“Men may have been the fruit of the Tantric vine, but women were the root, stalk, leaves, and flowers…. Although historians have glorified the men of Tantric Buddhism and effaced the women, Tantric Buddhism in India was characterized by the close association and cooperation of women and men who travelled, meditated, and explored the religious life together as esteemed peers. Women taught other women independently of men and male authority, and men readily apprenticed themselves to women.”
–Miranda Shaw in Passionate Enlightenment (1995)
“It is only when we see other women, in whatever religion or society, verbally and visually represented in images, praises and supplications on par with the men that we might see real progress, respect and acknowledgement for those women, and women in general.”
–Adele Tomlin (2023)
Continuing with the Hearing Her-story series for Women’s History Month, as well as for today the 64th anniversary of the Tibetan Women’s Uprising in Tibet[i], here is the third part presenting an original, unique premiere of the first art-work, in the Tibetan traditional thangka style, that includes the foremost Kagyu lineage female teachers and holders all together with the main Kagyu forefathers.
In my previous articles about Milarepa’s female students, and Marpa’s wife Dagmema, I revealed some sections of this major artwork I commissioned in early 2022 by a talented Tibetan thangka artist (who prefers to remain anonymous). The reason behind this commission was the observation that in almost all the Kagyu (and in other major lineages) refuge tree diagrams and images, very few, if any depicted important women in the lives of the men depicted. It is only really in the Nyingma tradition perhaps with famous women such as Yeshe Tsogyel, Mandarava and some of the important treasure-revealers that women have been visually represented. Despite the 17th Karmapa’s ground-breaking (and unparalleled) activities for nuns and female practitioners in the Kagyu (see here), the visual depictions remain the same. Yet, as I spoke about in my paper, Going Back to the Female Roots of Vajrayana, at the 4th Vajrayana ‘Modernity in Buddhism’ 2022 conference in Bhutan, within ancient Indian Buddhism, laywomen as gurus, lineage holders and students were a fundamental part of the very ‘roots’ of tantric practice and initiations.
Frustrated with the ‘invisible women’ phenomenon, I decided to ‘put my money where my mouth is’ and commission a visual representation of the Kagyu ‘foremothers’ women who had played an important role in these mahasiddha’s lives. And they certainly must have been important if they had been mentioned by the men (as in Milarepa’s Songs), as the paucity of historical and biographical texts on women by the predominantly male authorship are few and far between. In particular, even though I take issue with Miranda Shaw’s depictions of women in her book Passionate Enlightenment, I am grateful for her ground-breaking and inspiring work on this topic and quote her in this piece here.
As with all Dharma activities, there have been major obstacles. Sadly, the commissioned artwork is still not complete in terms of being painted. The artist told me he had to stop working on it because he had other commissions to work on that were paying more. Frustrated with the long wait, he told me it may take another year or more to complete, and suggested I find someone else who could paint it, if I did not want to wait that long. I am still looking for a local talented, yet ‘affordable’ artist to complete it, ideally someone who is an expert in Kagyu history. I also plan to reproduce it digitally too.
Nonetheless, this work that has been done is still valuable and beautiful, and I wanted to share this work with people now, not only because I think it is visually stunning but also because it is part of a more general project, to not only amplify women’s stories and voices, but also to make them more visible too. When the artwork is complete I will create a website platform specifically for it.
In the meantime, while men (and women) talk about female equality and empowerment, and yet still pray to and pay respects to male lineages masters only, ignoring the contributions of female lineage holders and realised siddhas to that lineage, then it is ‘all words and no action’. It is only when we see other women, in whatever religion or society, verbally and visually represented in images, praises and supplications on par with men that we might see real progress, respect and acknowledgement for those women, and women in general.
Music? Going Back to My Roots by Odyssey How to Be Invisible by Kate Bush, Invisible by Alison Moyet, 3 Libras by A Perfect Circle, “You don’t see me at all….” And Reflection by Lea Salonga: “When will my reflection show, who I am inside….”
