[Repinted from Himalayan Art, Life of Machig Labdron, 1800's]The following unpublished biography of Machig Labdron by Lama Tsultrim Allione is the first of several articles in relation to the historic upcoming conference hosted by Tara Mandala:
July 12 - 16, 2017
Supreme view is beyond all duality of subject and object…
Supreme view is free from reference point. --Machig Lapdrön's Last Instructions
Machig Lapdrön was born in 1055, at a time of great innovation and development in Tibetan Buddhism. Since we will be looking at how to apply her teachings to our own lives I thought it would be helpful to tell her story, and convey something about the spiritual teachings that influenced her life and her work. Through Machig’s biography I learned she did not establish herself formally as a teacher. Although she began as a nun, she gave that up to become a mother. She was not a hermit either, and although she wandered as a yogini she spent most of her life in service of her students.
Machig had been an Indian yogi in her previous life. Through a series of visions this yogi left his body in a cave in India and his consciousness traveled to Tibet. This consciousness entered the womb of a great noblewoman. The night she conceived, this woman and her sister, and even her neighbors, had special dreams. When the baby was born, it was a girl with a third eye shape in her forehead. Her mother hid the baby behind a door, afraid of what her husband would say.
But he had heard the baby had been born and insisted on seeing her. He saw a sacred letter written very finely in her third eye marking and saw that she had all the signs of a wisdom dakini (feminine wisdom being). She grew rapidly and before she was three Machig knew many mantras and liked to do prostrations and make offerings. She learned to read easily, and became a speed-reader by the time she was five. She could read two volumes in the time it took an adult reader to read one. The King heard of her and tested her publicly, declaring she was a wisdom dakini, and recommended that she be protected from negative people.
Machig Lapdrön left home with her mother and sister and spent five years reciting the Prajna Paramita sutra. Then her mother passed away, and she and her sister began to study with various teachers. Machig studied with a teacher named Lama Drapa, who taught her in great depth about the Prajna Paramita sutra. He then asked her to stay with him for four years. She agreed and became the reader for his monastery, traveling to the homes of lay people and reciting this sutra. In this way she immersed herself in these teachings while serving her teacher.
The Prajna Paramita, or “Great Mother,” is a profound philosophical doctrine that began in India around the time of Christ. The Prajna Paramita sutra is the most important text of Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasizes the doctrines of emptiness and compassion. It formed the foundation of Mahayana Buddhism, which spread to China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea. The teachings were given to the great Buddhist scholar Nargajuna, who lived in approximately 100 AD and came from an area of southern India whose people were descendants of the dark-skinned ancient Dravidians. The text, its doctrine, and the virtues represented by it were personified by a female deity, a mother goddess who had been with humanity from its inception in the Paleolithic period. Statues of this Prajna Paramita were observed by the Chinese pilgrim Fa-shien in 400 AD.
The innovation that distinguished Mahayana from earlier Buddhism was the introduction of female Buddhas. In earlier Buddhism higher levels of spiritual life were considered beyond the reach of women, but in Mahayana the mother goddess Prajna Paramita was primary, often described as the “The Mother of all the Buddhas.”
Here is the most well-known quote from the Heart Sutra, an essential discourse on Prajna Paramita:
Machig's close identification with the Prajna Paramita from her childhood extends throughout her life. It is important to understand Prajna Paramita because Machig's teachings are based on it in several important ways. First, the whole practice of Chöd is aimed at overcoming the ego’s self-clinging so we can perceive a state where there is no self and no other, which is what Prajna Paramita teaches. Secondly her understanding of the nature of demons came in part from rereading and studying the sutra. Thirdly we find in the act of feeding guests one's own body the ultimate image of the nurturing mother, the Great Mother.“Form is emptiness/Emptiness is form/Form is not other than emptiness/Emptiness is not other than form.”
The Prajna Paramita teaches that, once we let go of conceptual thought, emptiness is revealed as fullness, not a dead nothingness but a vibrant womb of awareness. The teaching on emptiness shows us this is not mere self-sacrifice leading to depletion (that many women experience), but an open-hearted generosity based on an understanding of the essential impermanence of all forms. We will learn more about Prajna Paramita and the ideal of emptiness and “not-two” in Chapter 12
While Machig was receiving in-depth Prajna Paramita teachings, a great Indian yogi named Dampa Sangye came from India, looking for her. Before they met she had had a dream about him, so in the early morning she went out and ran into him in the courtyard. She began to prostrate herself but he stopped her and touched foreheads with her, a sign of equal status and great intimacy. She asked him how she could help others and he replied:
“Confess all your hidden faults.
