A Gendered Reading of the Life & Times of Yogini Sera Khandro: A Critical Review of Jacoby’s Love & Liberation
Sarah H. Jacoby’s Love And Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro (2014) is a close reading by Jacoby on the life and times of Sera Khandro, a renowned female terton (treasure revealer) famous throughout eastern Tibet. She was born in the central Tibetan city of Lhasa in 1881 and died in the eastern Tibetan region of Golok in 1940. On her chosen path toward spiritual enlightenment, Sera Khandro faced many difficulties due to the lowly status of women in the societies in which she interacted. Sera Khandro, who wrote her own namtar (religious autobiography), was an anomaly in a male dominated religious world, where mostly male practitioners authored their own namtars. In the societies in which Sera Khandro lived, she was the exception, not the rule. Due to such facts, Sera Khandro’s autobiography becomes an important historical text that deserves close analysis. Jacoby’s take on Sera Khandro’s life tries to do just that; she writes, “…this book suggests that we can perform a micro-study of gender and life narrative among the particular communities in which Sear Khandro lived,” this in turn, Jacoby argues, “can inform our understanding of a rang of topics, including the positions of women as nuns and consorts, tensions between celibate and noncelibate interpretations of ideal Vajrayana conduct, and public opinion on these sensitive matters” (2014: 14). In the following paragraphs, I focus my discussion on Jacoby’s gendered reading of Sera Khandro’s autobiography.
The book’s chapters mainly focus on her difficult spiritual path, the men in her life, deities from her visions, and her role as a Tantric consort. In chapter one, “The Life and Times of Sera Khandro,” Jacoby does a brief overview of Sera Khandro’s ordeals and accomplishments. Her autobiography, according to Jacoby, can be broken into five phases, “1) her religious aspirations and obstacles during her childhood in Lhasa from birth through age twelve; 2) the difficulties of her departure from Lhasa and entry into Golok from age thirteen through seventeen; 3) her life as Gyelse’s spouse at Benak Monastery in Golok from age eighteen through twenty-seven; 4) her reunion with her root lama, Drime Ozer, from age twenty-eight through thirty-one; an 5) her life afterward based at Sera Monastery in Serta, from age thirty-two on” (24). At each phase, Sera Khandro met and overcame difficulties that arose due to her gendered subjectivity as a woman who dared to choose her own path in a male dominated spirituality.
Although Sera Khandro was born to a powerful aristocratic family—her father was a descendent of Mongolian royalty, and her mother was from Tibetan nobility—meant to live out her life involved in politics and power, she ultimately rejected this lifestyle and chose to run away instead, to embark on her spiritual path. While her parents, who were described as religiously devout, acknowledged Sera Khandro’s affinity to religious life from a young age—having observed auspicious signs and being recognized at seven as an “authentic incarnation of Sakya Tamdrin Wangmo” and not suited for “either a householder or a nun” by Changdrong Druptop Rinpoche (34)—her father ignored such strong signs and arranged for her to be married instead to an influential Chinese district official (representatives of the Qing Dynasty) in Lhasa and intended for her to live her life as an aristocrat. At twelve, in 1904, grief stricken after the death of her mother, Sera Khandro experienced a visionary interaction with dakini Vajravarahi, who empowered her in two treasures, The Secret Treasury of Reality Ḍākinīs and The Ḍākinīs’ Heart Essence—both works would later go on to become her life’s main teachings. Feeling empowered after the interaction, Sera Khandro makes the decision to choose her own path and plans her escape. At fourteen, while at her brother’s estate, where she hatched a plan to escape, she chances upon Drime Ozer and his entourage of pilgrims from Golok being hosted by her brother. Feeling a strong sense of devotion and connection, she decides to follow him to Golok a year after in 1907, thus leaving behind a comfortable lifestyle and rejecting the prospect of becoming the wife of a wealthy and powerful figure—a privileged yet gendered role that she viewed as limiting her spiritual aspirations. Unfortunately for Sera Khandro, the eight month long rough journey from Lhasa to Dartsang, where she caught up with Drime Ozer’s camp, would only prove to be the beginning of a journey filled with obstacles.
From the time she reached Golok, Sera Khandro’s life became entangled with the lives of Akyongza, Yakza, and Gara Gyelse—all three figures later became the biggest hindrances on her spiritual path. Akyongza belonged to a powerful family in Golok; she was also Drime Ozer’s consort. With strong familial foundations, she was a strong figure in her own right. When Drime Ozer brought Sera Khandro, who was sixteen at the time, with him to their estate, she was immediately met with hostility and jealousy. Akyongza banishes Sera Khandro from their estate and prevents any sort of consort relationship from developing between the two. While working as a maid for a local nomadic family and doing her preliminary practices, she is summoned by the treasure revealer Gara Terchen from Benak Monastery. Acting on prophecies he received that predicted Sera Khandro as aiding his deteriorating health (5), she is yet again, prevented from coming by another consort, Yakza—Gara Terchen’s consort. Like Akyongza, Yakza became threatened by the sixteen-year-old Sera Khandro and warned her to stay away with letters. However, with Gara Terchen’s deteriorating health in 1910, Sera Khandro comes to Benak, but is immediately prevented by Yakza from entering their estate, which, in turn, costs Gara Terchen his life. Soon after, Sera Khandro described having a visionary interaction with Gara Terchen, who empowers and entrusts her with his teachings—earning her the highest respect from some of his most devout students. In 1912, at the age of twenty, she agrees to become the consort of Gara Gyelse, Gara Terchen’s eldest son. Together they had three children, one daughter and two sons, however, only her eldest child would survive. Sera Khandro describes her life with Gyelse as tumultuous. During their time together, she continues performing healing powers and revealing treasures, earning followers along the way. Yet Gyelse, according to Jacoby, remained unsupportive—refusing her requests for teachings and belittling her practices, despite being recognized as a khandroma by Gotrul Rinpoche at twenty-three. Gyelse eventually takes up with another consort, Seldron. At the age of twenty-nine, her longstanding struggles with arthritis of the leg becomes severe and she nearly dies; prompting Gyelse to send her off to Drime Ozer for good. Finally reunited, Sera Khandro describes this to be the happiest time in her life, despite Akyongza’s hostility. Together they would reveal great treasures and heal each other’s ailments, eventually leading to each other’s spiritual liberation. However, their time together was short-lived. In 1924, after only three years together, an epidemic kills her son and Drime Ozer. Soon after his death, Akyongza expels Sera Khandro from their estate. However, Sotrul Naksok Rangdrol Rinpoche, a close disciple of Drime Ozer, invites Sera Khandro to live at his estate at Sera Monastery—where she begins to teach throughout eastern Tibet and came to be known as “Sera Khandro.” During her time at Sera, she composed Drime Ozer’s biography and her autobiography, and continued revealing treasures, terma, from Dujom Lingpa, Drime Ozer, Gara Terchen as well as revealing her own treasures. This made her popular among Nyingma practioners who requested her teachings. Her disciples included students from Jonang, Kagyu, and Bon linages. She taught throughout eastern Tibet until her death at the age of forty-eight, in 1940 at one of her disciples Zhapdrung Tsewang Drakpa’s estate in Riwoche.
Although Sera Khandro eventually achieved her spiritual goals, Jacoby points to the gendered nature of her obstacles. Jacoby rightly characterizes Akyongza and Yakza’s reaction to the young and beautiful Sera Khandro as based in jealousy, however, I find this characterization too simplistic and gendered. While the women may have felt jealous, there is not much discussion on Akyongza and Yakza’s sense of threat. Like Sera Khandro, Akyongza and Yaza also inhabited a patriarchal society in which elevated roles for women were scarce and competition for those few options, as exemplified by Akyongza and Yakza’s actions, were at times, fierce. Jacoby describes Akyongza and Yakza as hailing from powerful Golok familial clans, their families would have been patrons who contributed greatly to the treasure revealer’s personal and monastic welfare. Being the main consort of a treasure revealer would constitute high status for the consort among her spiritual partner’s followers and also meant having better access to one’s own spiritual growth. In such a situation, what would it have meant for Akyongza and Yakza to perceive a young Sera Khandro as threatening their established positions as main consorts? Although Sera Khandro hailed from an aristocratic background in Lhasa, none of this mattered, according to Jacoby, in the eastern Tibetan region of Golok. The Golok of Sera Khandro’s time is described as a strongly independent district with its own social hierarchies and norms and paid no attention to the authorities in Central Tibet or China. Regional networks of prestige and patronage mattered to Akyongza and Yakza; yet, Jacoby’s interpretation of the two women as “jealous consorts” misses this analytical consideration. Instead, her simple characterization re-emphasizes the kinds of gendered norms she argues Sera Khandro was up against. While Sera Khandro may have employed this villainizing characteristic of the two women in her autobiography, Jacoby could have extended her gendered reading of Sera Khandro’s life to address the equally gendered challenges faced by the two other consorts in Sear Khandro’s autobiography as they negotiated their own positions as powerful women as well.
