AUTHORS CURRENTLY REPRESENTED BY FEARLESS LITERARY
AN AMERICAN BUDDHA:
How a Christian Minister
Discovered Her Spiritual Destiny
Being Yeshe Tsogyal
by Mary Ann McGuire
But it sometimes happens that the Angel of Forgetfulness himself
forgets to remove from our memories the records of the former world;
and then our senses are haunted by fragmentary recollections of another life.
They drift like torn clouds above the hills and valleys of the mind,
and weave themselves into the incidents of our current existence.
—Sholem Asch, The Nazarene
During a dreamlike vision when I was five years old, I saw myself rise up through the bedroom ceiling, through the roof, and travel into the nighttime sky. Consumed with curiosity about what lay beyond those dark, starry realms, I shot like a comet across the radiant cosmos. I knew I would eventually come to the end of the universe, so I flew on and on with the excitement of a space explorer. When I finally arrived at the very edge of the sky, I skidded to a halt. A vast void, black and opaque, stretched out before me. I hesitated. If I went any farther, I would never return. Frightened, I retreated and flew home at breakneck speed.
I had no way of knowing then that this vision held the very story of my life. Forty years later, as a mother of three, an aspiring Christian minister, and a community activist, my dreams, hopes, and years of hard work would dissolve into chaos and uncertainty after a prolonged, dramatic divorce and a successful but trouble-filled, self-made ministry. Life unraveled around me, and I found myself at that place in my vision, the black edge of the sky, facing the abyss. It was at precisely this moment in time that I unexpectedly met one of the world’s greatest Tibetan Buddhist teachers, His Eminence Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche.
Affectionately known among his Western students simply as “Rinpoche,” Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche was a member of the Nyingma sect, one of four sects within Tibetan Buddhism — Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelugpa. The Nyingmas are referred to as the “Ancient Ones” because of a carefully preserved lineage connecting them to Padmasambhava, known as the founder of Tibetan Buddhism; Yeshe Tsogyal, revered as the Mother of all Tibet; King Trison Detsun, and other eighth-century Tibetan spiritual luminaries.
I was a practicing Christian chaplain when I first heard Rinpoche speak in a forest above the Napa Valley in northern California. Yet I was immediately drawn to the enlightened wisdom of his words and to his charismatic energy, which felt remarkably familiar. I worried that my Christian faith eliminated me as a suitable vessel for his teachings, but Rinpoche didn’t see this as a problem.
“Truth the same. Same for Christian, same for Buddhist,” he said. “Same truth all over the world. I teach you truth.”
Within hours of meeting him, I became Rinpoche’s student. Little did I know that I would receive teachings from Rinpoche and his fellow Nyingma masters for many years to come — an extraordinary spiritual journey into an expansive world of compassion, mystery, magic, and wonder.
During those intoxicating early years of my relationship with Rinpoche and the Nyingmas, a shattering knowledge began to awaken within me. It began with the inexplicably profound resonance I felt with Rinpoche and the teachings, then gained strength from subtle hints and suggestions offered by Rinpoche and his student, the Venerable Lama Chödak Gyatso Nubpa Rinpoche, whom I hosted for a few years while he established a Nyingma center in the United States.
One morning, a few months after his arrival, Lama Gyatso asked if I was familiar with Yeshe Tsogyal. I knew little about her, but something in Lama Gyatso’s inquiry signaled that he was making far more than casual conversation. In fact, embedded within this simple question lay the suggestion that I might be an incarnation of this legendary figure central to Tibetan Buddhism. Thus began the delicate process of finding pieces to a timeless puzzle that, as it slowly formed a complete picture, awakened in me memories and an awareness that extended far beyond what I had experienced in this lifetime.
YESHE TSOGYAL stands as a rare historical figure of female spiritual accomplishment and authority, a fierce and brilliant woman whose fundamental life mission was to embrace the Buddhist teachings, known as dharma, and to foster happiness among all sentient beings. Two biographies, both based on important ancient texts, detail her miraculous life: Lady of the Lotus-Born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal, a biography written by Gyalwa Changchub and Namkhai Nyingpo, and Mother of Knowledge: The Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal,written by Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche.
Yeshe Tsogyal was born in eighth-century Tibet, a princess of Karchan. Her family’s palace was situated near a lovely village at the bottom of a canyon lush with tall, willowy trees bearing distinctive silver leaves. For many centuries, meditators have practiced in large caves that overlook this canyon. Stories of Yeshe Tsogyal’s birth are mythical: the skies filled with rainbows, a small lake appeared miraculously near her home, and upon entering the world, she declared herself a yogini nirmanakaya, a female embodiment of Buddha who arrives in the world to teach and liberate beings from suffering. “Yeshe” translates to “unending primordial wisdom,” and “Tsogyal” means “vast ocean.”
