May 17, 2009
Lady of the Lotus-Born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal
By Gyalwa Changchub and Namkhai Nyingpo
Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group
Shambhala Publications, Boston and London, 1999
If I had to pick only one book with which to be marooned on a desert island, Lady of the Lotus-Born would be my choice. It’s the story, in her own words, of Yeshe Tsogyal—possibly the first Tibetan of either gender to attain enlightenment, and widely considered to be one of the most important of the 25 closest disciples of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava).
If Yeshe Tsogyal’s story had taken place in the American West in the 19th century, she would have been described as Guru Rinpoche’s sidekick. After all, it is Guru Rinpoche—whose energy is said to be still active, if not immediately visible—who is credited with establishing Buddhism not only in Tibet, but also in any wild borderland of dharma practice.
For much of the time that Guru Rinpoche was in Tibet, Tsogyal was with him—studying, practicing, recording his teachings, and achieving realization. After Guru Rinpoche left Tibet,Tsogyal kindled the flame of dharma in her own group of disciples.
As a namthar, or tale of liberation, Lady of the Lotus-Born inspires me on many different levels. It’s the story of her own enlightenment process, told by a woman—so it encourages women practitioners in ways that men’s stories cannot. The book contains some of the most beautiful passages of poetry I’ve ever read. Because it’s a terma, or concealed treasure text that was rediscovered long after it was written, the book has special relevance for later generations of Buddhist practitioners (a characteristic of all terma texts). And at its core, the text is a description of the tantric path and contains many references to key points of tantric practice.
Superficially, Tsogyal’s life story is a thing of Hollywood blockbusters. She manifested in Tibet as an incarnation of the goddess Sarasvati, with the specific aim of helping Guru Rinpoche to propagate the teachings of Vajrayana. At her conception, her parents had a vision that was accompanied by the swelling of a nearby spring into a lake. Her birth, which was “without travail” for her mother, was marked by a rain of flowers and music in the sky.
Later, desiring freedom to practice dharma, Tsogyal escaped from home because she did not want to be forced to marry. Through a convoluted series of chases and escapes, she wound up being married off to Trisong Detsen, the king of Tibet. She met Guru Rinpoche while at the king’s court, and became his consort and principal disciple. And this was only the beginning of her adventures!
Even more inspiring than her story is her poetry. Here, for example, is one of her instructions on meditation:
“Meditate upon the Teacher as the glow of your awareness.
When you melt and mingle mutually together,
Taste the vast expanse of nonduality.
And if you know me, Yeshe Tsogyal,
Mistress of samsara and nirvana,
You will find me dwelling in the heart of every being.
The elements and the senses are my emanations,
And emanated thence, I am the twelvefold chain of co-production:
Thus primordially we never separate.
I seem a separate entity
Because you do not know me.”
There is a long passage on pages 160-162 that is my favorite piece of spiritual literature. It’s a description of Tsogyal’s experiences immediately following the departure of Guru Rinpoche from Tibet. How many of us, when separated from our teachers, would dissolve into self-pity and depression? Not Tsogyal. She went into a cave to practice, and manifested in different forms to benefit sentient beings throughout myriads of realms! I can’t think of a better, more generous way to honor one’s teacher. She closes the passage this way:
“Wherever there is space, five elements pervade,
Wherever the five elements, the homes of living beings,
Wherever living beings, karma and defilements,
Wherever is defilement, my compassion also.
Wherever is the need of beings, there I am to help them.
And thus I remained for twenty years in the great cavern of Lhodrak Karchu, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible.”
The passage gives me chill bumps every time I read it. When I showed my first local dharma teacher, Frances Norwood, this passage, Frances smiled and said, “She merged with the elements.” (In the Tibetan tradition, female energy is strongly associated with the five elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space.)
When Tsogyal herself took leave of Tibet, she did so with the following instruction (p. 206):
“For a time now, while your dualistic minds persist,
It will seem that I have left you, but take heart.
When your dualistic minds subside, you will see that we were never parted.
May health and happiness embrace the very limits of the sky!”