Machig Labdrön

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Machig Labdrön
Machig Labdron, the Tibetan Yogini - Google Art Project.jpg
Machig Labdrön
ReligionTibetan Buddhism
Senior posting
ReincarnationYeshe Tsogyal

Machig Labdrön (Tibetan: མ་གཅིག་ལབ་སྒྲོན, Wylie: ma gcig lab sgron, sometimes referred to as Adrön Chödron, Wylie: A sgron Chos sgron),[1] or Singular Mother Torch from Lab", 1055-1149)[2] was a renowned 11th-century Tibetan tantric Buddhist practitioner, teacher and yogini who originated several Tibetan lineages of the Vajrayana practice of Chöd (Wylie: gcod).

Machig Labdrön may have come from a Bön family and, according to Namkhai Norbu, developed Chöd by combining native shamanism with the Dzogchen teachings. Other Buddhist teachers and scholars offer differing interpretations of the origins of Chöd, and not all of them agree that Chöd has Bön or shamanistic roots.[3]


Iconographically, Machig Labdrön is often depicted with the attributes of a dakini, a representation of enlightened female energy. She holds a drum (Skt. damaru) in her right hand and a bell (Skt. ghaṇṭa) (Tibetan: དྲིལ་བུ་, Wylie: drilbu) in her left. Her right leg is often lifted and the standing left leg is bent in motion. Machig is white in color with three eyes and wears the Six Bone Ornaments of the charnel grounds, which is traditional for a practicing yogini. Dakinis wear five bone ornaments; they are themselves the wisdom pāramitā attribute.



Apart from the name Machig Labdrön used here, the following spellings and transliterations are also found, all referring to the same woman:

  • Machik Lapkyi Drönma (Wylie: ma gcig lab kyi sgron ma),
  • Machig Lapdrönme (Wylie: ma gcig lab sgron ma),
  • Machik Labdron (Wylie: ma gcig lab sgron),
  • Maji Lab Dran (Wylie: ma gcig lab sgron), and
  • Machig Laphyi (Wylie: ma-gcig la-phyi sgron-ma) referring to her place of birth, La-phyi, in the region of Ü-Tsang.[4]

One of Machig Labdrön's teachers, Sönam Lama, gave her the tantric name of Dorje Wangchuma (Wylie: rdo rje dbang phyug ma), which means "Diamond Independent Goddess."[5]

Predictions of her birth[edit]

In the Life of Yeshe Tsogyel, Padmasambhava predicted that Yeshe Tsogyal would be reborn as Machig Labdrön, and her consort, Atsara Sale,[6] would become Topabhadra, Machig’s husband. Her assistant and Padmasambhava's secondary consort, Tashi Khyidren, would be reborn as Machig’s only daughter, and so on. All of the important figures in Tsogyel's life were to be reborn in the life of Machig Lapdron, including Padmasambhava himself, who would become Phadampa Sangye.[7]

Tibetan Buddhists believe Machig was the Mind Stream emanation (tulku) of Yeshe Tsogyal, as well as "an emanation of the 'Great Mother of Wisdom,' Yum Chenmo,(prajnaparamita) and of Arya Tara, who transmitted to her teachings and initiations."[8] Buddhists believe this pattern of reincarnations and emanations continued into the life just before her birth as Machig Labdrön an that in the lifetime before, she was the Indian yogi, Mönlam Drub. After his death, the body of the twenty-year-old Mönlam Drub is said to have remained "alive" in the cave of Potari in South India. According to tradition, it was Mönlam Drub's mindstream which entered the womb of Bum Cham "Great Noble Woman", who lived in the area of Labchi Eli Gangwar in Tibet, which caused the birth of Machig. According to one version of Machig Labdron's biography, Machig Labdron's mother experienced auspicious dreams of dakinis shortly after conception, dreams which contained the vase and the conch of the Ashtamangala:

When consciousness entered the womb of the mother on the fifteenth day, she dreamt that four white dakinis carrying four white vases poured water on her head and afterwards she felt purified. Then seven dakinis, red, yellow, green, etc., were around her making offerings, saying “Honor the mother, stay well our mother to be.”

