NOT A MOUNTED TIGRESS BUT A POWERFUL COUGAR? YESHE TSOGYEL AT TIGER’S NEST (PARO TAGTSANG) WITH HER YOUNG MALE CONSORTS. Yeshe Tsogyel’s connection to Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan, her young male consorts, contemporary research on her life-stories and a 21st Century interpretation of her experiences as a woman (Bhutan 2022))

“Undertaking the profound path of unconventional conduct practice at Paro Taktsang,
The three doors (of body, speech and mind) became three vajras of great bliss;
Blazing brilliant radiance as a stunning sixteen-year old,
I supplicate the Heroine Varahi!”

“The evening that these miraculous signs appeared, the Guru himself was transformed into Dorje Trollo (Adamantine Sagging Belly) with myself as Ekajati (The Crone with One Hair Knot), joined in union with him, and Tashi Khyidren as our mount, the tigress, to subject the gods and demons of microcosmic worlds of the four quarters of Tibet. Riding upon the back of the girl Khyidren transformed into a tigress, the Guru and his mystic partner absorbed in the samadhi of Dorje Phurba, holding a nine-pronged vajra in his right hand and rolling a phurba of bell metal in his left hand, the Guru projected countless, fierce, terrifying beings in forms identical to himself. In particular, one of these forms called Blue-black Vajra Wrathful Phurba (Tingnak Dorje Trophur) flew directly to Paro Taktsang, and there he subjugated gods, demons, wrathful Dakinis, and demon savages and the three eight-fold classes of spirits of the barbarian borderlands and beyond – Bhutan, Nepal, India and Lho – and bound them to serve the dharma.”

–-Yeshe Tsogyel recounting the famous ‘tigress mount’ story and its voyage to Paro Tagtsang

“The fact that Tsogyel had several teenage, male consorts (at the same time), cuts through the male-centric (and sexist and ageist) traditional and conservative view of consorts being young, pretty women of male teachers.  In addition, the fact that Tsogyel was significantly older than these men demonstrates how karmamudra consort practice is not about a woman’s age or physical appearance at all, but about her mastery of the inner channels and winds. In contemporary language, and slightly tongue-in-cheek, Tsogyel might well be called the first Tibetan Buddhist enlightened ‘cougar’!”

–Adele Tomlin (2022)

INTRODUCTION

For the second in a series of posts about my second recent trip to Bhutan, as a speaker at the 4th Vajrayana Conference in Thimpu and pilgrim to some of the sacred sites there, I offer a new article on the world-renowned Tiger’s Nest (Tagtsang) in Paro, Bhutan and its most revered female yogini practitioner, Yeshe Tsogyel, one of the main consorts of Guru Padmasambhava.  

In this article, I continue a theme I have been writing about over the last two years of re-telling and raising awareness about female lineages and teachers with Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana (see here). I recently spoke about this in a video interview too, such as the unsung heroine teachers of Mahasiddha masters like Tilopa, Nāropa and so on.

Yeshe Tsogyel is not such an unknown woman though, in fact she is one of the few women in the Vajrayana pantheon to be widely spoken about and praised. I have also written before about Yeshe Tsogyel and translated a Tsogyel Guru Yoga sadhana here by the 15th Karmapa (which is now available in Portuguese, Polish and Vietnamese) as well as Tsogyel’s connection to Vajrayogini, here.   Yet, considering Tsogyel’s renown not only as the consort of Guru Padmasambhava but also as a realised yogini in her own right, there are aspects of her liberation-story (namthar) that do not get so much attention, and if they do, are normally told through the eyes and voice of male scholars and translators.

This brief article aims to address those issues by first giving an overview of current publications and research on Tsogyel, and then shining a light on aspects of her life, which demonstrate her unique and pioneering quality as a woman in patriarchal misogynist cultures, but also as an inspiring heroine for women (and men) in the 21st Century.

First, I present a compiled list of the main English-language biographies (including a main one by her young male consort, Atsara Sale) and contemporary postgraduate research on Yeshe Tsogyel.

Second, I give a brief overview of Tsogyel’s connection to Bhutan and Paro Tiger’s Nest (Tagtsang), citing a recent article by Bhutanese scholar, Dr. Sonam Kinga (2019) who challenges the commonly-cited view that Yeshe Tsogyel transformed into the tigress mount for Guru Padmasambhava as Dorje Drolo, rather that it was his other consort, Tashi Khyidren. I also share some photos I took at the Tagtsang temple in 2019 (my first visit) and this year and Yeshe Tsogyel’s cave next to that temple.

Finally, I consider how Tsogyel’s life as an older female teacher-practitioner with several young, male consorts, and her mental transformation of being raped by seven bandits can be interpreted as an inspiring example for women even now: as a spiritual practitioner, and as a survivor of sexual abuse and misogyny.

Of course, much more can and should be told about Tsogyel’s life and example in this respect. Women’s history is all about transforming HIS stories into HER stories. It is with this intention that I write this brief article for a more general audience.

Although there were two speakers at the Bhutanese conference who spoke on Tsogyel, neither of them presented or spoke about any of the information in this essay during their talks. Hence another reason I decided to write this article![1].  

I composed this article in a day, so it is not particularly detailed or comprehensive, but I hope it is of benefit to those interested in knowing more about prior research and publications on Yeshe Tsogyel’s life, her connection to the renowned Paro Tagtsang and to discover that she was not in fact the tigress mount of Guru Padmasambhava as often stated, and in addition, (in a tongue-in-cheek way) was more a feisty, brave and compassionate ‘cougar’ (in 21st Century parlance) who had several very young, male consorts, some of whom she practiced with at Paro Tagtsang Tiger’s Nest.

I have written before about Yeshe Tsogyel and translated a Tsogyel Guru Yoga sadhana here by the 15th Karmapa (which is now available in Portuguese, Polish and Vietnamese) as well as Tsogyel’s connection to Vajravarahi, here.  