Dedicated with enduring love and admiration to the precious guru, deities and Kagyu foremothers (and forefathers) and their amazing lineage holders. May the Kagyu lineage teachings flourish and the Dharma Protectors defend and preserve them always!
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 12th March 2023.
I. MALE-CENTRED HISTORY IN TEXTUAL AND ARTISTIC DEPICTIONS
In terms of female scholarship on making women more visible in history books in general, and in Buddhism, started in the 1980s, with the work and activities of European and American feminist scholars such as Rita M. Gross, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Tsultrim Allione, Miranda Shaw and Jan Willis. In particular, as I wrote in my article on Milarepa’s main female students, Gross pinpointed the main issue with Buddhist history and culture, as with other religious cultures, which is androcentric male-centred views and attitudes.
Such trailblazing Buddhist women have paved the way for other women to at least see, and hopefully call out, male-centred privilege whenever, and wherever it occurs. This is not just for religious cultures either, initiatives such as The Bechdel Test (that identifies how and why most movies are male-centred and/or with superficial female characters) and the Congrats You Have an All-Male Panel website (identifying conferences and events where all, or the majority of panellists/speakers are male) have also given us ways to identify male-centredness more clearly.
Yet, as I spoke about in my paper, Going Back to the Roots of Vajrayana, at the 4th Vajrayana ‘Modernity in Buddhism’ 2022 conference in Bhutan, within ancient Indian Buddhism, laywomen as gurus, lineage holders and students was part of the very ‘roots’ of tantric practice and initiations. It was only later, in Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan that women became more and more sidelined culminating in the monastic and male domination of Buddhist scholarship, authorship, experiences and attitudes. For example, Miranda Shaw in Passionate Enlightenment, written in the 90’s, in a section called Women As Gurus explains:
“Since women mastered every level of Tantric Buddhist practice and realization, it follows that women would assume roles of leadership and authority as enlightened teachers and initiating gurus. In this unrestrictive religious setting, there were no institutional barriers to the leadership of women, such as a priestly hierarchy of clerics seeking to exclude women from their ranks, wealth, and prestige. Religious authority was based on personal realization and timely displays of supernatural powers or religious insight. These qualifications represented no disadvantage for women. For the duration of the movement in India, women claimed authority and undertook religious guidance of others on the same basis as men-their wisdom, magical powers, and religious expertise.” (1995: 90)
Although, this may also be somewhat romantic and unrealistic, like Shaw’s ‘Barbie doll-esque’ visual depictions of the yoginis, there is truth to it. Yet, when it comes to the history of the lineages (Shaw: 1995: 131):
“Certain male figures recur in the sectarian annals, religious biographies, and historical works of India and Tibet as the founders of Tantric Buddhism, while the names of equally glorious foremothers, such as those introduced here in the previous section, do not shine with the same luster as those of their male counterparts and in some cases have nearly been forgotten altogether-save for sufficient evidence for a historian to rediscover them.”
“My method is what in crime fiction is called cherchez la femme, the principle that when one is looking for the cause or root of something one should “search for the woman.” The purpose of this exercise is to question the current portrait of the Tantric movement as strictly and exclusively a male cultural creation by exploring whether women may be found at its roots.”
Shaw (1995: 137-8) concludes that:
“When one inquires into the lives of the male “founders” of Tantric Buddhism in India, one finds that many of them were instructed and initiated by women. Official lineage histories are selective compilations that do not necessarily give a complete account of the original “founders” of a particular practice. One principle of their selectivity is clearly gender. One reads of men of noteworthy attainments, but when one looks more deeply at the history one realizes that these men were surrounded and trained by women. Although men are celebrated in the biographical anthologies, their religious lives are embedded in a female matrix that determines and even defines their lives. Thus, it is clear that exclusively male transmission lineages do not necessarily indicate an exclusively male religious community, an absence of highly accomplished women, or an absence of female teachers, even as gurus of the male founders themselves….
Although historians have glorified the men of Tantric Buddhism and effaced the women, Tantric Buddhism in India was characterized by the close association and cooperation of women and men who travelled, meditated, and explored the religious life together as esteemed peers. Women taught other women independently of men and male authority, and men readily apprenticed themselves to women.”
