Biography Of Machik Labdrön

Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Chelsea Hall > Biography Of Machik Labdrön

Biography Of Machik Labdrön from the Tibetan Renaissance Seminar

Contributor(s): Chelsea Hall, Ben Deitle (see his bio sketch linked below).

TBRC IDPerson RID: P3312
Wylie namema gcig labs kyi sgron ma
Name etymologyMa gcig = Great Mother, labs = family name, sgron ma = lamp or light; altogether = Great Mother, Light of Labs region
Naming historyVajradakini, Great Timeless Wisdom, Vajra Tamer of Devils, Queen of Vajra Space (Dorje Yingchukma)
Person typereligious: nun/yogini
Ethnicitybod pa
Summary (1 paragraph)(see below)
Longer description(see below)
Birth date (Tibetan)?
Birth date (international)1055 (although Martin disputes the veracity of such firm dates)
Birth place (Tibetan)tso mer village, tam shod region, ei gang ba of labs chi
Death date (Tibetan)?
Death date (international)1153
Death place 
Spheres of activityla stod, zangs ri, chi pug
SectMahamudra - Chö
References (reference, page/line, passage)Blue Annals R 983 - R 984

Importance to the Renaissance Period

Lineage of Chö

In her 95 years Machik is said to have "filled the country of Tibet with the hidden precepts of Chö (gcod)" (Blue Annals, R 984). This practice is sometimes spoken of as its own sect but has been incorporated into many of the major monastic lineages, including that of Ganden. The practice of Chö involves visualization of offering the body to demons and ghosts, mostly in haunted areas. The practices of Tümmo (gtum mo), or internal heat yoga, and Phowa ('pho ba) or transference of consciousness are central to the practice of Chö. It has even been suggested that the practice of Chö influenced the adoption of the practice of sky-burial because of its associations with cemetaries and corpses, not to mention the ritual implements and the action of severing.

Teachers and Teachings

  • Drapa Ngönshechen
    • the ritual empowerment for the resolve of awakening mind
    • the vows of a lay pracitioner and bodhisattva vows
  • Dampa Sangyé
    • instruction in the profound meaning of the fourfold empowerment through profound absorption
    • the Reality Empowerment Conferred on Mind
    • the advice about the level of warmth
    • the direct introduction to Opening the Door to the Sky (including complete transference of consciousness)
    • Pacification (zhi byed)
    • instructions on the Six Feasts of Chö
    • three cycles of hung practice in Pacification
    • the Red Guide (dmar khrid)
    • practice of p'e
    • the symbolic teachings of Utpala
    • Mahamaya, Lady with Two Faces
    • the Profound Path of Guru Yoga of the Precept Lineage
    • instructions on the transference of entering a corpse from "The Crucial Point of Drawing Up Energy-Mind to Enter the Excellent Path"
    • the subtle-drop esoteric instruction that teaches the simultaneous cultivation of illusory body, dream, and intermediate state practices
    • the esoteric instructions of the "Seal that Severs Illusion", including the eight instructions on practicing Chö in one sitting using the great charnel grounds as visualization objects
    • the blessing empowerment of the Great Mother with her entourage and its sadhana
    • the esoteric instructions of the exceptional profound instruction
    • the way to use the energy/wind (rlung) through physical exercises
  • Kyotön Sönam Drakpa
    • the heart practice of the Five Deities of Varahi
    • Highest Secret Yoga Mantra
    • textual transmissions that empower explanation, composition, and debate
    • the secret name Queen of Vajra Space (rdo rje dbyings phyug ma)
  • Lama Shamarpa (shung bu zhva dmar can)
    • the Five Dharma Cycles of Maitreya
    • the teachings on bodhicitta and on translation.
  • Lama Betön (sbas ston) - from whom she received:
    • the precepts of the Great Completion
    • accomplished reaching the level of warmth.
  • Lama Yartingpa
    • the teaching cycles of the Mahamudra Symbols (probably referring to the teachings of Dampa Sangye on the symbols of Mahamudra)
    • the Six Yogas of Naropa (the yogas of heat, clear light, illusory body, intermediate state, transference of consciousness, and dream)
    • the Exalted Lady
    • the Six Branch Unions of the Kalacakra
    • the Spiritual Songs (doha)
    • the action yoga (kriya).
  • Phamtingpa
    • Abhidharma
    • Trilogy of the Stainless Mirror from the Aural Transmission of Mahamudra

