In October 2019, a group of twenty-two women and two men from the Tergar worldwide community embarked upon a transformative journey through Nepal and Tibet. The pilgrimage was co-led by Tergar Instructors Myoshin Kelley and Antonia Sumbundu. Buddhist scholar Justin Kelley, the founder of Sacred Path, collaborated with Tergar on the pilgrimage, handling the logistics, designing the itinerary, and more. The trip included visits to locations central to archetypal, historical, and contemporary manifestations of the feminine within Himalayan Buddhism. We adapted the following article in part from a talk given at Tergar Minneapolis / St. Paul by four women who took part: Myoshin Kelley, MB Lardizabal, Alex Marie, and Merra Young. You can listen to the full talk on the Tergar SoundCloud channel.
The idea for the pilgrimage grew out of a series of workshops titled “Embracing the Feminine on the Path of Awakening,” a weekend spent in exploration of the feminine in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition through teachings, meditation, storytelling, music, creative activities, and much more. At one point—as if out of the vast expanse invoked during the workshop—the thought of pilgrimage emerged and conditions aligned for it to materialize.
Did you ever wonder about that intuitive inner voice that seems so ungraspable? Have there been times when you just wanted to break free from your conceptual mind? These are times when you are coming in contact with aspects of the feminine. Mingyur Rinpoche teaches that wisdom and skillful means are like two wings of a bird. Wisdom, the spacious and ungraspable qualities of the nature of mind, is conceptualized as the feminine. The masculine is expressed in the principle of skillful means, the compassionate actions that engage us with the world. When these qualities are in balance, we can transcend the world of duality and move toward awakening.
Pilgrimage is different from just going off and being a tourist. On a certain level, you are a tourist, you’re a visitor to an area, but on another level, it’s your intention—why you’re going—that makes it different. Myoshin explained, “For me, at least, I went on pilgrimage with an intention for something other than myself. Of course, I wanted to get in touch with women who have walked this path before us, to visit places where women had practiced, to meet living teachers. But an equally important part of my intention was to help bring to life the qualities of the feminine in the world for others to see and appreciate.”
Another participant said, “I felt like I’ve always been searching for the women of our lineage. I wanted a light shined on them. I felt like I had to go to find them. And what I was learning was that the exploration is also about a sense of devotion.”
This journey was, from the very beginning, an exploration of the feminine within us and in our Buddhist tradition. We saw and experienced so much! Early in our trip, we met Semo Saraswati, a female Tibetan lama who lives on the outskirts of Kathmandu. She talked to us about pilgrimage as practice and the importance of setting an intention to benefit all beings. She was an inspiration that stayed with us for quite some time, and her words on bodhicitta echoed in our hearts.
We met the young nuns of Ani Choling Drolma’s nunnery in Nepal, who learn performing arts as well as studying secular and Buddhist subjects. We put our hands into handprints left by Yeshe Tsogyal, the most famous Tibetan woman of history, the foremost disciple of Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava. Yeshe Tsogyal is considered the Mother of Tibetan Buddhism and a fully enlightened Buddha and therefore holds a special place in all of Tibet. More than that, she is a central figure in the Tergar lineage. The lineage passed from Padmasambhava to Yeshe Tsogyal is the same lineage the first Mingyur Rinpoche held. Yeshe Tsogyal prophecized the three termas revealed by the first Mingyur Dorje, and she is the embodiment of wisdom in those treasures.
At Tsogyal Latso, we saw a true masterpiece, a recently composed, one-of-a-kind mural of her life. At Samye monastery, we found her likeness hidden in a dark corner. On days when we were visiting monasteries, the female representation would disappear, and we reminded ourselves of the qualities of the feminine within.
We drank a sip of water from the pond where — legend has it — Yeshe Tsogyal was born. We met yoginis in caves and heard the tittering of crows that, according to Longchenpa, is the laughter of the dakinis. The feminine we were looking for was there, in our experience. It was as if she were saying, “You’ve been looking for me, and here I am.”
We could recount so many details of places visited, people encountered, and images viewed. We made positive connections with a variety of holy sites and beings. But for many participants, the lingering memories are the feelings evoked by the vast open skies and the land blessed by generations of practitioners, in the midst of everyday life. We will always be grateful for the sense of love, joy, energy, devotion, wisdom, and bodhicitta that lives on.
The teachings of the Buddha ultimately lead us to transcend gender identities, yet understanding the attributes of feminine and masculine helps us to embrace all aspects of our being. We undertook this journey looking for the feminine qualities in our tradition. We found them embodied as much in the people on the pilgrimage as in anything we saw or experienced. Although elusive and easy to overlook, the world longs for these qualities. They are a necessary part of the process of awakening.
Special thanks to The Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism, which provided partial funding for the planning phase of the pilgrimage. Thank you to Molly Swisher, a participant who helped to organize the photos from the trip, and Ditta Odor of Tergar, who made significant contributions in the creation of this article.
Merra Young, one of the pilgrims, wrote a poem about her experience. Read it here