Orgyan Chokyi, Himalayan "Hermitess"
Orgyan Chokyi's autobiography is the unique account of an eighteenth-century Tibetan Buddhist nun described by English-language translator Kurtis R. Schaeffer as a "Himalayan hermitess." Orgyan Chokyi (1675-1729) not only describes events, sentiments, and details of her life path but has also provided a unique document attesting to the society and culture of her era and region. Of special interest is her writing as a resource about the life and condition of women, women religious, and women hermits.
Not unlike traditional societies, Tibetan culture was based on a misogynous social structure which came to be incorporated into religious doctrine through the identification of liberation with male human beings. The suffering that Orgyan Chokyi experienced from this realization is a strong theme in her autobiography.
Daily existence in the vicinity of Dolpa, northeastern Nepal, Orgyan Chokyi's birthplace, was not unlike that of the entire Himalayan region. A short growing season, arid rocky terrain, a dependence on pastoralism, recurrent patterns of warfare, famine, disease (smallpox, leprosy) and enforced labor contributed to the centrality of suffering in Buddhist themes. The mingling of Bon and Buddhism spawned an elite culture of lamaism and meditation but also a popular one of deities, magic, and superstition.
In such a harsh environment, literary expression reflected both existential and spiritual themes. For example, the contemporary lama Tenzin Repa (1646-1723), the teacher of Orgyan Chopki's teacher Orgyan Tenzin, and whom she may have once met, strongly influenced Orgyan Chokyi. For example, he wrote that:
Not a hill or valley exists where
Armies are not followed by famine,
And tidings of bandits race.
Hermits, mediators, must be wary of thieves.
As I behold these things, my heart longs for solitude.
This typical passage reflects a widespread skepticism of institutional religious privilege among hermits and wandering lamas. Superstition enshrined scriptures as physical objects, like relics, assigning them magical qualities and ignoring the significance of the words. Wealthy patrons favored monastic flatteries and attentiveness to pilgrimage and travel services over spiritual practices. Tenzin Repa expressed radical views furthering eremitism:
For the yogin who recognizes his own mind,
It dawns without studying the ideas of sutra and tantra;
He leaves behind the tomes of fragmented scholarly explanations.
The yogin for whom everything shines as a clue to enlightenment
Has no need of black-ink explanations.
To explain the deep and profound spiritual instructions
He doesn't need high poetry with sweet-sounding words.
In such critiques, Tenzin Repa emphasized individual character and intuitive understanding. The most important source of spiritual growth came from the relationship of teacher and disciple, wherein the lama's word and example was scripture itself, living and authentic. These ideas strongly influence Orgyan Chopyi, for women could not enjoy monastic privileges as men did, disposing her to beneficent teachers and the solitary path.
Unlike the institutional religious of his day, Tenzin Repa welcomed women to his monastery and counseled them frankly. Orgyan Tenzin, his disciple, who became Orgyan Chopyi's lama, emulated his master in his mild attitude towards women, actively promoting their meditation efforts and empathizing with their struggles in daily life. In a patriarchal society hostile to women and dubious of their spiritual aspirations, women like Orgyan Chopyi felt, as Schaeffer puts it, "caught in a social network that allows for little of what her Life takes to be essential -- solitude."
Hence it is unusual to read Orgyan Tenzin's complimentary view of his disciple, albeit after years of witnessing her perseverance:
Suffering has little power over you, and your temperament is mild. Your commitment is full. Your demeanor is kind and compassionate. Nuns for whom all are alike, you quarrel and debate with no one.
And seeing Orgyan Chopyi's marvelous progress in later years, her master remarked:
If you recognize yourself, you are a nun.
If you realize your emptiness, you are a woman of intelligence.
If you can sleep alone without friends, you are a clever woman.
If you wander the empty unpeopled valley, you are a heroine.
If you quell false appearances and self-grasping, you are a dakini.
Life of Orgyan Chokyi
The autobiography of Orgyan Chokyi is patterned after the Life of Milarepa by Tsangnyon Herucka, perhaps the most popular work of Tibetan Buddhism outside of the monasteries of the time. But Orgyan Chokyi was strongly influenced by her own master Orgyan Tenzin's Self-Luminous Dharma Realm of the Profound Essence and by the autobiography of his master Tenzin Repa, with its tale of personal sorrows echoing the Life of Milarepa.