Machik's Teachings

  • Secret Mantra Udumwara - Essential Drop Mirror
  • Supressing the Five Poisons and Nagas - Transforming Buddhas of the Ten Directions
  • The Heart Essence Dispelling the Darkness of Ignorance - Hundred Empowerments of the Transforming Dakinis of the Mother Lineage


  • Mother: Bumcham
  • Father: Chökyi Dawa
  • Sister: Töntso
  • Elder Brother: Shakya Gyeltsen ( a scholar of Tripitaka and monastic, he practiced Secret Mantra)
  • Younger Brother: Palö Tridey (took over as head of clan after father's death)


  • The four Gyenmas (rgyan = ornament) were Machik's spiritual daughters.
  • Her son Tönyön Samdrup was the holder of her lineage and was ordained by Dampa Sangyé.
  • " Machik had a vast number of disciples. They came from Amdo, Central Tibet, and Kham: everyone from important lamas with parasols, to geshes and monks, to the popular kings, ministers, chiefs, queens, and even Mongols, to nuns and lay men and women, even down to lepers and beggars…People even came from Nepal to meet her. The reputation of her merit and teachings became known even in India." (Harding, 92)


  • The Prajñaparamita sutras emphasize non-self, compassion, and prajña (penetrating insight). They are the textual basis for the realizations that Machik Labdrön achieved while reciting.
  • A quote from the Prajñāpāramitāsangcayagāthā which is said to have inspired Machik during her readings:
    • “A Bodhisattva endowed with the power of learning (mkhas stobs ldan) cannot be overcome or shaken by four demons, because of four reasons: because he abides in the Void (stong par gnas pa), because he has not abandoned living beings, because he acts according to his word, and because he is endowed with the blessing of the shūnyatā.”
  • It also treats the end result of the union of emptiness and compassion as a non-dualistic state that cannot be described by words, much less cognized by ordinary beings.

Propitious Prophecies

  • From the mDo sde dang snyings 'byed pa (The Sutra Distinguishing the Pure and the Dregs):
    • "When conflict arises in dengenerate times, in the Land of Snows to the north, Machig Labdrön, a manifestation of Mother Prajñaparamita, will appear."
  • From the Manjusrimulatantra or in Tibetan the 'Jam dpal rtsa brgyud (Root Tantra of Manjusri):
    • "During degenerate times of my teachings, in the city of Lab to the north, there will appear a manifestation of Buddha's wisdom teachings. Called by the name of Drönma, her teachings will flourish as she wanders in the mountains, caves, cemetaries, towns and cities and their outskirts, expounding the meaning of Emptiness."
  • From Lama Drapa:
    • "You should go down to Central Tibet. There is a red mountain the color of copper where you will help many beings who are to be tamed." (Harding 83)
  • From Lama Dampa:
    • "The lama prophesied that she would subjugate 108 haunted places and that disciples would gather at Copper Mountain" (Harding 84)

