Two Pagans are part of an interfaith group raising funds to rebuild a temple dedicated to a female Buddha in Tibet. The temple is dedicated to Yeshe Tsogyal, a Buddha considered to be the mother of the Tibetan people and the embodiment of the “Enlightened Feminine.” The Wild Hunt spoke with one of the Pagans involved in the fundraising efforts about the temple and how her trip to Tibet has deepened her spirituality.
Yeshe Tsogyal, whose name means Victorious Ocean of Wisdom, was a disciple and consort of the Indian master Padmasambhava during the 8th century in central Tibet. This was during a time when it was thought that women’s bodies themselves were a hindrance to enlightenment. Padmasambhava, however thought the opposite: women’s bodies were superior to men’s in the ability to attain enlightenment. She was said to have lived over 200 years and wrote an autobiography titled Mother of Knowledge. The book is written as a guide to the path of spiritual awakening through the practices of Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhism. Yeshe Tsogyal was, and is, widely considered a Buddha – a person who has achieved full enlightenment.
The original temple was built in the 9th century on what was thought to be the birthplace of Yeshe Tsogyal and named Tsogyal Latso. At the site are two springs, said to be the breast milk of Yeshe Tsogyal and to have healing powers. There is also a lake which induces visions and a sacred tree. All three were said to come into being at her birth.During the Cultural Revolution of the 1970’s, most of Tibet’s temples were destroyed, and Buddhist practices forbidden. Tsogyal Latso was destroyed; the lake was filled in and the springs were capped. By the 1990’s, China slightly relaxed their prohibitions and, in 1994, Ani Samten, along with three Buddhist nuns dedicated to Yeshe Tsogyal, arrived at the ruins. They began the slow work of building living spaces, cleaning out the lake, uncapping the springs, and caring for the sacred tree. By 2004, the nunnery was rebuilt and there were 8 nuns living there dedicated to Yeshe Tsogyal’s teachings.
In 2015, the number of nuns had grown to 16 and they started construction on a new temple. The greater Buddhist community, especially Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo out of Hawaii, created Jnanasukha, a nonprofit interfaith group that helps care for the sacred site and nuns of Tsogyal Latso in Tibet. While most of the exterior work is finished, it is expected it will be several more years until the interior is finished.Yeshe Rabbit, is a High Priestess of CAYA Coven and one of the two Pagan members of the fundraising committee of Jnanasukha. Yeshe Rabbit feels a special connection to Yeshe Tsogyal and Tibet. She was able to travel there on pilgrimage in 2014 and is returning to Tibet in September. The Wild Hunt spoke with Yeshe Rabbit about the temple, how studying in Tibet deepened her spiritual practice, and about her upcoming trip back to Tibet.
The Wild Hunt: People wouldn’t typically think of this temple as a “Pagan” (or Neo-Pagan) temple – why should Pagans in the USA care about this temple effort?
Yeshe Rabbit: First of all, this Temple is about religious freedom. Pagans and Polytheists uniquely understand what it means to experience religious and other forms of persecution, and overall we tend to be passionate about those subjects. In 1959, there were over 2700 temples in Tibet. But 1978, only 7 remained. This is one of the only temples that has been allowed significant construction, and this alone is a testimonial of success in overcoming the legacy of religious persecution.
Secondly, many Pagans and Polytheists are devoted to the Goddess or specific goddesses from specific cultures, yet this is still not the global operating paradigm. The global operating paradigm is still largely male-God oriented. The fact is, ANY temple to the Divine Feminine, The Goddess, or any goddess at all deserves our community’s celebration and support, as these are rare and precious, and we want them to be much more commonplace. Further, these 16 women are building a Temple, with obscenely limited resources, in one of the most highly politicized regions in the world. They are the kind of women that many of us aspire to be, because their strength and dedication is manifesting something many people thought we would never see in this lifetime.
TWH: How did you get involved with the fundraiser? Who started it?
YR: This project is a long time coming. Tsogyal Latso or “Tsogyal’s Lake” is the birthplace of Yeshe Tsogyal, who was the first female Buddha of Tibet and sacred consort to Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet from India. The lake was renowned since the 8th century as an oracular site, a healing site, and a site of spiritual nourishment, much like Brigid’s Well at Kildare or the Chalice Well in Glastonbury.This is because, at the time of Yeshe Tsogyal’s birth, a holy lake formed outside her home as fresh water gushed from the Earth. It is located in a magical valley overlooked by “Mount Lady Turquoise” and other sacred mountains dedicated to the Enlightened Feminine.
For centuries, Tibetan people would go there for dream incubation, traditional meditation practice, and to make petitions for their own well-being or the well-being of others. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s in Tibet, the site was severely desecrated. All relics were thrown into the lake and the lake was clogged and blocked, with parts sealed over. In the 1990’s, as restrictions on the practice of Buddhism were alleviated somewhat, several Tibetan practitioners began the work to restore the sacred site, and brought the message of this sacred place and its magic to their western students. Among the principal supporters of this site since then have been the late teachers His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche and Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, as well as the still-living Sang-ngag Rinpoche. The work is now being carried forward by a western woman practitioner and translator, Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo, who is one of my teachers.
About 8 years ago, I read an account online by Nagasiva Yronwode of Lucky Mojo Curio Company about an experience he had at a ceremony for Yeshe Tsogyal in the 90s, and I felt tremendously drawn to her energy. I read several versions of her autobiography, received initiation to her practices, and my personal connection grew from there. I appended her name to mine as a symbol that she is an exemplar in whose footsteps I follow. Then, I found out about Lama Wangmo and Jnanasukha, and my relationship with Yeshe Tsogyal and this sacred site has grown stronger and stronger since that time.
