…Mind itself, [natural and co-emergent]
Has no support, has no object:
Let it rest in its natural expanse without any fabrication.
When the bonds [of negative thoughts] are released,
You will be free, there is no doubt
– Machig Labdrön
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 female Buddha who had been with humanity from its inception in the Paleolithic period. Statues of this Prajna Paramita were observed in India 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:
“Form is emptiness,
Emptiness is form,
Form is not other than emptiness,
Emptiness is not other than form.”
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.
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.
Buddhism: A Historical Perspective
The Three Turnings of the Wheel
The First Turning of the Wheel: Hinayana
There have been three turnings of the wheel in the history of Buddhism. The first was, of course, at the time of the Buddha who lived around 500 B.C. He actually predated Christ by about 500 years, something many people are unaware of. You may already be familiar with the story of the Buddha. After a very protected childhood, the Prince Siddhartha had shocking encounters with old age, sickness, death, and a mendicant. He was thereafter disillusioned by the world, and left his princely life to become a mendicant. For six years he looked for truth. On the full moon, in the spring, on his birthday, he reached full and complete enlightenment. He understood the nature of the interdependent process which leads to suffering, the causes of suffering, the possibility of liberation and the path to that liberation. These are the Four Noble Truths. He taught these truths for the next forty-five years. His teachings reached across social and religious boundaries.
In some ways, he was more of a scientist or a humanist than a founder of a religion, for he did not teach about God. He was one of the few world teachers who taught about the potential of human beings to “wake up” without dependence on an external God or a particular set of beliefs. He said something like, “Try to look as deeply as you can into the nature of your own being and you will see the functioning of everything.” What he discovered in his lifetime has never been disproved by science. And the more advanced science becomes, the more we recognize that what he said is true. This is very different from the majority of religious traditions, which have a hard time bringing science and religion together.
Buddhism talks about the basic emptiness – or lack of solid, inherent existence – in all beings and objects. If you really go into yourself and keep asking, “What am I?” you may first think, “Well, I have this body. I have this mind. But what are they? They contain elements – the components of the body and mind and so on, but what are they?” As you go deeper and deeper, you finally discover there is no solid ‘I’ there, and no inherent existence in objects either. We are a coagulation of lots of different factors that are operating as if there was something “real.” We think of our selves and our world as real, solid things, but when we actually unpack this idea of a self through meditation, what we discover is that there is really no central self or ‘thingness’ that is unchanging and discrete unto itself. This teaching of anatman, or non-self, was and is a very revolutionary teaching. In fact, the Buddha said, “My teaching goes against the current.” All of the teachings before his were based on God and a self.
This teaching of no-self came from the Buddha’s direct experience. He also taught that everything is interdependent, which we are discovering today with the study of deep ecology. It is not just nature that is interdependent; everything is interdependent, including our mental states. When I have a thought I affect the fabric of the whole, interconnected universe. That is why when someone “wakes up,” sees the nature of the universe, that realization spreads out and affects the fabric of everything.
Once when I was teaching in Germany, somebody said that they felt they were not doing enough for others. They felt a need to do more to help the world. I responded that the Buddha did not actually do very much. He sat and he walked and he taught. He answered questions and he asked a lot of questions. Questioning was one of his main ways of teaching. The first turning of the wheel came out of the Buddha’s understanding of the nature of reality. He said, “Look, this is what I have seen. You look and see what you see, and then we will talk about it.” That was how he related to his students. He would ask them questions and then tell them to go and check things out for themselves. They would come back with an answer, and he would just keep questioning. Then they would go and meditate and eventually have a direct insight into the nature of reality. Most of the Buddha’s discourses were actually conversations. He would also enter into profound states of meditation, like he did at the time the Heart Sutra was taught. The depth of his meditation would trigger a conversation among his students. Or, in the case of the Heart Sutra, the conversation took place between the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara and his student Shariputra.
So that was the way the Buddha taught. He taught what is known as the Four Noble Truths and the law of interdependence. He also taught that human beings are the five skandhas – also called the five aggregates or the five heaps. First, we are made up of form. Second, we have basic feelings of good, bad, and neutral. The third is the skandha of having conceptions about these feelings. The fourth skandha is volitional action, and the fifth skandha is consciousness. These are the five aggregates or heaps which the Buddha said we are made of. However, when we look deeply into all of these aggregates, their nature is empty. You cannot find a “self.” These teachings from Buddha Shakyamuni are called the First Turning of the Wheel.
The Second Turning of the Wheel: Mahayana
The arhats – people who became enlightened under the Buddha – developed various streams of Buddhism after Buddha Shakyamuni’s parinirvana. The first monk to take the Buddha’s mantle was Mahakashyapa. He invoked a congress during the first rainy season after the Buddha’s death, an assembly of 500 arhats. Here the Tripitaka, or the three baskets were reviewed. The Three baskets were: Discourses (Sutras), Discipline (Vinaya), and Abhidharma (Special Teachings). This established the Tripitaka which created the basis for the Buddha’s teachings. Eventually, differences in interpretation of the Vinaya emerged and about a hundred years later another large council convened to deal with questions of lax conduct.
Various schools developed. The Sthavirada (way of the elders) was oriented toward the actual words of the Buddha (the Sutras) and the rules he laid down (the Vinaya). This school traveled south to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia. The form of Buddhism they practiced became what we know today as the Theravadin tradition.
The origins of the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) tradition are debatable. According to preeminent scholar Edward Conze, possible forerunners to Mahayana Buddhism, a group called the Mahasanghikas, developed in southeast India around Amaravati and Nagarjunikonda, and between the Godavari and Krishna Rivers. They developed in the first century B.C., about 400 years after the time of the Buddha. They believed in the fallibility of the Arhats, and were a voice for the non-monastic forest tradition and the lay community.
Others believe that Mahayana originated somewhat later in northwest India in the great Kusana Empire, where the Sarvastavadin doctrine arose. It began here as a non-monastic, forest-dwelling tradition. The Sarvastavadins believed that past, present and future all exist (sarvasta means all, and asti means exists, so the Sarvastavadins believed that everything exists.)
The Mahasanghikas and Sarvastavadins were liberal philosophical schools, less strict in their interpretation of monastic disciplinary rules and less exclusive about the divide between monastics and the lay community. Theirs was a forest tradition, at first completely non-monastic and advocating the wandering life. Mahasanghika and Sarvastavadin were the schools of Buddhism that traveled north into Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and eventually into Tibet, Japan and Korea. In the 3rd century B.C., King Ashoka organized a council which declared that the Sthaviravadin tradition was the standard. After this, a clearer division took place between the Theravadin and Mahayana schools. These and several other streams eventually became known as Mahayana Buddhism. The Mahayana ideal was of the bodhisattva, not the arhat. It emphasized the middle way between affirming and negating existence.
Mahayana Buddhism incorporated the original teachings of the Buddha but emphasized the teachings on emptiness and compassion. Motivation was more important than rules. From the teachings of interdependence the Buddha taught that everything is mutually conditioned. Since everything is mutually conditioned, nothing is truly separate and there are no independent entities: neither humans, other beings or inanimate objects. The Hinayana had applied the understanding of lack of inherent separate existence to the self, but Mahayana applied it to all phenomena as well. In Mahayana, everything is seen as a changing matrix of causes and conditions. The emphasis in practice is a naked, concept-free experience. In the very letting go of self, there is letting go of all definitions and all concepts. Through that, the egocentric self dissolves and suddenly we are aware of everything in an open heartful way. Compassion is born at the same moment as the perception of two-fold lack of inherent existence of self and other.
From this comes a relaxation of the focus on rigid rules and vows, and emphasis on intention. For example, let’s say you are living in Europe during World War II. A Jewish family comes to your door seeking refuge and you hide them. A Nazi comes to your door and asks if you have any Jews in your house, you lie and say no. According to the Vinaya, you have broken a rule – you lied. But your motivation was one of compassion, which Mahayana Buddhism considers to be the superior motivation. Positive motivation is more important than vows.
Always be aware of your motivation. Ask yourself, “What am I doing and why?” Lama Yeshe always used to say, “Check up on yourself.” Check. Because no one else can tell you what your motivation is; you are the only one who can know that. Mahayana Buddhism says to generate the heart of compassion called bodhicitta. Bodhi means awake, and citta means heart-mind, which is said to center itself in our heart chakra. We must develop that bodhicitta – which is the essence of enlightenment – for the benefit of all beings.
Out of this belief in Bodhicitta came the ideal of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva commits to practicing and living for the benefit of all beings, renouncing his or her own enlightenment for the benefit of others. Here we move from the ideal of the arhat’s individual liberation to the ideal of the bodhisattva who is willing to delay enlightenment until all beings are awakened from delusion.
In the Mahayana tradition, there exist both relative bodhicitta and absolute bodhicitta. Relative bodhicitta is the development of qualities within yourself that cultivate the heart with love and compassion. It is divided into two parts: the wish for bodhicitta and the action coming out of the wish. The main practice for this wish-based, relative bodhicitta is called the Four Immeasurables: the development of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The tonglen practice that many of you may know from Pema Chödrön’s books comes out of the Four Immeasurables. Tonglen is mainly connected to the second Immeasurable – the development of compassion.
The second part of relative bodhicitta is the bodhicitta of action, that not only do I wish to do something, but also I am going to do it. It is the difference between hoping to go to Tibet and actually going. The practices most connected with this relate to the Six Paramitas: the practices of generosity, patience, ethical conduct, meditation, effort-diligence, and finally prajna, which means profound knowing. It is prajna that takes us into absolute bodhicitta, which is the discovery of the nature of reality.
The main emphasis in Mahayana is the union of emptiness and compassion. In Mahayana, when you actually experience emptiness in the sense of lack of solid self or solid world, compassion wells up naturally. It just bubbles up because you are experiencing total interconnectedness. There is no longer a “me” and an “it.” All is without solidity. What we call “I” is interconnected with everything and does not exist as a separate discrete entity.
Mahayana Buddhism says that since we have lived countless lives, everyone has been your mother. So there is incredible intimacy with all beings and all life. This comes out of the understanding of emptiness. Sometimes when we hear about emptiness it sounds kind of cold, like a black hole in space, but actually it is about the melting of our fears and our feeling of separation into the realization of how completely connected we are. We realize that if one of us is unhappy no one can be truly happy. Because of interconnectedness there cannot be a happy ruling class and an unhappy poor class. They affect each other all the time.
In Mahayana Buddhism there is also the Buddha Nature doctrine which teaches that every being contains the intrinsic, effulgent, Buddha-like nature which is the fundamental true state of their being like the everpresent sun covered by clouds. It is called “Tathagata-garbha,” which means “Buddha Womb-Buddha Matrix” or “Buddha Embryo.” This is the unconditioned, boundless, nurturing, sustaining, true nature which is indiscernible to worldly beings as a result of their negative mental states and the general mental obscurations which hide it.
It is in the Mahayana tradition that we first hear about the sacred feminine in the form of Prajnaparamita. Prajnaparamita is the teaching on the discovery of the nature of emptiness, which at some point became connected to the feminine. The name itself has a feminine ending, but the connection to the feminine is deeper than that. Early on, Prajnaparamita was associated with wisdom and the epithet, “mother of all the Buddhas.” The first evidence for this is in inscriptions made around 400 A.D. It really is not until about 800 A.D. that we see the embodiment of the feminine wisdom principle in statues and images of Prajnaparamita. Prajnaparamita is known as the first female Buddha, but actually Prajnaparamita is not really male or female. She is hermaphroditic, or the feminine before being split into masculine and feminine. However, she is identified with the feminine because Prajnaparamita is the state that gives birth to enlightenment. In this sense she is the mother of all the Buddhas simply because without the experience of Prajnaparamita you cannot and will not become enlightened. One who understands Prajnaparamita cannot be harmed by fire, poison, wind, or water, and is safe from the attacks of maras. Thus in her we see the first shadow of Tara’s protective qualities.
Third Turning of the Wheel: Vajrayana
The third turning of the wheel happened well after the second turning and became known as the Vajrayana (as well as Mantrayana and Tantra). Vajrayana includes the teachings from the first two periods, but we also hear that enlightenment is inherent and already fully present within us; we just need to change our views and perceptions to recognize what is already here. Therefore, the essence of Vajrayana is changing one’s perception. In the Tantric teachings there are three basic elements: the base or the ground, the path, and the fruit or fruition.
The Ground of Being is the Tathagata-garbha – our true nature – which is the vast luminous-cognizance that penetrates everything. The Ground of Being has two parts: relative and absolute truth. The relative truth is the conventional truth – things like the laws of nature, gravity, and the fact that we need air to breathe. The absolute truth is the ultimate nature of everything. There is a truth connected to the relative world, but if we look deeper at that conventional truth, what is under it? What we find is the absolute truth. The two truths are not in conflict; they are each part of each other, and they comprise the ground.
The path concerns the development and the completion stages of Tantric practice. The development stage consists of visualization, mantra, offerings, praises – everything that we do to change our perception of reality. Working with a deity is the path or method in Tantra for discovering the ground. Jongwa is a key word in Tibetan Tantra that can mean many things: purify, train, or transform. You may have heard of jong in Mahayana when we talk about lojong or mind training practices; in that case, the word jong means training. In Tantra, jong relates to how we identify with a figure like Tara in order to change our perceptions. Our identification with Tara includes entering the vibrationalfield of her sound or mantra and actually seeing with her eyes. This change in perception is the essence of the development stage. This change in perception transforms, trains, and purifies us.
The completion stage of the path is when everything we have developed dissolves, and we rest in the experience of emptiness that comes out of no longer trying to create our sacred world. The completion stage is where the natural luminosity and the natural perfection, of everything arises. Those are the two parts of the path, which are connected to relative and absolute truth.
The fruit is the discovery of the ground. To help visualize this, get a glass of water and a piece of paper. The glass is the ground of perfect, primordial, awakened wisdom which operates in everything. This is our Tathagata-garbha or Buddha Nature. If we cover the glass with the paper, it is still there but we cannot see it, just as we normally do not see the ground which is always there. We are deluded and do not recognize our true nature, but that does not mean that it is not there, just that we are not seeing it. When we practice the path, for example with Tara practice, there are little moments when we see beyond our delusion. These temporary experiences or flashes are called nyams in Tibetan. To illustrate the effect of the path, very slowly uncover the paper from the glass. Gradually through the path we see more and more, until finally we see the ground which was always there; gradually, we become stable in the recognition of it. That is the fruit. You are not actually getting anywhere new, but you are recognizing what already is.
There are two aspects of the fruit, called the two kayas. For just as the ground has the relative and absolute truths, and the path has the creation and completion stages, so the fruit has the two kayas: Rupakaya and Dharmakaya. Rupakaya means the form body, the recognition in this very body of illumination. Rupakaya includes Nirmanakaya and Sambhogakaya. Nirmanakaya is the wisdom nature of the embodiment of Buddhahood in a form that human beings can perceive, such as the Buddha, Padmasambhava, and other great teachers. Sambhogakaya is the dimension of luminosity which has form such as Tara, Vajrapani, and Chenrezig. You could compare it to an angelic dimension. We would not use those words in Buddhism, but the Sambhogakaya is like a luminous energy which we cannot see in this world, yet which still operates in form. The Dharmakaya is the formless dimension of enlightened totality.
In Tantra we are working with the ground, the path and the fruit. When you learn the Tara teachings you will learn about the ground and the path. Hopefully, over time you will realize the fruit.
The Roots of Tantra
Tantra refers to a kind of literature that came into Buddhism as early as 500 A.D. but flowered between 700 and 1200 A.D. Around 1200 it was mostly eliminated in India as a result of the Muslim invasions. At that time Buddhism almost entirely disappeared from India, but it had already spread to surrounding countries.
Tantra has a strong link to the sacred feminine. Scholars believe that its roots come from the very early Indus Valley traditions. These same traditions are also linked to Neolithic Europe. Both cultures were matrifocal, and they saw the supreme energy as feminine.
The ancient races of people who lived in the Indus Valley had very dark-colored skin. When invading Aryans brought the caste system into India, these dark-skinned people became the low-caste. A lot of the Indus Valley people then migrated into Bengal, Orisa, and southern India. As Buddhism developed between 500 and 700 A.D., Mahayana Buddhism interfaced with these pre-patriarchal traditions that came from the Indus Valley. The early Buddhist tradition emphasized monasticism, while the matriarchal societies emphasized the idea of sacred sexuality and a sacred worldview in which all the senses were seen to be potential vehicles for enlightenment. As the two traditions interfaced, Buddhism began to integrate color, sound, visualization, deities, mantras, feasting, sacred sexuality, and the idea that this body, this life, and our senses are vehicles for illumination rather than something we need to renounce. There was the belief that if we could truly change our perception into a state of non-grasping and emptiness, we could become enlightened in this world.
That was a revolutionary shift, and a lot of stories from that time are emblematic of the encounters between the male-dominated monastic tradition and the wilder, life-embracing Indus Valley tradition. We start to see a whole body of literature with stories about these meetings. Oftentimes monks encountered low caste women teachers. Early scholarship of Tantric Buddhism interprets these low caste women as being “loose women,” and the only kind of women available to use as Tantric partners. But later research shows that these women were not “loose,” but enlightened. They were yoginis who were low caste because it was the low caste people who held the ancient teachings. So there were many encounters between low caste yoginis and great Mahayana monks.
Of course, there were also meetings between women teachers and women, and male Tantric teachers and Buddhist men. Marpa had several male teachers as well as some female teachers in India. But most classic stories have the set up of a logos-dominated monk who meets an intuitively incisive female teacher who brings all of the elements together. So the precision and depth of intellectual understanding that were developed in Mahayana philosophy were not thrown out; they were integrated with the intuitive, worldly insight-tradition, and that combination constituted early Tantric Buddhism.
The History of Tibetan Buddhism
The siddha tradition or ideal is what developed from early Tantrism, or Vajrayana. The arhat was the ideal of the first turning of the wheel, the bodhisattva of the second, and the siddha of the third turning. Siddhas were usually non-monastics who had mundane jobs like clothes-washer, pig-herder, or like Tilopa, a pounder of sesame seeds. (Tila means sesame.) Tilopa was Naropa’s teacher. Tilopa was also known for living on river banks and eating fish guts. The siddhas led these kinds of lives, and it was by staying in the world that they became enlightened, often through their simple, manual work.
At this time the female Buddhas start to appear in practices, stories and religious art, and we begin to see images of Tara, the second female Buddha after Prajnaparamita to become mainstream. Finally, there is the notion of female Buddhas – not just bodhisattvas, but Buddhas. This came out of lay tradition more than monasticism, although it eventually penetrated and integrated with the monastic tradition. It was a big leap to incorporate female Buddhas (and Tantric sadhanas where one visualizes the palace of the deity) into the traditional practices like meditation on the breath. This is the kind of Buddhism that went into Tibet.
The First Wave
Retracing our steps several hundred years, big Buddhist councils holding various referenda periodically took place. Buddhists gathered from all over to decide what Buddhists should believe and teach. Since not everyone could agree, different schools of Buddhism emerged from these councils.
The third council took place at the time of King Ashoka who lived from 276 – 232 B.C. During that council the king declared Sthaviravadin, which eventually became Theravadin Buddhism, to be the standard form of Buddhism and that other schools were deviations of that. According to him, the southern schools taught the truth and the schools that developed into Mahayana were deviations. The Mahasanghikas joined with the Sarvastavadins, who were from a school which developed after the third council. The Sarvastavadins and the Mahasanghikas migrated west, and north into Tibet.
The first Buddhist king of Tibet, called the Dharma King, was Songtsen Gampo who lived from 617-698 A.D. As king he united Tibet and created the Tibetan alphabet modeled on Sanskrit, a Buddhist code of law, and a network of Buddhist shrines. His two queens, Bhrikuti from Nepal and Wengchen of China, were Buddhist and seen as emanations of Tara.
At the time of Songtsen Gampo’s rule, communication increased between India and Tibet. Many scholars from Tibet were sent to India to bring back teachings. Tibetans began to see India as the source of Buddhism, similar to how we in the West think of Asia as the source of Buddhism. The Tibetans did not yet see Buddhism as theirs, which is similar to the attitude in the West now. The various streams of teachings that scholars brought back to Tibet were the basis of the various traditions in Tibetan Buddhism.
The Second Wave
The second wave of Buddhism arrived with King Trisong Detsen, who lived from 742-798 A.D. and was said to be an incarnation of Manjushri. The first wave had not gone over well in Tibet. The Tibetans were very magic-oriented. They had all kinds of superstitions, believed in teachings connected to nature, and had very profound teachings of their own. They never connected with monasticism. When Trisong Detsen came to power in 755, he invited a monk called Shantarakshita from India who synthesized Madhyamika and Yogachara – the two main Mahayana philosophies – and tried to establish a monastic order in Tibet. Buddhism, and particularly monasticism still could not take hold, so Shantarakshita suggested that the king invite Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, from Oddiyana to Tibet. Oddiyana, known as “the land of the Dakinis,” is believed to have been in present-day northeastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. Many, many great female teachers lived there. The famous Seven-Line Supplication describes Padmasambhava khor du khandro – surrounded by Dakinis.
Padmasambhava related well to the Tibetans. He was a great magician and knew what people would respond to. He met them and impressed them on their own ground, but he came into conflict with those at court.
At first even the king was disrespectful to Padmasambhava, but he was eventually won over. However, the ministers felt threatened and rose up, kicking Padmasambhava out of court. Padmasambhava went to an area in Tibet called Shoto Terdrom until he was invited back to court. But life was still not easy. There are many idealized versions of what happened, but in reality there was a lot of intrigue. People were afraid of losing power to Padmasambhava. Many wondered, “Who is this guy from Oddiyana? He’s taking over. Look, the king is totally deluded by him.” There was a lot of conflict, but eventually Padmasambhava reached the people through his magical powers and started teaching them Buddhism.
He was even able to teach ethics and all of the “boring stuff” that Tibetans did not want to know about. They were so impressed had such faith in him that they were willing to listen. Thus Padmasambhava was able to instill the idea of a peaceful society. Tibetans had been very militaristic and had conquered large parts of Asia, but during the second wave Tibet became dedicated to peace. It had no army or wheels; the king outlawed wheels because of prophecies that said once there were wheels, the good days would end. That was the beginning of what became an extraordinary social experiment.
The Third Wave
In 842 A.D., a man named Langdharma decided that Buddhism was weakening the military fiber of the nation and would be the ruin of Tibet. Through his military power, he destroyed the monasteries and did a lot of general damage, but Buddhism persisted among the laity because Langdharma could not attack people who were practicing quietly with their families. It was during this time that the Nyingma Tradition (or Old Ones Tradition) began, and most of what we practice at Tara Mandala is from the Nyingma School. It is a tradition largely held by lay people; thus it survived Langdharma’s big attack. When Langdharma was eventually killed, the attacks stopped and Buddhist masters who had retreated to eastern Tibet returned to central Tibet. Gradually, Buddhism was revived.
In the eleventh century there was a renaissance of Buddhism in Tibet. This was the time of amazing teachers like Machig Labdrön and Milarepa. A great teacher named Rinchen Zongpo went to Kashmir and brought back new teachings. Marpa established the Kagyu Lineage after going to India and studying with Naropa. The Khon family established the Sakya Lineage, and Atisha came to Tibet from India guided by Tara. (He is considered the root of what became the Gelugpa Lineage, which came into its own by the fifteenth century.)
Tibet was a theocracy where religious leaders truly were the government, and each main sect grew dominant in turn. The Nyingma governed originally. There were times when the Kagyu ruled and times when the Sakya ruled. Finally, the Gelugpa came into power. The Gelugpa remained in power until 1959, when the Chinese invaded Tibet. The first of the great Dalai Lamas was coronated in 1642. The present Dalai Lama was head of the Gelugpas at the time of the Chinese invasion. So a modern, nationalistic Tibet had spanned from 1642 to 1959.
As students of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, we receive the Tantric tradition which first migrated to and was digested by Tibet. Over time, a lot of the siddha tradition disappeared into the great monastic institutions. The feminine became more idealized than embodied physically in the form of female teachers. Sexual practices became more symbolic than literal, and women became devalued in the tradition. Tara, Vajra Yogini, and other female figures were still a part of the tradition, but the power of their role became minor and repressed. There were still incredible women practitioners, but they were often discounted by the huge monastic institutions, many of which had thousands of monks and no women – or only a tiny nunnery in a corner somewhere.
The full ordination of nuns died out in Tibet mostly for lack of sponsorship. People thought it was more meritorious to support a fully ordained monk then a fully ordained nun. When I was ordained by the Karmapa in 1970, one thing he said to me was that he hoped I would help bring back the fully ordained female tradition which had survived in China and existed mainly in Taiwan. There were no fully ordained nuns in the southern Buddhist countries or Tibet. For now, nuns still have to go to Taiwan to receive full ordination, but both Tibetans and Westerners have received it. I mention all of this so you can see the kind of stream that is coming down to you.
Tibetan Buddhism in the West
Tibetan Buddhism has come to the West. It is a very exciting moment in the sense that Tibetan Buddhism has not truly stabilized here yet; everything is still in conversation. What will it be like here? Will we take the institutions of Tibet and try to transplant them here exactly as they existed there? Or will we try to take the essence of the teachings and find our own way of relating to it? And how is it relevant today? Is it relevant? These teachings are very old; some of them twenty-five hundred years old. How will we personally digest and integrate them into something that is truly useful? How long will Tibetan Buddhism still be Tibetan Buddhism?
Each one of us will do this in our own way. What we set up now is very important because, like the early times in Tibet, the teachings are just arriving and the decisions we make will set the template for the development of Tibetan Buddhism. In the West, we have a reemergence of the feminine in Buddhism. You see many more women teachers, and dharma centers run by women. We will probably have more of a partnership model of working together in community – an ideal union like in ancient Tantric times.