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“As you know in the Mahayana Buddhism, there are so many deities and Buddhas we can pray to, but you have to receive the teachings, initiations and sometimes you cannot practice. However, with Tārā you can practice just like talking to your loving mother. Whenever you ask and turn to her, she will always be there, that’s her promise, no matter what.”

— HE Dagmola Kusho Sakya

A couple of days ago, I was contacted by Dr. Elisabeth Benard who kindly congratulated me on my work as ‘phenomenal’ and expressed her interest in my recently published work on Vajrayogini (see here). She also sent me a copy of her article on the Sakya Jetsunmas, Born to Practice: The Sakya Jetsunma Phenomenon (2015)[i] and informed me of her forthcoming book, The Sakya Jetsunmas: The Hidden World of Tibetan Female Lamas (Shambhala, 2020).[ii]

I was delighted to get this information, as before then, I had not really heard about the Sakya Jetsunmas. This is not surprising, as Benard herself points out:

“Though the Sakya Khon family has had many daughters as well as sons, the paucity of information about the Sakya Jetsunmas is disconcerting. There are only a few brief biographies written about some of them. In contrast, the proliferation of elaborate and extensive biographies of the sons who become the throne holder of the Sakya sect, or Sakya Trizin (Sa skya khri ’dzin), is characteristic of the gendered logics of Tibetan historiography…”[iii]

In fact, the Sakya Trizin heads of the lineage are often referred to as ‘patriarchs’, since it is a family lineage. However, as Benard concludes:

“It is to be hoped that when the Sakya genealogies are updated next, the Jetsunmas will insist on having their own biographical chapters written….Their hidden world needs to be brought to light and their achievements must surely be recognised in any account of spiritual lives of Tibetan women, past and present.”

While looking for something to offer for Tārā Day today, a Youtube teaching on Tārā came up by Sakya Dagmola Kushog, given in January 2018. Thus, I thought it timely (and in line with m own research interests) to offer a short introduction (and brief analysis) of the Sakya Jetsunmas tradition, a brief bio of Dagmola and summary (with quotes) of her teaching on Tārā.

While having more female teachers, practitioners and lineages at the public forefront can only be a good thing for women, Tibetan Buddhism and spiritual practice, the question as to whether the Sakya Jetsunma tradition is a genuinely autonomous lineage of female realisation, empowerment and equality, or more female ‘tokenism’ that maintains and promotes nepotistic, patriarchal religious power is yet to be fully discussed or decided. I hope that this post begins that discussion and also raises awareness about the Jetsunmas and their remarkable heritage, lives and lineage.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 17th July 2021.

The Sakya Jetsunmas – a female family lineage among male patriarchs

Female incarnation lineages in Tibetan Buddhism are rare, and often unheard of. The Sakya Jetsunmas are not an incarnation lineage though but a family lineage. For that reason, some might argue that it is yet another (perhaps worse) form of elitisim that keeps all the spiritual power and teachings within one family. Albeit at least in this case it is a female family line, which other male-dominated incarnation lineages do not have at all. However, as feminist Buddhist scholar Rita Gross points out in her book Buddhism After Patriarchy (1992):

“The single biggest difference between the practice of Buddhism in Asia and the practice of Buddhism in the West is the full and complete participation of women in Western Buddhism.”

Even though Bernard (2015) does not question, investigate or analyse the political or gendered aspect of nepotism and male religious power in her paper (for more on that see below), she provides an interesting (albeit brief) report of some of the historical background of the tradition and biographies of several well-known Sakya Jetsunmas:

“The Sakya Khon family began in the eleventh century when Khon Konchok Gyalpo (’Khon dKon mchog rgyal po, 1034-1102) established the Sakya sect seat in a place, which became known as Sakya (lit. “pale white earth”). The family has undergone numerous divisions, but ever since the early nineteenth century, there are two main branches: Dolma Palace and Phuntsok Palace. Until 1959, both had their main residences in Sakya and both provided residences or labrang (bla brang) reserved exclusively for their daughters. The labrang was a place to live, study, meditate and perform religious rituals. Prior to 1959, Jetsunmas were encouraged to live as nuns to pursue religious practice, yet they did not live in Sakya nunneries, but in their own residences, a labrang.” (Bernard, 2015: 7)

The Jetsunmas were given equal opportunity to study with all the religious preceptors or lamas who taught their brothers. H.E. Jetsun Kushok likes to emphasise that when they lived in Tibet she received the same teachings and did the same retreats as her brother, H.H. Sakya Trizin. One of the most important teachings and practices in the Sakya tradition is Lamdre (Lam ’bras; “The Path and Result to Liberation”), a complete and gradual system that combines both the sutras (exoteric teachings) and the tantras (esoteric teachings) to provide a guided path to Buddhahood. Lamdre emphasises that the mindis the root of both saṃsāra and nirvāna, as well as the combination of luminosity and emptiness. Ideally every son and daughter in the Sakya Khon family should receive the transmission and learn how to do the accompanying meditations, chants and rituals explained in Lamdre. All sons are expected to become lineage holders of Lamdre and to continue its “unbroken” transmission to others.”

Some might say that the Sakya Jetsunma tradition is a counter-example to Gross’s contention. However, the fact there is a female family lineage (rare as it is) does not necessarily mean it is a female-friendly lineage or tradition. In fact, more could be written about how (in all fields of life) male patriarchal power is maintained via the presence of a token, few women who don’t work to change the status quo of male privilege and power, and worse may even maintain and promote it as their very existence and status depends on it. For example, women in politics who attain high status have often been criticized for being positively anti-women and anti-feminist, and use their own status as a woman to keep other women down[iv].

As Benard herself admits about the Sakya Jetsunmas, still little is known about or heard of them, compared the male teachers within the Sakya lineage. Is that because they are more ‘token women’ with still little power or education, or because they are not as interested in teaching Dharma and more public forms of Dharma activities? This is clearly an area of further research and analysis[v] and something Bernard herself may have more to say about. Bernard (2015:6) acknowledges that the Jetsunmas have similarities to the male privileged tulku system and do not face the great difficulties other famous female practitioners have faced due to biology and gender) but argues that such women have accumulated great merit to be born into such a family:

“Yet the Sakya Jetsunmas do not face these difficulties. Instead they are akin to the male-dominated prestigious recognised reincarnations or tulkus (sprul sku). While Jetsunmas are not considered recognized reincarnations the similarities with tulkus are noteworthy. First, one is born into the Sakya Khon lineage only if one has already accumulated a lot of merit in their past lives; and many sons are considered reincarnations of their grandfathers or uncles or someone else. Second, like tulkus, Jetsunmas are given opportunities for spiritual study at an early age. Third, everything is provided for the Jetsunma and after her death, her property is saved for future Jetsunmas I much the same way that property and belongings of a tulku are passed down to the next reincarnation.”

Benard (2015:2) outlines the main historical textual sources on the Jetsunmas:

“Such biographies will sometimes mention a sister or daughter but not much more than that. The most extensive, available historical sources for the Sakya Jetsunmas are the Sa skya gdung rabs or Genealogies of the Sakya Families. Some of the more famous are the Extensive Genealogy or the gDung rabs chen mo which was written by Jamgon Amezhab (‘Jam mgon A mes zhabs, 1597-1659), the Twenty-seventh Sakya Trizin in the seventeenth century and its continuation by Kunga Lodro or Kunlo (Kun dga’ blo gros, 1729-1783), the Thirty-first Sakya Trizin. Dragshul Trinley Rinchen (Drag shulphrin las rinchen, 1871-1936), Thirty-ninth Sakya Trizin, wrote the final update.

Within these genealogies, one is still lucky to find the names of the Jetsunmas mentioned at least, or who their parents and possibly their teachers were. Occasionally, if a brother or uncle was an important Sakya Trizin or significant scholar, one will find an episode when they visited Lhasa together or attended a teaching given by an important lama[vi].”

Benard focuses on, in particular, Jetsun Kushok (rJe btsun sKu shog), Jetsunma Chime Trinley Luding Rinpoche (’Chi med phrin las klu sdings), born in 1938 in Sakya, Tibet who lives today in Richmond, BC, Canada. Benard’s article is based on extensive interviews with H.E. Jetsun Kushok herself[vii].

Jetsunma Chime Tenpai Nyima (1756 – 1850s) Benard (2015: 14) also presents a biography of one of the most renowned Jetsunmas, Chime Tenpai Nyima (rJe btsun ma ’Chi med bstan pa’i nyi ma) who lived from the mid eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century and is a female master in the Vajrayoginī guru transmission lineage:

“Looking back at earlier outstanding and autonomous religious women in the Sakya Jetsunma tradition, one great Jetsunma stands out. Being one of the most eminent, Chime Tenpai Nyima (b. 1756-ca. 1850’s) is remembered as an extraordinary practitioner and as teacher to four Sakya Trizins, their brothers, sons and daughters, including many other tulkus and significant teachers in the Sakya tradition. Her two most important legacies are that she is the only woman in the transmission lineage of the Sakya Nāropā lineage of Vajrayoginī and accompanying teachings and she is one of the four Jetsunmas who bestowed Lamdre. In view of the paucity of information generally available, I will briefly summarise her biography here. For this, I am mainly using textual information based on the final Sakya genealogy updated by the Thirty-ninth Sakya Trizin. 33 This main but brief biography of Jetsunma Chime Tenpai Nyima is embedded in the biography of Kunga Pende Gyatso’s (Kun dga’ phan bde rgya mtso, also known as E waṃ bzang po, 1766-1788) who was her paternal first cousin and son of Sachen Kunga Lodro. Also, H.H. Sakya Trizin has related his own findings and stories that are known about her to me in interviews.”

