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Journal of Dharma Studies

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 15–29 | Cite as

Female Buddhist Adepts in the Tibetan Tradition. The Twenty-Four Jo Mo, Disciples of Pha Dam Pa Sangs Rgyas

  • Carla GianottiEmail author
Original Article

Abstract

The Tibetan term jo mo, generally translated as ‘noble Lady,’ ‘female adept,’ or ‘nun’ and documented from the very beginning of Tibetan history, has a mainly religious meaning (and to a lesser degree a social one). Besides various women adepts referred to as jo mo present throughout Tibetan tradition up to the present day, a hagiographic text from the late thirteenth century entitled Jo mo nyis shus rtsa bzhii lo rgyus, “The Stories of the Twenty-four Jo mo,” has preserved the short life stories of twenty-four female Tibetan adepts (Tib. jo mo) of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, disciples of the Indian Tantric master Pha dam pa sangs rgyas (d. 1117). The realizations attained along the Path by the jo mo in question were mainly attested to by relics (Tib. ring bsrel) and other miraculous objects or events witnessed at the time of their deaths. The aim of this paper is to analyze the religious identities of the twenty-four jo mo as described in the JMLG, while exploring some of the ways in which the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has negotiated the ambiguous religious status of these female Buddhist adepts.

Keywords

Tibetan Buddhism Pha dam pa sangs rgyas Female adepts Jo mo Relics Female religious status 

Abbreviations

BA

Roerich, G.N. (1979), The Blue Annals, Calcutta 1949, repr. Delhi.

DT

‘Gos lo gzhon nu dpal (1984), Deb ther sngon po, 2 vols, Chengdu.

KDBG

Sku gdungbar ba chen poi rgyud, in Rnying ma rgyudbum (Mtshams brag dgon pai bris ma), vol. 11, 788–815 [TBRC W21521].

KDBGG

Sku gdungbar ba rin po chei rgyudgrel (1975–76), in Rigdzin padma gling pai zab gter chos mdzod rin po che, vol. 6, 623–636, [TBRC W21727]

JMLG

Jo mo nyis shus rtsa bzhii lo rgyus (1979), in Kun gda’ et al., The Tradition of Pha Dampa Sangyas: A Treasured Collection of His Teachings Transmitted by Tug (sic) sras Kun dga’, Ed. with an English Introduction by Nimri Aziz, B., Thimpu, 5 vols, vol. IV, 302–323.

PDNT

Chos kyi Seng ge and Gang pa (1992), Pha dam pai rnam thar in Pha dam pa dang ma cig lab sgron gyi rnam thar (Xining: Mtsho sngon Mi rigs Dpe skrun Khang, [Qinghai Nationalities Publishing House]).

ZC, II

Kun dga’ thugs sras (1979) Zhi byed snga bar phyi gsum gyi skor, vol. 2, Thimpu.

The Jo Mo in Tibetan tradition

In Tibetan culture, the term jo mo has been in use since ancient times, with the meaning of “goddess,” referring to mountains in Tibet, such as Jo mo Gangs dkar (White Snow Goddess, Mount Everest), Jo mo Kha nag, and Jo mo Lha ri.1 In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, however, it has been applied to women connected directly or indirectly to Buddhist Dharma.

During the historical period of the Tibetan Dynasty (seventh–ninth centuries), the word jo mo was used for ladies of royal status devoted to the Buddhist Doctrine. This is the case of Jo mo Khri btsun, possibly one of the consorts of the king Khri lde gtsug rtsan (d. 754), of whom only the date of her funeral ceremony (745) is recorded.2 A better known noblewoman from the same period is Jo mo Byang chub, the religious name taken by the Chinese queen Rgyal mo brtsan of ‘Bro. Together with her son Mu khri, she dedicated the great bronze bell at Bsam yas monastery to her husband, King Khri srong lde brtsan (who reigned from 755 to 797). Later, perhaps following the death of Mu khri, her only son, the queen shaved her head and wore monastic robes in the Chinese Buddhist tradition of Hva šan Mahāyāna, taking the religious name Jo mo Byang chub. According to Chinese sources, she was a spiritual leader among the noble ladies of the Tibetan court in that period.3

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the term jo mo is employed for women connected to the Buddhist Doctrine in various ways, both directly (as religious adepts) or indirectly (as consorts or mothers of eminent Buddhist teachers). In the first case, jo mo indicates a female disciple or a female adept of extraordinary qualities. This applies for instance to Jo mo “A ‘u ma and Jo mo Mang chung ma, two great disciples of Sa chen kun dga” snying po (1092–1158), and to Jo mo Sgre mo (or Bgres mo), the venerable Sgre mo mentioned in the Blue Annals as a siddhā, a female siddha (Tib. grub thob ma), with the gift of prophecy.4

But perhaps the best known jo mo of the whole Tibetan religious tradition, and a rare female “treasure revealer” (Tib. gter ston ma) of the Land of Snow is Jo mo Sman mo (1248–1283): “Jo mo (possessed by a she-demon) sman mo,” or “Jo mo (the she-demon) sman mo.”5 Initially, an itinerant ascetic and subsequently the Tantric consort or mudrā (Tib. phyag rgya) of Chos kyi dbang phyug (1212–1270), a reputed treasure revealer (Tib: gter ston) of the Rnying ma school, Jo mo Sman mo is considered a great yoginī, having achieved the highest realizations in the Vajrayāna Path.