Approach that which you find repulsive.
Whoever you think you cannot help - help them.
Anything you are attached to let go of it.
Go to places like cemeteries that scare you.
Sentient beings are limitless as the sky.
Find the Buddha inside yourself.”
Dampa became an important teacher for Machig, and she received extensive initiations and teachings from him. According to many scholars, the philosophical aspect of Chöd came from Dampa.
Shortly afterwards, a great yogi named Lama Sonam Drapa learned of Machig. He had been a famous teacher, but had become disillusioned by the lack of genuine students and became a wandering yogi, walking through the mountains and to the sacred places of Tibet. He decided to come to test her. He said to her: “You are very learned in Prajna Paramita, the perfection of profound knowing, but do you understand the real meaning of it?”
She replied, “Yes, I do.”
He said: “Then explain it to me.”
So she explained the ten levels of the Bodhisattva path, and how to practice the five paths of the Bodhisattva, and how to practice meditation, all of this in great detail.
Then he said: “You are obviously very intelligent, but you don't seem to have made the teachings part of you. Everything you said was correct, but the most important thing to realize is this: If you do not grasp with your mind, you will find a fresh state of being. If you let go of clinging, a state beyond all conceptions will be born. Then the fire of great prajna will grow. Dark self-clinging ignorance will be conquered. The root of the teachings is to examine the movement of your own mind very carefully. Do this!”
She went back to the Prajna Paramita sutra, and read it in light of what Lama Sonam had said. She came across a section about the nature of demons and was so profoundly affected by it that she reached a new understanding of the nature of reality. This was a key turning point in her life, and the moment when understanding the nature of demons became the foundation for the Chöd. Machig described it this way:
“The origin of all demons is in the mind itself.
When awareness holds onto and embraces any outer object,
This is the grasping of a demon.
Likewise, mind is stained by a mental image
That is wrongly taken to be a real object.”
Maras and Demons: Obstacles to Enlightenment
In Buddhism the idea of a negative presence accompanying those seeking enlightenment goes back to the Buddha, who was followed throughout his whole life by a shadowy figure called Mara. Mara is the energy of resistance, laziness, sensual desire, craving, anger, hope, fear, and longing for praise and honor that arises within the psyche, and sidetracks us from the goal of awakening. The Buddha had a relationship with Mara such that he actually addressed Mara directly, and Mara responded.
Mara always knew the Buddha’s weak points and approached him at the most difficult moments. The night Gotama, the future Buddha, decided to leave his princely life, abandon his wife and newly born son, and renounce all claims to worldly power, Mara made his first appearance. While everyone in the palace was asleep, Prince Gotama called his charioteer, Karnataka, asking him to wrap the horses’ hooves in cloth to muffle their sound and to accompany him on foot. They managed to escape the palace undetected, and climbed the hill that gave the future Buddha his final look at the moonlit palace, oil lamps glittering in the windows. At that moment Mara appeared in the air in front of him.
“Do not go, in seven days you will achieve universal sovereignty.”
Mara was playing on our tendency to pursue the happiness and success that lie just around the corner, after just a few more pieces have fallen into place. We have the idea that when we get to a certain age, or finally get married and have children, or get a certain job, there will be a big payoff, maybe just days away. Mara is also offering the young Gotama the ultimate in worldly status, but the Prince recognized the trap. Notice Mara isn't offering it right then, but in seven days, close enough to seem immediate, but just out of his grasp.
Gotama said, “Mara I know you. Rulership of this world is not what I seek, but to become a Buddha.”
This sentence' Mara I know you' is key in understanding how Mara works. He works by us not recognizing what comes up as a distraction and obstacle. Then first most important moment is this moment of recognition when we can say, 'Ah, Mara I know you.'
Mara appeared at several other times during the Gotama's life, including several times after his enlig htenment. Mara is in all of our fear and clinging.Mara is the one who limits us, or blocks us.
