Jomo Memo is one of the most well-known historical women within Tibetan Buddhism. She was a thirteenth-century terton, or discoverer of teachings. According to Tibetan legend, Padmasambhava, the eight-century founder of Tibetan Buddhism, and his students, hid esoteric teachings for future discovery called termas. Termas can only be understood and revealed by tertons. While some consider termas to be literal texts, others consider them to be new ways of realizing awakening. Either way, through the terma/terton process Tibetan Buddhism is seen as a continuous revelatory tradition, with new practices and insights always possible.
Two main English translations of biographies of Jomo Memo exist. The first is included in The Rise of Esoteric Buddhism by Eva Dargyay, and the other is 'The Liberation Story of Jomo Memo' within Lama Tsultrim Allione's Women of Wisdom. There are slight differences between the two versions, but the basics are the same.
Jomo Memo is considered an emanation of Yeshe Tsogyal, one of the primary consorts of Padmasambhava and a great teacher in her own right. In her biography, Yeshe refers to her future emanation as Jomo in this way,
"An activity emanation of my speech will appear in Tsang, and, known as Jomo, she will found a Phakmo Meditation Centre. And the Rites of the Pig-Face will embrace the world." (from Women of Wisdom)
'Pig-face' refers to Vajra Varahi, a dakini shown with a sow's head coming out of her own head or as an ornament. Pigs are associated with ignorance in Tibetan Buddhism, and so this depiction represents the overcoming of ignorance. According to legend, the terma that Jomo Memo receives as a terton is given to her by Vajra Varahi (a Vajra Varahi mandala is shown to the left.)
Jomo was born in 1248 as 'Padma Tsokye', or 'Joyful Lotus Lake', in a part of Tibet near a cave that Padmasambhava had made sacred through his own practice there. When she was thirteen years old, she came upon this cave (how she did so varies in the two biographies) and heard a voice calling to her from within it. Upon entering a door in the cave, she was given a text by Vajra Varahi, who told her, "This is the teachings of the dakinis...if you do this meditation you will reach liberation." (Women of Wisdom)
Despite her young age, Jomo understood immediately everything the text contained. Her sudden knowledge frightened those around her, and many said that she must have come upon her knowledge through a demoness, and so she got her name, which means 'Demoness Nun.' Because of their hostility, she traveled continuously throughout the remainder of her short life (she lived until only 36.) Along the way she became consort to Guru Chowang, and through this union he was able to break through barriers to his insight and finally understand a terma he had discovered. Some believe that throughout her travels she set many people along the path to liberation anonymously, as a wandering yogini, of which there is a long and storied history within Tibet.
At the age of 36, she and two of her female disciples went to the top of a sacred mountain within Tibet and made a feast offering. At the end of the feast they "flew away to Guru Rinpoche's Copper-Colored Mountain and left no bodies behind." Her death day is still celebrated within Tibetan communities.
Like most Tibetan biographies, much of the story of Jomo Memo can be contemplated both literally and symbolically - it represents teachings on both the exoteric and estoeric levels. As one of the few female tertons, and as an emanation of Yeshe Tsogyal, she is revered within Tibetan Buddhism. Her teachings and legacy live on, largely through the efforts of nineteenth century Tibetan teacher and fellow terton Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, who rediscovered her terma. Her teachings represent the overcoming of ignorance (the pig's head within us!), and connecting with her on any level aids our ability to triumph over our own ignorance.