WomanMind: A-Yu Khandro - The Story of a Saint
Like many students of Vajrayana Buddhism, I would like to think of myself as a practitioner. I'm familiar with the preliminary practices and have done some retreats. I try to arrange my life to accommodate my activities with the Dharma center, often an effort. In an attempt to satisfy my longing for practice, I view my daily life as the arena for practical application, with varying degrees of success. What with the on-going squeeze of the world and my added little twist, just to stay afloat in the ocean of samsara seems daunting. Sometimes to distract myself, I imagine the life of a hermit, dream of a future radically different from what I now experience, and this time I take refuge in the story of a saint from Tibet.
A-Yu Khandro was born in 1839 on Dakini Day and was named Dechen Khandro, Dakini of Great Bliss, by a local yogi who was present at her birth. When she related her biography to Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche in 1951, she had spent almost one-hundred years practicing the chöd of Machig Lapdron, a tradition that remains intact and is in practice to this day. From the ages of 7-18, A-Yu Khandro lived in a cave assisting her aunt's meditation practice. Although she was forced to marry by her family, within five years she was suffering from an illness and was close to death, the result of her blocked longing to dedicate her life to sincere practice. Released from the marriage, she began to practice. Throughout her youth and mid-life, she received instruction and initiations from many enlightened teachers such as Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche and Jamyang Kongtrul. In 1869 she received the Nyingtig Yab Shi, a very powerful cycle of dzogchen empowerments. At the age of 32, she and her companion set off as beggars, their only possessions being chöd drums and two sticks. In addition to many pilgrimages and retreats, she spent over three years practicing in caves and sacred places on Mount Kailash. At age 40 she spent three months in a cemetery that had been the home of Machig Lapdron herself.
I can view A-Yu Khandro's life either in comparison with mine or as an inspiration, and I seem to alternate between the two, depending upon my current degree of discouragement with worldly affairs. Like myself, this great yogini lived her life in relative obscurity. As well, through her good fortune, she spent many years living as an independent woman, although her freedoms far exceeded any that a member of ordinary society could enjoy. Like myself, she received the most profound teachings from the great masters of her day and found her spiritual path in the practice of chöd. This is where the similarities end.
Now, on the edge of the turn of the century in America, her life roaming the cemeteries and caves of Tibet and practicing in extensive retreats seems a fantastic legend, until one understands that she was liberated at death four years before I was born in 1957. Her lifelong friend and traveling companion, Pema Yangkyi, achieved rainbow body. These women were contemporary yoginis and left this world as the Chinese Communists invaded Tibet. For me, these facts and dates bring the wild stories of the great practitioners much closer, they become real. I then think, "If only I had such opportunities! Without the support of a Buddhist culture and entrapped by my many responsibilities, I may never find the right circumstances to truly apply myself to practice." And with this defeated view, I am more easily distracted, and my determination wavers.
However, while reading A-Yu Khandro's biography, I came across a passage wherein she described receiving an empowerment as a teen. One of her statements jumped out into me, "Although I had no understanding of the teaching really, I had much faith." This I believe I may have, this seed from which a great lotus flower can bloom. This is the ground of my practice, the field. As we sit together in the mud, it is this faith that supports us, helps us to support each other and inspires us to persistence, that leads us to the cushion and encourages us to examine our motivation and conduct. The questions is, "Will I turn my mind from ordinary thinking to the view of Dharma?" Will I offer myself, purify m y attachment and self-centeredness and instead protect and support the peace and well-being of others? How can I be in this world while renouncing the causes of suffering? I must take the greatly endowed life of a pure yogini and translate it into the small life of a single mother with two jobs and a rented apartment. In our various lives, the challenge before us is the same: to practice for the benefit of others in activities that take place in our homes, our Dharma centers, our communities and on the cushion.
What a blessing that we have each other and our precious teachers to encourage and inspire us to this great path, as we see the fruition of our efforts, all begun in the seed of faith.