Becoming Gyalyum Chemo: Engaging Diki Tsering & Her Gender Critiques


Diki Tsering is affectionately called Gyalyum Chenmo, meaning “the great mother,” by Tibetans across the world. She is remembered for being mother to the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. However, in addition to being the Dalai Lama’s mother, Tibetans continue to commemorate her for her dedicated service towards the Tibetan refugee collective in India who escaped China’s invasion. Alongside her eldest child, daughter Tsering Dolma, she managed one of the first nurseries for orphaned Tibetan refugee children in Dharamsala. This school, which was founded in 1960 and was called The Nursery for Tibetan Refugee Children, would later expand into different branches under its new name The Tibetan Children’s Village—one of the two important educational institution that would ensure the precarious lives of Tibetan children who had become refugees and orphans for the first time in India. Songs, events, and awards continue to be dedicated to her in recognition for her services towards the Tibetan refugee collective.

Due to her continued influence over Tibetans as someone who’s exemplary leadership that should be emulated, Diki Tsering becomes an important contemporary figure in Tibetan history. Unlike the female saints I have engaged thus far on Lhakar Diaries, Diki Tsering is not a religious figure. Instead, she’s a secular woman who happened to have given birth to the 14th Dalai Lama—the most revered Tibetan religious figure in contemporary Tibetan society. Like the celebrated Hindu icon Amma, Diki Tsering is commemorated by her community due to her role as the mother figure. However, unlike Amma, her role as the mother figure is not constructed out of her spiritual practice (Lucia, 2014). Instead, it is Diki Tsering’s secular role as the mother to the Dalai Lama that is celebrated. Secular not because she herself was not religious, but because she had not taken religious vows to lead a religious lifestyle. Also, it’s usually the saint figure who gets thoroughly engaged in the namtars I have read so far. Rarely do these hagiographies engage the parent figures behind the saint. Thus, Diki Tsering presents a unique opportunity to shift the center from the religious figure to the secular figure standing behind them.

So, who was Diki Tsering? Why is she known as “the great mother” in contemporary Tibetan society? I consider this question through the engagement of her autobiography, Dalai Lama, My Son: A Mother’s Autobiography (2000), alongside other secondary sources. In the following, I begin first by giving a short overview of her autobiography, followed by an analysis regarding the text’s authorship and voice. Second, I engage how this autobiography is structured to consider who it was written for and why. Third, I consider Diki Tsering’s changing gendered roles alongside her comments regarding gender in her autobiography to contemplate whether she considered all gendered roles in negative light. And finally, I conclude with thoughts regarding aspects of Diki Tsering’s life that is rarely engaged or left out and compare her alongside other female figures I have engaged thus far.

Introduction of Diki Tsering

Diki Tsering’s autobiography, Dalai Lama, My Son, was published due to the combined efforts of her grandchildren, Yangzom Doma and Kheedroob Thondup in 2000. The autobiography is broken into two parts. Part one and two are titled “Daughter of Peasants” and “Mother of compassion.” The chapters are ordered to reflect a chronological order to her life from birth to death. Chapters under part one, “Daughter of Peasants,” detail her life as a daughter and granddaughter with her family until she is married off and transitions into roles of wife, daughter-in-law and becoming a first-time mother while living with her husband’s family. Chapters under part two, “Mother of compassion,” cover the transition she experienced following the recognition of one of her sons as the 14th Dalai Lama. The chapters in this section outline her shift to Lhasa, her changed status from peasant to aristocracy, becoming windowed and a first-time grandmother in the same year, and interaction with major political crisis both local and Chinese produced that would lead to her eventual escape to India with the Dalai Lama.

According to Dalai Lama, My Son, Diki Tsering was born Sonam Tsomo to peasant farmers in Churkha, in the district of Tsongkha in Amdo (15). She describes her family as neither poor nor rich. Following a hard but happy childhood at home, she is arranged to be married to Choekyong Tsering by her grandparents at the age of thirteen (58). At fourteen, she officially marries and moves in with her husband and his family in 1917 (61). At her new home, she is given the name Diki Tsering by her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law also happened to be the sister of Taktser Rinpoche, the abbot to Kumbum monastery (19). Diki Tsering describes her new life as a wife and daughter-in-law to be filled with hard work. Getting between three and four hours of sleep at night. “During those years of hardship,” writes Diki Tsering, “I never told anyone, not even my husband, that I was suffering” (76). She gave birth to daughter Tsering Dolma, her first child, at the age of nineteen. In total, she gave birth to sixteen children, only seven survived passed infancy (87). Among them, two girls and five boys. Three were recognized as high reincarnate lama: Thubten Jigme Norbu as Taktstar Rinpoche (2nd eldest), Lhamo Tsering as the 14th Dalai Lama (5th eldest), and Tendzin Choegyal as Ngari Rinpoche (youngest). Aside from son Gyalo Thondup (her 3rd eldest) and daughters Tsering Dolma and Jetsun Pema (2nd youngest), the rest entered the monastic. Her life and status began to change each time she gave birth to a child recognized as a reincarnate lama. However, Lhamo Tsering’s recognition as the Dalai Lama caused the biggest shift. His recognition prompted her family to move from Tsongkha to Lhasa where her family was given an estate that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. In Lhasa, she and her family were given the aristocratic Yabshi title. This shift in role and place cause many changes in Diki Tsering and her family’s life. She describes life in Lhasa to be filled with “strange” Lhasa customs and (aristocratic) snobbery—all of which makes her appreciate and become nostalgic for her simple life in Amdo. Alongside her family’s elevated statuses came political crisis—during which her husband dies from suspected poisoning and she becomes a grandmother for the first time following the birth and death of Tsering Dolma’s first child. The political crisis ranged from the Reting and Taktra regency controversy (during which, His Holiness’s legitimacy as the real reincarnation of the Dalai Lama was questioned and several tests had to be performed to solidify his legitimacy, a topic covered also in The Noodle Maker by her son, Gyalo Thondup) to the Chinese invasion and occupation of Lhasa, followed by her eventual escape with the Dalai Lama and her family to India. Much of Diki Tsering’s second half of her autobiography covers events that had previously been written about in the 14th Dalai Lama’s autobiography, Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama (1991). Although the final chapter of her autobiography is titled “Safe Haven in India,” the book ends with Tsering Dolma’s death in 1964 and hers. In 1981, Diki Tsering died at her home, Kashmir Cottage, in Dharamsala (2000:183). According to those close to her, Diki Tsering is said to have never recovered from the stories of destruction and loss of people and places she loved that her sister brought on her visit from Tibet in 1980.

Authorship and Voice

Although the book is written in English from the point of view of Diki Tsering in her own voice, she neither wrote nor spoke English. Suggesting her autobiography to be the product of multiple authors. The book’s title is clear in acknowledging her grandson Khedroob Thondup as the editor. However, in the book’s introduction, “Memories of My Grandmother,” Thondup gives detail on how the book came about. According to Thondup, it was his older sister Yangzom Doma’s idea to record her grandmother’s life story.

The idea came about in 1979, writes Thondup, when Doma was working as the editor of Tibet Journal at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India (8). Doma audio recorded Diki Tsering’s stories in Tibetan, while she transcribed and translated them in English, according to Thondup (11). “They got up to the point where my grandmother left Tibet,” writes Thondup, “and then, in 1981, my grandmother died” (“Tradition is Our Backbone,” 2000). That following year in 1982, Yangzom Doma died in a car accident while on vacation in Tunisia—leaving the project she began unfinished (Tsering, 2000:9). “In 1997, I decided it was time for me to take up the project” writes Thondup (Tradition is Our Backbone,” 2000). Thondup compiled his sister’s transcriptions and published this autobiography of his grandmother in English in 2000. While Dalai Lama, My Son may be an autobiographical account of Diki Tsering’s life, it was by no means, authored by a single person. Instead, it is a product of multiple authors: with Diki Tsering’s recalling memories of her life in Tibetan to granddaughter Yangzom Doma, who translated and edited these accounts in English, to Khedroob Thondup compiling Doma’s transcriptions and editing them down to its published version in 2000. Thus, the book is a product of the collaborative efforts between Diki Tsering, Yangzom Doma and Khedroob Thondup.

