Machig Labdron (1055-1153), 'the One Mother:' founder of the Cho Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
Jeff Watt [updated 5-2017]
Machig Labdron Biography
The life story of Machig Labdron, 1055-1149 [TBRC P3312], (ma gcig labs sgron) has been recounted in several different Tibetan hagiographies (rnam thar), with considerable differences among them. According to these sources, Machig was born in a village called Tsomer (mtsho mer), situated in lower Tamsho (tam shod) in E Gangwa (e'i gang ba) of the Labchi (labs phyi) region, or, alternatively, in Gyelab (gye'i labs) in Keugang (khe'u gang), in the eastern part of the Yarlung (yar klungs) valley. Her father, Chokyi Dawa (chos kyi zla ba), was the chief of Tsomer village; her mother, Lungmo Bumcham (klungs mo 'bum lcam), gave birth to two other children: a son, Lotsawa Keugang Korlodrag (lo tswA ba khe'u gang 'khor lo grags) and a daughter, remembered simply as Bume (bu med).
Machig took an early interest in Buddhist teachings and became a student of Drapa Ngonshe (grwa pa mngon shes, 1012-1090); she would prove an able reader of the Prajnaparamitasutra texts and would provide this service to lay persons on behalf of her teacher. Drapa Ngonshe eventually advised her to study with Kyoton Sonam Lama (skyo ston bsod nams bla ma, d.u.), from whom she received an initiation for the teaching named the "Outer Cycle of Maya" (phyir 'khor ba'i lam du sgyu 'phrul). Following an encounter with a peripatetic Indian yogi known as Topa Bare (thod pa 'ba' re, d.u.), she became his consort and bore three sons, known as Nyingpo Drubpa (snying po grub pa), Drubchung (grub chung), and Yangdrub (yang grub), and two daughters who were called Kongcham (kong lcam) and Lacham (la lcam). Some sources have it that she had only two sons, named Drubpa and Kongpokyab (kong po khyab), and one daughter, Drubchungma (grub chung ma). Later in her adult life, Machig returned to dressing as a renunciate with a shaved head and travelling to receive teachings. She eventually settled in a cave at Zangri Kangmar (zangs ri khang dmar), where a community formed around her.
Machig's principal male disciples included her heart son Gyalwa Dondrub, also known as Gyalwa Drubche (rgyal ba grub che), who became a lineage holder of her teachings. Some have, most likely in error, listed Gyalwa Dondrub as her biological son, although this appears unlikely. His grandson was Tonyon Samdrub (thod smyon bsam grub, d.u.), known as the 'Snowman of Shampogang' (sham po gangs pa'i gangs pa). The tradition of black-hat-wearing Cho practitioners known as "Gangpa" (gangs pa) originated with him. A second student, Kugom Chokyi Sengge (khu sgom chos kyi seng ge, d.u.), also became renowned for his transmission of Cho.
According to several traditional sources, at some point fairly early in her career Machig met and received teachings from the Indian yogi Padampa Sanggye (pha dam pa sangs rgyas, d.u.) the well-known teacher of Shije (zhi byed) teachings which are focused on the pacification of suffering. It has become standard to attribute the transmission of the Cho lineage from Padampa to Machig, although there is little material evidence that such a transmission took place. Indeed, some accounts of the transmission rest solely on Machig seeing Padampa from afar. Frequently invoked in support of this argument is a prose work by Aryadeva the Brahmin, Padampa Sanggye's maternal uncle, considered to be a root text (gzung rtsa) for several of the Cho lineages that would develop later. (The text is titled either Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa tshigs su bcad pa chen mo - or - Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa mang ngag.)
Alternate versions of the Cho transmission history suggest that the teachings were passed from Padampa to Machig's teacher, Sonam Lama, and then to her. However, such claims are at odds with another traditional claim, namely that Machig's system of Cho was the only Buddhist teaching transmitted from Tibet to India, rather than from India to Tibet.
(Extant texts that are traditionally directly associated with Ma gcig include the Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa zab mo gcod kyi man ngag gi gzhung bka' tshoms chen mo, the Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa'i man ngag yang tshoms zhus lan ma, the [S]Nying tshoms chos kyi rtsa ba, the Thun mong gi le lag brgyad pa, the Thun mong ma yin pa'i le'u lag brgyad pa and the Khyad par gyi le lag brgyad pa. Of these, the Bka' tshoms chen mo is the only one that can presently be historically situated through the existence of an annotated outline and a commentary ascribed to the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (kar+ma pa rang 'byung rdo rje, 1284-1339). In the Third Karmapa's Bka' tshoms chen mo tikka, he mentions texts by Machig which may no longer be extant, including the Gnad thems, Khong rgol, Gsang ba'i brda' chos, as well as an Nang ngo sprod. Dzarong Lama Tendzin Norbu (rdza rong bla ma bstan 'dzin nor bu, 1867-1940) also mentions the Gnad thems, Gsang ba'i brda' chos and Nang ngo sprod, adding the Gzhi lam slong in his study entitled Gcod yul nyon mongs zhi byed kyi bka' gter bla ma brgyud pa'i ram thar byin rlabs gter mtsho).
Chos kyi seng ge. 1974. Zhi byed dang gcod yul gyi chos 'byung rin po che'i phreng ba thar pa'i rgyan. In Gcod kyi chos skor, pp. 411-597. New Delhi: Tibet House.
Dpa' bo gtsug lag phreng ba. 2003. Chos 'byung mkhas pa'i dga' ston. Sarnath, India: Vajra Vidya Library, 1369-1371.
Edou, Jerome. 1996. Machig Labdron and the Foundations of Chod. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications.
'Gos lo tswa ba gzhon nu dpal. 2003 (1478). Deb ther sngon po. Sarnath, Varanasi: Vajra Vidya Institute.
Gyatso, Janet. 1985. "The development of the gcod tradition." In Soundings in Tibetan Civilization. B.N. Aziz and M. Kapstein, eds, pp. 320-341. New Delhi: Manohar
Kollmar-Paulenz, Karenina. 1993. 'Der Schmuck der Befreiung': Die Geschichte der Zhi byed-und gCod-Schule des tibetischen Buddhismus. Wiesbaden: Harrowitz Verlag.
Kollmar-Paulenz, Kar?nina. 1998. "Ma gcig lab sgron ma ? The Life of a Tibetan Woman Mystic Between Adaption and Rebellion." Tibet Journal 23 (2), 11-32.
Ma gcig lab sgron. 1974. Phung po gzan skyur gyi rnam bshad gcod kyi don gsal byed. In Gcod kyi chos skor. Byams pa bsod nams, ed., pp. 10-410. New Delhi: Tibet House.
Machik Labdron. 2003. Machik's Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chod: A Complete Explanation of Casting Out the Body as Food (Phung po gzan skyur gyi rnam bshad gcod kyi don gsal byed). Sarah Harding, trans. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion.
Orofino, Giacomella. 1987. Contributo allo studio dell' insegnamento di Ma gcig Lab sgron. Supplemento n. 53 agli Annali, vol. 47, Napoli: Istituto Universitario Orientale.
Orofino, Giacomella. 2000. The great wisdom mother and the gcod tradition. In Tantra in Practice. David Gordon White, ed., 320-341. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Rdza sprul ngag dbang bstan 'dzin nor bu. 1972. Gcod yul nyon mongs zhi byed kyi bka' gter bla ma brgyud pa'i rnam thar byin rlabs gter mtsho. Gangtok: Sonam T. Kazi.
Roerich, George, trans. 1996. The Blue Annals. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas.