The birth of Jétsunma Khandro Yeshé Réma was a remarkable event. Yeshé Réma was a gTértön who was given the name Khyungchen Aro Lingma in vision by Yeshé Tsogyel (at the time when she later received her visionary cycles of teaching and practices from her). She was born with great ease and without making any sound. The first thing she did was to make a very long drawn out hiss with her lips drawn up into Wrathful aspect, as if she were performing a Tsa-lung breathing exercise. A great number of eagles appeared in the sky at her birth. They swooped and glided very close to her parents’ Retreat Cave entrance. All manner of sky phenomena appeared at her birth, including clouds shaped like yung-drungs and ga’khyils. Strong gusts of wind sprang up and subsided very quickly. The sun and moon were clearly visible in the sky at the same time. Her mother remained in a state of Vision through the birth, in which she was physically assisted by Rang-rig Togden.
Aro Lingma slept a great deal as a child but always with her eyes wide open. It was not always easy to tell whether she was asleep or awake because often she would sleep sitting up without any support. She didn’t speak until she was five years old but then spoke fluently and without effort. Up until that point she simply listened to her mother and father practising or giving her instruction on practise. She was brought up entirely in retreat and never saw another child until she was an adult woman. As a young girl, she would wander widely, in the mountains around her parents’ meditation cave. She would disappear whenever patrons came to visit and bring food and offerings to the couple. She expressly did not want anyone to see her apart from her parents, and they were quite happy to go along with her in this wish. They never questioned anything that she did or wanted. She wanted very little and was mostly quiet apart from peals of loud and unexpected laughter. She would sometimes be gone for several days and come back with accounts of having visited other realms and of having met Yeshé Tsogyel and Padmasambhava. Her parents instructed her in Trül-khor (Yantra yoga) from a very early age and she had mastered gTummo by the age of nine. She could not endure to wear clothes for most of the year until she was an adult and left the retreat cave. This is why she had the name Réma or cotton wearing lady, because she had the power to generate her own inner heat.
Aro Lingma was about sixteen or seventeen years old when her parents took rainbow body (’ja’-lus) together. She sewed them in a white tent together after receiving final advice, instructions, and predictions from them; and retired to a distance of twenty-one paces to begin her practice. Seven days later she opened the tent and all that was left were their respective clothes, hair, finger nails, toe nails and nasal septum. They had taken rainbow body together. It is a highly unusual event for two people to achieve rainbow body together at the same time, but it was something that her mother had predicted many years before. This event had a profound impact on Aro Lingma and ripened many latent faculties. She gathered the relics of her parents and set out toward Northern Kham and Golok where her Mother had predicted she would find a suitable Sang-yab for the realisation of a gTérma cycle that would come into being in the future for the benefit of beings in distant lands. Her mother had given indications that this gTérma cycle would be of immense benefit in the future if certain conditions were met, but that there would also be many circumstantial obstacles to overcome.
Aro Lingma travelled from place to place practising and living as a wandering yogini. She had the opportunity on several occasions to join up with other groups of practitioners but was intent on travelling alone. She sometimes pretended to be dumb, in order to avoid speaking with people – especially if they were religious people. She would always speak to children and ordinary people – especially if they appeared to have difficulties; but she always avoided religious people whenever she could. It took Aro Lingma about a year to reach Northern Kham and Golok where it was predicted that she would meet her Sang-yab. It was there that she met Khalden Lingpa. She recognised ’a-Shul Pema Legden immediately as having the potential to realise Visions, and so they travelled together to Southern Tibet. ’a-Shul Pema Legden gave up his monk’s vows and became Aro Lingma’s sang-yab. During their journey to Southern Tibet, Aro Lingma experienced several profound Visionary experiences of Yeshé Tsogyel in which she realised the cycles of Teachings and practice that her mother had predicted. These cycles of teachings and practice came to be known as the Aro gTér – the teaching of the Mother Essence Lineage. These teachings survive today as an essential expression of the ‘extremely non-elaborate’ category of teachings and practice.
Tibetan Buddhism is known in the West largely in terms of monasticism. With regard to the monastic sangha, the teaching of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and Bön, are accessed mostly through the teaching of monks. It is a small minority of Western Buddhists who are aware of Tibetan Lamas who are nuns. At present the only Tibetan nun to teach in the West is Khandro Rinpoche, a female Lama of the Kagyüd School. The dominant spiritual culture of Tibet appears to be male as far as most people are aware. Although this is not an entirely inaccurate portrayal of the dominant spiritual culture of Tibet, it does not convey the spiritual dynamism that existed in terms of women, and the very small family lineages that existed – in which women were very spiritually influential indeed.