According to the texts, Yeshe Tsogyal’s parents kept her hidden within the castle, but word of her unusual beauty spread nonetheless. By the time she was sixteen, many kings sought her hand in marriage, but she refused, believing that matrimony was the quickest route into the prison of suffering known as samsara. She pleaded with her parents to spare her that fate, but they insisted, brushing aside her passionate desire to lead a life devoted to religious practice. However, the king and queen could not decide among her suitors, so they dressed her in silks and expelled her from the palace, accompanied by a caravan of animals laden with gifts and personal items. The first suitor to capture her would win her as his bride.
Two rivals raced to the princess, and the victor claimed his prize by grabbing her hair and dragging her toward his entourage. When she struggled to get away, the suitor beat her into submission, but on the journey to his kingdom, Yeshe Tsogyal escaped and hid in a ravine. The second suitor received word of her whereabouts and sent a team of warriors, who successfully retrieved her. He kept her in chains.
When King Trisong Detsun, the ruler of Tibet, heard news of the contest for Yeshe Tsogyal, he sent word to her father requesting that she be offered to him instead. And so it was that Yeshe Tsogyal became the Queen of Tibet. Like Yeshe Tsogyal, King Trisong Detsun believed in the Buddhadharma, though it was not the primary religion in the land at the time, and he allowed Yeshe Tsogyal to study the teachings. He even hired teachers—most notably Padmasambhava, who at the time was offering Buddhist teachings as he traveled from India through Tibet. The king invited Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, offering him jewels, riches, and even the entire kingdom in exchange for the highest, most secret teachings. Padmasambhava refused. “Dharma is not bartered for possessions,” he said.
For when the precious snow lion’s milk
Is poured in other than a cup of purest gold,
The vessel breaks, the milk is lost. 1
The king then offered Yeshe Tsogyal as a sacred consort to Padmasambhava. She accompanied him for eight years. During their journeys she received all of his teachings, “just as the contents of one vessel are poured into another.”2 During those years, she underwent strenuous spiritual initiations into the higher mysteries and ultimately attained Buddhahood. Her enlightened yogic abilities, or siddhis, were legendary: resurrecting the dead, feeding the hungry by the score, healing the sick.
Among numerous accomplishments, Yeshe Tsogyal memorized Padmasambhava’s teachings and then transcribed them. Once this vast body of esoteric and spiritual knowledge had been committed to scrolls of colored paper, Yeshe Tsogyal and Padmasambhava together traveled the world and hid the teachings in myriad places, including caves, rivers, and trees. Padmasambhava had foreseen a world plagued by disease and disaster, a time when hunger for and commitment to spiritual accomplishment would diminish. Eventually, after many generations of spiritual depletion, when spiritual renewal was most needed, highly realized masters (tertöns) would discover these hidden treasures, the revelatory teachings called termas. It is said that Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal even hid these treasures within the minds of the students themselves — seeds of knowledge that would ripen and reawaken within each student in a future incarnation.
Through the centuries, these pure wisdom teachings have indeed been directly transmitted to tertöns. Thousands of terma volumes have been discovered, and they have come to constitute a significant part of the Nyingma tradition. Preserved in their original form, protected from distortion and misinterpretation, these texts are treasured precisely because they have remained intact through time, and thus retain their pure meaning as a direct path to enlightenment.3
It is through Yeshe Tsogyal’s efforts that Padmasambhava’s teachings have endured.4 Because of her own unparalleled spiritual accomplishments, as well as her transcription and dissemination of the essential wisdom for the path to enlightenment, Yeshe Tsogyal has become the most highly revered woman in the Nyingma lineage—she is known as the “Mother of Tibet.”
Tibetan Buddhists believe that all beings are reborn multiple times. In Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1993 film Little Buddha, Lama Norbu is searching for a child he believes to be the rebirth of an important Buddhist teacher. He demonstrates the concept of reincarnation by pouring tea into a teacup, then shattering the cup. “See?” he says. “The cup is broken, but the tea is still tea.” Our mindstream is the “tea” that exists in perpetuity, no matter what form our physical body takes.
Within the Nyingma lineage is a centuries-old tradition of finding, recognizing, educating, and revering highly realized, reborn masters — known as tulkus, emanations, or incarnations — so that they may continue their work to bring benefit to all living beings. Among these masters is Tulku Thondrup Rinpoche, an esteemed contemporary Buddhist scholar who was recognized at the age of four as the reincarnation of a celebrated Tibetan scholar and saint. In his book Incarnation: The History and Mysticism of the Tulku Tradition of Tibet, Tulku Thondrup notes that tulkus are discovered in many ways: Sometimes a lama will foretell where he will take rebirth; some awakened beings are born and announce who they are as soon as they are old enough to speak; others will demonstrate accumulated wisdom from their previous lives; yet others are recognized by living lamas who find them by way of clairvoyance, dreams or recognition of specific qualities; and some reveal themselves by discovering termas.
