Machig Jobum: Female mahasiddha and lineage holder of Dro Kālacakra

Chief of all who live life in the sky [dākinīs],

[attainer of the] rainbow body, Jo-‘bum-ma.

 I pray to you, hold me in your thoughts with compassion.

You hold the lineage; bless me to have a life like yours.

—Tsewang Norbu

As is typical of ‘his’-stories of famous, or powerful, men, women are often underrepresented, undervalued, sidelined or worse still, ignored. The dearth of current literature in English  (and it seems Tibetan) language on one of the female lineage holders of Dro Kālacakra, Machig Jobum,  is a very good example.  For a woman to hold such a position and attain such levels of realisation, in a predominantly male-dominated, patriarchal monastic society and culture is nothing less than extraordinary. This short post aims to pull together, share and promote the life-story of this remarkable woman and hopefully inspire more interest and research on it.

Yumo Mikyo Doje and the Dro Kālacakra lineage

One of the Kashmiri scholar Somanatha’s disciples, the 11th century Kālacakra yogi Yumowa Mikyo Dorje (b. 1027) is regarded as one of the earliest Tibetan proponents of a shentong (gzhan stong) view — the bliss-emptiness nature of reality. Emphasized within the Kālacakra Tantra and the teachings on Buddha nature, this view would later become heavily associated with the Jonangpa lineage. From Yumo Mikyo Dorje onwards, the Dro lineage of the Kālacakra passed on through the lineage-holders Dharmeshvara, Namkha Odzer to Machig Tulku Jobum.

Machig Jobum – Accounts of her life-story

Thanks to scholar-translator, Alexander Gardner, we have a brief biography of Machig Jobum in English here at Treasury of Lives:

“Machik Jobum was born in the late eleventh or early twelfth century. Her father, who was known as Dharmeśvara, the Sanskritized version of his Tibetan name, Chokyi Wangchuk (chos kyi dbang phyug, d.u.), and her grandfather was Yumowa Mikyo Dorje (yu mo ba mi bskyod rdo rje, d.u.), both of whom were important figures in the early Kālacakra transmission in Tibet, specifically of the Dro lineage (‘bro lugs). Yumowa composed several treatises on the topic that were later misattributed to Buton Rinchen Drub (bu ston rin chen grub, 1290-d.1364). Her brother, Semo Chewa Namkha Gyeltsen (se mo che ba nam mkha’ rgyal mtshan, d.u.), was also a master of the Kālacakra and its main commentary, the Vimalaprabhā. Jobum herself is said to have memorized the Vimalaprabhā in her youth.

According to the Blue Annals, when she was still young her mother urged her to study black magic in order to murder enemies of the family. According to Tāranātha she studied the rites of Yamāntaka “Gesture of Vanquishing,” and she forced deities such as Tsedak (tshe bdag) and Lhachen Pelbar (lha chen dpal ‘bar) into her service. She engaged in these practices — making hail and the like — until she was thirty-six, when she suffered a serious illness and experienced a religious awakening. She then practiced the Six Yogas, which she had learned from her father. She is said to have practiced in isolated hermitages, surviving without food for weeks on end.

She is generally credited with having transmitted the Kālacakra to Jamsar Sherab Ozer (‘jam gsar ba shes rab ‘od zer, d.u.), although the Blue Annals has him as the disciple of her brother instead.”

The brief account of Jo-‘bum in the Blue Annals translates as follows:

“The daughter of Dharmeśvara was Jo-‘bum.  In her childhood, she was urged by her mother to study magic (mthu) and destroyed many enemies.  After that she practiced the Six Limbed Yoga, and during that same incarnation became a saint (‘phags-pa-mo) of equal fortune to the naturally-born yoginīs.”

As Dan Martin mentions in his article ‘The Woman Illusion’ in Women of Tibet (2006), Jobum is omitted from Buton’s account of the Dro Kālacakra lineage, and when she is mentioned she is underestimated:

“She appears in a, for most part, quite standard lineage of the Dro system of Kālacakra by Tshe-dbang-nor-bu, where a single line, with added refrain, is devoted to each lineage holder.  Her line reads:  “Chief of all who live their lives in the sky [the dākinīs], [attainer of the] rainbow body, Jo-‘bum-ma. [refrain:] I pray to you, hold me in your thoughts with compassion.  You hold the lineage; bless me to have a life comparable to yours.” She is preceded in the lineage by her father, and after her comes her student ‘Jam-sar Shes-rab-‘od-zer, although it is curious that she is not mentioned in the role of teacher in the latter’s biographical account in the Blue Annals, where he studies instead with her brother Se-mo-che-ba.”