In terms of voice, as previously mentioned, the book is written in Diki Tsering’s narrative voice. However, her voice appears alongside postscripts that are authored by someone else throughout the book. These postscripts supplement Diki Tsering’s memories with background information that serve to contextualize her further. While it’s clear that the postscripts are not by Diki Tsering, aside from a few, it isn’t clear who authored specific postscripts—suggesting the postscripts to be a product of both Thondup and Doma. While Thondup makes clear that Diki Tsering’s voice is her own, his acknowledgement of his and his sister’s role in constructing her autobiography makes clear that Diki Tsering’s voice is translated and edited by the both of them. Which leads me to the question, for whom was this autobiography written and what purpose was it written for?

For Whom, For what?

Since the book is written in English, the assumption is that the book will be read by English readers. In “New Age Namtar: Tibetan Autobiographies in English,” Lurie Hovell McMillin acknowledges that the practice of writing autobiographies is not new to Tibetans (2001). In fact, Tibet has had a “rich tradition” of namtars (autobiographies) usually written by religious figures to “inspire and instruct their readers and listeners” (155). However, “in the contemporary situation of Tibetan diaspora,” argues McMillin, “new forms of autobiography have appeared […] this time in English” (155). “Published in English in generic forms that are familiar to English readers,” continues McMillin, “these texts address new audiences and offer versions of Tibetan-ness to an eager portion of what is largely an American and sometimes British audience” (155).

The purpose of such autobiographies in English, argues McMillin, is to authenticate Tibetan experiences and transform western readers (158-9). But what do Tibetans gain in return? According to McMillin, the transformation of the western reader requires the reader to objectify experiences of the Tibetan author (160). In return, Tibetans receive patronage in terms of political advocacy and aid. Following China’s invasion of Tibet, the Tibetan apparatus gathered refugee stories in their hope to record Chinese atrocities. However, they were “unused to speaking of themselves and their lives in this way,” and “their stories had to be recast by those with a stronger sense of what the larger world needed to know” (161). Assisted by ghostwriters, “the world would come to know of the situation in Tibet” (161). “It was through these stories that the West was called on to act on behalf of Tibet” argues McMillin (161).

Using McMillin’s framework, it seems possible that Dalai Lama, My Son was written in English with western audiences in mind. However, I argue against the notion that the intended readers of Tibetan autobiographies in English are meant just for western audiences. While the list of books McMillin lists first appeared in English, these books were also later republished in Tibetan—suggesting the book was meant for both Tibetan and western audiences. Additionally, McMillin’s article was published in 2001. By 2001, the Tibetan diaspora had spread to the West. In addition to rising numbers of Tibetan children being raised in the West who read and spoke English, Tibetans who had graduated from Tibetan refugee schools in Nepal and India were trained to read, write, and converse in English too. In addition to westerners, Tibetan audiences were also consuming these “new age namtars” in English. Thus, “new age namtars” were not only being consumed by western readers, they were being consumed by Tibetans also.

While Dalai Lama, My Son addresses an unspecified audience, looking over information on how the book came to fruition gives some context. As previously stated, Yangzom Doma came up with the idea to record Diki Tsering’s life stories into a book. Through her initiative, Diki Tsering recounted memories of her life to Doma while she transcribed these stories into English. This suggests Diki Tsering’s original audience was her granddaughter. Although the book makes clear that Yangzom Doma wanted to record Diki Tsering’s life story for an autobiography, it isn’t clear whether this autobiography was meant for the family, the larger Tibetan audience or an international audience. What is clear, however, is that Diki Tsering agreed to have her stories recorded by her granddaughter and trusted her with them. Who’s to say that her recordings were not also meant for family, alongside its assumed Tibetan and western audiences?


Following the death of both Diki Tsering and Yangzom Doma, Khedroob Thondup took up where his sister left off and published the finished version in 2000. Looking at the way the book is structured—which alongside its chronological overview of Diki Tsering’s life, gives brief commentaries on traditions and observations of Amdo and Lhasa—the book serves the purpose of introducing Diki Tsering as a public figure, and affirms the political turmoil she and her family lived through. While the book includes some intimate information regarding her life in part one, much of the events detailed in part two had become public knowledge by the time her book was published. Thus, I would argue that part one of the book details the interior portion of Diki Tsering’s private life, while part two details her exterior life as a public figure due to her role as the Dalai Lama’s mother.

For instance, in addition to the inclusion of intimate details of Diki Tsering’s early life in part one, the book also includes other intimate details that are encapsulated in stories regarding dreams and ghosts. In stories involving dreams, she reveals she had had dreams that revealed the specialness of some of her children who would become recognized as reincarnate lamas following their birth. When considering female saints in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that I have engaged thus far (such was the case with Sera Khandro, Sonam Peldren, Tare Lhamo, and Chokyi Dronma), special dreams are cited as evidence by parents to indicate the specialness of their child before their birth. Diki Tsering’s dream echo a similar pattern.

Before Lhamo Tsering’s birth, Diki Tsering recalls a special dream she had. “[T]wo green snow lions and a brilliant blue dragon appeared […]. They smiled at me and greeted me in the traditional Tibetan style: two hands raised to the forehead. Later I was told that the dragon was His Holiness, and the two snow lions were the Nechung oracle (the state oracle of Tibet), showing His Holiness the path to rebirth” (2000:90). She also recalls unusual events surrounding Lhamo Tsering’s birth that further indicated his specialness. For example, Diki Tsering notes how fast her husband recovered from an illness that had nearly killed him following Lhamo Tsering’s birth (89). While such accounts can serve to legitimize the 14th Dalai Lama further in the eyes of her audience as a special person, they also work to affirm her as his mother. A role that indicates her specialness.

Additionally, the book acknowledges the loss she suffered in loosing nine children. Although the book does not directly engage each loss she experienced, Diki Tsering is shown to be speaking on it through stories involving the kyirong in chapter nine, “Haunted by Ghosts” (51). While the narrative style of this story indicates her in the role of someone who is explaining what the Kyriong is to Yangzom Doma, she also uses her interactions with the Kyirong to explain the deaths of four of her children. Blaming the death of her children to her encounters with the Kyirong (52). This narrative style allows Diki Tsering to speak on her loss without necessarily giving away too much on such loss. Thus, an explanation on Kyirong becomes an avenue for Diki Tsering to acknowledge and speak on the loss she experienced without having to divulge intimate details of such experiences.

Overall, much of the first part of Dalai Lama, My Son, I argue, is structured to introduce Diki Tsering as the simple peasant child who transitions into her role as a wife, daughter-in-law, and mother. However, it is her role as the mother to the 14th Dalai Lama that is highlighted most to confirm his special birth and her specialness in being his mother. A role that granted her the name, “the great mother,” due to her maternal association with the 14th Dalai Lama. Thus, part one ends with a chapter dedicated to Lhamo Tsering’s birth.

Part two of the book engages her exterior role as the public figure she became following Lhamo Tsering’s recognition of Dalai Lama. More specifically it deals with her changed role from a private figure in Amdo to a public figure in Lhasa. Along with her move to Lhasa, Lhamo Tsering’s recognition causes Diki Tsering’s status to change from a peasant woman of Amdo to a Yabshi of Lhasa—one of the highest ranked status among Lhasa aristocrats. However, the intrigue of high status is short lived. Following the death of her husband in 1947, she witnesses a series of political crisis that include the Chinese occupation of Lhasa (129). A period that she remembered as testing since she had become the Yabshi family’s matriarch following the death of her husband, and had to face a series of trying circumstances both private and political that her son’s role as the Dalai Lama demanded. The book ends with her escapes to India with the Dalai Lama, followed by daughter Tsering Dolma and her deaths.