Elements of the autobiography also reflect various hagiographical sources, plus devotional devices such as expressions of sorrow and regimes of fasting. How she communicates her wide sense of ethics toward sentient beings may reflect acquaintance with Buddhist folk tales. Finally, her devotion to the salvific deity Padmasambhava may have been influenced by her meditation teacher, the nun Drupohenmo, who is a regular presence in the narrative.
But none of these influences supersedes the narrative voice unique in its heartfelt sincerity and unmitigated honesty. Existential not theoretical, unrelenting in her quest for perfection, full of narrative strength, color, and pathos, the Life is entirely the vehicle of Orgyan Chokyi, not dependent on influence, authority, or affective literary device.
What follows is a summary of the work's ten chapters.
Orgyan Chokyi tells her master Orgyan Tenzin that she wants to "write a few words on my joys and sufferings." He says no, that there is no reason to write, especially not for a woman. "You must be silent," he adds. This elicits Orgyan Chokyi's tears. But she adds that towards the end of her life, blessed by omens and instruction from the dakini, she went ahead and wrote.
Chapter 1 (This is the only chapter without a summary sentence.)
Her father practiced Bon esotericism. Her parents wanted a boy but Orgyan Chokyi the daughter was born. Her mother named her Kyilo, meaning "Happiness Dashed." Her father was subsequently stricken with leprosy and for years "was at the end of his rope," miserable and hateful toward his daughter, even physically striking her in public.
Kyilo's mother told her daughter that she hated her. The entire village observed these things. A sympathetic monk and nun gave her solace. But her father's hostility was unabated. He died but her mother did not change and grew impatient at her daughter's inability to learn to weave, and would throw the shuttle at her head. "These are a few tales of the mountain of suffering that arose in my youth," writes Orgyan Chokyi.
Chapter 2 -
"Chapter Two relates how at age eleven I became a goatherd and suffering arose
The sorrows of the child Kyilo are here seen as responses to what she experienced: goat kids she tended carried away by eagles or taken by lowlanders to sacrifice to gods. Kyilo identifies with the sorrows of the nanny or mother goats and weeps for them. Men tell her that she should stop weeping, that such things happen all the time, that the mountain-spirit will be disturbed by her unseemly crying.
But a lama sees her weeping and observes, "This girl knows mercy. If she were to practice the Dharma, she would preserve compassion in her mind." This was a breakthrough for her. Kyilo begins to see the goats as unfortunate creatures and herself as sinful in eating the goats' flesh and taking their milk and using their hides despite her poverty.
Kyilo announces to her mother that she wants to enter religious life. Surprisingly, her mother accepts. And so she undertakes the refuge ceremony in the presence of Orgyan Tenzin and begins reading and studying under the nun Ani Drupchen Sodrolma, who advises her: "Meet the Dharma, take refuge, study. Then you will not suffer."
Chapter 3 - "Chapter three relates how impermanence arose when I herded horses."
Orgyan Chokyi was now about twenty, and enjoyed the company of other postulants. Part of her livelihood was to herd horses. She kept a mare and her foal and one day they were attacked by a leopard. The foal was killed and the mother wailed for days. Orgyan Chokyi set out to bring the corpse back, already riddled by vultures. And she wept, as did even her master, and the whole monastery was sad. Orgyan Chokyi composed a long lament that includes this telling verse:
When I ponder our female bodies
I am sorrowful; impermanence rings clear.
She senses the special sorrow of female creatures: human, horse, goat, all fated to suffer, first by giving and nurturing new life itself fated to suffer, and secondly by suffering the abuse and indifference of the male. She continues:
When men and women couple -- creating more life --
Happiness is rare, but suffering is felt for a long time.
May I not be born again in a female body.
May the mare not be born as a mare.
The steed follows yet another mare.
When I see the shamelessness of men,
I think: May I be born in a body that sustains the precepts. ...
Let me not be born a woman in all lives to come
When I ponder the suffering of beings, melancholy flares.
On another occasion, Orgyan Chokyi laments:
Humans, horses, dogs, all beings,
Male and female all think alike.
