wonder the Tibetans hold her aloft in the exalted position of reincarnation of Green Tara Devi, the deity who protects from accidents and misfortunes on perilous journeys.

But this great lady is all but forgotten in the country of her birth, Nepal. A small shanty town selling cheap Chinese goods named Bhrikuti Mandap, off Ratna Park in Kathmandu, is all that remains for the people of Nepal to remember her by. China’s fervent attachment to the ‘One-China Policy’ looms large over the country, and even an innocuous activity like celebration of the Birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is dispersed forcefully by the police.

Yeshe Tsogyal and Tibetan Buddhism

Another towering feminine figure in Tibetan history is Yeshe Tsogyal, “Wisdom Lake Queen”, the Princess of Kharchen. She is commonly known as the consort of Guru Rinpoche, the precious master of the ancient ones, Nyingmapas. However, she was not a consort in the mere sense of the word only. Her efforts and accomplishments in institutionalizing, proliferating, and immortalizing Tibetan Buddhism are truly splendid and have acted as a perfect foil to the wisdom of Guru Rinpoche. It was a classic example of Yab-Yum rarely discernible in this world of Nirmankaya. She is said to have successfully tread the arduous path to enlightenment in one lifetime, a rare feat.

Women from modest backgrounds birthed Boudhanath, Chod, and Milarepa

Name and fame were not the privileges of the aristocracy only in Tibetan society. Even women from modest backgrounds were able to make a mark in Tibetan history: No sex discrimination, no women empowerment, just merit.

Legend has it that the woman Jazima, a poor poultry keeper, built the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu. This stupa today stands out as a spectacular monument to Tibetan Buddhism. People from all over the world flock to it to pay their respects and seek deliverance from their sufferings.

Another famous and revered feminine figure of modest background is 11th-century Machig Labdron of the Labchi region of Tibet. Remaining outside the monastic order, she was able to merge the Dzogchen teachings with Shamanic practices native to Tibet to develop the unique Chod teachings for spiritual development and enlightenment. It is said that all Buddhist teachings came to Tibet from India, but that Chod is the only teaching that originated in Tibet, and then spread to India and rest of the world.

Milarepa is a revered saint, Yogi, and poet of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. His Guru Marpa dragged him through a series of arduous trials before accepting him as his pupil. Milarepa would perhaps have failed in these tasks had it not been for the compassionate intervention and encouragement of Dagmema, wife of Marpa.

In the supernatural world and beliefs of the Tibetans, feminism is venerated and deified as the “sky dancer” or dakini or Khandroma. They are the compassionate ones who nudge the aspirants to enlightenment. There were the five who appeared to Milarepa in his hermitage at Chu Bar, the hideous one that made Naropa leave the comfortable life of Abbot of Nalanda and venture out on the path to enlightenment, the one that appeared to Jikme Lingpa while in a meditative trance and handed over the Longchen Nyngtik Terma, among many more.

Modern Tibetan women

In modern times, after the occupation of Tibet by China, many of the first generation of Tibetans–in-exile faced lives of abject penury. But they survived mainly due to the initiative taken by their women, who were running restaurants and selling trinkets and woollens, from the pavements of Connaught Place in New Delhi to as remote a place as Koraput in Orissa. They gave their children quality education, and many of those are now forging ahead in their vocations all over the world.

Tibetan women are the frontrunners and most active and vociferous in Free Tibet campaigns. They are the personification of the gutsiness that can only be nurtured by the harsh climes and ruggedness of the Tibetan plateau.

I write this article mindful of our Holiness the Dalai Lama’s observation that the world needs more women leaders. True, Women are the repository of compassion and the various sufferings mankind is undergoing today desperately needs their humane touch. Tibetan women due to their faith have compassion ingrained in them. Let’s hope some of them will live up to the expectations of our Holiness and respond to his call, and one day soon, take centre stage in world affairs.


About the author

Laden Tshering Samdup is a retired businessman, living in Kathmandu. He has MA (Hons) in economics from Birla Institute of Technology and Science from Pilani, Rajasthan, India. He can be reached c/o Boudha Peace School, Phulbari, Kathmandu, Nepal.

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