Lady of the Lotus-Born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal

Lady of the Lotus-Born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal

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by Gyalwa Changchub, Namkhai Nyingpo

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first Tibetan to attain complete enlightenment was in all probability the woman
Yeshe Tsogyal, the closest disciple of Padmasambhava, the master who brought
Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century. This classical text is not only a
biography but also an inspiring example of how the Buddha's teaching can be put
into practice.
of the

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first Tibetan to attain complete enlightenment was in all probability the woman
Yeshe Tsogyal, the closest disciple of Padmasambhava, the master who brought
Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century. This classical text is not only a
biography but also an inspiring example of how the Buddha's teaching can be put
into practice.
of the Lotus-Born

interweaves profound Buddhist teachings with a colorful narrative that includes
episodes of adventure, court intrigue, and personal searching. The book will
appeal to students of Tibetan Buddhism and readers interested in the role of
women in Buddhism and world religions.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In the eighth century, the Indian master Padmasambhava (known as the "Lotus-Born" Guru) introduced Buddhism into Tibet. One of his first disciples, and the closest to him personally, was Yeshe Tsogyal, greatly revered by Tibetans as a Nirmanakaya--an enlightened soul who returns to human life to lead others in the way of enlightenment. This is her biography, written by two of her disciples, an ancient text in a genre called namthar, a "tale of liberation." The most similar genre in the West is early hagiography--Christian saints' lives as written by their disciples, full of effusive praise, virtuous deeds, and miracles. The Padmakara Translation Group specializes in translating important Tibetan texts into European languages. They have included an informative introduction, notes, and glossary. Though the translation is clear and readable, Lady of the Lotus-Born will reward students and scholars rather than the casual browser. Recommended for academic libraries.--James F. DeRoche, Alexandria, VA
From the Publisher
"Clear and readable, Lady of the Lotus-Born will reward students and scholars."— Library Journal

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the Introduction

text translated in these pages is the life story of one of the founders of the
Tibetan Buddhist tradition and without a doubt one of the most extraordinary
women in the history of world religion. She lived during the heroic age of the
Tibetan kings whose empire, then at the peak of its strength, extended far to
the east into present-day China and to the north and west into the remote
regions of Central Asia, and dominated the entire Himalayan region to the
south. Her life unfolded at a crucial moment in the history of her country when
the rich and fully developed Buddhist tradition of the sutras and the tantras
was being introduced from India and propagated under royal patronage. It was a
time of great events and powerful personalities.

of the Lotus-Born
by any standards a masterpiece of literature. Its colorful and lively
narrative, the lyrical beauty of its poetry, the profundity of its doctrinal
teaching, and its absorbing historical and cultural interest are perfectly
balanced and arranged with artistry and finesse. As such, it is easily
accessible, and even readers who know little of Tibet or the Buddhist path will
be intrigued and charmed by it. The storyline indeed is so well handled and the
characterization so vivid and convincing that at times it

not difficult to overlook the fact that this is a text of great antiquity. In
point of fact, the life of Yeshe Tsogyal has a peculiar modernity of its own,
although not in the ordinary sense of the word. The reason for saying this is
that, however exotic and remote certain aspects of the text may appear to the
majority of modern readers,
of the Lotus-Born
to a spiritual and cultural tradition that is still vibrantly alive. It
expresses ideas and values that for practitioners of the Buddhist path remain
living issues of great relevance.

contrast with the history of Europe and America, the pace of political and
social change in Tibet was, until the upheavals of the second half of the
twentieth century, extremely slow, allowing the study and practice of Buddhism
to proceed steadily, undisturbed by extraneous circumstances and in an
atmosphere of almost perfect stability. This gave rise to a cultural continuity
that the West has never known, and it may be said without exaggeration that in
Tibet virtually the entire range of Buddhist doctrines, as they were extant in
medieval India, have been completely and perfectly preserved until the present
time. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition embodies to this day teachings and
practices that were current and assiduously pursued at a time long before the
cultures and even the languages of the modern West existed. So seamless is the
tradition of Tibetan Buddhism that if one were to take a lama writing or
commenting on a scripture at the end of the twentieth century and place him
alongside one of his forebears of the tenth, one would discover a similarity of
thought, expression, and attitude that renders them virtual contemporaries.

is thus that
of the Lotus-Born
a timeless relevance. However mysterious certain parts of it

seem to the unfamiliar reader, the world described in its pages is still
instantly recognizable to twentieth-century Tibetans. And to Tibetan Buddhist
practitioners, the story of Yeshe Tsogyal's life and the teachings contained
therein are still as pertinent and topical as they were in the eighth century.
The same instructions given by Guru Rinpoche to Yeshe Tsogyal, and by Yeshe
Tsogyal to her own disciples, are imparted by Tibetan lamas to this day. The
same meditation and yogas are still practiced and their extraordinary results
are still attained, even now in the twentieth century.

of the Lotus-Born
to the class of Tibetan literature known as
is a "tale of liberation," an account of spiritual endeavor and
achievement. It is primarily addressed to Buddhist practitioners as an
instruction and encouragement for the long and arduous path of inner
transformation, holding up to their devotion an image of sublime attainment.
Aside from being a good story, therefore, this text has a profoundly doctrinal
content. It is a description of the tantric path and contains many references
to the key points of the practice. These references are not for the most part
explicit and are frequently couched in the allusive language of poetry and
song, the sense of which will be clear only to those well versed in tantric

of the Lotus-Born
in this way contain a "secret" component is, traditionally speaking,
quite normal. For reasons that the text itself will make clear, the full
instructions for the practices referred to are necessarily bestowed only in
private by qualified masters and to disciples who have given evidence of their
commitment to the teachings and are properly prepared for their reception and

the presence of esoteric elements does not by any means render the text
unintelligible for the general reader. On the contrary, it

in large measure intended for the edification and delight of everyone. With
this in mind, it seems appropriate to discuss some of the broader issues
apparent in the book and thus introduce a religious and cultural environment
that some readers might find unfamiliar.

Birth, and Early Life

that the historical existence of Yeshe Tsogyal is beyond question, and in view
of the extraordinary realism and humanity with which her character emerges in
the course of the text, modern readers are likely to find the
"mythological," almost fairy-tale account of her birth and early
years rather perplexing. To be sure, the miraculous circumstances seem to
parallel the extraordinary events attending the nativities of the heroic
figures of other religions and cultures. All the marvelous accompaniments are
there: the shooting star, the strange and prophetic dreams, the mysterious
messengers, the painless birth, the appearance of celestial beings and other
wonderful portents. And when the child is born, she is of supernatural beauty
and precocity. The approach of modern scholarship, from its essentially
materialistic standpoint, is to dismiss such events as apocryphal and
legendary. In the present case, before jumping to such hasty conclusions, it is
important to remember that from a doctrinal point of view, the elements
described in the early pages of
of the Lotus-Born
heavy with meaning. And it is worth remembering that, as a matter of fact, in
the discovery of tulkus or incarnate lamas, which continues to be a highly
important feature of Tibetan culture, miraculous omens are expected and taken

Tsogyal was, as the text makes plain, a key figure in the introduction and
consolidation of the Buddhist teachings in Tibet. She was the disciple and
assistant of Padmasambhava, the Lotus-Born Guru, the Indian master invited by
the king Trisong Detsen to subdue by tantric means the hostile forces that were
hindering the propagation of the Doctrine. So closely was she involved in this
work that the story of her life is practically coterminous with the foundation
of Buddhism in her country, specifically the teachings of the tantras. Her
appearance in the world is therefore not presented as something haphazard, the
chance birth of an ordinary being; it is an event of great and far-reaching
significance. Yeshe Tsogyal is the predestined assistant of Guru Rinpoche (as
Padmasambhava is often called); indeed, she is the indispensable condition for
the establishment of the Buddhist teachings. It is for this reason that the
first figure to appear in
of the Lotus-Born
not Yeshe Tsogyal herself, but Guru Rinpoche. "That I might propagate the
teachings of the Secret Mantra," he reflects, "the time has come for
an incarnation of goddess Sarasvati to appear." And it is as if he
literally calls Tsogyal into existence. For without her, as he later explains
to the king, the results of his labors would be meager and slow.

the account of Yeshe Tsogyal's preexistence and her descent to earth, two
distinct but interpenetrating ideas may be discerned. To begin with, in view of
Buddhist teachings on reincarnation, the notion that she should have
"preexisted" is not in itself extraordinary. Moreover, it is normal
in Buddhist tradition for the biographies of important persons to begin with
references to a line of previous and distinguished incarnations. The obvious
purpose of this is to inform the readers that they are in the presence of a
great and noble being. More important is the fact that such details underline
the fundamental doctrine of karma, whereby character, talents, inclinations,
and circumstances, as these manifest in the course of a single life, helping or
hindering in the spiritual quest, are all attributable to previous causes. The
facts of encountering the Dharma, meeting a teacher, and having an inclination
to practice his instructions and the possibility of doing so are all regarded
as the fruits of merit, the positive "energy" amassed through
virtuous deeds in the past. Consequently, as the preliminary to her encounter
with the great Guru and the gaining of a life situation in which his teachings
would be implemented to great effect, we read that Tsogyal had
"accumulated merit and purified defilements for numbered and unnumbered
ages, sending forth great waves of goodness for all that lives." From this
point of view, Tsogyal's life is to be seen as the final stage in a long karmic
sequence. It was the point at which, as Guru Rinpoche himself said, lingering
obstacles were exhausted and dispelled, and the vast deposit of meritorious
potential burst into flower.

essentially evolutionary idea is combined with another fundamental notion of
Mahayana Buddhism. Not only is Tsogyal said to have amassed immense reserves of
merit, she is referred to as a Nirmanakaya, an already enlightened being who
"came down to earth" in order to set forth the path of Dharma by word
and example. Her appearance in eighth century Tibet was, according to this
perspective, but one example of the "dancing transmutation of her
form" so delightful to the Buddhas of the three times. Not only does she
teach through the great unfolding of her wisdom, her life itself is seen as a
kind of didactic drama, demonstrating the possibility of inner development and
the attainment of the final fruit.

essential feature of the Nirmanakaya, the perceptible form of an enlightened
being, is that while issuing from a transmundane source, it appears perfectly
according to the needs of beings and within the range and expectancies implicit
in their perceptions. The Nirmanakaya is fully accessible at the level at which
it manifests; its primary function is to communicate and to teach. If addressed
to humans, it will appear in perfectly human terms and within a network of
authentic human relationships, thereby enabling ordinary mortals to enter into
genuine contact with it and to progress beyond their limitations.
Traditionally, therefore, the idea of Tsogyal's being a Nirmanakaya is not
understood as in any way attenuating her humanity or the reality of the
weaknesses and obstacles that she must struggle against and surmount.

important point to bear in mind is that, according to Buddhist teaching,
Buddhahood is not a samsaric event. It transcends the world and cannot be
located within the spatial and temporal continuum of unenlightened existence.
As Guru Rinpoche says to the king, it is "uncaused, unwrought." It is
outside time and the chronological sequence of past, present and future. It is
therefore highly meaningful to describe Yeshe Tsogyal as being enlightened even
before she engages in the practices that "give rise" to her
attainment. Moreover, according to the Nyingma, the most ancient school of
Tibetan Buddhism, the Tathagatagarbha, or Buddha-nature, is considered not as a
mere potential, but as the true nature of the mind endowed with all the
qualities of wisdom. Present in every sentient being, though veiled by
adventitious defilement, it is already perfect and fully accomplished. From
this perspective, the preliminary chapters of
of the Lotus-Born
be read as a description of Tsogyal's essential dignity. Her progress towards
enlightenment is not so much the "gaining" of something not yet
possessed but the disclosure of an already innate perfection. What at the end
of the book shines forth in the person of Tsogyal is, however obscured, equally
present and equally perfect in every living being.

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