Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Machig Labdrön: Mystic Woman, Teacher Unsurpassed


As we celebrate the Goddess during this Navaratri, I wanted to write at least one article on a woman teacher. I was most keen to write about Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal, Tibet’s greatest yogini and supreme teacher, the woman founder of Tibetan Buddhism, the Mother of Vajrayana. Yeshe Tsogyal [also spelt Tsogyel] has had a special place in my heart for some eighteen years now and I have never written about her, so I thought this would be a good time to pay my obeisance to her and express my gratitude the innumerable things that have happened to me through her grace.

But everything associated with Yeshe Tsogyal is a mystery and though I have been trying to write an article on her repeatedly for the last few days, my attempts came to nothing and it is not about her that I am writing now, but about her subsequent reincarnation – about Machig [Machik] Labdrön [Lapdrön], the legendary Vajrayana pathfinder, the originator of the spiritual practice known as gCod [Chöd], credited with developing the first original Vajrayana spiritual path to emerge from Tibet. Her path became so successful that it is said Buddhist scholars in India became alarmed – for the first time things had begun to flow from Tibet to India and not the other way round, and they sent a team to try to prove her wrong, and if possible destroy her. It is said that in her own life time 1263 of her disciples reached enlightenment. It must be the highest number ever happened with any teacher – including perhaps the Buddha himself.

Machig Labdrön (Ma gCig Lap sGron) was born in 1055 and lived into the very old age of ninety-nine years. While she was the incarnation of Yeshé Tsogyal, after her death she is reborn again as Jomo Menmo and then as Khyungchen Aro Lingma. Padmasambhava, Tibet’s greatest yogi and the male founder of Tibetan Buddhism, widely considered the second Buddha and sometimes even greater than the Buddha, predicted that his consort Yeshé Tsogyal would take incarnation as Machig Labdrön and that he himself would manifest at that time as Padampa Sangyé. He also predicted that Yeshe Tsogyal’s spiritual consort Atsara Sale would be reborn as Machig Labdrön’s husband, Topabhadra.

According to Jampel Tsawai Gyud Tantra, the Buddha himself had prophesied of Machig Labdrön: “When my teaching is thin like a tea leaf, the embodiment of the Great Mother, whose name is Labdrön will come and her activity will be far reaching. Anyone who is involved with her activity will be liberated.”

A fascinating story is told about her birth. According to this story, Machig was an Indian yogi practicing meditation in a cave in India. The yogi had a serious of visions and following the visions, he left his body in the cave and went to Tibet and entered the womb of a woman called Bumcham. On the night of the conception, the woman had extraordinary dreams. And the dreams were not confined to her alone – her older daughter as well as one of her neighbours had these same dreams.

When the baby was born she was bathed in a divine light and had the shape of a third eye on her forehead [Iconographically Machig Labdrön is frequently shown with a third eye on her forehead.]. The mother was scared of the baby – she also considered what was on the forehead of the baby a deformity and was afraid of her husband’s reactions. Fearing its father’s reactions, the mother hid the baby behind a door refusing to show it to its father. But her father insisted on seeing her. To the father’s eyes, the girl child had all the signs of a wisdom dakini. He also saw the root syllable ‘Ah’ written in her third eye.

Machig was a child prodigy. By the time she was three, she could chant many mantras and do simple rituals. She learned to read at a young age and by the time she was eight, she could read the Prajna Paramita Sutra fluently. In fact, by that time she could recite the entire eight-thousand sutra line twice in a day. The governor of the province was so impressed when he heard of this, he came to test her and impressed by her gave her the name Labdrön, meaning Shining Light from Lab. Lab was the province from which she came.

