Ma Gcig Lab Sgron (Machig Labdrön)

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Ma gcig lab sgron (pronounced Machig Labdrön; ca. 1055–1149) was an eminent female Tibetan Buddhist teacher who codified and disseminated the ritual meditation system called severance (gcod, pronounced chö). Born in the southern Tibetan region of La phyi, Ma gcig lab sgron was recognized as a gifted individual even in her youth. According to her traditional biographies, she had a natural affinity for the prajñāpāramitā (perfection of wisdom) sūtras, spending much of her youth reading and studying their numerous texts and commentaries. For several years, she continued her education under Grwa pa mngon shes and Skyo ston Bsod nams bla ma in a monastic setting where she was eventually employed to use her skills in ritual recitation and exegesis. She then took up the lifestyle of a tantric yogin, living as the consort of the Indian adept Thod pa Bhadra, eventually giving birth to several children, perhaps five in all. Vilified as a "nun who had repudiated her religious vows," Ma gcig lab sgron left her family and eventually met the famed Indian yogin who became her primary guru, Pha Dam pa sangs rgyas (d. 1105/1117), a contemporary of the famous Tibetan poet-saint Milaraspa (1028/40–1111/23). Dam pa sangs rgyas transmitted to Ma gcig lab sgron the instructions of pacification (zhi byed) and the mahĀmudrĀ teachings. She combined these with her training in prajñāpāramitā and other indigenous practices, passing them on as the system of severance, principally to the Nepalese yogin Pham thing pa and her own son Thod smyon bsam grub.

The tradition of severance, like that of pacification, is commonly classified among eight important tantric traditions and transmission lineages that spread throughout Tibet—the so-called eight great chariot-like lineages of achievement (sgrub brgyud shing rta chen po brgyad), a system that prefigures the development of a fourfold sectarian division often noted in writings on Tibetan Buddhism. Ma gcig lab sgron herself described severance as a practice that severs (gcod) attachment to one's body, dualistic thinking, and conceptions of hope and fear. Although usually practiced by solitary yogins in isolated and frightening locations, severance liturgies are also performed by monastic assemblies, both accompanied by the ritual music of hand drum and human thigh-bone trumpet. The meditation, rooted in the theory of the prajñāpāramitā and mahāmudrā, also involves the visualized offering of the adept's body—flesh, blood, bones, and organs—as food for a vast assembly of beings, including local spirits and demons.

Ma gcig lab sgron is revered in Tibet as a ḌĀkinĪ goddess, an emanation of the Great Mother (Yum chen mo) and the bodhisattva Tārā. Her reincarnations have also been recognized in contemporary individuals, including the former abbess of the important Shug gseb Nunnery near Lhasa, Rje btsun Rig 'dzin chos nyid zang mo (1852–1953). Ma gcig lab sgron remains a primary Tibetan example of the ideal female practitioner and her tradition of severance continues to be widely employed among Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, both lay and monastic, of all sectarian affiliations.

See also:Prajñāpāramitā Literature; Tibet; Women


Edou, Jérôme. Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.

Gyatso, Janet. "The Development of the Gcod Tradition." In Soundings in Tibetan Civilization, ed. Barbara Nimri Aziz and Matthew Kapstein. Delhi: Manohar, 1985.

Roerich, George N., trans. and ed. The Blue Annals, 2 vols. Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1949. Reprint, New Delhi: Motilal Benarsidass, 1989.

Andrew Quintman