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Samding Dorje Phagmo: The First Tibetan Woman to Begin her own Lineage

At the centre of this fascinating account is just such a discovery Dr Diemberger has made her own translation of the biography the centre of this book, and it is absorbing reading. She brings it alive through the directness of her language. I first heard tales of the remarkable princess Chokyi Dronma — famed for her daring exploits, cultural and social innovation, and unusual powers — during long evenings spent in the Tibetan monastery of Samding over a decade ago.

The monks told me how she had miraculously founded the monastery in the 15th century and how her spiritual leaders had revealed that she was the human embodiment of a deity they gave the title Dorje Phagmo. They showed me her image among the mural paintings that decorated the newly reconstructed monastery and explained how, after her death, her disciples recognised a young girl as her reincarnation, so commencing a lineage of female incarnations that is recognised today.

Two years later, in New York, the legendary scholar of Tibetan studies Gene Smith showed me a copy of the biography of the same princess recorded by her disciples in the wake of her death.

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It was an astonishing discovery: Leonard van der Kuijp, Professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at Harvard, had been able to reproduce this rare Tibetan text from an archive in Beijing. Coming across the story of the life of this extraordinary woman was like finding a treasure that had remained hidden for centuries.

It was a fascinating narrative — vibrant and unexpectedly human — and one that had become the basis for innumerable other stories, genealogical accounts, myths and rituals. Tantalisingly, the manuscript was incomplete — the final pages were missing. I found the ruins of the palace where she was born and the palace where she lived as a married woman, met the monks who now live in the monastery where she was ordained, stared in amazement at the iron-chain bridges and temples built by her masters with her support, searched for the traces of the water channels she built in the arid plains of Porong and visited an early Tibetan printing house that was indirectly part of her legacy in Gungthang.

The manuscript led me into the life of Chokyi Dronma, the rebellious and holy daughter of the King of Gungthang in south-western Tibet. Born in , she was a clever and precocious child, said to be able to read and write by the age of three. At 16 years of age, the princess was married out of the kingdom to cement a strategic relationship between allies. But four years later, suffering the tragedy of the death of her infant daughter, she renounced her royal life to become a Buddhist nun and a mystic.

When a woman becomes a religious dynasty | University of Cambridge

She not only persuaded one of the highest spiritual teachers of her era to give her full monastic ordination which is often believed to be unattainable by a woman , but also established orders for other women practitioners and became so revered that she was officially recognised as one of two principal spiritual heirs to her main master.

I encountered her legacy among begging nuns who have managed to restore their nunnery, among the monks who looked for her images to re-paint the walls of their monastery, and among lay and monastic communities who have been trying to reassemble the texts and restore the sacred dances of her tradition. I discovered that the incarnations of Dorje Phagmo have played important roles over the centuries for the religious and political leaders of their time: Several times I met the current Dorje Phagmo, now 70 years old; as one of the leading religious figures, she plays an important political, if largely symbolic, role in the new administration.

When the Chinese authorities allowed the revival of religion in Tibet after the Cultural Revolution, she was able to use her influence to help in the revival of Buddhism and the reconstruction of the monastic system. The equivalent of over mule-loads of documents was transported to England, originally to Cambridge University Library and the British Museum among others.

Through this research project I sought to bring alive the image of this ancient princess and enrich the meaning that she has for the living tradition in Tibet, but also for wider audiences across cultures.

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The research has uncovered more than a history; it has shown the importance of reincarnation in Tibetan society and religion, the role of biographies in establishing a lineage, the necessity for religious teachers to navigate complex networks of political and financial patronage, the cultural and social innovation linked to the revival of ancient Buddhist civilisations, and the role of women in Buddhism. You do not currently have access to this article. You could not be signed in.


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