Conference Report: The Second Lotsawa Workshop, “Celebrating Buddhist Women’s Voices in the Tibetan Tradition”

Joshua Brallier

In 2017 a group of esteemed Buddhist nuns from Larung Gar (བླ་རུང་སྒར།) Buddhist Academy in eastern Tibet published a groundbreaking collection of writings by and about Buddhist women in 52 volumes entitled Ḍākinīs’ Great Dharma Treasury (མཁའ་འགྲོའི་ཆོས་མཛོད་ཆེན་མོ།). Inspired by this historic undertaking, Sarah Jacoby (Northwestern University), Padma ’tsho (Southwest Minzu University), Holly Gayley (CU Boulder), and Dominique Townsend (Bard College) organized the Lotsawa Workshop “Celebrating Buddhist Women’s Voices in the Tibetan Tradition” at Northwestern University from October 13–16th 2022 in Evanston, Illinois. This was the second Lotsawa Workshop funded by the Tsadra Foundation, with support from The Luce Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies and the Religious Studies and Asian Languages and Cultures Departments at Northwestern. This translation workshop explored a variety of questions surrounding the diverse range of Tibetan texts by and about women, including a wide array of genres and time periods stretching from classical Buddhist texts to modern Tibetan women’s writings.

Building upon the model of the first Lotsawa Workshop at the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2018, this second iteration spanned four days and likewise featured keynote addresses, panels, breakout sessions, and the flagship translation workshops. Whereas the first Lotsawa Workshop explored questions of translating devotion, piety, and related religious affects, this second workshop attended explicitly to the many issues at stake in translating gender across historical, cultural, and religious horizons. This focus drew together a robust international cohort of Tibetan and Himalayan women writers, established and emergent scholars and translators, Buddhist nuns, and Buddhist teachers and practitioners. Participants and panelists flew to Evanston from India, Malaysia, Bhutan, Canada, France, England, and across the United States to join in conversations, share writing, theorize translation, and unpack a host of gendered issues in a large variety of Tibetan texts.

We were especially lucky to host and hear from two groups of inspiring and groundbreaking women. The first was a contingent of Buddhist nuns, including Venerables Tenzin Dadon (Vajrayana Buddhist Council of Malaysia), Ani Choyang (Northwestern University), Damchö Diana Finnegan (Communidad Dharmadatta), and Karma Lekshe Tsomo (University of San Diego). The second group of remarkable women to join the Lotsawa Workshop were Tibetan and Himalayan women writers, including Tenzin Dickie from Boston, Kunzang Choden from Bhutan, Nyima Tso from Dharamshala, Tsering Yangzom Lama from Vancouver, and Kelsang Lhamo from Boston. These two groups of women formed the basis of the two panel discussions on Friday and Saturday, as outlined below.

Some of the animating questions of the Lotsawa Workshop included:

Are there themes, genres, and stylistic differences associated with women writers and female voices in Buddhist texts? How can we best render these in English?

What norms and guidelines can we establish for Tibetan translators to use gender neutral language whenever possible and appropriate?

How should we weigh the relative values of fidelity to the Tibetan source text and our wish to create inclusive Buddhist communities for the future?

Thursday, October 13th

The Lotsawa Workshop opened with a catered welcome reception on Thursday evening in the Norris Center on Northwestern University’s campus. Adrian Randolph, Dean of Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, offered some opening remarks on the perennial value of translation and the importance of elevating women’s voices and highlighting women’s concerns. We then formally opened the Workshop with keynote addresses and an ensuing dialogue between Sarah Harding (Tsadra Foundation) and Tenzin Dickie (Buddhist Digital Resource Center). In her opening address,[1] Sarah Harding called our attention to the difficulty of recovering the felt textures and authentic voices of venerated women masters in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

In a series of prescient observations that became a recurrent motif throughout the weekend, Harding spoke of her efforts in “desperately seeking” Buddhist women role models for over thirty years in her own work, life, and teaching. Because the stories and experiences of famed Buddhist luminaries such as Machik Lapdrön (མ་གཅིག་ལབ་སྒྲོན།), Sukkhasiddhi, and Niguma have all been mediated through (primarily celibate monastic) men’s voices, direct access to authentic women role models has been a historic struggle for Buddhist women. Harding ended her address with the optimistic observation that we no longer have to desperately seek for Tibetan women role models, given that so many were present at the workshop.