II. THE ARTWORK AND ITS CONTENTS
As a scholar-translator and practitioner, one thing that struck me early on was the lack of any visual depiction of important women in Kagyu refuge tree diagrams and also generally.
In fact, the only visual depiction I have seen recently was a huge wall mural in Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in India, of Milarepa with his main female students and consorts, see here. However, I have not seen many, if at all, depictions of the female yoginis and tantric teachers of these well-known men in the refuge tree diagrams.
The Tibetan Men-ri style – Faces with character not Barbie-doll, male ‘gaze’ objectification and glossy airbrushed perfection
The commission of the artwork came about due to my (and others’) increasing frustration with male-centred history and visual depictions of Buddhist lineages and history. The ‘invisible women’ were becoming more mentally visible yet still not visually seen anywhere. So I decided to put some of my own money into creating something that addressed that.
As a ‘financially’ poor translator that was not easy, because most skilled and experienced thangka painters (and even not so experienced ones) charge a lot of money for their work, sometimes with good reason. Surprisingly, however, they often do not know the well-known people, and even deities they paint. I had to explain these to the artist, although he is considered an excellent artist and his works speak to that. I showed him the style of artwork I wanted it painted in, like this Tilopa painting below.
I was told that this is the Tibetan Men-ri style (for more on that, see here). The reason I liked that style was because the faces were full of character and life and were different they were from the ‘glossy’, ‘beautiful’, flawless ‘Barbie-doll’-esue aeathetic that dominates artistic renderings these days, not only in Tibetan Buddhist art but globally.
For example, in my article Unsung Heroines: Mothers of Mahamudra and source of Saraha’s Songs (2021), although Shaw’s observations about Saraha and his female teachers and consorts are valuable, I question Miranda Shaw’s depictions of these women as big-eyed, big-breasted, full-lipped, small-waisted women, as not only a very male-centred view of female beauty but also one which do not even speak truthfully to how these women were described (which was not often!) in the texts themselves.
In any case, I wanted something that looked more realistic but that was also very much rooted in Tibetan Buddhist art and descriptions of women. For example, Marpa and Milarepa’s faces in the work represent their hard efforts, realisations and personal characters.
The people – Kagyu lineage forefathers and their female teachers and consorts
As for the people depicted in the new artwork, they are the main Kagyu forefathers, Tīlopa, Nāropa, Marpa and two of his well-known students, Milarepa and Rechungpa. In addition, there are two of the main Kagyu deities, Cakrasaṁvara and Hevajra. I also wanted to include Saraha and the goddess deity, Vajrayogini, but was told by the artist there was not enough space.
As you can see in the traditional thangka image of the Kagyu refuge tree here, it is almost all-male, the only woman depicted here as a lineage holder, is Machig Labdron. Yet, as I will briefly detail the Kagyu forefathers, had foremothers, female teachers and lineage holders.
Vajradhara represents the Dharmakāya, Buddha Nature, the ultimate guru.
Tīlopa and his dakini teachers and female consorts
“It is impossible to interpret Tīlopa’ s career without reference to the guidance of his numerous spiritual mothers.”—Shaw (1995)
Next to Vajradhara, on the left is one of the main and foremost Kagyu forefather, Tīlopa and one of his main female ḍākinī teachers, pictured as a similar size to him. This woman was the one who told him to leave the monastery while he was reading the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā (in Eight Thousand Lines Tib: Gye-Tongpa) to throw it in the ‘fasten the text with a rope and throw it from the door of the monastery into the water’ and ‘act like a mad-man!’:
As Shaw (1995: 136) remarks:
“Tīlopa (late tenth through early eleventh centuries) is a founder of the Kagyu schools, along with Nāropa and Maitripa. These Indian founding fathers transmitted their teachings to the Tibetan masters Marpa, Milarepa, and Gampopa before the school divided into the various Kagyu lineages. Tilopa’s early spiritual journey was entirely directed by a woman who converted him to Buddhism, advised him to study Buddhist scripture and philosophy, and decided with which gurus he should study (Saryapa and Matāngī), finally taking it upon herself to give him the Cakrasaṁvara-tantra initiation and teachings.”
