ANI LOCHEN (c. 1865–1951) came to achieve the most treasured status of Tibetan culture, that of a religious master, and her devotees regard her as an emanation (sprul sku ) of the the famous eleventh-century yoginī Machig Labdron. An exceptional autobiography, written during her last years, provides insight into her spiritual achievements, as well as the more mundane aspects of the life of female religious specialists in Tibet during the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.
In her youth Ani Lochen was an itinerant yoginī ; in midlife she was ordained a nun (a ne ); and in her mature years she became a famous lama (bla ma ). Ani Lochen was addressed as rinpoche (precious), a title reserved for high lamas and only exceptionally used for female masters. In premodern Tibet, thousands of male yogins, rinpoches, and learned monks competed for attention and support, and it is highly remarkable that a woman of humble origins was able to rise from poverty, physical and psychological abuse, and ethnic, social, and gender discrimination to become a treasured teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Ani Lochen established one of the largest and most famous nunneries in Tibet, Shug gseb (Shugseb), at the mountain Gangri Thokar south of Lhasa. Organized as a mountain hermitage, Shug gseb became the refuge of three hundred yoginīs and nuns, who practiced meditation and yoga in caves and cells scattered on the hillside above the convent. Apart from periods of strict seclusion, Ani Lochen's door was always open—even during the night—for nuns in need of advice and instruction. At Shug gseb the routines of meditation were broken only when famous teachers visited, for common rituals on special days, and for the daily duties of monastic living.
Ani Lochen came to embody important cultural and religious impulses from all of Tibet, stretching from Amdo and Kham in the east, where her main teachers came from, to the holy mountain Kailash in the west, which she visited twice. She also spent years meditating in caves in the Himalayas in Nepal. Ani Lochen received her training from masters of the "old school" of Tibetan Buddhism (Rnying ma [Nyingma] pa), which traces its spiritual ancestry back to ancient sources of Buddhist wisdom, yoga, and meditation disseminated in Tibet during the ninth century, possibly earlier. Ani Lochen combined learning from several Tibetan Buddhist schools and continued an eclectic tradition (ris med) transferred to her by her main teacher Pema Gyatso (d. c. 1889), himself a personal disciple of the great yogin Shabkar (1781–1851) from Amdo in northeastern Tibet.
During Ani Lochen's lifetime, Shug gseb became a vibrant and active religious community attracting many well-known yogins and scholars. One of the greatest scholars and adepts in Tibetan history, Klong chen Rab 'byams pa (Longchen Rabjampa, 1308–1363), wrote his main works on Buddhist philosophy in a cave near Ani Lochen's convent, thus making the mountain an important site of pilgrimage. Among religious masters and important persons visiting Shug gseb during Ani Lochen's days were Rva sgreng rin po che (Reting Rinpoche, (1912–1947), the regent of Tibet; Si tu chos kyi rgya mtsho (Situ Chokyi Gyatso, 1880–1925), the abbot of Kah thog (Kathok) Monastery in Kham; the king of Gling tshangs (Lingtsang, Kham); Rang byung Rig pa'i rdo rje (Rangchung Rigpe Dorje, 1924–1981), the sixteenth Karma pa; and the father of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Among Ani Lochen's teachers were also such "crazy" siddhas as the tenth 'Khrul zhig rin po che (Trulshig Rinpoche, d. 1920s) and Stag lung Ma sprul Rin po che (Taklung Matrul Rinpoche, 1916–1976), who employed unconventional means to reach the Buddhist goal of enlightenment.
