A Woman’s Voice : the Autobiography of Kunga Trinley Wangmo, (Zhentong lineage holder and secret consort of Tāranātha)

Jonang lineage refuge tree

I first became aware of an extraordinary woman, Kunga Trinley Wangmo (Kun dga’ ‘Phrin las dbang mo (1585-1668)), a few years ago in 2016-17, during my postgraduate research on Tāranātha’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra (LTWA, 2017). While delving into Tāranātha’s lifestory, I was made aware (particularly by discussions with the main English language scholar on Tāranātha’s autobiographies, David Templeman)[i] that Wangmo was a close disciple and secret consort (gsang yum) to Tāranātha (1575-1635), as well as a Jonang lineage-holder and key figure in the transmission of zhentong (gzhan stong) philosophy. In addition, when I started translating some Jonang Kālacakra texts in 2017, a couple of Jonang lamas in exile had even said that I might be her incarnation. I laughed this suggestion off as very unlikely! However, I wanted to read more about her but could not find any primary source material[ii] and was told that Michael Sheehy was doing research on her life.  

However, due to not having any access to these texts myself (despite requesting Sheehy to see them and his refusing) [iii], it was with great interest that I read his new article, Materializing Dreams and Omens: The Autobiographical Subjectivity of Tibetan Yogini, Kunga Trinley Wangmo[iv].  The title of paper immediately made me wonder about its contents. The use of autobiographical subjectivity in the title struck me as odd and ironic in some ways as it was a ‘subjective’ analysis of a woman of colour’s voice (and self-penned story) by a privileged white, male academic.  I have not seen such a provocative title used in relation to the autobiography of a Tibetan male master, for example. Thus, I felt both excited and apprehensive about reading it. 

My brief article here, aims to pull out and share some of the interesting revelations in her autobiography as well as review Sheehy’s personal treatment and analysis of the Tibetan source material. Without having had any access to that material up until now, this review is necessarily limited though.

An Emanation of Vajrayogini‘ – Trinley Wangmo’s Autobiography

Sheehy states he ‘acquired’ her autobiography in the summer of 2006, while staying in the Dzamthang valley in Amdo, with Tulku Kunga Tsultrim Zangpo (Kun dga’ Tshul khrims bzang po)  when they came into possession of some ‘rare’ Tibetan manuscripts in Amdo[v].  The texts themselves came from a man called Lama Phuntshog who was said to have handwritten many important texts he had acquired and kept them in his home. According to Sheehy:

He [Lama Phuntshog] unexpectedly died at a relatively young age, leaving his private collection of handwritten manuscripts stockpiled in his mother’s house. Upon hearing this story, Tulku Tshul khrims bzang po and I informed Tulku ‘Jigs med rdo rje, the vajra-master at Jonang Gstang ba Monastery in ‘Dzam thang. Tulku ‘Jigs med rdo rje had not heard this account but knew this local elderly woman, and vaguely recalled her son.

These texts were then given as a gift to the now head of Jonang in Tibet, Jigme Dorje Rinpoche by Lama Phuntshog’s elderly mother.

Trinley Wangmo was considered to be an emanation of Vajrayogini

Among the instances of biographical writing by Tāranātha’s immediate disciples found in Lama Phuntshog’s collection was the autobiography of Kunga Trinley Wangmo (Rje btsun ma Kun dga’ ‘Phrin las dbang mo). The full title of her life story in thirty-three folios is, Secret Primordial-Awareness: The Life-Story of the Fortunate Trinley Wangmo, Emanation of Venerable Vajrayogini (Rje btsun rdo rje rnal ‘byor ma’i sprul pa skal ldan ‘phrin las dbang mo’i rnam thar gsang ba’i ye shes)[vi]. Sheehy explains that:

Though there is nothing to suggest that she titled her own work, and that the title was not added by later editors, the title makes her connection to Vajrayogīni explicit with the phrase, “rdo rje rnal ‘byor ma’i sprul pa,” indicating that ‘Phrin las dbang mo is considered (or considered herself) an embodiment of the deity. Perhaps it is the latter part of the title that is however most revealing; here the phrase, “Gsang ba’i ye shes” which is the primary title of the work, suggests her relationship with and possible self-imaging of guhyajñāna dakīni, a vermilion esoteric form of Vajrayogīni. This meditation deity (yi dam) is known by its full name, Mkha’ ‘gro ma gsang ba ye shes, and is found in the Yi dam rgya mtsho collection of sadhāna compiled by Tāranātha. A few folios into her autobiography, ‘Phrin las dbang mo describes having received the empowerment for Cakrasaṃvāra at age fifteen. This initiation seemingly left a deep impression on her as a young woman, so much so that her writing regularly and seamlessly quotes stanzas from the Cakrasaṃvāra and Vajrayogīni literature, as reflected in the title of her own life story. For those familiar with Tāranātha’s praxis, the implicit linkage of her as Vajrayogīni will evoke the idyllic image of her in union with his yidam, Cakrasaṃvāra (p.267). 

Chakrasamvara

Sheehy goes on to explain that:

A year after this find, in 2007, Tulku Tsultrim Zangpo (Tshul khrims bzang po) and I digitized the Collected Works of the Jonangpa scholar from Swe Monastery in Ngawa (Rnga ba), Palden Namnag Dorje (Dpal ldan Rnam snang rdo rje (d. 1847)). Within this collection, there is both a supplement (kha skong) that augments and comments on Trinley Wangmo’s autobiography as well as a supplication to her successive line of women re-embodiments (skyes ‘phreng gsol ‘debs)  These two texts are critical sources for contextualizing and understanding Trinley Wangmo’s life writing and for situating her historically (p.268).

The manuscript is in handwritten U-med and, according to Sheehy,  ‘the only extant witness that we have available to-date. Her autobiography is not known by the elder Jonangpa scholars in Tibet with whom I consulted, suggesting that it was a manuscript that had minimal circulation in Jonang circles through the late twentieth century.’

Trinley Wangmo was considered to be a re-embodiment of the female deity Vajrayogīni and is associated with Sarasvatī, Niguma, and Yeshe Tshogyal.  In terms of her previous lives, Wangmo is said to have been prominent female figures, although these are not specifically stated by Sheehy:

At the beginning of her autobiography, she writes about her previous incarnations in Nepal, India, and Tibet. All of this situates ‘Phrin las dbang mo not only as one of the few women authors in pre-1959 Tibet, but includes her among Tibetan Buddhist women who claimed prominent female figures among their past lives. This is however distinct from women who spawned tulku lines of succession with an established monastic seat, such as the Bsam sdings Rdo rje phag mo and Gung ru Mkha’ ‘gro ma tulkus. 

This leaves another intellectual (and feminist) question, as to why figures like Wangmo do not spawn successive tulku lines and monasteries.

Wangmo’s autobiography is extraordinary not only for the content but also for its very existence too. As Sheehy reminds us, ‘it is estimated that historical Tibetan women were the authors or subjects of less than one percent (1%) of the thousands of biographies that were written in the Tibetan language’:

To further contextualize ‘Phrin las dbang mo’s autobiographical writing in this broader frame of literary women in Tibet, we might note that her work not only gives unique insights into her time, but is a prime example of female authorship in early modern Tibet. In fact, her work is among the earliest known autobiographical accounts by a woman writing in Tibet (p.270).

In addition, it is considered to be the only known first-person account of such critical moments in Jonang history, such as the death of Tāranātha, civil unrest in Gtsang, the fifteen year period after the death of Tāranātha in 1635 that led to the Ganden Phodrang (Dga’ ldan Pho brang) takeover of Jonang headquarters at Tagten Damcho Ling (Rtag brtan Dam chos gling) Monastery in 1650, its conversion into a Gelug (Dge lugs) establishment in 1658, and the subsequent migration of the Jonangpas to remote regions of Amdo on the margins of the Sino-Tibetan frontier.

The Royal Background and connection with 5th Dalai Lama

5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso

According to Wangmo’s account, she writes that she was “born into a royal family,” in the foothills on the southern shore of the turquoise lake Yardrog Yumstho (Yar ‘brog G.yum mtsho) near the palace of the snowpeaked glacial Mount Gangzang (Gang bzang) in Nakar Tse Dzong (Sna dkar rtse rdzong), south central Tibet. Sheehy explains that in a supplement, Namnang Dorje (Rnam snang rdo rje) elaborates on this phrase by explaining that she was the “tsha mo” (cousin or niece) of Thripon Chenpo Tenzin Migyur[vii] (Khri dpon chen po Bstan ‘dzin mi ‘gyur (d.u.)), the principle myriarch of the Yardrog Taglung Thrikor (Yar ‘brog Stag lung khri skor) area of Nakar Tse Dzong, making her a princess of royal descent[viii]. Sheehy states that:

Given the known and probable dates, ‘Phrin las dbang mo was likely not the granddaughter, but rather was the niece of Khri dpon chen po Bstan ‘dzin mi ‘gyur and she lived in his royal household during her girlhood. That these women were relatives is made more probable by Ngag dbang Blo bzang rgya mtsho’s autobiographical description of his mother being from a Jonangpa family in Sna dkar rtse who were devoted to Kun dga’ Grol mchog and then his tulku, Tāranātha. If Bstan ‘dzin mi ‘gyur was in fact the father of Kun dga’ lha mdzes, which the current biographical sources suggest, and ‘Phrin las dbang mo was his niece, this would make ‘Phrin las dbnag mo a cousin of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s mother, Kun dga’ lha mdzes. This gives us not only a greater salience of the interpersonal relations among the social and kinship worlds of Tāranātha and the Fifth Dalai Lama, which become consequential for the religious history of Tibet, but this contact tracing compounds the psychological and emotional layers of this history.

This assertion that Wangmo was the cousin of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s mother, Kunga Lhadze (who Sheehy claims is a decade younger than Trinley Wangmo), is at odds with another scholar, David Templeman’s controversial suggestion that Wangmo may have been the actual mother of the Fifth Dalai Lama, with Tāranātha the father (see below).

Sheehy then discusses the birth year of Trinley Wangmo as 1585, making her ten years younger than Tāranātha. He says:

Based on dated events in her autobiography and the kha skongs by Rnam snang rdo rje. Evidence suggests that she was ten years younger than Tāranātha who was born in 1575, making her birth year 1585. In the kha skongs, Rnam snang rdo rje verifies this by stating that in the chu mo bya year, which would have been 1633/1634, Tāranātha was fifty-nine (i.e. 58) years old and ‘Phrin las dbang mo was forty-nine (i.e. 48) years old.[ix]

Wangmo is said to have met Tāranātha as a young girl and ‘her narrative reads linearly through her life from her girlhood through her adulthood with Tāranātha in the remote Jo mo nang valley until she became an elder during the final days of the Jonangpa in Tsang’.

Secret consort of Tāranātha?

Sheehy asserts that Wangmo was the secret consort of Tāranātha but provides no clear texual information or sources to back this claim up, he says:

She lived within the inner circle of Tāranātha and his closest disciples during her entire adult life and was charged with compiling his Collected Works after his passing. She was his consort (pho nya mo), and her intimacy with Tāranātha performs multiple roles, including that of assisting him as a female muse who becomes intrinsically entangled within his secret autobiographical experiences (nyams) and realizations (rtogs); and by her close association with him, she gained greater agency and authority.

In addition, there is a glaring omission of any reference to the work of David Templeman, the main English-language scholar on the autobiographies/biographies of Tāranātha. It is not clear why. It would certainly have been interesting to have read more about Wangmo’s life and practice as Tāranātha’s consort (perhaps that is forthcoming).

Despite it being generally asserted that Wangmo was the consort of Tāranātha, as well as a major Jonang and Zhentong lineage holder, according to my informal email discussions with Templeman in  February 2017, there is nothing in Tāranātha’s autobiographical or biographical texts that explicitly state this, or even mention him having a consort. According to Templeman this omission is a political one, and moreover, Wangmo’s role in the 5th Dalai Lama’s life may be a lot more intimate than the official version too! Templeman explained that:

Tāranātha does not mention Trinley Wangmo by name even in his Secret Autobiography and less so in his Large one.  This is entirely a political strategy.  As you may know, Gene Smith found in an early draft of the 5th Dalai Lama’s Autobiography, and expunged from later editions, a reason for the 5th’s rather unreasonable dislike of Tāranātha.  Basically, it suggested that Tāranātha impregnated Trinley Wangmo and she was dismissed from Tsang. The child was later to become the 5th Dalai Lama.  Tāranātha made overtures to the mother to bring the young lad into the Jo nang lineage but as she was mightily upset at his treatment of her she refused. Absolutely none of this is even mentioned in Tāranātha’s writings.

