Love Letters from Golok

A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet

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Holly Gayley
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , December
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Holly Gayley’s Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet offers an accessible and gripping account of the correspondence and activities of eminent tantric couple Khandro Tāre Lhamo (1938-2002) and Namtrul Jigme Phuntsok (1944-2011), who, along with a nexus of Nyingma leaders, helped to spearhead the revitalization of Buddhism in Golok from the 1980s forward. Gayley offers a welcome gendered intervention to Tibetan sources and Western scholarship, which tend to overlook the contributions of Buddhist women to Tibetan history. Grounded in feminist impulse, Gayley foregrounds Tāre Lhamo in her analysis, calling attention to gender in representations of agency, and recovering female contributions to the revitalization of Buddhism in the post-Mao era. 

Gayley draws upon her own 2004 through 2014 research trips to Golok in illuminating her microhistorical focus on the epistolary exchange between the couple and hagiography. The chronological account, enriched by field research and interviews, inverts the order of their life stories to follow the trajectory of Tāre Lhamo’s life. Gayley places more emphasis on the letters than does Jewel Garland—Namtrul Rinpoche's hagiography—in highlighting the personal dimension of the correspondence, as well as the couple’s creative response to the historical moment, treasure tradition, literary tradition, and tantric practice. 

At the end of the Maoist period, Tāre Lhamo initiated a courtship with Namtrul Rinpoche through fifty-six letters, exchanged between 1978 and 1980. The letters capture the couple’s personal expressions of affection, as well as visionary recollections of past lives, prophecies about future activities, and references to tantric sexuality in treasure revelation. Gayley’s discussion of the role of love and affect in treasure revelation is especially eye-opening, as she identifies a synergy between the couple’s past life recollections, affection, and the development of visionary propensities. 

Composed nearly entirely in verse, the letters utilize a variety of authorial stances and styles of versification, ranging from Indic-inspired poetry to Tibetan folk songs, and bardic verse. Tāre Lhamo’s preference for local song styles and folksy imagery eventually affects Namtrul Rinpoche, leading him to adopt the style of lively folk songs.

Envisioning a shared prophetic destiny, the couple draws on Nyingma lore and recollections of past lives to “heal the damage of degenerate times” through treasure revelation (5). They convey agency in uniquely Buddhist terms, drawing upon historical sources from the past. For example, in correspondence, they appropriate the language of “degenerate times” to frame recent history within a Buddhist framework, and draw upon tendrel—or dependent arising—as a Buddhist theory of causation to generate a sense of agency. 

In her examination of Tāre Lhamo’s hagiography, Gayley highlights the impact of third-person narration on the construction of female agency, which builds a relational, composite identity for the tantric heroine. As a contemporary namthar (rnam thar)—a Tibetan hagiography or spiritual biography—Spiraling Vine of Faith reconfigures the genre to heal and restore faith in Buddhism through miracle tales, which narrate the compassionate interventions of an enlightened heroine in the traumatic Maoist period. 

Gayley offers a significant contribution to scholarship as she situates these stories as an alternate, subaltern history of recent decades, which establishes cultural continuity to heal trauma. This approach helps correct one-dimensional representations of Tibetans as victims of “cultural genocide,” or benefactors of “peaceful liberation.” Contemporary hagiographic literature, she argues, recenters Buddhist masters as not only victims, but also as agents in history; such efforts reflect a “mandalization process” that has taken place since the 1980s, according to Charlene Makley (The Violence of Liberation, University of California Press, 2007). The newly flourishing namthar genre, for example, has repositioned Tibetans and Buddhist masters as principal agents in history, and Tibetan people as faithful beneficiaries. In her book, Gayley demonstrates how hagiographic literature contributes to cultural revitalization by Tibetans in China through the recovery of local history in Golok and adjacent areas. 

While scholars attend to minority self-representation in secular literature and the arts in Tibet, less attention has been paid to Buddhist literature that offers notions of agency according to Buddhist notions such as karma and past lives. Such literature helps to restore a sense of Tibetan agency within a Buddhist episteme. Gayley draws upon trauma theory, as well as work by anthropologist Michael Jackson, to make sense of the symbolic restructuring of events in the letters and hagiographic corpus, arguing that the restoration of meaning through narrative is part of a healing process performed by cultural carriers on behalf of society. 

Based at Nyenlung monastery in Serta in the 1980s and 1990s, the couple taught and traveled widely, sponsored construction projects, and established ritual programs in Golok and the surrounding areas. The couple engaged in healing activity, remaking the world as Buddhist through their revelatory and ritual activities. Gayley identifies the notion of connectivity as a crucial to the healing of cultural trauma, with both temporal and spatial dimensions; on the one hand, it entails linking past, present, and future into a coherent narrative, and spatially, healing the social body and remaking the Tibetan landscape as Buddhist. 

Gayley upends the ordering of their namthars to foreground Tāre Lhamo in her analysis, instead of relegating her to a secondary and supportive role to Namtrul Rinpoche. In Spiraling Vine of Faith, Tāre Lhamo appears to emerge unharmed from the Maoist period; though Gayley humanizes the portrayal of Tāre Lhamo through her handling of the letters, I wish she had also drawn attention to any discrepancies between the texts and life, or ways in which the lives of these figures unfold at odds with the literary imagination they so carefully construct. This absorbing account of the lives and letters of Tāre Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche offers much insight into the role of hagiography in healing cultural trauma, and is eye-opening in its exploration of how correspondence allows these figures to imagine revitalizing Buddhism. This tale of love and healing should be read by anyone in the fields of Tibetan Studies, gender studies, and religious studies, and is accessible to undergraduates as well as scholars of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Miranda Arocha Smith is a doctoral student in Buddhism at Northwestern University.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Holly Gayley is Associate Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her work has been published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, History of Religions, Himalaya Journal, Contemporary Buddhism,  and the Journal of Religious Ethics. Her original translations of the source materials for the book reviewed here have just been published: Inseparable Across Lifetimes: The Lives and Letters of the Tibetan Visionaries Namtrul Rinpoche and Khandro Tāre Lhamo (Shambhala Publications, 2019).


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