Machig Labdrön

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Machig Labdrön
Machig Labdron, the Tibetan Yogini - Google Art Project.jpg
Machig Labdrön
Religion Tibetan Buddhism
School Mahamudra
Born 1055
Died 1149
Senior posting
Title Yogini
Religious career
Reincarnation Yeshe Tsogyal

Machig Labdrön (Tibetan: མ་གཅིག་ལབ་སྒྲོནWylie: ma gcig lab sgron, "Unique Mother Torch from Lab", 1055 - 1149[1]) was a renowned 11th-century Tibetan tantric Buddhist practitioner, teacher and yogini who originated several Tibetan lineages of the Vajrayana practice of Chöd.

Machig Labdrön may have come from a Bon family and, according to Namkhai Norbu, developed Chöd by combining native shamanism with the Dzogchen teachings.


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.


Buddhists believe Machig was the mindstream emanation (tulku) of another great yogini, 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."[2] 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 the biography of Machig that appears in Tsultrim Allione's work Women of Wisdom, her 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.[3]

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 Mahāyāna sūtra, in their homes as a form of blessing and to gain merit. Machig was known to be a 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[4] relates the struggles that she underwent in order to avoid traditional marriage and eventually left home to practice the Dharma as her life's calling. After leaving the monastic order in Yuchong, she married Indian Pandita Topa Draya. (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.[5]

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 the "Red & White essence", according to a prediction given to Machig by Arya Tara.[6][7]

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 also had female disciples and the four main women disciples were called Machig's Gyen, or Ornaments.[8][page needed]

During Machig's lifetime, the Buddhist teachings that came from India were considered authentic and 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.[9]

As a result, there was so much controversy over Machig'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),[10] Machig taught and debated with the pandits. In addition, a delegation was sent to southern India to find the 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 and established that the Chöd teachings were the first Buddhist teachings to emerge in Tibet.[11][page needed] 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."[12]

Dancing dakini, Tibet, c. 18th century

Third Karmapa: systematizer of Chod[edit]

Chöd was a marginal and peripheral sadhana, practiced outside traditional Tibetan Buddhist and Indian Tantric institutions with a contraindication as caveat of praxis upon all but the most advanced practitioners. Rangjung Dorje, 3rd Karmapa Lama (1284–1339) was a very important systematizer of Chöd teachings and significantly assisted in their promulgation within the literary and practice lineages of Kagyu, Nyingma and particularly Dzogchen. It is in this transition from the charnel ground to the institutions of Tibetan Buddhism that the rite of the Chöd becomes more imaginal, an inner practice. That is, the charnel ground becomes an internal imaginal environment. Schaeffer (1995: p. 15) conveys that the Third Karmapa was a systematizer of the Chöd developed by Machig Labdrön and lists a number of his works on Chöd consisting of redactions, outlines and commentaries amongst others:

Rang byung was renowned as a systematizer of the Gcod teachings developed by Ma gcig lab sgron. His texts on Gcod include the Gcod kyi khrid yig; the Gcod bka' tshoms chen mo'i sa bcad which consists of a topical outline of and commentary on Ma gcig lab sgron's Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa zab mo gcod kyi man ngag gi gzhung bka' tshoms chen mo ; the Tshogs las yon tan kun 'byung ; the lengthy Gcod kyi tshogs las rin po che'i phrenb ba 'don bsgrigs bltas chog tu bdod pa gcod kyi lugs sor bzhag; the Ma lab sgron la gsol ba 'deb pa'i mgur ma; the Zab mo bdud kyi gcod yil kyi khrid yig, and finally the Gcod kyi nyams len.[13]

Vajrayogini is a key figure in the advanced practice of Chöd, where she appears in her Kālikā (Wylie: khros ma nag mo) or Vajravārāhī (Wylie: rdo rje phag mo) forms. The practices of Tröma Nagmo "Extremely Wrathful Black Mother" associated with the Dakini Tröma Nagmo (the black form of Vajrayogini were also propagated by Machig Labdrön. "The particular transmission which His Holiness will give descends from Dudjom Lingpa, who received it in a direct vision of the Indian Mahasiddha, Saraha. This practice emphasizes cutting through grasping at the dualistic mind to realize complete selfless compassion.[14]


Apart from the name Machig Labdrön used here, one also finds the following spellings and transliterations, although all refer to the same woman: Wylie: Machik Lapkyi Drönma (ma gcig lab kyi sgron ma), Machig Lapdrönme (ma gcig lab sgron ma), Machik Labdron (ma gcig lab sgron), Maji Lab Dran (ma gcig lab sgron). Last not least, the version ma-gcig la-phyi sgron-ma refers to her place of birth, La-phyi in Tsang." [15]

Sönam Lama gave her the tantric name of Dorje Wangchuma (Wylie: rdo rje dbang phyug ma), which means "Diamond Independent Goddess."[16]

Predictions of her birth[edit]

In the Life of Yeshe Tsogyel, Padmasambhava predicted that Yeshe Tsogyel would be reborn as Machig Labdron; her consort, Atsara Sale,[17] 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.[18]

Later Emanations[edit]

It is said that Machig Labdrön took incarnation as Jomo Menmo (1248–1283)[19][20] and later as Khyungchen Aro Lingma (1886–1923)[21] According to the information given by the website the Gyalwa Karmapa, Jomo Menmo was born as a karmic emanation of Yeshe Tsogyal.[22]

