Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche: Courtship & Healing in times of (Cultural Revolution) Degeneration
As discussed in previous chapters of Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet, Holly Gayley stresses how Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche saw their religious engagement and activities in tandem with reviving Tibetan Buddhist culture following the destruction of the Chinese-led Cultural Revolution. In the following, I discuss chapter three, “Inseparable Companions: A Buddhist Courtship and Correspondence,” and four, “Emissaries of Padmasambhava” (2016). Before Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche began their activities in reviving Tibetan Buddhism during the 1980s and 1990s together as a tantric couple, they began their official courtship by sending each other letters (56 letters to be exact) in the 1970s. Tare Lhamo initiated the correspondence by sending Namtrul Rinpoche the first letter in 1978 (116). These letters from the 1970s played a crucial role, argues Gayley, in shaping the couple’s future activities that came to fruition later. The following chapters engage these letters closely to consider how the couple came to view one another and their future together as a tantric couple through Indigenous and Buddhist idiom. While chapter three explores “the role that gender and voice play” in how the couple “forged their partnership and sense of agency as a couple” (119), chapter four is interested in the different genres of prophecy and bardic verses both employed in their letters to one another to envision future activities which aimed to revive Buddhism in Tibet (169).
Tare Lhamo, who lived in Amdo and China’s Qinghai province, was the first to reach out to Namtrul Rinpoche, who lived in Kham, China’s Sichuan. However, Namtrul Rinpoche was swift in his response. Initially, these letters engaged in establishing a “humanizing self-portrait” to one another (118). In their introductions, both drew heavily on their past lives together as a way to establish their karmic connection in the present. This was important because such recognition led to their union as a tantric couple. Their letters are situated within Tibetan epistolary practices that consisted of “cultural constraints on first-person expression, tantric practices involving sexuality, and folk convention for articulating love” (119). In terms of shifting voice and style, Galey found “at least four different modes” in their correspondence:
“The first is an oscillation between the two, whereby a letter or section of a letter is primarily related to either their prophetic vocation as tertons or the expression of personal sentiment. Here epistolary conventions and literary style play a key role in the way Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche construct their personae as a couple by alternating between various authorial stances. The second mode involves the development of a synergy whereby visionary recollections of their past lives elicit affective responses that strengthen their bond in this life. In turn, the affections shared between them encourages their visionary propensities and stimulates further past-life recollections and prophecies about the location of their treasures, thereby inaugurating the revelation process within the correspondence itself. The effect is to blur the boundary between love and destiny. In a third mode, they use folksy pairings of animals and their habitats, like a snow lion and its mountain abode, to depict their shared destiny in worldly terms and portray their personal bond as one of mutual compatibility and reliance. The fourth mode offers a final synthesis of prophetic and personal in references to the tantric rite of sexual union and its role in treasure revelation. This points beyond the correspondence itself to the consummation of their courtship and life together, sharing a single monastic seat, revealing treasure, and teaching side by side.” (120)
In their introductory letters to one another, both employ honorific styles filled with praise as a gesture of deference (121). While Namtrul Rinpoche’s style revealed his monastic training in his writing, Tare Lhamo, who could read but could not write, had her scribe Thopa write in (Gesar) bardic and folk style (123). Eventually, the two switched from formal to folk style at the insistence of Tare Lhamo (125). In their letters, the two list a number of prominent religious and folk figures from Tibet’s literal and mythical historical pasts to indicate their karmic connection with one another. Recognition by Namtrul Rinpoche of Tare Lhamo as Yeshe Tsogyal (128) for example, also revealed the gendered dimension of such courtship. However, this did not mean one viewed the other in a superior or inferior position. In fact, both equally recognized each other’s spiritual status.