Much of the political crisis covered in part two, however, are events that had previously been written about in published autobiographies by other members of Diki Tsering’s family (Dalai Lama 1990, Thubten Jigme Norbu 1986, Jetsun Pema 1997). While other members of her family had already written on these same events, Diki Tsering offers her own take on the events she witnessed and lived through (2000:129). However, many of her account confirm events that other members of her family had already written about. Suggesting the second half of the book to confirm family history that had previously been published.

Much of the book’s second half indicates Diki Tsering’s public role as the great mother of the Dalai Lama and shows her interacting with complex political dangers that her role brought. Her commitment to her family and humility serve to highlight her agency in how she dealt with such dangers to keep her family, and so, the Dalai Lama safe. This agentive quality reaffirms her role further as Gyalyum Chenmo. However, this time, it is through her own agentive role in decision making and political maneuvering as the Dalai Lama’s mother that her greatness is reaffirmed. Additionally, recalling events in Lhasa following China’s invasion, serve also to further confirm her family’s history regarding Chinese invasion and escape to India. This is important since events she recalls serve to affirm the Dalai Lama’s own accounts of the same events he had earlier published on.

Affirming Diki Tsering’s recollection of the political crisis following the Chinese invasion serve to confirm Tibet’s national history due to the Dalai Lama’s duel role as Tibet’s spiritual and political leader. This brings me back to McMillin’s point regarding the production of “new age namtar” by Tibetans following China’s invasion (2001). According to McMillin, these new age namtars served to authenticate Tibetan experiences and encouraged its audiences to engage political advocacy on behalf of Tibetans. In many ways, Dalai Lama, My Son serves to not only authenticate Diki Tsering’s experiences as Gyalum Chenmo, it also serves to authenticate the Yabshi family’s own recollection of their family history. A family history that is closely tied to Tibet’s national history due to the 14th Dalai Lama. Thus, the book seeks to authenticate the Yabshi family history, through which, Tibet’s national history with China is authenticated. It also invites its readers, as McMillin suggests, to act on the writer’s behalf to defend and advocate on behalf of Tibet.

Gender Observations

From the beginning, Diki Tsering’s autobiography does not shy away from making explicit gender critiques. For instance, she is critical of the value placed on boys versus girls in the Amdo peasant community she is from. In chapter two, while reflecting on her life as Sonam Tsomo, she writes, “Even when I was still quite little, the fact that I was a girl weighted heavily on my heart. From very early in life we were aware of the different roles and aspirations of males and females and the preference families had for sons” (2000:23). She continues, “As girls we were taught that our only future and hope were marriage and a life of hard work” (55).   Following her marriage, she is critical of how daughters-in-law are treated like servants by members of their husband’s household—arguing about the “rigorous life” they led (55). She is unflinching in describing her mother-in-law as “bossy and domineering” (73). She also critiques husband-wife relations, describing it as “[…]not one of equality. The woman was always subservient to the man, even though she was supreme in domestic matters” (74). She goes on to describe her husband as “upright and honest,” but also says “Like his mother, he did no work” (74). As can be seen, her generalized critiques regarding gender is framed within her own experience as a female.

While she is critical of the gendered roles she went through as a girl, wife, and daughter-in-law, she seems proud of her role as a mother. Especially when three sons whom she birthed became recognized as incarnate lamas. A whole chapter is dedicated to the birth of Lhamo Tsering, who became recognized as the 14th Dalai Lama (Chapter 15). Although chapters in part one of the book are filled with gender critiques, Diki Tsering offers interesting gender observations following her move to Lhasa from Tsongkha. For instance, in chapter nineteen, she observes different gendered rules being applied to new mothers. She writes, “In Tsongkha women were not permitted to attend rituals immediately after childbirth because they were considered polluted, but in Lhasa women took their newborn infants to temples and monasteries three days after birth” (118). She also notices the difference status made in determining a daughter’s capabilities. Compared to Tsongkha, “In Lhasa,” writes Diki Tsering, “aristocratic daughters did not have to do much work, except perhaps a little embroidery; domestic chores were not emphasized. Girls were sent to school to be educated” (118).