TWH: Is this why you became involved in the effort to rebuild the temple?
YR: I am involved with the restoration and ongoing care of this site because, simply, it is my karma to be involved. I cannot explain the magical circumstances that led me to Yeshe Tsogyal’s practices, and inexorably drew me to this site physically, in any other way. From the moment I read that, “a miraculous lake rushed forth at the time of Tsogyal’s birth,” I knew, KNEW, that I HAD to see this place. I sent donations of support to Jnanasukha, waited, saved up, dreamed, and prayed for 7 years, and finally took the steps to bring that visit to fruition in 2014. I had no idea when I visited last year that this would become such a big part of my life going forward, though in reflection, I should have known based on my prior attraction to this place, and Tibet in general.
Although I have no familial or blood connections in Tibet, I have nonetheless been drawn to Tibetan culture and the dharma since I was 13 years old. For the past decade of my more formal study, I have sat with many, many different teachers of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan cultural arts, yet nothing has moved me as much as the profound desire to be near this specific place and to steep in Yeshe Tsogyal’s mysteries. At a heart-and-soul level, this place is sacred to me beyond what words can describe.
TWH: You did a previous fundraiser to help you with your spiritual education – how did that experience and education change your life – spiritually and in mundane ways?
YR: Last year my husband Albert and I were able to raise the funds, through the generous donations of many people, to go on a 6-week pilgrimage where we did a little bit of teaching and a whole lot more studying. We attended the Sacred Harvest Festival in Minnesota and I offered some rituals and presentations there, which was really fun and we cemented some great, continued friendships from that visit. Then we went on to Tara Mandala in Colorado, where we performed the 9-day White Dakini Drubchen, a Great Accomplishment ceremony. This is a ceremony that runs continuously for 9 days, with a highly-structured series of activities, daily teachings, and a rigorous schedule of mantra recitation. I brought a lot of what I learned there about ritual structure, the evident power of continuous magical activity over a period of time, and certain methods of personal discipline, back with me. For instance, I can now sit a bit longer in meditation, chant for longer periods of time without needing a break, and have learned better techniques of moving energy through my body with sound. I also learned, at that retreat, a certain passion that had not arisen in me before during dharma practice. An ecstasy beyond the previous ecstasy. Last Samhain, CAYA Coven did our first ever- 24-hour Ancestor chanting marathon, and it was very powerful. I am hoping we will do something like that again this year.
Following that, Albert and I went to Tibet. And to be honest, it was very, very difficult in so many ways. The most challenging place I have ever been…very provocative on so many levels. The altitude quite literally takes your breath away. The ardor of spiritual practice there is unequaled. Spirituality is built into every.single.aspect of daily life, from simple transactions to elaborate ceremonies, and spiritual practice there is quite demanding. The terrain is still really rugged in many places, though that is changing rapidly, and there is construction on an enormous superhighway through Central Tibet which will bring its own set of difficulties. But there is also a holy beauty there. A somewhat terrifying beauty. The landscape is craggy, sharp, wild and harsh, yet so peaceful, all at the same time.
I walked away from the experience with an inner sense of my identity disturbed. Truly, my mind and spirit have changed since then, and not always in comfortable ways. I have come to see where people here take so much for granted, thinking how difficult we have it. I am aware of how much we can learn from the indomitably peaceful and tenacious commitment to skillfulness that is inherent in Tibetan spirituality and culture, and I admire how generously and caringly they share their practices. In Tibet I learned fortitude, and how to push past walls of aversion, and that it’s OK to need help and to ask for it. I learned how to give up hope, in a way. How to give up wishing things would be different, in favor of just taking care of what is right in front of me as best I can. I learned a new level of honesty with myself and others, how to let go of my story about what’s happening, and just be with what’s real– this is not always pretty, or media-friendly, or happy, and once seen, cannot be unseen. I learned that pride is useless in a crisis, and that the world will never not be in crisis in some way. I learned to just do the best I can with what I have. And this visit set me on a path. I do not know where that path is leading, but right now it is leading me to care for this Temple, and it is leading me to commit to going through that challenge again.
TWH: You’re visiting Tibet again this year, correct? When is your trip and what are you looking to accomplish?
YR: I will be in Tibet for most of September this year. In addition to bringing support to the nuns for the new Temple at Tsogyal Latso, I will be on pilgrimage throughout Central Tibet to visit different sites associated with my lineage, as well as several other oracular lakes. Personally, I hope to accomplish the main goal of any pilgrimage: to deepen my connection to my spiritual practice, and that my journey will in some way be of benefit. But on a socially-conscious level, I will be bringing some practical support to this Temple and the 16 nuns who live there.
TWH: Anything you’d like to add that you think is important?
YR: In addition to financial support for the Temple and the nuns, which we are gratefully accepting at the Tsogyal Rising web site, we have also been invited to perform mantras and prayers to ensure that this venture continues to go smoothly, that it receives the support it needs, to clear all obstacles, and that it become a profound blessing to the community of practitioners. I host an online group nearly every Saturday morning at 10 am via Zoom for the new temple at Tsogyal Latso. If folks would like to join me, they are welcome. It is one hour in length. You can find the practice text and the link to the video conference on the Sky Dancer Sangha website here.