Speaking of Machig’s development as a yogini American author and Buddhist teacher Lama Tsultrim Allione says in her celebrated book Women of Wisdom: “The philosophical basis for the Chöd is the Prajna Paramita Sutra. Machig was thoroughly immersed in this teaching from childhood, because she became a professional reader at an early age, and the most popular text to be read was this sutra. Professional readers were people who could read very quickly. They were sent out to the homes of lay devotees to read through a text a certain number of times. The logic behind this was twofold: first, the hearing of a text would be beneficial to the householders immersed in worldly preoccupations, and secondly, the recitation of such a text would cause the accumulation of merit. Because the Buddhists believe that every act has a certain result, a positive act causes the accumulation of positive results, and therefore a kind of stockpile of good karma could be accumulated by having sacred texts read aloud. What was considered important was the number of times something was read rather than understanding the meaning; therefore the faster the reader was, the better. In this way the patron could accumulate more merit in less time and have to spend less on maintenance and gifts for the reader. Machig, from a very young age, was an extraordinarily fast reader, and so she was highly valued as a professional reader. She probably repaid her teacher by being his reader.”

Her mother passed away when Machig was only thirteen years old. At the age of sixteen, Machig became a disciple of Lama Drapa. Under his guidance, she became a reader of the Prajna Paramita Sutra for the monastery. Because of her ability to read and recite fast, Machig was in great demand. Along with the recitations, she also studied the sutra in depth and those studies altered the course of her life.

One night she had a dream of a great teacher. The next morning she ran into the teacher in the front courtyard of the house in which she lived. This teacher was Padampa Sangye and he had come to Tibet to meet her. He too was led to Tibet by a dream – of an Indian yogi being born as a woman in Tibet. Padampa Sangye taught her the teachings that she would later articulate as the gCod teachings – the powerful spiritual practice for which we now know Machig, the essence of which is to find the Buddha within oneself through one’s own efforts. Subsequently, she also learnt the deepest wisdom of the Prajna Paramita Sutra with the guidance of Lama Sonam Drapa, who too came to her hearing of her.

Machig’s meeting with Sangye and Lama Sonam became a turning point both for her and for Tibetan Buddhism. She was now ready to transform the precious teachings of the Sutra into the new and uniquely powerful spiritual practice called gCod. This caused a kind of renaissance in Tibetan Buddhism.

Padampa Sangye recognized her true spiritual lineage and explained to her that she was spiritually descended from Prajña Paramita, the Mother of all Buddhas. He also told her about her past life in India as the yogi and of how the yogi left his body in the cave and took birth in Tibet as her. From him she also learnt about the ancient prophesies that had been made about her birth.

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Some time had passed after she met Padampa Sangye and Lama Sonam Drapa. Machig was now twenty-three years old. One day she was in the home of a rich family where she had gone to read the Prajna Paramita Sutra as instructed by her teacher. Here she had a dream of a red dakini [For more about red dakinis, please see the posting Zen and the Red Dakini elsewhere on this blog.] The red dakini instructed her to unite with an Indian yogi she would be meeting soon. The yogi would be called Topabhadra and her union with him would be the union of Wisdom and Skilful Means [In Vajrayana terminology this would be the mystic union of the male and the female, the female being the Wisdom and the male, Skilful Means.] This dream was followed by another dream on the same night in which a blue dakini told her that the union had yet another purpose than helping her grow spiritually – creation of a spiritual lineage with her children. This lineage, the blue dakini told her, would take the dharma forward and help it reach places it hasn’t yet reached.

The next morning a young girl arrived at the home where Machig was staying and told her she had come from the yogi Topabhandra. She was told that Tapabhadra was now in Tibet and she should pay a visit to him.

Machig met Topabhadra in a rich patron’s house where he was staying. They spent seventeen days together discussing the esoteric dimensions of Vajrayana and on the eighteenth day the union of Wisdom and Skilful Means took place. As their union took place, such effulgence filled the whole house, Machig’s story tells us, that the lady of the house came to see what was happening and all she could see was blinding light formed by the blending of red light of Machig and the white light of Topabhadra.

Machig informed Lama Sangye and Lama Sonam of what had happened and they advised her to live with Topabhadra. She did this. Lama Sonam had already had dreams about the union of the two and knew how auspicious it was for the future.

