When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty

The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet

Author : Diemberger, Hildegard

When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty

Book Details

  • Publisher : Columbia University Press
  • Published : 2007
  • Cover : Hardback
  • Pages : 394
  • Size : 242 x 170mm
  • Catalogue No : 17403
  • ISBN 13 : 9780231143202
  • ISBN 10 : 0231143206
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Publishers Price : £38.00 (Save 10%)
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In 1920, as he was traveling through Tibet on a diplomatic mission, Sir Charles Bell stopped at the monastery of Samding, where he met "the holiest woman in Tibet." Like many other travelers, he was captivated by the aura of sanctity surrounding the woman who embodied the tantric deity Vajrav√£rahi, known in Tibetan as Dorje Phagmo. "The standing modern example" of Tibetan women who had devoted their careers to religion, he wrote,"is to be found in the monastery of the peaceful hill overlooking the "Lake of the Upland Pastures" (Yam-dro Tso) and facing the eternal snows of the Himalaya. Not inaptly is this monastery called "The Soaring Meditation" (Samding). Both the situation and the character of its occupant justify the name. For here resides the holiest woman in Tibet, the incarnation of the goddess Dor-je Pa-mo. The present is the eleventh Incarnation. When one dies, or "retires to the heavenly fields," her spirit passes into a baby girl, and thus the succession goes on.... It was my privilege to visit her on my way to Lhasa. . . . We were the first white men to be received by her, indeed the first she had seen." (Bell 1994: 1928)

In the eyes of the Tibetans the human embodiment of Dorje Phagmo is endowed with a particular form of sacredness, seen as a powerful spiritual entity linked with the cults of Avalokiteshvara and Cakrasamvara, and, at times, is considered a symbolic female counterpart to the Dalai Lama. In the 1970s two leading Tibetan scholars described her as "the only female reincarnation spiritually and officially recognized in the whole of Tibet and famous throughout Central Asia as Samdhing Dorjee Phagmo-the Thunderbolt Sow of Soaring Meditation" (Dhondup and Tashi Tsering 1979). Research since then has shown that other less famous female reincarnation lines had existed in Tibet over the centuries (Tashi Tsering 1993; Chayet 2002), but the Samdhing Dorje Phagmo was the first female line to be established and remains the only one most Tibetans know of and relate to. "The powers attributed to the institution of Dorje Phagmo," wrote Dhondup and Tsering,"held considerable spiritual and mystic sway over the Tibetan mind. The very mention of Samdhing inspired a longing for solitude and peace. Popular songs in Tibet idealised Yamdrog Samdhing as a spiritual heaven of solitude and eulogised Dorje Phagmo as a special spiritual force." (Dhondup and Tashi Tsering 1979:12)

Just as the Dalai Lama, the physical manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, is seen as the defender of Tibetan Buddhism, so is the Dorje Phagmo entrusted with this task. In addition, she seems to have had a particular significance for women and is especially invoked by those who are unhappy in love or unhappily married. A popular song goes:

Oh! Divine Dorje Phagmo,

I do not want to get married!

I am not in love with the world.

Ordain me as a nun

And take me into your fold!


These verses reflect the sorrow of women, repeatedly found in Tibetan history, who have to struggle against social obligations to fulfill their wish to renounce the world. But they have a special resonance and appeal in the case of the lineage of Dorje Phagmo: the actual life of the princess who first established the tradition in the fifteenth century was dominated by such struggle. Chokyi Dronma renounced her royal life to become a nun and in due course came to be seen as an emanation of the deity Dorje Phagmo. She died while still a young woman, and a young girl was recognized as her reincarnation, thus beginning the first and most famous line of female reincarnations in Tibet. Over the centuries that lineage has become not only a religious institution but also a powerful symbol in the Tibetan landscape and a prominent feature in prophecies, long an important part of Tibetan culture and politics. Sarat Chandra Das, the Bengali scholar who traveled secretly through Tibet in the nineteenth century, allegedly on a mission for the intelligence service of the British Empire, wrote of an encounter at Samding with the tenth Dorje Phagmo and of the prophetic accounts of her power and importance to the country. He had been taken gravely ill as his party approached the monastery, and in his account he recalls the powerful mythology of lakes and threatened inundations surrounding this holy woman:

It is due, by the way, to the Dorje Phagmo's spiritual influence that the waters of the inner lake or Dumo tso ("Demon's lake") of the Yamdo tso are held in bounds, for otherwise they would overflow and inundate the whole of Tibet. It was for this that the Samding lamasery was originally built. My eyes fell on the Dumo tso, and on the place where the dead are thrown into the lake, and I shuddered as I thought that this had come near being my fate.

