Translations Reveal Tibetan Woman Mystic

How a fiercely independent Tibetan girl born more than a century ago became a leading Buddhist mystic—and lives on today.
2010-06-04
Email story
Comment on this story
Share story
Print story
  • Print
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Email
Sera-Khandro-305.jpg
Statue of Sera Khandro housed in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Photo: Antonio Terrone

WASHINGTON—A unique collection of writings by a female Tibetan mystic, little known even among Tibetan Buddhists, is providing a rare glimpse of religious life in Tibet 100 years ago and is stirring new interest among scholars seven decades after her death.

The “treasure revealer” Sera Khandro (1892-1940) wrote her autobiography not in classical Tibetan but in the colloquial Tibetan dialect of Golok, in an area that now straddles the border between China's Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. She’s the subject of a forthcoming book by Sarah Jacoby, an assistant professor of religion at Chicago's Northwestern University.

“Because Sera Khandro didn’t have a monastic education—she never studied in a monastery or a nunnery—she writes in a kind of ‘oral’ language,” Jacoby said in an interview.

“So her autobiography is a kind of snapshot of the way people wrote in Golok 100 years ago. It’s for the cultural and religious preservation of Golok history that people are interested in it, as well as the fact that it is one of the few female-authored autobiographies in Tibetan literature.”

Jacoby’s book, tentatively titled Love Revelations: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Buddhist Dakini, is scheduled for publication by Columbia University Press.

Unique voice

Tibetan Buddhism is a religious tradition often seen as dominated by men. Great female teachers have appeared, but have produced few written works.

Sera Khandro thus remains something of an anomaly—which is one reason the official Sichuan Nationalities Publishing House last year reprinted her Collected Works in six volumes. 

The project to collect, edit, and print Sera Khandro's collected works was undertaken by a Chinese government office that translates as the "Golok Regional Office of Old Manuscripts," which is dedicated to preserving Golok history, culture, literature, and language through collecting and publishing manuscripts from the region, said Jacoby.

sarah-jacoby.jpg
Sarah Jacoby. Photo: Northwestern University
Sera Khandro was born to a socially prominent family in the Tibetan capital Lhasa, Jacoby said. At the age of 13, she received in visions two “treasure revelation cycles”—separate series of teachings and meditation practices—from the Tibetan Buddhist deity Vajravarahi.

She revealed more texts deriving from similar visions throughout her life, Jacoby said.

“Those cycles include many, many, many texts. Hundreds of texts fit into those larger two rubrics. So there’s a lot there,” Jacoby said.

“Her Collected Works also include a biography she wrote of her main guru and consort, Drime Ozer, her autobiography—which is very long, 407 pages—in Tibetan cursive manuscript form, and a commentary on Dujom Lingpa’s Buddhahood Without Meditation.

Dujom-Lingpa-monastery-390.jpg
Dujom Lingpa’s monastery in Dartsang, Serta County, Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture—a place visited by Sera Khandro. Photo: Sarah Jacoby
A particularly interesting set of Sera Khandro’s revelations is her Cycle of Prophecies, in which she recorded and dated many individual visions that she had, Jacoby said.

Sera Khandro wrote her texts originally in a cursive style popular in Eastern Tibet called yiknak, Jacoby said. Like manuscripts in the medieval West, these texts were never printed in woodblock form (though others were in Tibet) but had to be hand-copied by scribes, which limited their circulation.

Sera-Khandro-manuscript-390.jpg
A Sera Khandro manuscript, written in yiknak script. Photo: Sarah Jacoby


Sad series of events

To escape an arranged marriage and devote herself to religious practice, Sera Khandro left home at 15 and traveled with a party of pilgrims to Golok in the far northeast of Tibet.

Initially encountering hostility in the religious community she had hoped to join, she attached herself to a nomad family as a servant. Later, she became the consort of a man named Gara Gyalse, the son of a prominent "treasure" revealer, from Padma County, in Golok.

But soon the relationship soured, and they got along poorly.

“When Sera Khandro began her relationship with Gara Gyalse, she was 19 years old, had no source of income, and had no family of any kind nearby to help her. And she was in the middle of Golok, which even today is a very difficult place to live,” Jacoby said.

“Back then she wrote about starving and freezing, not having enough clothes to wear, and not knowing where she would live.”

Eventually, Gara Gyalse allowed Sera Khandro to leave him, as she had become very ill, and she became the consort of Drime Ozer. This was a lama whose traveling party she had joined on her journey to Golok, and for whom she had the deepest devotion.

Together, Sera Khandro and Drime Ozer revealed further "treasures," Jacoby said. And when Drime Ozer died, Sera Khandro retired to live and teach at a small monastery in Golok called Sera, from which she took her name.

Reincarnation

In 2007, Jacoby and her husband Antonio Terrone, both fluent in Tibetan, traveled to the Kham region of Tibet and met a contemporary incarnation of Sera Khandro.

“We spent several days with her in a Vairochana cave in Gyalrong and interviewed her and talked to her about what it was like to be a part of this lineage and how she understood her position as Sera Khandro’s incarnation,” Jacoby said.

“It’s been very interesting to see how these traditions really do live on in contemporary Tibet.”

Original reporting by Richard Finney. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Comments (0)
  • Print
  • Share
  • Email