Tsultrim Allione's Women of Wisdom, first published in 1984, has long been a favorite of mine, and after re-reading it recently, I decided to review it, although it is not a new release. Lama Tsultrim is one of the leading women Buddhist teachers in the West today, and her own personal story is a compelling one. Part of what makes Women of Wisdom such a great read is her original Preface and the Addendum to the Preface added in the 2000 edition, in which she shares her personal spiritual journey.
In 1970, Lama Tsultrim was one of the first Western women ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun, and spent four years receiving teachings in Tibet before deciding to return her vows in order to marry and have children. She later experienced divorce, the death of an infant child, as well as the usual ups and downs of parenting and married life. All the while she was continuing her Buddhist studies with some of the most renowned Tibetan teachers in the West, including Chogyam Trungpa and Namkhai Norbu. She also received a Master's Degree in Buddhism and Women's Studies from Antioch University (her thesis work provided the basis for this book.) The richness of her personal experience, and her ability to unite esoteric teachings with the ins and outs of daily life, makes her teachings and writings especially profound and relevant, especially for modern women.
The core of Women of Wisdom is the biographies of six historical Tibetan Buddhist women teachers or 'yoginis'. Lama Tsultrim preceedes each story with a brief introduction in which she provides some historical background and an overview of the spiritual practices each woman engaged in. Together the stories represent the best of women's sacred biography, and highlight the special cultural challenges that women spiritual practitioners have historically had to face.
Here's a brief overview of the six biographies included:
A-Yu Khadro - A nineteenth-century yogini who lived and died in relative obscurity, and taught Namkhai Norbu, who managed to get this exceedingly humble woman to share her story, and then passed it on to Lama Tsultrim. Her years as a 'Chodpa', or traveling practitioner of Chod, an esoteric Tantric meditative discipline, are especially fascinating and enlightening.
Machig Labdron - A beloved and well-known eleventh-century yogini who is most famous for her Chod teachings, which Lama Tsultrim gives a wonderful and clear explanation of in her introduction. The biography itself tells of Machig's initial struggles to avoid traditional marriage in order to pursue the dharma, her eventual marriage and birth of her children, and her later decision to leave them and continue her spiritual journey on her own.
Nangsa Obum - Also an eleventh-century yogini, although not as well known as Machig Labdron. This biography is a translation of a Tibetan folk drama performed by traveling troupes, and is considered part of the cult of Tara, as Nangsa was a devotee of Tara, the Tibetan female Buddha of compassion. It is poetic and song-like, with many references to famous teachers of the time, including Milarepa and Marpa, founders of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Jomo Memo - A famous thirteenth-century 'terton' - a discoverer and communicator of a secret teaching left by a teacher in a prior historical time period, until such time as the world is ready to receive the teaching. This story is an example of a 'namthar' or liberation story, and every element of the story also contains a teaching within it.
Machig Ongjo - A twelfth-century yogini, whose sacred biography is written in such a way that it conveys the teachings on the six 'paramitas' or 'perfections' within Mahayana Buddhism - generosity, morality, patience, diligence, one-pointed concentration, and wisdom.
Drenchen Rema - A fourteenth-century yogini who is one of the few women descended directly from Milarepa within the Kagyu lineage. This is a very brief biography, but especially interesting because of its many tales of miraculous powers attributed to her by her students, a common element of liberation stories of this type.
Overall, Women of Wisdom is not a light or quick read, and is scholarly at times. But it is well worth it, because of the rich and unique nature of the biographies included, and because of Lama Tsultrimís powerful additions to these teachings in the Prefaces, including her own compelling life story.