In Machig's time, about fifteen hundred years after the Buddha, the notion of Mara had been broken down into four types of Maras, categories of obstacles to enlightenment. These begin with the Mara of ourpsycho physical constituents. The second is the Mara of destructive, poisonous emotions, which can affect us not only mentally but physically (think depression, anger, jealousy, etc.). The third Mara is being so caught up in trying to have a luxurious life that we miss the opportunity to wake up called the 'Mara of the son of the gods', and the fourth Mara is the death, this is an obstacle that clearly limits us all, even the Buddha was subject to death. As we age we can feel the grip of this Mara tightening. We are all pregnant with death, and at some point the due date will arrive, or we may have a miscarriage, or a premature delivery, but one way or another it's going to happen.
It was in reading about these four Maras that Machig had her enlightenment experience. Afterwards Machig radically changed her way of life, and set out on her path to eventually formulate the Chöd practice based on overcoming the four Maras, which Machig categorized in her own unique way. She had been living in the rarified atmosphere of the monastery close to her teachers, wearing elegant silk robes and eating only pure foods. But after her epiphany she became a wandering yogini, wearing rags, living with beggars and lepers, and staying anywhere.
After this Machig received further teachings from Dampa Sangye, who recognized her true lineage and explained to her that she was descended from Prajna Paramita, the mother of all the Buddhas. Then he told her about her past life in India, and that there was a prophecy in several ancient texts that in the age after the death of the Buddha there would be an emanation of the Mother of all the Buddhas in the northern snow country (Tibet). According to the prophecy, her teachings would spread widely and endure a long time.
Machig likely received Mahamudra teachings from both Lama Sonam and Dampa, forming the second most important spiritual base for her Chöd teachings. The Mahamudra is a method of direct introduction to the nature of Mind (or Buddha-nature). Mahamudra developed after Prajna Paramita, arising with Tantric Buddhism around the ninth century. Mahamudra places a little less emphasis on negation than Prajna Paramita, and a little more weight on the union of the void and radiance. In his wonderful “Song of Mahamudra,” the great King Tilopa says:
"The void needs no reliance Mahamudra rests on nought. Without making an effort.But remaining loose and natural, one can break the yoke, gaining liberation. If one sees nought when staring into space,If with mind one observes mind, one destroys distinctions and reaches Buddhahood…Though words are spoken to explain the void,the void can never be expressed.Though we say, ‘the mind is a bright light’ It is beyond all words and symbols.Although the mind is void in essence, all things it embraces and contains..”
After Machig's meetings with Dampa and Lama Sonam, she was sent to read the Prajna Paramita to a family connected to her teacher, and when she arrived she had a dream about an Indian yogi named Töpabhadra. Later the same night she had another similar dream, and the next morning at dawn a girl arrived, riding a white mule; she had been sent from India by the yogi Topabhadra. She said he was a great yogi and he was inviting Machig to visit him.
Machig did so. After seventeen days of discussing Dharma and telling stories about India, Topabhadra came together with Machig in sexual union. Because a bright rainbow light was seen coming from their room, the patroness of the house came to see if the shrine had caught on fire. When she opened the door all she could see was brilliant red and white spheres of light fused together in the middle of the room.
She kept this a secret. Seven days later Töpabhadra went on pilgrimage, and Machig continued to read the Prajna Paramita sutra. But she was concerned that her relationship might cause disruptions and obstacles so she went to see her teachers, Lama Drapa and Lama Sonam. They advised her to stay with Topabhadra. Lama Sonam told her that she and Topabhadra had a karmic connection and weren't breaking any religious vows; he'd had positive dreams about this union.
So when she was twenty-three Machig went to live with Topabhadra, and the following year had her first son, Drubpa, which means “fulfilled.” Because the people of central Tibet where they had been living criticized and shunned the couple, they moved to another area. It's hard to know exactly why they were so criticized, but Tibetans generally like their spiritual leaders to act differently than ordinary people, and to this point Machig had been living as a nun if not fully ordained, and people had great respect for her. When she was twenty-five she had another son, and when she was thirty she gave birth to a daughter on a mountain pass “where the dakinis gather.” Perhaps Machig needed to actually be a mother, to experience the challenges and attachments of this very humanizing experience, before she could truly know her connection to the Great Mother.
According to her biography, Machig’s teachers encouraged her to unite with Topabhadra to create a lineage, but this doesn't make sense because most teachers had lineages that came through their disciples, not their children. Perhaps she needed a consort to work with previously unknown pathways to bliss that allowed her to then bring her teachings into bodily experience. Certainly she developed a whole body of sexual yoga practice that couldn't have come into being without this experience. Nor was this the only legacy of motherhood. After all the fame and prestige she had enjoyed since childhood, now Machig had to endure public humiliation. Having three children and being a homeless yogini wandering with her husband and babies on the 12,000-foot plateau of Tibet in sub-zero winter, also took a terrible toll.
Then, when she was thirty-five, Machig left her children with their father and returned to see her teachers. When she asked Lama Sonam for the ritual for awakening the heart-mind of Bodhi, he replied, “You don't need to have awakening mind conferred on you. You are the indisputable great adept, the great Dharma Master. You are the Great Mother, progenitor of all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. You are the Great Eyes with mastery over sutra and tantra. You are the Great Source and Treasury of All Dharma. You don't need an awakening mind ritual. In your presence, I am like a star beneath the moon.” He then said, “You should go to Central Tibet. There is a red mountain the color of copper where you will help many beings who are to be tamed.”
Before proceeding to this place, she went to to see her other teacher, Dampa. She asked him for further teachings, but he said that he had already given her his most profound teachings. So she moved to the red mountain in a place called Zangri Khangmar. There a couple whose death had been predicted within a year asked Machig for help, and when she helped them avert this fate, Machig's reputation spread throughout Tibet. By the time she was forty, stories about her excellent qualities had spread widely. As a great yogini she taught the learned teachers of Tibet and became legendary. At this time she fully formulated the Mahamudra Chöd, and became known as Mother Lapdrön. It was said that through her practice of Chöd she could heal 424 kinds of diseases and subdue 80,000 kinds of demonic forces.
When she was forty-one Machig went into retreat in a cave, and the female Buddha Tara, goddess and mother of the Tibetan people, appeared to her surrounded by many dakinis. Tara made a prophecy about Machig and her followers, and emphasized that Machig would develop a secret “vanquishing conduct,” which is one of the ways Chöd practice is defined. After this Machig praised Tara and said: “You have been very kind to me and have given me power. I am just a weak stupid woman, but now I have become someone who can benefit others because of your grace.” Then Tara said that Machig’s teaching would spread and she would attain enlightenment. As Tara said this, immeasurable light spread from her heart and then dissolved in Machig's heart. Then Tara and her retinue vanished into the sky, just as dawn broke.
After this Machig was reunited with her children, who were brought to her by Topabhadra. Her son, who was fifteen, and her daughter, who was ten, had also begun training, and already knew several versions of the Prajna Paramita sutra and several other practices. Her son was sometimes overcome by madness and blacked out. To resolve this Machig sent him to sleep for seven days in a charnel ground, where bodies were cremated. He returned cured, so she decided to confer many teachings on him and had him ordained as a monk.
Passing the Test
Machig's fame spread all the way from Tibet to India. Her new Mahamudra Chöd proved revolutionary, and drew an instant following. This was especially surprising because at the time, Buddhist theology flowed almost exclusively from India to Tibet, and not the other way around. As a result she caused quite a stir among the higher-ups in Indian Buddhism.
According to her biography the pundits in Bodhgaya held a meeting to discuss her. They said: “All true Dharma comes from India but this teaching called Mahamudra Chöd did not, even though Mahamudra does. This teaching has spread from Tibet to Nepal. Even the Nepalese are receiving teachings from this woman with three eyes; she teaches the Chöd, which they claim can overcome the forty sicknesses and the 80,000 obstructions. This three-eyed woman claims to be an incarnation of the Prajna Paramita Dakini, but more than likely she's an emanation of bad demons. It will probably be difficult to conquer her. But if we do not, she will destroy all of Tibet and then invade India. We must send a party to check up on her.”
Everyone agreed that since Machig seemed to be a dangerous magician they'd better send their most powerful scholar-yogis. So three accomplished yogis flew to Tibet “like hawks in search of a little bird,” using a spiritual practice that allowed them to travel through the air, and they landed on her roof terrace. When Machig came out and greeted them in their own language, they said, “How is it that you know our language?”
She responded, “Well, because I have been Indian in many previous lives.”
And they said, “Do you remember your previous lifetimes?”
She answered, “Yes, I remember them all,” to which they replied, “Well, why don't you tell us about them."
She said, “Fine, but what I’d like to do is to gather all my disciples from here and Nepal and find translators. Then everyone can hear what I have to say, otherwise only you will be able to understand.”
So to stage the debate she sent fast walkers all over Tibet. Fast walking is a practice using inner powers to travel long distances without touching the ground with your feet. It took about a month for everyone to arrive at Machig’s residence, since not everyone knew fast walking. They arrived with a month's worth of supplies and Machig began to teach over 500,000 people, and engage in debates that were widely translated. No matter how hard the Indians tried, they could not defeat her. Not only was her scholarly understanding amazing, but her direct realization of enlightenment was undeniable.
Finally she said, “Listen to me, everyone! The Indians do not have faith in me or my teachings; that is why they have sent these three pundits here. These three could try to benefit from my teachings, but instead they just keep asking me about my past lives. They won't believe me, and after a while even my own disciples will begin to have doubts. So now I will have to clear this up once and for all.”
She then described a cave in Southern India called Potari. In that cave, she said, they would find her body from her previous life that had not decayed, but was youthful and healthy looking. She told them to cremate the body with white sandalwood and predicted exactly what would be found in the ashes, including bas-reliefs of five male and female Buddhas, an image of the Great Mother, and a white and green image of the goddess Tara.
She said that if events did not proceed just as she had described with no variations, then everything, including her teachings, could be considered false. And so the pundits left with Dampa and by means of fast walking they went to Potari, found the body, and created a huge pyre of sandalwood and cremated the body of Machig Lapdrön’s previous incarnation. In the ashes they discovered various relics, all precisely as Machig had predicted. Dampa returned to Tibet with the relics, and people from all over Tibet came to see them and receive blessings.
After this final vindication of Machig's teachings they spread widely throughout Tibet, Nepal, and India. Machig was now fifty-two. The Indians requested that she go to India to teach, but she said she'd had many incarnations in India and would stay in Tibet. However, she would send her Dharma system that originated in Tibet, the Chöd practice. This prompted her to write some of her key works, which were then sent to India.
The rest of Machig’s life was spent mainly at her home in Zangri Khangmar, teaching her numerous disciples, 1,263 of whom reached enlightenment. She also healed many with the Chöd: 423 lepers were completely cured, their flesh restored to its previous condition. She passed into bliss at the age of ninety-nine. All of her children became lineage holders, particularly her son, Tö Nyon Sam Drup.
When we look at Machig's life we see her self-doubt balanced by an underlying sense of destiny. She was at once very human, struggling with questions about whether to give up her spiritual vows and enter a relationship, and at the same time she was clearly an extraordinary being, recognized from childhood as a divine incarnation of the Great Mother Prajna Paramita. When Tara appeared before her, predicting her children would be lineage holders and that Machig herself would be a great dakini, Machig still referred to herself as a “weak stupid woman,” reflecting her cultural conditioning. Yet she was able to confidently confront the patriarchal Buddhist establishment in the form of the three pundits who arrived from India to test her, debating against them publicly with her entire reputation at stake.
Women have so few voices in their lives that affirm their wisdom and spiritual potential and we rarely have a female lineage that we can draw strength from. The goddess Tara gave Machig her female lineage, and this gave her ground to stand on, confidence about who she was. A lineage is like a family tree but of a spiritual nature. We all have a spiritual lineage of some kind. When we know our spiritual roots, we have a source to draw on; someone “has our back.” Figuring out your spiritual lineage, whether it is straightforward or eclectic can be an important step in clarifying your own path.
In the story of Machig we find the threads of what became the Mahamudra Chöd. When I sat in the monastery of Swayambhu in Nepal with a Lama and a young monk translator, hearing Machig's story for the first time, it was less than two years after the death of Chiara. Hearing Machig’s life story described, it was as though I could see a light at the end of a dark tunnel, knowing I had a deep connection with this dakini in my own spiritual lineage and that she had called me to bring forth her story to the wider world. It was the first time I had heard the biography of a great woman teacher, and although I had been doing Chöd off and on for ten years I'd only heard bits and pieces of her story. It was something I needed, and it felt like a key that would unlock a treasury.
Machig's story was the first of six biographies of Tibetan women teachers that I found in India and Nepal. These stories, which developed into my first book, Women of Wisdom, were a lifeline out of the darkness into which Chiara's death had taken me. Their power fuelled my healing process and set me on a track that has sustained me to this day. The Chöd practice, the connection with Machig, and the writing of this book have all connected me to many women looking for a thread that would link them to their own wisdom. Their stories created a direct personal link to a female lineage that we can draw upon to build our strength, confidence, and trust when we need it. And I did.
[Lama Tsultrim Allione in Machig Labdron's cave]