Tenzin Dickie then took to the mic to offer her keynote address, “Literature in the Bardo.” She opened with a reflection on the historical emergence of the Tibetan essay (རྩོམ།), a piece of writing that declares the truth, an act of speaking that performs its own outcome. The Tibetan essay is essentially a healing enterprise, working to create a just reality by naming the truth. Such articulations, argued Dickie, are essentially transformative: to encounter the truth is to be changed by it. In this way, the essay acts upon the subjectivity of the writer and the reader.

By highlighting the power of truth in the essay, Dickie then deftly maneuvered to the power of fiction to “tell the truth by lying.” This led her to contemplate the enduring power of women’s coded language in Tibetan literary history: from the coded message sent to Tibetan emperor Songsten Gampo (སྲོང་བཙན་སྒམ་པོ།) from his younger sister Semarkar (སད་མར་དཀར།), to the coded message Milarepa’s mother stitched into a traveler’s cloak, to the famed treasures (གཏེར།) concealed by Yeshé Tsogyal (ཡེ་ཤེས་མཚོ་རྒྱལ།) with her consort Padmasambhava (པདྨ་འབྱུང་གནས།), Dickie observed that women’s translations have been a key component of Tibetan existence from its earliest recorded history.

Dickie concluded her keynote with a reflection on the enduring dynamic between telling the truth through performative speech acts, such as essays, or through lying, whether that be code, poetry, or fiction. Whereas Tibetan authors writing under the strictures of the People’s Republic of China must necessarily work in code, revealing the truth by concealing it, Tibetan authors in exile have tended towards caricature, performativity, and declaration. Dickie observed that occupation and exile are the twirling helix of Tibetan DNA and literature: the literary output of Tibetans in Tibet and in diaspora simultaneously deepens the wound of occupation while also airing it out. In this way, concluded Dickie, we can see that “whatever you silence will find a way to break wide open.”

Friday, October 14th

Panel 1

The first full day of the Lotsawa Workshop opened with the panel: “Reflections on Translating Women’s Lives and Teachings in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition” (བོད་ཀྱི་ནང་བསྟན་རྩོམ་རིག་ཁྲོད་ཀྱི་སྐྱེས་ཆེན་མའི་རྣམ་ཐར་དང་གསུང་ཆོས་ཡིག་སྒྱུར་གྱི་ཐད་ལ་བསམ་གཞིགས་བྱེད་པ།). Seated on this panel were the Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Choela Tenzin Dadon, Ani Choyang, Damchö Diana Finnegan, and Janet Gyatso (Harvard University), as Sarah Jacoby moderated. Animated by Sarah Harding’s contemplations on the importance of women role models the night before, the conversation opened with a reflection on the search for Buddhist foremothers and what their stories have offered—and continue to offer—to Buddhist women through history.

Karma Lekshe Tsomo spoke to the didactic importance of women’s biographies, highlighting the tension between women’s despair at their gendered struggles in samsara, on the one hand, and the joy they find in their dharma practice and liberation, on the other. Choela Dadon spoke powerfully on the privilege and power afforded to Buddhist monks over nuns: while nuns are often called “ani” (ཨ་ནི། or “aunt”), monks often receive the honorific term lama (བླ་མ།). Whereas monks can live on their own without issue, nuns are much more vulnerable to prurient advances. Speaking to the unique social challenges monastic women face, Choela Dadon emphasized the comfort that nuns find in scholarly analysis and reflection.