Regarding the latter, he notes,
Thousands of [tulkus] have discovered “symbolic scripts” written on pieces of paper as well as full texts and religious materials miraculously imprinted on the earth, on rocks, in lakes or in the sky. In most cases, those symbolic scripts and objects turned into the keys of the real discovery, the awakening of memories of whole ranges of wisdom and teachings from the enlightened nature of their minds. . . . [Other tulkus have] discovered such wisdom and teachings solely through the power of their own wisdom-mind without relying on any physical keys. Such discovered teachings are called “mind treasures” since the [tulkus] discovered them from their memory banks with the keys of their own wisdom-power without relying on any earthly or physical objects as the keys.
Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche taught that we change bodies and carry our mindstream from one life to the next. In his autobiography, Lord of the Dance, he describes being recognized at the age of three and his deep connection with his mother, Delog Dama Drolma. Chagdud Tulku’s family, which was large and prosperous, lived under resplendent skies at thirteen thousand feet in the Tromt’har region of eastern Tibet, where glittering lakes, green meadows, and alpine flowers dot the landscape. The family pastured thousands of sheep and yak. Like most Tibetans, his family lived in a black yak hair tent — but theirs, with a capacity to seat 400 people, was the largest tent in eastern Tibet.
Chagdud Tulku’s mother, Dama Drolma, was revered as a person of extraordinary spiritual attainment and was widely known as a delog — a person who has crossed the threshold of death, traveled to unseen realms, and returned to tell of what they have discovered. When Dama Drolma was sixteen, the deity Tara came to her in a vision and informed her that she would soon become ill and die. However, if Dama Drolma followed Tara’s instructions precisely, she would be able to return from the dead and bring sacred teachings back with her.
Dama Drolma told her uncle of the dream and repeated Tara’s exact instructions. As Tara had foreseen, Dama Drolma did indeed fall ill and die, despite intervention from doctors. Dama Drolma’s family executed Tara’s instructions and lamas and monks prayed and chanted in an adjoining room. After five days, Dama Drolma returned to her body and recounted all that she had seen — her meetings with the dead and the messages they conveyed. These remarkable experiences altered her own life, and she drew on them for all of her teachings, thus helping others live their lives more consciously.
An additional fact about Delog Dama Drolma is significant to my own story: Chagdud Tulku’s mother was recognized as a living incarnation of Yeshe Tsogyal, and it was Chagdud Tulku who eventually recognized me as the current living incarnation of this extraordinary woman.
In my early days of discovering Tibetan Buddhism, I knew little about tulkus and tertöns, termas and delogs. What I did know was that whenever I was with the Nyingmas, I could see, hear, feel, and touch the primordial essence of Tibet’s open spaces, her high plateaus, forests, wind, wild rivers, lakes, and holy snow mountains. And, like many of Chagdud Tulku’s students, I felt directly connected to him. When I first met Rinpoche, I wrote in my journal about the remarkable resonance of two violins in one room — if the A string is played on one violin, the A string on the other violin vibrates in unison.When Rinpoche spoke of his homeland and his mother, I experienced additional energetic resonances and multiple notes seemed to vibrate in harmonic memory.
When I welcomed Lama Gyatso into my home, I was unaware that H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche had recognized me as a living incarnation of Yeshe Tsogyal. This is not the sort of thing that you simply walk up and announce to someone, especially a Western, middle-aged woman who also happens to be a Christian minister. While there is a longstanding tradition for how Tibetans are recognized as reincarnated masters and for how those recognized are schooled in the Nyingma teachings if they choose to follow the path, this process remains nebulous for beings who are born in the West, where religious and cultural beliefs make such a possibility largely inconceivable.
Therefore, Lama Gyatso ushered me gently and gradually into an understanding of Yeshe Tsogyal’s legacy, mentoring and guiding me in the ancient practices of the Nyingmas. With his help, I undertook a slow and delicate journey, dancing for decades around the possibility that I might be Yeshe Tsogyal, before finally realizing and accepting that she and I are One.
1. Changchub, Gyalwa, and Namkhai Nyingpo. Lady of the Lotus-Born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal. Boston: Shambhala, 1999.
2. Nam-mkha’I, Snying-Po. Mother of Knowledge: The Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal. Trans. Tarkhang Tulku. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1983.
3. Nam-mkha’I, Snying-Po. Mother of Knowledge: The Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal.
4. Nam-mkha’I, Snying-Po. Mother of Knowledge: The Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal.
© Copyright 2016 by Mary Ann McGuire
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AUTHORS CURRENTLY REPRESENTED BY FEARLESS LITERARY