After that, a wrathful dark-blue dakini wearing bone ornaments and carrying a hooked knife and a retinue of four blue dakinis carrying hooked knives and skull cups, surrounded her, in front of her, behind her, and to the left and right. All five were in the sky in front of Bum Cham. The central dakini was a forearm’s length higher than the rest.

She raised her hooked knife and said to the mother: “Now I will take out this ignorant heart.”

She took her knife and plunged it into the mother’s heart, took out the heart and put it in the skull cup of the dakini in front of her, and they all ate it. Then the central dakini took a conch which spiraled to the right and blew it. The sound resounded all over the world. In the middle of the conch was a luminous white “A”.

She said” “Now I will replace your heart with this white conch shell”...

Even after she woke up, she felt great bliss.[9]

Birth and early childhood[edit]

Childhood and young adulthood[edit]

As a child and young woman, Machig made a living as a liturgy reader. She was fortunate to be literate and patrons would hire her to read the Prajnaparamita Sutra or 'The Perfection of Wisdom', a Mahayana sutra, in their homes as a form of blessing and to gain spiritual merit. Machig was known to be a very fast reader and so was in much demand as this meant that she could complete the entire text quickly and her patrons would have to pay for fewer meals for her while she read.

The namtar entitled Secret Biography of Machig Labdron[10] relates the struggles that Machig Labdron underwent in order to avoid traditional marriage and eventually left home to practice Buddhism as her life's calling. After leaving the monastic order in Yuchong, she married Indian Pandita Topa Draya (Wylie: thod pa gra ya), also a Buddhist practitioner, who supported Machig in her practices. Together, they had two sons and one daughter (or three sons and two daughters by some accounts). Her second son, Tonyon Samdru (thod-smyon bsam-grub), became one of her main successors and a propagator of Machig Labdron's teachings. He became a monk at the age of 15 under the tutorship of Dampa Sangye.[11]

Some say that Machig received instructions from Dampa Sangye as her guru and the reincarnation of Padmasambhava which led to profound realizations. However, for several years Machig's main practice was one of tantric union with her spiritual consort and husband, Topabhadra, an emanation of Gautama Buddha, with whom she raised a family, living on the "red and white essence," according to a prediction given to Machig by Arya Tara.[12][13]


Even though Machig spent some time living with monastics, she was not a celibate nun; she partnered and had both daughters and sons who became lineage holders. One of her sons even started out as a thief. Machig was eventually able to bring him to the Dharma and became his teacher: "You may think that Gods are the one's who give you benefits, and Demons cause damage; but it may be the other way round. Those who cause pain teach you to be patient, and those who give you presents may keep you from practising the Dharma. So it depends on their effect on you if they are Gods or Demons," she said.

Machig Labdrön's life as a spiritual teacher[edit]

During Machig Labdrön's lifetime, the Buddhist teachings that came from India were considered authentic and it was believed there were none that originated in Tibet. As one of Machig's biographies states:

All the Dharmas originated in India

And later spread to Tibet
Only Machig's teaching, born in Tibet,
Was later introduced in India and practiced there.[14]

As a result, there was so much controversy over Machig Labdrön's teachings that a delegation of Brahmins was sent from India to Tibet to assess Machig's qualifications and teachings. After her students gathered with her at Zangri Khangmar (Machig's home in Tibet from the age of 39 until her death at the age of 99),[15] Machig taught and debated with the pandits. In addition, a delegation was sent to South India to find the śarīra (relics) of Mönlam Drub as Machig instructed, thus adding further validity to her status as a teacher and lineage holder. As a result, of these and other events, it was determined that Machig's teachings were indeed authentic[16] and established that the Chöd teachings were the first Buddhist teachings to emerge in Tibet.[17] One source says, "Word of the widespread practice of Mahāmudra Chö in Tibet and Nepal was first viewed in India with great scepticism. A delegation of ācāryas was sent from Bodh Gayā to Tibet to test Machig Labrön and her teaching resulted in the acceptance of Mahāmudrā Chö as a valid and authentic Mahāyāna tradition. Thereafter its practice spread even to India."[18]


