The Life and Visions of Yeshé Tsogyal: Autobiography of the Great Wisdom Queen is the secret autobiography of Yeshé Tsogyal, originally authored in the 8th century by one of Padmasambhava’s main disciples, Bendé Sangyé Yeshé, and subsequently concealed by Yeshé Tsogyal as an earth Treasure. This treasure text was revealed by Drimé Kunga in 1357 and was located by Janet Gyatso in 1996. The original text, typically titled The Lifestory of Yeshé Tsogyal, was translated here by Chonyi Drolma in 2017 and includes a foreword by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. Yeshé Tsogyal was a princess born in 8th century Tibet who has become the most well-known female Buddhist master in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. She is best known as the enlightened Tibetan consort of Padmasambhava, an Indian tantric master, though she undoubtedly became a master in her own right. Translated for a Western audience, this autobiography is a rich and intimate account of Yeshé Tsogyal’s life and journey to enlightenment. It focuses on the trials she faced in her early years as well as the difficulties and triumphs she faced whilst following Buddha’s path. Yeshé Tsogyal serves as the voice for Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche, and his teachings. She repeatedly asks him timeless spiritual questions and his answers clearly lay out the path to enlightenment, relevant for all. The autobiography concludes with Yeshé Tsogyal and Guru Rinpoche founding the Treasure tradition, a central tenet of Yeshé Tsogyal’s lasting legacy.
Yeshé Tsogyal was born in the spring of the Earth Rat Year in the 8th century to a noble royal family and given the title Princess Lady Lotus. Consistent with Buddhist figures, she had all the characteristics of an exceptional person and her body contained all the marks of perfection. As a young child, she performed several remarkable acts including being encircled in light as an infant, granting many young children empowerments, and teaching the doctrine of the tantras –though these incredible spiritual qualities were not acknowledged by her family. Despite her exceptional spiritual abilities, her adolescence was rife with conflicts owing to her gender. When Yeshé Tsogyal was sixteen she received several suitors. The first was from an Indian king who had decided she should marry his son, and the second marriage request was from a prince from the palace Mighty Fortress. Yeshé Tsogyal’s entire family and the state officials all agreed she should be married, though the townspeople lamented the departure of their princess from Tibet. Yeshé Tsogyal wrote letters to both princes stating her aspirations to practice spiritual teachings and therefore declining their marriage proposals. Despite her earnest attempts to obtain her family’s consent to undertake spiritual practice, her family declined permission and maintained that she must marry a prince. Despite identifying as a Buddhist family, Yeshé Tsogyal’s family failed to act in accordance with the doctrine and instead viewed Yeshé Tsogyal as a tool to further their social and political interests. Following Yeshé Tsogyal’s refusal to go to India to be married, the state officials suggested to the king that because of her refusal she should be flayed and dismembered. She was subsequently bound, stripped naked, and beaten with a whip of thorns on display around the palace. After one domestic official relayed what was happening to his daughter to the king, he put a stop to the whipping and instead banished Yeshé Tsogyal to the Haunted Land of Ominous Jungles.
While living in the jungle she became friends with many animals and they “lived together like mother and children” (pg. 107). After several months in the jungle, the King of Mighty Fortress sent the prince to the Haunted Land of Ominous Jungles in order to retrieve the princess and take her to the palace to be wed. After a heated exchange between the prince and princess, with Yeshé Tsogyal remaining steadfast in her convictions to cultivate a spiritual practice, two of the prince’s officials decided to take her by force to the palace of Mighty Fortress. Akin to her defilement previously, she was bound and lashed with a whip of thorns. When they were only one day away from the palace the prince and all his officials celebrated and became intoxicated, ultimately falling asleep. Feeling defeated, she supplicated the Primordial triumphant buddha of nondual compassion and she received a response from the Lotus-Born King of Oddiyana, also known as Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, who ultimately became her guiding spiritual master. He instructed her to meditate on him and, freed from the chains that bound her, she followed him to Samyé Chimpu where they lived and practiced together.
Voyages to the Land of Oddiyana
She beseeched Guru Rinpoche for the instructions to quickly attain enlightenment. Owing to her birth as a woman, he informed her that swift enlightenment was a challenge but that with “faith and perseverance there is a chance you will attain enlightenment” (pg. 126). He instructed her to stay in retreat for twelve years meditating in the charnel ground of Samyé Chimpu. One month after Guru Rinpoche left her in retreat, a woman approached her to show her authentic faith. They instantly arrived in a large square of a wealthy country called Lotus Array in the palace known as the Center of Great Bliss where townspeople were giving many offerings, including jewelry and children, to the cannibalistic King called Youthful Meditative State. Yeshé Tsogyal continually questioned the woman, asking why the townspeople did as the King said, even when he instructed them to eat rocks or poison. The woman repeatedly responded: “You have no faith, Princess. No matter what the king says these townsfolk understand it to be true” (pg. 129). The king decided Yeshé Tsogyal did not have authentic faith so she ultimately failed to be liberated from the lower realms. Her female guide took her by the hand to take her instantly to another place in order to receive a teaching on impermanence.