Her observations on the way gender is conceptualized differently in Lhasa than Tsongkha offers a critical analysis of how gendered subjectivities across Tibet should not be assumed to be homogenous. Instead, her observations suggest otherwise, especially when considering the difference status makes. While part one of Dalai Lama, My Son gives explicit gender critiques. Surprisingly, part two lacks as many critiques. I suggest this has to do with her changed role from an ordinary peasant householder in Amdo to becoming an aristocrat of Lhasa due to her role as the mother of the Dalai Lama. As previously noted, part two of the book covers this transition. Aside from her general observations of Lhasa, which includes gender observations, the rest of the chapters focus on the political turmoil.

When searching for secondary sources on the internet regarding Diki Tsering, I noticed how much of the reviews and summaries of Dalai Lama, My Son focused specifically on her negative gender critiques—claiming them as feminist critiques. While this suggests her critiques were not lost on readers, their interpretation of her overall critiques as a condemnation of all gendered roles in Tibet suggests a misreading. For instance, on modernity and tradition, she writes, “Traditions are so easily broken and forgotten. Today, when I see young people, I often think they are reacting against their traditions in order to overemphasize their modernity. I am proud to be, despite my resilience and ability to change, a very traditional woman. Does this make me archaic and anachronistic? I don’t think so. […] My traditions, my roots as a Tibetan, have fortified me. Traditions cannot be denied or forgotten. They are the creators of your spirit and your pride and the backbone of your sensibilities. They make you what you are and define what you want to be” (17). Here, Diki Tsering warns against reading her critiques as all consuming. While she is critical of some gendered practices, she is clear that her traditions, her roots, “have fortified” her, and that “Traditions cannot be denied or forgotten.” Suggesting she is reluctant to abandon all Tibetan practices due to her critical stance on certain beliefs and practices, especially when those same practices define who she is. Her reluctance to reject all Tibetan practices whole heartedly warns against a simplified reading of her critiques. In fact, she never makes a whole-sale argument for the abandonment of all gendered practices in Tibet.

This all-consuming critique that many readers presumed also suggests that they missed how Diki Tsering never spoke of gendered role as static. For instance, she is critical of how girls are devalued overall in Amdo, however, she also complicates this critique by sharing stories of her grandfather, who valued her for her. “Many a time” she writes, “I asked my grandfather whether he would have preferred a boy. […] Instead, he’d tweak my ears and say, ‘Would I have said you were a girl even before you were born?’ Then I was transported into the great joy. It meant a great deal to me to be wanted for myself and not for the practicality of my sex” (23-4). Drawing on Sherry Ortner’s “Making Gender,” I want to highlight individual agency in being able to determine how subjects situate and negotiate the terms of the patriarchal structure they live within (1996). While she points to prevailing gendered norms regarding the devaluation of girls in her society as a whole, she also points to the way her grandfather cherished her to counter such societal assumptions. Rather than internalize all these gendered assumptions passively, her grandfather is agentive in how he decides to interact with such prevailing gendered structural assumptions.

Further, the assumption that Diki Tsering was overall negative about Tibetan approaches to gendered roles also fails to consider the empowering position of her role as mother to the Dalai Lama. As mentioned, becoming mother to reincarnate lamas elevated her overall structural position in Tsongkha, followed by Lhasa. It is due to her secular role as the mother to the Dalai Lama that she is celebrated in contemporary Tibetan society as “the grate mother.” Prior to becoming the mother to the Dalai Lama, Diki Tsering describes herself as a simple peasant. She belonged to neither religious nor secular hierarchy. It was her son’s recognition as the Dalai Lama, through whom, Diki Tsering and her family were conferred elevated status. Her autobiography is clear in marking this status transformation in relation to the recognition of her son as the Dalai Lama. Although her autobiography lacks in-depth discussion regarding her feelings on being the Dalai Lama’s mother, her dedication in providing service and care, even while he was residing at the Potala and in exile, suggests she took that role serious. In addition to considering Lhamo Tsering her son, she also took serious his spiritual role as the Dalai Lama—elevating his status above hers due to his spiritual prowess. Thus, she considered her role as mother to the Dalai Lama, a gendered role, empowering. Here, I speak of empowerment through Buddhist frameworks which conceptualize it within the context of merit (karma)–where good merit is accrued when in service of a Bodhisattva (the Dalai Lama) on their path. This framework of empowerment through her role as a mother to a religious figure is barely engaged in reviews of Dalai Lama, My Son.