The nominal identity of this woman is not clear though. In the most recent, and perhaps thorough, English-language studies on Tīlopa’s life by Torricelli (2019: 161-164), explains that the ḍākinī who gave Tīlopa the fourth ‘descent’ (kabab) of teaching is ‘shrouded in a sort of nominal mist’ as other important female teachers are referred to as ḍākinī’s as well. Sometimes referred to as Sukhasiddhi, Toricelli (2019:164) concludes that the sister Sukhapradhā (Tib: De Terma), who is qualifed as a ḍākinī in the prophesy to Tīlopa, and as his sister is also explained in an acceptably realistic way by Marpa himself.
Shaw (1995: 136) continues:
“This dakini continued to oversee Tilopa’s development as he left the monastery, studied with additional gurus, and did Tantric disciplines in a cremation ground. When she perceived that Tilopa was ripe for complete enlightenment, she sent him to a town in Bengal to find a woman named Barima [Dharima], ordering Tilopa to work for Barima when he found her. Barima was a spiritually advanced bodhisattva and dakini who lived as a courtesan in order to liberate sentient beings. The entire town was saturated with her spiritual presence and provided the optimum environment for the final stages of Tilopa’s journey to enlightenment, as he worked as a sesame-pounder by day and as a servant to the courtesan by night.”
Again, the romantic (and rather male-centred) labelling of Barima as ‘courtesan’ instead of lower-caste, materially poor prostitute is questionable here. Nonetheless, the point stands that rarely, if ever do we see Tīlopa’s teacher represented in Kagyu lineage tree depictions. For more on Tilopa and the women in his life, see my article Dakini is Truth! Tīlopa’s Female Teachers and Entering Unconventional Conduct, here.
Sitting beneath them both, are two other women representing his consorts, in particular, Barima.
Nāropa’s female teachers and consorts
Tīlopa’s main student, Nāropa also had female teachers and consorts. According to Nāropa’s biographies one day, while he was studying, a dakini appeared to Naropa and asked if he understood the words of the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings. He replied that he did and when she seemed happy with his response, he added that he also understood their meaning. At this point the dakini burst into tears, stating that he was a great scholar, but also a liar, as the only one who understood the teachings was her brother, Tīlopa.
There is also a story that Tīlopa asked Nāropa to give him his consort, which Nāropa immediately did. It is said in some sources that the renowned yogini, Niguma was his consort (although some say she was his sister). For more on Niguma’s six yogas, see here.
In the new artwork, Nāropa is depicted with Niguma, who is a similar size to him. Consort or not, she seems to have had some deep connection with him.
Kagyu Deities – Cakrasaṁvara and Hevajra
There are two major Highest Yoga Tantra deities, Cakrasaṁvara (left) and Hevajra (right) depicted in the artwork as they are two of the most important deities in Nāropa and Marpa’s lineage passed down to their students. I wanted to include Vajrayoginī, but the artist told me there would not be enough space.
For research and translations about Cakramsavara and Hevjara see here and here.
Marpa Lotsawa and his wife, Dagmema and female consorts
The centrepiece of the Kagyu lineage artwork is the important translator and siddha, Marpa Lhodrag with his wife, Dagmema. For my recent artice about Dagmema and her role as kind confidante and friend to Milarepa, see here.
Various women are seated around Marpa making offerings to him. These represent other ‘wives’/consorts, he is said to have had nine. For more research and translations on Marpa, see here.
Milarepa and one of his female teachers, Tseringma and main students
At the bottom left of the artwork is Milarepa, the renowned student of Marpa, and master siddha in his own right, pictured with one of his important female teachers, Tseringma and his main female students above him. The influence of Tseringma and her sisters on Milarepa as a teacher, is documented in his songs:
“Having sung this song of realization, from that time forth, the ladies acted as the Jetsun’s karmamudra and were his benefactors for provisions of food and drink. Through the offering of their three gates, they fulfilled their sacred bond and pleased him.
