Echoes of Enlightenment

The Life and Legacy of the Tibetan Saint Sonam Peldren

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Suzanne M. Bessenger
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2016.
     312 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190225285.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The status of the female body and its apotheosis in divine tantric form is a crucial thread and, at times, vexed knot to untangle in Buddhist life writings by and about exemplary Tibetan women. Fortunately, there are a growing number of published studies about female visionaries whose legitimacy rests, in part, on their identification with female tantric deities—known as ḍākinīs. Author Suzanne Bessenger makes a valuable contribution to this literature with Echoes of Enlightenment: The Life and Legacy of the Tibetan Saint Sönam Peldren. In a close reading of available manuscripts recording Sönam Peldren's life, Bessenger traces the transformation of the denigrated body of an illiterate, Tibetan nomad woman—lacking formal religious training—into the radiant, enlightened female form of Dorje Phagmo (Vajravārāhī). Bessenger argues that among the most remarkable feats of Sönam Peldren, apart from her unlikeliness as a candidate for sainthood, are her posthumous appearances as Dorje Phagmo in visions and dreams to her husband, Rinchen Pel, who was left behind to build her religious legacy amid his own, and other's, doubts about her sanctity.

Issues of embodiment and contestation are central to Bessenger's study of the construction of female sanctity. Chapter 1 thematizes depictions of the female body and Sönam Peldren's miraculous physical feats within nomadic pursuits, including pulling a yak to safety after it broke through ice. In her hagiographic corpus, these miracles are simultaneously masked—by Sönam Peldren to her contemporaries—and revealed—ostensibly by Rinchen Pel to the audience—in careful preparation for the "sudden" revelation of her sanctity in the year before her death. Chapter 2 analyzes the available manuscripts on Sönam Peldren's life and the textual layers evident in this corpus as well as the resulting multivocality of saint, scribes, authors, and editors. In teasing out these complexities, Bessenger questions our access to Sönam Peldren's own voice, despite its prominence in the text, by highlighting moments in which men—first her father and later her husband—are depicted recording her words, sometimes well after the events described. Here, readers gain access to a vivid instance of the filters imposed by male editorial decisions that beset the study of female saints in hagiographic literature.

Bessenger attempts the difficult task, in chapter 3, of reconstructing the religious milieu that Sönam Peldren inhabited in the absence of references to her training, lineage affiliation, or even precise information about her time and place—apart from an eastern Tibetan non-monastic milieu with Kagyu influences around the fourteenth century. With such scant contextual evidence, Bessenger focuses on Sönam Peldren's reported claims about her practice, as well as recorded instances of her unusual behavior, including an occasion in which she stripped off her clothes in broad daylight, saying "uncovering the naked body is uncovering naked awareness" (116). Bessenger discusses this event in light of the antinomian tantric practices of "mad saints" in the Kaygu tradition. The controversy surrounding such embodied acts as well as her recorded disputes with Rinchen Pel over her behavior are a fascinating dimension of this material.

Bessenger offers a compelling analysis, in chapter 4, of the discourse regarding the female body. With fine-tuned attention to the vocabulary used in the available manuscripts, she teases out the distinction between "low birth" and "high thought" in versified statements attributed to Sönam Peldren. Her recorded dialogues with Rinchen Pel on this topic span the final year of her life—when she reveals her divine status to him—and continue through her posthumous appearances in her husband's visions and dreams. Here Bessenger's discussion of these dialogues would be enriched had she engaged with Sarah Jacoby's study of Sera Khandro in Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro (Columbia University Press, 2014). In her study, Jacoby outlines a legitimizing strategy of "ventriloquy" that allows Sera Khandro to disparage her own female body as an "inferior birth" and then, in visionary dialogues, have her spiritual capacities affirmed, and thereby sanctioned, by ḍākinīs. It strikes me that ventriloquy of a different but parallel sort is at play in Sönam Peldren's life story, especially following her death. Rather than summon another ḍākinī, Rinchen Pel artfully supplies Sönam Peldren's own voice in defense of her female body, conveying special authority in visions in which she appears as Dorje Phagmo. Nonetheless, Bessenger aptly reads these dialogues as explanatory opportunities regarding the nature of gender in Tibetan Buddhism as well as legitimizing moments in which Rinchen Pel is "able, via dialogical encounters, to resolve lingering doubts about his departed wife's claims" and "allow the text's audience to resolve their own confusions and doubts" (183).

Further dimensions of Sönam Peldren's body are revealed in chapter 5, including the way her relics are ceremoniously displayed every twelve years at Ganden Khachö Ling, the thriving—now Geluk—nunnery at Ya Nga, the purported site of her death. Still today, the valley where the nunnery stands is, itself, understood to be the body of Sönam Peldren. Intriguing in this regard is, for example, the location of her tongue as a famed sky burial site in the valley. Bessenger gleans her information about the nunnery from interlocutors in exile, themselves nuns from Khachö Ling, who seem to offer contradictory statements about the identification of Sönam Peldren with Dorje Phagmo, a form of Vajrayoginī. As presented, this identification is both implicit in the nunnery's memorialization of Sönam Peldren and its liturgical focus on Vajrayoginī (204), yet absent in the nuns' own frames of reference for why the female saint is revered locally (207). This leaves readers with the uneasy question: for whom is her identification with Dorje Phagmo important, if not the local community of her followers?  

Overall, in Echoes of Enlightenment, Bessenger contributes to the field of gender and religion, not only in bringing to light another female Buddhist saint from the Tibetan literary record, but also by capably analyzing complex representational strategies, ever cautious about what can and cannot be surmised from hagiographic sources in the absence of other contextualizing information. In the final chapter, the reader learns of Sönam Peldren's substantial legacy, several centuries removed from the events of her life—including her incorporation within the incarnation scheme of the famed Dorje Phagmo lineage; her memorialization in artwork and liturgy at the nunnery, Khachö Ling; and claims by at least one contemporary woman, Khandro Kunzang Sangmo, to be Sönam Peldren's incarnation. In the end, the travels of Khachö Ling nuns and the Khandro's followers bring an international dimension to the legacy of this unlikely Buddhist female saint.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Holly Gayley is assistant professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Suzanne M. Bessenger is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Randolph College. Her research explores Tibetan Buddhist biographies, cults of saints, and conceptions of gender. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her family.

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