Women of Wisdom is a remarkable book that opened my eyes to the fact that Tibet was home to many great female practitioners of Buddhism—practitioners who lived and practiced, in large part, outside the monasteries that were the most well known centers of Buddhist practice.
These women weren’t necessarily solitary practitioners—many had families and disciples—but their practice places were the charnel grounds, the haunted places, the spots under lone trees, the caves and springs and hills and mountains of wild Tibet, not the well-kept shrine rooms of the monastic centers. This idea of doing practice outdoors, in natural settings, drew me like a magnet.
The story of Machik Labdron features prominently in Women of Wisdom (in which her first name is spelled “Machig”). Like Alexandra David-Neel’s and Janis Nelson’s, Machik’s life story is the stuff of Hollywood epics.
With a previous incarnation as a male yogi in India, Machik manifests in Tibet—through the intercession of dakinis—as a young girl with three eyes, the third of which is located at the “third eye” spot in the middle of her forehead. One of her early given names was Sherab Dronme, “Burning Torch of Wisdom,” which reminds me so much of Alexandra David-Neel’s Tibetan name, “Lamp of Wisdom.”
Because she had unique talents in reading Buddhist scripture aloud, Machik spent several years as a reader at a nearby monastery. From one of her teachers, she received the following instruction:
“…if you do not grasp with your mind, you will find a fresh state of being. If you let go of clinging, a state beyond all conceptions will be born. Then the fire of great Prajna [wisdom] will grow. Dark, self-clinging ignorance will be conquered. The root teaching is to examine the movement of your own mind very carefully. Do this!”
Later, doing practice at another place, Machik levitated through a wall and landed in a tree over a spring where an angry naga lived. The naga was frightened of her and called up an army of demons, but instead of being afraid of them, Machik offered them her body, but they could not devour her because she was egoless.
They could not devour her because she was egoless. Such is the heart of the chod teachings: Those who are egoless cannot fall prey to demons, including the three demons of attachment, aversion, and ignorance, and, it is said, the demons of contagious diseases.
Machik goes on to meet her primary teacher, Phadampa Sangye (who may or may not be the same person as the Bodhidharma who took Buddhist teachings into China); marry her consort, Topabhadra, with whom she had children; receive teachings directly from the Bodhisattva Arya Tara in a vision; and blend the teachings of mahamudra with the shamanistic elements of chod to create her own unique practice that comes down to us today in an unbroken lineage.
I was mesmerized by all the stories in Women of Wisdom, but especially by the story of Machik Labdron. It is worth noting Tsultrim Allione, the Western woman who wrote the book, has a fascinating story herself; she was recently recognized as an emanation of Machik by the lama at Machik’s center in Tibet, and she has started her own center, Tara Mandala, here in the United States.