Generally, Tashi Tseringma, Zulema of the medicinal pasture of Lachi Snow Mountain, the menmo of Lingpa Rock, the lake menmo of the Nepal Road, and the local goddess of the Yolmo Snow Mountain, these five, acted as karmamudra for the Jetsun. The most superior of these was Tashi Tseringma.”
Milarepa himself is seated with some of his main female students, such as Saley O. For more on Milarepa’s main female students, see my recent article about Saley O here.
Rechungpa and Rechungma
Marpa’s other well-known male student, Rechung Dorje Drag (རས་ཆུང་རྡོ་རྗེ་གྲགས་) or Rechungpa (རས་ཆུང་པ་) (1083/5-1161) also had female teachers and consorts.
In the lower centre of the artwork, he is portrayed with his consort, Rechungma who was also one of Milarepa’s main students:
For more about Rechungma, her life and songs and connection to Milarepa and Rechungpa, see this article and translation about her song The Fifteen Realisations. Rechungma and her four sisters all became disciples of Milarepa from a young age. The story of their meeting Milarepa is in Tsangnyon Heruka’s .One Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa:
“When she had sung this, the Jetsun was very pleased and decided that Rechungma was a qualified yogini, fit to be a companion in conduct. He gave her all of the key instructions without any left out. Then Milarepa said to Rechungpa, “You are very good at teaching female disciples, so you should look after her.” Then he gave her over to Rechungpa, who took her for a while as his samaya companion.
After that, she went to meditate in the island of Semodo in Precious Sky Lake*15 in the north, where she practiced in complete silence for eight years. By the end of this period, she actualized the ten signs of practice, the eight qualities, and the abandonments and realization of the paths and bhumis. In this life, she went to the pure land of the dakinis.” (Stagg: 2016)
Kagyu Dharma Protectors – Mahakala (Bernagchen) and Remati (Rangjung Gyalmo)
In the bottom right corner of the artwork, are the two main Kagyu protectors, in particular of the Karmapas and Karma Kagyu, Black-Cloaked Māhakāla (Tib: Bernagchen) and the female protector, Remati (Rangjung Gyalmo). Here they are drawn separately, but they are also depicted riding the horse together, as can be seen here:
For more on Mahakala, and the Karma Kagyu, see here and here.
Stagg, Christopher. 2017. Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa: A New Translation. Shambhala Publications.
Shaw, Miranda (1995), Passionate Enlightenment: Women In Tantric Buddhism. Princeton University Press.
Tendar, Sangye (1995). The Life of the Mahāsiddha Tilopa by Marpa Lotsawa. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
Torricelli, Fabrizio (2019). Tilopa: A Buddhist Yogin of the Tenth Century. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
Tomlin, Adele (2021-2023):
GOING BACK TO THE ROOTS OF VAJRAYĀNA: A 21st Century review of the female and yogic roots of Vajrayāna, monastic vows and tantric practice, and the invisible, silent female consort
HEARING ‘HER-STORY’;(II): DAGMEMA. Marpa’s Wife and Milarepa’s confidante, friend and teacher, her life, textual sources, visual depictions and new translation of Praise to Marpa by 17th Karmapa
HEARING ‘HER-STORY’(I): MILAREPA’S FEMALE (NYA-MA) STUDENTS AND SONGS OF SALEY O. ‘Male-centred’ Buddhist history, Milarepa’s main female disciples, and the songs and story of Tibetan woman, Saley O
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
‘DAKINI IS TRUTH!’ Tilopa’s ‘overlooked’ female teachers and entering ‘unconventional’ conduct (Tul-zhug)
[i] On 12 March thousands of women gathered in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa on the ground called Dri-bu-Yul-Khai Thang. The leader of this nonviolent demonstration was Pamo Kusang. This demonstration, now known as Women’s Uprising Day, started the Tibetan women’s movement for independence. On 14 March at the same location thousands of women assembled in a protest led by “Gurteng Kunsang, a member of the aristocratic Kundeling family and mother of six who was later arrested by the Chinese and executed by firing squad.”[