Sarah H. JacobyLove and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro

Columbia University Press, 2014

by Luke Thompson on September 26, 2015

Sarah H. Jacoby

View on Amazon

Sarah H. Jacoby's recent monograph, Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro (Columbia University Press, 2014), focuses on the extraordinary life and times of the Tibetan laywoman Sera Khandro and uses her story to examine a number of important issues in the study of Tibetan Buddhism.

Sera Khandro was born in 1892 to well-off parents in cosmopolitan Lhasa, but ran-away to eastern Tibet at the age of fifteen, hoping to fulfill her religious aspirations.  After enduring various hardships, she eventually became the consort of a monk at the age of twenty.  After a tumultuous nine years during which she was subjected to the ill-will of many residents of the monastery where she resided and during which time she bore two children, she moved in with the lama under whom she had originally studied, a man whom she considered her original teacher, whose consort she became (attaining spiritual liberation in the process), and whose biography she would eventually write after his death.  After three years, her spiritual partner died, and Sera Khandro spent the last sixteen years of her life teaching widely throughout eastern Tibet and engaged in writing.  She died in 1940.

Jacoby's study is based in large part on two previously unexamined sources: a biography that Sera Khandro wrote of her male teacher, and Sera Khandro's own autobiography.   There are very few pre-1950s' Tibetan primary sources authored by women, and these two documents allow Jacoby a unique view of a period usually seen through male eyes.  In her discussion of Sera Khandro's writings, Jacoby locates the aforementioned autobiography in the context of Tibetan literature, on the one hand, and explains autobiography's role in the construction of religious identity in Tibet, on the other.

Related to this issue is what Jacoby calls "autobiographical ventriloquy": claims that one makes about ones own spiritual attainments by putting words in the mouth of another character.  In the case at hand, Sera Khandro records conversations that she has with dakinis in which these celestial beings, in response to Sera Khandro's expressions of doubt about her own progress along the Buddhist path, assert that she has in fact attained a high level of spiritual attainment.

In addition to her interactions with dakinis, Sera Khandro established relationships with the semi-legendary Yeshe Tsogyel and with autochthonous deities in eastern Tibet.  Drawing on the theory of "relational selfhood," by which an autobiographical subject's identity is constructed through that subject's depiction of his or her relationships with other social actors, Jacoby shows that Sera Khandro's own identity as a treasure revealer depended on the relationships she had with both those in her immediate environment (e.g., the local deities) and those in the mythic past (e.g., Yeshe Tsogyel).  In this way, religious legitimacy–at least in the case of Sera Khandro–depended on both local and pan-Tibetan associations.

In the final two chapters of the book Jacoby discusses Sera Khandro's role as a consort. She looks at the various ways in which Sera Khandro herself understood such practices and in which she used men as consorts for practices aimed at furthering her own spiritual progress.  This close analysis provides the reader with a much more nuanced view of Tibetan Buddhist attitudes towards sexual practices. And in the final chapter Jacoby shows that while we usually think of such practices as thoroughly impersonal and soteriological in character, in the case at hand Sera Khandro's own feelings of affection for her partner Drime Ozer cannot be easily disentangled from her belief that consort relationships were soteriological means to a spiritual end–hence the title of the book, Love and Liberation.

This book will be of particular value to those with interests in religious autobiography, the construction of religious identity, gender in religion, the relationship between theory and practice in Tibetan Buddhism, and Tibet at the turn of the twentieth century. However, even readers without those specific interests will enjoy Jacoby's well-written and captivating narrative presentation of Sera Khandro's life, a rare glimpse into the world of a female Tibetan religious virtuoso.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Leonard CassutoThe Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It

September 22, 2015

The discontented graduate student is something of a cultural fixture in the U.S. Indeed theirs is a sorry lot. They work very hard, earn very little, and have very poor prospects. Nearly all of them want to become professors, but most of them won't. Indeed a disturbingly large minority of them won't even finish their degrees. It's little […]

Read the full article →

Steven E. KemperRescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World

June 27, 2015

In his recent book, Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World (University of Chicago Press, 2015), Steven E. Kemper examines the Sinhala layman Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) and argues that this figure has been misunderstood by both Sinhala nationalists, who have appropriated him for their own political ends, and scholars, who have portrayed Dharmapala primarily […]

Read the full article →

James W. LaineMeta-Religion: Religion and Power in World History

June 23, 2015

Most world religions textbooks follow a structure and conceptual framework that mirrors the modern discourse of world religions as distinct entities reducible to certain defining characteristics. In his provocative and brilliant new book Meta-Religion: Religion and Power in World History (University of California Press, 2015), James Laine, Professor of Religious Studies at Macalester College challenges […]

Read the full article →

Kurtis R. SchaefferThe Life of the Buddha

June 8, 2015

Kurtis R. Schaeffer's new translation of Tenzin Chögyel's The Life of the Buddha (Penguin Books, 2015) is a boon for teachers, researchers, and eager readers alike. Composed in the middle of the eighteenth century, The Life of the Buddha (or more fully rendered, The Life of the Lord Victor Shakyamuni, Ornament of One Thousand Lamps for […]

Read the full article →

Andrea JainSelling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture

May 13, 2015

Is yoga religious? This question has not only been asked recently by the broader public but also posed in the courts. Many argue that of course it is. The story of yoga in the popular imagination is often narrated as an ancient wisdom tradition that informs contemporary postural movements which are intricately connected and indivisible. […]

Read the full article →

John K. NelsonExperimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan

May 7, 2015

In his recent book, Experimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan (University of Hawaii Press, 2013), John K. Nelson delves into the historical circumstances that have led to the declining fortunes of Japanese Buddhism and explores recent and ongoing attempts by Japanese Buddhist clerics to render Buddhism relevant to Japanese society once again. Based […]

Read the full article →

Stuart YoungConceiving the Indian Buddhist Patriarchs in China

April 25, 2015

In Conceiving the Indian Buddhist Patriarchs in China (University of Hawai'i Press, 2015), Stuart Young examines Chinese hagiographic representations of three Indian Buddhist patriarchs–Aśvaghoṣa (Maming), Nāgārjuna (Longshu), and Āryadeva (Sheng tipo)–from the early fifth to late tenth centuries, and explores the role that these representations played in the development of Chinese Buddhism's self-awareness of its own position […]

Read the full article →

Janet GyatsoBeing Human in a Buddhist World: An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet

April 24, 2015

Janet Gyatso's new book is a masterfully researched, compellingly written, and gorgeously illustrated history of medicine in early modern Tibet that looks carefully at the relationships between medicine and religion in this context. Being Human in a Buddhist World: An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet (Columbia University Press, 2015) looks carefully at the "double […]

Read the full article →

Kurtis R. Schaeffer, Matthew T. Kapstein, and Gray Tuttle, eds.The Tibetan History Reader/Sources of Tibetan Tradition

April 11, 2015

Two new books have recently been published that will change the way we can study and teach Tibetan studies, and Gray Tuttle and Kurtis Schaeffer were kind enough to talk with me recently about them. The Tibetan History Reader (Columbia University Press, 2013), edited by Tuttle and Schaeffer, is a chronologically-organized set of essays that […]

Read the full article →