However, what Machig had done was not acceptable to the common men and women who had known her for years. To them she was a bhikhuni, though it is doubtful if she had ever been initiated as one, and she had no right to relationships with a man. That the man was an Indian yogi made matters worse. She fell in their eyes and they shunned her and Topabhadra. Leaving central Tibet, they moved to a faraway place among still colder mountains and it was there that she gave birth to her first child and the two other children to be born later.

However, Machig Labdrön was not to be content with living the life of an ordinary wife and mother. Her spiritual urges were too strong for that. Just as she left monastic life earlier and embraced the family way of life when the call for it came, after twelve years she left her husband and children and became a wandering lama. She chose to listen to the call from within her and her affection for her children and Topabhadra could not stop her from going away.

It was to her old teachers that she went first. She asked Lama Sonam for an empowerment initiation and the lama told her she did not need any. She was already too great a master to need such initiations, he told her, and admitted that he himself was like a tiny star in the night sky while she was the moon itself. He however asked her to go to the Copper Mountain in central Tibet where her presence was needed.

In her thirty-fifth year she became a wandering yogini in the ancient Indian and Tibetan tradition. She slept where evenings found her and lived on what she received from people in their generosity. For clothes, she had rags. Wearing them, she roamed all over the mountains. Cremation grounds were among her favourite haunts where she loved to practice tantric rites. It is said that during the years she spent as a wandering lama, she practiced tantric rituals in 108 cremation grounds. Eventually, five years later, in her fortieth year, she reached the Copper Mountain [Zangri Khangmar] and settled down there fulfilling ancient prophesies about this.

One of the first things she did after settling down in her abode was to avert the death of a couple who it had been prophesied were about to die. Her fame now began to spread far and wide and soon she became a legend. Everyone now called Mother Labdrön. People came to her with all kinds of problems, seeking her help. Many learned and famous masters came to her now from all over Tibet and sat at her feet seeking wisdom from the foremost dakini of the age. It was at this time that she gave full shape to the practice we call today Mahamudra gCod or just gCod, through her own practice and experiences.

A year later, at the age of forty-one, she once again decided to live a secluded life. Refusing to interact with the public, she now retreated into a cave, losing herself in deep meditations. Goddess Tara along with her retinue appeared to her in this cave and blessed her. Tara prophesied about her future fame and the great good she was going to do to the world but Labdrön maintained that she was just an ordinary woman. Rejecting her stand, Mother Tara spoke of her greatness and her lineage, beginning with Prajna Paramita and coming down through Yeshe Tsogyel. Before Tara left, a great light emerged from Tara’s heart and merged with Mother Labdrön.

A while later, Topabhadra brought her two younger children to her. The eldest was now already married and living elsewhere. After an initial stay of seven days in a cremation ground to cure himself of the mental problems he suffered from, her younger son became her disciple and practiced meditation under her guidance for fourteen years in a cave.

Fascinating stories are told about this son and his meditation practices. It is said that when Labdrön asked her son to go and practice meditation on the mountain Shangpo Gangri, he left along with three of his friends and travelled for a month before he reached there. When he reached Shangpo Gangri, he found his mother waiting there – she had appeared there miraculously. Here after enquiring after his health as a mother would, she gave him the empowerments of the Five Dhyani Buddhas and the Five Secret Vajra Varahis. After staying with her son for seven days, Labdrön returned. Before returning, Tonyon, her son, saw Machig getting transformed into Vajravarahi before his eyes. The heavens showered flowers upon her she was transformed into Vajravarahi.

After entering the cave for his meditations, Tonyon sealed the cave and Mother Labdrön returned to Zangri Khangmar. A dakini with great powers had been ordered by Machig to bring him whatever he needed. She took care of his hunger and thirst, giving him an empowered drink once every three years.

When a yogi who had been sent by his mother came to him after five years and enquired of his welfare, he told the yogi he was happy his mother was alive and well. As for himself, he said, meditation was enough food for him, and his visions were enough company for him and he needed no clothes because of the inner heat he had developed. Tonyon practiced meditation for fourteen years and becomes a siddha and a lineage holder in his own right.

