Women of Wisdom

The following article is from the Summer, 2000 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.


by Tsultrim Allione. 340 pp., new edition, Sept., #WOWI $16.95

This new edition includes Tsui- trim's expanded autobiography covering the last 15 years since the first edition appeared.

One best books to bring out the riches of the feminine in Buddhism. Filled with inspired stories, Women of Wisdom is truly a classic. JACK KORNFIELD

Women of Wisdom explores and celebrates the spiritual potential of all women, as exemplified by the lives of six Tibetan female mystics. Although these women lived in the remote and mysterious country of Tibet from the eleventh century to just before the Chinese invasion in 1959, for twentieth-century women on a spiritual quest and students of Buddhism these stories will have a profound impact. These stories of great women who have achieved full illumination, overcoming cultural prejudices and a host of other problems which male practitioners do not encounter, offer a wealth of inspiration to all on the spiritual path.

Tsultrim Allione is a well-known Buddhist teacher. She was among the first Western women ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun, and has made great efforts to create teaching methods to facilitate Western understanding of Buddhism. She is founder and director of Tara Mandala, a retreat center in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, that has been described as the most dynamic new Buddhist center in North America.


Above: Tsultrim Allione meditating in front of the stupa at Tara Mandala in Colorado. Below left: Tibetan nuns sound the long horns at a feast offering in the Kulu Valley. Below middle: Tsultrim with. Abo Rinpoche in Manaii in 1973. Below right: Kunsang Dechen, sang yum of Tulku Urgyen and mother of Choling Rinpoche and Chokyi Rinpoche.

These stories are taken from Tibetan texts translated here for the first time. Mythical, historical, and religious-philosophical elements are intertwined in the biographies and stimulating introduction, offering a multidimensional glimpse of the riches of Tibetan traditions. For anyone interested in exploring new ground regarding either women and religion or Tantric Buddhist lore, this book is a treasure. ANNE C. KLEIN, Parabola

The following is an exceipt from the preface to the new edition.

For my fiftieth birthday, my children Sherab, Aloka, and Costanzo decided to surprise me. We were on the land at Tara Mandala, the 500-acre retreat center we founded in 1993. They took me to the edge of the Gambol Oak Forest that runs along Kapala meadow. Above the meadow rises the breast-shaped peak named after the protectress of Dzog Chen, Ekajati. It was the beginning of October, the leaves had turned burnt orange, claret red, maroon, and yellow ochre. The late afternoon light swept down the long meadow causing the wild yarrow, Mexican Hat daisies, and lavender-blue asters to shed shadows to the east.

This retreat center had been my dream since the time I was in Manaii with Abo Rinpoche accumulating 100,000 full length prostrations as part of the preliminary practices, called ngondro, that which goes before. It was summer in India, hot and humid, even though I was up in the Himalayan foothills. There was a sweat imprint of my body on the floor as I slid up and down clearing obstacles of the body, speech, and mind.

I was supposed to be visualizing the refuge tree of Buddhas, Bodhi- sattvas, and my lineage, but often my mind wandered to the idea of creating a retreat center with hermitages and a place for communal retreats where people could go deeply into meditation as they had in Tibet. I often say Tara Mandala was born out of discursive thought.

I held this vision for twenty years, and, when my children grew up, following various dreams and visions, the land was found and purchased with the help of many people. Tara Mandala sits within a huge horseshoe of mountains at the end of the southern San Juans, just a few miles north of New Mexico, west of the Continental Divide and surrounded by National Forest and Ute Indian land. The San Juan River runs through Pagosa Springs, our nearest town and site of one of the largest hot springs in the world. Following the river ten miles to the southwest, Tara Mandala lies up a canyon which opens into a view of the breast- shaped peak that is at the center of Tara Mandala.

My children had been bustling around all afternoon whispering secrets to each other. At the edge of the grove, they blindfolded me and then led me into the forest. When they took off the blindfold; in front of me was a large spiral of rocks with various familiar objects around it. They said the center of the spiral represented my birth and the open end the present moment, half a century later.

They had found photographs and objects from various phases of my life and placed them chronologically around the spiral with various oracles at the open end representing the future.