As mentioned above, the term jo mo may also indicate a woman linked to Buddhist Doctrine through family relationships. Jo mo was used for the consort of a distinguished master, like Gaṅgādharā, for the consort or jo mo of Maitrī pa,6 or the mother of Dharma masters, such as Jo mo Dar ma, mother of Kung dga’ (1062–1124), the chief disciple of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas.7 In the Lambras cycle of Vajrayāna teaching, Jo mo Zhang mo (alias Ma gcig Zhang mo) was both a consort and mother of great masters in that tradition8 and was hailed in recent times as an authentic ḍākinī by the Sde gzhung Rin po che (1906–1987).9

Jo mo appears as a synonym of ma gcig (“unique mother”): in her hagiography, Ma gcig Lab sgron (1055–1154 or 1055–1149)10 is often simply called jo mo or Jo mo Zhwa chung, Lady Little Hat,11 while Ma gcig Zha ma (1062–1149) is indicated as Jo mo Lha rje ma, and also as Jo mo Zha chung ma.12

The epithet jo mo was applied to Worldly Female Protectors too, like Jo mo Rje chen, a dam can (lit. “oath-bound”) who vowed to protect the lineage of Ma gcig Lab sgron teachings13; or Jo mo Yang gha bza’, one of the twelve Bstan ma goddesses14; or Tshe ring mched lnga, the Five Sisters of Long Life.15

In the contemporary Buddhist tradition, the term jo mo is still in use in Spiti, Ladakh, Zangskar, and other Himalayan regions. In Spiti, women renunciants are addressed as jo mo (“revered woman”), a respectful name for a nun.16 And in the Himalayan Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, in northeastern India, there have been communities of jo mo for about a thousand years, contributing to keeping the Buddhist tradition alive in this area. According to local traditions, the earliest recorded jo mo in Kinnaur was the sister of Rin chen bzang po (958–1055), the Lo tsā ba credited with having brought Buddhism in that area.17 The jo mo of Kinnaur are female religious practitioners with a somewhat ambiguous religious status, as they may be ordained or non-ordained. Ordained jo mo (differentiated as rab byung ma, scr. Pravrajitā; dge tshul ma, scr. Śramaṇerikā, and btsun ma) represent the female equivalent of a (male) Lama, albeit with a lower religious status, and obliged to obey a greater number of rules. Specifically, not only ordained jo mo but also non-ordained jo mo are required to be celibate, whereas a Lama remains a Lama even if he decides to marry and starts a family.18

Lastly, the jo mo designation is used in the present day among the Nye shang (or sNye shang), an ethnic Tibetan Buddhist group established in northern and central Nepal.19 Though in this context the term indicates a novice nun, the jo mo of this region are highly respected and reported to have mastered advanced forms of yoga.20 When they come out of their “three-year retreat,” their particular accomplishments (such as successful gtum mo practice, levitation, and so on) are widely acknowledged by the people of the area.21

Pha Dam Pa Sangs Rgyas and his Approach to Tantric Teaching

Besides the jo mo recorded throughout the Tibetan tradition, whether brief mentions or precise records of historical figures, the Land of Snow also preserves a short text, which was part of a collection of volumes kept until recently in Ding ri lhang ‘kor (in the Gtsang region near the border with Nepal). It is entitled Jo mo nyis shus rtsa bzhii lo rgyus, “The Stories of the Twenty-four Jo mo” (henceforth JMLG)22, and it contains the hagiographies of twenty-four female Tibetan adepts of the eleventh and twelfth centuries referred to as jo mo.23These twenty-four jo mo, all except one of whom are thought to have achieved highrealizations along the Path, are recorded as female disciples of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas,24 “Holy Father Buddha.”.25 This distinguished Indian Tantric master (d. 1117 in Tibet) was the one who introduced into Tibet the gcod (“Cutting”) and zhi byed (“Peacemaking”) teachings, both derived from the Prajñāpāramitā literature.26

“His extraordinary method was to teach by means of symbolic signs” (Tib. thabs khyad par du gyur pa brdar bstan te).27 Everything Dam pa did, every glance, movement, or utterance, was infused with symbolic power, and it seems that his symbolic actions themselves were his main way of transmitting the Tantric path.28

Auspicious objects were handed over to some of his disciples, male and female, such as, for instance, the Objects of Interdependence entrusted by Dam pa himself into the hands of his female disciple Ma jo Cug mo za dge‘dun skyid.29

Yet in portrayals of Dam pa, the most distinctive element is his piercing gaze.30 The Indian yogin is represented with his eyes staring directly ahead and sometimes turned slightly upwards.31 In the Blue Annals, when questioned by Kun dga’ on how to meditate, Dam pa replied: “You should meditate by turning the gaze upwards, this being a Posture of Interdependence32 in the Prajñāpāramitā”.33 And elsewhere, Dam pa is defined as “The Black A tsa ra34 endowed with the radiance of a targetting [gaze]”.35 According to Tibetan tradition, staring gazes are believed to stop the flow of thoughts and focus awareness, enabling the practitioner to find unlimited space within.36 In the rnam thar of Dam pa, the following verses are attributed to him: “If you realize everything to be mind, nothing is in discord, son. / If you drink the milk of space, you will be satiated, son.”37 Elsewhere in the same text, when asked where he had disappeared to, Dam pa replied, as he often did, with a single poetic line: “I went nowhere. I am made of [uncompounded] space.”38

Pha dam pa sangs rgyas was thus famous in his time39 for his highly symbolic utterances, his approach to teaching using parables, paradoxes, and riddles, and his eccentric behavior (such as his “religious” nudity or semi-nudity).40 But one of the most distinctive, even unique features about his approach to Tantric teaching was the fact that he encouraged women to pursue enlightenment. Although both male and female Tibetan disciples gathered around him in Ding ri lhang ‘khor, the Indian master is to be regarded as “an advocate of a kind of women’s liberation, in both the spiritual and mundane senses of the word,”41 as he demanded that his female disciples  find the courage to cut their ties with their domestic lives and stop slaving for their husbands.42 Nonetheless, while Pha Dam pa supported women’s religious practice and their need to break free from the constraints of their usual social roles, he cannot be regarded as a protagonist of some kind of proto-feminist phenomenon: the teachings attributed to him include stereotypical negative statements about women’s spiritual potential, as well.43

On the Twenty-four Jo Mo in the JMLG

At this point, let us turn to the JMLG and the twenty-four jo mo disciples of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas to whom the text is dedicated.

What are the different meanings the word jo mo conveys in Tibetan tradition and who were the Indian master’s female disciples called jo mo?

According to Tibetan dictionaries, the term jo mo can apply to a noble or high-ranking woman, a Buddhist nun (as a synonym of btsun ma) or a proficient female practitioner; it may refer to a wife, mistress or consort,44 be a synonym of rje rigs ma (woman from a noble or merchant caste) or signify goddess or queen. The masculine equivalent, jo bo, which refers to a noble or high-ranking religious man, was applied to the famous statue of the Buddha, Jo bo, in the Lhasa Jo khang, and to Jo bo Atiśa, Lord Atiśa (982–1054), the eminent Indian paṇḍita who reached the Land of Snow in 1042.45 While the term jo bo clearly implies a religious (and to a lesser degree, social) status and authority, the feminine form, jo mo, is more difficult to pin down.

The JMLG provides interesting insights to point out to the religious (and social) status of the jo mo in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.46

One jo mo, Nya ma khyim pa mo (the twentyfourth), is recorded as a “female lay disciple” or “practitioner” (Tib. nya ma)47 and a “female householder” (Tib. khyim pa mo), hence her name. She had children, a husband, and wealth, and is portrayed as being endowed with compassion and generosity towards those in need.48

The sixth jo mo, Jo mo Ye shes lcam, is referred to as an “... attendant (Tib. nye gnas ma) of a famous 'female siddha' (Tib. grub thob ma), called Jo mo Rje’u,49 (who lived) until the age of 104.”50

Jo mo ‘Phan mo (the eighteenth) is recorded as having lived in Glang khor for many years with a “female attendant” (Tib. nye gnas ma),51 both dedicating themselves to ascetic practice (Tib. dkaba).52 Some of the jo mo may have lived and practiced together as master and disciple (or attendant).53

One of our jo mo, Jo mo Ma gces (the eighth), is described as the jo mo of Kun dga’ (the spiritual son of Dam pa), who “took [her] as his wife (Tib. jo mo)” (or his Tantric consort). The Tibetan expression jo mo bzungs can be understood in both senses, i.e., either “to take [a woman] as a wife” or “to take [a woman] as a mudrā” (Tib. phyag rgya), and without further context, thus remains somewhat vague (and ambivalent). In the same way, the seventh Jo mo, Jo mo Chos sgron, is indicated as the wife (or mistress or Tantric consort, Tib. jo mo) of the bodhisattva Kun dga’.54 This ambiguity of the term jo mo also applies to ‘Bar ma (the fourth) who became the jo mo of Dam pa cug.55

Another jo mo, Jo mo Sgron ne (the seventh), who belonged to the Myang family,56 is reported to have had a retinue of servants and to have been generous with the poor. After meeting Dam pa, she left her previous life and became a “good female practitioner” (Tib. bzang mo).57

Jo mo Rdo rje rgyan (the fifteenth) was recognized thanks to a “khrulkhor (“hatha-yoga-like exercise,” literally “magical wheel”) she once performed as an authentic [s]myon ma. On seeing the wondrous events that occurred at the time of her death (when her body was carried to the mountain58 and a mass of light was witnessed for 7 days), all present were filled with wonder, and regretted they had not performed a proper “respectful service” (Tib. zhabs tog) for her when she was still alive.59 In the same way, Jo mo Rje’u ma (the nineteenth) is also referred to as a famous siddhā (Tib. grub thob ma) whose dead body was carried into the mountains. A skilled weaver, infused with bliss, Jo mo Rje’u ma had become a female “devotee” (literally “listener,” Tib. nyan ba) of master Dam pa.60

Though the presence of ordained disciples might not have been an isolated case in the circle Pha dam pa sangs rgyas gathered around him, only Jo mo Gser btsun (the second) is clearly referred to as a “nun” (Tib. btsun ma) in the JMLG: “One day she said to her father: ‘I am going to meet Dam pa. I ask you for advice’. ‘Do not go!’ answered her father. ‘Yogin and nuns follow two religious traditions that are not compatible.’”61 But she did not follow her father’s advice and went to Dam pa to ask for instructions. “Realizations arose in her. She dedicated herself to her accomplishments with much perseverance. Sometimes she would say: ‘The thief is coming! The thief is coming!’[i.e., death is approaching].”62 Out of all twenty-four life-stories, this is the only teaching attributed to one of the jo mo.