By then Machig’s own fame had crossed the borders of Tibet and spread into neighbouring lands. She had disciples in every walk of life – great monks and lamas, scholars, kings and queens, noblemen, princes, ordinary men and women – and even lepers and beggars – in vast numbers. It was not long before it reached India and when that happened, Buddhist scholars of India were upset because until then texts, traditions and practices had flown from India to Tibet and never in the other direction. Now there was this woman lama who was working miracles and her practice of gCod was spreading like wildfire.

As always, a genuine master is always opposed by scholars. Scholarship and spirituality are two totally different things, since one is based on the study of books and the other, rooted in personal experiences. Buddhist scholars held a meeting in Bodhgaya and this is what they thought, according to her most authentic biography, quoted by Lama Allione:

“All true Dharma comes from India but this teaching called Mahamudra Chöd did not, even though Mahamudra does. This teaching has spread from Tibet to Nepal. Even the Nepalese are receiving teachings from this woman with three eyes; she teaches the Chöd, which they claim can overcome the forty sicknesses and the 80,000 obstructions. This three-eyed woman claims to be an incarnation of the Prajna Paramita Dakini, but more than likely she's an emanation of bad demons. It will probably be difficult to conquer her. But if we do not, she will destroy all of Tibet and then invade India. We must send a party to check up on her.”

A group of the best Buddhist pundits from India travelled to Tibet to meet Machig Labdrön. When they reached her, she came and greeted them in their language and they asked her how she knew it. Her answer was, “Because I have often been Indian in previous lives.” And they said, “You mean to say you remember your previous lifetimes?” and she answered, “Yes, I remember them all.”

The scholars now wanted to engage her in a debate. She said she was ready on one condition – her disciples from all over Tibet should be allowed to attend the debate since this will be a great learning opportunity for them. Invitations were sent out to her disciples and when the debate began after a month, the time it took for the disciples to reach Zangri, Khangmar, there were 500,000 of her disciples attending it!

Labdron amazed the scholars with her scholarship. And it was clear to all that she was not a woman of mere scholarship, but a siddha woman of deep realization and unbelievable powers. But in spite of this, the pundits were not willing to accept her as an authority. She needed to do something different to convince them. What she did was recall one by one all her past incarnations and what she taught in each one of them. Eventually she came to her most recent incarnation as a yogi in India and she told the scholars about the yogi’s body she had left in a cave in a place called Potari in south India in order to incarnate as herself in Tibet. She told them they would find the body still in the cave, youthful and unharmed. She also told them where to locate the cave.

Under instructions from her, Padampa Sangye accompanied the pundits to Potari and there they found the body of the yogi, exactly as she had described it. Following instructions she had given them before they left for Potari, they cremated the body in a sandalwood funeral pyre and when the yogi’s body was reduced to ashes, they found in the ashes the signs she had told them they wound find there.

There were now requests for her to go to India to teach there. She said she would prefer to stay in Tibet and continue to teach from there. However, to satisfy the desire of Indian scholars and devotees, she wrote several books about the gCod practice and sent these books to India.

As was mentioned earlier, she lived into the ripe old age of ninety-nine. By the time she passed away, 1,263 of her disciples had reached enlightenment, 423 lepers had been completely cured of their leprosy and their flesh fully restored, and she had performed numerous miracles.

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In The Yogins of Ladakh: A Pilgrimage Among the Hermits of the Buddhist Himalayas, by John Crook and James Low (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1997), we find a very different version of Machig Labdrön’s childhood days. According to The Yogins of Ladakh, Machig Labdrön was in her previous lifetime an Indian dakini known as Gauri who subsequently came to Tibet motivated by the need to help the people of Tibet. She was born in Labs in Central Tibet and her father was called Khyega Cholha, her mother, Lumo Bumcham and her brother Kyega Khore. She was married to a rich cattle herder at an early age and went to live in her husband’s house. Philosophical questions troubled her from her very early days and one day, desiring to end the life she was leading and start a new one, “she hung her milking pot from her waist and put a small golden knife inside her amulet case. Going to the cattle, she squatted as if to milk the cows. She placed the milking pail below the cow as a chopping block and then she cut off both her thumbs with the knife.” Her in-laws sent her back to her own home now that she would no more be useful to them. And it is from there that she went in search of a dharma teacher. According to The Yogins of Tibet, Machig Labdrön died at the age of eighty-eight after helping beings equal in number to the extent of the sky.

