Jue Liang is a Ph.D. candidate in the U.Va. Department of Religious Studies where she is currently completing her dissertation, “Conceiving the Mother of Tibet: The Life, Lives, and Afterlife of the Buddhist Saint Yeshe Tsogyel.” In her study on Tibetan Treasure revelation and its transmission history, she reflects on how narrativization of the past creates a shared identity in religious communities and the ways in which gendered symbols and languages function in these narratives. Her research also theorizes the creation of revelatory practice as a distinctly Tibetan Buddhist way of reconstructing the past. This effort at reconstruction still exerts a major impact on the present in Tibet and the Himalayas, as well as in the Sinophone world. Jue Liang graduated from Renmin University of China in 2011, majoring in Chinese Classics and History. She also received her M.A. in History of Religions from the University of Chicago in 2013.
Conceiving the Mother of Tibet: The Life, Lives, and Afterlife of the Buddhist Saint Yeshe Tsogyel
Ask any Tibetan Buddhist practitioner to name the most important Tibetan Buddhist woman, and the answer will most likely be Yeshe Tsogyel. Yeshe Tsogyel is considered the first and foremost matron saint of Tibet, and is almost always referred to as a ?akini (Tib. mkha’ ’gro, “sky-goer”), the symbol of tantric devotion and wisdom in Tibet. She is said to have lived in eighth-century Tibet. However, her name did not appear in any historical sources until the eleventh century, and literary accounts about her did not flourish until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. My dissertation, titled “Conceiving the Mother of Tibet: The Life, Lives, and Afterlife of the Buddhist Saint Yeshe Tsogyel,” queries the reason for her elevation of status in connection with the transformations and developments underwent by Tibetan Buddhist communities in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, an age of consolidation for Tibetan Buddhism. I ask what a usable past was for Buddhist communities at this time, how this past is remembered, related, and reenacted, and how Buddhist women feature into this history. I argue that through actively constructing the past through the rhetoric of timeless scriptures, this tradition carves out a space for itself in the cross-cultural continuity of Buddhism. By examining the dialogical relationship between religious narratives and the construction of communal identity, my research also presents revelatory practice as a distinctively Tibetan way of theorizing the past and writing histories. This dissertation is the first to look at Tibetan scriptural revelation through an indispensable but often overlooked agent, Yeshe Tsogyel. These revelatory practices locate their religious authority to Tibet’s imperial past in the eighth century by rediscovering Buddhist teachings hidden in both material and immaterial forms. While the Teacher is responsible for creating the content of the scripture in the past, and a revealer is predestined to extract this concealed scripture in the future, how to bridge the temporally and spatially separated male agencies became a difficult question for Tibetan ideologists. Deciphering the role Yeshe Tsogyel plays in this revelation process is fundamental to our understanding of Tibet’s continued history of canon formation, since she is the hinge onto which the door to an open canon hangs. I argue that Yeshe Tsogyel is chosen for this task, and that delivering her as an ideal interagent between immanence and transcendence requires Tibetan Buddhists to reconceive or even transform preestablished conceptualizations of lineage transmission, sacred geography, and gender imagery. My work examines how an origin narrative with Yeshe Tsogyel as one of the core personas emerged during this time as Tibetan Buddhists traced their religious pedigree and defined their religious authority through the lenses of her gender, her geographical locatedness, and her lay identity. By reading Yeshe Tsogyel as the archetypal female Buddhist saint of Tibet, my work looks for a woman’s place in Buddhist narratives and tells a story of how this place is constantly mediated and negotiated by the operating forces of competing Tibetan Buddhist communities. It provides a new framework for understanding canon formation, sainthood, and gender for a broader, comparative study of Buddhism across Asia. Understanding Yeshe Tsogyel and her role in Tibetan Buddhism also aids our perception of other female practitioners throughout Tibetan history, many of whom claim to be emanations of her in later times.