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Sonam Peldren

ISSN 2332-077X

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Sonam Peldren b.1268/1328 - d.1312/1372

Name Variants: Gego

Peer reviewed



Sonam Peldren (bsod nam dpal 'dren) was born on the seventeenth day of the tenth month of the earth male-dragon year (either 1268 or 1328). Her mother was named Nezang Chotso (gnas bzang chos mtsho); her father was named Yondak Ngoli (yon bdag sngo li) and was a descendent of the Tong (stong) clan. She was born in a place called Tashipa Janggyab (bkra shis pa byang rgyab) in Dam Sho ('dam shod), in the Nol (snol) district of U (dbus), near the Nyenchen Tanglha mountain range (gnyen chen thang lha). Her birth name was Gego (ge god); sometime after her marriage at age seventeen she was renamed Sonam Peldren. She was the youngest of four children: she had two elder brothers named Azang (a 'zang) and Kunchog Gyab (dkon mchog skyabs), and one elder sister named Chokyi (chos skyid.)

Little is known of the years between Sonam Peldren's birth and her marriage at age sixteen other than that her mother passed away, her father remarried, and that she was a calm child liked by all. When Sonam Peldren was seventeen years old, her father arranged her marriage, choosing from among three available suitors: Chakdor Kyab (phyag dor skyabs), described simply as a nomad from Kham, and who is more commonly known by the name Rinchen Pel; Ga Yar ('ga' yar), also described only as a nomad from Kham; and Pelek (dpal legs), described as the chief scribe (dpon yig) from a wealthy local family in central Tibet. Sonam Peldren's father, with the strong approval of his wife and extended family, betrothed Sonam Peldren to the scribe Pelek.

Sonam Peldren, however, refused to marry the groom of her family's choice, and instead insisted that she marry Rinchen Pel, claiming that her union with Rinchen Pel was karmically predestined. Sonam Peldren's father, step-mother, sister, brothers, and several other relatives questioned Sonam Peldren's refusal to marry a wealthy man from central Tibet to marry instead a landless man from the "miserable region" (sdugs sa, sic) of Kham. Sonam Peldren's fiancé himself was appalled by the adamant refusal of his betrothed to follow her father's wishes, and eventually withdrew his offer of marriage. Sonam Peldren's family reluctantly returned the gifts received from the scribe and his family; after Rinchen Pel supplied his own gifts, the two were considered married. Following her death it was Rinchen Pel who would promote her teachings and visions, in part with a written narrative of her life.

The biography of Sonam Peldren records only general stories about the events in Sonam Peldren's life between her marriage at age sixteen and the final months of her life before her death at age forty-four. Sonam Peldren lived as a nomad and traveled with her husband and fellow nomads, first in the central Tibetan region of U-Tsang (dbus gtsang) until she was thirty years old, and then in the "eight valley" region (brgyad shod) of eastern Tibet until her death. Sonam Peldren and Rinchen Pel had four children: two sons named Sonam Dondrub (bsod nams don 'grub) and Tsukdor Gyab (gtsug tor skyabs) and two daughters named Gumril or Gumrim (gum ril/m) and Sonam Kyi (bsod nams skyid) The birth order of these children, and Sonam Peldren's age at their birth, is not known.

These years of travel are described in the biography as punctuated by Sonam Peldren's miracles and acts of generosity. For example, her biography recounts that Sonam Peldren gave nearly all of her clothing to beggars, opting to live in a simple cotton piece of clothing without shoes; it was said that while other members of her group developed frostbite underneath their thick clothing, Sonam Peldren, barefoot and wearing only a cotton tunic, walked unimpeded through the snow, melting it with her feet.  

