The great female master Shugsep Jetsun Rinpoche (1852–1953) was revered as one of the last century’s best known woman teachers. She was the Abbess of Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet and passed away in 1953 at the age of 101.
Jetsun means “reverend” or “venerable”. She was also known as Lochen Chönyi Sangmo, as Ani Lochen (Ani means “nun”), and as Jetsun Rigdzin Chönyi Sangmo. Many consider her one of the most influential women in Tibetan spiritual history.
This great yogini was a recognized incarnation of Machig Labdrön, a renowned Tibetan Tantric yogini born in 1055. She was also an exemplary practitioner of Chöd, also known as “The Beggars Offering” or “Cutting Through the Ego.”
Many extraordinary stories are told of her remarkable abilities, such as the time on retreat when she left her body and “died” for a period of three weeks and visited the Copper Coloured Mountain Paradise of Guru Padmasambhava.
The late Tibetan scholar, Lobsang Lhalungpa, visited Shugsep Jetsun in the early 1940s at Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet and he wrote of her great spiritual beauty, even into old age. He said, “During my first two-week visit, I met with Jetsun Lochen for several hours a day, sometimes in the company of her main disciples. She was an extraordinary woman, small in stature, with a serene face radiating compassion and sensitivity. Only her white hair betrayed her age… In her presence we felt an awesome power that permeated our whole stream of being… Her teachings and blessings have given me inner strength and inspiration ever since. To me she was the personification of the great woman teachers of Tibet.”
THE LIFE OF SHUGSEP JETSUN
Shugsep Jetsun (Lochen Chönyi Sangmo) was born in Tso Pema, a village on a lake sacred to Padmasambhava in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, India. Her mother, Pema Dolma and her father Dundup Namgyal were pilgrims who had settled in Tso Pema for some time.
During her pregnancy, her mother experienced many wonderful dreams. In one she was standing by a crowd of women washing their hair in the stream. She suddenly looked up and saw, staring down at her, someone attired like the deity Heruka. She was convinced that her dreams were a sign that she was carrying a very special child. On the 15th day of the first month of the Wood Ox year (1852), Pemba Dorje gave birth to a female child whom she named Lochen. The delivery was painless accompanied by a slight earth tremor and a rain of flowers. Voices were heard reciting mantras and it is said that the child was born cross legged, her arms crossed across her chest in the gesture of holding a vajra and bell. Those who witnessed these events were filled with respect and awe. However, her father was very unimpressed and disappointed that the child was a girl. He treated her and her mother badly, eventually leaving them for another woman in Nepal.
When she was six years old, Lochen began to show her remarkable facility for understanding the Dharma and giving teachings. A patron encouraged her to travel from town to town explaining the meaning of stories concerning the Avalokiteshvara thangka that she would put up in the market place and stand on tiptoe to reach as she gave her discourse. People were so moved that tears would stream down their faces.
Lochen was very fond of saving animals from slaughter and would spend the money people gave her for her teachings on buying and rescuing sheep and goats. She traveled throughout the Western region of Tibet riding a large goat that was so tame that it would get down on its knees so that she could mount it easily. It is said that wherever she and her mother traveled they were helped by the protectors. In one dangerous place full of wild animals where they could find no water, she spotted a raven, the embodiment of Palden Lhamo, flying above them, which directed them to a spring where they could quench their thirst.
When Lochen first heard the name of Pema Gyatso, the lama who was to become her teacher or root Guru, she was filled with great emotion and determined to find him. She traveled for several months from Tso Pema to Kyirong (West Tibet) in search of him. Eventually she met a nun called Ani Tsultrim who was drawing water from a stream. Through this auspicious meeting she reached the lama’s cave where she made him an offering of a vessel of milk. It is said that the result of this was that many years later she was offered a cow for her nunnery at Shugsep Nunnery. Though it bore no calf for eight years it produced milk continuously. Pema Gyatso said that if she would be prepared to accept the aesthetic precepts known as the Ten Innermost Jewels of the Kadam then he would be prepared to accept her as his disciple. She accepted and he explained the Six Cause and One Result method of achieving the altruistic mind of enlightenment.