Ani Choyang picked up on this point, speaking to the power of logic in Buddhist philosophy and epistemology. When it comes to abstract reflection and Buddhist doctrine, Ani Choyang emphasized the importance of distinguishing between the timeless pursuit of liberation (which is free of gender) and the ways that cultural mores impinge upon an individual’s ability to undertake that pursuit (which is deeply gendered). Damchö Diana Finnegan followed Ani Choyang by querying the extent to which translating the lives of women is a feminist undertaking. She encouraged the group to shift our praxis from one of translating to one of retelling, which helps to think about the transformative power of narrating the stories of our role models and our ancestors. Janet Gyatso rounded out the panel’s conversation with reflections on the relationship between feminism and femininity: feminist translation practices can draw productively from the repertoire of feminine traits, such as empathetic listening, attunement to group dynamics, sensitivity to body language and subterranean communication, and reverence for the world of nature.

Breakout Sessions: Day 1

Following the morning session, each day of the Lotsawa Workshop featured three breakout sessions that further probed both well-trodden and cutting-edge issues surrounding gender and translation. Each day, participants selected one of three options to attend, and the sessions were grouped around three themes: 1) The Politics of Translation, 2) Gender and Genre, and 3) New Directions. All sessions were recorded by the Tsadra Foundation, and are available for listening on their website.[2]

The first session of the Politics of Translation theme was “Women’s Voices in Tibetan Texts,” featuring presenters Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Sarah Harding, and Kelsang Lhamo. This session spoke to the dual legacy of women’s stories in the textual record: stories of female ancestors, role models, and foremothers serve as inspiration for practice, creativity, and endurance in the face of patriarchal oppression, but the negative ways women are spoken about have long affected—and continue to affect—Tibetan women. In this way, this session highlighted the importance both of imaginative identification with venerated role models, and the continued need to work to uncover the real history of actual Buddhist women.

The first breakout session on Gender and Genre was titled “Power Dynamics in Fe/Male Literary Dialogues,” featuring Holly Gayley, Jue Liang (Denison University), and Sherab Wangmo (Northwestern University). An animating question of this session was the degree to which women’s voices are actually retrievable in male-authored literature. Gayley, Liang, and Wangmo looked to question-and-answer dialogues (ཞུ་ལེན།) in order to query the role that gendered power dynamics inflect on women’s voices in Tibetan texts. A central upshot of this session was the capacity for women’s voices to repeat misogynistic gendered tropes as a savvy strategy for refuting the negative stereotype: women lament the inferiority of their birth, but then go on to achieve liberation anyway.

The first session in the New Directions theme was “Translating Voices from the Margins,” featuring Dominique Townsend, Dhondup Tashi Rekjong (Northwestern University), and Laura Brueck (Northwestern University). This session grappled with questions about marginality: what kinds of reading and listening practices are required in order to hear subaltern voices? What are the consequences—intended and otherwise—faced by marginalized authors when their voices gain broader audiences and exposure? This session also featured a lively discussion about privileged and marginalized languages within a single text: which languages gain pride of place, and which remain imprisoned in footnotes?

Translation Workshop Sessions

Following a lunch break, the Lotsawa Workshop spent the rest of the afternoon in three hours of small group translation workshops. This is the flagship component of the Lotsawa Workshops: intensive small-group conversations regarding translations-in-progress, incubating newer translators and graduate students in a hands-on, practical, and supportive environment. Junior translators accepted to the Lotsawa Workshop submitted a short draft translation, along with the Tibetan original, a month ahead of the conference. Each junior translator was then paired with a senior translator, who read the translations and Tibetan original ahead of time and prepared comments and questions to stimulate conversation. Each workshop session contained five pairs of junior and senior translators, and each translator was given one ninety-minute session dedicated to their text.

During the workshop sessions, each participant introduced their translation, highlighting relevant themes and surfacing key questions for the ensuing dialogue. Following each introduction, the senior translator paired with their work offered commentary and feedback. Once the team finished their opening remarks, the rest of the group was invited to join the conversation, exploring questions of meter and cadence, tone, subtext, and many other perennial questions attending the practice of translation. As the central pillar of the Lotsawa Workshop, these sessions advance a collaborative ethos while providing a fun, engaging, and productive opportunity to enrich the community of Tibetan translators intergenerationally.

Evening Community Event

A real highlight of the weekend occurred on Friday evening when the Tibetan Alliance of Chicago hosted “A Celebration of Tibetan and Himalayan Writers” (བོད་དང་ཧི་མ་ལ་ཡའི་བུད་མེད་རྩོམ་པ་པོ་གཟེངས་སུ་བསྟོད་པ།) at their Evanston location. The evening was MC’d by Dechen Pemba, the editor of High Peaks, Pure Earth,[3] who skillfully navigated a series of engaging and impactful readings by Tsering Yangzom Lama, Kelsang Lhamo, Tenzin Dickie, Nyima Tso, and Kunzang Choden. Dhondup Tashi Rekjong shined as a masterful interpreter for the evening, and the general mood of revelry was enhanced by delicious Tibetan food and performances of song and dance by Chicago-area Tibetan youth.

Saturday, October 15th

Keynote #2

The second full day of the Lotsawa Workshop opened with the second keynote address, a lecture on feminist translation by Luise von Flotow (University of Ottawa). Von Flotow offered a genealogical accounting of feminist translation as it developed over the last fifty years, tracking the rise of transnational concerns in feminist praxis. Beginning with the feminist provocation that translation had been “man-handled” for too long under the aggressive misogyny of normatively standard and hegemonic discourses, von Flotow offered a history of feminist counter-handling, or “woman-handling” of texts. Early feminist translators emphasized that translation is an act of production, not reproduction. Echoing the remarks made by Damchö Diana Finnegan the previous morning, von Flotow urged us to think of translation as knowledge production, not knowledge reproduction.

Von Flotow also echoed Janet Gyatso’s earlier remarks on feminine feminist practices: whereas male-dominated translation was marked by lengthy prefaces and a performative resistance to “getting involved” with the text, feminist translators instead urged active grappling with the text. Rather than kowtowing to the masculinist imperative to hide the translator within the translation, feminist translation instead flouts the shame or embarrassment at amending a text, encouraging the translator to get involved with the text, to footnote deliberate changes, and to make her presence known.

The feminist axiom “the personal is political” also manifested in changes to translation practices as feminist translators began to grapple increasingly with the politics of translation. Von Flotow pointed to the important legacy of Gayatri Spivak and the rise of the postcolonial critique, noticing the tendency for white, Euro-American translators to appropriate women’s texts from around the world to advance their own neoliberal agendas. Increasing recognition of the decolonial imperative led subsequent generations of feminist translators to elevate Indigenous, local expressions of womanhood, critiquing the politics of elite translation that prioritized urban, modern, global, and Anglophone sources over and against the voices of rural, traditional, and local women.

Von Flotow concluded with a reflection on the provocations offered by feminist anthropology from 2015 forward. These translators have emphasized the ethical role of translating the cross-border and cross-linguistic axes of oppression faced by women in neoliberal societies, calling attention to the power differentials among and within women. Might it not be the case, von Flotow wondered, that Indigenous women have an urgent and important critique of women’s narratives that support or enhance the increasingly populist, jingoist fervor of the early twenty-first century? At the end of her lecture, von Flotow fielded a number of questions regarding the place of queer and trans knowledges in feminist translation, questions that left some in the room wondering: how can we reach across even more of the boundaries that appear to divide us—e.g., cis and trans folks—in order to foster collective environments in which mutual and shared liberation becomes possible?

Breakout Sessions: Day 2

The second day of breakout sessions continued to probe a range of questions. The second session of the Politics of Translation theme was “Inclusive/Feminist Approaches to Buddhist translation,” and it featured Janet Gyatso, Amy Langenberg (Eckerd College), and Dawa Lokyitsang (CU Boulder). This session was animated by the question “whose feminism?” in relationship to translation practices and scholarship on Tibetan materials. While feminist commitments broadly adopt an oppositional stance to hegemonic structures, this session urged participants to think of feminist translation as a process of open-ended negotiation instead of a normative telos.

