Ye Shes Mtsho Rgyal (Yeshe Tsogyal)
YE SHES MTSHO RGYAL (YESHE TSOGYAL)
YE SHES MTSHO RGYAL (YESHE TSOGYAL) (777–873) is a leading female figure and role model for Tibetan Buddhists. She is especially important for the Rnyingma (Nyingma) school of Tibetan Buddhism as a key figure in myth, dreams, iconography, and meditative practice. But she is also significant for Tibetans more generally, especially for her role in the stories of the establishment of Tibetan Buddhism in the eighth century ce.
Yeshe Tsogyal is said to have been one of the queens of the pivotal Tri Songde Tsan (eighth century), the king who brought Indian masters of Buddhism to Tibet and who built the first monastic community at Bsam yas (Samye). There are no contemporary inscriptions that mention her, and so there is some question about whether she is really a historical figure. But she appears at a relatively early point—by at least the twelfth century—in the mythologized accounts of the conversion of Tibet to a Buddhist country, and references to her clan title Mkhar chen Bza' (Karchen Za) also make her historicity credible. It is certainly possible that there was such a queen who became involved in Buddhist meditative practices, even if her story was elaborated greatly as the narrative of Tibet's conversion developed.
The earliest known reference to her life appears in a one-page notice in a history by the Treasure-discoverer Nyangrel Nyima Özer (1136–1204). A full-length presentation of her life from the fourteenth century has recently been identified, but she is best known for the version by Tagsham Nuden Dorje (b. 1655), a visionary of the seventeenth century. This work has been translated into English twice. In this story her early rejection of suitors and her desire to practice Buddhism are recounted, placing her story squarely within the norms of standard Buddhist hagiography, albeit with a number of twists specific to women's situations. Yeshe Tsogyal's plight is noticed by King Tri Songde Tsan, who takes her as one of his queens, but he soon offers her in turn to the Indian Tantric master Padmasambhava, whom the king had invited to Tibet to teach Tantric Buddhism. Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal become a Tantric couple and Padmasambhava transmits to her the full range of Tantric teachings. Early lineage stories of one of those teachings, on the Indic deity Vajrakā, lists Yeshe Tsogyal as a primary lineage holder.
Yeshe Tsogyal then proceeds alone to a mountain hermitage to practice what she has learned. She practices austerities and endures extreme hardship, reaching key stages of realization. At a certain point she is advised through visionary means to take a Tantric consort of her own. In a rare twist from the usual androcentric rendition of this stage on the path, Yeshe Tsogyal sets out to procure a partner, who turns out to be an attractive but indigent man in Nepal, and she brings him back to the caves of Tibet to teach him the requisite techniques of sexual yoga.
Yeshe Tsogyal's hagiography deals with several specifically female situations, one of which is found in its provocative account of her rape by seven bandits. During this ordeal she turns the situation into a teaching for the bandits and ultimately helps them on their own path to buddhahood. She also continues to serve as a premier disciple of the master Padmasambhava. An important element of her story is that she assists the master in recording and then concealing Treasure (gter ma ) teachings for future generations of Buddhists in Tibet. After Padmasambhava's departure to the Pure Land, Yeshe Tsogyal remains as a teacher of many, and finally dies surrounded by a large number of disciples.
One more element of her life story in the Tagsham version is that she defeats in debate certain rival teachers from the Bon religion. This episode seems to be missing in earlier renditions of her life, but it connects her to larger conceptions about Tibet's past and its identity vis-à-vis Buddhism. Nonetheless, Yeshe Tsogyal was also adopted as a heroine for Tibetan followers of Bon, and another full-length version of her life was recently identified in the Bonpo canon of scriptures.
The appeal of Yeshe Tsogyal is undoubtedly tied primarily to her image as a female master of meditation and yoga. That she serves as a role model for Tibetan women involved in the lay yogic path can be seen from the fact that outstanding female religious leaders in Tibet have been regularly identified as her "emanation," up to the twenty-first century. But she is also a popular source of visionary revelation for both male and female meditators. Yeshe Tsogyal often appears in the dreams and visions of yogis of the Nyingma school, during which she gives indications of how to uncover a Treasure revelation of their own, along with other key teachings. In addition, practitioners of visualization meditation in the Nyingma tradition will often use her image as the object of their imagination in the Tantric rites known as sādhana meditation. One of the most popular cycles of meditation that contains instructions for visualization of Yeshe Tsogyal is the Heart Sphere Teachings (Klong chen Snying thig), revealed by Jigme Lingpa (1729–1798) in the eighteenth century. Tantric empowerment rites that focus on her image continue to be given to students in Tibet today, as well as in the exile communities of Tibetan Buddhists in South Asia.
Dowman, Keith. Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel. London, 1984.
Gross, Rita M. "Yeshe Tsogyel: Enlightened Consort, Great Teacher, Female Role Model." The Tibet Journal 12, no. 4 (Winter 1987): 1–18.
Gyatso, Janet. Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton, N.J., 1998.
Gyatso, Janet. "A Partial Genealogy of the Lifestory of Yeshe Tsogyal." Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 2 (2004).
Nam-mkha'i snying-po. Mother of Knowledge: The Enlightenment of Ye-shes mTsho-rgyal. Translated by Tarthang Tulku. Berkeley, Calif., 1983.
Tsogyal, Yeshe. Dakini Teachings: Padmasambhava's Oral Instructions to Lady Tsogyal. Translated by Erik Pema Kunsang. Boston, 1990.
Janet Gyatso (2005)