She stayed with Ani Tsultrim for a few days until she was joined by her mother and built a hermitage in a cave screened with bamboo. From Pema Gyatso she received the transmission of Kunsang Lama along with all the transmissions and empowerments of Longchenpa, the Heart Essence Instruction of the Dzogchen or The Great Completion as well as the 100 Initiations of Chö. People showed great respect and generosity to Lochen which caused one monk who lived nearby to feel jealous of her popularity. He went to Pema Gyatso and turned him against her by telling him that Lochen was boasting that she was an emanation of Dorje Pagmo (or Vajravarahi, a form of Vajrayogini). When she next visited her Guru with an offering he was angry and grabbed it, climbed up onto the roof of the nunnery and flung it down along with his boots. Though Lochen was hurt she crouched down to pick up the boots and placed them on her head as a mark of respect. After this incident she continued to attend her master’s teachings even though he ignored her.
Her difficulties in that community continued until the lama ordered her to leave and go to Nepal. While there an attendant of the local king heard her singing about her lama. He misinterpreted her song as a criticism of his master who sent out an emissary to punish her. Instead of her they found one of her two friends, Tsering Gyalmo and locked her in prison. After fruitless attempts to get her released, Lochen and her other friend, Kandro went out begging for tsampa. On their way they were crossing a rope bridge across a river when one of cables snapped and Kandro fell straight into the torrent below. Lochen prayed to her Lama and meditated on the vase like wind and wishing that all sentient beings be free from cyclic existence, jumped into the water. She landed near Kandro who was struggling for breath and managed to pull her onto a large rock. The local people who had been watching from the riverbank concluded that she must be a Dakini and reported what happened to the king. He was impressed and, regretting his action, released Tsering Gyalmo. He asked Lochen for religious instruction and offered her many gifts.
Soon after this Lochen and her friends decided to return to the Nunnery hoping that Pema Gyatso’s anger would have abated. Lochen knew that despite the ill treatment she had received from him her faith in her Lama had remained intact and she was more willing to face his anger than to stay away. When she arrived she prostrated to him and he was pleased to accept her back. Following this, Lochen accompanied Pema Gyatso and other disciples on pilgrimage in Western Tibet. Later they again went to Nepal and visited many other holy sites in Tibet. While they were in Lhasa they met Lama Kyabdon Dharma Sengye who lived in retreat. Together with him they had an audience with the 13th Dalai Lama. They offered him a mandala and he gave them transmission of the Hundred Deities of the Land of Joy (Ganden Lha Gya Ma) and the teaching on the prayer to Je Tsong Kha Pa. Following this she performed Chö fire offering in the cremation ground and slept there.
One day Pema Gyatso became ill after eating pork in a patron’s house. Despite all her efforts he never recovered. When he passed away she saw rainbows over his head. After her lama’s death Lochen ceased wandering and settled down spending the winter in a cave at Sangyey Dak and the summer at Shugsep which became her nunnery. According to Samnye Rinpoche she had more than 500 disciples, most of whom were nuns but at least 40 or 50 were monks. She taught the Bodhisattvas Way of Life 100 times to her disciples and spent the rest of her time in retreat meditating on her personal deity. One day, while she was meditating she heard the yelp of an animal. A dog trembling with fear rushed into her cave and took refuge on her lap swiftly followed by a leopard which thrust in it’s head into her cell and was about to pounce on the dog. Lochen firmly meditated for a few moments on great compassion, then she gestured to the leopard to sit, knowing there was no need for fear because all phenomena are illusions.
It is said that while in 6-month retreat in the Sangyey cave, Lochen passed away for three weeks. The shock of returning to life made her suddenly remember her lama and renewed her faith in him. On another occasion she reached such a state of meditation that she visited the pure lands and other realms before returning to her body. During her retreats she had many extraordinary experiences that caused her mother to feel that she needed the constant direction of a lama, so, just before she died, she left her in the care of Samney Thopden Rinpoche at Shugsep. A little later Lochen again fell ill for one night during which time she experienced the appearance of 100 peaceful and wrathful deities.