I would like to thank the organisers of the Vajrayana conference in Bhutan who kindly invited me to speak there, providing tasty and healthy vegetarian lunches and refreshments daily, as well as hotel accommodation. In addition, I would like to thank the sponsors of my flight to Bhutan from India, whose generosity and support made this trip possible.

Music? Yeshe Tsogyel mantra, the Eye of the Tiger by Survivor, Ride the Tiger by Jefferson Starship and Roar by Katy Perry.

May we all get to visit the Paro Tagtsang, practice Vajrakilaya there and ride the tiger with the Phurba of wisdom! Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Jnanasagara Bam Ha Ri Ni Sa Siddhi Hum!

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 13th October 2022. Copyright. This article is also downloadable as a .pdf file here.

1) HISTORICAL AND TEXTUAL SOURCES AND BACKGROUND ON YESHE TSOGYEL AND TIGER’S NEST

A) ENGLISH LANGUAGE TRANSLATIONS OF BIOGRAPHIES ABOUT YESHE TSOGYEL
Sky Dancer: the Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel by Taksham Nuden Dorje. 1996. Keith Dowman, translator.

Despite her renown and fame as a realised yogini and teacher, there is not a huge amount of English language scholarship on Tsogyel. In Who is the Tigress in the Lair? A Preliminary Enquiry About Khandro Yeshe Tshogyel’s Visit to Taktsang, Dr. Sonam Kinga[1] (Journal of Bhutan Studies, Vol 40, Summer 2019) Kinga states that:

“One of the first Yeshe Tsogyel biographies translated into English by Keith Dowman (for online excerpts from it see here), was that by Gyalwa Jangchub, also known as Atsara Sale, who was a consort of Yeshe Tshogyel from Nepal. The biography was hidden as a treasure text in Lhorong, Kham. Taksham Nuden Dorji who was also known as Samten Lingpa and the reincarnation of Gyalwa Jangchub, revealed the biography as terma text in the 18th century.”

Taksam Nuden Dorje (stag sham nus ldan rdo rje) aka Samten Lingpa (b. 1655-1708) — was a famed Nyingma master from Kham who had settled in the kingdom of Powo and discovered many hidden termas. For more on Atsara Sale and his presence at Tagtsang with Tsogyel, see below.

Other English language biographies of Tsogyel, includiing Dowman’s, currently available are:

  • Drime Kunga and Yeshe Tsogyel. 2017. The Life and Visions of Yeshe Tsogyal: The Autobiography of the Great Wisdom Queen. Chonyi Drolma, translator. Boulder: Snow Lion.
  • Gyatso, Janet. 2006. “A Partial Genealogy of the Lifestory of Ye shes mtsho rgyal.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 2, pp. 1-27.
  • Taksham Nuden Dorje. 1996. Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel. Keith Dowman, translator. Ithaca: Snow Lion. Yeshe Tsogyal – Sky Dancer by Keith Dowman. The Tibetan of this text is available as an e-book at: Secret Symbolic Biography of the Queen of Dakinis, Yeshe Tsogyal (skydancerpress.com)
  • Taksham Nuden Dorje. 1983. Mother of Knowledge: The Enlightenment of Ye-shes mTso-rgyal. Tartang Tulku, translator. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing.
  • Taksham Nuden Dorje. 1999. Lady of the Lotus Born. Wulston Fletcher and Helena Blankleder, translators. Boston: Shambhala.
  • Gardner, Alex. “Yeshe Tsogyel,” Treasury of Lives

Yeshe Tsogyel’s liberation stories about Guru Padmasambhava have also been translated into English[2].

In terms of recent postgraduate research on Tsogyel, there are the following:

  • Angowski, Elizabeth J. 2019. PhD Harvard University, Literature and the Moral Life: Reading the Early Biography of the Tibetan Queen Yeshe Tsogyal.
  • Liang, Jue. 2020. Ph.D, University of Virginia, Conceiving the Mother of Tibet: The Life, Lives, and Afterlife of the Buddhist Saint Yeshe Tsogyel.
  • Vecchione, Andrea. 2009/10. Yeshe Tsogyel: Tibet’s First Enlightened Buddhist: A Feminism Model in Ancient Form? Published on Academia.edu.

Within these two scholarly publications, there is very little about Yeshe Tsogyel’s connection to Paro Tagtsang/Bhutan.   I have not listed the Tibetan language sources on Tsogyel in the Bibliography below.

I have listed some of the Tibetan language sources on Tsogyel in the Bibliography below.

B) HISTORY OF THE TIGER’S NEST (TAGTSANG) MONASTERY, PARO, BHUTAN AND VISITS THERE IN 2019 AND 2022
My first visit to Paro Tagtsang in 2019. Photo: Adele Tomlin.

Tagtsang (in Tibetan, Tag means Tiger and Tsang means nest) is one of the most iconic and sacred sites in Bhutan. Guru Padmasambhava is said to have visited Bhutan three times and travelled there before he went to Tibet. Among many sacred places he blessed, Bhutan is considered to be a very special ‘hidden’ place. He felt that it is ideal for the sacred Mantrayana or Vajrayana teachings to flourish. Paro Tagtsang was one of these sacred places he visited.

I first visited the Tiger’s Nest temple in 2019 on my first trip to Bhutan. Next to the temple is the Senge Phug, the cave in which Tsogyel is commonly said to have accomplished Vajrakilaya practising with Guru Padmasambhava, and with her young, male consorts and female companion, Tashi Khyidren. For more on that see below.

Visiting Paro Tagtsang in October 2022. Photo: Adele Tomlin. Taken on simple mobile phone camera.
Visiting Paro Tagtsang in October 2022. Photo: Adele Tomlin.
Visiting Paro Tagtsang in 2022. Silvery blonde-haired after the ‘stressful’ two-year lockdown….just kidding.
Vintage black and white style Paro Tiger’s Nest.

