The Life of Chokyi Dronma (Chos kyi sgron ma) according to her biography
Chokyi Dronma’s’s life is narrated in her biography: Ye shes mkha' 'gro bsod nams 'dren gyi sku skyes gsum pa rje btsun ma chos kyi sgron ma'i rnam thar compiled by one of her companions in religious practice (for a discussion of the dating and authorship of the biography see Diemberger, H. When a Woman becomes a Dynasty: the Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet, Columbia University Press 2007, the following paragraph is an abridged version of chapter 2 of the book. A translation of the biography is given in the same book, Part II).
Despite these considerations, as an infant princess she enjoyed a happy and lively childhood, dividing her time between the capital of the kingdom and the lush valleys of Kyirong, which she loved. She would go there often, especially in the winter when the upper areas were frozen and stricken by blizzards while the lower Himalayan valleys were still rich with flowers and fruits. Chokyi Dronma seems to have been an energetic and adventurous child; the biography also describes her as compassionate towards animals, aware of worldly impermanence and daring in her choices. She is said to have shown a strong character early on, perhaps a prelude to the fact that throughout her life she never shied away from physical hardship or risky enterprises. Nevertheless, she seems to have also suffered in her early childhood from some health problems and illness seems to have repeatedly marked difficult periods in her life.
In about 1438, since Chokyi Dronma had reached a marriageable age, the court decided that she should be married out to the rulers of neighbouring kingdom of Southern Lato. The strategic relationship between Gungthang and Southern Lato was crucial at a time of political fragmentation, so Chokyi Dronma’s father accepted the marriage request from these important allies, who were also potential enemies: it was a political marriage. A very detailed description is given in the biography both of the grand celebrations held in honour of the marriage and of the great sorrow felt at her departure from her homeland. The text carries the reader along with the weeping marriage procession leaving the royal palace and climbing the steep pass that leads towards the Porong plains and eventually to Shekar. According to the biography, at the top of the pass, she prostrated for a last time towards her home, more than 3000 feet below, taking a last look at the royal palace.
The marriage procession presumably crossed the Dingri area, north of the Bongchu River and the holy Tsibri range , until they reached Shekar, the “White Crystal”, the capital of Southern Lato. From afar they would have seen the mountain rising from the plain with the forbidding fortress on its ridge, and near it the white and red of the monastery. Both had been built by the great lord of Southern Lato, Situ Chokyi Rinchen, the grandfather of Chokyi Dronma’s bridegroom. Even though his parents and grandparents were great supporters of Buddhism, the young prince Tshewang Tashi was particularly keen on the local ancestral cults. As the bridal procession approached the capital a group of Bonpo priests came out to meet it and to celebrate some customary marriage rituals. As a committed Buddhist Chokyi Dronma had very strong views on non-Buddhist practices; she was openly jubilant when the Bonpo priests were driven away by her retinue, dropping their ritual instruments as they made a hasty retreat. Once in the palace, she further intimidated the Bonpo priests by meditating and empowering herself as Vajrayogini. This episode and a number of other details introduce a slightly dissonant note in what otherwise seems to have been the perfect fulfilment of her role as a royal daughter-in-law. She behaved very respectfully towards her parents-in-law and her husband and was generally seen as a bringer of prosperity, beautiful and well behaved, even though she sometimes challenged conventions of royal protocol.
According to the biography she became pregnant in her nineteenth year, which would have been about 1440, and gave birth to a girl. No difficulties are described during the delivery of the child, and at first everything seemed to proceed serenely. She enjoyed being with her little daughter, living in a very comfortable residence and assisted by several nannies. When her husband expressed his wish to appoint a Bonpo teacher for the child, she was able to negotiate that the girl should be educated according to Buddhist principles. When her child was more or less one year old she went to the hot springs with her retinue. At the hot springs she fell so gravely ill that she almost died; her eventual recovery was ascribed to a miracle.
Around this time a major dispute broke out in her father’s kingdom and she decided to help in mediating the conflict. She left for Gungthang escorted by one hundred horsemen, leaving her little daughter behind with her parents-in-law, her husband and the nannies. While she was away the child died and her parents-in-law sent her a message to this effect. She took the news calmly and replied that there was no reason to worry since the child would soon be reincarnated. However, she also said in her reply that the child would have lived longer if deeds against the doctrine had not brought about her untimely death. The biography says that this episode gave her much to think about. Before leaving Gungthang and returning to Shekar she formally announced her wish to take religious vows as a nun. Predictably, her father argued strongly with her about this decision and refused to approve it, saying that at the age of twenty she had just started her life and expressing his hope that she would postpone this decision. Chokyi Dronma remained resolute in her position. This marked the beginning of her long and momentous struggle to free herself from her secular obligations.
