Sarah H. Jacoby
Love and Liberation
Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro
Columbia University Press 2014
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.