“The dakini, in her various guises, serves as each of the Three Roots. She may be a human guru, a vajra master who transmits the Vajrayana teachings to her disciples and joins them in samaya commitments. The wisdom dakini may be a yidam, a meditational deity; female deity yogas such as Vajrayogini are common in Tibetan Buddhism. Or she may be a protector; the wisdom dakinis have special power and responsibility to protect the integrity of oral transmissions.”
–Judith Simmer-Brown, “Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism
“Anyone who has cut through deception, through illusory deception, that is a dakini..it should never be used as these compliments that people make to women….I’ve heard a lot of people tell women you are a Dakini, or my mother is a Dakini, or my wife is a Dakini and so forth. Perhaps they think a Dakini is always very beautiful and gentle and kind and mother-like and nourishing and strong woman and so forth. I don’t think they really have met one, it’s not always a compliment! [laughs].” –Khandro Rinpoche (2017)
Yesterday, on 15th November 2022, I was delighted to be able to attend the Dakini Dance event at the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery nr Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, India.
I had read about the Dakini Dances (Khandro De-Nga (five Dakinis) and Rigma Chudrug Cham (Sixteen Goddesses)) performed at DGL nunnery annually every year for Lhabab Duchen, what some call the Buddhist Mother’s Day, but never seen it in person. However, this year I really wanted to attend. As I wrote about here, Lhabab Duchen is all about the Buddha remembering his mother’s kindness and going to the divine realms to liberate her and the other worldly divine beings there.
In that respect, I think it is important and beneficial to promote, share and support the activities of one of the most stunning and accomplished Tibetan Buddhist nunneries in Himachal Pradesh, founded and led by a fully ordained nun, practitioner, author, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, who has always been right at the forefront of supporting, helping and promoting nuns and female practitioners, as well as calling out lama misconduct (privately and publicly). In that respect, Jetsunma is a prime example of a woman who’ walks the talk’ and whose public image matches her private one. Considering she is British and not from the Himalayan regions, her achievements not as only as a woman, but as a foreigner in the male-dominated environs of Tibetan Buddhism, is even more remarkable. In that area of Himachal Pradesh there are several monasteries all founded and run by well-known male tulkus, such as Tai Situ Rinpoche.
This year, Jetsunma turned 79 years old, and yet she still travelled all the way to Bhutan to attend the full ordination ceremony for nuns, including three nuns from her nunnery. Her passion, activity and commitment to the nuns, to Dharma and to women in general is extraordinary and unique in Tibetan Buddhism. Jetsunma recently talked about dakinis, in this video interview here. I also spoke about the challenging and playful nature of dakinis here.
As Karen Greenspan explains in her recent article about the Dakini Dances at DGL Nunnery, here:
“Dakini dances, like all cham, are embodiments of divine activity and Buddhist teachings. They are often performed while generating a visualization of a Buddha field, or field of spiritual support—which would include buddhas, bodhisattvas, lineage ancestors, teachers, meditation deities, dakinis, dakas (“spiritual warriors”), and dharma protectors—within the framework of a larger ritual.
The dances are performed in colorful brocade gowns decorated with elaborate bone ornaments─belt, apron, necklaces, bracelets, earrings─and topped with a golden five-lobed crown. These accessories are worn to stimulate the six paramitas, or perfections. The necklace is worn to rouse generosity. The armlets and bracelets encourage ethics, the earrings instill patience, the head ornaments stir joyful effort, the belt and apron promote concentration, and the female practitioner’s body symbolizes wisdom. The dancers vibrate a double-headed damaru drum with the right hand to represent compassion, and ring the drilbu (“bell”) with the left to signify emptiness. They sound these instruments with each step of the dance as a display of these two equalities of enlightened awareness.”
In this post, I share some photos and videos I also took there to share the blessings (apologies for the poor quality but I was shooting on my mobile phone). Also to encourage others to visit and support this remarkable nunnery and teacher. Information about the nunnery and its guesthouse can be found here. Donations can be made to annually support a nun there at the bargain cost of 1 USD per day.
May this article, music and photos bring to our minds the feminine principle of the dakini and help us all cut through delusion and ignorance!
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 16th November 2022.
THE LHA-BAB DUCHEN EVENT AT DGL NUNNERY
A play on Buddha’s deeds
The day began with a play on the Buddha’s life performed in Hindi, which I was unable to attend, photos of that performance can be seen on the official nunnery FB page, here.