Along with her sons, prominent among Machig Labdron's disciples were four main women disciples who were called Machig Labdrön's Gyen "Ornaments". Many of Machig Labdrön's teachings were given in direct response to the questions of her students.[19]


Machig Labdrön has incarnated and emanated both in Tibet and in the West. In Tibet, it is said that Machig Labdrön took incarnation as Jomo Menmo (1248–1283).[20][21] According to the information given by the website of Ogyen Trinley Dorje, one of the two claimants to the seat of the Karmapa, Jomo Menmo was born as a "karmic emanation" of Yeshe Tsogyal.[22]

Chökyi Drönma

The first Samding Dorje Phagmo, Chökyi Drönma (1422–1455), a female tulku lineage of Vajravārāhī, was understood to be an incarnation of Machig Labdrön.[1]

In more recent history, in Tibet, the great yogini Shukseb Jetsun Choying Zangmo (1852–1953)[23]—also called Ani Lochen, Lochen Chönyi Zangmo, and Shukseb Jetsun Rinpoche[24]—was a recognized incarnation of Machig.[25] Shuksheb Jetsun reinvigorated the Shuksep gompa (Wylie: shug gseb dgon) of the Kagyü thirty miles from Lhasa on the slopes of Mount Gangri Thökar.[26]

Khandro Sonam Peldron of Bhutan (11 century)

Khandro Sonam Peldron of Wang Dharlung, Bhutan is said to be the main reincarnation of Machik Labdron.

Khandro Sonam is the wife of Phajo Drugom Zhipo of Tibet, who were crucial in the establishment of the Drukpa Lineage of Kagyü in Bhutan. Phajo Drugom Zhigpo was sent to Bhutan by Tsangpa Gyarey Yeshey Dorji of Druk Ralung, Tibet to establish the Drukpa Lineage in Bhutan. Phajo and Khandro had four sons and a daughter together . The bridge where Phajo and Khandro met in Thimphu still exist today known as Lungtenzampa. Khandro Sonam Peldron is known to have achieved the supreme enlightenment called Zha lue Phochen and is known to have flown to the heavenly Dali I abode from near Tango monastery in Thimphu.

Lama Tsultrim Allione (1947- ), an American Buddhist teacher, was recently recognized as an emanation of Machig Labdrön at Zangri Khangmar, Tibet, the place where Machig Labdrön lived from ages 37 to 99, and where she died. She was recognized by the resident Lama, Karma Nyitön Kunkhyab Chökyi Dorje. Lama Karma Nyitön Kunkhyab Chökyi Dorje offered Lama Tsultrim a self-arisen golden crystal kīla or ceremonial dagger, the only remaining tsa tsa (icon) made from the ashes of Machig's body (a mixture of clay and ash imprinted with an image of Machig dancing), texts of Machig's teachings, a hat with symbolic meaning designed by Machig, and various other treasures.[27][28]

Machig Labdrön's Chöd[edit]

Machig Labdrön's Chöd, also known as Mahamudra Chöd, has been widespread in Tibet since Machig's lifetime. It is also called "The Beggars' Offering" or "The Cutting-Off-Ritual." Chöd is a visionary Buddhist practice of cutting attachment to one’s corporeal form (in terms of the dualistic proclivity to relate to one's corporeal form as a reference-point that proves one's existence). This means that a practitioner offers the mandala of their own body in a ganachakra rite. The practitioner works entirely with their own mind, visualizing the offering, and—by practicing in lonely and dreaded places, like cemeteries—works to overcome all fear. This is also why Chöd was often used to overcome sickness in order to heal oneself and others. In some lineages of the Chöd practice, chodpas and chodmas (practitioners of Chöd) use a ritual bell, a specialized drum called a Chöd damaru, and a human thigh-bone trumpet (often obtained from the charnel ground of sky burials).