Saturday’s Gender and Genre themed breakout session was “Literary and Liturgical Representations of the Feminine,” featuring Anne Klein (Rice University), Khamokyit (University of Virginia), and Padma ’tsho. This session considered depictions of women and femininity in three genres of texts: sadhanas (གྲུབ་ཐབ།), revenant accounts (འདས་ལོག), and writings by contemporary Tibetan nuns. Looking across these ranges of texts, Klein, Khamokyit, and Padma ’tsho surfaced the importance of female agency in narrating their own concerns and experiences, and encouraged us to think about women’s literature as a site where women can bridge the gap between who they are and who they long to be.

The second session in the New Directions theme was “Yab Yum Symbolism, Heteronormativity, and Translating Sexual Yoga,” featuring Julie Regan (La Salle University), Willa Baker (Natural Dharma Fellowship), Kali Nyima Kape (Georgia State University). This session explored the impact that heteronormative translations of sexual yoga practices have on English-speaking practice communities. Regan, Baker, and Kape highlighted the nondramatic and liberative potential alive within Buddhist traditions, and emphasized the diverse array of positions Buddhist texts have adopted through time regarding human sexuality. They argued for the need to translate and tell the “shadow stories,” or the ones in which sexual abuse is not hidden away, but rather brought to the surface and aired out.

Translating the KCC: A Conversation

Another highlight of the weekend was the opportunity for the entire conference to gather together and hear a personalized address from Venerable Tsering Wangmo, the chief editor of the Ḍākinīs’ Great Dharma Treasury (མཁའ་འགྲོའི་ཆོས་མཛོད་ཆེན་མོ།). We were delighted to receive her comments about the collection and her advice on what would be required to undertake such an ambitious project as translating the entire collection into English. Emphasizing the need to combine rigorous scholarship with the wisdom gleaned from seasoned dharma practice, she spoke to the qualities, training, and discretion needed to execute the task with the same precision and care that earlier generations of Tibetan translators adopted when translating Buddhist materials from Sanskrit into Tibetan.

Following this address, Sarah Jacoby and Padma ’tsho guided an open conversation probing the many issues surrounding such an undertaking. It quickly became clear to all that hefty resources of time, money, and training would be required, but the excitement in the room was palpable. This conversation benefited enormously from the wisdom offered by senior translators at the Tsadra Foundation, including Elizabeth Callahan and Sarah Harding, the expertise of John Canti, Editorial Director of the 84,000 Project[4] translation initiative, and the experience of established scholars such as Janet Gyatso, Françoise Robin (INALCO), and many others.

Evening Resource Share

On Saturday evening, participants gathered at the Hyatt House in Evanston for a presentation on digital resources available for further exploration of Tibetan and Himalayan women’s voices. Jann Ronis, the director of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center[5] (formerly TBRC), navigated the group through the storehouse of primary sources available in multiple Buddhist languages through BDRC’s new BUDA search engine. Alex Gardner, director of the Treasury of Lives,[6] showcased the rich assortment of Tibetan and Himalayan women’s lives available to explore and study on their website. Finally, Dechen Pemba, the creator and editor of the website High Peaks, Pure Earth, showcased the vast array of contemporary literature, essays, and other resources on contemporary Tibetan women’s writing available on her platform.

Sunday, October 16th

Panel #2

The final day of the Lotsawa Workshop opened with the panel “Literary Perspectives from Tibetan and Himalayan Women Writers” (བོད་དང་ཧི་མ་ཡ་ལའི་སྐྱེས་མ་རྩོམ་པ་པོས་རྩོམ་རིག་དང་རྩོམ་འབྲིའི་ཉམས་མྱོང་བརྗོད་པ།). This panel featured the esteemed Tibetan and Himalayan women writers Kunzang Choden from Bhutan, Nyima Tso from Dharamshala, Tsering Yangzom Lama from Vancouver, and Kelsang Lhamo from Boston. It was moderated by Tashi Dekyid Monet (University of Virginia) and Françoise Robin, and Dhondup Tashi Rekjong served as the Tibetan-English interpreter.

This panel emphasized the importance of moving beyond a focus on the femaleness of women writers to consider the literary qualities, human themes, and universal concerns present in their writings. Together these women spoke to the challenges that women writers face in being taken seriously first as writers. Whereas male-authored literature automatically receives attention to its aesthetic value without querying the impact that a man’s gender has on his literary productions, women’s writings are rarely afforded such de-gendered attention.

