Tare Lhamo & Namtrul Rinpoche: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet—Two New Books
Holly Gayley is Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her main interests are the contemporary wisdom dakini Khandro Tāre Lhamo and her consort, Namtrul Rinpoche, and the writings of contemporary teachers from Larung Buddhist Academy in eastern Tibet. Holly is an accomplished translator and a senior teacher in the Shambhala tradition.
Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo: Holly, I’m excited to be back in touch, picking up where we left off in our 2012 YouTube interview and a few recent conversations before my trip to Nyenlung last year. I read your latest interview with Shambhala Times, Terma in Dark Times, and it left me wanting more! So, thank you for doing this interview for Vajrayana World.
Congratulations on Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet which was twelve years in the making! It’s beautiful to watch your karma with this lineage unfold and I greatly admire your hard work and diligence. I understand you have another book coming next year with Shambhala Publications. And, while I’m at it, let me also say how much I appreciate your new website, Writings on Contemporary Buddhism and Tibet. Thank you, Holly.
Let's start with Khandro Tare Lhamo. What’s the first thing you’d like to say to Western Vajrayanists about Khandro Tare Lhamo?
Prof. Holly Gayley: It's so important to realize that women have played and still today play an important role in the Vajrayana, especially within the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The problem is that female tantric masters rarely make it into the literary record—something the late Rita Gross called androcentric recordkeeping.
Traveling in eastern Tibet for more than a decade, I met or learned of at least a dozen other contemporary khandroma. This is the Tibetan term that translates dakini from Sanskrit and designates a realized female master. But they seldom travel and teach widely, gaining regional renown, as Khandro Tare Lhamo did.
So Khandro Tare Lhamo is exceptional in many ways: her heroism during the years leading up to and including the Cultural Revolution; her twelve-volume corpus of writings and revelations with Namtrul Rinpoche; and her prominent role in restoring Buddhist teachings, practices, and institutions in eastern Tibet in the 1980s and 1990s.
DYW: There’s no doubt, for Tibetans, Chinese, and Westerners, this tantric couple had charisma! What’s the allure for you as a scholar and a translator?
PHG: I really got hooked when I started reading and translating their letters, exchanged in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. This was no easy task. I had to learn the ume script and spend considerable time researching Tibetan poetic and song styles, since the letters are almost entirely in verse.
But the payoff was amazing! Their correspondence contains a range of styles and showcases the courtship of a tantric couple. In formal poetry, Namtrul Rinpoche composed elaborate praises to Tare Lhamo in his early letters. Later, he turns to Amdo love songs to express his feelings in colloquial, even more enchanting, terms.
Without a scholastic monastic education, Khandro Tare Lhamo composed in folk song styles—whether to share her affection or impart a prophecy about a treasure (terma) awaiting them in the landscape of Golok. And in bardic verse, she declared victory over barbaric forces obstructing Buddhism in recent Tibetan history.
Their use of folk styles creates a lively tone, similar to the love songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama. But the styles are distinctively from eastern Tibet. It's been a pleasure and honor to translate them.
DYW: What role does this tantric couple play in the interests of the academic world?
PHG: The academic world remains invested in recovering exceptional Tibetan women from historical sources and chronicling their role in Buddhism as a living tradition. Another emerging trend, which has really just begun with the work of Sarah Jacoby in Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Visionary Sera Khandro (2014), is to explore the role of love in Buddhist tantra and Tibetan treasure revelation.
My book introduces the first collection of Tibetan "love letters" to come to light. It's a substantial collection of fifty-six letters, exchanged between Khandro Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche over more than a year. Their courtship unfolds across the pages, allowing a unique window into the emergence of a tantric couple.
The emotional flavor of their letters challenges certain assumptions of a tantric partnership among an earlier generation of scholars, especially the idea that love has no place in relationships between tantric consorts. In the future, I hope that more studies of this nature, regarding the range of styles and emotions in Tibetan letters, can be done.
DYW: I’m sure you’ll agree—it’s reassuring when another female master comes onto the stage. For sure, Khandro Tare Lhamo had a lot going on! She was the daughter of the great master Apang Tertön, she was a treasure revealer, a miracle worker and a healer, and of course, the better half of a famous tantric couple! This created her celebrity in Tibet. Do you think this will also be the case for a Western audience?
PHG: It could be. We have so few religious couples as models. The most famous in the West is Abelard and Heloise, but their love story was beset with tragedy. Their letters, as preserved, follow well after their love affair, secret marriage, and early separation. The tensions between their religious vocation and emotional bond is palpable.