"Demons" in Machig Labdron's Chöd[edit]

One of the distinct features of Machig Labdrön's Chöd is the focus on what are sometimes called either demons ('dre) or devils (bdud). It is clear from Machig Labdrön's writings and teachings that the entities being dealt with in Chöd practices are formulations of the human mind, rather than supernatural beings. One of Machig Labdrön's unique contributions to Chöd is her understanding of demons.

As Machik Labdrön explained in answer to the questions of one of her students, Gangpa Muksang,

Son, listen. These are the characteristics of the devils (bdud). That which is called 'devil' is not some actual great big black thing that scares and petrifies whomever sees it. A devil is anything that obstructs the achievement of freedom. . . . Most of all, there is no greater devil than this fixation to a self. So until this ego-fixation is cut off, all the devils wait with open mouths. For that reason, you need to exert yourself at a skillful method to sever the devil of ego-fixation.[29]

In another teaching, Machik Labdrön said:

As long as there is an ego, there are demons.

When there is no more ego,
There are no more demons either!

According to Anila Rinchen at Kagyu Ling in Burgundy, France, the Tibetan term for "demon" could be translated as "neurosis".

Pilgrimage sites associated with Machig Labdron and Chöd[edit]

There are many pilgrimage sites in Tibet associated with Machik Labdrön. Among these are the Tselha Namsum meditation caves near Gyamda in Tibet.


  1. ^ a b Stearns 2007, p. 467, n. 17.
  2. ^ Namkhai Norbu 1986.
  3. ^ Edou 1996, p. 6-8.
  4. ^ The Yoniverse
  5. ^ Nuns of the unique Joyul (gcod-yul)Sect of Tibetan Buddhism see "2. Yogini Macik Labdron (ma-ciglab-sgron) and the Formation of Joyul Sect"
  6. ^ some information on Atsara Sahle from Nepal The Website of the Darma Fellowship of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa
  7. ^ Women of Wisdom, Extract: MACHIG LAPDRON Archived 2011-07-16 at the Wayback Machine by Tsültrim Allione
  8. ^ Edou 1996, p. 6.
  9. ^ *Allione, Tsultrim. "The Biography of Machig Labdron (1055-1145)," in Women of Wisdom. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-141-3, pp. 174-175
  10. ^ "The Secret Biography of Machig Labdron". Archived from the original on 2008-04-24. Retrieved 2008-03-24.
  11. ^ [1] (in German)
  12. ^ Short Biography
  13. ^ [2]
  14. ^ Edou 1996, p. 1.
  15. ^ Zangri Kangmar: Machig's Main seat (photo) Archived 2009-01-18 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ Harding 2013, p. 93-98.
  17. ^ Edou 1996, p. 3-6.
  18. ^ "Lineages associated with Machig Labdron".
  19. ^ Harding 2013, p. 103-282.
  20. ^ Dowman 1984, p. 292.
  21. ^ "Jomo Menmo". The Treasury of Lives. Retrieved 6 September 2017.
  22. ^ "Dharma Fellowship: Library - Women Buddhas: A Short List of Female Saints, Teachers and Practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism".
  24. ^ "Shugsep Jetsun, the story of a Tibetan yogini". Tibetan Nuns Project. 25 March 2015.
  25. ^ Edou 1996, p. 4.
  26. ^ "Buddhist Digital Resource Center". Retrieved 6 September 2017.
  29. ^ Harding 2013, p. 117.
  30. ^ Allione, Tsultrim (2008). Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict. Little Brown and Company. ISBN 978-0-316-01313-0.


See also[edit]

External links[edit]