As far as we know, none of the twenty-four jo mo in the JMLG left behind any written texts. Nevertheless, in the hagiography of Pha dam pa, we encounter seven other women disciples also referred to as jo mo (or ma jo)63 who are not included in the list of the twenty-four. “Songs of realization” (Tib. mgur) are attributed to three of these: Jo mo Lcug mo bza’ dge ‘dun skyid, Jo mo Rgya sgom ma (or Ma jo Rgya sgom ma), and Ma jo Dar sgom ma.64

The next issue to consider is the female image the term jo mo frames in the JMLG. Jo mo conveys here both a religious and a social status as it indicates a female beginner on the Path, a young, or occasional practitioner (Tib. nyan ba, nya ma); a female disciple or attendant (Tib. nya ma, nye gnas ma); a novice nun (Tib. btsun ma); a proficient or noble female practitioner (Tib. bzang mo). To a lesser degree, the word jo mo designates a solitary female ascetic (a female spiritual master?), endowed with significant Buddhist Tantric accomplishments (as the terms grub thob ma and [s]myon ma imply). According to the JMLG, in most cases, a “religious” jo mo is therefore a (proficient) female beginner or practitioner, or occasionally an accomplished adept in the Tantric path.

However, given that the text also uses the term jo mo to signify wife, mistress, or mudrā (Tib. phyag rgya), i.e., social roles, it follows that a jo mo could be the jo mo of someone, a male spiritual master (such as Kun dga’ or Dam pa cug in our text), as well.

The term jo mo thus covers many of the possible roles, religious, or lay of women in Tibetan society, and in the JMLG (and elsewhere, as we have already observed), it is employed to indicate this varied range of different identities: for this reason, it is imprecise, fluid, and ambivalent in nature. Apart from referring to a female human being (this being the only common denominator to all of its meanings), the expression jo mo has no precise defining features, and is therefore open to semantic confusion; semantically speaking, the term’s unclarity is also its weakness.

Moreover, the term, when used for Buddhist female adepts, does not seem to correspond to any recognized religious rank achieved by progressing along the Path (referred to by the titles of Bla ma, Dge bshes, Lo tsa ba, and bodhisattva given to male disciples in the Pha dam pa sangs rgyas), or imply any acknowledged status pertaining to an individual’s spiritual achievements. It thus denotes female religious adepts in a generic way: no distinction emerges between a beginner and an advanced female practitioner.

Miraculous Signs and the Invisible Body

Though the JMLG provides very little in the way of biographical information on the twenty-four jo mo, almost all of the stories mention wondrous signs being witnessed upon their deaths or immediately afterwards (with the sole exception of Jo mo Chos sgron). Another common element in these stories is the turning point in their lives represented by their encounter with Pha dam pa sangs rgyas, the Tantric master who radically transformed their religious and social existences. But though most of these women significantly broke with traditional Tibetan female roles, the JMLG does not thematize gender. The female body is not viewed here as a source of suffering and no evidence of the difficulties the jo mo had to face as women meditators is reported. These twenty-four women were apparently not critical of their gendered status. Yet of course, the stories are not told by the jo mo themselves: they were recorded by Kun dga’ with the sole purpose of praising their master Dam pa, by giving an account of the realizations achieved by his most accomplished disciples, male and female.65

The twenty-four jo mo are in fact described above all as “female disciples of Pha dam pa,” albeit very special female disciples who left prodigious signs, especially on their passing. According to the JMLG, although some of the jo mo are credited with miracles when alive,66 the main supernatural events took place upon or just after their deaths. The jo mo in the JMLG thus made more of a mark dead than alive. And as far as we know, in life, none of them presented any distinctive signs of being a jo mo, such as a shaved head, special robe, or any other indication of belonging to a specific spiritual community with a particular religious or social status. The jo mo were in most cases formally recognized as great female Buddhist adepts only at the very moment of their death, when ring bsrel (relics) or other prodigious signs appeared.

Moreover, the jo mo in the JMLG mainly lived alone in solitary, secluded places, silent, mute, and disguised as ascetics, “invisible” to the world, their religious lives, and extraordinary attainments remaining mostly unacknowledged. It therefore follows here that a jo mo’s religious status as an advanced female adept could only be conclusively verified through signs of her achievements, especially miraculous signs that appeared after her death. In other words, only when the female body of one of these jo mo had disappeared could her identity as a highly realized female practitioner be formally validated. Lights, rainbows, images of divinities, and ring bsrel are those supernatural elements which proved that the jo mo of the JMLG were distinguished female disciples of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas, thus exalting the teachings of the Indian master and his spiritual lineage.

The Relics of the Jo Mo in the JMLG and postmortem miracles

In general, the funeral rites of any holy person are a significant event, imbued with powerful religious (and social) meaning for followers. In Tibetan society, in particular, the relics and other signs that can be witnessed on the death of a saintly person are held to reflect his or her spiritual achievements, confirming the spiritual level reached by the deceased and eliciting faith and devotion in the individual and the spiritual lineage in question.67

Apart from one exception, that of the seventh jo mo, Jo mo Chos sgron, the wife (or/and the Tantric consort) of bodhisattva Kun dga’, who is notably recorded in the JMLG for her angry and violent outburst, all of the other jo mo in the JMLG left specific “relics” or visible signs of their spiritual accomplishments after their deaths, either when they were cremated (in fifteen cases), or when their bodies were carried to the mountains (Tib. rir skyel) (in three cases),68 or during unspecified death ceremonies (in five cases).

In detail, the funeral pyres produced divine images (whether on the surface of the ring bsrel or on nearby stones, this is not specified in the text). These images portrayed Rdo rje sem pa (story 2), or Sgrol ma (stories 7, 19), or Rdo rje phag mo (story 13), or mkha’ ‘gro ma (Sk. ḍākinī) from ‘U rghyan (Sk. Uḍḍiyāna) (story 3), or unidentified divinities (21). In some cases, sounds (story 6), lights (stories 6, 9, 15, 20, 22), fragrances (story 18), or (undefined) auspicious signs (story 14) were observed; in others, the funeral ceremony was illuminated by rainbows of light (stories 1, 2, 6, 12, 13, 24). In one circumstance, golden coins appeared (story 22), and in most cases, ring bsrel manifested themselves (stories l, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 16, 21, 24).69

Often translated as “relics” (Sanskrit śarīraṃ), the term ring bsrel designates small, crystalline spheres, or globules, usually whitish in color (but also reddish or bluish). These glittering pearls appearing in the ashes of the holy person should be taken as a visible sign of their spiritual accomplishments. The term ring bsrel comes from “held” (Tib. bsrel) for “a long time” (Tib. ring); more specifically, the verb srel indicates “to keep” in the sense of cherishing or treasuring something valuable, to ensure it does not decay or fade away. Ring bsrel thus means “to keep [the production],” hence “proliferating long afterwards” (as these small, lustrous spheres are believed to multiply over time if conserved with particular care), or “to hold or revere for a long time” (to indicate their lasting value).70

Yet the ring bsrel and the other exceptional signs that emerge at the time of death are more than just a visible manifestation of the sanctity of the holy person. They are considered a special source of blessing and devotion for the faithful, both human and non-human, that is believed to accelerate the spiritual advancement of the adepts. This is evidence of the issue of the “division of relics” and of the various disputes over ownership of property, between human and/or non-human disciples, a known topos already reported in Indian Buddhist narrative and widely developed in Tibetan hagiographic texts (Tib. rnam thar).71

The Sku Gdung ‘bar ba chen po’i rgyud and the signs of sainthood

The Rnying ma tantra entitled Sku gdungbar ba chen poi rgyud (henceforth KDBG) “Tantra of Blazing Relics [of Enlightened Body],” one of the seventeen tantric texts of the esoteric instruction cycle (Man ngag sdei rgyud bcu bdun) of the Great Perfection (Tib. Rdzogs chen), is a seminal work entirely dedicated to the signs of sainthood.72 The third and last chapter of the text—structured as a dialogue between Rdo rje sems pa (Vajradhāra) and a mkha’ ‘gro ma (Sk. ḍākinī) called Clear Mind (Gsal yid)—gives a detailed description of the signs of a saintly death, such as images, bones (Tib. gdung), lights, sounds, earth tremors, and strange atmospheric phenomena, interpreted as “signs of nirvāṇa of the knower” (Tib. rig ldan mya ngandas pai rtags).73

Three of these manifestations—images, bones, and lights—are recorded in the JMLG upon the deaths of our jo mo disciples of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas.

The KDBG provides a detailed description of the images, both peaceful and wrathful, left behind after cremation74; the five types of bones (Tib. gdung), i.e., sha ri ram, ba ri ram, chu ri ram, bse ri ram, and nya ri ram,75 each linked to one of the “five families” (Tib. rigs lnga), namely Tathāgata, Vajra, Ratna, Padma, and Karma, and each with a distinctive shape and color, emerging from a specific part of the dead body etc.76; the three different types of light (around the corpse, rising vertically or shining out of the ribs).77

But unfortunately, the JMLG does not go into any detail about the ring bsrel which appeared or light shining out of the corpses. The only specifics here, as previously mentioned, are the images of deities (i.e., Rdo rje sems pa, Sgrol ma, Rdo rje phag mo, and mkha’ ‘gro ma from ‘U rghyan), witnessed after the funeral ceremonies of the jo mo.

Nevertheless, the many different relics and signs which appeared during and after the funeral ceremonies of the jo mo in the JMLG were indeed a reliable proof of their saintly qualities, this being a well-known topic in Tibetan religious culture (analitically described in an authoritative text like the KDBG).

Besides being a source of “blessing” (Tib. bying rlabs), eliciting faith, and devotion, the relics and other signs witnessed at the funeral ceremonies of our jo mo provide indirect yet physical (postmortem) proof of their spiritual attainments and definitive (postmortem) confirmation of their status as great female adepts of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas.

Concluding Remarks

In the JMLG, the term jo mo denotes a female religious status (a Tantric adept) or to a lesser degree, a female social status (wife, consort or Tantric consort). It cannot be interpreted simply as a synonym of “nun,” although this is the way the term is most frequently used in contemporary parlance.

The relics left by the jo mo in the JMLG are a Tibetan communication code embodying the high status of the master Pha dam pa sangs rgyas and his teachings in Tibet through the spiritual accomplishments achieved by the jo mo as his successful female disciples.

In the longest female-authored autobiography in Tibetan literature, Se ra mkha’ ‘gro, the great gter ston ma of the twentieth century writes “I am not a nun, but I am disciplined as a nun...”78 In the same way, it is feasible to affirm that due to their attainments, the jo mo in the JMLG, who were, apart from one, all religious laywomen and not officially nuns, lived their lives completely devoted to their Master and to the Tantric practice transmitted to them, as if they were true and authentic “disciplined” nuns.

