The Sakya Jetsunmas: The Hidden World of Tibetan Female Lamas

Elisabeth A. Benard

320 pages, 2021, USD 29.95 (Paperback)

Snow Lion

Reviewed by Nicole Willock

Elisabeth A. Benard’s The Sakya Jetsunmas, similar to Georges Dreyfus’ The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk (University of California, 2003) came about due to strong connections between the author and their exiled Tibetan interlocutors, circumstances that can be described as “tendrel” (xiii-xiv). This Tibetan concept, literally “foundational-connections” (Wylie: rten ’brel), branches into two distinct but not unrelated meanings. In the philosophical sense, “tendrel” translates the Sanskrit term “pratītyasamutpāda” or “dependent origination,” which serves as a corner stone of all Buddhist thought—all phenomena arise and fall dependent upon other phenomena. The other allusive meaning of tendrel can be translated as “coincidence” or “serendipity”—referring to that magical moment of connection with friends or teachers or circumstances that propels the world forward in a good way. The causes and conditions of the Tibetan exile situation (despite tremendous difficulties) led to fortuitous connections that enabled Elisabeth A. Benard to research on and write about the Sakya Jetsunmas whom, as Benard explains, “…are wonderful yet exceptional examples of Tibetan women who were encouraged by their families and by society to be religious practitioners—and they were supported, both spiritually and materially, to do so” (19). After decades of research, Benard has woven together textual histories with oral tradition and ethnography to create a narrative that showcases the hitherto hidden lives of remarkable women in the Sakya Khon family.  

The introduction and first two chapters provide background information on the illustrious history of Sakya, the significance of the Sakya Khon family and the Jetsunma title, as well as the source materials used for this book. Benard chooses to leave the Jetsunma title untranslated throughout the narrative, while also offering a translation of the term as “venerable women” and explaining its usage in social-cultural contexts (9-18). One of the main primary sources for the biographical lives of three historical Sakya Jetsunma (chapters 3-5) is a genealogy of the Sakya family [1] by the 39thSakya Throne Holder (Trizin), Dragshul Trinlei Rinchen (who is also the subject of chapter six). Although his genealogy, like earlier Sakya genealogies, centers on the lives and activities of the male hierarchs, Benard mines this text for biographical information on three accomplished Jetsunma. Her reading of this Tibetan source material and contextualization of this biographical and historical information make this path-breaking research. Benard also shares findings from over twenty interviews conducted with members of the Sakya Khon family and those connected to the family to write about the life of contemporary Sakya Jetsunma, Jetsun Kushok (b. 1938) and her aunt, Dagmo Trinlei Paljor (1906-75).

A key takeaway point emerging from this analysis is that Jetsunma of the Sakya Khon family receive the same religious training as their brothers to become dedicated religious practitioners (274). Jetsunma receive their title by birth (9); this title is passed down to the daughters in the Sakya Khon family, similar to that of the daughters in the Mindroling Throne-Holder family (10). With that said, Sakya Jetsunma did not have the same obligations or responsibilities as the Sakya Trizin (Throne-Holder), and only rarely have daughters become lineage-holders and transmitters of the Sakya’s religious specialty, the Path and Result Teachings (Lamdre; Wylie: lam ’bras). This, as Benard explains, is “a complete and gradual system that combines both the sutras (exoteric teachings) and the tantras (esoteric teachings) to provide a guided path to Buddhahood” (17). Benard’s study profiles the lives of four exceptional Jetsunma who became lineage holders and teachers in their own right: Jetsunma Chime Tenpai Nyima (1756-ca.1855; chapter 3); Jetsunma Tamdrin Wangmo (1836-96; chapter 4); Kyabgon Pema Trinlei (1874-ca. 1950; chapter 5); and Jetsun Kushok (b. 1938; chapters 8 and 9).

Chapters six and seven on the 39th Sakya Throne Holder, Dragshul Trinlei Rinchen (1871-1935) and his daughter-in-law, Dagmo Trinlei Paljor bridge the gap between the three historical Jetsunma and the contemporary situation. In addition to authoring the Sakya genealogy mentioned above, Dragshul Trinlei Rinchen penned a diary (123-124).[2] Sections of this previously untranslated source provide rich details on Khon family life including the polyandrous marriage of Dagmo Trinlei Paljor to the diarist’s two sons in 1927 (128-132). After Dragshul Trinlei Rinchen’s death, what we learn about the life of Dagmo Trinlei Paljor comes from a contemporary biography on the 41st Trizin[3] (124, note 243) and interviews with family members. Dagmo Trinlei Paljor was unable to bear heirs; therefore, the two brothers also married her younger sister, Dagyum Sonam Dolkar (1918-1947), who then gave birth to four children, including Jetsun Kushok Chimey Luding and her brother the 41st Sakya Trizin, Ngawang Kunga Thegchen Palbar Trinlei Samphel Wangyi Gyalpo (b. 1945). After the tragic deaths of her sister and both husbands, Ngawang Kunga Gyaltsen (1904-1943) and Dagchen Kunga Rinchen (1902-1950), Dagmo Trinlei Paljor took charge of administrative affairs (140-143) and raised the children. This chapter enriches scholarly understanding on the lives of Tibetan noble women and also describes material culture at the Dolma Palace in Sakya (132-140).

