The Life and Times of Mingyur Peldron: Female Leadership in 18th Century Tibetan Buddhism

Melnick, Alison, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Schaeffer, Kurtis, Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the life of the Tibetan nun Mingyur Peldrön (mi 'gyur dpal sgron, 1699-1769) through her hagiography, which was written by her disciple Gyurmé Ösel ('gyur med 'od gsal, b. 1715), and completed some thirteen years after her death. It is one of few hagiographies written about a Tibetan woman before the modern era, and offers insight into the lives of eighteenth century Central Tibetan religious women.

The work considers the relationship between members of the Mindröling community and the governing leadership in Lhasa, and offers an example of how hagiographic narrative can be interpreted historically. The questions driving the project are: Who was Mingyur Peldrön, and why did she warrant a 200-folio hagiography? What was her role in her religious community, and the wider Tibetan world? What do her hagiographer's literary decisions tell us about his own time and place, his goals in writing the hagiography, and the developing literary styles of the time? What do they tell us about religious practice during this period of Tibetan history, and the role of women within that history? How was Mingyur Peldrön remembered in terms of her engagement with the wider religious community, how was she perceived by her followers, and what impact did she have on religious practice for the next generation? Finally, how and where is it possible to "hear" Mingyur Peldrön's voice in this work?

This project engages several types of research methodology, including historiography, semiology, and methods for reading hagiography as history. It considers Mingyur Peldrön's life story as a frame for understanding the temporal "bridge" between the long seventeenth century and the nineteenth century rise of the Non-Sectarian (Rimé, ris med) Movement. The dissertation is organized to give the reader the perspective of moving increasingly closer to understanding Mingyur Peldrön through her own words. The work moves thematically from an external study of her hagiography, its authorship, and the content of its composition, to questions of how and where we are able to hear Mingyur Peldrön's own words. Throughout the study, questions of how we understand hagiographic narrative, and what it can tell us about actual historical events, are addressed from several perspectives. The dissertation argues that the lives of Tibetan religious women before the twentieth century were much more varied than previously thought. Mingyur Peldrön's Life offers an example of female leadership and empowerment that is unprecedented in Tibetan women's religious history.

"Chapter One: Reading the Namtar of Mingyur Peldrön," considers Mingyur Peldrön's hagiography as a literary work. This chapter discusses the organization of the text, literary references, stylistic choices made by Gyurmé Ösel, and how we can understand hagiographic, biographic, and autobiographic narrative systems in Tibetan namtar (rnam thar). In "Chapter Two: The Life and Times of Mingyur Peldrön," I briefly summarize the narrative of Mingyur Peldrön's life, as it is presented in the larger context of the hagiography. "Chapter Three: Incarnation and Identity" addresses representations of Mingyur Peldrön – her personality and previous lives – as they appear in the hagiography. In particular, this chapter considers the role of gender and public identity, notions of prestige, Mingyur Peldrön's previous lives, and eighteenth century representations of feminine identity. In particular, Mingyur Peldrön was considered to be an emanation of Yeshé Tsogyel, and Gyurmé Ösel's interpretation of this well-known Tibetan figure is crafted to fit the Mindröling context. In "Chapter Four: Hearing Mingyur Peldrön's Voice," I return to the questions of voice and authorship in the hagiography, and present some of the moments in Gyurmé Ösel's work wherein Mingyur Peldrön is quoted directly. It is in these quotations that we begin to "hear" Mingyur Peldrön's voice. Chapter Four considers one woman's role in shaping and negotiating the doctrinal and social morés of the eighteenth century Central Tibetan Nyingma community.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Tibetan Buddhism, Women and Religion, Hagiography, Nyingma History, 18th Century Tibet, Mingyur Peldron
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