Conceiving the Mother of Tibet: The Life, Lives, and Afterlife of the Buddhist Saint Yeshe Tsogyel

Author: ORCID icon
Liang, Jue, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Schaeffer, Kurtis, AS-Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Germano, David, AS-Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Nemec, John, AS-Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Booth, Alison, AS-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia
van der Kuijp, Leonard W. J., Department of South Asian Studies, Harvard University

How do narratives about the past create shared identities in religious communities? And how do gendered symbols and languages function in these narratives? This dissertation traces the literary traditions surrounding the first and foremost matron saint of Tibet, Yeshe Tsogyel. She is said to have lived in eighth-century Tibet; however, literary accounts about her did not flourish until some six hundred years later. The dissertation examines how an origin narrative with her as one of the core personas emerged during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as Tibetan Buddhists traced their religious pedigree and defined what counts as authentic Buddhism.

Keeping in mind the dual focus of representations of female religiosity and the creation of an origin narrative for the Treasure tradition, chapters in this dissertation look at three aspects of the role of Yeshe Tsogyel: a disciple, a consort, and a khandroma or ḍākinī. After an introduction to Yeshe Tsogyel, the Treasure tradition, and Tibetan Buddhist history in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Chapter One, “The Story of Yeshe Tsogyel,” outlines available early written information about Yeshe Tsogyel. It also introduces the primary sources used in the following chapters and the various genres at work in her literary tradition. Chapter Two, “The Disciple Yeshe Tsogyel,” queries her role as one of the foremost disciples of Padmasambhava. This chapter discusses the distinctive use of zhus lan texts or dialogues that adopt the Indian canonical dialogical style to authenticate lineages of Treasure teachings. These dialogues are also rich venues to explore the issue of female inferiority and women’s access to Buddhist teachings. Chapter Three, “The Consort Yeshe Tsogyel,” explores the consort relationship between Yeshe Tsogyel and Padmasambhava. In Treasure literature, the relationship between tantric partners, the identity of a consort, and the goal of consort practice are all elevated to be operating on the enlightened plane and different from secular intimacy. The fourth and last chapter, “Khandroma Yeshe Tsogyel” highlights the particular significance of the khandroma, a type of female divinity that came to outshine all others and became the goddess par excellence in the Treasure context. By reading khandroma narratives as myth, I argue that the indeterminate nature of the khandroma is the site in which paradoxical identities of Buddhist women are negotiated.

This study provides a new way of understanding sainthood and its formation as well as a new model of constructing female religious eminence in Tibetan Buddhism. It also presents the practice of material and immaterial revelation as a distinctively Tibetan way of theorizing the past and writing histories.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Buddhism, Tibet, Treasure, Yeshe Tsogyel, gender, narrative, history, transmission, tradition
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