The bodhisattva Kun dga’, the compiler of the JMLG, writes that “The story of the twenty-four jo-mo [is] an absolutely authentic account, written down as a message for the women of future generations.”79 Although they contain little historically information and a great many gaps, the short life stories of the twenty-four jo mo that have come down to us bear precious witness to the extraordinary existences of these Buddhist female adepts of the Tibetan tradition. The message for future generations that Kun dga’ refers to is that of cherishing the memory of the inspiring lives of these jo mo disciples of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas, lives marked by faith and devotion, perseverance, and high spiritual accomplishments.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    Among the mountains known as jo mo in Buddhist tradition, there is A ma yanggri (‘gril) ri, also called Jo mo yanggri (‘gril) ri, located in the Helambu valley (Nepal). I owe this information to Davide Torri, whom I thank here.

  2. 2.

    Uebach (2005), p. 39.

  3. 3.

    On Jo mo Byang chub, see Demiéville (1987) (reprint), pp. 25–33; Houston (1980), p. 69 n. 28. Richardson (1980), p. 64; Richardson (1985), pp. 32; 82–83. As a patron of Hva šan Mahāyāna, Jo mo Byang chub is mentioned among those who sit on the right side at the Buddhist council of Bsam yas, i.e., the Chinese side (Houston, ibid.).

  4. 4.

    Roerich (1979); (hencefoth BA), p. 409. Actually, Gzhon nu dpal, the author of the BA, mistakes this Jo mo Sgre mo for another Jo mo Sgre mo, known as dge slong ma Sgre mo, who was a disciple of Vimalamitra (eighth century); on Jo mo Sgre mo who is possibly to be identified with the known disciple of Ras chung pa (1083–1161), see Martin (2005), pp. 58–59.

  5. 5.

    For the hagiographies on Jo mo Sman mo, see Dargyay (1977), Rev. Ed., (1979), pp. 771–774; Dudjom Rinpoche–Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje (1991), pp. 119–123; see also Allione (1984), repr. 2000, pp. 291–294.

  6. 6.

    BA (1979), p. 731.

  7. 7.

    Id., 920.

  8. 8.

    Jo mo zhang mo was a consort of Bla ma Dkon mchog rgyal po (1034–1102) and mother of Sa chen kun dga’ snying po (1092–1158).

  9. 9.

    Stearns (2001), p. 133 n. 164.

  10. 10.

    Regarding other possible dates of Ma gcig Lab sgron, see Martin (2005), p. 52 n. 5.

  11. 11.

    Edou (1996), pp. 130–131.

  12. 12.

    Stearns (2001), pp. 126–127; 130–131; 131 n. 159.

  13. 13.

    Edou (1996), pp. 148–149.

  14. 14.

    Nebesky-Woikowitz (De) (1975), p. 195.

  15. 15.

    On the Tshe ring mched lnga, see also id., pp. 177–181.

  16. 16.

    Tsomo (1999), p. 178.

  17. 17.

    LaMacchia (2008), p. 41 ff.

  18. 18.

    Id., pp. 42–47.

  19. 19.

    Watkins (1996).

  20. 20.

    Id., pp. 191–194; 241–243.

  21. 21.

    Ibid.

  22. 22.

    The JMLG is part of an old collection of manuscripts, now available in a five volume reprinted edition (Kun dga’ et al. (1979), p. 4, 314–323). It was compiled by Kun dga’ (1062–1124), the chief disciple of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas. The JMLG is actually the second part of the text entitled Jo mo nyis shus rtsa bzhii zhu lan lor rgyus dang bcas, “Answers to the Questions of the Twenty-Four Jo mo, together with their Stories,” in Kun dga’ et al. (1979), vol. 4, pp. 302–323; the first part of this text, Jo mo nyis shus rtsa bzhii zhu lan, “Answers to the Questions of the Twenty-four Jo mo” (in Id., 302–314), is not taken into consideration here and will be the subject of a forthcoming publication.

  23. 23.

    On the JMLG and women’s spirituality in the circle of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas, see Martin (2005), 74–82.

  24. 24.

    The brief life stories of the twenty-four female disciples of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas have long been available in English, mostly abridged and with various omissions (such as the life story of Jo mo Gzhon nu ma, mistakenly identified with Ma gcig Lab sgron), reproduced in ‘Gos lo gzhon nu dpal (1984), vol. 2, pp. 1068–1073 henceforth(DT), English tr. Roerich (1979), pp. 915–920 (BA), with the title of Ma jo nyi shu rtsa bzhii lo rgyus (DT 1984, vol. 2, pp. 1068–1073). In the English translation of the text (BA (1979), pp. 915–920), the twenty-four women are referred to either as “nun” (Tib. ma jo) or “Lady” (Tib. jo mo).

  25. 25.

    Other names often used for Pha dam pa are Kamalaśīla and Kamalaśrī, and, less frequently, Karuṇasiddhi or Ajitanātha. He is also referred to as Little Black Holy Man (Dam pa nag chung or Nag gu: Martin (2006), pp. 111, 119); or Black Atsara (Black ācārya: BA (1979), pp. 872–73.

  26. 26.

