Underestimated Sonam Peldren: A Nomad who was Dorje Pakmo


Sonam Peldren was a religious figure from fourteenth-century Tibet. She was the daughter of a nomad. She had no special status, nor had she been trained or recognized by religious authorities during her time alive. She was recorded as not having received formal education and being illiterate. Yet, following her death, she became recognized in her community as the emanation of Dorje Pakmo. Unlike Tare Lhamo, Sonam Peldren lacked the social standing through which she could affirm her religious identity. However, despite such lack in status, Sonam Peldren is affirmed following her death through the efforts of her spiritual community. The following is an analysis of Sonam Peldren’s gendered subjectivity through an engagement with Suzanne M. Bessenger’s Echoes of Enlightenment: The Life and Legacy of the Tibetan Saint Sonam Peldren (2016). I specifically engage chapters 1 and 2, “The Life of Sonam Peldren” and “Composing the Life of Sonam Peldren.”

According to the texts, Sonam Peldren was born to a nomadic family of modest means. While Sonam Peldren’s mother was pregnant, auspicious dreams and occurrences take place—all of which indicated that the soon-to-be-born child is special to her parents. According to Bessenger, her hagiography records her to be a likable and obedient child until her marriage. Instead of marrying the man her parents chose, she opts to marry Rinchen Pel, a nomad from eastern Tibet. Following her life with Rinchen Pel and their community of nomads, she is recorded as having performed and experienced miracles—all of which are downplayed by her husband and her community. Whenever she tries to explain herself, she is recorded as having been ridiculed by all. It’s not until her death—a death she herself predicts which no one including her husband believes—that she is vindicated. Following her death, she appears to Rinchen Pel and reveals her true identity as Dorje Pakmo, and gives him lengthy teachings.

According to the first chapter, Bessenger engages Life (her namtar in Tibetan) to discern the purpose for why her hagiography is written. For Bessenger, the text is preoccupied with the polemical concern of proving Sonam Peldren’s divine identity as Dorje Pakmo. Similar to the rhetorical style of Tare Lhamo’s hagiography, Sonam Peldron’s hagiography also confirms her divine identity by connecting her to Dorje Nenjorma and the “Great Mother” (25). This is followed by accounts of miracles that occurred while she was in her mother’s womb. When it comes time for her to marry, she is presented as assertive in choosing her own path by picking her own husband. While she is with her husband and their community of nomads, she is presented as being generous and performs miracles that demonstrates her advanced religious abilities—despite being met with skepticism by all. Following a vision in which she is requested by female deities to accompany them, she predicts her own death to the disbelief of everyone. However, as time progresses, predictions like that of the death of monk Sonam Lodro comes true (42) and Rinchen Pel begins to believe. Following her death, she appears to him and finally reveals her true identity as an emanation of the female Buddha Dorje Pakmo (48). The purpose for such a textual framework in Life, argues Bessenger, is meant to “demonstrate, via narrative and anecdotal evidence, the divine identity of an unusual candidate for sainthood” (56). Thus, her hagiography is intentionally written in a manner to affirm Sonam Peldren as Dorje Pakmo precisely because she was an “unusual candidate for sainthood” due to her lack of status and connections with religious hierarchies—a point of reference that differs from Tare Lhamo who was born with spiritual status.

Chapter two of Bessenger’s book is concerned with who authored the text. The text’s colophon recognizes three formal authors—Rinchen Pel, Penden Senge, and Shakya Rinchen (62). However, Bessenger suggests that the text was actually produced by multiple authors. An argument she suggests is influenced by Diemberger’s analysis of Chokyi Dronma—a figure who like Sonam Peldron was recognized as Dorje Pakmo in 15th century Tibet. For Bessenger, evidences of multiple authors can be discerned from the text itself by paying specific attention to voices (57). The first clue comes from the chronological ordering of the text. Section titles for portions of Sonam Peldren’s life were “imposed on the text after its composition” argues Bessenger, “to help the narrative ‘fit” (60). This apparent ordering gives away the text as having had multiple inputs. While multiple-authorship is apparent, figuring out who besides the three recognized authors helped in producing the text, Bessenger suggests inputs from her father and Sonam Peldron herself by pointing to clues to the ways in which certain narrative voices differed from others. For instance, the text itself gives accounts of her father recording events that he found significant while she lived at her natal home. There are also evidences in which Sonam Peldren is recorded as “Gego” (the name her parents gave her) or “girl” in the earlier portion of her hagiography. Bessenger attributes such framing to her father who called her “girl” and “Gego” and never Sonam Peldren (66-7). This clue accords earlier portions of Life as having elements of her father’s written accounts. Additionally, the way some of the first-person quotes are written gives clues to Sonam Peldren as having authored parts of the text. Many of the first-person verses are recorded by Rinchen Pel as she spoken them, argues Bessenger. Further, specific attention to “female experiences” in which Tibetan nomadic women’s worlds are recorded, are unusual topics for male authors to record. Such inclusion suggests that Sonam Peldren’s own words were included in the text.

While Bessenger draws on Diemberger’s “collective remembering” to emphasize how Sonam Peldren’s hagiography had been composed as an emergent narrative which involved multiple voices including her own in a similar fashion to Chokyi Dronma’s hagiography (82), this is where the similarities end. According to Bessenger, both hagiographies served different purposes. Unlike Chokyi Dronma, Sonam Peldron lacked status. Chokyi Dronma’s hagiography, argues Bessenger, “served not to convince the community that she was noteworthy, but rather to frame her magnificence within the particular project of establishing the Dojre Pakmo spiritual lineage by ‘defending the fact that Chokyi Dronma, although a woman, was [her master] Bodong Chokle Namgyel’s spiritual heir’” (83). In contrast, “one of the main themes of Sonam Peldren’s Life is not the awe she inspired in her community, but rather the resistance or scorn with which her claim were often met” (83). While both women enjoyed certain similarities whether due to their associations with Dorje Pakmo or the multiple voices involved in producing their hagiographies, status played out differently for both women in defining the terms of their path. Someone like Chokyi Dronma, who was born a princess, who’s religious claims within her community were never doubted, her hagiography served to authenticate the project of establishing the Dorje Pakmo lineage. However, for Sonam Peldren, her hagiography needed to authenticate her to the very community from whom she’s from (her community of nomads) who constantly challenged her spiritual claims. Thus, status becomes another factor, in addition to gender, when spiritual recognition and beyond is considered. It can determine whether a female practitioner can go beyond the project of recognition and towards projects of lineage establishment. In other words, it becomes an important component in determining individual practitioners level of agency to achieve spiritual enlightenment and more.