The Secret Autobiography of Nuden Dorje

Narrative Identity in Seventeenth Century Tibet

My second project focuses on an analysis of Tibetan consort culture within the three autobiographies of Nuden Dorje, (nus ldan rdo rje 1655-1708), who, according Gyatso (2006) is Tibet’s first pro-woman author. Dorje has been called the king of religious revelation in the premodern period[1] and Tibet’s first pro-woman author, who offered virtually unprecedented empowerment to a female protagonist, [2] yet little is known about his life.

This research will analyze Dorje’s construction of consort culture in his life writing. This includes his own life stories and past life stories, as well as his revealed scriptures hagiographies of a female bodhisattva. During my fieldwork in Tibet and Nepal, as a Fulbright-Hays scholar, I began translations for this project. I presented a part of this research at the Lotsawa Translation Conference at the University of Colorado, Boulder. October 5-8, 2018.

The objective of this research is to analyze the narrative production of Nuden Dorje in terms of its presentation of consort relationships. This includes his three autobiographies and his famous biography of a female buddha of Tibet, Yeshe Tsogyal. I will analyze these narratives in terms of their historical context to argue that this literature reveals an understudied perspective on the turbulent milieu of seventeenth century Tibet. 

Key Questions

Nuden Dorje has been called the king of religious revelation in the premodern period and Tibet’s first pro-woman author, yet very little is known about this ground breaking author’s own life. Despite the significant influence of his hagiography of the female buddha of Tibet, his own three autobiographies still wait to be translated and analyzed by scholars. These texts, alongside his collection of narratives, offer a missing perspective on East Asian history and a rare glimpse at a marginal religious leader’s literary production during a time of dramatic and far-reaching change in Tibetan history.

Three primary questions drive this project. First, how do these narratives address gender, sexuality and consort relationships? Secondly, what role did Dorje’s innovation in gender narratives play in constructing and reinforcing alternative forms of social power in these works? Third, Dorje’s stories feature scenes of violence towards women, what is the Buddhist view on gender violence articulated in this literature?  


My methodology for analyzing these texts will center on a narrative studies framework. This approach engages an interdisciplinary perspective which unites literary criticism, philosophy, psychology and sociology. My argument will center on the manner in which the individual and collective are interlaced in narratives. Within autobiographical memory in particular, is evidence of a body of shared representations – society in the individual.[3] Thus, through narrative, individuals make sense of the social world and their place in it. Yet, narrative is also a tool for negotiating with and influencing culture in turn. Narrative lays claims on its audience – shaping power relations by acting as an authoritative force, summoning ethical responses, interpreting and reframing frameworks for experience,[4] and proscribing templates for personhood. Unlike intellectual treatises, which may only be read by educated elite members of society, narratives cross the boundaries between class, economic status and religious sects, reaching a diverse audience.  Thus, by adopting a narrative studies framework, this dissertation will argue that through the charismatic power constructed in hagiography, a sub-altern figure articulated a voice from outside hegemonic influences by using narrative to turn marginalized figures into heroes central to their nation’s history.

Tibet’s Great Turning Point As Told From the Margins

Dorje lived in a period of dramatic social and political upheaval.  After a civil war in Tibet, came the dawn of the central Tibetan government, the Ganden Phodrang. This heralded the centralization of both government and religious authority under the theocratic rule of the Gelukpa sect. This hegemonizing influence was not the only force redefining Tibetan society at this time. It was also a tumultuous period when China’s Qing empire was expanding into Mongolia and Tibet. As Tibet came under the pressure of power struggles between the Mongols and Manchus, Tibetan society simultaneously transformed from within. This period also saw the rise of monastic institutional power and a shift away from the power of aristocratic families. These broad changes impacted the politically marginalized Nyingma sect in drastic ways. It was an era of chaos and violent persecution of their sect under the military force of the Dzungar Mongols. Their campaign to centralize authority and power over Tibet included mass murder and destruction of Nyingma monasteries. In this context,  this author responded with a surprising strategy, Nuden Dorje used religious revelation and narrative to re-envision a rapidly changing Tibetan identity. He strove to make a place for himself and his group in a new Tibet by re-writing Tibet’s own cherished imperial history.

Scholars have by and large viewed Dorje’s era in history according to the official narrative established by the central Tibetan government, as set out in the fifth Dalai Lama’s Queen Song of Spring.[5] Yet there has been little scholarly attention to perspectives on these events which come from outside the central political, social and geographical power structure.

Thus, this research offers a much needed alternative view of this pivotal moment in history.

While much scholarly work about this period has focused on what took place in central Tibet, Dorje lived in an outlying area of Eastern Tibet. His life story provides a glimpse into a missing history of how religious communities in the borderlands responded to these tumultuous times. In an area that was sometimes Tibet, sometimes China, how did frontier religious leaders respond and adapt to the climate of upheaval?  How did marginalized religious groups negotiate their place in this rapidly changing society?