When Ani Lochen and her religious companions arrived in Lhasa around 1880—after years of wandering in the Himalayas—people were amazed to see such a group of yogins and yoginīs, their hair long and matted, their cotton robes in rags. In Lhasa word spread quickly of this remarkable yoginī, and soon the aristocracy—particularly the women—took her to their hearts. She was invited to noble mansions like that of the Lha klu (Lalu) family to read sūtras; she was ordained a nun on the terrace of Rag shag (Ragshag) House, and she became the house-lama of Lady Bshag byang (Shagjang) in E-yul. Counted among her devout disciples and supporters were some of the most influential families in Lhasa: the Phreng ring (Taring), the Nga phod (Ngaphö), the Spang mda' tshang (Pangda Tsang), the Ka shod (Kapshö), the 'Brang stod (Drang Tö), the Ragshag, the Lcog bkras (Chogdre), the Kun bzang rtse (Kunsangtse), the Pha la (Phala), the Hor khang (Horkang), and the Sne do (Nedo). Lady Nedo (b. 1917) recalled the following:
I had heard much about Jetsun [Venerable] Rinpoche in Lhasa, but didn't really have faith in her. But in 1948 I stayed at her nunnery for more than a month. At Shugseb there were people from all walks of life: nobles and businessmen, peasants and nomads. They came from Lhasa and from different villages in the vicinity: from Western Tibet (Ngari), Shigatse, Lhoka and Kham. I even saw Bhutanese there. The pilgrims gathered in [the] monastery kitchen and in the assembly-hall. Jetsun Lochen told the nuns to feed them all. Since her private quarter was so small, the devotees had to wait in line to receive her blessings and advice. She treated everyone alike, making no distinction between high and low. Jetsun Lochen would say, "yar shog, yar shog "—"come in, come in!" I was invited one day into her private room at the time of her morning toilette. I had heard that Jetsun Lochen liked French perfume, and I offered her a small blue bottle of expensive perfume which I bought in Lhasa [the perfume was labeled Evening in Paris and was popular among the noble ladies in Lhasa at the time]. Jetsun Lochen was so old—she could not move or walk. When the nuns lifted her naked body—like one does a baby—her legs remained in cross-legged position. When they tried to stretch them out, her legs immediately resumed the meditation position—there were even bumps on them marked by years of sitting like this. The nuns changed Jetsun Lochen's diapers made of soft wool, and even after days and nights in meditation, the urine did not smell bad at all. I had never seen anything like this—suddenly I had great faith in Jetsun Rinpoche. I thought, "She is the real Machig Labdron and the real Tārā [goddess of compassion]!" I still have faith in her—it has not changed since then. (Nedo, 1999)
In the traditional (pre-1950) Tibetan context, female religious specialists were few in number, and even fewer were famous. They did not have important clerical positions, they were generally not in demand by laypeople, and they were poor. Ani Lochen was an exceptional woman in Tibet—one who painstakingly pursued her spiritual quest, and who was able, through the practice of yoga and meditation, and with the help of generous support from her devotees, to become the spiritual master of thousands of disciples. Even at present, Ani Lochen's death is ritually commemorated on the thirteenth day of the month by nuns and yoginīs, but also by monks and yogins at rDeng rgyal Ri khrod (Dengyel Hermitage, built near the cave of another famous yoginī, the eighth-century Ye shes mtsho rgyal), at Zangs ri mKhar dmar (Sangri Kharmar, the residence of Machig Labdron during the latter part of her life), and of course, at Shug gseb.
Shortly before Ani Lochen's death, devotees requested that she tell the story of her life. The nun Gen Tinley wrote the draft, and the autobiography was edited by Dawa Dorje. Then it was carved on woodblocks and printed. The copy used as the main source here was reproduced from a tracing of a print from woodblocks by Sonam Topgay Kazi and published in 281 folios in the Ngagyur Nyingmay Sungrab series, vol. 22 (Gangtok, Sikkim, 1975): Autobiography of the Shug gseb rje btsun rig 'dzin chos nyid bzang mo. About half of the text consists of spiritual songs presumably composed by the editor Dawa Dorje. A new 320-page edition, edited by Lobsang Tsering, was published by the Tibetan People's Publishing House in Lhasa in 1997: Shug gseb rje btsun sku zhabs kyi rnam thar.
Havnevik, Hanna. "On Pilgrimage for Forty Years in the Himalayas: The Female Lama Jetsun Lochen Rinpoche's (1865–1951) Quest for Sacred Sites." In Pilgrimage in Tibet, edited by Alex McKay, pp. 85–107. Richmond, U.K., 1998.
Havnevik, Hanna. "The Life of Jetsun Lochen Rinpoche (1865–1951) as Told in Her Autobiography." Acta Humaniora 50. Ph.D. diss., University of Oslo, 1999.
Horkang, Sonam Pelbar. "Shug gseb rje btsun rin po che rig 'dzin chos dbyings bzang mo'i rnam thar mdor bsdus." Bod ljongs Zhib jug 1 (1989): 124–133. Sonam Pelbar Horkang is the younger brother of Lady Nedo, whose reminiscences of Ani Lochen are quoted above.
Nedo, Tsering Yudron. Interview by Tseyang Changopa in Lady Nedo's home in Lhasa, May 20, 1999.
Hanna Havnevik (2005)