Abstract: Chokyi Dronma (1422-1455) was a princess of a kingdom in lower Ngari in south-western Tibet who left her royal marriage at a young age to pursue a religious life. She became renowned throughout Tibet as an embodiment of Vajravarahi (Tib: rdo rje phag mo) and became the first in an incarnation line of female lamas known as the Samding Dorje Phagmo, the first and most famous lineage to be held by women and one that continues to the present day. In addition to being recognized for her spiritual accomplishments and as the successor to her teacher, the renowned tantric master, Bodong Chogle Namgyal, she actively supported cultural works, patronized massive printing projects, and established nunneries, among other activities. This summary will look at her life as translated and analyzed by Hildegard Diemberger in When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty: The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet (Columbia University Press, 2007).
Written by Tracy Howard, October 2013
Chokyi Dronma was born a princess, the daughter of the king of Mangyul-Gungtang (also known as Lower Ngari), an important kingdom in south-western Tibet. Her biography describes her early life as that of an exceptional being: she was born without pain to her mother, with the ability to speak and a strong disposition towards Buddhism. She was a highly sought-after bride. The royal family of Gungtang was seen as the descendents of the ancient Tibetan empire, the rulers of the “golden age” of Buddhism in Tibet. Because of this connection, the princess was seen as one who could bring fortune and well-being to the region in which she lived (41). Her father arranged for her marriage to the son of the ruler of Southern Lato, a smaller region to the east of Gungtang. This marriage alliance between the two kingdoms brought temporary political stability to the region. Though she preferred to follow a religious life, she accepted the marriage out of a sense of filial duty and soon gave birth to a daughter in Southern Lato. When her child died in its infancy, however, she renewed her intentions to follow a religious life and left her marriage to become a nun.
Thus, in 1442, at the age twenty, Chokyi Dronma left the secular life for the monastery where she took the vows of a nun under Bodong Chogle Namgyal (1375/6-1451), a renowned master of the Bodongpa tradition whose disciples included Gendun Drupa (posthumously recognized as the First Dalai Lama) and Khedrubje Geleg Pel Sangpo (posthumously recognized as the First Panchen Lama), among others. Pursuing religious training, eventually the biography tells us that Chokyi Dronma was able to take the vows of full ordination, those of a bhiksuni (183). This is significant in light of the rarity, and present absence, of fully ordained nuns in Tibet. There is some question as to how she was able to take the vows and her biography implies that it was more common than historical sources assume (61). Regardless, Chokyi Dronma lived the life of a nun, making a transition from a princess of royal birth to a mendicant carrying a begging bowl, and carried out her intentions to follow a Buddhist life.
Religious & Cultural Figure
Chokyi Dronma engaged in a wide variety of culturally significant activities during her life. Together with Chogle Namgyal, she promoted the education of women through the building nunneries and training of young nuns. The two leaders even “established new rituals for women as a conscious revival of lost Indian Buddhist traditions” and Chogle Namgyal encouraged Chokyi Dronma to “initiate [the nuns’] performance of ritual dances at a time when female roles were usually performed by monks” (62). These activities were not necessarily well received at the time but are testimony to Chokyi Dronma’s far-sighted goals.
After the death of Chogle Namgyal in 1451, Chokyi Dronma was widely recognized as his spiritual heir and continued her religious activities. One of her most important acts was the mobilization of support and patronage for the reproduction of the collected writings of her late master. Diemberger writes that “Chokyi Dronma possibly played an important part in instigating some of the earliest examples of printing produced in Tibet” through this project (64). In addition to acting as patron of printing projects, she also spearheaded irrigation projects. In the later years of her life, Chokyi Dronma spent much of her time traveling around Tibet. She developed ties with the renowned tantric adept and master builder of iron bridges, Tangtong Gyalpo (1385-1509), who became another of her principal masters. In association with him, she participated in the construction of iron bridges in Tibet. When Chokyi Dronma passed away in 1455/56, it was Tangtong Gyalpo who recognized her reincarnation, thus beginning the first line of reincarnated women in Tibet.
Human & Deity
The biography clearly presents the life of the historical Chokyi Dronma, a woman of fifteenth century Tibet. She is a princess whose family descended from the Dharma kings of Tibet who grows up to be a religious leader who inherits her teacher’s lineage and teaches disciples the Buddhist path. As such, she is highly critical of the Bon tradition, a theme we see throughout the biography. It first appears as a tension in her marriage, as her husband is a supporter of the Bon tradition. Chokyi Dronma even goes so far as to blame the death of her daughter on his support of Bon, for example (166). And yet not all of Chokyi Dronma’s activities were solely Buddhist. As a cultural figure, she engaged in social activities such as building institutions for women’s education and supporting projects of printing, engineering, and the arts. While these are not uncommon activities for Buddhist leaders, the text presents us with an interesting historical perspective of fifteenth century Tibet. At the same time, the story is told on another register, one in which Chokyi Dronma is presented as an emanation of the female deity, Vajrayogini, complete with the standard tropes of the Tibetan genre of rnam thar, or “complete liberation” stories, roughly comparable to the Western genre of hagiography. She has a miraculous birth and many events in her life mimic the life story of the historical Buddha. In this light, the life of Chokyi Dronma can be seen as an enlightened display in which her acts serve didactic purposes as she models the path to liberation. This assertion is made simultaneously through use of the conventions of the rnam thar genre and through particular historical events of her life. For example, towards the end of her life, Chokyi Dronma travels on pilgrimage to the region of Tsari, famous for the sacred mountain of the same name, which is said to be the abode of Vajravarahi, the very deity Chokyi Dronma embodies. Thus, the historical and hagiographical registers of Chokyi Dronma’s life story are not always separable. It is because of Chokyi Dronma’s renown as an enlightened being that Sir Charles Bell described her as the “holiest woman in Tibet” and that she became the initiator of the first female line of reincarnated lamas in Tibet known as the Samding Dorje Phagmo that continues to this day.
Diemberger, Hildegard. When a woman becomes a religious dynasty: the
Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.