In addition to recognizing each other’s spiritual lineage in the past, invoking past reincarnations mostly helped to affirm the couple’s karmic connection to one another, argues Gayley. This was important, according to Gayley, because the activity of recalling their past lives together served as an affective dimension that drew them closer—allowing for the imagining of a shared destiny from the past into the future. The point wasn’t just about claiming past lineages but to cement their karmic past in the present so that they could engage in the project of imagining a future together in which they would revive Buddhism from the destruction of Cultural Revolution—a topic closely engaged in Chapter four. In addition to these recollections of previous life, they also used folky pairing between animals and natural habitat to emphasize the naturalness of their union (145). This style allowed the two to be playful and flirtatious (148). “These are humanizing moments,” writes Gayley, “where they present themselves simply as man and woman” (148). In passages that depict each other as “partners in dance,” the couple move from “playful flirtation to the revelation of treasures via tantric techniques” writes Gayley (156). In his liquor song (chang shey) framed in tantric terms to Tare Lhamo in anticipation of her arrival at Nyenlung, Namtrul Rinpoche describes the liquor as “supreme elixir” (bdud rtsi mchog) as “great substance symbolizing method and wisdom.” “The compound ‘method and wisdom’ (thabs shes) is a standard referent for male and female partners who engage in the tantric rite of sexual union” writes Gayley (163). In this mode, sexual union is about treasure revelation, and so, about bringing benefits to others. According to the couple, these revelations would usher in a new era of happiness that would see Tibetan Buddhism restored in Tibet (165).
While chapter three explored “the interplay between the prophetic and personal dimensions of their courtship,” chapter four is interested in how they imagined their future. The practice of imagining the future involves imagining the past. The past becomes a resource for the couple through which their present is explained, argues Gayley. Doing so, thus, allows for the couple to imagine a future together. For Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche, the Maoist period (which ushered in the era of death and destruction according to both) is described as “degenerate times” using Tibetan Buddhist idiom.
Drawing on Padmasambhava prophecies, they explain conditions of Cultural Revolution within the historical framework of Tibet. This allowed Cultural Revolution to be understood not as an all-consuming moment in Tibetan history, but another event regarding degenerate time that Padmasambhava prophesized during Tibet’s imperial era. In other words, the Maoist-period becomes yet another moment in the long history of Tibetans surviving degenerate times. For example, in Tare Lhamo’s 22nd letter to Namtrul Rinpoche, she writes about the prospect of cultural renewal through their activities (180). Such a rendering allowed the couple to conceptualize Cultural Revolution as temporary and ripe with opportunities for reestablishing Tibetan Buddhism through their own engagements (170). This approach allowed the couple to become agentive not only in interpreting the events of Cultural Revolution through their own local and Buddhist idiom, but also allowed the two to become agentive in imagining activities (whether in teaching or treasure revealing together) that would lead to the revival of Tibetan Buddhism and culture—a revival that would heal Tibetan trauma. In short, imagining Cultural Revolution through their own cultural and spiritual frameworks allowed the couple to imagine each other as active agents drawing on their own cultural and spiritual resources to shape the future. For the couple, this intervention took shape later through their efforts in treasure revelation and communal teachings as a tantric couple who aimed to heal Tibetans and their cultural, spiritual and physical landscape.
Despite lacking explicit language that critiqued the state for obvious (state-repercussion) reasons, interpreting the Maoist era within Padmasambhava’s prophecy and idiom as degenerate times allowed the couple to critique the colonial state as “barbaric foreigners” without being specific, argues Gayley (177). Within this framework, treasure revelation becomes an important activity that engages regeneration and healing. Thus, they framed tantric activities they would embark on together later as restorative measures they could engage against the degeneration the Chinese state brought. This is important, stresses Gayley, because such a rendering engages Tibetan, rather than Chinese, pasts in imagining restorative measures for the current moment in order to shape Tibetan futures. Doing so also allowed the couple to become agentive in their ability to imagine agentive futures in which they revive Tibetan Buddhism and heal Tibetan suffering. Such an approach, argues Gayley, allowed Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche to interpret their current predicament using their own culturally and spiritually developed idioms that stress the continuity of Tibetan history—where the Maoist era under China is yet another bump on the road that can be overcomed like before—in which, they, not the Chinese state, become agentive in imagining healing futures. In her first letter to Namtrul Rinpoche, Tare Lhamo gives ritual prescription that would bring the appropriate conditions for their union to reveal treasures at specific locations (194). These imaginations in their correspondence with one another came to fruition later in the 1980s and 1990s when they began engaging in reviving Tibetan Buddhism together (alongside other prominent figures like Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok) through their religious activities as a tantric couple in eastern Tibet. Turning their tantric musings to one another in these correspondence in the 1970s into reality.
To end, here’s a music video by singer Dartso who’s singing a devotional song for Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche.