Yeshe Tsogyal was the closest disciple of Padma Sambhava and the mother of Buddhism in Tibet. She attained Buddhahood in one lifetime and was believed to have been an emanation of the Goddess Sarasvati. Nevertheless, she had to pass many tests and suffer greatly before she attained enlightenment.
Yeshe means “unending primordial wisdom.” Tsogyal means “Conqueress of the Lake,” or “Victorious One of the Ocean of Wisdom.”
Her life-story is found in a terma text. Terma means “treasure.” Terma texts are the texts that are believed to have been sealed and buried by Padma Sambhava and his disciples in the eighth century in Tibet. They were destined to be discovered by future masters between the tenth and fourteenth centuries. Many texts were “discovered,” often in dreams and visions, and the discovery did not necessarily include a physical text. This particular text is called “Mother of Knowledge: The Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal.”
Yeshe Tsogyal was born the daughter of the ruler of one of Tibet’s seven provinces. At her birth, there were many auspicious signs.
By the time she was ten, she had matured to a beautiful woman. Tales of her beauty spread throughout Tibet and into China and Nepal. Hordes of suitors descended upon the kingdom. With them were two princes. Her father told her to choose between the two. She told them she did not want to be married to either: “To go with either of these men would be to enter the prison of samsaric suffering, from which it is so very difficult to escape.”
Her father sent her away and declared that whichever prince found her first would have her. When the officers of one prince found her, she ran into the mountains. At last one officer caught her. He stripped and whipped her with a thorn whip, saying: “You will yield to me, or I will kill you!”
She answered: “Lord Kharchu may rule the steppes with great power, but he lacks even one day’s inclination to achieve enlightenment. I would rather die than surrender and be his wife.”
After much whipping, she collapsed.
Lying there bloody and in tears, she could think of no way to escape. So she sang this sad song to the Buddhas of the ten directions:
“O Buddhas of the ten directions, Bodhisattvas and Protectors of beings, masters of great compassion and power, possessors of the Wisdom Eye and magical abilities, O great-hearted ones, the time has come to show your mercy! My mind is white, whiter than the white snow mountains. It will turn dark, darker than rust, contaminated by the minds of these alien demons....
“Please look upon me with a little compassion! You who have power, please bring it forth now! In one lifetime, in one body, I can realize the highest Dharma. But these alien demons will envelop me in the mire of samsara. You who have compassion, return me quickly to the Path!”
After Yeshe Tosgyal sang this song, the soldiers became drunk in celebration of having caught her. They fell asleep and she was able to escape. She fled through the mountains and hid in the wilderness, living on fruit and wearing cotton clothes.
However, the other prince heard where she was and sent three hundred men to look for her. Soon they found and captured her. When prince Kharchu heard of this, he determined to fight the second prince. They began raising armies. Trisong Detsen, ruler of all Tibet, heard of the conflict and settled it by making Yeshe his wife.
Initiation by Padma Sambhava
Trisong Detsen, who ruled 755 to 797 A.D., was a student of Padma Sambhava. He was devoted to the practice of Buddhism and allowed Yeshe to study Buddhist teachings.
Some years earlier, Trisong Detsen had invited the Precious Guru to come to Tibet to overcome the forces of the entrenched Bon religion that were opposing the establishment of Buddhism by their black magic. Padma Sambhava came to Tibet and stayed for fifty-five years. Trisong Detsen was so eager to receive teaching from his guru that on one of Padma Sambhava’s visits, he offered him his entire kingdom, including his wives. Padma Sambhava requested a woman committed to the Dharma to assist him in his practice of the secret teachings. The king gave him Yeshe Tsogyal, who was then sixteen years old.
Padma Sambhava took Yeshe to a retreat where he instructed and initiated her. Following a vision of the goddess Sarasvati, Yeshe found she had perfect recollection of everything she was taught. Padma Sambhava told her that the suffering she had undergone was “due to past karma” and that from then on she would always have joy.
Next he gave her three initiations. Through concentrating the impulse toward enlightenment in her chakras, “not for an instant succumbing to laziness while her continuous concentration was maintained,” she attained the Dharmakaya, the Sambhogakaya and the stainless Nirmanakaya.
