Yeshe Tsogyal attained enlightenment in her lifetime and is considered the Mother of Tibetan Buddhism.
Yeshe Tsogyal is the highest female in the NyingmaVajrayana lineage. Some sources say she was a wife of Trisong Detsen, Emperor of Tibet when she began studying Buddhism with Padmasambhava, who became her main karmamudrā consort.
Padmasambhava is a founder-figure of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and is considered as the second Buddha of our era. She is known to have revealed terma with Padmasambhava and was also the main scribe for this terma. Later, Yeshe Tsogyal also hid many of Padmasambhava’s terma on her own, under the instructions of Padmasambhava for future generations.
Born a princess in the region of Kharchen, Tibet, in about 777 CE, Yeshe Tsogyal lived for approximately 99 years and is a preeminent figure in Tibetan Buddhism and a role model for contemporary spiritual practitioners. Although often referred to as being Padamasambhava’s main consort, Yeshe Tsogyal was primarily a spiritual master and teacher in her own right.
Based on her spiritual accomplishments, the Nyingma and Karma Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism recognize Yeshe Tsogyal as a female Buddha. The translators of Lady of the Lotus-Born, the Namtar, or spiritual biography, that Yeshe Tsogyal left as a terma, observe:
As Dodrup Tenpai Nyima makes clear, beings able to reveal Termas must have at least the realization of the Perfection Stage practices. On the other hand, the one who originates the Treasures must have the supreme attainment of Buddhahood. Lady of the Lotus-Born is thus a testimony of Yeshe Tsogyal’s enlightenment.
According to legend, Yeshe Tsogyal was born in the same manner as the Buddha, a mantra sounding as her mother gave birth painlessly.
She is considered a reincarnation of the Buddha’s own mother, Maya. Her name, “Wisdom Lake Queen“, derives from her birth causing a nearby lake to double in size.
Her spiritual inclinations were present from a very young age and Yeshe Tsogyal wanted to pursue a life of dharma practice rather than marry. She felt so strongly about this, that she ran away and had to be brought back by force. At the age of sixteen, she was compelled into an unwanted arranged marriage with the then-emperor of Tibet, Trisong Detsen.
It was after their marriage, that Trisong Detsen invited Padmasambhava to come to Tibet from India and propagate the Buddhist teachings.
Yeshe Tsogyal was given by Trisong Detsen to Padmasambhava as an offering. Padmasambhava freed Yeshe Tsogyal and she became Padmasambhava’s main disciple and consort.
Spiritual life and attainments
In the body of a woman
As to the question of the place of female practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism, Yeshe Tsogyal has been an important role model.
When she herself asked about “her inferior female body” (a common theme in the biographies of female spiritual practitioners), Padmasambhava advised Yeshe Tsogyal that far from being a hindrance to enlightenment, as was generally accepted, a woman’s body is an asset:
“The basis for realizing enlightenment is a human body. Male or female, there is no great difference. But if she develops the mind bent on enlightenment the woman’s body is better”.
After many years of serious study and meditative practice, Yeshe Tsogyal’s level of spiritual awakening, enlightenment, was equal to that of Padmasambhava.
Her spiritual practices
Yeshe Tsogyal is also known to have spent many years in an isolated meditation retreat. She accomplished several different cycles of tantric spiritual practices that she received from Padmasambhava and various wisdom beings including the practices of tummo, Vajrakilaya, karmamudra sadhana, and zhitro.
For example, one scholar relates how Yeshe Tsogyal received the empowerment to practice zhitro from a wisdom being, a vidyādhara:
After succeeding in a variety of feats, including beheading a tiger, she gains access to an elaborate palace where she receives esoteric initiations from several vidyādharas and buddhas. She returns to Chingpu and after a year is robbed by seven bandits whom she then converts to Buddhist practice. She proceeds with the bandits on a magic carpet to the place Oḍḍiyāna where they all receive peaceful and wrathful deity practice (zhitro) initiations from a vidyādhara, who gives her the secret name Kharchen Za and cavorts in bliss with her.
All of these practices brought Yeshe Tsogyal to awakening. Among lay Tibetans, she is understood as a fully enlightened Buddha who takes the form of an ordinary woman so as to be accessible to the average person, “who, for the time being, do not see her Vajravarahi form as a fully perfected deity.”
At the time of her death, Yeshe Tsogyal is known to have had eleven main disciples, both women and men. These disciples included:
- Kalasiddhi (of Nepal)
- Tashi Children (of Bhutan)
- Dorje Tsomo (of Shelkar)
- Be Yeshe Nyingpo
- Ma Rinchen Chok
- Odren Pelgyi Zhonnu
- Langlab Gyelwa Jangchub Dorje
- Darcha Dorje Pawo
- Surya Tepa (of central Tibet)
- Jangchub Drolma (of Khotan)
All of Yeshe Tsogyal’s final teachings were given at the request of one of these eleven main disciples.
Along with these eleven, there were approximately 79 other acolytes present during the final teachings of Yeshe Tsogyal. Some sources say that there were no less than 100 people present for these final teachings.
She is also considered to be an emanation of Samantabhadrī, Prajnaparamita, and Vajrayogini. In the Life of Yeshe Tsogyel, Padmasambhava predicted that Yeshe Tsogyel would be reborn as Machig Labdrön; her consort, Atsara Sale, would become Topabhadra, Machig’s husband; her assistant and another of Padmasambhava’s consorts, Tashi Khyidren, would be reborn as Machig’s only daughter, and so on.
All of the important figures in Tsogyel’s life were to be reborn in the life of Machig Labdron, including Padmasambhava himself, who would become Dampa Sangye.