'A Local Saint'

A professor of religion recalls the life of a visionary Buddhist teacher in modern Tibet.
2013-02-06
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Khandro Tare Lhamo, circa 1979-80
Photo courtesy of Holly Gayley.

Khandro Tare Lhamo (1938-2002) was an important and well-known Tibetan Buddhist teacher in the Golog region of Tibet during much of the last century. She was born into a religious family, endured hardships during the famine of the late 1950s and during the Cultural Revolution, and went on to become a revealer of terma, spiritual teachings received in visions. Here, Holly Gayley, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Colorado in Boulder, discusses Khandro Tare Lhamo’s life based on her conversations in Golog with some of those who knew her. Gayley is the author of a forthcoming book on Khandro Tare Lhamo and her husband tentatively titled Scripting Destiny: The Lives and Letters of a Visionary Buddhist Couple in Contemporary Tibet.

“Khandro Tare Lhamo was born in 1938 to Apang Terton, a locally renowned terton [revealer of visionary teachings] in the region of Golog. She grew up very much in an esoteric milieu and trained with some of the great masters of her time.”

“She was able to receive esoteric instructions, but not the kind of training that a male teacher would receive. She didn’t, for example, have any scholastic training. She could read Tibetan, but couldn’t compose in Tibetan, so all of her writings were dictated to a scribe.”

“Later, she was labeled a ‘black hat’ [by the invading Chinese Communists] and was assigned to manual labor. She lived mainly as a nomad and herder during the years from 1958 to 1978, approximately, and her three brothers and first husband were imprisoned and died.”

“Her first son died later, more in the time period of the Cultural Revolution. So she did undergo quite a bit of hardship. At the same time, her biography records many of the miracles she performed during that time. She served as a beacon of hope for her local community as their khandroma, or local female saint, who was able to intervene in times of trouble, sometimes cooking rice in a kind of loaves-and-fishes miracle. Just a handful of rice would feed a whole group. She also met privately with people, sometimes performing phowa [special rituals] for the dead.”

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Undated photo of Holly Gayley.

“She initiated her correspondence [with her future husband, Namtrul Jigme Phuntsog] based on prophecy, and they corresponded for over two years. Travel was extremely difficult at that time between province borders. She was in Marko in Padma county in Qinghai, and he was in Serta in Kardze county in Sichuan. But their letters were taken by a messenger.”

“They exchanged 58 letters, quite a large number, over two years. Lots of prophecies are contained about their destiny to become consorts and to help revive the Buddhist teachings after there had been a nearly 20-year hiatus. But their letters also contain wonderful expressions of affection, so they’re quite a delight to read and are also very much in an Amdo song style—very local and colorful.”

“They definitely traveled and taught as a couple, and they revealed their terma [visionary teachings] as a couple. They very much worked as partners, and they taught side by side, giving tantric initiations sitting next to each other on thrones.”

The lineage of Khandro Tare Lhamo’s teachings are now carried on not just by Tibetan, but also by Chinese, disciples, Gayley said:

“The Buddhist connection between the Tibetans and the Chinese has always been a wonderful cultural bridge. And in a sense, there’s a great hope in the present situation. I think what is important is the openness among Tibetan teachers and monastics to accommodate the growing interest among middle-class Chinese Buddhists, who  see Tibetan areas as a place that has preserved the genuine Buddhadharma. And they are going there—flocking there—to rediscover those Buddhist roots.”

Reported by Richard Finney