I visited the Tiger’s Nest again in 2022 (see photos), this time visiting Bhutan again as a speaker at the Fourth International Vajrayana conference in Thimphu, see here. I arrived in Bhutan only a few days after they opened their borders again to tourists after a strict two-year lockdown.

It takes about two to three hours to walk to the main temple from the ground level, involving some steep parts. However, it is possible for most to do it of varying levels of fitness. It has also been a site of activity of many great teachers and practitioners, such as Milarepa, Tangtong Gyelpo, Pema Lingpa, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, and Dilgo Khyentse. It was damaged by fire in 1951, burned completely in 1995, and was rebuilt in 2005.

The sign reads in Tibetan script, the Accomplishment Water of Khandro Yeshe Tsogyel. A small dog was seen regularly supping at this tap, great blessings! Photo: Adele Tomlin.
Waterfall next to the Paro Tagtsang and Senge Phug cave. Photo: Adele Tomlin (2022).
Steep stairway up to the Senge Phug cave next to the main temple, Tiger’s Nest
The statue of Yeshe Tsogyel, inside Senge Phug at Paro Tagstang. Photo: Adele Tomlin (October 2022).

Not all visitors attempted the steep climb up to the Yeshe Tsogyel cave. It was slippery and wet, however, as I had done in 2019, I went up again in 2022. Once inside the cave, I immediately felt the intense energy and blessings, and went into a short Vajrakilaya practice and mantra recitation. The palpable energy of Tsogyel, Padmasambhava and Vajrakilaya came roaring into perception, as if they were all fully present in the cave. I could have stayed there for hours but had to move on.

C) Yeshe Tosgyel’s trip to Bhutan and her five companions at the cave (Senge Phug) next to Tiger’s Nest
Dr. Sonam Kinga, author of 2019 paper on Yeshe Tsogyel and her connection to Paro Tagtsang

Singa (2019: 62) writes this about the Tagtsang history:

“The holy site of Taktsang in Paro, Bhutan, is renowned for its association with Guru Rinpoche, his consort Khandro Yeshe Tshogyel and disciple Langchen Pelgi Sengye. Although a monastery was built at this site in 1692 by Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye, the fourth civil ruler of Bhutan, the site was visited and blessed by Guru Rinpoche as far back as the 8th century. Its sacredness has been reinforced by the visits and spiritual undertakings of great Buddhist luminaries over the centuries. Pilgrims and tourists visiting Taktsang are generally told two things associated with Yeshe Tshogyel, who was a Tibetan princess and an emanation of Lhamo Yangchenma (Sarasvati). One, when Guru Rinpoche transformed into Dorje Drolo (one of his eight manifestations) and flew to Taktsang riding on the back of a tigress, Yeshe Tshogyel had transformed into that tigress. Two, Yeshe Tshogyel did the Vajrakilaya practice at the cave of Sengephu in Taktshang. Sources, both oral and literary – including tourist-oriented materials – provide different versions of the narrative of Yeshe Tshogyel, the tigress and Vajrakilaya practice. Trulku Thondup, for example, mentions that Guru Rinpoche practiced Vajrakilaya with Yeshe Tshogyel at Paro Taktshang and that she transformed herself into a tigress and became his mount when he manifested as Dorje Drolo (Thondup, 1996, p. 96). This suggests that Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tshogyel were already at Paro Taktshang and it was only during the practice and accomplishment of Vajrakilaya that the transformation took place.

But this contrasts with narratives found in tourist books and oral folklore which suggest that Guru Rinpoche had already transformed into Dorje Drolo when he rode on the back of a tigress and flew to Taktshang (Brown, 2007, p. 128). Another source suggests that Guru Rinpoche flew from Senge Dzong in Lhuntse to Taktsang in the form of Dorje Drolo riding on a tigress although it does not mention Yeshe Tshogyel as the tigress (Bhutan Times, 2008, p. 178). In yet another source, it is mentioned that Yeshe Tshogyel transformed herself into a tigress while meditating at Taktshang ‘to protect herself from harmful humans and wild animals’ (National Library, 2005, p. 2). It also mentions that the tigress on which Dorje Drolo is mounted is the form assumed by Yeshe Tshogyel. The common theme that binds different versions of these narratives is usually the association of Yeshe Tshogyel with the tigress. As such, this is also the point of enquiry of this article. Is Yeshe Tshogyel the tigress in the lair or Taktshang?

A few however, speak of it being the manifestation of Monmo Tashi Kheudren also known as Bumden Tshomo instead of Yeshe Tshogyel. She was the daughter of Sendha Gyalp of Bumthang who invited Guru Rinpoche to Bhutan in the 8th century. Guru Rinpoche took Tashi Kheudren as his spiritual consort for the tantric practice at Kurjey in Bumthang to subdue Shelging Karpo, the local deity – who is said to have caused illness to Sendha Gyalp. It was to help treat his incurable ailment that Sendha Gyalp had invited Guru Rinpoche. This event however, took place during Guru’s first visit to Bhutan. He did not visit Taktshang at that time.”

Using Kinga’s article and question, which are based on the biography by her consort, Atsara Sale (as translated by Dowman), one can conclude that Yeshe Togyel was not the tigress mount, as commonly cited, for more on that see below. I have now written to Alexander Gardner at Treasury of Lives to request him to update his biography of Yeshe Tsogyel on that website and he has kindly responded that he will.

YESHE TSOGYEL’S TRIP FROM TIBET TO BHUTAN AND HER FIVE COMPANIONS AT THE TIGER’S NEST LION’S CAVE (SENGE PHUG)

Around the end of the 8th Century, Yeshe Tsogyel is said to have travelled to Nepal to meet Atsara Sale, then a slave, as her prophesied consort. As Padmasambhava advised her:

“So go to the Valley of Nepal where there is a sixteen-year-old youth with a mole on his right breast, who is an emanation of the Buddha Hero Hayagriva called Atsara Sale. He has wandered there from Serling in India. Find him, and make him your ally ….

After raising enough money to buy his contract from his owners, Yeshe Tsogyel and Atsara Sale then returned together to Tibet. Along the way, they went to some of the caves famous for being places where Padmasambhava practiced meditation.

Yeshe Tshogyel first came to Bhutan from Tidro in Tibet. She had gone to Tidro to meditate following the precepts, empowerments and teachings she received from Guru Rinpoche at Samye. His instruction to her was:

“Practice at Womphu Taktsang, Mon Taktsang and Kham Taktsang and in all those places where there is a naturally manifest image of Guru Rinpoche, particularly in Tidro itself” (Dowman, 1996, p. 63)[5].

See image of Tidro, Tibet here:

Contemporary image of Tidro, Tibet where Yeshe Tsogyel meditated taken from The Life and Visions of Yeshe Tsogyal: The Autobiography of the Great Wisdom Queen (2017) Chonyi Drolma, translator.

During the course of Tsogyel’s meditation practices at the cave next to Paro Tagtsang, a girl called Khyidren visited her and offered her honey and milk occasionally. Khyidren was the daughter of local king called Hamrey. Tsogyel asked the King to give her his daughter who was thirteen years old then and had all the marks of a dakini (Dowman 1996, 73- 84).

Kinga (2019) explains:

“Yeshe Tshogyel names the girl Tashi Khyidren (“Fortunate Guide to Mankind”) and brings her along with others to Tagtshang from Senge Dzong. There were five of them at Tagtshang: Yeshe Tshogyel, her consorts Atsara Sale and Atsara Pelyang, a Bhutanese boy called Sale and Tashi Khyidren.”

YESHE TSOGYEL WITH ATSARA SALE (16 YEAR OLD MALE) CONSORT AND PRINCESS TASHI KHYIDREN

Yeshe Tshogyel came to Sengye Dzong from Tidro with her consort Atsara Sale and a girl called Dewamo. What is known of the life and spiritual attainments of Atsara Sale come from the biographies of Yeshe Tsogyal.

In 795ce, Yeshe Tsogyal traveled to Nepal to meet Atsara Sale, her prophesied consort to offer support on the path of spiritual maturation. As Padmasambhava exhorted Yeshe Tsogyal,

“So go to the Valley of Nepal where there is a sixteen-year-old youth with a mole on his right breast, who is an emanation of the Buddha Hero Hayagriva called Atsara Sale. He has wandered there from Serling in India. Find him, and make him your ally ….

After raising enough money to buy his contract from his owners, Yeshe Tsogyal and Atsara Sale then returned together to Tibet. Along the way, they went to some of the caves famous for being places where Padmasambhava practiced meditation with his consorts.

During the course of Tsogyel’s meditation and austere practices at Paro Tagtsang, a girl called Khyidren (or Chidren) visited her and offered her honey and milk ocassionally. Khyidren was the daughter of local king called Hamrey. Tsogyel asked the King to give her his daughter who was thirteen years old then and had all the marks of a dakini (Dowman 1996, 73- 84)[6].

Singa (2019) explains:

“Yeshe Tshogyel names the girl Tashi Chidren (“Fortunate Guide to Mankind”) and brings her along with others to Taktshang from Senge Dzong. There were five of them at Taktshang: Yeshe Tshogyel, her consorts Atsara Sale and Atsara Pelyang, a Bhutanese boy called Sale and Tashi Chidren.”

ACCOMPLISHMENT IN THE LION’S CAVE: TRANSFORMATION OF TSOGYEL INTO A SIXTEEN YEAR-OLD VAJRAVARAHI
Small wooden sign board at the bottom of Senge Phug, at the bottom of the steep staircase up to Yeshe Tsogyel’s Cave (Senge Phug). Photo: Adele Tomlin.

The small wooden sign board pointing towards Senge Phug at the junction leading to it and Taktshang states, “This is a cave, where Khandro (dakini) Yeshi Tshogyel practised Vajrakilaya (Phurpa)” (see photo).  The lines written in Dzongkha on the walls of the cave also state likewise.  However, in Tosgyel’s biography it states that she practiced the essential essence of co-emergent bliss and emptiness:

(Dowman, 1996, pp. 85-86 ).

After months of vigorous practice, her body assumes the appearance of sixteen year-old maiden and she transforms herself into Vajravarahi.  The following lines inscribed below the painting of Yeshe Tsogyel at Sengephu on a rectangular granite-like stone tablet:

“Undertaking the profound path of unconventional conduct practice at Paro Taktsang,
The three doors (of body, speech and mind) became three vajras of great bliss;
Blazing brilliant radiance as a stunning sixteen-year old,
I supplicate the Heroine Varahi!” 

I have re-translated this passage myself from the one used by Kinga/Dowman, as several terms were not quite accurate in English, such as tul-zhug, which means unconventional (not austere) conduct.

According to Rita Gross (1987: 3), Tsogyel is considered to be the speech emanation of Vajravarahi. She writes that Vajravarahi, like most gurus and yidams takes on five emanations: body, speech, mind, qualities and activities and that Guru Padmasambhava had five consorts who represented these five emanations of Varahi. He also had a sixth ‘essence’ consort and myriads of other consorts.

For more on the connection between Yeshe Tsogyel and Varahi, see my previous essay Bliss Queen Yeshe Tsogyel and Vajrayogini here.  I will try write more about Yeshe Tsogyel and her root female disciples as manifestations of Varahi in another post.

VISION OF AMITAYUS MANDALA AND PROPHECY OF LONG-LIFE and RE-BIRTH AS MACHIG LABDRON
Buddha Amitayus – Long-life Buddha

The Tsogyel life-story by Atsara Sale continues that at Senge Phug, Yeshe Tshogyel received a vision of Amitayus mandala (Tshe-pag-me) and a prophecy that her lifespan will be 225 years. From there, she and all her companions go to Womphu Taktshang, and meet Guru Rinpoche.