The ascended masters teach that the Dharmakaya is the Buddhist term for the Body of First Cause, your causal body, and your mighty I AM Presence. The Sambhogakaya is the Buddhist term for the body of your Holy Christ Self. The stainless Nirmanakaya is the body that the Buddha wears in the physical. It is the physical body of the one who has attainment, and therefore it is different from a usual physical body because it is vibrating with light and filled with light.
After Yeshe Tosgyal had successfully passed these three initiations, she asked Padma Sambhava for another. He told her that she was not yet ready. She needed a friend with whom to practice the esoteric teachings. He told her to seek out a young man named Acarya Sale who was 17 years old and lived in Nepal.
She set out for Nepal alone and on foot with no idea of where Acarya Sale was to be found. When she came to the city of Khokhomhahn, she saw a handsome young man. He walked up to her and said: “Mother, where have you come from? Have you come to ransom me?” He had been stolen from his family as a boy and was serving as a slave. His owners did not want to give him up. They asked for five hundred ounces of gold, which Yeshe did not have. Then she heard of a wealthy family in the city whose 20-year-old son had just been killed.
She went to them and offered to bring him back to life if they would give her the 500 ounces of gold. She healed him after calling to Padma Sambhava to help her and send her his blessings. She freed Acarya Sale and returned to Tibet with him, where she recounted her adventures to her guru. He said to her: “Reviving those who have been killed and other such practices are just ordinary powers. Do not harbor pride because of such things.” He bid her practice meditation with Acarya Sale.
Training and temptations
After a time, Padma Sambhava told Yeshe she must go off alone and practice the eight great disciplines that would enable her to attain the “precious jewel-like human body.” They were:
- The discipline of food: to learn to live without food.
- The discipline of dress: to learn to live without clothes.
- The discipline of speech: practicing invocation, mantras, and abandoning idle talk.
- The discipline of body: practicing prostrations and sitting in the lotus position.
- The discipline of mind: meditation.
- The discipline of teaching: learning to teach and write the Buddha’s teachings.
- The discipline of benefiting others: immeasurable compassion without regard for one’s own life.
- And finally, the discipline of compassion: “Regard your enemies as your sons—look at gold as if it were clay, love others more than you do yourself.”
Yeshe found a cave near the snow line and settled down to practice for one year, wearing only a cotton cloth. She had to learn to kindle the g tum-mo heat, an inner heat by which yogis raise the body temperature through breath control and visualization. At first, she did not succeed. Yeshe was near death from the cold when she prayed to her guru. Gradually, she felt the heat rise within her. Her body changed “as completely as a snake losing its skin.”
After her food ran out, she lived on minerals and then began to live on air alone. She put aside even her cotton cloth and sat naked. She said:
At first, bliss accompanied the coming and going of my breath. I had various kinds of clear and visionary experiences. But after a while, doubts assayed my mind. My breath became unstable, and I could not control it. My throat became dry and rough, my nose and throat felt as if they were stuffed with cotton; my stomach gave me great pain. Once more, I came close to death.
Again she called to her guru. He appeared to her and chastised her:
Listen well, daughter of the lineage. When you were the daughter of a king, you cared only for finery and pleasure, and could bear no misfortune at all. Now is the time to be unconcerned whether you meet happiness or misery on the path. Whatever comes, suffering or Great Bliss, carry on! Do not crave bliss.... Now is the time to reject all artifice and sham; do not hold back, but show your perseverance. Do not dwell on what you have done. Be devoted, virtuous, and humble.
He bade her use plant and herb essences to cleanse her awareness and restore her body. She then left the cave and went to the three Lion Lair caves of Bhutan. Eventually, “her body became as strong as a vajra (diamond) and impervious to weapons. Her speech became clear and melodious, its sound so soothing it calmed even the proud tigress. Her mind entered a meditation like the indestructible vajra.”
Next she practiced the discipline of speech. She gave mantras without ceasing, day and night. She recited the sacred scriptures by heart. Again she came close to death. But in the end, she overcame and developed “all the sixty different fine qualities of voice.”
She continued to meditate in isolated caves. Regional gods and malignant spirits attacked her. First, they tempted her with food, then clothing, horses and all sorts of worldly goods. But she overcame them by the power of her meditation. Next, the demons appeared as a group of attractive young men. They manifested themselves tangibly in the cave to tempt her. She described them as the kind of young men “at whom a girl need only glance to feel excited.” They tried to seduce her, but she conquered them as well.