But the suffering of life comes to females as a matter of course.
I could do without the misery of this female life.
How I lament this broken vessel, this female body. ...
Orgyan Chokyi has here internalized the doctrine of liberation based on the privilege of the male human being. This doctrine was buttressed by the patriarchal social system of the Buddhist Tibet of this era. At the same time she clearly notes that both "male and female all think alike," meaning that either both are capable of profound thought, or that both think the same thoughts about themselves and their role.
She concludes that "this female body is itself samsara," and that her work in the dharma can only be for an intermediate goal:
This female body is itself samsara -- the round of existence.
May I attain a male body, and keep the vows.
May I never again by born in the body of a woman!
This sentiment is powerful testimony to a psychology affected by religious doctrine, society, and culture. At the same time, it is a realistic assessment that indirectly or subconsciously accuses the supposedly superior human males of being perpetrators of great suffering. Orgyan Chokyi does not challenge religious doctrine about liberation but she comes close to the point of rejecting the institutions that foster this suffering as doctrine. It was the same point that her male teachers had reached, though without being capable of fully suffering the consequences of Orgyan Chokyi. She might have gone further if she were not, by her own account, slow-witted and unintelligent.
Chapter 4 - "Chapter four relates how I requested teachings from my master and watched my
At last Orgyan Tenzin gave Orgyan Chokyi instructions on key documents and teachings: the All-Liberating Cycle of Northern Treasure, Self-Luminous Dharma Realm of the Profound Essence, the Testament of Mani, and the Life of Padmasambhava.
He instructed her on meditation, mandalas, visualization, prostrations, and recitations. Orgyan Chokyi then describes the content of the teachings, providing a valuable confirmation on practice at the time, with bits of dialog from Orgyan Tenzin and Ani Drupchenmo, whom he charged with teaching her meditation.
After a while, the master asks Orgyan Chokyi to write. She reflects candidly to herself:
If I write a lot of words, my stillness will vanish. Even though this is what my master says, I still have to do everything, with my own intelligence. ... I don't have the intelligence to do this, I said to him. And without thinking about it he answered: Today after meditation you must go and write until dawn.
So Orgyan Chokyi charted the progress of mind and meditation with the help of Ani Drupchenmo. One day she achieved what she she called "no unhappiness," experiencing a "pervasive joy."
Chapter 5 -
"Chapter five relates how I went on pilgrimage to the Kathmandu Valley and Mount
This very brief chapter concludes with the first miracle attributed to Orgyan Chokyi atop Mt. Kailash: a dazzling light from the Buddha statue there.
Chapter 6 -
"Chapter six relates how I stayed in the kitchen and suffered mental anguish in
Amidst many religious activities at Dolpa -- erecting temples, executing temple paintings, transcribing scriptures, providing for guests and pilgrims -- Orgyan Chokyi found herself performing kitchen duties. In such a busy environment, she felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and incapable of meditating. She was disappointed, too, when she was excluded from group travel to Sikkim and saddened when her master left a while later on solitary retreat, which she longed to do.
On his return Orgyan Chokyi told her Orgyan Tenzin that she wanted to quit the kitchen but he replied, in conventional fashion: "Men are just right for the field. Women are just right for the kitchen." He told her to wait a few more years. Orgyan Chokyi told another nun, "I must live alone in retreat. How is solitude possible at the monastery with people all around."
Chapter 7 - "Chapter seven relates how I gave up the kitchen and stayed in meditation reciting prayers."
The day came when Orgyan Tenzin himself declared that the monastery bustle was too much and announced that he would depart for the "empty valley" of Nechentdru. Moreover, he told Orgyan Chopki that she could accompany him. It was a desolate place to which he was going, with a scarcity of provisioning, but she could live alone there.
Orgyan Chokyi reflected on this stage of her life:
Each day I looked at the life stories of the greater masters of the past, and each day impermanence became greater and greater to me. Hearing and seeing the suffering and death of all brings, I had to weep and weep.
She suffered bouts of melancholia again, telling another nun of the difficulties of attaining Dharma. "If I were to die right now, it would be a pleasure!" Clearly a psychological disposition troubled Orgyan Chokyi even as she tenaciously followed the path of spiritual discipline. In response, her friend wonders why she worries so. Only the most discerning and experienced of the religious could comprehend Orgyan Chokyi's plight.