Other examples of miracles attributed to Sonam Peldren include the following: when traveling over a snowy mountain pass, she dug a tunnel through the snow covering the mountain pass and traveled straight through to the other side, shocking the other nomads who traveled around the peak by reaching their destination first; she broke up a knife fight by grabbing four men in each of her hands and holding them apart until they ceased quarreling; when a bandit stole most of the nomadic group's horses in the middle of the night, she leapt onto the nearest remaining horse, raced down the road after the fleeing animals, and, grabbing the animals' manes with her left and right hands, led them back to camp; she carried the carcass of a fallen yak up a steep mountainside and back to her nomad encampment for their consumption; when the ice over a river broke beneath the feet of a pack animal, she yanked the yak out of the freezing water by its tail, pulling it to safety; she flung a load of barley off the back of one pack animal and onto another when the animal became lodged in a narrow pass; when a pack animal stumbled and fell over a rocky cliff, she reached down and pulled it up to safety.

Without exception, the biography describes these episodes ending with Sonam Peldren glibly attributing her accomplishments to luck or fortuitous circumstances; for example, she explained that a huge wave had actually lifted the yak out of the freezing river. Also without exception, the biography records that her fellow nomads somehow failed to recognize Sonam Peldren's abilities.

In the final year of her life, when she and her fellow nomads were traveling in a Ya Nga near what is now the city of Chamda (bya / lcam mda') in today's Driru ('bri ru) county in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Sonam Peldren gave increasingly explicit religious interpretations of her actions to Rinchen Pel, and described her dreams, visions, and premonitions of death.

In particular, Sonam Peldren described recurring dreams and waking visions in which unnamed various female figures, each with their own retinue, appeared before her. Explaining that a plague would erupt in the nomad community if Sonam Peldren did not accompany them by the fifth month of that year, the female figures demanded that Sonam Peldren leave her nomad group and travel with them. Sonam Peldren interpreted these dreams and visions to mean that she would die in the fifth month.

Following these visions and for the next several months, Sonam Peldren claimed to experience visions, gave increasingly lengthy teachings to Rinchen Pel about the religious nature of her identity and daily activities, and continued to express a conviction that her death was imminent and that relics would be found in her cremation ashes. Many of her teachings, which took the form of spontaneous songs (mgur), focused on basic Buddhist doctrines of impermanence, non-attachment, and so forth. Other speeches made reference to esoteric Buddhist practices and philosophies, such as the Mahāmudrā and other doctrines typically associated with the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. These teachings were noteworthy given the absence of any religious training or practice up to that point, a topic which Sonam Peldren's husband, family, and community returned to repeatedly in their criticisms of her claims.

On the predicted day of the fifth month of the water mouse year, Sonam Peldren declared that she was ready to die. According to her husband's account, she first claimed to see multi-colored maṇḍalas of dākinīs and tutelary deities in the sky, then conducted an offering ritual, and declared that she was ready "to go." Crying "Heek!" her body was said to have shot into the sky, then to have come down and bounced five times, each time higher. Finally, her corpse glowed with white light; gods and goddesses of light poured from her body, and accompanied her consciousness as it departed for a Buddha realm. The corpse descended slowly to earth and landed in a seated posture on the ground. A red drop appeared in the right nostril and a white drop in the left; when Rinchen Pel wiped the drops away with a flat rock, images of a red sow and a deity wearing a tiger skin appeared on the surface of the stone. Rainbows were seen, and that night visions of palaces and various mandalas filled the sky.

The date of her death given in her biography is the twenty-third day of the fifth month of the water male-mouse year (1312 or 1372), meaning she would have been about forty-four years old.

Upon cremation Sonam Peldren's skeleton was said to be found covered with images: ḍākinīs and dharma protectors; multiple images of Vajravārahī (known as Dorje Pakmo in Tibetan), Vajrāpaṇī, the Buddha Śākyamuni, Tārā, Vairocana, Cakrasaṃvara, Vajrasattva, Ratnasambhava, Amitābha, Maitreya, Vajrayoginī, Dīpaṃkara and Vajradhara. Also said to be visible were the thirty-two print and cursive letters of the Tibetan alphabet; multiple and variously-colored sows; an elephant, vajra, conch shell, fish, and bell; and the letter "Ah" as well as the syllable "Tam". On her pelvic bone were signs of the secret wisdom ḍākinī, a triangle, the syllable "Bam," a flower, two ḍākinīs, and three circles of mantras.

For Rinchen Pel, Sonam Peldren's miraculous death vindicated her claims of religious authority; others in her community were not convinced. Beginning seven months after her passing, Rinchen Pel claimed to experience nine posthumous encounters with Sonam Peldren. The nature of these encounters varied. In some, Rinchen Pel asked questions, such as why Sonam Peldren's body had been ugly, inferior, and female during her lifetime; what he was supposed to do with the vast quantity of relics produced from her corpse; how Sonam Peldren had accrued religious knowledge in her lifetime despite no visible study or practice of religion; and what the meaning had been of Sonam Peldren's strange dreams, visions, songs and religious pronouncements in the last months of her life.

In another posthumous vision, when Rinchen Pel retreated to a mountainside to petition Sonam Peldren for guidance about whether he should ordain as a monk, Sonam Peldren appeared and sang a verse about emptiness and the nature of mind. In two other visions, Sonam Peldren chastised Rinchen Pel for neglecting her relics, using them to get material gain for himself, and for letting others' doubts about the authenticity of the relics affect his presentation and explanation of them, an accusation which Rinchen Pel denied. In yet other visions, Sonam Peldren simply appeared in the form of Dorje Pakmo before Rinchen Pel, along with rainbows, ḍākinīs, unusual birds, Sanskrit letters on mountain peaks.

Today Sonam Peldren is remembered as an exemplary female practitioner. A nunnery in Driru named Ya Nga Chamda Ganden Khacho Ling Nunnery (ya nga bya mda' btsun dgon dga' ldan mkha' phyod gling), called either Khacho Ling or Ganden Khacho Ling for short, stands on her death site; this nunnery contains a large wall mural depicting events from the lives of both Sonam Peldren and Rinchen Pel. Resident nuns perform and offering ritual to Sonam Peldren three times a month.

Her legacy was strong enough that by the sixteenth or seventeenth century a text describing the history of Tibet's only female reincarnation lineage, the Samding Dorje Pakmo (bsam lding rdo rje phag mo), could name her as an early figure in the lineage, both an incarnation of Dorje Pakmo and a pre-incarnation of Chokyi Drolma, the First Samding Dorje Pakmo (bsam sdings rdo rje phag mo 01 chos kyi sgron ma, 1422-1467/1468). However, it is worthwhile to point out that at Ganden Khacho Ling she is not regarded as belonging to the Samding Dorje Pakmo incarnation line, nor is she considered to have been an incarnation of Dorje Pakmo.

At least one twentieth-century woman claimed to be an incarnation of Sonam Peldren: Khandro Kunsang (mkha' 'gro kun bzang, d. 2004), a woman affiliated with the Kagyu tradition who gained great regional fame as a tantric practitioner and healer.

 

Sources

 

Bessenger, Suzanne. Forthcoming. "'I am a God, I am a God, I am Definitely a God' [lha yin lha yin lha yin nges/]: Deity Emanation and the Legitimation of Sonam Peldren". Reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism: Birth-Narratives, Institutional Innovation, and Embodiment of Divine Power.  Edited by Derek Maher and Tsering Wangchuk.  Boston: Wisdom Publications (Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism series).

Bessenger, Suzanne. 2010. Echoes of Enlightenment: The Life and Legacy of Sonam Peldren. PhD thesis, University of Virginia.

Diemberger, Hildegard. 2007. When A Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty. New York: Columbia.

Ri dbang bstan 'dzin, 2002. Nags shod 'bri ru'i lo rgyus. Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang. TBRC W23671.

Rin chen dpal. N.d. Bsod nams dpal 'dren rnam thar. Unpublished manuscript.

Tsering, Tashi. 1993. “Bsam sding rdo rje phag mo sku phreng rim byong gyi mtshan dang 'khrungs gshegs ky lo khams star chags su 'god thabs sngon 'gro'i zhib 'jug mdor bsdud.” G.yu mtsho, 1.1: 31-53.

 

Suzanne Bessenger
July 2013

 

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