They asked me to start by sitting in the center of the spiral and then tell them the story of my life as I moved from place to place around it. I was deeply touched by their efforts to create a meaningful moment for me to sit in the spiral of my life. At the place in the spiral representing my late thirties was a copy of Women of Wisdom. I spoke to the children about what happened at the time of the writing and publication of the book and what has happened since then. So as I write this addendum to the preface I will go back in my mind to that grove and take you around the spiral from the time of the writing of the book up through the time of the publication of present edition.

Although what follows is a personal story it reflects some of the issues and development of Buddhism in the West and the search to understand the re-emergence of the sacred feminine in all of her guises. There is a natural infusion that takes place when feminine experience enters and reflects on traditions that have been dominated by men for many centuries, my life represents this infusion. Mostly the influence and presence of women in Buddhist traditions is gratefully accepted and even encouraged, and sometimes it is blocked either actively or subtly.

When I wrote the preface to Women of Wisdom I wrote to describe what had inspired me to find the biographies of enlightened women. I had no idea that my personal journey would be of real interest to others, but there was a large swell of response to my personal story, so I have been asked to continue it for the present edition. Perhaps my story was closer to home than that of the Tibetan women in

Women of Wisdom.

One theme that I traced as I told my children about my life sitting in the stone spiral on my fiftieth birthday was my experience of leaving the nun's life and becoming their mother.

The biographies I found for Women of Wisdom did not directly address my questions of how to be a mother and a practitioner at the same time. All the women in this collection either left their children or didn't have any. I was at once profoundly inspired by their stories, and still felt a lack of role models in an area of my life that was all consuming for many years. Certainly there were great women yoginis who were also mothers and didn't leave their children as Machig did? Who were they? Were their stories not recorded because they often practiced quietly or were too busy to write? Did they feel their experience as practitioners was unimportant or invalid? Was parenting so distracting that there were no enlightened mothers?

As a mother I continued to make my way trying to apply the Buddhist teachings where I could without stories to support me. For me mothering always held the tension of my desire for the cave and the demands of the kitchen sink. After Sherab was born I went from having all my time to myself to having none. For the first time I had no choice about my personal space or time. At the same time she brought forth a deeper feeling of love and compassion than I had ever experienced. She never slept through the night the first year and took only short naps. She was trying to sit up at two days old and walking at eight months.

I had secret feelings of emptiness and loss that I couldn't reconcile with my gratitude and love for my baby. The lack of extended family and community made the life as a mother isolated and tested my strength. I was exhausted and then got pregnant with Aloka when Sherab was nine months old. There were no community practices for children or discussion of family practice at that time. I felt I had missed the boat, and failed because of leaving my ordination. Yet I adored my children.

Adrienne Rich, poet and author of On Lies Secrets and Silence, speaks this experience in her life,

I had a marriage and a child. If there were doubts, if there were periods of null depression or active despair, these could only mean I was ungrateful, insatiable, perhaps a monster.. .What frightened me most was the sense of drift, of being pulled along by the current of my destiny, but in which I seemed to be losing touch with whoever I had been...

How often I felt failure in enacting boundless compassion and immeasurable patience. Through becoming a mother I irrevocably left the realm where compassion for all beings is visualized from a retreat cabin. Suddenly everyday was a hands-on challenge, which only increased with my second and third pregnancies. Emotions I thought had been released through meditation were suddenly rearing their heads. Chiara's death was another huge wave of emotion and her death is something that tore into me like nothing had ever done before. As I was raising my children, changing diapers, making meals, transporting them, planning birthdays, working to find the right schools, etc., there was always part of me longing for a life of full-time practice.




Gradually, however, as I emerged from the initial shock of going from being a nun to being a mother in less than a year, followed by the birth of Aloka seventeen months later, the twins four years after that, and then Chiara's death, I began to see mothering as a great practice opportunity. The repetitive jobs and the constant interruptions were a great training ground. No wonder the example of a mother is so prevalent in Mahayana Buddhism.

The Precious Vase states: Just as parents, for instance patiently put up with any misdeeds of their ungrateful children and without becoming discouraged constantly engage in striving for their health and happiness, so should we take the commitment to liberate all beings from the ocean of suffering of samsara.-

My children were my training and what a powerful and underestimated path this is. This was a real place where selfishness self-clinging was revealed. I was tired, or I wanted to read or practice, and I was constantly interrupted. Through my challenges I saw that had I stayed in the comfort of solitude, I would not have been tested and trained in these ways. ä_æ

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