Chapter 8 brings us to the tumultuous events of the mid-20th century and how Jetsun Kushok and her brother (the 41stSakya Trizin) received their religious training against the backdrop of family tragedies as well as the Chinese invasion of Tibet culminating with the enthronement of the 41st Sakya Trizin in Tibet in 1959, shortly before the family was forced into exile. Peppered throughout this chapter are rare photos, such as Fig. 16 of the Dagchen Kunga Rinchen at the Dolma Palace in Sakya circa 1940 (172) and Fig. 20 of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama in 1951 (189), among others. The final chapter details Jetsun Kushok’s religious accomplishments despite the difficulties that she and her family faced as a result of being forced to flee Tibet with only their lives. The book concludes with an epilogue on the young vegan Jetsunma Kunga Trinley (b. 2007) followed by three appendices: two interviews with servants of the family and an explanation of the Sakya scions and the Sakya Trizin position. This last section details the recent decision to change the term limit of the Sakya Trizin to three years (270-274). The book also has helpful supplementary material: a list of major figures in each chapter; charts that provide a family tree for each generation; and a list of Sakya family names; however, there is no index.

The Sakya Jetsunmas is written in lucid prose and easily accessible to a wide range of readers. It may be useful for those unfamiliar with Tibetan and Sanskrit languages to know that the transcription method of Tibetan and Sanskrit terms is inconsistent. This undoubtedly is due in part to the field of Tibetan Studies which does not have one transcription method for rendering Tibetan words into English because a term’s pronunciation can vary dramatically from its spelling. However, there are conventions in the field that are not followed here, such as providing an appendix or index of Tibetan terms or using the Wylie transcription for spelling out Tibetan words in the first instance when they occur. For example, the transcription for “jetsunma” (Wylie: rje btsun ma) is not provided at first mention nor when this is the main topic of the narrative (9-19). Frequently phonetic renditions of Tibetan terms are given without Wylie transcription; for example, we read of: “dagmo”, “lady or wife of the dagchen ‘lord’” (19); “dungsays,” the term referring to sons of the Khon family; “tamdrin,” a wrathful form of deity (75); and “wangmo” that is powerful woman (75). In other instances Wylie transcription is provided, but not noted as Wylie, e.g., the Buddhist terms: “mandala (dkyil ’khor)” or “chants (bskang gso)” (55). In other instances, Sanskrit terms are delivered in brackets, but similarly not noted as such: “a compelling desire to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings (bodhicitta)” or “Indian adept (siddhi)” (55). This leaves it up to the reader to discern whether a foreign word is Wylie transcription, or a phonetic rendering of Tibetan, or a Sanskrit term. It may also be helpful for potential readers to know that aspects of critical theory, such as gendered subjectivities or authorial voice, are not addressed in this book. In this way, this book is unlike other recent works on the lives of Tibetan women, such as Hildegard Diemberger’s When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty: The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet (Columbia University Press, 2007), Sarah Jacoby’s Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro (Columbia University Press, 2014), or Holly Gayley’s A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet: Love Letters from Golok (Columbia University Press, 2017).

Readers of The Sakya Jetsunmas: The Hidden World of Tibetan Female Lama will enjoy learning about the lives and accomplishments of Jetsunma Chime Tenpai Nyima, Jetsunma Tamdrin Wangmo, Kyabgon Pema Trinlei, Dagmo Trinlei Paljor, and Jetsun Kushok, as well as discovering more about the history of a powerful aristocratic family of Tibet and all that entails. Replete with fascinating aspects of Tibetan life including, but not limited to: insights into polyandrous marriage; descriptions of material culture, such as statues and flying masks; the procuring of goods from the Khampa traders, the Pandatsang family; and the history of the Sakya witches, Benard’s well-researched The Sakya Jetsunmas provides a gateway into the splendid world of Tibetan culture.  


[1] The full title is: Supplement to the Genealogy and Biographies of Transmission Lineage Masters of the Sakyas (Gdungs rabs yang skong ngo mtshar kun ’phel sring shi’i dpal ’byor lhun grub mdzad pa po, brtan bshugs tshogs pa), 2009.

[2] The diary of the 39th Sakya Trizin, Dragshul Trinlei Rinchen (1871-1935). 1974. Autobiographical Reminiscences of Sakya Trizin Dragshul Trinlei Rinchen (Rdo rje ’chang drag shul phrin las rin chen gyi rtogs brjod), Sakya Centre.

[3] Ratna Vajra Saka, Drolma Lhamo, and Lama Jampa Losel. 2003. Biographies of the Great Sachen Nyinpo and H.H. the 41st Sakya Trizin, Sakya Academy. (124, note 243).

Nicole Willock (Ph.D. in Tibetan Studies and Religious Studies, Indiana University) is an associate professor of Asian Religions at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Her research examines the intersections between Tibetan literature, Buddhist modernism, moral agency, and state-driven secularization projects in twentieth-century China. She is the author of Lineages of the Literary: Tibetan Buddhist Polymaths of Modern China (Columbia University Press, 2021) and serves as co-chair of the Tibet and Himalayan Religions Unit of the American Academy of Religion.