- Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro by Sarah H. Jacoby
Sarah H. Jacoby’s well-organized analysis of the writings of Sera Khandro (born Künzang Dekyong Chönyi Wangmo, 1892-1940) is written with a clarity, breadth, and immediacy that is rare in the genre of namtar (spiritual biography). Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro conveys the vivid image and voice of this Tibetan visionary and gter ston (treasure revealer), not as a singular figure but as a woman whose life is intertwined with extraordinary figures, both human and divine. Tracing an arc from suffering to awakening, Jacoby’s intertextual critique elucidates the practices of Vajrayāna Buddhists, pre-Buddhist Tibetans, healing rituals, tantric consorts, treasure revealers, dākinīs, and much more. She foregrounds Khandro’s reciprocal exchanges with buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities of the land, nasty in-laws, jealous rivals, and revered spiritual masters as Khandro struggles to balance quotidian life with visionary experience and move toward the Buddhist goal of benefitting living beings.
Khandro’s autobiography is one of only a few written by a Tibetan lay-woman. A prolific author, she grew up in privilege on an estate in Lhasa, where she experienced spiritual insights, visions, and healing powers from early childhood. In 1907, at the age of fifteen, she fled her home to escape an arranged marriage. Over the next fourteen years, she faced trepidation and harrowing challenges in her development as a treasure revealer and tantric healer. As a treasure revealer, she discovered religious artifacts and scriptures that had been buried for future generations and interpreted these treasures for the benefit of all sentient beings. As a tantric healer, she [End Page 286] mastered “channel and wind practices” for spiritual realization and for the “physical goals of curing illness and increasing longevity” (p. 212).
Whereas the biography of a male adept usually begins with a biological genealogy to establish his identity, status, authority, and karmic propensities, Khandro’s narrative begins with her spiritual lineage, which centers on the mandala of Padmasambhava, the eighth-century progenitor of Tibetan Buddhist tantric practice; she locates herself as an incarnation of Yeshé Tsogyel, his consort. According to legend, Padmasambhava brokered relationships with the pre-Buddhist Tibetan deities and, with Yeshé Tsogyel, propagated a form of tantric Buddhism that flourished in Tibet until the Chinese takeover of the 1950s. Khandro aligns her life with her spiritual progenitors by claiming to establish connections with beings both celestial and mundane.
In the introduction, Jacoby rejects the fallacy of understanding an autobiographical subject as an autonomous individual in favor of “an alternative register of relational selfhood” in which the subject comprises human communities, spiritual presences, and the natural environment (p. 13). She explains the diverse aspects of Khandro’s writings as being in relationship to each other. Reminding readers also that “there can be no sharp dividing line between life and the stories we tell about it,” Jacoby weaves insightful, lyrical commentary together with passages from the original texts—a tour de force in which “the ordinary and the extraordinary overlap” (pp. 15, 24). In chapter one, “The Life and Times of Sera Khandro,” Jacoby examines the bustling atmosphere of Lhasa at the turn of the twentieth century, looking for clues to understand Khandro’s social world. Jacoby’s account begins by catapulting readers into an expansive vision of the tantric Buddhist world of numinous buddhafields, myriad buddhas, bodhisattvas, and supernatural beings. Her birth is heralded by rainbow light, dancing vultures, the sound of a conch, and other auspicious signs of a reincarnate being—rare for a girl child. As an infant, she catches hold of a sunray. As a young girl, she spontaneously prays and recites mantras. At the age of seven, she reveals a sa gter (earth treasure) in the form of a ritual dagger embedded in a boulder. Her early years are marked by visionary...