    BA (1979, pp. 867–920) gives a long account of the life, miracles, teachings, and disciples of Pha dam pa, together with the lineages of the Zhi byed school. On the rnam thar of Dam pa, see PDNT (1992), pp. 1–242, and Padampa Sangye (2008). A short life-story of Pha dam pa, entitled Dam pa rin po chei lo rgyus, is available in Zhi byed dang gcod yul gyi chosbyung rin po chei phreng ba thar pai rgyan, in Gcod yi chos skor, 1974, pp. 419–606, at pp. 431–439, 1974 [TBRC W00EGS1016278]. I owe this indication to Elena De Rossi Filibeck, whom I thank here. In the Bstangyur of the Tibetan Buddhist canons and in other extra-canonical collections, around seventeen Tibetan-language anthologies of Buddhist Tantric verses were brought to Tibet, thanks to Pha dam pa sangs rgyas and his translator Zha ma ston pa seng ge rgyal po. In both prose and verses, authored or simply compiled by Dam pa, these anthologies include symbolic songs (Tib. brda mgur), expressions of realization (Tib. rdo rjeighur) and diamond songs (Tib. rdo rjeighur): see Schaeffer (2007), pp. 5–73.

  27. 27.

    ZC II, 139; see also Martin (2006), p. 111.

  28. 28.

    Martin (2006), pp. 115–116.

  29. 29.

    DT (1984), p. 1065 (BA 1979, p. 913). The nature of these Objects is not explained here. Nevertheless, elsewhere it is reported that they referred to all kind of things that could serve as causes and conditions for the emergence of Dharma (such as pebbles or special stones, for instance, or the mysterious Wheel of Interdependence, probably a chart that served for focusing concentration: see Martin (2006), pp. 115–116).

  30. 30.

    For the iconography of Pha dam pa, see Martin (2006).

  31. 31.

    Martin (2006), p. 118.

  32. 32.

    Auspicious posture.

  33. 33.

    DT (1984), vol. 2, p. 1075 (BA (1979), p. 921). The translation here is my own.

  34. 34.

    A Tibetanized version of the Sanskrit ācārya (teacher).

  35. 35.

    The Tibetan term gzir, “targeting [gaze]” (Tib. gzir [bltas]) or “piercing [look],” indicates a “gaze targeting [with concentration]”: JMLG, 314.

  36. 36.

    On the different meanings of the staring gaze in Tibetan tradition, see Martin (2006), p. 118.

  37. 37.

    PDNT (1992), 120.

  38. 38.

    Tib. nam kha: PDNT (1992), 97.

  39. 39.

    It is worth briefly noting that the tradition of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas survived into the twentieth century and is still present throughout the Buddhist Himalayas: see Aziz (1979), p. 22; Aziz (1980), pp. 21ff.

  40. 40.

    Martin (2005), p. 74 and n. 70

  41. 41.

    Id., 75.

  42. 42.

    Ibid.

  43. 43.

    Id. pp. 78–79.

  44. 44.

    The term jo mo is always an honorific and can be used for either a nun or a gsang yum. The term gsang yum is not always an honorific, but merely indicates the wife of a Lama or a Tantric consort in secret mantra practice.

  45. 45.

    The epithet jo bo is also used for some Tibetan mountain deities, such as Jo bo mchim lha, Jo bo nges sum, Jo bo g.ya’ spang, and Jo bo lha bcas, or local protective deities like Jo bo ‘bo lha, or even Jo bo klu bdud mched dgu, the malevolent deities held to cause various diseases: see Nebesky-Wojkowitz De (1975), pp. 224, 239, 286, 312.

  46. 46.

    The English translation of the complete Tibetan text will be the subject of a forthcoming publication.

  47. 47.

    The Tibetan nya ma is a rather difficult term, as it can indicate a generic female being (without a grammatical male counterpart), a lady, mistress of the house, housewife, female devotee of a master, or female student; a female Buddhist beginner or part-time female practitioner. Moreover, in the hagiographies of Milarepa, nya ma refers to either his female disciples and patrons, or to both male and female disciples and patrons: see Martin 2005, p. 61, n. 29, 30; Uebach (1993), p. 393 n. 3.

  48. 48.

    JMLG,  323.

  49. 49.

    In all probability the 19th jo mo of the JMLG.

  50. 50.

    JMLG 316.

  51. 51.

    The term nye gnas ma (the feminine form of nye gnas) indicates either a generic female disciple, or the personal assistant of a spiritual master, who is performing her /his apprenticeship beside the teacher; the latter implies a significant role for the disciple: in Tibetan texts nye gnas is used to describe Ānanda’s important role as the Buddha’s personal assistant (Sk. /Pāli antevāsika).

  52. 52.

    JMLG,  320–321.

  53. 53.

    In all probability, spiritual instructions and teachings were imparted from female master to female disciples, but unfortunately the JMLG does not provide any evidence of this.

  54. 54.

    Though her name translates as Jo mo Lamp of Dharma, she is actually recorded as the “worst” (Tib. ngan shos) of the twenty-four as she broke her samaya vows: JMLG , 317.

  55. 55.

    Id., 315–316.

  56. 56.

    The Myang is documented to have been a powerful and influential clan in Tibetan history, instrumental in the construction of the Tibetan kingdom from an early date (seventh    century): see Richardson (1985), p. 44; Snellgrove and Richardson (1968), pp. 27–28. Belonging to the Myang clan was considered evidence of noble origin: see for instance Myang tsha dkar rgyan, the name of Milarepa’s mother (Mi la ras pa’i rnam thar (1959), pp. 29ff; Gtsang smyon Heruka (2001), pp. 76 ff.).

  57. 57.

    JMLG,  320. The term bzang mo translates as “noble lady,” “good lady.”

  58. 58.