However, an extract from Tāranātha’s large Autobiography dealing with when he meets Indian Hindu mendicants and the advice they give him is about as close as we get to anything to do with consorts in his writings[x].

Templeman told me that there is a secret secret handwritten autobiography which refers to Tāranātha’s consort life and practice, in which Wangmo is mentioned. Sheehy reveals that Wangmo’s tantric secret name (gsang mtshan) is Rinchen Dorjema (Rin chen Rdo rje ma (ratna badzri ṇi)).

Lineage holder of Zhentong and other traditions

Trinley Wangmo is mentioned in Zhentong lineage supplications as a lineage holder, and Sheehy explains that:

She was also a formidable intellectual who is said to have taught gzhan stong philosophy “as it dawned spontaneously within her heart” and is listed in Jonang lineage records as a primary figure in the transmission of gzhan stong after Tāranātha. She becomes an important human link in the transmission line of gzhan stong and other teachings from Tāranātha to Zur Kun bzang dbang po (d.u.) who was the teacher to Rig ‘dzin Tshe dbang nor bu (1698-1755), the torch-bearer who ignited the scholastic renaissance of Jonang teachings in eastern Tibet.

Some of the selected passages in Wangmo’s autobiography also speak about commentaries she wrote on the Kālacakra mandala and completion stage, but these do not appear to be in existence. In addition, it was interesting to learn that Wangmo is also a holder of the Tsembu Lineage of the Great Compassionate One, an important practice within the Jonang school, which I recently wrote about here.

Sheehy also gives a valuable discussion of female authors and figures (ie. the lack of them) in Tibetan Buddhist texts, particularly during the 16th Century.  Helpfully citing the recent publication of a text in 2013 by Larung Gar, Tibet that details the lives of female practitioners in Tibet and India[xi]. This publication also contains the aforementioned autobiography by Wangmo, and has been recently uploaded onto TBRC for free access. It is a treasure chest indeed!

A sigificant bulk of Sheehy’s article is spent on Wangmo’s dreams and omens, including some fascinating ones about Tāranātha and his future incarnation, Sheehy states:

In what seems to be very conscious choices, ‘Phrin las dbang mo works constantly to solve the riddles that are presented in her dreams as well as omens. For instance, more than once throughout her autobiography, ‘Phrin las dbang mo writes-down the phrase, “rmi lam dang dngos ltas rnams mgnon du ‘gyur” – which may be rendered more literally, “The signs that manifest in both dream and reality.

Tāranātha’s Rebirth as Jetsun Kalkha Dampa

The 9th Jetsun Khalkha Dampa (1933 – 2012)

It is clear that Wangmo was close to Tāranātha and is mentioned as scribe and collator of his Collected Works.  Sheehy shares a conversation she is alleged to have had with Tāranātha about his future re-birth as the First Khalkha Jestun Dampa:

According to she recounts in her autobiography, ‘Phrin las dbang mo describes an intimate conversation that she had with Tāranātha during his final days about omens (rten ‘brel) that he intuited about the future of the Jonangpa, and the volatile political climate that would ensue after his passing. During this conversation,  Tāranātha revealed a series of omens that had recently transpired for him, and that he believed would lead him to be reborn to benefit the Gelukpa. As history tells, the child born in Mongolia that same year that Tāranātha died, Blo bzang Bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan (1635-1723)–known as ‘Jam dbyangs Tulku–would soon be recognized by the Fifth Dalai Lama Ngag dbang Blo bzang rgya mtsho, First Paṇchen Lama Blo bzang Chos kyi rgyal mtshan (1567-1662), and the State Oracle of Tibet to be the rebirth Tāranātha, the First Khal kha Rje btsun dam pa. Later in her autobiography, ‘Phrin las dbang mo wrote that she rejoiced when she heard this news of Tāranātha’s rebirth in Mongolia years later, which was likely after the official confirmation in 1642.

As of 2020, a current Khalkha Dampa, as usually recognized by the Dalai Lamas, has yet to be officially recognized, with the head of the Jonang lineage in Tibet, Jigme Dorjee Rinpoche, taking the main, official role of Head of Jonang.

Meeting with 5th Dalai Lama

By the end of her life, Wangmo writes about making connection again with the Fifth Dalai Lama:

Then in 1664, as one of the last living disciples of Tāranātha, she visited and met with the Fifth Dalai Lama. In her brief description of this encounter, she recounts receiving several authorization initiations (rjes gnang) from the Dalai Lama including White Tārā and a guruyoga, and briefly meeting Desi Sangye Gyatso (Sde srid Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho (1653-1705)). These historical episodes in her autobiography make it clear that certainly by the end of her life, ‘Phrin las dbang mo was considered not only an elder of the Jonang order, but a mediator in the real politic of her time.

Appropriating women’s voices and ‘ownership’ of texts

To conclude, I will share some observations about Sheehy’s personal treatment of the source material.

Sheehy rightly acknowledges the ‘subjectivity’ of Wangmo’s account, particularly when it comes to her words about the 5th Dalai Lama and Tāranātha, which may have been changed or hijacked by those with political motives.  However, I don’t think this observation justifies making such ‘subjectivity’ the title of the article itself. All too often women are critiqued directly (and indirectly) for being too ‘subjective’ or ’emotional’ (or ‘sentimental’ as Sheehy puts it). I hope I am wrong, but the titling of the article reeks a little of such sexist ‘sentiment’.

Sheehy explains that Wangmo’s voice is unique and ‘unfiltered’ within that genre of Tibetan Buddhist texts, in that:

Her autobiographical writing challenges conventions commonly associated with the auto/biographical (rang rnam, rnam thar) genre of Tibetan literature. In particular, her writing style does not conform to preconceived patterns of the outer, inner, and secret (phyi, nang, gsang) structure that came to frame Tibetan biographical writing. Throughout her autobiography, she presents the reader with her critical awareness, sentimentality, and testimonial in an unfiltered way that expresses the voice of her ongoing internal dialogue (p. 278).

 Although the revelation and translation of such rare and inaccessible material about an important female lineage holder and consort is valuable indeed, I also felt reading it as if Sheehy’s enthusiasm for intellectual jargon and obscure wording (as a native speaker, I am a fan of plain English, even in academic texts), obscured much of the raw (and most interesting) material and ‘voice’ from the reader’s view. His verbose ‘pontification’ about her dreams is interesting in some respects, but repetitive and overbearing by the end. So, while I was happy to read some information about her life based on primary sources, I was left feeling slightly disappointed at the lack of original sourced content and excessive conjecture about the material presented.  The voice that dominated was that of Sheehy and not of Trinley Wangmo.

Yesterday, with the publication of the new Treasury of Lives biography of Trinley Wangmo (written by Sheehy), the texts by and about Wangmo referred to in his article are now available, including her Autobiography (which is published as a computer input text, in the Tibetan, Larung Gar 2013 publication (mentioned before) of collected biographies of great women of India and Tibet. This has been uploaded online to view, see TBRC W1KG16649. 11: 192 – 223). As a result, more can be said and shared about her life, realizations and experiences as the secret consort of Tāranātha.

 As a male scholar, Sheehy should perhaps be cautious about initially claiming ‘ownership’ of such literature, which after all can rightfully be said to belong to the Jonang lineage holders and descendants of Wangmo herself.  In particular, denying access or information to a female translator and researcher in the field, such as myself. It all comes down to whether or not a researcher is genuinely interested in widening public knowledge and scholarship on a topic, or using that topic as a way to increase their own reputation and name. If the latter, then maintaining strict control over access to such unrestricted texts would be a sign.

As I myself have recently personally experienced, women’s voices are all too often erased from accounts, histories, conferences and so on and their stories hijacked (or worse impersonated) by more powerful (in the worldly sense), male voices. Considering the dearth of female voices in Tibetan Buddhist textual translation, analysis and history (and in Tibetan Buddhist academia) Sheehy (who am sure considers himself to be a progressive male) might do well to remember that. At the very least, it is impossible to check another’s work, if the texts themselves are unavailable.

In addition, for me (and perhaps other scholars who consider histories from a female/feminist perspective) the intellectual question of who and where is Kunga Trinley Wangmo’s current incarnation is a relevant one. There are male tulkus of Tāranātha and other renowned (and even lesser) Tibetan Buddhist masters but why do lineage holders like Wangmo not spawn such lineages and incarnations?

Apologies for any errors, this article was written in the space of a few hours. Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 21st October 2020. Copyright.


[i] Templeman told me that he is currently converting his PhD on Tāranātha’s Autobiographies as well as his translation of Tāranātha’s Large Autobiography for forthcoming publication by Brill.

