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Machig Lapdron's green valley in Tibet
Machig Labdron's Cave
(Part III — Pilgrimage to Nepal and Tibet)

(Earlier parts of this series:
Part I: Entry into the Sacred
Part II: Rooftop of the World)

In 2004, when I was living on semi-retreat up in the forest of the Santa Cruz mountains, I dreamed one night that my friend Krissy and I were flying over the Himalayan land of Tibet. Like literal Dakinis ("women who fly through space"), we flew ecstatically through clear blue skies over broad green valleys surrounded by mountain ranges. The dream seemed to reflect our mutual love of all things Tibetan and to validate the Dakini practices that she and I had done for almost a decade. It didn't occur to me at the time that either of us might ever visit Tibet in the flesh.

We have a favorite Dakini practice called Chöd, which I first learned from Tsultrim Allione at a Buddhist retreat center in Santa Cruz in 1995. In 1998, Krissy and I attended "The Laughter of the Dakini," a retreat at Tsultrim's center in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. There we learned another version of the Chöd from Tulku Songnak, a reincarnated Tibetan Lama, who has taken a special interest in female practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, supporting Tibetan refugee nuns in Nepal.

statue of Machig Lapdron (the younger) in her monastery in TibetAll versions of Chöd ultimately link back to its originator, Machig Lapdron, a famous yogini born in 11th century Tibet, traditionally depicted in a dancing posture holding a bell in her left hand and a damaru (skull-drum) in her right. Chöd (the word means "cut") is a chanting and visualization practice, accompanied by drum and bell, which facilitates the cutting through of ego fixations and the overcoming of doubt and fear.

In May of 2007, only three years after my flying dream, Krissy and I found ourselves on a pilgrimage to Tibet with Tsultrim Allione and her group of 30 international Tibetan Buddhist practitioners.

Tsultrim is a Western woman who first went to Asia at the age of 19, eventually to be initiated into Tibetan Buddhist practices and ordained as a nun by the Karmapa who recognized her as his student from previous lifetimes. You can read her story in exquisite detail in the introduction to her classic book, Women of Wisdom, a biography of six famous Tibetan women practitioners, including Machig Lapdron. (Allione, 2000)

In brief, Tsultrim arrived in Kathmandu and encountered the "monkey temple" and Swayambhu stupa. She felt drawn to the monasteries on the hill around the stupa, "took a small hut" nearby, and went each day before dawn to sit in a doorway during their morning rituals. A monk named Gyalwa put a little carpet down for her and, touchingly, began to bring her tea each day. Tsultrim and Gyalwa visiting and sharing storiesLater, after two marriages, having children, and many dramatic life experiences, she returned there, enlisting Gyalwa's help in her search for the biographies of Tibetan women needed for her book (first published in 1984).

In May 2007, when Tsultrim took our group of pilgrims to climb the hundreds of steps up to the Swayambhu stupa, this story came to life. We met her old friend Gyalwa. Crowding into his tiny room, we got to watch the mutual pleasure these two old friends obviously took in reconnecting and sharing their stories. It is this kind of "karmic link" that is so highly valued in Tibetan Buddhism, affirming that our profoundest connections continue through many lifetimes and are not bound by the usual constraints of place, time, social class, and so on.

Tsultrim's name for our pilgrimage to Tibet, "In Machig's Footsteps," sums up the intended purpose of the trip. We went to find out as much as we could about Machig Lapdron and to visit the places known to be sacred or special to her, where she was reported to have lived or meditated. Machig Lapdron is believed to be a reincarnation of an earlier important Tibetan yogini, Yeshe Tsogyal, the female founder of Tibetan Buddhism. And Yeshe Tsogyal, a princess born in 8th-century Tibet, was believed to be a reincarnation of Vajrayogini — the Queen of the Dakinis and ruler of Vajrayana ("tantric") Buddhism.

The Chöd, the unique meditation practice developed by Machig Lapdron, has a lineage that cuts across sectarian lines. It is practiced in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism and in all regions of Tibet, suggesting to me that it predates or subsumes them all. Machig Lapdron herself is reported to have consciously remembered and recounted to her disciples stories of her past lives, making her the first recorded tülku (reincarnated teacher), according to Tibetan scholar Reginald Ray. Although Ray places her "before the genesis of the tülku tradition in Tibet," he explains that she is the precursor of the later institutionalized tradition.

