Excerpt: A Dakini’s Counsel: Sera Khandro’s Spiritual Advice and Dzogchen Instructions

Read a brief of A Dakini’s Counsel: Sera Khandro’s Spiritual Advice and Dzogchen Instructions by Sera Khandro, translated by Christina Lee Monson, and an exclusive excerpt courtesy of its publisher, Shambhala Publications.

By Sera Khandro

Christina Lee Monson

Constance Kassor’s review from the Summer 2024 Buddhadharma:

Buddhist meditative practices continued to change as they spread into different communities, cultures, and contexts. In some Tibetan traditions, a practice known as Dzogchen (“Great Perfection”) grew in popularity. Dzogchen is almost always studied under the guidance of a qualified master, and teachings called shaldam are personal spiritual instructions given directly by a teacher to an individual student. Christina Monson translates a collection of shaldam composed by the great female teacher Sera Khandro Dewai Dorje in A Dakini’s Counsel: Sera Khandro’s Spiritual Advice and Dzogchen Instructions (Shambhala). Dewai Dorje (the name she most frequently used for herself) composed her shaldam for disciples ranging from renowned lamas to ordinary practitioners, and this book skillfully brings those teachings together. Each of the book’s eight chapters begins with an introduction and then a selection of various shaldam, organized categorically. Topics include prayers and poems, pure visions, pith instructions, and more. Monson’s introductory material contextualizes Dewai Dorje’s shaldam, and her translations are lucid and engaging, conveying the ideas, imagery, and poetic intentions of this renowned master. Monson’s translations highlight the important, and at times deeply personal, relationship between a master and a disciple.

The Excerpt:

2. Poems

All of Dewai Dorje’s writing is imbued with a poetic quality. The bulk of her shaldam are presented in metered verse, and her prose is rich in imagery and metaphor. She was masterful in drawing on the natural world, with its abundant flora and fauna, to infuse the stories of her own life. She was in relationship with her environment in ways that defy conventional understanding of the limits of human communication. Her phenomena—animate, inanimate, human, animal, and spiritual—were alive with ongoing information, messages, and teachings unique to her sense-making capability. To listen to her poetry is to listen to the birds of Golok’s vast green plains, to the endless and timeless blue of its skies, and to the tender and playful heart of a woman whose life was about finding home in a never-ending drama of discovery, loss, and the unknown.

“Advice for Sherap Lhamo” and “Metaphors, Not Words” showcase how Dewai Dorje relied on the natural world as metaphor. Both pieces feature the presence of the cuckoo, a metaphor for Dewai Dorje herself, in relationship with other birds, her students, as a guide and teacher. Each composition includes cryptic references to prophecy in twilight language decipherable only to those destined to understand it. And both offer visual images of the landscapes green in summertime, vast and open, punctuated by rocky mountains and cliffs, and endless against the horizon—across which she traveled, continually meeting and parting from those closest to her. There, against dazzling blue sky and white clouds, she made meaning out of impermanence and applied the timeless truths of the Great Perfection to her own life.
At the tender age of eleven, Dewai Dorje lost her own mother. She describes this time in her long autobiography,

After [mother’s passing], my father cared for me, his own precious child, but missing my mother was utterly unbearable. Unaware of day or night, I thought only of how I could meet her again. I climbed up on the roof, my face searching the sky, and while sitting in tears, from the southwest a white vulture circled with a whirr and hovered directly in front of me. I thought, this vulture must be the life force of the dakinis—maybe it knows where my mother has gone. So, I said,

From the womb of space in the vast sky above,
you, the life-force bird of the dakinis’ utterly pure
please, hear me with your mind at ease.
Where are you going, and from where have you
I’m a motherless orphan.
It has been one month since my mother departed
to who knows where,
and my grief is excruciating.

You, skillful, white vulture—
have you seen where my mother went?
Do you know where she is now?
I’m a girl without her kind mother,
lost like a blind person on the plains,
a wingless bird fallen into a deep crevasse.
Now as I remember everything,
I miss my mother so much.

A beautiful body and senses are her kindness.
Jewelry and provisions are her kindness.
Wealth, food, and possessions are her kindness.
Sound words of advice are her kindness.
Getting along with everyone is her kindness.
Knowing the six Dharma words is her kindness.

Meeting sublime lamas is her kindness.
Please, help me meet my supremely kind mother
once again in this life!
Keep this request in your heart,
white life-force bird!

Several selections in chapter 2 explore the theme of the mother. Later in her life, as she devoted herself to the core Buddhist teaching of inseparability after losing her guru and consort Drime Ozer, Dewai Dorje further assuaged her grief at the loss of her mother
through connecting with the principles of the ultimate mother through the teachings of the Dharma. Three poetic explorations of this endeavor, “Sky-Mother Samantabhadri,” “Remembering Mother,” and “Mother of View, Meditation, and Conduct,” unfold the theme of motherhood as Dewai Dorje experienced it, both as a daughter and a mother in her own right.

Dewai Dorje had three children, two of whom lived past childbirth. Her daughter Yangchen Dronma was born in 1913 and lived up to adulthood, eventually starting a family of her own with Drime Ozer’s son Sonam Deutsen. Dewai Dorje’s son Rigdzin Gyurme Dorje passed away in 1924 at age five, during an epidemic that swept the area of Dartsang where he was living with his mother and Drime Ozer. Drime Ozer himself passed away a few days later. These experiences of intense grief that peppered Dewai Dorje’s life propelled her spiritual practice. They forced her to find solace through realization of the “ultimate mother,” the vast space out of which all the things of the world manifest and into which they finally dissolve. The Buddhist teachings call this great open expanse by many names including the unborn, the great mother, the Perfection of Wisdom, Buddha Samantabhadri, and more. It’s often represented metaphorically by the sky.