The demons were not finished yet. Now they threatened Yeshe with violence: earthquakes, thunder, lightning, weapons stabbing towards her and packs of wild animals growling and showing their fangs. But, said Yeshe Tosgyal, “from the assurance I had gained from abandoning attachment to my body and love of myself, arose compassion for all these beasts, and they vanished.”
Next she was attacked by a vast army of millions upon millions of worms, insects, scorpions, snakes and spiders. They swarmed over her—biting, stinging and scratching. At first she was a little perturbed but then she sang: “All ‘phenomena’ are only tricks of the mind. I see nothing to fear in inner space.” She entered samadhi and the insects vanished.
Next the demons manipulated the weather, causing lightning, fire and hail. The Tibetan people decided it was Yeshe’s fault and converged on her cave to kill her. She continued to meditate. They cried “demoness!” and began to shoot arrows at her and to stab her with knives. But they were unable to harm her, and when their attacks had no effect, they went home. Ultimately, all the demons and spirits who had attacked her turned and pledged to serve her.
After practicing the final discipline, Yeshe Tosgyal attained the vajra body, and it was prophesied that she would live two-hundred and twenty-five years. She was given the name “Radiant Blue Light Master of Longevity.” And she returned to her guru.
Padma Sambhava said to her: “Wonderful yogini, practitioner of the secret teachings! 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.” He told her: “Now that you have achieved what you wanted for yourself, strive for the benefit of others.”
Defeat of the Bon shamans
At the time, there were powerful factions in Tibet, including many of the king’s own ministers and some of his wives, who opposed the spread of Buddhism. They belonged to the ancient Bon-shaman religion that practiced black magic and animal sacrifice and drank blood. The king himself was somewhat sympathetic to the Bon because he had family connections with them. This religion had a large following among ordinary, simple-minded people.
The original reason Trisong Detsen had invited Padma Sambhava to come to Tibet was that the Bon were practicing black magic to prevent Trisong Detsen from building a great Buddhist monastery at Samye, just outside of Lhasa. Each night, demons would come and scatter all of the building materials. Padma Sambhava came and exorcised the demons and then oversaw the completion of the monastery. But the battle with the Bon was not over. They still enjoyed a strong following among the Tibetan people. It was time for a showdown.
The Bon-shamans and Buddhists had come to Samye together to celebrate the end of the year. The Bon-shamans made fun of the Buddhist statues and stupas. They said: “Some evil Indian has bewitched the king.” They promised to perform a sacrifice in which they would show the king “incredible power” and “miracles beyond belief.” They slaughtered over 6,000 animals. Then they chanted to invoke the Bon gods.
The Buddhist monks from India gave the king an ultimatum: If the Bon stay, we go. At last, one of the king’s ministers suggested a debate between the Buddhist monks and the Bon-Shamans. The debate was held on a great plain with many of the Tibetan people looking on. First, they engaged in an exchange of riddles which the Bon won. But the Buddhists said: “They have won the contest in riddles, but riddles are not part of the Buddha’s teaching.”
Then the debate began. The Buddhists explained their understanding of the scriptures. At first the Bon were struck dumb and could not answer. Then they began a debate in earnest. The king gave a white pebble for each valid statement and a black pebble for each inauthentic statement. The Buddhists received thousands of white pebbles while the Bon received thousands of black pebbles.
Then it was time for the contestants to display their powers. The Buddhists displayed superiority here as well. One circled the earth in a moment, bringing back rocks from the ends of the earth as proof. One walked on water. One ate rocks. One called a tigress to come from far in the south and she came. One sat crosslegged in the sky and another flew in the air. The Tibetan people were converted to Buddhism notwithstanding Padma Sambhava’s warning that none of this is really important.
The king decreed that the Bon-Shamans should be banished. At this, they threatened to destroy all Tibet by their spells. But Yeshe Tosgyal practiced meditation for seven days, after which she received the power to make enemies their own executioners. She caused the Bon-Shaman spells to turn upon themselves so that eight of the nine most powerful Bon priests were killed. Then Trisong Detsen banished the Bon-Shamans to Mongolia and burned their books. Training began for 12,500 Buddhist monks, and soon after, Buddhism spread throughout Tibet.
Spreading the Dharma
Yeshe traveled far and wide, spreading the teaching. She trained thousands of monks and nuns. Many attained enlightenment and a number became equal in power to herself.