[ii] In his article, Sheehy helpfully lists some primary source material available on Wangmo as:

In addition, there are two brief works, if not others, that are dedicated to her: (1) one is a letter written to her by the ‘Brug pa Kagyu master Mi pham Dge legs rnam rgyal (1618-1685) that was preserved among his miscellaneous official letters (chab shog phyogs bsgrigs), expressing his plea for her to pray for the rebirth of his recently deceased disciple; (2) the other is a personal instruction (zhal gdams) that was advised to her by Tāranātha.  As for her own writings in addition to the autobiography, she also transcribed, arranged, and compiled a handbook of handwritten notes based on Tāranātha’s oral explanations on the history and practice of the Jonang protector deity Trak shad. Another important source for contextualizing her is Tāranātha’s Collected Works wherein she is documented in colophons as being active as a scribe, commentator, requestor, and close disciple.

[iii] When I contacted Sheehy to get access to some of the texts on Wangmo, he refused citing his own research as the reason. Although this seemed to go against principles of open intellectual collaboration and research, I nevertheless was forced to accept it and Sheehy never responded to my queries about it again.

[iv] Materializing Dreams and Omens: The Autobiographical Subjectivity of the Tibetan Yoginī Kun dga’ ‘Phrin las dbang mo (1585-1668) . Revue D’Etudes Tibetaines, Number 56, Octobre 2020, pp. 263-292.

[v] Sheehy explains that:

The manuscript cache that we acquired from the late Lama Phun tshogs totals fifteen volumes and includes writings from Nyingma, Kagyu, and Jonang authors. Significant texts in this find include the biography and interlinear annotated commentary (mchan ‘grel) on the Kālacakra Tantra and Vimalaprabhā by Mnga’ ris pa Phyogs las rnam rgyal (1306-1386), one of Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan’s (1292-1361) primary disciples; two volumes of miscellaneous writings (gsung thor bu) by the Kālacakra adept Ratna bha dra (1489-1563); two volumes of important writings by Kun dga’ Grol mchog (1507-1565), including ritual and liturgical texts concerning Hevajra, Vajrayoginī and the special form of black Cakrasaṃvāra that is transmitted via the Jonangpa, instructions on the sixfold yoga of the Kālacakra, various poetic songs and praises, a guidebook to the sacred sites and nooks of Chos lung byang rtse Monastery, two works on Sakya Lam ‘bras and his writing on gzhan stong;4 along with a handful of biographical writings by Tāranātha’s closest disciples and their immediate Jonangpa successors in Amdo.

[vi] In the Collected Works of Namnang Dorje (Rnam snang rdo rje’i gsung ‘bum, ka, 259-260). Rnga ba: Swe dgon pa.

[vii] According to Sheehy: Bstan ‘dzin mi ‘gyur was an established ruler by the time that Tāranātha was four years old because he mentions Khri dpon chen po Bstan ‘dzin mi ‘gyur dbang gi rgyal po and his relationship with the royal family in his autobiography (p.274).

[viii] Sheehy explains that:

Here, the term “tsha mo” is ambiguous about whether she was the niece or granddaughter of Bstan ‘dzin mi ‘gyur, since the term can refer to both relationships. An interlinear note inserted into the autobiography helps to clarify, but not define this relationship, which states that she was born into the familial care of Bstan ‘dzin mi ‘gyur.42 Why this is historically important is that Khri lcam Kun dga’ lha mdzes, the mother of the Fifth Dalai Lama Ngag dbang Blo bzang rgya mtsho   (1617-1682), was contemporaneously the daughter of the Yar ‘brog Khri dpon in Sna dkar rtse rdzong, as suggested by her appellation, Khri lcam.43 While dates for Kun dga’ lha mdzes remain uncertain, it is well documented that she gave birth to Ngag dbang Blo bzang rgya mtsho in the year 1617, making it probable that she was born in the 1590s, making her roughly a decade or so younger than ‘Phrin las dbang mo.

[ix] “chu mo bya’i lo la rje btsun dam pa dgong grangs lnga bcu nga dgu bzhes/ ‘phrin las dbang mo zhe dgu yin.”

