Sky Dancer: The Secret Songs and Autobiography of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel
Sky Dancer: The Secret Songs and Autobiography of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel is a treasure text from the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. It recounts the life and teachings of Yeshe Tsogyal, the famous consort of Padmasambhava. Although it was “discovered” and written in the eighteenth century by Taksham Nuden Dorje, the colophon claims that it had been recorded during Yeshe Tsogyal’s own lifetime as she recounted her story orally to her disciples. Yeshe Tsogyal’s story was already well known in Tibet before this text appeared, as it had previously been recorded in biographies of Padmasambhava. This “secret” autobiography, revealed around 1,000 years after Yeshe Tsogyal herself existed, offers a rare glimpse into Tibetan religious life from a woman’s point of view (or, at the very least, from an eighteenth century man’s ideas of what a woman’s point of view would have been).
Sky Dancer: The Secret Songs and Autobiography of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel is considered a treasure text in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. It recounts the life and teachings of Yeshe Tsogyal, who is famous for having been both the wife of King Trisong Detsen and later the consort of Padmasambhava. Although it was “discovered” and written in eighteenth century by Taksham Nuden Dorje, the colophon claims that it was recorded during Yeshe Tsogyal’s own lifetime by one of her disciples, Gyelwa Jangchub. The later treasure revealer Taksham Nuden Dorje is believed to be an incarnation of this disciple who originally recorded Yeshe Tsogyal’s own words as an autobiography; Gyelwa Jangchub himself was believed to be an incarnation of Atsara Sale [pronounced Salé], a young man from India who was once Yeshe Tsogyal’s consort.
Although, on the surface, the text can be read as an autobiographical narrative of Yeshe Tsogyal’s own life events, it often includes esoteric teachings and songs interspersed within the story. In his introduction to the text, translator Keith Dowman compared Yeshe Tsogyal’s autobiography to the Life of Milarepa. While there are some basic similarities to the story of Milarepa, most notably the emphasis on song and highly emotional elements within the narrative, the text itself instead seems to follow the paradigm set forth in Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita. Although Yeshe Tsogyal cautions her followers against deifying her—she instead teaches that they ought to recognize and cultivate bodhicitta within themselves—it is clear from the narrative pattern that this text was written with the intent of identifying her as an enlightened being. Like the traditional story of the Buddha, her story begins in a heavenly realm, where the goddess Sarasvati has just decided to descend to the earth. After each of her parents receive separate visions, she is conceived and born as Yeshe Tsogyal, the daughter of the Prince of Karchen (described as one of the seven kingdoms of Tibet at this time). Echoing the Buddha’s story, this text describes her birth as a “painless” one accompanied by a number of auspicious signs including the earth shaking, thunder, and flowers raining from the sky as “a host of goddesses” sang her praises (11-12). Just minutes after her birth, the infant (who is described as having a complete set of teeth and long hair) was able to recite the alphabet and sing a song describing herself as a yogini. At this, her father echoed the prophecy surrounding Sakyamuni’s birth by exclaiming that she would be destined for greatness as either a religious figure or as a worldly ruler. He declared, “Either she will become a mahasiddha of the Bonpo or Buddhists, or she will be a queen of the Emporer” (14). By the age of thirteen, the girl—who appeared to have the fully matured body of a young woman by the age of ten—was eventually married off to King Trisong Detsen [form given in text, but it should be Tri Songdetsen] after numerous other suitors had tried to win her hand. After moving into the palace, she began to study with the king’s scholars once King Trisong Detsen recognized that she had “faith in the Buddha-Dharma” (21). When she was sixteen, the King offered her as a consort to “the Great Master Pema Jungne [Padmasambhava]” who came to the palace to give teachings (21). As Padmasambhava’s consort, Yeshe Tsogyal was finally able to renounce the world and embark upon a life of religious endeavor and meditation as she had always hoped. Six months after becoming the Guru’s consort, he instructed her to take her own male consort, a youth from India named Atsara Sale.