Free, vegetarian buffet lunch
This was followed by a delicious and generous vegetarian lunch, with desserts and drinks, all provided free of charge. Jetsunma is a renowned vegetarian who explains ‘I do not eat my friends’ when asked about it.
Calligraphy and art exhibition by the nuns
Then, a calligraphy exhibition was held, which Jetsunma opened with a bang and a like a rain of flowers, a bouquet of confetti descended on me as she cut the ribbon to open it. Little did I know I was standing under a balloon full of confetti that burst!
Dakini Dance and Drums from Druk Amitabha to DGL nunnery
In here 2021 article, Greenspan explains how the Dakini Dances came to be performed for the first time in 2014 at DGL nunnery:
“Back in 2003, the nuns of Druk Amitabha Mountain nunnery in Kathmandu, Nepal, were empowered to dance cham by the head of their lineage, His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, and their practice has grown and flourished ever since.
Having seen the Druk Amitabha Mountain nuns performing these dakini dances, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo in 2013 asked to send a group of five senior nuns from her nunnery to Druk Amitabha to learn the dances. (Jetsunma is also instituting another tradition at DGL: that of the female lineage of Togdenma yogini meditators, a tradition lost due to the communist takeover of Tibet.) The Gyalwang Drukpa not only agreed to Jetsunma’s request, but also subsidized the nuns’ journey and gifted them ten dakini costumes, complete with ornaments.
The DGL nuns first performed the dances in public for the inauguration of their temple in 2014. According to Jetsunma, “At that time about 1,000 people came, including all our Rinpoches, monks, and lay people from Tashi Jong, [a nearby community]. The lamas and monks were deeply impressed with the nuns’ performance. Later they danced at various events, including the inauguration of the temple of Choegon Rinpoche, which also included a large audience.” Noting that the nuns could not rely on such special events to keep the dances well-rehearsed, Jetsunma suggested that the dances become an annual part of DGL’s Lhabab Duchen celebration. This major holy day commemorates the Buddha’s return to Earth from his three-month sojourn in heaven to impart the dharma to his mother and other celestial beings─a perfect occasion to perform these dances, which are sacred expressions of the enlightened feminine. ”
The dakini dance begain in the afternoon, outside the main temple, which contains some of the most beautiful hand-painted images of women and goddesses I have ever seen.
While watching the nuns drum their beats and ring their bells, I felt the presence of Tara and Vajrvarahi come to life, the female energy of the female dancers giving it that extra energy that male monastic dancers never really get, even though dakini dances are still performed by monks. Here are two short videos I took below
After the dance I had an opportunity to speak with Jetsunma and congratulated her on the event, but also on the amazing weather for the day. It had been very cold and raining the previous day. She explained that they often would do pujas to appease and make offerings to the nagas before and event, so that the weather would not turn wet and cold. Clearly the dakinis and nagas were looking fondly on us all that day.
In this recent video interview here, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo discusses “dakinis,” as beings of other planes in the world of Tibetan Buddhism.
The dance was followed by an announcement regarding winners of the nunnery hand-writing competition. While looking at the exhibit I chatted with Jetsunma about how hand-writing is such a lost skill these days, with many European and North American school children unable to write neatly. This skill is still being taught in the Tibetan Buddhist monastic schools and also in Tibetan exile schools too.
Offering to Vajravarahi
Yesterday, another Tibetan Buddhist female tulku, Khandro Dorje Phagmo (Vajrayogini), posted images of herself and the nuns from Ngajur Pemachopheling Monastery celebrating Lhabab Duchen.
As an offering to the Jetsunma, to the nuns and to all the female teachers, scholars, translators, practitioners (and the men who promote and support them), I offer this article and Akshobya blue khatag scarf and red Varahi rose. May we all remember the kindness of our mothers and women in our lives!
Greenspan, Karen (2021): Dakini Dances, Tricycle Magazine.
Simmer-Brown, Judith (2008) Dakini’s Warm Breath:The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism.
Shaw, Miranda (1995) Passionate Enlightenment
Palmo, Tenzin Jetsunma:
Dakinis, Beings from Planes of Other Existence (Youtube video 2021)
Cave in the Snow: A Woman’s Quest for Enlightenment https://amzn.to/3q1thOm
Reflections of a Mountain Lake is a collection of teachings from Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. https://amzn.to/3BNUXJ6
Personal website: https://tenzinpalmo.com/
Rinpoche, Khandro (Youtube video, 2017): What is a Dakini?