Samding lay not far from the shortest route taken by travelers hoping to reach Lhasa from India, and later British explorers and military campaigners also found their way there. Edmund Candler, one of the reporters who accompanied the British invasion force that ravaged Tibet in 1903-04, chose from the stories surrounding the Dorje Phagmo the one that most closely mirrored his own position as part of a foreign conquering force, and wrote an account that was to become famous in the West of the miraculous powers she displayed when faced by earlier invaders:

The wild mountain scenery of the Yandrok Tso, the most romantic in Tibet, has naturally inspired many legends. When Samding was threatened by the Dzungarian invaders in the early eighteenth century, Dorje Phagmo miraculously con- vetted herself and all her attendants into pigs. Serung Dandub, the Dzungarian chief, finding the monastery deserted, said that he would not loot a place guarded only by swine, whereupon Dorje Phagmo again metamorphosed herself and her satellites. The terrified invaders prostrated themselves in awe before the goddess, and presented the monastery with the most priceless gifts. . . . I quote these tales, which have been mentioned in nearly every book on Tibet, as typical of the country. Doubtless similar legends will be current in a few years about the British to account for the sparing of Samding, Nagartse and Pelthe Jong. (Candler - 1905:178-179)

Mythical and human at the same time, embodied deity and living person, the Dorje Phagmo intrigued and charmed foreign visitors; the sacred woman captured their imagination and their orientalizing gaze. Other Asians were not immune: four decades later, Mao seemed not indifferent to the charm of a subsequent reincarnation. The Twelfth Doije Phagmo was invited to Beijing along with her sister after both young women had escaped from Tibet during the 1959 uprising and had decided to return a few months later. The sister described their being positioned on the high rostrum near Mao and General He Long at a giant celebration to mark China's national day, October 1st, and the tenth anniversary of the founding of the PRC. "In the evening we had a banquet," she recalled, "and when the Chairman Mao met with Dorje Phagmo he kept praising her as the 'female living Buddha.

Subsequently the Twelfth Dorje Phagmo was given a high position as an official in the administration of the Tibet Autonomous Region, combining her religious role with a secular one conferred upon her by the Chinese government. Such personal vicissitudes and paradoxical positionings have made the current Dorje Phagmo a somewhat mysterious and disputed figure in contemporary Tibetan religion and politics, and first attracted me to her as a subject of study. I had heard of the Samding Dorje Phagmo relatively early in my studies of Tibetan culture and history; she is mentioned in numerous books about Tibet, especially where issues concerning gender and religion are discussed. I was intrigued by this deity-woman who has been reincarnating generation after generation for centuries, and I soon discovered that despite her popularity, information about her was slight and often confused, as Tashi Tsering (1993) and Anne Chayet (2oo2) have pointed out. At first, perhaps on account of her fame and the controversies surrounding her current position, I felt shy about engaging in any research about her. Only much later did I come across her again, as a result of studying the scarcely known religious tradition to which she belongs.

I first visited the monastery of Samding in 1996, while on a journey to some of the monasteries and shrines belonging to the obscure and eclectic Bodongpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. I was studying the life and the work of the main scholar of this tradition, Bodong Chogle Namgyal (1375/6-1451), a great polymath who taught many of the masters of his time. During the long evenings at Sam-ding, the monks told me that this great scholar had been the main teacher of the princess Chokyi Dronme (also called Chokyi Dronma) and described how she had miraculously founded the monastery and become the first of the famous line of female incarnations associated with it. They showed me her image among the mural paintings that decorated the newly reconstructed monastery and told me of other monasteries where much older portraits of her could still be found.

Two years later, in New York, as I was looking for further sources on the Bodongpa tradition, the legendary scholar of Tibetan studies, Gene Smith, showed me a copy of the biography of the same princess. It was an astonishing discovery: Leonard van der Kuijp, then newly appointed as the Professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at Harvard, had been able to reproduce this rare text from an archive in Beijing; later he generously provided me with a copy and encouraged me to work on it. Coming across the life of this extraordinary woman was like finding a missing link in the tradition. It is a fascinating narrative, vibrant and unexpectedly human, that became the basis for innumerable other stories, genealogical accounts, myths, and rituals.

This unique text has now been returned to Tibet, to be available for the people and the monasteries that currently embody the Dorje Phagmo's tradition. Witnessing their efforts and realizing the significance for them of texts that have survived the Cultural Revolution induced me to look at the living tradition as well. The first and second parts of this book are devoted to the life of the princess as described in her biography and the third part to her tradition: how her reincarnation line was established, how it developed over the centuries, and how it is currently lived among the Tibetans. The questions I try to answer are not abstract philosophical issues, but largely practical inquiries about how a woman came five hundred years ago to occupy an important position in a largely male-dominated spiritual hierarchy, and how she is viewed today. Who was this princess in the first place? Why and how was she reincarnated? How could she be both a woman and an embodied female deity transcending space and time? What is her significance for her followers, for Tibetans, and for religious women in general? I use texts, visual materials, and such oral accounts as I have been able to collect, along with some anthropological methods of investigation into social practices. To allow the reader to get a feel for the original narrative, I decided to render it in English and include it here. This is a literary translation with a minimum of explanatory notes, since the material is likely to be interesting for a readership broader than the academic audience of Tibetologists. A more technical annotated translation will be provided, in due course, in a specialized publication, in which the original Tibetan text will be reproduced (Diemberger and Pasang Wangdu - Forthcoming).

Tibetan terms are given according to their pronunciation, except where the ~ transliteration is particularly significant for the context, in which case it is given in brackets according to the Wylie system. Chinese terms are given in pinyin.

I have transposed the Tibetan system of reckoning age to the international ~ convention; hence when texts say that Chokyi Dronma (1422-55) died aged thirty-four, I give the age as thirty-three.