Orgyan Chokyi composes a lament:
It is difficult to encounter the supreme Dharma.
Bliss is slim but desire grows,
And the mind always suffers. ...
Just as the moth
Desires the light of the lamp,
So do men
Desire women's bodies.
To men, women are demons; to women men are demons.
Here Orgyan Chokyi takes objective social and doctrinal misogyny to a subtler perception. The very nature of desire is suffering. The male, driven by unconscious desire, makes and spreads suffering even as he disparages the object of desire as demonic. Women perceive male lust in every sphere of social and mental reality.
Seeing her despondency, Orgyan Tenzin suggests that his disciple visualize herself as the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and pray in this fashion:
I, Orgyan Chokyi, am not happy. I will do whatever compassionate acts are right. All the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, behold the suffering of myself and every living being. Buddhas, may you work compassionately.
He added that she should concentrate the mind single-pointedly and spread light upon all beings, vowing to do what good she could. It was a simple method intended specifically to address her spiritual and psychological plight, always on the verge of depression.
Chapter 8 - "Chapter eight relates how joyous experiences dawned upon me as I lived in solitude."
At this point, Orgyan Chokyi writes: "Now I am about fifty years old. I may die quickly, so I must live by myself." Living in solitude, she realized that she was free of the chores of thirty years but that she needed to conscientiously spend her time in fruitful meditation. This became her life's motive, and she was at last happy. "This happiness is the kindness of my religious brothers and sisters," she acknowledges. She repays this kindness with a pure mind.
Orgyan Chokyi lived in a cave, secure from snow and rain, without a fire, deliberately cut off from outside sounds of nature.
Solitary, alone and looking after reality.
Free from the chatter of common people.
At fifty-two, Orgyan Chokyi remained for longer periods in her cave, not descending in winter to receive teachings. THe entire region was aware of the hermit and held her in great esteem.
One summer she came to ask master Orgyan Tenzin for teaching but he only told her to work for the next life. Notice
Chapter 9 - Chapter nine relates how I uphold my religious commitment with body, speech, and mind."
Orgyan Chokyi took an advanced vow of purification, deepening her practice. Her prayers still reflected her sense of the female as "ground of samsara," but were reconciled to impermanence and meditation. She prays not to meet people who will compromise the Dharma, that instead she will meet like-minded religious.
May I, Orgyan Chokyi, a beggar with no wants,
Be born healthy and active,
Rebirth upon rebirth,
In an empty valley with no people.
The last thing Orgyan Chokyi writes is of learning of a convocation of religious men and women. She goes to Orgyan Tenzin and tells him that she will join them in performing a ritual or retreat. He tells her that she does not need to practice austerities anymore. "With body, speech, and mind you have fully protected your commitment and vow. Now life is passing on."
Chapter 10 - "Chapter ten relates the manner of her death."
Orgyan Chokyi, now 55, was attending a ritual in the winter of 1729 when a ceiling beam in the building fell and struck her head. She bled profusely and suffered intense pain for a week. On the eighth day she reported pain extending to her eyes. She began to fade quickly. In a whisper, she told the attending religious: "The Buddha said that death comes like lightning, and this is what has happened."
Orgyan Chokyi died two days later. The editor of her Life concludes with a description of miracles at her death, the disposition of her body and relics, and a final verse of exhortation to readers and listeners: "Those who die are many; those who die in this state of mind are rare."
The Life of Orgyan Chokyi testifies to an arduous path toward solitude. We witness see the rigors of spiritual practice culminating in eremitism, a pattern analogous to early Christian practice. The translator points out other analogies with women spiritual figures in the West.
Regardless of doctrinal discouragement, Orgyan Chokyi persisted in the methods of meditation, fully conscious of her suffering and her status as a woman. The example of her perseverance encourages the reader to understand that our circumstances and environment, however strong their negative influence, are distinct from mind and consciousness. That any one person could overcome the circumstances of culture, society, family, and institutionalism is an inspiration to the human spirit.
The Life of Orgyan Chokyi is translated into English with commentary in Himalayan Hermitess: The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Nun, by Kurtis R. Schaeffer. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.