    In the same way, two other jo mo in the JMLG also had their dead bodies carried into the mountains: the nineteenth, Jo mo Rje’u ma, who is referred to as a famous siddhā (Tib. grub thob ma) and the twelfth, Jo mo Lha mo. According to Martin (2005, 76 n. 74), the JMLG may have the earliest known reference to “carrying corpses up the mountains” (what is called “sky burial” by non-Tibetans).

  59. 59.

    JMLG,  319–320.

  60. 60.

    Id., p. 321.

  61. 61.

    Id., p. 315. The term btsun ma (feminine of btsun pa) generally refers to a nun. If it is not possible to identify the religious status to which Gser btsun ma belonged, we might nevertheless hypothesize that she was related to the Bka’ gdams pa tradition founded by the Indian paṇḍita Atīśa, a lineage which privileged the cenobitic status as opposed to the reclusive lifestyle of wandering yogin and yoginī. Jo mo Gser btsun ma may have lived as a nun in her father’s house, either permanently or at certain times of the year during major agricultural jobs; for references on the close ties between village life and female religious and monastic practitioners in the Tibetan tradition, see: Aziz (1978), pp. 203 ff.; Tsomo (1999), pp. 177–178; Willis (1987), p. 102.

  62. 62.

    JMLG , 315; Gianotti (2017), p. 240.

  63. 63.

    The title ma jo, not extant in Tibetan dictionaries and sometimes employed as a synonym of jo mo, can perhaps be interpreted as a contraction of ma gcig jo mo, an honorific referring to a more elevated condition than that of a simple “nun,” i.e., a “nun-teacher.” In the same way the expression ma jo smyon ma (which does not have a corresponding masculine term) presents some ambiguities regarding the religious status it conveys (maybe a female Tantric master?). Furthermore, in the English version of the BA the terms ma jo, jo mo and btsun ma are often all translated as “nun”; but though all three terms may refer to a woman following a religious Path, they do not imply the proper status of a Buddhist nun: see Martin (2005), p. 57 n. 16.

  64. 64.

    See Gianotti (2017), p. 240.

  65. 65.

    Gianotti (2017), p. 242.

  66. 66.

    The ninth jo mo lived on water alone for 12 years; it is said of the sixteenth jo mo that her urine turned into honey, and the twenty-second jo mo transformed herself into a pigeon (Tib. phu ron).

  67. 67.

    In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition the interpretation of relics can also be related to the theory that the awakening of Buddha nature may manifest in physical form. Klong chen pa (1308–1364) describes the ring bsrel as a manifestation of the Buddha-nature, primordially present and inherent in all sentient beings, visible after the spiritual maturity of the adept. Moreover, the various relics are interpreted by the Rnying ma master as a post mortem spiritual experience, i.e., an enlightenment occurring either during death or in one of the post-mortem stages: see Germano (2004), 56 ff.

  68. 68.

    The two common Tibetan terms for “relic”—ring bsrel (which means “kept for a long time” or “cherished”) and gdung (or sku gdung, honorific for “bone,” but also “remains” in general)—have a broad and a narrow meaning. The broad meaning includes mantra, dhāraṇī, images of various material, tsha tsha, consecrated articles such as dam rdzas and so on, while in the narrow sense they are the so-called “mustard seed like relics”: see Martin (1994), pp. 274; 278–279. The JMLG only uses the term ring bsrel.

  69. 69.

    Gianotti (2012), pp. 203–208.

  70. 70.

    Germano (2004), p. 69.

  71. 71.

    Regarding the division of relics in Indian literature, see for instance the Mahāparinibbānasuttanta, “The Great Discourse on the Definitive Nibbāna,” (tr.) (2001), pp. 1191–92; for the division of relics in Tibetan literature, see for instance the rnam thar of Milarepa, compiled by Gtsang smyon Heruka, which gives the account of the long dispute between the mkha’ ‘gro ma and the human disciples of the master (Mi la ras pai rnam thar (1959), pp. 182–204; Gtsang smyon Heruka (2001), pp. 286–311). In the same way, the rnam thar of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas relates the unequal division of the ring bsrel between the mkha’ ‘gro ma of ‘U rgyan, the nāga and the Indian master’s human disciples, male and female, who were only left with few relics: PDNT (1992), pp. 153–54,

  72. 72.

    Sku gdung 'bar ba chen po'i rgyud, in Rnying ma rgyudbum (Mtshams brag dgon pai bris ma), vol. 11, 788–815 [TBRC W21521]. For the commentary of the KDBG, see Sku gdungbar ba rin po chei rgyudgrel (KDBGG), in Rigdzin padma gling pai zab gter chos mdzod rin po che, (1975-1976) vol. 6, 623–636, [TBRC W21727]. On the KDBG see Martin (1992), pp. 183–191, and Martin (1994), pp. 281–285.

  73. 73.

    KDBG, 808.

  74. 74.

    Id., 809.

  75. 75.

    Sha ri ram, Tibetan transliteration of the Sanskrit śarīram “body,” is used interchangeably with ring bsrel: see Martin (1994), p. 275. Ba ri ram, chu ri ram, bse ri ram, and nya ri ram are different types of sha ri ram described in KDBG,  809-811 and in KDBGG, 626–636.

  76. 76.

    KDBG, 809–811.

  77. 77.

    Id., 811–812.

  78. 78.

    Jacoby (2009), p. 47.

  79. 79.

    JMLG), 314.

Notes

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Scuola Superiore di Filosofia Orientale e Comparativa (Superior School of Oriental and Comparative Philosophy)RiminiItaly

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