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Before I end this article, this is how Lama Tsultrim Allione explains the gCod practice, of which she herself has been a practitioner and teacher for decades:

“Chöd (gCod) literally means 'to cut,' referring to cutting attachment to the body and ego. First the practitioner visualizes the consciousness leaving the body through the top of the head and transforming itself into a wrathful dakini. This wrathful dakini then takes her crescent-shaped hooked knife and cuts off the top of the head of the body of the practitioner. This skull cup is then placed on a tripod of three skulls, over a flame. The rest of the body is chopped up and placed into the skull, which is vastly expanded. Then the whole cadaver is transformed from blood and entrails into nectar, which is then fed to every conceivable kind of being, satisfying every kind of desire these beings might have. After all beings have taken their fill and been satisfied, the practitioner reminds himself or herself that the offerer, the offering process, and those who have been offered to, are all 'empty,'” and seeks to remain in the state of that understanding. The ritual ends with further teachings on the true nature of reality and some ending prayers for the eventual enlightenment of all beings.


“Through this process, four demons are overcome. These are demons connected to the ego. It was when she understood the true nature of demons as functions of the ego by having reread the Prajna Paramita texts that she began to formulate the Chöd. Before going on to explain the ritual instruments and so on, I would like to discuss these four demons. This explanation is based on oral explanation given by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche.


“The first demon is called '“the Demon that Blocks the Senses.”' When we think of a demon, we generally think of an external spirit which attacks us, but Machig realized that the true nature of demons is the internal functioning of the ego. This particular demon manifests when we see or experience something with the sense, and the senses get blocked and we get fixated on the object. For example, when we see a beautiful woman or man, as soon as we see this person the perception is blocked by the desire to possess that person. The process of perception stops, and we try to meet that person, and so on. So this is one process that must be overcome by meditation. If we are in a state of true meditation, perception occurs without this fixation with, or attachment to, the objects perceived.


“The second demon is '“the Demon which Cannot be Controlled.”' This is the thought-process which just runs on and on. The thought-process takes over, the mind wanders from one thing to another, and our awareness is completely lost in distraction.


“The third demon is '“the Demon of Pleasure.'” When we experience something pleasurable, like eating something delicious, we become attached to this delicacy and we want to get more and avoid anything which stands between us and the object of pleasure. This does not mean that pleasure is in itself demonic, but rather that our attachment to it becomes a hindrance to remaining in a state of clarity. For example, a meditator might have an auspicious dream, which is a sign of progress, but then '“the Demon of Pleasure”' comes into play and he gets very attached to the dream. Or someone else might experience a period when everything goes well, he feels good physically, and so he tries to continue this good period endlessly, but it must always end in change and is therefore disappointing to us.


“The fourth demon is “'the Demon of the Ego.”' The ego is that with which we condition our world. It rests on the principle of '“self'” and '“other”' which causes a blockage in awareness and a lot of suffering for oneself and others.


“Fundamentally, all four demons are thought-processes which block a state of clear, unattached awareness, and they all grow out of the process of ego-fixation and the lack of prajna, with the consequent misunderstanding of emptiness. The Chöd practice seeks to do away with these demons.


“The Chöd was traditionally practiced in frightening places such as under lone trees (which were thought to be inhabited by demons), and in cremation grounds. The direct encounter with one’s fears and the transcending of them through the understanding of the true nature of demons is the essential point of the Chöd practice.”

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Note: I am deeply indebted to Lama Tsultrim Allione and her Women of Wisdom for this article.

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