Account of the Life of Machik Labdrön According to the Ganden Tradition

  • She was born in Khéügang (khe'u gang), although in her Complete Explanation the region is listed as "Tsomer in lower Tamshod in Ei Gangwa of Lapchi". Her father's name was Chökyi Dawa (chös kyi zla ba) and mother's name was Klungno Bumcham (klungs tno 'bum lcam).
  • She received ordination from Drapa Ngonshé (gra pa mngon shes).
  • She spent four years reciting the short, medium, and long texts of the Prajñaparamita for Trapa, and as a result obtained a clear vision of the Void, an important factor in the practice of Chöd.
  • Later she acted as reader at Damba ('dam ba), continuing to read Prajñaparamita.
  • She met Thöpa Ware (thod pa 'ba' re) who became the father of her five children.
  • She was subjected to harsh criticism for breaking her monastic vows, although she later shaved her head and became a nun once again.
  • She spent the rest of her life after re-ordination wandering and gathering disciples, and spent a long sojourn in the cave at Zangri Khenmar (zangs ri khan dmar).
  • The modern account of her life that has survived through the narrative of the lineage of Chö at Ganden monastery:
    • "She was an emanation of Great Mother Prajñaparamita, Dakini Sukhasiddhi, and Tara. This female enlightened being was a very extraordinary woman. In her previous life she was an Indian yogi. He was encouraged by his yidam to go to Tibet but did not go immediately, spending periods of retreat in Bodh Gaya. He passed away without going to Tibet and, in his next life, was born as Machig Labkyi Drölma in Tibet. Machig means "Great Mother," Lab was her family name, and Drölma means "Tara". Some of the melodies used in this Chö system are those composed by Machig Labdrön herself, particularly the section of the body being cut up. This melody was inspired by the sound of flapping wings of vultures arriving for a "sky-burial"."

Her Life and Activities According to Modern Scholarship in the Translation of Machik's Complete Explanation

Machik Labdrön is perhaps the most famous female saint in Tibetan Buddhism. Rather than being known as such because of acting as a consort, as most women in Tibet who are recorded in history are remembered for, she is further distinguished by the body of teachings known as Chö that are traced back to India. She also originated a number of practices, teachings, and explanations that have been extremely important to many lineages besides the Chö teachings. It is not clear, historically, whether she developed these teachings herself (through visions of Tara) or whether they are a hybrid (Indian) product of her teacher's instructions and her own experience. Regardless, it is believed that the melodies chanted during Chö rituals stem from the compositions of Machik herself and were passed down through the lineage of teachers to the present times. Machik Labdrön was a professional reciter of the collection of Prajñaparamita sutras for four years beginning at age 16 for Lama Drapa, having bested his former reciter in a competition. It was at this time that she met her two major teachers, Dampa Sangyé and Sönam Drakpa. Sönam Drakpa instructed her in the difference between understanding the meaning and internalizing the meaning through experience, which was to become a central theme in her system of philosophy. She meditated and gained the internal realization of the meaning and completely cut through the attachment to ego. She wandered as a yogini until she was 20 years old, journeying from her relatives' land to the region where she taught, Yoru Dratang. She requested initiation from Lama Drapa, who denied that he could perform it and instructed her to ask Sönam Drakpa instead. He initiated (ngo sprad) her into the four empowerments of the sutra tradition and the empowerment of Mahamaya from the lineage of Dampa Sangyé as well as "Opening the Door to the Sky." During her initiation she flew through the wall to encounter some naga-s (demons), whom she subdued by casting out her body as food, Then the demons pledged to protect her teachings. Further, she was initiated by the five Mahamayas, the five Trömas, Cakrasamvara and a host of dakinis, the Great Mother, and finally Tara gave her the one hundred empowerments of the Tantra of the Heart's Essence that Clears Away the Darkness of Ignorance, which is one of the original Chö texts.

Analysis of Traditional Account

From Life in India as a Man to Rebirth as a Woman in Tibet

The account of her rebirths is interesting, because although it emphasizes her enlightenment in female form, it follows with an account of her previous lives as a male, which are apparently more important to the later traditions that follow from her lineage. However, it is also notable that this Indian man has chosen to be born as a woman in order to teach the Prajnaparamita, perhaps because of its associations with the Great Mother. This is also intended to justify the supposedly Indic origins of the practice of Chö, as these previous incarnations' activities were said to take place in India. Even though the tradition looks to her previous male incarnations for support, her identification with the female goddesses Prajñaparamita, Dakini Sukhasiddhi, and Tara leads one to believe that they found this pedigree highly validating and were not attempting to efface her feminine identity entirely. However, one should note that the mere figure of a woman does not seem to be sufficient, given her identification with previous male incarnations and otherworldly goddesses.

