Yeshé Tsogyal: Mother of the Victorious Ones

In this chapter from The Life and Visions of Yeshé Tsogyal, Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown explains some of the travails Yeshé Tsogyal went through, including a contested betrothal and a journey through hell, to become the mother of the buddhas, accomplished in faith, courage, and kindness.

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by Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown

In 1959, my root guru, Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, narrowly escaped with his life in the midst of fleeing Tibet with a large group of devotees. He briefly found refuge in the hidden land of Pema Kö, and there in a natural rock cave, he spontaneously sang a long song of thanksgiving to Yeshé Tsogyal with a repeating refrain:

Mother of all the victorious ones, so very kind Ama Tsogyal,
Refuge for this life and on, very kind mother, I miss you.
This little child, thinking of Ama, simply can’t bear it at all—
Ama, a la la, please truly show me a clear sign of your blessings.

This haunting and penetrating song speaks of Yeshé Tsogyal as Ama, the Mother of the Victorious Ones, the buddhas. This image of mother captures multiple aspects of Yeshé Tsogyal’s life and its importance for all Tibetan Buddhist practitioners. She provides ancestral and spiritual lineage, wisdom realization, and protection for all who faithfully follow the path.

When Trungpa Rinpoche supplicated Yeshé Tsogyal, he tapped into the powerful current of blessings that flows through her ancestral and spiritual lineages. Yeshé Tsogyal is called “Mother of the Victorious Ones” to signify that symbolically she is an emanation of Prajnaparamita herself, the realization that all phenomena are unborn, unproduced, and without end. This emblematic teaching is the essence of all Buddhism; realization of this nondual truth is said to completely transform the practitioner’s experience and journey, and to activate the inherent buddhahood within. Realization of emptiness is called the “ultimate shunyata protection” in Mahayana Buddhism, because when the true nature of phenomena is known, conventional dangers and worries are seen as dreamlike apparitions, and skillful determinations of the path ahead become clear.

But more than this, Rinpoche tied himself to the guru lineages of Guru Rinpoche and the Nyingma, to the deepest realizations of Tibet’s spiritual teachings from the terma lineages, to the sacred land of Tibet itself, and to the intrepid faithfulness of the Tibetan people in the face of adversity and tribulation. Yeshé Tsogyal represents all of these aspects, as she was likely the very first Tibetan to attain enlightenment, and as a devoted disciple of Guru Rinpoche, she became the progenitor of the entire tradition of realization of the yogic practices of Tibet. She is the most famous dakini, a powerful female emblem of the ultimate realization joining the sacredness of the body, both female and male; the profound meeting point of body and mind in meditation; the visionary realm of ritual practice; and the empty, spacious qualities of mind itself.

Dakinis became symbols of realization in Tibetan tantra and, as visionary beings, preside over the gates of wisdom for practitioners to come. Yeshé Tsogyal is universally recognized as Queen of the Dakinis.

Evidence that Yeshé Tsogyal was a historical woman, a principal disciple of Guru Rinpoche, living from 757–817 CE, grounds the rich lore of her life example for contemporary women practitioners. Accounts of her life detail the specific obstacles she faced as a woman—manipulated by parents with marital plans to cement political alliances, vied over by royal suitors because of her noble line, assailed by outlaws on retreat, heckled by would-be patrons, and tested by teachers regarding her intentions and depth of realization. Throughout her journey, she herself questions her aptitude even while remaining true to her practice and her guru’s instructions. Her deep faith and stamina in the practice provide tremendous inspiration for practitioners in the intervening centuries, as her enlightenment was not granted by miraculous means. She did it the hard way; she earned it.

As Guru Rinpoche’s closest disciple, she is said to be transcriber for his treasure teachings, using a lock of her own hair to calligraph in the secret dakini code, decipherable only to the most worthy of tertöns. These treasure texts, rediscovered at auspicious times throughout Tibetan history, prove their profundity by their skillful addressing of changing times, demonstrating the “fresh warm breath” of authentic teachings. This pivotal role has engraved Yeshé Tsogyal into the hearts of Tibetans as the enduring mother of realization. At her death, Yeshé Tsogyal vows that she will continuously respond to supplications for protection, blessing, and realization into the future, establishing her as an enduring, timeless figure in the Tibetan imagination. There have been myriad emanations of her throughout Tibetan history, and relics of hair, dakini script, articles of clothing, and ritual implements have been discovered across a broad landscape. To this day, she appears in dreams and visions, offering encouragement, advice, and prophecy to those who supplicate her. From this perspective, Yeshé Tsogyal adds lineage authority to her enduring presence for Tibetan Buddhist practitioners.

In this context, the publication of a new biography of Yeshé Tsogyal, revealed by Drimé Kunga, is a joyous occasion. Tracing the journey of the Queen of Dakinis, the biography has all the classic elements of a namthar, from her miraculous birth, her contested betrothal, and her spiritual journey fraught with obstacles and their resolution, transmissions and teachings, and their realization.