While her unions with both Padmasambhava and Atsara Sale play important roles within the narrative, ultimately, each of these men is only a secondary character in this account. The highlight of Yeshe Tsogyal’s story of religious attainment does not come when she is acting as a consort or taking her own consort, but when she is meditating alone in a cave. Although she often prays to Padmasambhava and even interacts with him in visions during this time, he is not physically present, having returned to the palace to teach the King. As for her own consort, Atsara Sale, it is written that he abandons her at the beginning of her meditations once he realizes that the religious practice she is embarking upon is too difficult for him. While her experiences in the cave have many similarities to Sakyamuni’s meditation under the Bodhi Tree, including various temptations and demonic distractions, one way in which Yeshe Tsogyal’s narrative differs from the Buddhacarita is the emphasis on the practice of extreme physical austerities within the text. Unlike the Buddha, who practiced extreme asceticism only before he discovered the “Middle Way,” Yeshe Tsogyal is instructed in her visions to practice various forms of austerities during the years she spent in the cave. As a result, she “came close to death” several times (70). The text includes graphic descriptions of the physical effects of her various yogic practices during this time. After repeatedly practicing prostrations, for example, “bones began to protrude through the wounds on my forehead, the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands, and a stream of blood and pus ran out of them” (77). Although she describes in vivid detail the physical agonies she faced while practicing these forms of asceticism, she also claims that her ailments miraculously disappeared whenever she achieved the spiritual aim that a particular exercise was intended to result in. Like the Buddha’s life story, Yeshe Tsogyal’s culminates with descriptions of how she taught the Dharma to various disciples before finally attaining nirvana—which, in her case, came after living for over 200 years. In one of her songs, she proclaimed, “Now 211 years have passed; Surely that is sufficient protection for Tibet, And surely all the gods and men are grateful…” (152).
In addition to the parallels to the Buddhacarita, which serve to present Yeshe Tsogyal herself as an enlightened figure worthy of veneration, the text also includes a number of gender-specific issues that are worth exploring. Although Yeshe Tsogyal is perhaps most famous among Tibetans as the consort of a great male religious figure, she alone is the focal point of this text. While she is dependent upon her Lama for much of her spiritual attainment—even offering prayers to him for help and interacting with him through visions while he is not physically present with her—he still remains a secondary character within this text; the reader can only view him as he is portrayed through her eyes. Although it was not actually recorded until nearly 1,000 years after Yeshe Tsogyal existed, according to the Nyingma tradition, this text is to be taken literally as her autobiography. Regardless of how it was transmitted, the fact that it took so many centuries before her story could be told from a female point of view is fascinating.
Although she had been revered for generations as a great spiritual adept, it was not until the eighteenth century that her “voice” could finally be accepted within the tradition. There are certain events within Yeshe Tsogyal’s story that happened specifically because she was female. For example, the fact that she possessed the body of a beautiful young woman caused “hordes of suitors” to ask her father for her hand in marriage. The text makes it clear that she came into the world as an enlightened being and she had no desire to be married; she refused one suitor by singing, “This body is the result of ten thousand years of effort; If I cannot use it to gain enlightenment I will not abuse it with the pain of samsaric existence” (16). The fact that she was a woman, however, made it impossible for her to resist when various princes abducted her (in attempts to win her as a wife) before she was eventually rescued by—and given in marriage to—King Trisong Detsen. In later life, as a woman traveling alone, she repeatedly faced similar dangers and was attacked and robbed by groups of thieves on more than one occasion. In one scene, Yeshe Tsogyal is robbed and raped by a group of seven men. In a striking example of compassion, she sings to her attackers a “song of introduction to the four joys,” and willingly transforms her rape into a tantric exercise, awakening the minds of her attackers (118-119). While the offering of one’s own body for the sake of sentient beings is not unheard of in other Buddhist narratives, this event would clearly never have taken place in the biography of a male religious figure. While it is clear that certain events in her life could have only happened because she was a woman, it is interesting that Yeshe Tsogyal never laments that she was born as a woman nor makes specific mention of the female form as an embodiment of suffering. Unlike another eighteenth century text, the biography of Orgyan Chokyi [see Kurtis Schaeffer, Himalayan Hermitess, Oxford University Press], she never seeks to identify her female body as an example of samsara. In fact, one of the interesting things about Yeshe Tsogyal’s account is that, although it is clear that she is a woman, the focus of the text is on the supernatural and on her religious achievement. In many ways, one could argue that a key feature in Yeshe Tsogyal’s story is her ability to transcend all aspects of the mundane—including gender—as a fully enlightened being. Yeshe Tsogyal’s story is indeed about a woman, but her religious accomplishment is neither presented as something that was obtained because of her womanhood nor as something that she obtained in spite of her womanhood.