Samding Dorje Phagmo: The First Tibetan Woman to Begin her own Lineage

This is an analysis from Hildegard Diemberger’s book When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty: The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet (2014).

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Samding Dorje Phagmo is the first lineage that was initiated and led by a Tibetan woman named Chokyi Dronma in fifteen century Tibet (2007: 1). This lineage continues to exist in present day Tibet. “She was listed among the highest-ranking reincarnation at the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, and recognized by the Tibetan government and acknowledged by the Qing emperor” writes Hildegard Diemberger. Thus, engaging this historic figure becomes important in situating Tibetan religious approaches to gender.

Although Samding Dorje Phagmo stands as both “a human being and as a spiritual entity” in the minds of most Tibetans—not to mention being both one and many people at the same time when considering her previous and ongoing reincarnations (2). Hildegard Diemberger chooses to focus her discussion on Chokyi Dronma, the founder of the lineage. Chokyi Dronma’s spiritual path becomes an important intervention through which the positions of female practioners can be considered. Especially when considering last week’s discussion regarding Buddha’s path in choosing his spiritual path. In comparison, Chokyi Dronma’s spiritual path becomes both influenced and hindered by her gender. According to Diemberger, she “had a profound sense of women’s vulnerability and saw Buddhism as a way to address their plight” (123). However, to understand how she came to such a conclusion, it becomes important to consider her spiritual journey. So, who was she?

According to her hagiography, she was the first born with the name Kongchog Gyalmo to a king in southwestern Tibet (120). Although the possibility of her becoming a leader was considered a real possibility, a son was nonetheless born to another wife of her father. The birth of this son, writes Diemberger, caused hers and her mother’s position to become precarious. Watching her mother’s concern regarding their changing position, argues Diemberger, caused Kongchog Gyalmo to become exposed to the types of vulnerabilities her mother, and thus women, faced. This lesson would continue with her own life. Following the birth of her daughter, she becomes sick. After a close brush with death, in which she interacted with the Medicine Buddha (124), she chooses to no longer care for her daughter—citing that the child had enough attendees as her reason. However, the daughter dies. The loss causes Kongchog Gyalmo, argues Diemberger, to break with secular life and pursue a religious life. After facing some pushback from her husband and in-laws, she is eventually given permission by her father-in-law to become an ordained nun at Choding. The types of pushback she faced from her husband and in-laws were particularly gendered—with detractors that included her in-laws and a Lama asking her to observe her responsibility as a householder. Following her ordination by Bodong Chogle Namgyal, she is given a new name, Chokyi Dronma. However,”No other fully ordained woman was present [at that time]” writes Diemberger—although “a whole texts to bhiksuni monastic rules” existed in the prior century (133). While no bhiksuni lineage existed, Bodong Chogle Namgyal choose to ordain Chokyi Dronma, argues Diemberger, so that she could serve as an exemplar who could be followed by other women (134). While her own path to enter the religious path is flanked with gendered complications, her high status played a large role, argues Diemberger, in allowing her access to full ordination (134).

Throughout her hagiography, “the story of Prince Siddhartha,” writes Diemberger, “is a constant theme” (128). Buddha’s life as narrated in the Lalitavistana becomes a constant framework through which Chokyi Dornma and her hagiographer interpreted her life experiences. Like Buddha, she saw herself as walking away from worldly samsaric existence to pursue a higher path that sought to free all being from suffering. However, she is aware that the challenges she faced were particularly gendered and thus considers alleviating the sufferings of women (130). Thus, Buddha serves as the exemplar she uses to inspire her on her path. In doing so, she herself becomes the exemplar that Bodong Chogle Namgyal hopes for. Additionally, like Buddha, she uses her hair to symbolize transitions on her spiritual path. She cuts her hair to symbolize her departure from worldly existence to become a nun. However, following the failure of an attempted nunnery, she chooses to grow her hair following Bodong Chogle Namgyal’s advice to signify her transition from a nun into a wandering yogini (135). As a yogini, she comes to symbolize and manifest as Dorje Phagmo (Vajravarahi). This transition also reflects her different approach to sexuality. Going from a celibate nun to becoming a tantric consort. While it is unclear whether she was in breach of her celibacy vows, Diemberger notes that “conventional limitation attributed to bhikus and bhiksunis could be transcended” (137). “The spiritual master alluded here to a divine level of interaction that transcended the human and allowed for what was unacceptable at a human level” writes Diemberger (137). Thus, her hair serves as a symbol that mark her spiritual transitions.

Although her gendered role as a mother and wife hinders her attempt at getting her feet into the door, ultimately she is able to “transform the challenges of her life into her own empowerment” argues Diemberger. Diemberger continues, “In doing so she followed, […], a Buddhist tantric approach, which seeks to change what is conventionally considered an obstacle into the very means to achieve spiritual liberation” (139). It was her brush with death that prompted her to have an empowering encounter that led her on her spiritual path. Her hagiographer notes how she was known to be an expert at healing people with mental disturbances. Diemberger emphasizes this is due to her own experience dealing with mental illness following the death of her first teacher. Despite the hardship she faced, she was eventually able to turn such disempowering experiences into empowering tools for practice. They also came in handy when she began teaching and healing others. Alleviating the suffering of others, an outcome she set out to achieve when she decided to begin her spiritual path.

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