A short while after returning to Shekar she announced her wish to take religious vows to her parents-in-law and sent a letter to this effect to her father. Neither of the parties agreed. Meanwhile she had started to take care of the property and the interests of the Porong Pemo Choding monastery at Shekar. She read the Collected Works (dPal de kho na nyid ‘dus pa) of Bodong Chogle Namgyal (1375-1451) and when this great lama was invited to Shekar she was entranced by his teachings. After his departure she missed him deeply; she felt that her life had become pointless and that she had to devote herself to his doctrine. She then read The Life of the Buddha (the Lalitavistara) and felt a strong wish to emulate Prince Siddharta, giving up her royal life to strive for enlightenment. She repeatedly requested permission from her father and her father-in-law to become ordained, but to no avail. Eventually she decided that she had to take some action to achieve her aim. At first she tried to escape from the castle, without success. Eventually she unbound her hair and started to tear it out, injuring herself in the process. When her shocked parents-in- law found her in this condition she threw the hair at their feet. The sight of her, standing in the middle of the royal fortress covered in blood and with her hair dishevelled, led her parents-in-law to allow her to leave and to renounce her secular obligations. Her father-in-law calmed her down and promised to agree to all her wishes provided she would not present herself in this state to her husband, who had recently suffered some kind of mental crisis. She therefore arranged a makeshift wig to cover her hair and dressed in her best clothes to meet him. At first he did not understand the situation, but eventually went along with the decision that he should marry another woman. Chokyi Dronma’s action in feigning or experiencing mental instability in order to achieve a radical change in her life places her in a long tradition of sacred women in Tibet who had to resort to this option, whether nuns, tantric practitioners or oracles. She may have been the most prominent to do so, but she was not the first: the act of unbinding the hair as an expression of madness and transgression features prominently in the life of Laksminkara, the mad Indian princess of the eighth century who was her spiritual ancestor, and has wide resonances throughout the Buddhist world.
Eventually the princess was allowed by her husband’s family to leave. The biography describes her riding off in the rising sun towards the high pastures and the monastery of Porong Pemo Choding, delighting in her newly acquired freedom. At the monastery she was welcomed by Bodong Chogle Namgyal, who ensured that she had arrived with proper permission from her family before admitting her formally. After receiving the confirmation from both Shekar and Gungthang, she was allowed to take part in her first ritual as a member of the monastic community. She dressed sumptuously for the ceremony, had the remains of her hair cut by an attendant, and took her vows as a novice. She was then given the name under which she became famous, Chokyi Dronma, ‘the Lamp of the Dharma’ (Dharmadipa)2 . She used the occasion to announce her commitment to support religious practices for women.
Bodong Chogle Namgyal was later to face some sharp criticism for having admitted a woman into a monastic institution, but he always defended his choice staunchly. Chokyi Dronma’s life revolved around him from around 1442 until his death in 1451. During this time she moved between Pemo Choding monastery and her homeland, to which she loved to return from time to time. In the monastery she pursued her religious training and eventually was fully ordained as a bhiksuni or nun. This makes her one of the rare instances of a fully ordained woman we know of in Tibet, even though the biography seems to imply that this practice was more widespread at that time than is now assumed on the basis of the surviving records, an important and controversial issue to which we shall return later.
In an effort to follow the example of the Buddha, Chokyi Dronma also spent a great deal of time travelling around as a begging nun. Although this was an established practice, seeing their princess in this guise provoked a great deal of surprise in the local population. From simple herdsmen to aristocrats, most people became great supporters and she was extremely successful in collecting all sorts of donations with which she was able to support the religious activities carried out by her master. She was often joined in her begging by a nun called Deleg Chodren, who became her closest friend and followed her for the rest of her life. It was probably this woman who was to become one of the key figures in the compilation of the biography.
Throughout the period during which her life was centred around Bodong Chogle Namgyal and Pemo Choding monastery, Chokyi Dronma devoted herself to the recruitment and training of nuns. Often these were inexperienced young girls and the biography underlines the point that since they were ‘free from worldly concerns’ Chokyi Dronma had to consider all their practical needs. It appears that she even oversaw the weaving and sewing of their clothes, while at the same time being deeply committed to their education. She apparently taught them proper reading skills and introduced a very effective system of teaching the Buddhist doctrine. Bodong Chogle Namgyal himself was particularly sensitive to women’s issues and was a great innovator in this respect. Just as he had insisted on bestowing the full ordination on Chokyi Dronma, so he also established new ritual traditions for women. He encouraged Chokyi Dronma to initiate the performance of ritual dances by women at a time when usually female roles were performed by monks. The biography gives a very vivid description of the social and cultural challenges that this innovative enterprise entailed and of her skills in successfully overcoming them.
As long as her master was alive Chokyi Dronma seems to have been constantly torn between her wish to be with him and her desire to return to Gungthang. Even though the closeness to her master made bearable the harsh, high nomadic areas where Pemo Choding was located, she apparently preferred the more hospitable agricultural environment of her homeland and the hermitages in the lower, forested valleys of the Himalayas. In Gungthang she was also more effective in mobilizing networks of support for religious enterprises and was able to count on the availability of skilled craftsmen. In the last period of Bodong Chogle Namgyal’s life, she seems to have spent most of her time in Gungthang. However, she repeatedly went back to Pemo Choding whenever her master’s health deteriorated. The biography gives a striking description of how she rushed back after having been summoned by Deleg Chodren with the news of the master’s fatal illness. The two women, together with Chokyi Dronma’s father, rode in great haste by day and night through icy storms over the 5,200 metre pass that separates Gungthang from Porong. The pace that the two young women set was too fast for the father and he allowed them to ride ahead so that Chokyi Dronma could see Bodong Chogle Namgyal before he died. In the event they all succeeded in reaching Pemo Choding before his demise and Chokyi Dronma’s father was able to receive important teachings from the dying lama before returning to Gungthang, while Chokyi Dronma remained to nurse her master. Eventually, at the end of the third month in the year of the sheep (1451),3 she was summoned from a brief rest to interpret signs that those around him were unable to comprehend. She understood immediately that her master wished to practise meditation and joined him so as to be with him at his passing.
After Bodong Chogle Namgyal’s death she took care of the funeral rituals, together with the most important people of his retinue. Once his body was cremated, people were divided over what should be done with his relics, a dispute in which she acted as the mediator. Eventually she distributed the bone fragments among all members of the monastic community and had little figurines (tsha tsha) made of clay mixed with his ashes which were given to the lay disciples and patrons. She felt that he thus belonged to the multitude of his followers rather than being embodied in one precious relic that could be owned and fought over. In many ways this faithfully represented the legacy of a teacher whose teachings had been directed to all sects and among disciples of all political alignments, rather than being exclusively associated with one place, patron or tradition.
The events surrounding the death of Bodong Chogle Namgyal are mentioned in several sources, notably in his own biographies. These tend to provide descriptions that conform to the Buddhist ideal according to which death is no reason for grief and emphasize his glorious passing into celestial spheres. Chokyi Dronma’s biography tends instead to reveal more of the deep emotional tension and the sense of bereavement among Bodong Chogle Namgyal’s disciples at the loss of their master. Chokyi Dronma herself was deeply disturbed by the event and spent several months wandering around the hills of her homeland and practising meditation. The faithful Deleg Chodren accompanied her; she is described as having felt distress and helplessness at seeing her in extreme disarray, covered in lice and randomly praising her master in front anyone she encountered even if these were people who would not understand what she was talking about. In due course she recovered from this extreme distress and was able to take care of other disciples of Bodong Chogle Namgyal.
After a while, probably sometime in 1452, she mobilized her whole retinue, all the the disciples of Bodong Chogle Namgyal and the people of Gungthang, in order to fulfil her pledge to collected the entire writings of her master, and to have them edited and reproduced. Chokyi Dronma played an important part in instigating some of the earliest examples of printing known in Tibet, second perhaps only to the production of the prints of the Collected Works of Tsonkhapa just a few years earlier. She also supported innovative arts and crafts.
Eventually Chokyi Dronma grew weary of her stay in her own region. The reasons are not completely clear. But the biography reports that the people of Pemo Choding wanted her to stay at their monastery but she agreed to this on the condition that her vision would be fulfilled: she wished to build water channels so as to create fields that could support a centre of learning, similar to the ancient Buddhist cities of India, where a gathering of scholars could be supported so as to bring peace to the whole region. Construction was begun and the details of the work are described in the biography; some surviving traces of channels and ruins are still attributed, by some of the Porong people, to these efforts. However, things were not carried out as well as she envisaged and she eventually gave up on this plan. Meanwhile she had started to make contact with Thangtong Gyalpo. She had already heard of this extraordinary siddha, who had become famous both for his religious deeds and miracles and for the production of iron-chain bridges over the Brahmaputra River, and she decided to ask him for advice on her situation. So she sent Deleg Chodren as a messenger and, sometime after she had received his reply to her request for guidance, she decided to visit him; leaving Gunthang for what would be the last time. Chokyi Dronma had wished to take her mother with her but this was not permitted by the court. However, both her mother and sister were allowed to escort her up to the pass that leads to the Porong plains, where they had a moving farewell.
After staying at Porong Pemo Choding for a while she left for Northern Lato where Thangtong Gyalpo was at that time residing. She probably arrived some time in 1452 or 1453, and met the great siddha at Chung Riwoche, where with her support he would later complete the famous Stupa. She stayed near the master until the autumn of 1454,4 less than two years in all. The biography devotes much space to her visit, probably because of Thangtong Gyalpo’s role in the survival of the tradition. He also appears to have had a decisive impact on her life and is said to have delivered famous prophecies according to which she would enjoy a long life but would have few disciples if she remained in her region, but would have an uncertain lifespan and a multitude of followers if she were to leave for the east. This prophecy is mentioned several times in the biography and is considered the reason for her final journey to south-eastern Tibet and the holy shrine of Tsari.
After the rainy season of 1454 Chokyi Dronma set out towards Central Tibet. A number of letters sent to the local rulers and a letter of introduction that Chokyi Dronma took with her enabled Thangtong Gylapo to activate his large network of followers and provide her with adequate support on her way. During her journey she encountered several political and religious personalities of her time, such as the Lord of Rinpung, Norbu Sangpo, and the Indian pandita Vanaratna, she arrived at Lhasa. Here she visited the Jokhang temple, paid respect to the holy statue of the Jowo and had complex interactions with the local rulers who were utterly surprised by some of her informal behaviour, especially since she was wandering around on her own. At the time of Chokyi Dronma’s visit to Lhasa the fame of Tsongkhapa, later to be regarded as the founder of the Gelugpa sect, was rapidly spreading in Central Tibet; this deeply impressed the princess and her retinue.
After leaving Lhasa she visited Ushangdo, the temple established by her ancestor, the King Ralpacen, in the ninth century. She then went to Chagsam Chubori where she stayed for a few days next to the iron-chain bridge built by Thangtong Gyalpo. Here she received an extraordinary visit from a lama called Rigsum Gonpo, a disciple of Thangtong Gyalpo who had been appointed as the first abbot of his monastery at New Tsari. He told her the astonishing story of how he had come to be there and was then welcomed by Chokyi Dronma and her retinue as a prophetic guide on the way to Tsari. She continued her journey along the southern bank of the Brahmaputra river towards Tsari where she died in her thirty-fourth year– that is, in 1455 or early 1456. The final part of the biography is a kind of travelogue of her journey from Northern Lato, over Shigatse, Rinpung, the Gampa-la pass, Lhasa and eventually Tsari. The biography is incomplete, and her journey is covered only as far as Dagpo; the last part of the journey to Tsari is missing and the final part of Chokyi Dronma’s life must be reconstructed on the basis of other sources. Thangtong Gyalpo’s biography says that she spent the very last period of her life there participating in the extraction of iron and the production of chains for the Nyago bridge.
Thangtong Gyalpo’s biography describes how Deleg Chodren reported Chokyi Dronma’s death to him in the hope that he would pronounce as to whether there would be a reincarnation. The great siddha responded by reassuring the concerned nun that her mistress would indeed be reborn as a human. Some three years later, in 1459, a girl called Kunga Sangmo was born and was identified by Thangtong Gyalpo and by the community of Chokyi Dronma’s disciples as the reincarnation of the princess. Chokyi Dronma had started to be seen as an emanation of the deity Dorje Phagmo as she was staying with Bodong Chogle Namgyal and this identification was later confirmed by Thangtong Gyalpo. Kunga Sangmo was thus both an emanation of the female tantric deity and a reincarnation of the deceased princess. With her identification the institution of the Dorje Phagmo reincarnation line became fully established.
1. The biography gives Chokyi Dronma’s age according to Tibetan convention, which means that she was in her sixth year of life, corresponding to the age of five according to western counting conventions.
2. Chos kyi sgron me
3. According to the Biography of Chogle Namgyal (pp 385-390) this took place on the 29th sliver of moon of the third month, i.e. 30.4.1451. He was then cremated on the first day of the fourth month, 2.5.1451.
4. After the date of the death of Bodong Chogle Namgyal (1451) no dates are mentioned in the biography. It is just possible to reconstruct an approximate time-frame following the seasons and the events. Since she left southern Lato during harvest time (i.e. Autumn) and met Vanaratna on the way, it is possible to date, tentatively, their encounter. In fact it is mentioned that the Indian pandita was on his way back from Phagmodruba and it is known from Thrimkhang Lotsawa’ s account that he was returning towards Nepal via Rinpung in Autumn 1454 (Erhard 2004: 245-265).