[x] According to Templeman, Tāranātha states in his large autobiography that:

At the time of my arrival at (the meditation site of)  Mahābodhi, the paṇḍits Purṇānanda and Premānanda also both arrived  there for my sake, after doing a pilgrimage route around Lha sa and the province of dBus, as well as certain other places.  Although they themselves were Buddhists by virtue of their various tenets, their ancestors were believers in the Vedas and both of them were greatly attached to those teachings and also worshipped one or two other deities, and so I did not seek empowerments and teachings from them. The paṇḍits were extremely learned in all the various sciences and severing many of  my doubts, I was able to translate a few selections from the śāstras with them. I also heard the Bharata (= Mahābharata) and the Rāmayaṇa as well as many other accounts from them.   

At that time the protector of the Rāmayaṇa was a magical transformation of Hanumanda (= Hanuman), whose monkey body was a big as the mountain above the Mahābodhi retreat centre.  The Bharata (=Mahābharata) was protected by the King Bhīma who had actually been seen by the paṇḍits who said to me, ‘You too are a protector and power, renown and great wealth will come to you.’  Moreover he went on to say, ‘Moreover how can you serve even one of the deities or demons who do not have faith in the dharma? Later on when many great gurus are seen to be in sexual union (with their consorts) at that time you yourself, quite spontaneously and effortlessly will approach complete fulfilment and as a yogi you will achieve full renunciation in your own time.’I engaged in discussion with them both both day and night for about ten days.  Thereafter at bSam sdings in the presence of dPal ldan bla ma Byams pa’i mtshan can I requested the empowerment for the ‘Vajra Garland’ (rDo rje ’phreng ba) and that of the ‘Ocean of Ḍākinīs’ (mKha’ ’gro rgya mtsho). Dz. F 126.  L7.    P/ling. P. 143. L.1.  Print. P. 172. L.2.

[xi] Sheehy states that: “The most important recent contribution to the study of Tibetan literary women is the 16-volume Tibetan language anthology, compiled and produced by nuns at Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Kham, Bod kyi skyes chen ma dag gi rnam thar. This anthology includes biographical sources that extend our current register of Tibetan literary women.”

Further Reading

Blo gros grags pa, Ngag dbang. 1992. Jo nang chos ‘byung zla ba’i sgron me. Qinghai: Nationalities Press.

Karmay, Samten G. 2014. The Illusive Play: The Autobiography of the Fifth Dalai Lama. Chicago: Serinda Publications.

Ngag dbang Blo bzang rgya mtsho. 1989. Za hor gyi ban dhe ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho’i ‘di snang ‘khrul ba’i rol rtsed rtogs brjod kyi tshul du bkod pa dukula’i gos bzang, 1-3. Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang.

‘Phrin las dbang mo, Kun dga’. Rje btsun rdo rje rnal ‘byor ma’i sprul pa skal ldan ‘phrin las dbang mo’i rnam thar gsang ba’i ye shes. Unpublished manuscript.

‘Phrin las dbang mo, Kun dga’. 2013. Rje btsun rdo rje rnal ‘byor ma’i sprul ba skal ldan phrin las dbang mo’i rnam thar gsang ba’i ye shes. In ‘Phags bod kyi skyes chen ma dag gi rnam par thar ba padma dkar po’i phreng ba, v. 11, pp. 180-211. Lharung Gar: Bod ljongs bod yig dpe rnying dpe skrun khang.

Rnam snang rdo rje, Dpal ldan. 2013. Dus gsum rgyal ba kun gyi yum rje btsun rdo rje rnal ‘byor ma’i sprul pa gnas gsum mkha’ ‘gro’i gtso mo kun dga’ ‘phrin las dbang mo’i rnam thar kha skongs bde chen nyin byed gsal ba’i bdag po. In ‘Phags bod kyi skyes chen ma dag gi rnam par thar ba padma dkar po’i phreng ba, v. 11, pp. 212-222. Lharung Gar: Bod ljongs bod yig dpe rnying dpe skrun khang.

Sheehy, Michael R. 2010. “The Jonangpa after Tāranātha: Auto/biographical Accounts of the Transmission of Esoteric Buddhist Knowledge in Seventeenth Century Tibet.” In The Bulletin of Tibetology, 45, 1, 9-24. Namgyal Institute, Gangtok: Sikkim.