Mothers and motherhood deeply resonated with Dewai Dorje. As a mother herself, she frequently referred to her closest disciples as her children. She lived her life in dedication to the great mother, the feminine principle that symbolizes the source of all that appears
to exist: the empty nature of all phenomena. This empty nature is the reason Dewai Dorje “doesn’t believe in samsara.” In other words, she didn’t believe that the phenomena of samsara are things that ultimately can be established to truly exist. Her path was one of severing attachment to everything and most especially to the reification of all thought and sensory perceptions.

In Dzogchen, the empty, unborn nature of phenomena is presented hand in hand with their luminous aspect. Emptiness and luminosity are considered nondual. For the Dzogchen practitioner, this nonduality is what is recognized to be the mind’s true nature.
Beyond form and all characteristics, the mind nevertheless knows. Its empty aspect and its lucidity or clarity are experienced as its essence and nature, which have an inherent capacity that is widespread and compassionate. These three aspects of mind—empty, lucid, and capable—are designated by the dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya, respectively, in the Dzogchen teachings of Trekcho that directly introduce awareness, mind’s nature, to practitioners. This is frequently referred to as the great “three-kaya
nature” in Dewai Dorje’s writings.

Trekcho and Togal comprise the twofold approach of the path of Dzogchen. This path is regarded as the most sublime and exalted of all Buddhist approaches according to the Nyingma tradition and is thus taught to be the “pinnacle of all vehicles.” It is the approach of atiyoga, whereby practitioners are equipped to take wisdom and not ordinary mind as their personal practice experience, at last. Doing so requires an authentic recognition of wisdom, ascertained through properly differentiating awareness (rig pa),
mind’s nature, from ordinary or conceptual mind. Recognizing awareness through being introduced to it by qualified lineage masters, endowed with the blessings of their own accomplishment, is essential. Such discernment and subsequent establishment of confidence in awareness is the main practice on the path of Trekcho. This approach is posited for practitioners more inclined to be lazy.

The companion path to Trekcho is Togal, posited for practitioners more inclined toward industriousness. Togal practice is both predicated on and enhances the Dzogchen practitioner’s recognition of awareness. Through special techniques, the practitioner harnesses the pathways whereby wisdom moves to directly perceive its external manifestations, while knowing these are but reflections of what has been recognized internally. This process unfolds four “visions” of pure phenomena that increase before becoming extinguished back into the expanse of ultimate reality from which they arise. Enlightenment for a Dzogchen practitioner consists of culminating either or both Trekcho or Togal practice to experience their results, which include actualization of the “youthful vase kaya,” the deathless domain of primordial wisdom abiding within.

Dewai Dorje’s poems, letters, advice, and personal practice instructions are infused with profound insight about Dzogchen practice, evidencing her deep experience on this sublime path. It is paramount of what she practiced and taught. Despite tremendous struggles of basic survival and periods of destitution such that she literally begged, and thus frequently refers to herself as a beggar lady, she was rich with the teachings and inner experience of Dzogchen. And she knew, undoubtedly, that such came about not just through receiving these teachings but through her unwavering faith and devotion to her lama, Drime Ozer. After all, at the core, Dzogchen depends on devotion and receiving its instructions from an authentic lineage master. Her joy in this wealth seeps through her poetry and prose equally with reverence, lightness, and profound sublimity that infuse them with blessings.

Chapter 2 concludes with several examples of a beloved poetic form, the alphabetic acrostic, well known and used by many Tibetan writers. Beginning each line with the letters of the Tibetan alphabet, this form requires both creativity and discipline. Dewai Dorje’s playfulness, elegance, and language proficiency are on full display as she uses the alphabet to give advice while having fun with words at the same time. “A Poem for Changchup Dron” lets us imagine a sunny afternoon in an open-sided tent with Dewai Dorje and a few close disciples. She is laughing in easy comfort as she pens, on beautiful handmade paper, pithy advice on living a life according to the Dharma using the alphabet. May the translation of these compositions bring smiles to all contemporary readers as

From A Dakini’s Counsel: Sera Khandro’s Spiritual Advice and Dzogchen Instructions by Sera Khandro, translated by Christina Lee Monson © 2023 by Christina Lee Monson. Reprinted in arrangement with Snow Lion, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com. We thank Shambhala Publications for providing this excerpt, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

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Sera Khandro

Sera Khandro (1892–1940) was one of the most prolific Tibetan female authors of the past several centuries. At the age of fifteen, she left her home in Lhasa for eastern Tibet, embarking on a lifetime devoted to her spiritual path. She became a spiritual master, a revealer of ancient hidden teachings, a mystic, a visionary, a writer, a mother, and a vagabond. Her written works and spiritual lineage have been preserved and are now cherished worldwide.

Christina Lee Monson

Christina Monson (1969–2023) was a Buddhist teacher and Tibetan language translator who studied Buddhism for over thirty years, beginning at Brown University and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Monson journeyed to Nepal in 1989 where she met her root guru, Chatral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche, under whose guidance she studied and practiced for the next twenty-seven years. Chatral Rinpoche first introduced her to Sera Khandro’s teachings, and Monson spent the last several years of her life translating Sera Khandro’s instructions into English.