Singa (2019) concludes that:

“It was there that Guru Rinpoche foretells their reappearance in future: Guru Rinpoche as Pha Dampa Sangye and Yeshe Tshogyel as Machig Lapdron. He also prophesizes that Atsara Sale would appear then as a monk and be a consort to Machig Labdron. Tashi Khyidren would be her only daughter whereas the whereas the  Bhutanese boy, Sale, would be her spiritual son. Atsara Pelyang would also appear as a monk and become her mystic consort (Dowman, 1996, pp. 86-87).

It was therefore, at Womphu Taktsang in Tibet and not Paro Taktshang in Bhutan that the practice of Dorje Phurba (Vajrakilaya) was initiated by Guru Rinpoche along with his five ‘root’ spiritual sons. They were Lhalung Pelgyi Sengye, Namkhai Nyingpo, Ma Rinchen Chok, Dorje Dudjom and Yeshe Tshogyel. Her four other companions were also assigned roles in the initiatory rite of Dorje Phurba. Dewamo, who was renamed Chonema, the Glorious Priestess, was appointed the Vajra hostess (Dorje Jenmo); Atsara Sale and Atsara Pelyang were appointed Vajra Dancers (Dorje Gingpa) and renamed Karma Dondup and Karma Tarje; the Bhutanese boy Sale was appointed Vajra Attendant (Vajrakarmaka); and then, at the beginning, he made me the “root consort” and Tashi Khyidren the “liberating consort” 

The Guru and his two consorts practiced for seven nights, and all signs of accomplishment of the Dorje Phurba appeared. The signs included the manifestation of the gods attending to Dorje Phurba and dancing of ritual daggers “redolent with perfumes”.

WHO WAS THE TIGRESS MOUNT? – IT WAS TASHI KHYIDREN NOT YESHE TSOGYEL
Guru Padmasambhava in the form of Dorje Drolo, riding a tigress mount

According to Yeshe Tsogyel’s liberation-story, it seems clear that the tigress upon whose back Guru Padmasambhava mounts as Dorje Drolo was the Bhutanese girl Tashi Khyidren. Whereas Yeshe Tshogyel was transformed into Ekajati and was joined in union with Dorje Drolo.

The evening that these miraculous signs appeared, the Guru himself was transformed into Dorje Trollo (Adamantine Sagging Belly) with myself as Ekajati (The Crone with One Hair Knot), joined in union with him, and Tashi Khyidren as our mount, the tigress, to subject the gods and demons of microcosmic worlds of the four quarters of Tibet. Riding upon the back of the girl Khyidren transformed into a tigress, the Guru and his mystic partner absorbed in the samadhi of Dorje Phurba, holding a nine-pronged vajra in his right hand and rolling a phurba of bell metal in his left hand, the Guru projected countless, fierce, terrifying beings in forms identical to himself. In particular, one of these forms called Blue-black Vajra Wrathful Phurba (Tingnak Dorje Trophur) flew directly to Paro Taktsang, and there he subjugated gods, demons, wrathful Dakinis, and demon savages and the three eight-fold classes of spirits of the barbarian borderlands and beyond – Bhutan, Nepal, India and Lho – and bound them to serve the dharma. Another emanation called Purple Vajra Wrathful Phurba (Muknak Dorji Trophur) flew as far as the second Taktsang, in Kham, and subjugated the gods, demons and demon savages and the three eight-fold classes of spirits in the barbarian lands of Kham, Jang, China and Hor, binding them to serve the dharma, taking away their life-essence..”


It was also there at Womphu Taktshang that Guru Rinpoche asks Yeshe Tshogyel to give him Tashi Chidren, who had all the marks of Awareness Dakini (Vajrakarmaki). She would be employed as his consort for the practice of Dorji Phurba (Vajrakilaya). Yeshe Tshogyel offers Tashi Chidren to her Guru and prays that he reveal to her the tantric mysteries and to her, Yeshe Tshogyel, the secret instructions of Dorje Phurba. Guru Rinpoche sends Yeshe Tshogyel to Uru in Central Tibet to find a fourteen year old boy who would be her tantric partner for the practice. She finds him and returns. Guru Rinpoche names the boy, Lhalung Pelgyi Sengye, who would be reborn later as Lhalung Pelgyi Dorji and assassinate the anti-Dharma king, Langdarma[7].”  (from Dowman, 1996, pp. 90-91)

Ekajati and protectors with Guru Rinpoche

As Kinga (2019) explains:

“The transformation of the trio into Dorje Dorlo, Ekajati and the tigress neither takes place at Taktsang nor do they fly in from Sengye Dzong, as the signboard tells visitor at Ramthangkha, the place where motor road ends and the trek to Taktshang begins. Again, at the junction between Sengephu and Taktshang monastery, the following prayer is inscribed on a board besides the sign board pointing up the flight of 125 steep steps to Sengephu. It captures what Dorji Drolo did at Taktsang. 

In the sacred rock cavern of Sengye Samdrup in Taktshang,
Subduing vicious heretics, demons and gnomes,
Hiding sacred treasures in holy sites, mountains and cliffs.
Looking with compassion at sentient beings of degenerate age,
I pray to the skillful Dorje Drolo!”

Guru Padmasambhava in the form of Dorje Drolo, riding a tigress mount

2) A 21st CENTURY INTERPRETATION OF TSOGYEL’S LIFE AND CHARACTER

As I wrote about before here, Yeshe Tsogyel was an extraordinarily brave woman who travelled to the hell realms to save beings who had harmed her. However, other aspects of her life and experience are worth brief comment as being evidence of a woman blazing a fire-trail for other female practitioners, both then and now.

COUGAR – 21st CENTURY SEXISM APPLIED TO TSOGYEL AND/OR A PLAY ON WORDS? Older woman with young male consorts
Cougar is a modern slang term for an older woman who is in, or seeks out, relations with younger men.

The fact that Tsogyel had several teenage, male consorts, cuts through the male-centric (sexist and ageist) view of consorts being young, pretty women of male teachers.  In addition, the fact that Tsogyel was significantly older than these men demonstrates how karmamudra consort practice is not about a woman’s age or physical appearance at all, but about mastery of the inner channels and winds.

In contemporary language, and slightly tongue-in-cheek, Tsogyel might well be called the first Tibetan Buddhist ‘cougar’[8]! Cougar being a modern slang term for an older woman with, or who seeks out younger men. The use of the word ‘cougar’ here is not meant in any way to condone the sexist use of the term applied to women. It is seen by some as derogatory and misogynist, as older men with younger women do not get termed that way. Although some women (and men) see the term as empowering and cutting through ageism and sexism. As some black people have done with the word n**ger, words intended to be used in derogatory, racist or sexist ways can be re-claimed and used by the very group they are intended to humiliate, and there is no reason why cougar cannot be re-claimed in the same way either.

The point here is that, if Yeshe Tsogyel were alive today, she may well have that term applied to her by people who regarded her very young male consorts and conduct in a negative and sexist way too. Nonetheless, it could be asserted that her conduct is brave, unconventional and ahead of its time in terms of challenging sexist gender stereotypes about older women having tantric sexual unions with younger men.

However, a cougar like a tiger is also a strong and powerful animal, and used in this context it is also playfully intended to draw attention to the fact that Tsogyel was not in fact the tigress mount as is commonly explained. As I wrote previously in Re-Claiming Words, words intended to be used in derogatory, sexist and racist ways can be re-claimed and used by the very group they are intended to mock and humiliate, and there is no reason why cougar cannot be re-claimed in the same way either.

Ageism, gender and the importance of celibacy

Also, it is worth clarifying here that even though Tsogyel’s consorts were much younger than her the age is symbolic, and was taught generally to refer to the mind of the person and purity of the inner channels etc.  Sexual desire is important, but both men and women find older people in their 40s, 50s and 60s attractive and sexy too.  

A real, qualified master will not be looking at physical age or appearances but more the state of mind and level of the woman/man. Also, Sukhasiddhi, one of the most important female masters in the Shangpa Kagyu, was 66 in years when she did union practice with a qualified master and attained the youthful appearance of a 16 year-old.

It is celibacy and ethical discipline (rather than virginity) that is often more important than physical appearance, as I have written about before, as the inner channels are much purer than someone who is having ordinary worldly sex with people, or smoking and drinking etc. I also spoke about the importance of celibacy in a paper I presented at the Bhutan conference on the Vinaya, Vajrayana and women as consorts, that being ‘celibate’ (not engaging in sex for ordinary, worldly reasons) is actually very important for consort practice, contrary to the commonly-held idea that it is all about sexual intercourse and being young and pretty. More on that in the future!

For my essay on the feminist, male consort of Vajrayogini, see here

The rape of Yeshe Tsogyel – transforming it into the four joys

Yeshe Tsogyel was not only a brave, courageous proto-feminist with young, male consorts who subdued demons and travelled to hell realms to save beings who had harmed her, she also endured brutality, misogyny and rape. As the Sky-Dancer biography states, she was raped by seven bandits:

“Then I went to live in Shampo Gang, and it was there that seven bandits robbed me of my possessions and raped me. Afterwards I sang them this song of introduction to the four joys.

NAMO GURU PADMA SIDDHI HRI!
My sons you have met a sublime consort, the Great
Mother,
And by virtue of your resources of accumulated merit,
Fortuitously, you have received the four empowerments.
Concentrate upon the evolution of the four levels of joy.

Immediately you set eyes upon my body-mandala,
Your mind was possessed by a lustful disposition,
And your confidence won you the Vase Initiation.
Apprehend the very essence of lust,
Identify it as your creative vision of the deity,
And that is nothing but the Yidam deity himself.
Meditate upon lustful mind as Divine Being.

Uniting with space, your consort’s secret mandala,
Pure pleasure exciting your nerve centres,
Your aggression was assuaged and loving kindness
   was born,
And its power won you the Mystic Initiation.
Apprehend the very essence of joy,
Mix it with your vital energy and maintain it awhile,
And if that is not mahamudra, nothing is.
Experience pleasure as mahamudra.

Joined to your consort’s sphere of pure pleasure,
Inspired to involuntary exertion,
Your mind merged with my mind,
And that blessing won you the Wisdom Initiation.
Undistracted, guard the very essence of pleasure,
Identify pure pleasure with Emptiness,
And that is what is known as immaculate empty
   pleasure.
Experience pure pleasure as supreme joy.

United at your consort’s blissful nerve,
Our two nectars fused into one elixir.
The phenomena of self and others extinguished,
Awareness won you the Initiation of Creative
Expression.
Guard the natural purity in the world of appearances,
Identify your love and attachment with Emptiness,
And that is nothing other than Dzokchen itself.
Experience innate joy as no-joy.

This is extraordinary, exalted secret instruction;
To consciously practise this method brings a fall,
But discovered by chance it gives miraculous release.
You attained the four empowerments at once,
And your success was matured by the four stages
   of joy.

(Establishing, Spreading and Perpetuating the Teaching, pp.118-9)”

[N.B I have not checked the translation of the Tibetan here, so cannot say for sure if it is accurate translation or not].

Dowman wrote his own commentary on this rape of Tsogyel here. As this life-story is said to be written by Tsogyel’s male consort, Atsara Sale (and translated by a man), it is difficult to know how much this accurately represents Tsogyel’s own voice and experience.

