June 18, 2013
Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. Tibetans have kept such meticulous records of their teachers that thousands of names are known and discussed in a wide range of biographical material. All these names, all these lives—it can be a little overwhelming. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives are currently mining the primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized for easy searching and browsing. Every Tuesday on the Tricycle blog, we will highlight and reflect on important, interesting, eccentric, surprising and beautiful stories found within this rich literary tradition.
Jetsun Pema Trinle
Although women have served as teachers and lineage-holders since the beginning of Buddhism in Tibet, only a handful had their lives recorded in biographies. Fortunately, information on many female practitioners, lineage holders, and patrons can be gleaned from histories and biographies of the men who were their blood relatives, students, or teachers. In the case of women who lived in the 19th or 20th century, we can even construct a narrative from accounts of people who remember them or heard about them as children. Elisabeth Benard's biography of Jetsun Pema Trinle (1874-1950) on the Treasury of Lives illustrates this method of crafting a full biographical narrative from interviews and careful readings of historical sources.
Pema Trinle held a prominent place in the Sakya tradition, being one of the few women to have been authorized to teach both Lamdre Tsokshe and Lobshe, the general and esoteric presentation of the Path and Result in the Sakya tradition. She was particularly renowned for her mastery of the Vajrayogini teachings. Pema Trinle is mentioned in some historical material—where she is referred to as Jetsun ("venerable") rather than Jetsunma, the female version of the title—but most of what we know of her comes from the recollection of masters who remember her or were told stories of her life.
Jetsun Pema Trinle was born in 1874 at Sakya into the Khon family, which has headed the Sakya tradition since its beginning in the 11th century. Her father was the 37th Sakya Tridzin, Kunga Nyingpo Sampel Norbu (1850–1899) and her older brother was Drakshul Trinle Rinchen (1871–1936), who served as the 39th Sakya Tridzin. Both parents were ardent practitioners. Her mother, Chime Rigdzin Pellha, was also a voracious reader, mainly of biographies and Sakya histories. It seems that she and the 38th Sakya Tridzin, Zamling Chegu Wangdu (1855–1919), frequently exchanged books, sending their servants back and forth between their two residences.
Those who remember her recall that in spite of all her accomplishments she remained a warm and gentle person. She was short, plump, and always smiling, her hair cut short in the manner of the Sakya Jetsunma, the women of the family who did not marry but instead pursued a lay religious vocation.
Pema Trinle and her brother both received teachings from their paternal great-aunt, Jetsunma Tamdrin Wangmo (1836–1896), a remarkable female teacher. Their father also gave them teachings and allowed Pema Trinle, at the age 11, to participate in an extensive Mahakala initiation. Following that she and her brother did a one-month retreat.
Pema Trinle was known as a powerful medium to a group of worldly protectors, the Bamo deities, who were associated with the Khon family. On the reverse of a painting on Himalayan Art Resources is a lengthy inscription signed by her, together with her seal. It explains that the family who commissioned the painting asked her for help dealing with a variety of misfortunes, for which she exhorts the deities to remember their agreement with the Khon family and to honor their promises. She commands them not to harm the supplicant family and to quickly remove all obstacles from their lives.
Pema Trinle, along with her brother, toured eastern Tibet to gather donations and to obtain and transmit teachings. Her main teacher there, at Lang Nak Monastery in Trehor, was the 3rd Nyendrak, Tenpai Wangchuk (1854–1898), who himself was a disciple of her great-aunt Tamdrin Wangmo. She also received Lamdre teachings from the great Jamyang Loter Wangpo (1847–1914). All these teachings she brought home and transmitted to family and disciples.
She is recorded to have given teachings and transmissions a number of times to prominent disciples, including the 3rd Dezhung Rinpoche (1906–1987), who for decades taught in Seattle, Washington. Still, unlike her great-aunt, she is said to have been reticent to teach.
Her great-nephew, the current Sakya Tridzin, recounts an episode that offers insight into the social pressures she faced as a female master, and reveals that she held her own in the face of those pressures. At a Sakya monastery in eastern Tibet where she was giving an initiation, some nearby monasteries—offended by the idea of a female master—sent their dobdob, or monastic police, to intimidate her. The story goes that when she became aware of their presence, she was holding up an initiatory vase, from which she removed her hands to adjust her robes, leaving it levitating in the air. Astonished, the monks prostrated to her, requested her blessing, and left her in peace.
Alexander Gardner has a PhD from the University of Michigan in Buddhist Studies and serves as the Associate Director of the Rubin Foundation.