Lay vs. Monastic

Several events in her life can be taken as representative accounts of the treatment of powerful women at this time, revealed through the reactions of society. She was castigated for renouncing her monastic vows, marrying and having children. Although it was common enough for monks to renounce their vows in favor of the householder life or even temporarily for the sake of certain ritual performances, apparently it was socially perceived as different for a nun to renounce and adopt lay practices. However, it is unclear from the account of her life in her "Complete Explanation" that she ever took monastic vows, although she took the lay vows. Her relationship with Töpa Bhadra was mediated by several factors, including the encouragement of her teachers that she practice with him in order to benefit sentient beings, due to their karmic connection. In fact, in one instance she was encouraged by Sönam Lama in her relationship with Töpa Bhadra with the words, "You are not a nun, and Bhadraya is not a bad person, so there is no problem. Your family lineage will increase. You should stay with Bhadraya and it will create the karma and interdependent connections to bring vast benefit to sentient beings for a very long time. In fact, last night I had an excellent dream about it" (Harding, 80). There were also many times when deities such as Tara appeared to her, advising her that she should perform the union of means and wisdom with Töpa Bhadra. In the retelling of their first encounter, much is glamorized and given new symbolic meaning. Their first union generated such incredible heat and bliss that everyone in the house thought that it was on fire, and upon examination of the source of the conflagration it was discovered that the two had dissolved into rainbow light surrounding a red and a white moon, symbolic of the union of male and female as method and wisdom. After that night, Machik faced criticism for being "seduced" but is repeatedly told by her teachers that their union is blessed and not subject to such judgments. She composed the following verse in response to her critics:

"Vulgar prophecies are the devils' deceptions.

Sexual friendship is to befriend the devil of adverse circumstance.

Even the patroness comes in chased by the demon of shame.

How can this possibly help sentient beings?"

"People used to abuse her by calling her a 'nun who had violated her vows' (‘jo mo bka logma) ." (Blue Annals, R 984) She was also harshly criticized for leaving an initiation too early. However, the teacher came to her defense, having understood that she had obtained the yogic insight and thereby obviated the need to complete the ritual. All of these incidents and the advice of her teachers coalesce to form significant rationalizations for her actions, which were evidently counter to certain social norms. While it is not clear whether she was ever a nun, or whether she therefore truly broke her vows, it is clear that her own tradition emphasizes the sanctioned nature of this union, while outsiders (as represented by the quotations from the Blue Annals) preferred to emphasize her apparent disregard for tradition by accusing her of breaking nuns' vows and not respecting the teacher by leaving an initiation. It seems clear, too, that she was viewed with such a measure of cynosure precisely because of the fact that she was a powerful woman and she could disregard these rules.

Summary of Modern Scholarship


  • Title:The Oral Instructions of Kyabje Zong Rinpoche: Chöd in the Ganden Tradition (used for small traditional bio sketch)
  • Author: Kyabje Zong Rinpoche
  • Language: English
  • Publisher location: New York
  • Publisher: Snow Lion
  • Publication year: 2006
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  • Title: Machik's Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chöd
  • Author: Machig Labdrön
  • Translator/Editor: Sarah Harding
  • Language: English
  • Publisher location: New York
  • Publisher: Snow Lion
  • Publication year: 2003
  • Composition year: @ 1300
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  • Title: The Blue Annals
  • Author: Roerich
  • Language: English
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  • Title: 'The Woman Illusion? Research into the Lives of Spiritually Accomplished Women Leaders of the 11th an 12th Centuries' in Women in Tibet.
  • Author: Dan Martin
  • Language: English
  • Publisher location: New York
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication year: 2005
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