Contrary to the overt cultural impression, there were many women in Tibet who were teachers of the most profound level, and many of them had male disciples numbering amongst the highest monastic dignitaries. Some practised as ordained nuns, but many more practised both as ordained Ngakmas and lay yoginis. The Ngakmas and Ngakpas (the male equivalent) were those ordained into the Tantric Ngak’phang sangha and tended to live as married couples. Both Ngakmas and lay yoginis are still to be found in the Himalayan countries that surround Tibet; but it is not an easy or simple endeavour to meet them, or even find them. One such remarkable woman is Jétsunma Khandro Ten’dzin Drölkar – the remarkable yogini who gave me the account of the life of Jomo Menmo. I have the immense good fortune of knowing her both as a teacher and vajra-sister; and as such, have introduced several of my students to her. Jétsunma Khandro Ten’dzin Drölkar is a hidden yogini. Very few people in the West have heard of her, and even in India and Nepal she is not widely known. She is indistinguishable from any other elderly Tibetan woman you might pass on the streets of McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala where she currently lives. Despite her anonymity, she is a close friend of Ven. Sonam Sangpo Rinpoche,Tharchin Rinpoche and Dungsé Thinley Norbu Rinpoche – and highly respected by them for the profundity of her practice and realisation. She is a Dzogchen yogini who has spent most of her life in and out of retreat. She has also raised a family, and survived a somewhat difficult husband. One of her sons Trülku Ten’dzin was recognised as an Nyingma incarnation, and currently lives in semi-open retreat with Kyabjé Chatral Rinpoche in Yang-lé-shöd in the Kathmandu valley of Nepal.
Apart from the many individual women practitioners and teachers in Tibet, there were also small lineages that existed along-side the major Nyingma lineages. These were the minor lineages of mountain recluses both male and female; and also, hidden female lineages that passed down through their children rather than through incarnation lines. The Mother Essence Lineage is one such lineage of teachings and practices. The Mother Essence Lineage is primarily a lineage of very unusual women, wisdom-eccentrics who were either solitary or married recluses. They were either itinerant Nyingma yoginis and their partners, or those who lived in communities such as the Aro Gar, where the Mother Essence Lineage was disseminated. The Mother Essence Lineage passed initially from aunt to niece, and then from mother to daughter. With this daughter, began the direct daughter-line which was destined to pass down through a succession of women, but due to the vagaries of circumstance and the intervention of the Chinese invasion, the blood line was broken. The daughter was an extraordinary Visionary by the name of Aro Lingma who passed her teachings on to a small group of men and women who gathered around her in the final phase of her life. Amongst this small group of no more than a hundred disciples there was a predominant number of accomplished yoginis, nine of whom had remarkable yogic abilities. A-yé Khandro and A-shé Khandro in particular manifested yogic powers such as telepathy, clairvoyance and the ability to converse with animals and beings in other dimensions.
Aro Lingma was a pure-vision gTértön, that is to say a discoverer of spiritual treasures. She received several cycles of practice directly from Yeshé Tsogyel, the female Buddha and consort of Padmasambhava. These practices were unique and extraordinary, as they consisted of Awareness-being (meditational deity) forms that were all manifestations of Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel. Together with these practices were methods of the three series of Dzogchen and their ancillary psycho-physical practices. Aro Lingma was advised by her mother to practice these in secret, and only to teach the practices to her daughter. It would then be her daughter who would transmit these teachings to the world.
Unfortunately, due to inauspicious circumstances, Aro Lingma gave birth to a son, and the blood-line was broken. Her Sang-yab (spiritual husband) died, and she never took another consort. Her mother had advised that she should only have one Sang-yab. She also advised that she should only have one child; otherwise her life would be considerably shortened, and she would thus have little time to make sure of her daughter’s spiritual training. Her Sang-yab, ’a-Shul Pema Legden, was an old Lama. He died whilst Aro Lingma was still quite young, and before she had conceived a daughter. This could have meant that Aro Lingma’s cycles of Visionary teaching would have disappeared from the world, but through her yogic power she was able to conceive shortly before ’a-Shul Pema Legden’s death. She guided him through the Bardo visions of the intermediate state between lives, and gave birth to him as her own son. It was not possible for ’a-Shul Pema Legden to be re-born as a woman due to his own remaining karmic obscurations, and so the opportunity was lost in terms of these teachings being made widely known. Aro Lingma’s mother had given her advice about the inauspicious advent of giving birth to a son, and as a result of maintaining these instructions very exactly she was able to pass the teaching on to her son by appearing to him in Visionary form after her own death, and whilst he was in solitary retreat at the age of eight.
The son of Aro Lingma was called Aro Yeshé, and she left instructions that the Visionary practices that he would give would be called the Aro gTér. Aro Yeshé was the name that she would have given to her daughter, had she been able to give birth to a girl. During the childhood of Aro Yeshé he was kept away from other boys and from men in general. He was brought up, after the death of his mother, by five yoginis that she had appointed to attend to his education. His childhood friends were two sisters called A-yé Khandro and A-shé Khandro who later becomes his Sang-yums. These two girls were the first two disciples to whom he transmitted the Aro gTér, and it was they who actually passed the teachings on to the other disciples of Aro Lingma. Aro Yeshé himself taught very rarely because the transmission were seen as more powerful if they were received from women.
Since the death of Aro Lingma, the tradition was continued by a male lineage holder, supported by two powerful female consorts. This became called the indirect son line. It was called indirect because it came through a male lineage holder, and in this tradition male practitioners have less power of lineal blessing. There is a prediction however, that the direct daughter line will re-emerge with greater power if sufficient women become accomplished in the Visionary methods of the Mother Essence Lineage.