Ma gcig Lab sgron (Machig Labdron)

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MA GCIG LAB SGRON (MACHIG LABDRON) (c. 10551149) is the best-known woman in Tibetan Buddhist history. Undoubtedly a historical figure, she is revered both as a role model for life as a female yogi, and for creating an extremely popular meditative ritual used throughout Tibetan religion, the Gcod (Chöd) rite.

Ma gcig flourished towards the beginning of Tibet's Buddhist renaissance, or "New" (gsar ma) transmission period, that occurred after the fall of the Yarlung dynasty. It was a time of decentralized political power during which many lamas, both lay and monastic, established small communities of Buddhist practice and learning throughout central, western, and southern Tibet. The social climate also apparently allowed the emergence of a number of outstanding female Buddhist leaders and practitioners, more than most other periods of Tibetan Buddhist history. Several of these women were dubbed Ma gcig, literally, "One Mother." Ma gcig Lab sgron seems to have gained particular eminence during her lifetime, and her story was preserved in a number of biographical sketches.

It is not possible to substantiate the details of the longer and most widely known versions of her life, but this basic outline seems probable: She was born in Lab phyi (Labchi) in the Himalayan regions of southern Tibet. She achieved early notoriety as a talented reader of scripture, a service that religious figures performed for lay persons in order to generate merit. At the home of one such lay sponsor Ma gcig met a traveling yogi from India, with whom she coupled and had several children. She was vilified for this union and for having abandoned her status as a nun, and moved with her family eventually to the mountain retreat Zangs ri Khang dmar (Zangri Khangmar), which remained her base for the rest of her life. She separated from her partner some years later, and also left her children alone for periods in order to study with Buddhist masters. Her most significant teacher was Pha Dam pa Sangs rgyas (Pha Dampa Sangye), a somewhat mysterious figure who probably was from India, and who transmitted a cycle of Buddhist meditative teachings in Tibet that spawned its own set of lineages, called the "Pacification" (Zhi byed) transmission.

Pha Dam pa is said to have taught Ma gcig the techniques of the Gcod ("Cutting") meditative rite, but there is little evidence for this. It is just as likely that it is a technique of Ma gcig's own invention, drawing creatively upon Buddhist ideas and other meditative practices from the region. It provocatively features a visualized sequence in which the meditator identifies with the female Tantric deity Vajrayoginī, who then cuts off the top half of the skull of the meditator's visualized body. Vajrayoginī proceeds to cut up the rest of the meditator's corpse, and then boils it in the bowl made from the severed skull. This gruesome stew is then served to invited guests: the demons, goblins, and ghouls of the neighborhood, as well as beings to whom the meditator owes a karmic debt. Meanwhile, the meditator imagines having achieved unity with the enlightened deity Vajrayoginī.

The visualized sequence of Gcod is performed widely in traditional Tibetan society, along with distinctive and haunting tunes, often to the beat of a two-sided drum. It is employed both as a means of personal realization for the practitioner, and as a service to the community. The rite is thought to serve to exorcise demons and burdensome karmic debts in the region where it is chanted. Ma gcig herself is said to have used the technique to reverse the epilepsy of one of her sons. After her death, her teachings were preserved and transmitted by several of her children, and soon were adopted as a popular practice for wandering yogis as well as monks and nuns from virtually all schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

In addition to being credited widely with creating the Gcod tradition, Ma gcig is the subject of a cult of veneration for her yogic prowess. She is also revered for symbolizing an independent woman with charisma and self-conviction. Along with Ye shes mtsho rgyal (Yeshe Tsogyal), Ma gcig is one of the most common female figures with whom religious Tibetan women are identified, or considered to be emanations. In the twentieth century the Central Tibetan nun Ani Lochen was renowned as an emanation of Ma gcig, and she became a respected guru for many people in the government and leadership echelon of Lhasa and environs.

Ma gcig's hagiography claims that she is the only Tibetan to have introduced a Buddhist tradition to Indians, a notion based on the story that several "fleet-footed" Indian yogis came to visit her in her mountain retreat to study Gcod. Whatever the veracity of this story, it indicates a recognition of her creative contribution to Tibetan Buddhism, a recognition uncommon for Tibetan historiography, which almost always attributes the creation of new techniques to an inspiration of the Buddha or other Indic source. It is impossible to know how much of the meditation is actually of Ma gcig's authorship as such. Still, the tradition continues to be attributed to her today, and it retains its popularity both inside Tibet and in the exiled community in South Asia.

See Also

Ani Lochen; Ye shes Mtsho rgyal (Yeshe Tsogyal).


Edou, Jerome. Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996.

Evans-Wentz, W. Y., ed. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. London, 1960. See pages 301334.

Gyatso, Janet. "The Development of the gCod Tradition." In Soundings in Tibetan Civilization, edited by Barbara Aziz and Matthew Kapstein, pp. 7498. Delhi, 1985.

Janet Gyatso (2005)