Nonetheless, in the current climate of #metoo and exposure of lama misconduct, it is inspiring and interesting to read how Tsogyel uses her practice and view of reality to transform what happened to her, even teaching the rapists about the ultimate view and four joys. 

That is not to condone or excuse the rape or sexual assault of any person, or to suggest people should not seek justice and protect others from harm and further misconduct. In fact, actions exposing abuse and misconduct by men towards women, when undertaken with love and compassion and to protect others from harm, can be considered Bodhisattva actions. However, this example demonstrates that in the Vajrayana world of an authentic and advanced Buddhist practitioner, such as Tsogyel, as Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘No-one can hurt me without my permission.’ 

Or as we might put it in modern-day slang :-):

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 13th October 2022. Copyright.

BIBLIOGRAPHY/SOURCES

Angowski, Elizabeth J. 2019. Literature and the Moral Life: Reading the Early Biography of the Tibetan Queen Yeshe Tsogyal by PhD Harvard University.

Dowman, Keith. 1984. Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel. Routledge & Kegan Paul, Boston, MA.  The Tibetan of this text is available as an e-book at: Secret Symbolic Biography of the Queen of Dakinis, Yeshe Tsogyal (skydancerpress.com)

Drime Kunga and Yeshe Tsogyel. 2017. The Life and Visions of Yeshe Tsogyal: The Autobiography of the Great Wisdom Queen. 

Chonyi Drolma. 2017. The Supreme Secret Biography of Yeshe Tsogyal: The Exceptional Inner Meaning of Symbols. Shambhala Publications. http://www.jnanasukha.org/news-blog?category=Translation

Gardner, Alex. 2022. “Yeshe Tsogyel,” Treasury of Lives biography. 

Gross, Rita M. 1987. “Yeshe Tsogyal: Enlightened Consort, Great Teacher, Female Role Model.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 12, no. 4 (winter 1987), pp. 1–18.

Gyalwa Changchub, and Namkhai Nyingpo. 1999. Lady of the Lotus-born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Shambhala, Boston & London. 

Gross, Rita. 1987. “Yeshe Tsogyel: Enlightened Consort, Great Teacher, Female Role Model.” In Feminine Ground: Essays on Women in Tibet, edited by Janice Willis, 11-32. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.

Gyatso, Janet. 1998. Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gyatso, Janet. 2006. “A Partial Genealogy of the Lifestory of Ye shes mtsho rgyal.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 2, pp. 1-27.

Kinga, Sonam. 2019. “Who is the Tigress in the Lair? A Preliminary Enquiry About Khandro Yeshe Tshogyel’s Visit to Taktsang”, Dr. Sonam Kinga. Journal of Bhutan Studies, Vol 40, Summer 2019.

Liang, Jue. 2020. Ph.D, University of Virginia, Department of Religious Studies, Buddhist Studies  Conceiving the Mother of Tibet: The Life, Lives, and Afterlife of the Buddhist Saint Yeshe Tsogyel.

Mikles, Natasha L. 2007. “A Tantrika in the Modern World: The Sexual Agency of Yeshe Tsogyal.” The Monitor (fall 2007), pp. 28–39.

Taksham Nuden Dorje. 1996. Sky Dancer: the Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel. Keith Dowman, translator. Ithaca: Snow Lion.

Taksham Nuden Dorje. 1983. Mother of Knowledge: The Enlightenment of Ye-shes mTso-rgyal. Tartang Tulku, translator. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing.

Taksham Nuden Dorje. 1999. Lady of the Lotus Born. Wulston Fletcher and Helena Blankleder, translators. Boston: Shambhala.

Terton Drime Kunga. “The Secret Symbolic Biography of Yeshe Tsogyal.” http://skydancerpress.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=79&Itemid=107

Tomlin, Adele (2020 and 2021) Dakini Publications:

Essays and articles on The Female Principle

Tantric Buddhism, vows, sex and women – the importance of love, respect and consent

‘DAKINI IS TRUTH!’ TILOPA’S ‘OVERLOOKED’ FEMALE TEACHERS AND ENTERING ‘UNCONVENTIONAL’ CONDUCT (TUL-ZHUG)

UNSUNG HEROINES, MOTHERS OF MAHĀMUDRĀ AND SOURCE OF SARAHA’S SONGS : Re-telling the (her)stories of the symbolic ‘arrow-maker’ Dakhenma, and the ‘radish-curry’ cook gurus of siddha, Saraha

‘DIFFICULT’ AND WILD WOMEN: THE INVISIBILITY AND OVERLOOKING OF FEMALES IN BUDDHISM, PAST AND PRESENT, PATRIARCHAL ACADEMIA AND FEMALE TOKENISM

 BLISS QUEEN: YESHE TSOGYEL AND VAJRAYOGINĪ.Their connection, supplications and new translation of Yeshe Tsogyel Supplication by Terton-Yogini, Tare Lhamo

‘Yeshe Tsogyel Guru Yoga’ by 15th Karmapa

Yeshe Tsogyel’s Descent to the Hell Realms and How She Got Her Name

James, Steve. 2022. Guru Viking video interview with Adele Tomlin (September 2022):  Ep175: Dakini Translations – Adele Tomlin – YouTube

Tulku Thondup. 1996. Masters of Meditation and MiraclesThe Longchen Nyingthik Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala, pp. 92-94.

Tsogyel, Yeshe. 1999. The Lotus-Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava. Translated by Erik Pema Kunsang. Boston: Shambala Publications.

Tsogyal, Yeshe. 1978. The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava. Translated into French by Gustav-Charles Toussaint; translated into English by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing.

Vecchione, Andrea. 2009/10. Yeshe Tsogyel: Tibet’s First Enlightened Buddhist: A Feminism Model in Ancient Form? Published on Academia.edu.