Sheehy, Michael R. 2020. “Materializing Dreams and Omens: The Autobiographical Subjectivity of the Tibetan Yoginī Kun dga’ ‘Phrin las dbang mo (1585-1668).” In Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, v. 56, pp. 263-292.

Sheehy, Michael R. 2020. “Jetsunma Kunga Trinle Wangmo,” Treasury of Lives, http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Jetsunma-Kunga-Trinle-Wangmo/11183.

Michael Sheehy, “Jetsunma Kunga Trinle Wangmo,” Treasury of Lives, accessed October 21, 2020, http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Jetsunma-Kunga-Trinle-Wangmo/11183.

Stearns, Cyrus. 2010. The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsan. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications.

Tā ra nā tha. 2008. Rgyal khams pa tā ra nā thas bdag nyid kyi rnam thar nges par brjod pa’i deb gter shin tu zhib mo ma bcos lhug pa’i rtogs brjod. In Dpal brtsegs bod yig dpe rnying zhib ‘jug khang nas bsgrigs, v. 44, pp. 1-248. Beijing: Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang.

Templeman, David. 2008. Becoming Indian: A Study of the Life of the 16th–17th Century Tibetan Lama Tāranātha. PhD thesis, Monash University.

Templeman, David. 2012. The 17th cent. Gtsang rulers and their strategies of legitimation, Studies on the History and Literature of Tibet and the Himalaya, 65.

4 thoughts on “A Woman’s Voice : the Autobiography of Kunga Trinley Wangmo, (Zhentong lineage holder and secret consort of Tāranātha)

  1. 1) Highly likely , Jonang lamas suggestion that you are reincarnation of great Dharma practictioner, is correct. Is not usual that West ,,next door,, girl is deeply involved in translations of text of top rank Dharma teachers from past. 2) If the question of your past life is important for your peace of mind and inspiration then you can consider to contact Beru Khyentse Rinpoche who recognized his daughter as reincarnation of Sister Palmo, English woman  , attendand to late XVI Karmapa , organizing his first travel to West in 1974. It mean Beru Khyentse Rinpoche has ability to see such things . His daughter is study? in US ? Canada? and probably contact with her first would be  good step to contact with Rinpoche concerning your past life. Good wishes, thanks for details about Kunga Trinle Wangmo.!   W dniu 2020-10-21 08:26:41 użytkownik Dakini Translations and Publications མཁའ་འགྲོ་མའི་ལོ་ཙཱ་བའི་འགྱུར་དང་འགྲེམས་སྤེལ། napisał: Dakini Translations posted: ” Jonang lineage refuge tree I first became aware of this extraordinary woman, Kunga Trinley Wangmo (Kun dga’ ‘Phrin las dbang mo (1585-1668)), a few years ago in 2016-17, during my postgraduate research on Tāranātha’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra. Wh”

    1. Ha ha well I really don’t think I am! I am a very ordinary woman with lots of faults who happens to have the great fortune to have a passion for the Dharma and translating it. Thanks for the suggestion but I don’t see any need to investigate that further. If anything, the Jonang lamas should be able to know whom and where Wangmo’s incarnation is. Although, I do have a very keen interest in Dharma and Vajrayana, in particular, Taranatha for sure! My connections feel a lot more Kagyu/Nyingma though, and maybe it is more through Taranatha being the lineage holder of Shangpa Kagyu and Kalacakra etc.? I am also a huge fan of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Chogyur Lingpa and Jamgon Kongtrul, who were all great admirers of Taranatha too. Thanks for your interest and comments here.

  2. Thanks so much for taking the time & attention to read my article. I’ll take into consideration some of your points for my book on Trinle Wangmo. Very best wishes, Michael

    Here is my article: “Materializing Dreams and Omens: The Autobiographical Subjectivity of the Tibetan Yoginī Kun dga’ ‘Phrin las dbang mo (1585-1668)”
    https://www.academia.edu/44303062/Materializing_Dreams_and_Omens_The_Autobiographical_Subjectivity_of_the_Tibetan_Yogin%C4%AB_Kun_dga_Phrin_las_dbang_mo_1585_1668_

    1. You are very welcome, Michael Sheehy. Thank you for your gracious comments here. I would be interested in what you think about my review in terms of your personal treatment of the source material and why you do not refer to David Templeman’s work/opinions on Taranatha’s life (even in passing) at all. Perhaps more will be in your book. Thanks again for making this interesting and valuable research.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s