In more recent history, Machig Labdrön has incarnated and emanated both in Tibet and in the West. In Tibet, the great yogini Jetsun Rigdzin Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953)[23]—also called Ani Lochen and Shugseb Jetsun Rinpoche[24]—was a recognized incarnation of Machig.[25] Shugsheb Jetsun Rinpoche—also called the great female master, Lochen Chönyi Zangmo—founded the Shuksep or Shugsep (shug gseb) nunnery located thirty miles from Lhasa on the slopes of Mount Gangri Thökar.[26][27]

In the west, Lama Tsultrim Allione (1947- ) 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, by the resident Lama, Karma Nyitön Kunkhyab Chökyi Dorje. Lama Karma Nyitön Kunkhyab Chökyi Dorje offered Lama Tsultrim a self-arisen golden crystal phurba (ceremonial dagger), the only remaining tsa tsa 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.[28][29]


Machig'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 bell, small drum (a Chöd damaru), and a thigh-bone trumpet (kangling) made of human bone (often obtained from the charnel ground of sky burials).

Demons in Machig Labdron's Chöd[edit]

Although they are referred to as demons, it is clear from Machig Labdron's writings that the entities being dealt with in Chöd practices are formulations of the human mind, rather than supernatural beings.[citation needed] Tsultrim Allione has worked with Labdron's practice since 1973, and in 2007 was herself recognised as an emanation of Machig Labdrön. She quotes from Machig Labdrön's teachings on Chöd:[30]

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

Tselha Namsum meditation caves[edit]

The Tselha Namsum meditation caves near Gyamda are associated with her.


  1. ^ *Norbu, Namkhai (1986). The Crystal and the Way of Light. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0-14-019084-8
  2. ^ *Edou, Jérôme. Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. ISBN 1-55939-039-5, p.6
  3. ^ *Allione, Tsultrim. "The Biography of Machig Labdron (1055-1145)," in Women of Wisdom. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-141-3, pp. 174-175
  4. ^ The Secret Biography of Machig Labdron
  5. ^ [1] (German)
  6. ^ Short Biography
  7. ^ [2]
  8. ^ See Harding for more on these female disciples
  9. ^ The Marvelous Life of Machig Labdron, as quoted in Edou, p. 1
  10. ^ Zangri Kangmar: Machig's Main seat (photo)
  11. ^ Harding and Allione
  12. ^ Chö/Chöd - Lineages associated with Machig Labdrön
  13. ^ Schaeffer, Kurtis R. (1995). The Englightened Heart of Buddhahood: A Study and Translation of the Third Karma pa Rang byung rdo rje's Work on Tathagatagarbha. (Wylie: de bzhin pa'i snying po gtan la dbab pa). University of Washington. Source: [3] (accessed: Friday February 12, 2010), p.15.
  14. ^ [4]
  15. ^ The Yoniverse
  16. ^ 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"
  17. ^ some information on Atsara Sahle from Nepal The Website of the Darma Fellowship of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa
  18. ^ Women of Wisdom, Extract: MACHIG LAPDRON by Tsültrim Allione
  19. ^ Stag-śam Nus-ldan-rdo-rje; Keith Dowman (1984). Sky dancer: the secret life and songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel. Routledge. p. 174. ISBN 9780710095763. 
  20. ^ Allione, Tsultrim (2000). Women of wisdom. Snow Lion Publications. p. 292. ISBN 9781559391412. 
  21. ^ 108 Female Siddhas, see no. 77
  22. ^ Site of the Gyalwa Karmapa
  24. ^ ANI LOCHEN (c. 1865–1951):"ANI LOCHEN (c. 1865–1951) came to achieve the most treasured status of Tibetan culture, that of a religious master, and her devotees regard her as an emanation (sprul sku) of the famous eleventh-century yoginī Machig Labdron."
  25. ^ (Edou, p. 4)
  26. ^ Shuksep Nunnery
  27. ^ Lochen Chönyi Zangmo
  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]


  • Allione, Tsultrim. "The Biography of Machig Labdron (1055-1145)," in Women of Wisdom. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-141-3
  • Tsultrim Allione: Tibets Weise Frauen, Zeugnisse Weiblichen Erwachens, Theseus Verlag, 2001, ISBN 3-89620-162-X
  • Allione, Tsultrim (1998). "Feeding the Demons." in Buddhism in America. Brian D. Hotchkiss, ed. pp. 344–363. Rutland, VT; Boston, MA; Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.
  • Allione, Tsultrim (2008). "Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict." Little Brown and Company;. ISBN 978-0-316-01313-0.
  • Benard, Elisabeth Anne (1990). "Ma Chig Lab Dron.” Chos Yang 3:43-51.
  • Beyer, Stephen (1973). The Cult of Tara. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03635-2
  • Edou, Jérôme. Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. ISBN 1-55939-039-5, [5], Contents in detail
  • Harding, Sarah (editor and translator). Machik's Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chöd, a translation of a Tibetan Text with this name, along with a scholarly introduction and commentaries, 2003, Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-182-0
  • Kollmar-Paulenz, Karenina (1998). “Ma gcig Lab sgrn ma—The Life of a Tibetan Woman Mystic between Adaptation and Rebellion.” The Tibet Journal 23(2):11-32.
  • Machik Labdron: Machik's Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chod (Tsadra Foundation), Snow Lion Publications (June 25, 2003), ISBN 1-55939-182-0 (10), ISBN 978-1-55939-182-5 (13), Translation by Sarah Harding (Review by Michelle Sorensen)

External links[edit]