ENDNOTES

[1]   At the Bhutan conference, at the very least, the speakers who mentioned Tsogyel could have done a quick review and mention of the several books and PhDs on Tsogyel done by several female scholars (whom I list in this essay). However, none of that excellent work or effort was mentioned. 

In my view, it does not matter if it is a man or a woman, people should not come to an international Vajrayana conference, and speak on a main panel about a subject they have done zero research, translation or significant time/work on with scholars/experts who have (and for whom they clearly do not value or respect). Ageism (especially when combined with sexism) is absolutely anti-modern and anti-intellectual.  In addition, they should expect and happily accept some critique if they do, whether it is from a man or a woman. Failure to accept or value that feedback from a person who is an experienced and recognised scholar/researcher/writer, and worse still take it very personally, is a sign they are also not mature enough to engage in genuine intellectual or academic discussions. It is not a high school charity/popularity contest.  
 
Generally speaking, the Vajrayana conference in Bhutan was a ‘mixed bag’ as they say in English. Some were renowned, or rigorous scholars whose work, although excellent in the scholarly context, was way beyond the interest/focus of the majority of the audience of non-scholars and did not really directly address the issue of modernity at all. Some were non-scholars, whose work was unsourced and unoriginal and spoke more about their own businesses/projects/travel expeditions etc. than anything connected to the conference theme of Buddhism and modernity or Bhutan. A few managed to be both scholarly and directly addressing the theme, of which I hope mine was one! Nonetheless, due to the diversity of speakers and interests, it was certainly a fun and interesting conference to attend, more so perhaps than a very scholarly and academic conference, with people pontificating at length over critical editions and an obscure quote in Sanskrit, that no-one has read or really cares about :-). 

[2] Dr. Sonam Kinga was the chairperson of the National Council of Bhutan, and currently serves in the faculty at the Royal Institute of Strategic Studies (RIGSS), Phuntsholing, Bhutan.

[3] English language translations of liberation-stories about Guru Padmasambhava written by Yeshe Tsogyel, include:

  • Tsogyal, Yeshe. 1999. The Lotus-Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava. Translated by Erik Pema Kunsang. Boston: Shambala Publications.
  • Tsogyal, Yeshe. 1978. The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava. Translated into French by Gustav-Charles Toussaint; translated into English by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing.

    [4] In his Religious History of Southern Dragon (lho ‘brug chos ‘byung), Guru Rinpoche stated:

    “Just by traveling there, one would find the path [to liberation],
    My followers, who practice the dharma,
    Flee to the southern gorges, the hidden sacred land!

    And said:

    Find a retreat place at the southern gate of the southern gorges,
    If you did this what you accomplish in seven years in Tibet
    You will accomplish it in seven days in these sacred places.
    And the Lamp that Illuminates All Prophecies says:
    At mountain gorges and snow crevices in the border regions of southern Tibet,
    And at the forested gorges, so forth, in all types of gorges,
    As they will be needed at a future time,
    I, Padmasambhava, blessed and left them as it is. Dharma Yogis could obtain accomplishment in these places very quickly.
    All country gods and local spirits will protect them from obstacle makers.

    Even devils and non-Buddhist heretics will not occur. It is the fatherland of all the dharma practitioners.”

    And:

    “At the border between Mon (Bhutan) and Tibet, there are four [greater] hidden land
    Eight lesser hidden lands, and ten thousand sub-hidden lands,
    I, Padmasambhava, concealed them as they will of use in future!”

    [5] Kinga (2019: 65) writes: “It is common knowledge to many Bhutanese that the massive cliff of Paro Taktshang has the appearance of Dorje Drolo. The three Taktshangs mentioned here, and events associated with them have been confused in latter narratives, oral or textual, that gave rise to different versions. Many assume that there is just one Taktshang, in Paro, Bhutan, and hence associate events that happened in other Taktshangs with the one at Paro. Yeshe Tshogyel comes to Sengye Dzong from Tidro with her consort Atsara Sale and a girl called Dewamo.”

    [6] Kinga (2019:66) also writes that: “During my research about Khoma village in Lhuntse more than a decade earlier, I was informed that the origin of the name Khoma is based on Guru Rinpoche telling the local ruler that he had a daughter/girl (khomo) whom the Guru would need (for tantric practice) ང་ལ་མ%་བ’་(་)ག་འ,ག། (Sonam Kinga, 2002). It now turns out that it was Yeshe Tshogyel instead of Guru Rinpoche who said it. Indeed, Guru Rinpoche says the same to Yeshe Tshogyel later but in a different location as we shall see below.”

    [7] Kinga (2019) continues: “It was therefore, at Womphu Taktsang in Tibet and not Paro Taktshang in Bhutan that the practice of Dorje Phurba (Vajrakilaya) was initiated by Guru Rinpoche along with his five ‘root’ spiritual sons. They were Lhalung Pelgyi Sengye, Namkhai Nyingpo, Ma Rinchen Chok, Dorje Dudjom and Yeshe Tshogyel. Her four other companions were also assigned roles in the initiatory rite of Dorje Phurba. Dewamo, who was renamed Chonema, the Glorious Priestess, was appointed the Vajra hostess (Dorje Jenmo); Atsara Sale and Atsara Pelyang were appointed Vajra Dancers (Dorje Gingpa) and renamed Karma Dondup and Karma Tarje; the Bhutanese boy Sale was appointed Vajra Attendant (Vajrakarmaka); and then, at the beginning, he made me the “root consort” and Tashi Khyidren the “liberating consort” (Dowman, 1996, p. 90)

    2 thoughts on “NOT A MOUNTED TIGRESS BUT A POWERFUL COUGAR? YESHE TSOGYEL AT TIGER’S NEST (PARO TAGTSANG) WITH HER YOUNG MALE CONSORTS. Yeshe Tsogyel’s connection to Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan, her young male consorts, contemporary research on her life-stories and a 21st Century interpretation of her experiences as a woman (Bhutan 2022))

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