In the yellow valley, a woman was frantically running naked around a pool while the people around the pool washed away their impurities. Yeshé Tsogyal’s guide informed her the woman was frantic because she was “fearful that there isn’t enough time to reach spiritual attainment” (pg. 131). She came upon another king who echoed the sentiments of the woman by the pool – he did not know when death would arrive and was in a frantic state to prepare for death. Yeshé Tsogyal’s companion told her she would not attain enlightenment, for she spent her life in constant laziness. As Yeshé Tsogyal left the palace, both the woman by the pool and the king attained enlightenment. In her final stop on the odyssey through Oddiyana with her companion, Yeshé Tsogyal received a teaching on courage from the land of dakinis and furies. She saw people carrying vases filled with a hundred corpses and human-sized gold bars to the palace in order to receive the day’s food rations from the king. She saw the king hand out a pill to several dakinis that enabled them to attain enlightenment. Yeshé Tsogyal eagerly asked the king for the pill, but he denied her stating she lacked courage because she failed to carry the vase filled with a hundred corpses into the palace.
After her companion left, Yeshé Tsogyal ventured upon a different palace to gain spiritual attainment. A woman guarding the palace required a gift of the flesh from a mother tigress. In the jungle, she came upon a weak tigress with dying cubs. Overcome with compassion, Yeshé Tsogyal offers the tigress her own body as an offering, tearing off pieces of her own flesh to feed the tigress. Repaying her kindness, the tigress pointed with her paws to the corpse of a tigress who had died. She presented the head of the tigress to the woman guarding the palace. Here, she received many empowerments from people within the palace and was assigned the secret name Dorjé Dudal-ma, Vajra Demon Subduer. Then, she was told to return back to Tibet, where a year had passed since her first voyage into the land of Oddiyana.
The Princess Receives Teachings and Helps Others
After twelve years passed, Yeshé Tsogyal returned to Tibet to receive many teachings from Guru Rinpoche including: How can I free myself from the cycle of samsara? What spiritual approach should I take in everyday life? Where should I live in order to cultivate my practice? How do I choose a lama to be my teacher? Who should I surround myself with as spiritual companions? How do I approach death? After receiving these instructions, she “achieved the transformation from an ordinary state to a body free of defilements, and gained the spiritual attainment of life free of birth and death” (pg. 173). Owing to her perfect memory, Yeshé Tsogyal recited the scriptures and transmissions she received from Guru Rinpoche by name.
Then, the Princess was told to go to the Hell realm in order to prove she could help others. She was instructed to go to the Hell of Endless Torment and lead an evil official who created obstacles to her own awakening, Shanti, out of his misery. She descended through the various levels of Hell, each progressively worse than the last, until she reached Shanti. She asked the King of Karma if she could take on Shanti’s suffering by taking his place and sending him back to the human realm. The King declined her request but instructed her that the ritual of the peaceful and wrathful deities to empty the depths of hell might help her achieve her goal. Meditating, Yeshé Tsogyal liberated all the beings in the Hell realm, including Shanti, and placed them in a pure land. After returning to the human realm, she was given the name Dakini Yeshé Tsogyal, Victorious Ocean of Wisdom, and praised by Guru Rinpoche. He told her: “My own qualities as Lotus-Born/ don’t come from me- / they come from you. / You are the source of all qualities/ and the treasury of spiritual attainments that grant bliss.” (pg. 185). Guru Rinpoche proceeded to give her many teachings and prophecies. He told of her successive incarnations and instructed her to gather the teachings she received and write a secret account of her life, concealed as Treasures, as a service to all future beings including her future incarnations. Guru Rinpoche prophesied about the future state of the world and predicted that when her teachings will be most useful is when the Buddhist doctrine is diminished and “beings will do only evil” (pg. 192). Yeshé Tsogyal and Guru Rinpoche lived together for 60 years before she attained enlightenment.
Kunga, Drimé, and Yeshé Tsogyal. The Life and Visions of Yeshé Tsogyal the Autobiography of the Great Wisdom Queen. Translated by Chonyi Drolma, Snow Lion, 2017.