Martin states in a footnote that she is included in a record of teachings by the 7th Dalai Lama but does not appear in other records such as Buton and Tsongkhapa nor that of Chogyal Phagpa (contained with the Sakya Collected Works):

“Checking the lineage of the Dro system in the ‘record of teachings received’ (thob-yig) by the Seventh Dalai Lama (Dalai Lama VII 1983: XI 222), one may observe that Sprul-sku Jo-‘bum (nothing here indicates her gender) is indeed included.  Still, there is a footnote attached informing us that the name does not appear in the Dro lineages as included in some seven other thob-yigs, including those of Bu-ston and Tsong-kha-pa.  The Seventh Dalai Lama places her immediately after Drubthob Namkha Od (Grub-thob Nam-mkha’-‘od) (described in the footnote as a shaven-headed white [robed] tantric) and immediately before her brother Se-mo-che-ba.  One of the earliest sources for the lineage, ‘Phags-pa (1968: 191, column 3), also excludes Jo-‘bum.”

Jetsun Tāranātha (1575-1635)

The most detailed biography of Jo-‘bum is found in the Kālacakra History by Tāranātha (1575-1635):

“Of the three children of Chos-kyi-dbang-phyug, there were two who served animate beings.  The Lady Lha-rje Jo-‘bum was renowned as being the emanation body of Indrabodhi’s Lady Lakṣmīnkāra.  She had such great knowledge that she had thoroughly mastered the tantras and commentaries of the Kālacakra.  In her younger years she engaged in all kinds of activities.  When she became a young woman, at her mother’s urging, she practiced the Yamāntaka Gesture of Vanquishing and beheld His visage.  She coerced Life Lord (Tshe-bdag) and Great God Blazing Glory (Lha-chen Dpal-‘bar) into her service.  She practiced life magic (srog mthu).  She made magical displays, hail and so forth.  She spent all her time on this.  The magical powers of her coercive mantras were extremely great.  During her 36th year (i.e., age 35) she was suffering from a severe illness which convinced her that nothing was of any importance apart from realizing the way things truly are.  She meditated on the Six Limbed Yoga which she had learned from her father and during the first day she completed the ten signs.  In the 7th day, the internal winds dissolved into the central vein.  She became a great woman siddhā (grub-thob chen-mo).  In her retreats she would go entirely without human food for about half a month or about a month, but her physical strength would become much better.  She stayed in rock shelters at Srin-po-ri, and travelled in areas impassable to humans, meditating.  She was able to stop outbreaks of contagious diseases simply by pronouncing the Power of Truth.  A simple touch of her hand would free the sick from their sicknesses.  These and other such signs [of her accomplishments] became known.”

Kālacakra Lineage Supplications

Tāranātha also refers to Machig Jobum in two lineage supplications he wrote, the first is from the Kālacakra Lineage Supplication, translated and published here. In it he refers to Jobum as ‘the extraordinary ‘counter’, nirmanakāya Machig (ངོ་མཚར་བགྲངས་བཅས་མ་ཅིག་སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་དང༌། །).  She is placed between her father, Dharmeshvara (Chokyi Wangchk) and Namkha Ozer. Referring to her remarkable ability of counting mantras and memorising perhaps.

He also refers to her in much shorter, six vajra-yogas lineage supplication, where she is placed between Namkha Odzer and Drubtob Sechen.

Further reading/Bibliography
  • Dalai Lama VII 1983:  Dalai Lama VII, The Collected Works (Gsung-‘bum) of the Seventh Dalai Lama Blo-bzang-bskal-bzang-rgya-mtsho, Sherab Gyaltsen, Palace Monastery (Gangtok, Sikkim), in 13 volumes. Based on a printing from the 1945 ‘Bras-spungs woodblocks.
  • Dan Martin, ‘The Woman Illusion’ in Women of Tibet. Hanna Havnevik and Janet Gyatso, eds., Hurst & Company (London 2005), pp. 49-82.
  • Tāranātha 1983:  Tāranātha, Dpal Dus-kyi-‘khor-lo’i Chos Bskor-gyi Byung-khungs Nyer-mkho, contained in:  The Collected Works of Jo-nang Tāranātha, Smanrtsis Shesrig Dpemdzod (Leh, Ladakh), vol. 2, pp. 1-43.
  • ‘Supplication to the Kālacakra Lineage’ by Jetsun Tāranātha 
  • Tshe-dbang-nor-bu 1979:  Kah-thog Rig-‘dzin Tshe-dbang-nor-bu, Dpal Mchog Dang-po’i Sangs-rgyas-kyi Man-ngag Zab-lam Rdo-rje’i Rnal-‘byor Byin-rlabs Bka’-brgyud Bla-mar Gsol-ba ‘Debs-pa Brgyud-‘dzin Mchog Rgyas (Brgyud-‘debs), contained in:  Kong-sprul Blo-gros-mtha’-yas, compiler, Gdams-ngag Mdzod:  A Treasury of Precious Methods and Instructions of the Major and Minor Buddhist Traditions of Tibet, Brought Together and Structured into a Coherent System by ‘Jam-mgon Kong-sprul, Lama Ngodrup and Sherab Drimey (Paro, Bhutan), in 18 volumes.

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