Sachen Kunga Lodro bestowed on her the important and essential transmissions of both the common Lamdre or Lamdre Tsokshe (Lam ’bras tshogs bshad) and the uncommon Lamdre Lopshe (Lam ’bras slob bshad) and all of the teachings concerning Vajrayoginī. He bestowed on her many major empowerments including Sarvavid Vairocana (Kun rig rnam par snang mdzad), the main deity of the Sarva Durgati Parishodhana Tantra (“Elimination of Bad Rebirths”) that is performed when a person is recently deceased. She became very learned and the holder of different religious master lineages including Parting from the Four Attachments and the principal Vajrayoginī (Naro mKhaspyod) teaching cycle. In the Vajrayoginī guru transmission lineage, she is the only female master.”

Jetsunma Pema Trinle (rJe btsun ma Pad ma phrin las, 1874-c.1950)

Even though the Sakya Jetsunmas held power and status within the Sakya tradition, inherited from their family, they still faced gender discrimination. In Benard’s biography of Jetsun Pema Trinle (1874-1950):

Pema Trinle held a prominent place in the Sakya tradition, being one of the few women to have been authorized to teach both Lamdre Tsokshe and Lobshe, the general and esoteric presentation of the Path and Result in the Sakya tradition. She was particularly renowned for her mastery of the Vajrayogini teachings….

…Her great-nephew, the current Sakya Tridzin, recounts an episode that offers insight into the social pressures she faced as a female master, and reveals that she held her own in the face of those pressures. At a Sakya monastery in eastern Tibet where she was giving an initiation, some nearby monasteries—offended by the idea of a female master—sent their dobdob, or monastic police, to intimidate her. The story goes that when she became aware of their presence, she was holding up an initiatory vase, from which she removed her hands to adjust her robes, leaving it levitating in the air. Astonished, the monks prostrated to her, requested her blessing, and left her in peace.”

Bernard (2015) discusses the life of Jetsun Kushok (rJe btsun sKu shog), named Jetsunma Chime Trinley Luding Rinpoche (’Chi med phrin las klu sdings). For a fuller biography on Jetsun Kushok, see here, which includes details of how she was the third woman in Sakya history to have transmitted the Lamdre:

“Soon after she left this retreat, in 1955, a crowd of monks from Kham arrived in Sakya, and requested the Lamdre teachings from His Holiness, who because of his own schedule, was unable to accommodate them. Their aunt then urged Jetsun Kushok, who was then sixteen, to give the teaching herself. The Lamdre is a complete cycle which encompasses the full range of Buddhist teachings, from Hinayana through Mahayana and up to and including Vajrayana. It revolves around the central mandala or the Virupa transmission of Hevajra. Jetsun Kushok bestowed the short version of the Lamdre by Ngawang Chodrak, as well as the lung for all the various practices and ceremonies connected with the Sakya lineage. The whole teaching lasted around three months.

Thus she became the third woman in Sakya history to have transmitted the Lamdre, and in 1956 when she and His Holiness went to Lhasa to receive the middle-length teaching on the Lam Rim from the Dalai Lama, she headed the procession, crowned with the Sakya hat worn by high Sakya lineage holders and preceded by a golden umbrella.”

Teaching in the West and the Vajrayogini Retreat Centre

Since then she has founded a dharma center in Vancouver, Sakya Thubten Tsechen Ling, and visits the other member centers of Palden Sakya (the association of Sakya Dharma Centers in the United States) in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Washington, DC. She has also taught in Hawaii and Singapore.

It has long been Jetsun Kushok’s intent to spend the rest of her life in retreat practicing the Vajrayogini meditations. It is also her wish to build a retreat center at the site of her retreat. Between her own practice sessions she will give guidance and instruction to the individuals in residence there. The retreat will be known as Kacho Ling, the name of Vajrayogini’s pure field of activity. Practitioners will be able to stay at the facility from one month up to a full lifetime of retreat and seclusion.”

Jetsunma Dagmo Kalden Kungi and Jetsunma Kunga Trinley Palter (2007 – )

This family tradition continues even today and can be expected to continue in the future:

“Though H.E. Jetsun Kushok and H.H. Sakya Trizin had only sons, the Jetsunma lineage is continuing with H.H. Sakya Trizin’s daughter-in-law, Dagmo Kalden Dunkyi (bDag mo skal ldan dun kyi b. 1978 in Kalimpong, India) ) who is married to his eldest son, Khondung Ratnavajra (‘Khon gdung Ratnavajra, born on November 19, 1974 in Dehra Dun, India).