What’s Missing?

While becoming mother to the 14th Dalai Lama is highlighted in the first half of the book, the book isn’t necessarily dedicated to emphasizing that role any further. In other words, the book does not try to convince its reader that she is the Dalai Lama’s mother. Instead, the second half the book assumes readers are already convinced of her role as the mother. That’s why the second portion of the book covers events that are closely tied to the Dalai Lama’s own journey from that historical period. To repeat, while I have argued that the first portion of Diki Tsering’s autobiography introduces her as the girl who became the Dalai Lama’s mother, the second portion of this autobiography covers events that serve to reemphasize a family history that is closely tied to Tibet’s national history regarding invasion, escape and exile. Thus, Diki Tsering’s autobiography serves the purpose of introducing her, while reemphasizing Tibet’s national history through her own personal narrative. However, due to this overall commitment, her autobiography fails to shed light on other aspects of her life.

For instance, though memories of her life as a daughter and granddaughter in her maternal homeland is shared, readers barely get much information of her family beyond her grandfather. Other members of her family are barely engaged in her autobiography. Similarly, her autobiography acknowledges her husband, Choekyong Tsering. However, readers are not given insights into the type of relationship the two shared. Like her husband, Diki Tsering’s children make also appearances throughout the book. Aside from learning that she is close to them and interacts with them often, no additional information regarding her personal relation with each is offered. In fact, it is through her grandson’s personal memories of her in his postscripts, that we get a more intimate reading of familial relations.

Additionally, Diki Tsering’s involvement in refugee rehabilitation activities that she is commemorated for in exile is barely engaged. Aside from a few anecdotes that Thondup remembers as a child regarding Diki Tsering’s charitable interactions with other more vulnerable Tibetan refugees, the book lacks detailing her involvement in refugee rehabilitation efforts in India following their escape. This makes sense since Khedroob Thondup’s interview indicates that Diki Tsering and Yangzom Doma were only able to record events up to the point when Diki Tsering left Tibet (“Tradition is Our Backbone,” 2000). Her involvements in refugee rehabilitation seems to have been left out due to the fact she had died before she could recall events following her escape to India. This is why the book ends with a postscript that details Diki Tsering’s death in 1980 (2000:183).

Rather than point out the types of information that is lacking in Diki Tsering’s autobiography, such lack should be read within the context of this autobiography’s overall goal. As previously stated, Diki Tsering’s autobiography serves to give her a formal introduction while reaffirming her family history which is closely tied to Tibet’s national history. While the book gives both known and unknown intimate memories that are particular to the Yabshi family and Diki Tsering herself, this autobiography was not meant to be an intimate portrayal of her. Instead, it was to serve its overall goal of affirming Tibet’s national history through the telling of her own personal and familial history.


In conclusion, Diki Tsering’s autobigography, Dalai Lama, My Son, was written to introduce Diki Tsering formally to a large and diverse audience. Her recollection of her life served to affirm Tibet’s national history. Though this book claims to be the autobiography of Diki Tsering, in addition to her own voice, we learn the book was translated and edited into English by her granddaughter Yangzom Doma. The book is further edited and ordered due to the efforts of her grandson Khedroob Thondup. Suggesting this autobiography was produced from the collective efforts of all three. Multiple authorship, especially regarding the postscripts, as I’ve pointed out, is also the reason why voicing becomes confusing.