She worked with Padma Sambhava for eleven years, during which time they were not separated. He revealed to her all his secret heart treasures. The text says: “It was truly as if the contents of one vessel had been completely emptied into another, leaving nothing behind.” They traveled to many sacred places, hiding sacred terma texts. Tibetans believe that there are still texts hidden throughout the land, waiting to be discovered by qualified persons.
At last, Padma Sambhava prepared to take his leave of earth. Yeshe pleaded with him to stay, but after giving his final teaching and many blessings, he mounted a winged white horse, rose into the air surrounded by a blaze of rainbow light, and vanished into the rays of the sun. According to tradition, he went to his paradise or “pure land.” Yet he returned periodically to his beloved consort Yeshe Tosgyal, giving her advice and teachings.
Yeshe began to practice compassion for all beings. There are many fantastic stories in the text. Some are meant to be symbolic of Yeshe’s spiritual experiences. The text relates: “She gave her body to wild animals, clothing to those who were cold, and food to the hungry. To the sick she gave medicine; to the poor, riches. To the powerless, she gave protection, and to those with great desire, she gave her own body.”
The god Indra sent spies to test her. First, a man whose kneecaps had been taken out was brought to her. She allowed her kneecaps to be cut out and given to him. She gave other parts of her body to those who asked. Then Indra appeared and healed her.
Next, a leper came to her. His body was in a state of decomposition. He asked her to be his wife and live with him. She became his wife and served him faithfully. At last, the leper turned into the God Nanda and praised her.
She traveled over Tibet, completing her dharma. She gave teachings and trained monks, settled doctrinal disputes, practiced teachings, prayed, concealed terma texts, and transmitted the higher teachings to her closest disciples.
At the age of 211, Yeshe Tosgyal prepared to take her leave of Tibet and go to the land of the Lotus Light to join Padma Sambhava. Her students entreated her to stay, but she said to them:
There is no such thing as meeting and parting. My power is such that I am free from karma and can lead others—I give refuge without distinguishing self and other, and manifest compassion. For me, the Mother, there is no suffering from death or from change.... Hold fast to the supreme Dharma for your own good, and help others without arrogance or pride. Through vision, meditation, and action you will be freed.... If you know Yeshe Tosgyal, you know that we are inseparable. We always have been and always will be together. But if you do not know me, you are tied to outside appearances.
As she began to withdraw from the physical octave, she said:
Listen, faithful Tibetans! I am merging with the fundamental, the ground of all that is—physical pain and suffering are disappearing.... Do not suffer needlessly. Depend on prayer. Tsogyal will never depart from those who have devotion. Just call upon me and I will appear. Dear friends, just summon me and I will return. I wish the greatest happiness for you all.
The text continues:
After this, a beautiful five-colored rainbow appeared. Within it was an exquisite deep blue light in the shape of a sesame seed, and Yeshe Tosgyal disappeared within it. Four deities grasped it served Padma Sambhava in her and drew it up into the sky, higher and higher, until it disappeared.
Her final embodiment
Yeshe Tsogyal was an embodiment of Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Her service in that lifetime was a preparation for her mission as a messenger for the ascended masters in her recent life.
For more information
Tarthang Tulku, Mother of Knowledge: The Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal (Berkeley, Calif.: Dharma Pub., 1983).
Keith Dowman, Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel (Ithica, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications, 1996).
Lecture by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, July 2, 1992.
- The excerpts quoted here are drawn primarily from the translation by Tarthang Tulku, published as Mother of Knowledge: The Enlightenment of Yeshe Tshogyal (Berkeley, Calif.: Dharma Pub., 1983). Another translation, by Keith Dowman, is published as Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel (Ithica, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications, 1996).
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 21.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 22.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 23.
- Mother of Knowledge, pp. 23–24.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 35.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 54.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 55.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 69.
- Mother of Knowledge, pp. 82–83.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 86.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 87.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 89.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 89.
- Sky Dancer, p. 78.
- Sky Dancer, p. 80.
- Sky Dancer, p. 80.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 102.
- Sky Dancer, p. 104.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 124.
- Sky Dancer, p. 109.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 143.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 157.
- Mother of Knowledge, pp. 186–87.
- Mother of Knowledge, pp. 209–10.
- Mother of Knowledge, p. 210.