For Khandro Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche, their partnership is central to their vocation as revealers of treasures. So the personal and prophetic aspects of their courtship are fully integrated into their public persona and teaching career. Their genuine partnership may well strike a chord for Western audiences.
DYW: How do you imagine Westerners might respond as they learn about the existence and writings of Khandro Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche? Is it possible that this small but unique lineage from Golok could change the face of Vajrayana in the West where most practitioners are lay householders?
PHG: I think their partnership could change what we imagine is possible within a Vajrayana framework. The notion of the tantric consort is well-known but little understood in the West. The received image from tantric literature is a tantric master who seeks out a sixteen-year-old dakini as consort.
So this case is refreshingly different.
Khandro Tare Lhamo was in her early forties when she sent a letter to Namtrul Rinpoche, six years her junior, to initiate their correspondence. This shows a certain flexibility in the consort principle, and that women can and do play an active role in shaping tantric partnerships.
Their lifelong partnership brings the yabyum (male and female in union) of tantric iconography to life and could provide a helpful model for heterosexual couples who are household practitioners.
DYW: One of my passions is the idea that Vajrayana is not only about personal development and liberation, but also that it has a lot to offer in the conventional world to relieve collective suffering and contribute to higher functioning families, groups, organizations, businesses, and so on. I know we have a ways to go on this one but I’m interested in the possibility. Prof. Janet Gyatso commented on Love Letters:
I know of no body of material that gives a more intricate picture of how Tibetan Buddhism could penetrate and transform worldly troubles and politics into the sublime aspirations of tantric vision.
Would you tell us more about what she was referring to?
PHG: What Janet may be referring to here is the way that their letters use visionary forms of memory to imagine restoring Buddhism from the ground up after the Cultural Revolution. In other words, it took more than stones and people to carry them to rebuild Buddhist monasteries and reintroduce the basic rituals of Tibetan Buddhism into social life. It took an act of profound imagination.
Collective action is no easy thing, and it's quite remarkable how much Tibetans were able to rebuild in the 1980s and 1990s before Han Chinese disciples became major patrons and disciples of Tibetan Buddhism. It took charismatic lamas who could draw on the deep well of Tibetan history and their own visionary capacities to reveal new teachings, consecrate the land anew, bind Tibetans together once again through Buddhist vows, gather resources, and preside over a new era of Buddhism's flourishing on the plateau.
DYW: Understandably, the duo of Khandro Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche is intriguing for Westerners. I’d like to ask you to go back to when you were just beginning to read their correspondence and collect their stories and ask if you had any preconceptions or expectations about tantric love and if they were affirmed or not. Did anything unexpected reveal itself?
Mainly I was intrigued by how they managed to balance their exalted religious identities with very folksy and human expressions of love. Khandro Tare Lhamo had been identified by Dudjom Rinpoche in infancy as the emanation of Yeshe Tsogyal, the Nyingma progenitor and Tibetan consort to Padmasambhava, and Sera Khandro, a female visionary of the previous generation in Golok. Meanwhile Namtrul Rinpoche was recognized and enthroned as the Fourth Namkhai Nyingpo emanation of Zhuchen Monastery in Serta. So they had impressive pedigrees. Yet they didn't let this get in the way of playful exchanges, full of humor and affection, alongside the more serious work ahead of restoring Buddhism in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.
DYW: Okay, this is the last question. Please give us a glimpse into your next book which Shambhala is publishing next year. How is it different from Love Letters from Golok?
The first book is my analysis of sources for the lives and letters of this tantric couple, and the second is my translation of them. I translate 40 out of 56 of their letters, focusing on ones that provide a well-rounded portrait of their partnership and leaving aside dense prophetic material. Included also are their biographies, depicting their training in youth and travels and teachings together during the 1980s and 90s.
As another way to distinguish between these books, Love Letters from Golok situates their lives and letters in a crucial juncture in Tibetan history with sustained discussion of healing cultural trauma. In my introduction to the second book, tentatively titled The Lives and Letters of a Buddhist Tantric Couple, Namtrul Rinpoche and Khandro Tare Lhamo, I give more attention to general themes of interest to non-academic audiences, especially spiritual practitioners, such as the role of compassion in resilience and love in a tantric partnership.
DYW: Thank you, Holly, for leading the way and allowing us to come with you as this important tantric couple is introduced to the West. And, thank you for helping me meet their son and Dharma heir, Tulku Lhaksam. Tashi Delek!
Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo, Journey to Nyenlung 2016, seat of Tare Lhamo & Namtrul Rinpoche.
Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo, Translating the Index to the Corpus of Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche.
Prof. Holly Gayley and Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo would love to receive your thoughts and questions about Khandro Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche. Please use the comments section below. Thank you.