In addition to considering a gendered approach to analyzing Akyongza and Yakza’s perceived threats to their status, a class analysis in regards to the mistreatment Sera Khandro received during her spiritual journey would have emboldened Jacoby’s insights. The strong familial connections of Akyongza and Yakza in Golok that Jacoby points to, contributed greatly to both women’s status and safety, and enabled their actions against Sera Khandro, whether in spreading bad rumors or having the power to expel or prevent Sera Khandro from entering their estates. While Sera Khandro’s gendered status does contribute to her misery, as clearly demonstrated by Gyelse’s trivialization of her spiritual achievements, her lack of class and hereditary status in Golok exposed her as an easy target for the other two consorts. Although Jacoby does talk about Sera Khandro’s lack of hereditary roots in Golok later in the chapters in reference to her spiritual achievements, Jacoby fails to do a thicker analysis of Sera Khandro’s lack of class and hereditary status as contributing factors that doubly affected the mistreatment she received in Golok. After all, if Sera Khandro had been from a prominent family from Golok, the other consorts and Gyelse would have had a harder time mistreating her.
In chapters two and three, “A Guest in the Sacred Land of Golok” and “Dakini Dialogues,” Jacoby stresses the important roles dakinis play throughout Sera Khandro’s spiritual journey. Sera Khandro also emphasizes their roles throughout her spiritual autobiography and according to Jacoby, they served to legitimize Sera Khandro’s spiritual path. Sera Khandro was writing her spiritual autobiography during a time when very few female practitioners authored their own namtars. Like her male counterparts, her autobiography also served to authenticate her difficult journey towards liberation, and served as an instructional manual for her students. In chapter two, Jacoby is interested in exploring the reasons behind Sera Khandro’s frequent visionary interactions with Yeshe Tsogyel and other local deities of Golok. Both Drime Ozer and Gara Terchen were recognized incarnations of previously known spiritual teachers; additionally, their lineages were well recognized and respected throughout Golok. Unlike her male partners, Sera Khandro was not a recognized incarnate lineage holder from Golok, yet she was a highly regarded practitioner who trained and taught throughout Golok. According to Jacoby, in her autobiography, Sera Khandro draws heavily from Yeshe Tsogyel not only as a religious model but also makes strong genealogical connections with Yeshe Tsogyel by claiming to be her emanation. In a similar fashion, Sera Khandro’s visionary interactions with local Golok deities such as Anye Machen and Drong Mountain, makes up for her lack of hereditary roots in Golok for the Golok audience. Jacoby writes, “…her inspirations were as local as they were transregional, as tied to Golok society and landscape as more universally Buddhist, and as implicated in sociopolitical dynamics as in spiritual liberation. If Sera Khandro was an emanation of Yeshe Tsogyel, Anye Machen and Drong Mountains’ endorsement also held great value in Golok.” (129). Through her strong identifications with such highly regarded regional and transregional figures, Sera Khandro establishes herself as an incarnate lineage holder.
In chapter three, Jacoby takes a closer look at the exchanges between Sera Khandro and the dakinis with whom she interacts with throughout her journey. They appeared to her in both wrathful and peaceful forms, depending on the situation. As previously mentioned, Sera Khandro was attempting to pursue a spiritual path in a male dominated society and spirituality (through its institutional structure); as such, she faced many gendered difficulties. Throughout her autobiography, she repeatedly laments her “inferior female body,” in reaction to all the difficulties she faces as a female practitioner. In addition to giving Sera Khandro teachings, dakinis also appeared when she seemed to give into hopelessness and despair during difficult times on her journey. At such times, she records dakinis as appearing to encourage her forward or reprimand her for self-loathing. In comparison to Dujom Lingpa and Gara Terchen’s autobiography, Jacoby notes, they barely dwell on their gendered bodies as much as Sera Khandro does. However, Jacoby argues that the repeated lamentation of her female body that Sera Khandro employs throughout her autobiography is an autobiographical strategy to demonstrate her accomplishments while remaining humble. For example, whenever she is lamenting her “inferior body,” she uses a dakini or a male partner’s voices to uplift and compliments her for her spiritual achievements; thus, highlighting her own achievements while remaining humble.
In chapter four, “Sacred Sexuality,” Jacoby discusses Sera Khandro’s role as a tantric consort and how she negotiated that role throughout her autobiography. According to Jacoby, there are “three major purpose for engaging in consort practice that we can deduce from Sera Khandro, the Buddhist soteriological goal of attaining enlightenment; the hermeneutical goals of revealing and decoding Treasures; and the pragmatic goal of curing illness and increasing longevity” (191). Although she was celebrated later in life as a Khandroma, secret consort, her autobiography reveals how sensitive she was to that title due to all the negative rumors that surrounded her because of the sexual nature of tantric consortship. In a conversation with a nun, Sera Khandro promises to not have sexual relationships with any lay or religious men unless there was a religious purpose (196). When she refused to engage in meaningful consortships prophesied by dakinis, they reprimand her and is told to “overcome her bashfulness and to differentiate between immoral sexual indulgence and pure spiritual union” (192). In her autobiography, she legitimizes her consortships with multiple male treasure revelers by reasserting the words of dakini and male practitioners, which helped to distance her from appearing lustful, immoral, or arrogant.
In chapter five, “Love Between Method and Insight,” Jacoby takes a closer look at Sera Khandro’s framing of her relationship to Drime Ozer as that of yab yum. During their time together, they practiced healing one another and revealing treasures together, which eventually led to their mutual enlightenment. Their yab yum relationship implies a relationship of equals; on their spiritual path, he needed her as much as she needed him and thus elevating her status to that of his equal—Jacoby points to an example of Drime Ozer referring to Sera Khandro as “my lama” (302). In the epilogue, “Love after death,” Jacoby concludes by profiling several female tantric practitioners who claim to be the current incarnations of Sera Khandro. Additionally, she highlights Namtrul Jikme Puntsok and Tare Lhamo, a famous tantric couple currently in eastern Tibet. Like Drime Ozer and Sera Khandro, they too occupy a yabyum relationship; choosing to live, practice, and teach together. The two of them are thought to be the contemporary incarnations of Drime Ozer and Sera Khandro (320).
Sera Khandro’s difficult life, Jacoby writes, “cast a pall on arguments that claim Buddhist Tantra is pro-woman or sex-positive, given the many indignities she suffered and the endless talk against her, but they simultaneously speak volumes about women’s potential for liberation through Vajrayana Buddhist methods” (246). I agree with Jacoby’s conclusion, that Vajrayana Buddhist methods offer women, such as Sera Khandro, “potential for liberation.” While it is clear that the mistreatments Sera Khandro experienced is gendered due to the patriarchal nature of the societies and (spiritual) institutions she interacts with, there is no inherent proof that Buddhist Tantra is either pro-women or anti-women. Rather, her experiences speak to Buddhist Tantric institutions and their figureheads, as being influenced by the patriarchal societies in which they operate; which end up promoting a patriarchal version of Buddhist Tantra. However, her liberation through Vajrayana Buddhist methods challenge Tibetan Buddhist institutions that have been shaped by prevailing patriarchal norms of their societies. Rather, her liberation implies the theology itself can be directed or interpreted as part of women’s empowerment and liberation. The task for female practioners of Tantric Buddhism then, seems to be to separate Tantric Buddhism from patriarchy—which is demonstrated beautifully through Sera Khandro’s own struggles against patriarchy and towards spiritual liberation.
This is part of a series I’m continuing in response to my previous post “On Being Tibetan and a(n intersectional) Feminist” in my efforts to engage Tibetan women in historic Tibet who challenged societal norms.