Though Diki Tsering’s critique regarding the devaluation of the female gender should be taken seriously. I’ve also argued against such flat and static reading of her critiques. Instead, I argued for an approach that considers such critiques within the larger framework of such figure’s life to reveal gendered subjectivities that are moving and changing. While she is critical of the structural positioning of girls overall in Tibet, stories of her grandfather cherishing her counters the assumption that such disempowering notions of girls are internalized without question. Additionally, the book’s chronological order emphasizes Diki Tsering’s changing status (peasant to aristocrat) and role (child/girl to wife/daughter-in-law/wife/mother). Such an approach encourages against reading her gendered role as static. Diki Tsering does not speak of the gendered oppression she experienced statically. Instead, they are framed chronologically to show how certain gendered roles, like that of the wife and daughter-in-law, brought oppression; while other roles, such as that of the mother (especially of reincarnate lamas), brought her joy, prestige, and power. This reading also reemphasizes the gender argument I have been engaging so far in my other posts. That many of the female saints I have engaged thus far, make gendered critiques that specifically targets institutional and cultural patriarchy, rather than make whole scale critiques against whole cultural traditions. Especially when it’s the same cultural traditions that brought many elevated status and liberation.

Similarly, as we’ve seen in my other examples with female saints, status makes a difference. Like Chokyi Dronma (2014) and Tare Lhamo (2016), who’s elevated family status helped to alleviate the gender discrepancies they faced on their paths towards spiritual liberation, Diki Tsering’s changed status as the Dalai Lama’s mother and an aristocrat, is also shown to have made the difference in how her gendered role as the mother becomes celebrated. For Diki Tsering, her status as the mother of a high spiritual figure, made all the difference for the public to envision a gendered subjectivity, such as that of the mother, in empowering terms. This is why she is continually celebrated and commemorated in contemporary Tibetan society as “Gyalyum Chenmo.”

In many ways, Diki Tsering’s autobiography serves to iterate lessons I’ve stress in my other post regarding structural patriarchy. We have learned that while gender has been used to hinder and deny empowering pathways for female subjectivities, ultimately, it’s patriarchal structure (and belief) that hinders, not gender or gendered roles themselves. This understanding provided women in many different religious traditions to embrace their gender and still seek and achieve spiritual liberation. Like them, Diki Tsering is also critical of structural patriarchy that devalues women. However, she does not see such devaluation in terms of her gender. Rather, the fact she is celebrated for her role as the great mother suggests gendered roles are not themselves the problem. The problem is prevailing patriarchal structural beliefs that devalues feminized roles that are placed on women. In short, Diki Tsering’s gender critique does not seek to critique Tibetan society and culture as a whole. Instead, her critique targets patriarchal beliefs that have been allowed to function structurally. Besides, it was Tibetan spiritual and cultural beliefs that prompted Diki Tsering to be celebrated for her role as the mother. A role that continues to empower Tibetans, especially those who are or aspire to become mothers in contemporary times.

Works cited

Diemberger, Hildegard. 2014. When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty: The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet. Columbia University Press.

Gayley, Holly. 2016. Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet. Columbia University Press.

Lama, Dalai. 1991. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. Harper Collins.

Lucia, Amanda J. 2014. Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace. Univ of California Press.

McMillin, Laurie Hovell. 2001. “New Age Namtars: Tibetan Autobiographies in English.” In English in Tibet, Tibet in English, pp. 113-136. Palgrave Macmillan US.

Norbu, Thubten Jigme. 1986. “Tibet Is My Country: Autobiography of Thubten Jigme Norbu, Brother of the Dalai Lama.” Wisdom Publilcations.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1996. Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture. Beacon Press.

Tsering, Diki. 2000. Dalai Lama, My son: a Mother’s Story. Penguin Books India.

Pema, Jetsun. 1997. Tibet: My Story, an Autobiography. Element Books, Limited.

“‘Tradition is Our Backbone’: Khedroob Thondup, nephew of the Dalai Lama, on roots, exile, and frying eggs for his uncle.” In Beliefnet. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from