There are three distinctive elements in this biography that will provide fresh perspective about the life of Yeshé Tsogyal. First, there is no mention of the Tibetan emperor Trisong Detsen, often listed as her husband, in the Secret Biography. The account of her contested betrothal proceeds in tremendous detail, with arguments presented by her family and various members of the court, with Yeshé Tsogyal’s rejoinder, insisting that she only wished a life of practice and retreat. The agonizing betrothal drama encompasses forty percent of the entire biography, with endless scenes of abduction, beatings, unsuccessful seductions, the princess’s bribery of her entire retinue with her dowry, and fruitless escapes. In a final desperate scene, the princess prays for a protector who could provide her sanctuary, and a white-colored man with his hair knotted around a crystal, holding a turquoise vase, appears to her and praises her faith and commitment. Declaring himself to be Guru Rinpoche, he offers to accompany her, and presents her with a jeweled ring, asking her to hold him doubtlessly on the crown of her head, promising that the court and kingdom will no longer be able to see her. Together they fly to a sacred charnel ground called Samyé Chimpu, a powerful place for tantric practice. To protect the frustrated royals from further violence, Guru Rinpoche furnishes two cloned princesses to substitute for Tsogyal, who delight their respective kingdoms.

The second distinctive contribution to Yeshé Tsogyal’s biography comes in the form of a detailed visionary journey to Oddiyana during the twelve years of her solitary retreat in Samyé Chimpu charnel ground. This journey exposes her to kingdoms and beings both virtuous and despicable. She is tested on her commitments, her prudery and squeamishness, and her courage, and given specific tasks to fulfill and practices to complete. One of the most striking accounts evokes the famous jataka tale from the Buddha’s previous life, in which the princess offers herself as food for a tigress and her eighteen cubs that are starving, dehydrated, and close to death. As the princess hacks her own body to pieces as an offering, the tigress smiles in admiration and heals her wounds, nursing her back to health in gratitude. This powerful act of compassion accelerates Tsogyal’s spiritual progress and emboldens her in facing the many challenges in Oddiyana.

Third, at the point when Yeshé Tsogyal is about to become enlightened, she is challenged by a wrathful apparition, who asks if she is actually able to help anyone. He sends her to the hell realms to test her realization, and suggests that she especially liberate an evil official named Shanti, who had posed many obstacles in her path. The biography details her descent through the hell realms, her witnessing of the tortures of many beings, her practice for beings in the Hell of Endless Torment, and her liberation of those beings, including Shanti. This final act accomplishes her enlightenment, earns her the name Victorious Ocean of Wisdom, and brings the following praises from Guru Rinpoche:

You are a fully qualified dakini
And the mother who gives life
to all triumphant buddhas.
Yours is the great force of all buddhas,
As the motherly loving protector
Of all beings of the six realms.
My own qualities as Lotus-Born
Don’t come from me—
They come from you.

In these words, this biography seals her legacy as Mother of the Victorious Ones.

Why would Drimé Kunga’s biography emphasize new themes and events of Yeshé Tsogyal’s life? The answer may be found in the terma’s responsiveness to the challenge of our times, and three recurrent themes can be discovered in the text. The first theme is faith. Again and again, Tsogyal’s faith is challenged by adversity, from the protracted struggle to remain unmarried through her visionary spiritual journey. The first teaching that Guru Rinpoche gives her is how to see adversity as the path, and this is when she is able to fully enter retreat. When she remains steady, she is praised for the strength of her faith.

The second theme is courage. The princess faces terrifying obstacles, ranging from family disinheritance to physical torture and imprisonment, as well as threats from terrifying demons and wrathful heroes and dakinis. Her mentors chide her for her fear and intimidation, and eventually she is able to directly question the bizarre visions that she endures. In order to overcome the worst of these nightmarish visions, she is given a subtle-body yogic practice to clear her channels and purify her personal karma. Supported by the tigress’s encouragement, she becomes fearless in the face of threats.

The third theme that pervades the Secret Biography is kindness. Throughout the princess’s travails, she is able to sustain her empathy for beings and to return kindness for the cruelty and savagery she encounters. This is most clear in her encounters in the hell realms, where her practice for the liberation of her previous enemy brought her final enlightenment. For this mastery, Guru Rinpoche promises that she will be ever responsive to the entreaties of practitioners, and that her “nondual compassion will transform into anything at all.” In this degenerate age of aggression and fear, the Secret Biography promises us that the Mother of the Victorious Ones is always available with her enduring faith, her quiet courage, and her unfailing compassion.

Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, PhD, is a senior Dharma teacher in the Shambhala lineage of Chögyam Trungpa and Sakyong Mipham, and Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University. She is the author of Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism (Shambhala, 2002) and Meditation and the Classroom: Contemplative Pedagogy for Religious Studies (SUNY Press, 2011).