Once, while she was in retreat, a disciple named Tenzin Yeshe came to her to perform self-initiation after completing a retreat meditation on Avalokiteshvara, Although the cave had walls, he could only feel empty space and walked through them. While performing the self-initiation he saw Shugsep Jetsunma in the form of Avalokiteshvara with 1000 arms. One of her disciples always saw a white man accompanying her wherever she went. She finally told Shugsep Jetsunma who had no idea who it was. Suddenly the white man appeared to her. She was surprised and asked who he was. He replied, “Don’t you know me? I have been with you all these years like a servant helping you accomplish your good deeds.” Shugsep Jetsunma realized she was speaking to Tamchen, one of her protectors.
In the latter part of her life Shugsep Jetsun attracted a number of special disciples. In 1938 Reting Rinpoche expressed a desire to meet her. Because she was old and frail she would have to be carried on someone’s back but as they were preparing he himself came to her cave to meet her.
The official manager of the Great Prayer Festival, Dorje Dandul and his wife also visited her. They left their jobs and took teachings from her, gradually achieving high realizations. The 16th Karmapa visited her and requested her to give her the long life initiation since she a real Chö practitioner. She replied, “If you want to realise immortality you must realise the deathless nature of your mind.” She gave him the White Tara Initiation and asked him to perform the Black Hat ceremony three times. She was also visited by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s father and Sera Kelda Tulku and they offered tsok together.
Lochen Chönyi Sangmo spent many years of her life on pilgrimage throughout the Himalayas and spent time at the holy sites in Lhasa. According to her biographers, “When she arrived at Ganden monastery wearing her thin cotton robe, many of the monks, having heard that a yogini had come, crowded round to see her, staring and whispering to each other. She sang the following verses to them:
Father, revered guru Pema Gyatso
Acharya in Sanskrit and Naljorpa (yogi) in Tibetan
I prostrate to you, who have realized the true nature of the mind
When I arrived at Ganden monastery,
Hearing that there was a yogini,
Many gathered in crowds to stare at me.
I examined myself (to see) whether I was a yogini or not
And it seems you are right (in implying I am not).
The white yogi is Padmasambhava
Who taught the entire doctrine of sutra and tantra,
The white yogi is Tsogyal (Padmasambhava’s consort)
I am just a beggar who is only their follower.
Atisha was the multicoloured yogi
Who has spread the Dharma wide in India and Tibet
And from whom emerged the new and old traditions of Kadam.
The mother Tara is the many coloured yogini,
I am just a beggar who has received her blessing.
The black yogi is the father Dampa,
Who taught the doctrines of peace and of Chöd.
I cut off the self-grasping consciousness and realized emptiness.
The black yogini is mother Labdron
Ugly though I am, I preserve her doctrine
All that I hear, see and feel
Are the blessings of three yogis.
May I be the liberator of all mother sentient beings
And may the Dharma shine like the sun.
People who visited her at Shugsep remember a very small woman, they say she became smaller and smaller as she grew older, who could no longer walk at the end of her life. Whoever attended prayers at her nunnery say everyone was welcome whether they be laymen, women, children; all were entitled to a share of the offerings.
Shugsep Nunnery has been re-established in India by the Tibetan Nuns Project. If you would like to sponsor a nun at Shugsep or support the nunnery, please visit their website.
A full story of Shugsep Jetsun’s life is available as “The Story of a Tibetan Yogini: Shungsep Jetsun 1852-1953” prepared by Kim Yeshi and Acharya Tashi Tsering with the assistance of Sally Davenport and Dorjey Tseten, pp. 130-143, Chö Yang, 1991. The above story is an abbreviated version. One final note: there is a bit of inconsistency about her age at death; some reports say that she was 103 but the years of her life given in the Chö Yang article are 1852-1953 which would make her 101 when she passed.