In searching for authentic material on Machig Labdrön, I ran into different versions of her life. Here is a very brief one by Lama Lodo Rinpoche. The biography is found in a book called Chöd Practice and Commentary, by Lama Lodö Rinpoche. The Preface to the book begins with the following warning by its author: “I strongly suggest that whoever wants to read this book and practice chöd have the initiation from a qualified teacher and have their permission to study this book. Because this practice is of the high tantric class of Vajrayana, it may be dangerous rather than beneficial to do this practice without initiation and explanation from a qualified teacher.”
The especially well-known profound practice of Chöd was brought from India to Tibet by the great mahasiddha Dampa Sangye . . . The Chöd teachings and practice were transmitted in Tibet by Machig Labdrön, who thus played a very important role in the Chöd lineage. Here, therefore, we will give a brief history of the wisdom dakini Machig Labdrön.
First, she manifested from Dharmata in the form of Prajiiaparamita. From that, she emanated as the great pandit and mahasiddha Dandrub Zangpo in India. He was a very well-known scholar and accomplished yogi. At that time, he received many prophecies from divine beings and his own teacher that he must go to Tibet to benefit many beings in the snowy regions. He quickly accomplished complete realization in the cave of Potari, and while he was practicing and experiencing clear realization, a dakini appeared and told him he needed to go to Tibet to benefit many beings in the snowy regions, and must transmute his consciousness into her heart.
As the dakini requested, he transmuted his consciousness into her heart and took birth in Tibet in the town of Labchi Kangra as the daughter of a couple who had great devotion to the Dharma. Her father and mother, Chakyi Dawa and Bumcham, were patrons of the Buddhadharma and lords of that town.
After entering her mother’s womb, during the pregnancy many special and divine signs appeared, such as her reciting the Mani and Ga-Te and other different mantras and even speaking to her mother from the womb. All these unusual indications were heard by the mother. During the pregnancy the mother had many omens, dreams, and blissful and joyful experiences. Many neighbors and villagers also had incredibly unusual omens, dreams, and experiences. Machig was born without any kind of difficulty to the mother and immediately stood in a mass of rainbow light and manifested many divine signs, such as a third eye and being able to speak right away to her mother. Her wisdom and compassion naturally caused people to be devoted to her as an emanation of Buddha and to bow, pray, and receive blessing from her without any doubt.
She followed her mother in her daily practice in the shrine room, reciting, bowing, and saying prayers, expressing devotion at an early age. She also showed unimaginable intelligence in reading, matched by no other; even her own teacher could not equal her intelligence.
Her special ability and unusual qualities became known throughout the kingdom; even the king heard of her, and extended an invitation to her and her family to meet with him. He offered them gifts and prayers, and gave her the name of “Labdrön,” as the one born in the village of Labchi Kangra and already called Dranma by her mother.
She was an extremely fast reader and mastered all aspects of Buddhist science, including logic, etc., without effort. When she was thirteen her mother died; afterward she followed her sister as a disciple of Lama Drapa Nganshe and stayed for four years with him, learning the teachings and practice of the sutra and tantra traditions, and reading the sutras for that lama. Afterward she met Kyoton Sonam Lama, who bestowed on her the empowerments of all traditions. She received teachings, and both Lama Drapa Nganshe and Kyoton Sonam Lama foretold that she must unite with the Indian mahasiddha Sangye Tanpa, who had come to Tibet to benefit sentient beings; that she had the karma to unite method and wisdom and benefit beings with him.
She met and practiced tantric union with the great mahasiddha [Sangye Tonpa] and again returned to her two gurus, telling them what she had done and requesting more teaching. Finally they sent her back to the yogi to continue with him, even saying that to start a family lineage with him would greatly benefit sentient beings. So she followed her gurus’ instructions, went back to him, and had two sons and a daughter. After having the daughter, she completely renounced worldly life and practiced in isolated places. After that, she met Dampa Sangye and requested all the teachings directly from him. He foretold that she would greatly benefit beings and should go practice at the mountain of Zangri Kamar; that many disciples would be gathered there, and that it would greatly benefit sentient beings.
According to her gurus’ instructions, she meditated there and began to teach many beings – humans, nonhumans, spirits, and nagas. She composed her own tradition, Pungpo Sengyurma, “Offering the Body as Food for Demons.” She developed this and taught it to many beings; then her tradition flourished all over Tibet. She had many disciples; abbots, learned pandits, and many yogis and yoginis became her students.
Her doctrine of Pungpo Sengyurma became popular all over Tibet, and rumor of it even spread to India. Then pandits and mahasiddhas were sent to verify that an emanation of Prajnaparamita had appeared in human form, had developed a specific tradition, and was benefiting beings. Two accomplished siddhas, both pandits and great beings, were sent to Tibet to meet Machig, question her, and check her teachings. When they first spoke to her, Machig replied in the Indian tongue. They asked her how she learned the language, and she replied that she had no need to learn it; she had been born in India before her present birth in Tibet, and had never forgotten it. This impressed the two pandits; here was a great being who could change lives and yet not forget the language.
They stayed and debated with her for many days concerning the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana points of view. The two great scholars could not defeat her; she won the debate, and her teaching became popular not only in Tibet but in Nepal and India as well. While the teachings of the Buddha had been faithfully carried from India to Tibet and elsewhere, never before had any tradition been transmitted from Tibet to India. Machig’s Chöd of Mahamudra transmission was the first time in history that a valid source of Dharma went from Tibet to India. Thus, such a great being, Machig Labdrön, was the first lineage holder, and this unbroken lineage continues until the present guru, as shown on the following pages.