Another distinctive perspective offered by this research is documentation of this author’s clerical role. Dorje was not only a member of a politically disenfranchised religious group, during the rise of monastic institutional power – Dorje was a member of the clergy outside the monastic establishment; he was a member of Tibet’s tantric clergy also known as sngags pa, Tantric Yogis. These figures exhibit one of the distinct cultural practices particular to Tibet’s formulation of Buddhism. They are an understudied yet prevalent feature of Tibetan religious culture. From outside institutions, these Yogis expressed the unrelenting influence of charismatic authority and local religious culture. This group previously escaped the attention of scholars who often mistakenly assumed that monastics were the only Tibetan clerics, when in fact they were not.[6] Tantric clerics such as Dorje were non-celibate and practiced outside monastic institutions, yet competed with monastics for patronage and followers. Dorje’s life writing provides an opportunity to study the life of a yogi in the borderlands at a moment in history when the lines were starkly drawn between Geluk and Nyingma, monastic and yogi, central Tibet and borderlands. Thus, this study of Dorje’s autobiography will provide an account beyond the orthodox and institutional perspective, filling in the greater landscape of events in this pivotal period in East Asian history.

Buddhist Literature Studies – Innovations in Genre:

Tibetans attempted to negotiate their place in this time of social upheaval in a variety of ways. While the dominant religious sect of the time relied on ritual to instantiate themselves as sovereigns,[7] Dorje took another approach. He used biographical strategies to reclaim Tibetan national identity and assert key figures from his sect as as central to that identity. The literary maneuvers he deployed included significant innovations to accomplish this aim.

Dorje in particular, is an important author to study in the genre of religious narratives since his writing utilizes fascinating twists in the classical structure of Buddhist hagiographies when reinterpreting gendered storylines. Tibetan hagiographies generally pattern themselves after the twelve deeds of the Buddha. Dorje’s literature does indeed present narratives along these familiar lines, paralleling the influential paradigm of the the Buddha’s life. However, his stories offers significant twists, revolving around how female protagonists face traumatic events, evidencing innovations in Tibetan hagiographical literature. These changes reflect biographical strategies for adapting to a volatile historical context by fleshing out the gendered traumas faced by female protagonists.

Another gap in religious studies filled by this research is the paucity of biographical sources which directly address gender issues. Dorje’s works feature one of most extensive and influential biographies of a female religious leader in Tibetan literature, the story of Tibet’s female buddha. This text places a woman at the center of the defining events in Tibetan mytho-historical consciousness. His collected works also feature Tibet’s legendary figure of the eighth century –Padmasambhava. It is not the first time that narratives of these two imperial period figures were used to fortify Tibetan identity in a time of national and sectarian crisis. Yet it may be the first full-fledged autobiography of a female Tantric consort framed from her perspective. Since this author’s own autobiography has never been studied by scholars, his work has left many questions to be answered. Why did this author make a female figure so prominent? What in the author’s own life could have led to such a bold body of literature? Do his innovations in the genre depend on the lack of precedence for gendered narratives?


[1] bLo gros mtha’ yas, Jam mgon Kong sprul. gTer ston brgya rtsa’i rnam thar. Tibetan Nyingmapa Monastery; Arunachal Pradesh, 1973. f. 157v

[2] Gyatso, Janet. “A Partial Genealogy of the Lifestory of Ye shes mtsho rgyal.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 2 (August 2006): 1-27. 14

[3] Gyatso, Janet. “A Partial Genealogy of the Lifestory of Ye shes mtsho rgyal.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 2 (August 2006): 1-27. 14

[4] These texts are in Dorje’s collected works: rdo rje, stag sham nus ldan. sTag sham nus ldan rdo rje’i phyi nang gsang gsum gyi rnam thar sogs. Vol. 1–4. Kong po: rdo Dung dgon, 2014.

[5] This follows theorists Durkheim and Dilthey who posited that the individual’s own ideas were actually representations of society instilled in the individual.

[6] Newton, Adam Z. Narrative Ethics. Cambridge, US: Harvard University Press, 2009. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 1 May 2016. pp3-58

[7] Tib. spyid kyi rgyal mo’i glu dbyangs. See: Cuevas, Bryan J., and Schaeffer, Kurtis R., eds. Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the IATS, 2003, Volume 3 : Power, Politics, and the Reinvention of Tradition : Tibet in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Boston, MA, USA: Brill Academic Publishers, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 November 2015.

[8] Samuel, Geoffrey. Lamas and Other Religious Practitioners. Introducing Tibetan Buddhism. (New York, Routledge, 2012).

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