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757 – 817, Tibet
Yeshe Tsogyal, whose name means “Ocean of Primordial Wisdom,” is considered to be the mother of Tibetan Buddhism. She is best known for her role as consort and biographer of Padmasambhava (Lotus-Born), the Vajrayana Buddhist guru who is credited with bringing Buddhism from India to Tibet. This great woman, however, deserves to be recognized for her own profound spiritual attainments. In addition to being a historical figure, Yeshe Tsogyal’s story has been mythologized over the centuries and she has assumed the status of a deity, the Queen of Great Bliss.
In the mundane world, Yeshe Tsogyal was the young wife of Emperor Trisong Detsen, who invited Padmasambhava to teach and build monasteries in Tibet. However, she had no interest in married life in the emperor’s harem, and sought only spiritual wealth and experiences. When Yeshe Tsogyal became the student and tantric consort of the Indian spiritual teacher, quite a scandal erupted at the emperor’s court, and she was forced into exile.
Throughout her life, Yeshe Tsogyal wandered and performed advanced spiritual practices in many caves and monasteries throughout Tibet and Nepal. Her attainments and spiritual prowess were legendary, nothing short of miraculous. She is credited with raising the dead, defeating demons, and controlling the elements of nature and the energies of millions of gross and subtle worlds. Yeshe Tsoygal’s wisdom and compassion were reputed to be beyond compare. As an eighth-century woman and spiritual adept in an era when women were not highly valued in society or in religious endeavors, she is quite remarkable. This great teacher served as a model for a host of later yoginis, including some of her own future incarnations.
Known for in infallible memory, Yeshe Tsogyal collected and spread the teachings of Padmasambhava throughout Tibet. She also preserved and interred them securely for future generations of spiritual aspirants in hidden mystical emplacements known as termas (treasures), to be re-discovered hundreds of years later by special treasure finders known as tertons. Indeed, her own autobiography was found as a terma in the sixteenth century by the terton Taksham Nuden Dorje.
Whether woman or diety, Yeshe Tsogyal left a remarkable legacy of marvels that are unparalleled today, but worthy of emulation by those aspirants, women and men, who wish to discover the secret treasures of Tibetan Buddhism.
Hui-Neng is one of the most beloved teachers in Zen Buddhism and exemplifies that neither wealth nor formal education is a prerequisite for enlightenment. He was the last in a line of founding teachers in the Zen tradition and served as inspiration for the Southern School of Zen. The title of sutra (scripture) given to the documents of Hui-Neng’s life and teachings, traditionally reserved for the Buddha himself, give evidence to the high degree of respect accorded this woodcutter turned enlightened master.
The T’ang dynasty, considered by many to be the culmination of Chinese culture, provided the backdrop for Hui-Neng’s life. During this era tremendous progress was made in the development of Chinese Buddhist teachings and writings. Legend has it that at the moment of Hui-Neng’s birth, in Chou of Kwangtung, beams of light illuminated the air and the room was blanketed with an unusual fragrance. At dawn, two mysterious monks are said to have paid a visit to the newborn’s father, instructing him to give his child the auspicious name of Hui-Neng. His childhood was that of a simple, uneducated peasant. An illiterate woodcutter, Hui-Neng was said to have attained enlightenment (as told in the accompanying selection) in a momentary flash. His teachings provide immediate and direct insights regarding the nature of awareness at its very essence.
As a result of his sudden enlightenment while still a young man, Hui-Neng inherited the title of Grand Master of Zen. That a simple man lacking name, fame, and riches was chosen for this appointment over others far more learned and influential was a threat to the old guard. Persecuted by those who were envious of his attainment, Hui-Neng fled to the mountains. He did not reappear until his middle-age years, at which time he resumed his mission of spreading the knowledge of Zen to the masses. His mode of expression was simple and to the point, placing the wisdom of Zen within the reach of man who would have otherwise been excluded from such teachings. The disciples of Nui-Neng were many, including common folk and Confucian scholars alike. It was not uncommon for him to offer teachings to over a thousand scholars, officials, monks, nuns, and laypeople at a time.
Instructing students and disciples to seek equanimity and understanding of the true or essential nature, Hui-Neng cautioned against stagnation. He emphasized humility rather than self-aggrandizement, detached from thoughts, and remaining true to one’s essential nature. Shaving one’s head and receiving ordination as monks and nuns was fruitless without evenness of the mind and recognition of the Pure Land within the body. Rebirth without enlightenment, he counseled, is a long road. Better, he taught, to realize the “birthless reality of immediacy.”
Hui-Neng had a tremendous impact on revitalizing the quiet asceticism of his own Buddhist section and on the spread of Zen in China. His successors were numerous, and countless thoughtful students continue to benefit from his teachings.
One might say that the Buddha needs no introduction, as he is undoubtedly the most famous of all the enlightened ones. Yet his story remains an enduring classic and model of the spiritual search and its successful completion.
The pampered prince, Siddhartha, had a beautiful wife and son, dancing girls, sumptuous food, and three palaces for his own use, and was completely sheltered from the world. One day he left the palace surreptitiously and witnessed for the first time in his life, disease, suffering, old age, and death. This led the prince to renounce his worldly treasures and family to find Truth and a release from suffering for himself and all sentient beings. For six years he pursued ascetic practices in the forest, reducing himself through meditation and fasting to a mere skeleton, at the point of death. At the last moment, he accepted rice milk from a cowherd girl and was revived. Abandoning the ascetic life of the forest for the middle path between indulgence and asceticism, he nevertheless vowed not to move from his meditation seat beneath the Bodhi tree until he reached enlightenment. Defeating Mara, the incarnation of ignorance and evil, all of his past lives appeared before his eyes, and he fell deeply into contemplation of the nature of life and suffering. He sought the transcend birth, suffering, and death. And he succeeded, ultimately attaining the perfect peace of Nirvana. He was absolutely free, liberated while alive.
By means of the exalted state, the Buddha went on to acquire disciples, found an order of monks that persists today, and spread great wisdom and compassion throughout Asia and beyond. Over the past 2,500 years, the Buddha’s story and example have inspired countless others to dedicate their entire lives and renounce all the aspects of worldly life to attain Nirvana for the benefit of everyone. Even those who have not yet given up the world have been deeply affected by the Buddha’s insights, compassion, and teachings. The Buddhist concepts of the middle path, the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the bodhisattva ideal, and the ultimate release from the sufferings of countless human lifetimes have captivated entire cultures. Throughout Asia, Buddhism is deeply engrained in the fabric of society and forms a primary basis for religious expression. Buddhists throughout the world form what is known as the Sangha, or community of those following the Buddha’s example.
The Dharma, as Buddhist teaching is called, has become increasingly popular in the past fifty years in the West as well, as the great diaspora of Buddhist teachers has captivated new generations of spiritual seekers looking beyond their own cultures for Truth. The Buddha did not set out to found a religion and did not even have a concept of God in his teaching. His only mission was to share the truth of his experience, to enlighten others as he had been enlightened, and to save others from the fear and sufferings of old age, sickness, and death. He wandered and taught for forty-five years, giving instruction even on his deathbed, to guide seekers to self-realization. With his dying breath he instructed those by his bedside: “Decay is inherent in all component things, but the truth will remain forever. Work out your salvation with diligence!” His compassion was unbounded, his wisdom supreme.
The Buddha’s story was originally oral history told to his disciple Ananda, approximately 2,500 years ago, and recorded in various sources including the Pali Canon, the Lalitavishtara Sutra, and the Buddhacharita.