The Exceptional Tare Lhamo: Transcending Gender Through Agentive Means

This is a chapter analysis from Holly Gayley’s Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet (2016). Chapter one is titled “Daughter of Golok: Tare Lhamo’s Life and Context.” I wrote this chapter analysis and thought it would be useful to think with other Tibetans who are especially interested in considering gender in Tibetan Buddhism. This is a continuation of my project to engage historic female figures of Tibet. Tare Lhamo is especially interesting because she was born before China’s invasion of Tibet, she lived through the invasion, followed by Culture Revolution until its end, and was part of the religious cohort in Tibet who began reviving Tibetan Buddhism from the destruction of Culture Revolution. She becomes an important figure to consider when we think about different subjectivities of Tibetan women in Tibetan history. I hope you’ll find the following analysis useful and tempt you to read the book yourself.


How did Tare Lhamo become the figure that she became in a male dominated religious system? To get to the bottom of this, Holly Gayley suggests particular attention to the “social webs” in which Tare Lhamo functioned. This demands acute attention to teasing out Tare Lhamo’s subjective positions in the communities in which she functioned and the socio-political and cultural contexts that shaped who she was to become in the region. Thus, to understand Tare Lhamo, in Sherry Ortner’s words, one needs to pay close attention to the (social-political-cultural-regional) structures within which she functioned, and the type of agency she mobilized in propelling her on the path she envisioned for herself.

So, who is Tare Lhamo?

She was born in 1938 to a prominent Nyingma terton, Apang Terchen Orgyan Trinle Lingpa, in the region of Golok, Amdo in preinvasion Tibet (38). From a young age, she was trained by her father–an accomplished terton in his own right. In addition to accessing teachings through her father, Gayley highlights how she was also able to access other teachers—and their monastic institutions—through her father’s connections . Golok, for much of Tibetan history, had functioned and continues to function within the bounds of kinship. Additionally, the Nyingma lineages transmitted terma, treasures (although not always exclusively) through family. As such, monasteries operated under a clan-based system (48). Thus, for Tare Lhamo, being born in such a place to such a family functioned in a manner that would benefit her. Gayley is clear in pointing out that her birth in an elite family, and the kinds of religious networks her family were active in, contributed to Tare Lhamo’s access to such religious traditions and institution. In other words, her status had everything to do with making her agentive in accessing such religious institutions—despite its patriarchal structuring. Tare Lhamo’s high status allowed her to bypass the gendered restriction usually placed on female practioner from entering such institutions. Her status played a key role in opening the doors to a religious institution that would otherwise restrict based on gender. Thus, status becomes an important analytic to consider when considering gendered subjectivities that might otherwise be undermined.

However, understanding Tare Lhamo’s subjective position only through the lens of status becomes limiting. This is considered by Gayley when she considers Tare Lhasa’s namthar Spiraling Vine of Faith by her hagiographer Pema Osal Thaye (53). She asks, how is Tare Lhamo’s agency framed when considering her hagiography? According to Gayley, her hagiography can be thought of in two parts. The first part considers Tare Lhamo’s past lives and emanations. The second part focuses primarily on Tare Lhamo’s contemporary life. Agency, according to Gayley, is differently framed when considering the two parts. While Tare Lhamo is considered to be the reincarnation of multiple male and female Lamas and dakinis, Osal Thaye chooses to focus on Tare Lhamo’s connection with the daikini, Yeshe Tsogyal, and a prominent well known female yogini in Golok, Sera Khandro. This is a deliberate move, argues Gayley, precisely because all three share the same gender, and so, legitimize Tare Lhamo as a female practitioner equal to those of her previous incarnations. By emphasizing Tare Lhamo’s “extraordinary” birth in combination to her associations with such high female figures in Tibetan Buddhism—especially in the Nyingma tradition—Osal Thaye is able to elevate Tare Lhamo as already exceptional. Gayley calls this “the divinization of female agency,” which “elevates Tare Lhamo by identifying her as an emanation of female deities and simultaneously distances her from ordinary woman and the ‘faults’ (skyon) attributed to them.” (55). While this takes away from portraying Tare Lhamo as choosing her own path own—since her past emanations are assumed to have determined her path in her contemporary incarnation—this works, argues Gayley, to legitimize Tare Lhamo as a religious figure in her own right. In other words, transferred charisma from previous lives works to not only advantaged Tare Lhamo in a male dominated spiritual institution, but it also discouraged others from conceptualizing her based on her gender. Instead, encouraging a reading of her as a spiritual master in her own right. This is highlighted by how Yeshe Tsogyal’s is conceptualized to be on equal standing to that of other buddhas–allowing for the portrayal of Tare Lhamo too to be on par with other buddhas (61). This allows Tare Lhamo to be conceptualized beyond her gender within the patriarchal structures of the religious institutions and beliefs she interacted within. In fact, her associations with such high (female) religious figures allows her to bypasses gendered beliefs that structured the societies and institutions that she was in. Her association to previous incarnations allows her, argues Gayley, to become on par with other buddhas. Thus, her gender does not matter.

For much of Tare Lhamo’s second part of her hagiography, Osel Thaye’s portrays Tare Lhamo’s agency through her own making—rather than having it be transferred to her through previous incarnations. By highlighting Tare Lhamo’s own choices since young age in choosing her own path, the termas she revealed, and miracles she performed, Osel Thaye portrays Tare Lhamo as agentive in her contemporary incarnation. Additionally, her interactions with other “local tertons and their prophetic contents,” writes Gayley, “further confirm her exceptional status and identity with illustrious female antecedents” (71). In other words, in addition to having her past legitimized through previous antecedents, her contemporary activities as Tare Lhamo, especially in treating the sufferings of Tibetans following Tibet’s invasion, further establishes her as an “illustrious female antecedents” in her own right in Golok. Thus, despite the deflection of Tare Lhamo’s agency “by relegating her enlightenment to past lives and identifying her with female antecedents” that prevent Tare Lhamo to serve as “an exemplar” in her current incarnation, her practice and actions in her contemporary incarnation, argues Gayley, further authorizes her agency. “Precisely because of her exceptional nature,” writes Gayley, Tare Lhamo can be portrayed with heightened agency during this period of collective trauma” (73).

Thus, for us to understand Tare Lhamo, Gayley emphasizes the importance in placing her within the framework of her culture (Golok-Nyingma-Amdo-Tibet) and time (preinvasion-invasion-Culture Revolution-end of Culture revolution) so that we may understand the structures within which she functioned, and thus, her agency. Gayley writes, “I propose that it is precisely through this amalgam of social relations with prominent lamas in Golok and symbolic identification with authoritative female antecedents that agency is conferred on Tare Lhamo in her hagiographic representation” (73). By unraveling the complexities of social structures that subjects such as Tare Lhamo function within, we are better positioned to begin comprehending how subjects can bypass and obliterate structurally defined categories like gender, sexuality, etc. to access agentive liberation (both structurally and individually influenced, meaning institutional and societal structures) that are also ironically structurally defined (here I’m specifically talking about super structure, large-scale views of Buddhism that draw paths towards spiritual liberation).