"In Machik, then, we find the motifs of a realized person taking rebirth to continue the propagation of dharma of her previous incarnations, explicit memories of those previous incarnations, and 'self-recognition' of her status as a tülku, a pure incarnation." (Ray, 2001, 367)

Machig Lapdron's hilltop monastery and cave in TibetIn an earlier book, Ray refers to her as "the realized dakini Machik Labdrönma" and describes her as a "wisdom dakini — a fully realized being in human form." (Ray, 2000, 185)

The highlight of the trip came for most of us when we made our visit to Zangri Khangmar ("Red House at the Copper Colored Mountain"), Machig's main residence and cave, where she lived and taught during most of her long life (she lived to be 99). After driving for many days across Tibet's desolate and rocky landscape, visiting caves and monasteries connected with our yogini or the practice she invented, we finally arrived at Machig's "seat," a monastery built around her meditation cave. The cave and monastery were high up on a hill, unexpectedly set off by a lush green river valley below. Here was the green valley that Krissy and I had flown over in my dream!

The monastery overlooks a wide river beside which barley fields are cultivated, providing the essential substance used by all Tibetans for their daily offerings of tsampa and their equally famous beer, called chang. The monastery itself, however, is poor, lacking running water. Our group camped there for several nights and we spontaneously took up a collection, raising several thousand dollars to install a simple water system. (Unfortunately, after our return home we learned that this project was later thwarted by the Chinese authorities.)

Kama Dorje recognizing Tsultrim as an emanation of Machig LapdronWhen we reached Machig's seat, as at any monastery, we went to the gompa or meditation hall, ditched our shoes, did three full prostrations, and settled in for a practice session. Soon we were performing our Chöd practice, complete with drums and bells, for an audience of one: Karma Dorje, the resident monk who had been assigned to this monastery only a month before our arrival. His specialty? Machig Lapdron! He chanted a longer version of the Chöd that turned out, surprisingly, to be the one I practiced for several years at Pema Osel Ling, the Vajrayana Buddhist center in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Karma Dorje immediately honored Tsultrim as a Dakini, as an emanation of Machig Lapdron, and gave her the higher seat in his meditation hall. (One wishes she had received such honors in America, where she has been such an important teacher for decades.) This smiling monk sat for her teachings that day, then shared his Chöd and transmitted his teachings to us the following day.

pilgrims meditating in Machig Lapdron's cave shrine at her monastery in TibetAt sunset we hiked down the hill to the river, where once there had been a "sky burial" site (where bodies were exposed to vultures as a final feast offering). There Lama Dorje performed for us his version of a special ancient Dakini Dance — an invocation to the Dakinis of the four cardinal directions and the center. Since my recent work consists of a Dakini Mandala invocation to the five directions, which I have adapted for my students from longer Tibetan practices, it was very meaningful for me to learn that this was one of Machig Lapdron's many teachings — the "terma" or treasures she left for us.

In truth, there were so many karmic connections to this place, we were all simply blown away. In the meditation hall upstairs in the monastery were two very special statues of Machig Lapdron, an older version to represent her last teachings given at this site shortly before her death, as well as a much younger version. Downstairs in the cave that was her longtime place of meditation and habitation, in a shrine built to contain and sanctify the site, is another older statue of her wearing fabulous clothing and jewelry, including a crown with skulls and gemstones.

The cave shrine is a magical place where we were able to hang out and meditate for hours at a time. Many precious, private, unforgettable things happened for me in that setting, as I made offerings and gave thanks for the unbelievable gift of being able to go back (physically) in this lifetime and reconnect with so much that has been a source for me and my work in the world. I came home from the trip not exactly transformed, but integrated, authenticated, and profoundly consolidated in my wholeness.

Works Cited

  • (Allione, 2000)
    Women of Wisdom, Tsultrim Allione, Snow Lion Publications; Revised edition, November 25, 2000.
  • (Ray, 2001, 367)
    The History of the Sixteen Karmapas of Tibet, Reginald Ray, Shambhala Pubns, May 2001.
  • (Ray, 2000, 185)
    Indestructible Truth : The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism, Reginald Ray, Random House Inc., November 2000.

Graphics Credits

  • photos of Machig Lapdron pilgrimage, © 2007, Vicki Noble. All rights reserved.
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