Another recurrent theme of the conversation was the power of storytelling in helping to shape our individual subjectivity and circumscribe the horizons of our worlds. Kunzang Choden spoke evocatively of the potency of oral traditions: the oral heritage she received from her parents and grandparents saved her when she was a child in a foreign land, helping to remind her that she was a person who could speak, who had stories to share, and who was worthy of attention. Kelsang Lhamo likewise emphasized the importance of storytelling in her development, speaking to the enduring impact that Milarepa’s namthar (རྣམ་ཐར།) had on her desire to explore writing as a form of self-expression.

Yet, as women, these authors also faced uniquely gendered challenges in cultivating the confidence to share their voices, and in finding audiences to listen. Nyima Tso shared the immeasurable impact that her teachers had on her formation as a writer: their noble example, coupled with their patient and steadfast encouragement, helped her discover, nurture, and share her talents. Tsering Yangzom Lama similarly shared the impact that role models had on her confidence, while also speaking to the challenges that Tibetan women writers face in securing publication. All of these authors agreed that the amount of time, expense, and effort required to publish their writings far exceeds what Anglophone men face in sharing their voices.

Taken together, the voices in this panel uplifted the resilience, insight, and fortitude of the women at the forefront of the contemporary efflorescence of Tibetan and Himalayan literature—on the plateau, in exile, and around the world.

Breakout Sessions: Day 3

The final day of breakout sessions featured the last three installments of each theme. The third Politics of Translation session was “Translation Fidelity or Intervention—when should translators sanitize misogyny, explain it, reproduce it, or refuse to translate it?” featuring Elizabeth Callahan (Tsadra Foundation), Nancy Lin (Institute of Buddhist Studies), and John Canti. This session clarified the need for translators and scholars to discern misogyny in its most overt and its most subtle expressions—structural and superfluous, aesthetic and gross. The presenters paid particular attention to the nuances of audience: whereas sadhanas and other ritual texts intended for use by practitioners could be faithfully translated with more gender expansive and gender neutral language—shifting the focus away from women to people, philosophical treatises and narrative literature could actually benefit from translations that render misogyny so bald and vivid that its role in generating suffering becomes inescapable to any reader, helping then to diagnose misogyny as an element of saṃsāra.

The final session in the Gender and Genre theme was “Translating Contemporary Women’s Writing,” featuring Somtso Bhum (Northwestern), Chime Lama (Yeshe Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts, and Humanities), and Dechen Pemba. This session offered readings of original translations of contemporary poems and short stories written by women in Tibet and in the global diaspora. A key theme of this session was the ways that contemporary women writers draw upon the vast reservoir of cultural, religious, and discursive resources in the Tibetan cultural world to develop salient and potent social critiques of misogyny, religious hypocrisy, sexual and domestic violence, and androcentric dominance. Above and beyond social critique, Somtso Bhum, Chime Lama, and Dechen Pemba highlighted the ways that contemporary women authors explore the entire range of human subjectivity, further punctuating the point made earlier in the morning during Panel 2 that women’s literature deserves treatment and attention as literature.

The final session of the New Directions theme was “Buddhist Tropes of Masculinity,” featuring me, Joshua Shelton (Northwestern), Kevin Buckelew (Northwestern), and Charlene Makley (Reed College). This session opened with the premise that attending to masculinity is a feminist endeavor: given that masculinity is normatively unmarked within androcentric and patriarchal systems, deliberately marking it aides in the pursuit of equalizing gender relations. An animating question of this session thus became: to what extent can—or should—a translator explicitly flag what is implicitly coded in a text? We surfaced three tropes—the wild Tibetan yogi, or siddha (གྲུབ་ཐོབ།), the “Great Man” of Chan Buddhism, and the heroic warrior—so that we could elevate questions of hierarchical negotiation, gendered Buddhist praxis, and the enduring evocative power of violence in instantiating powerful men in Buddhist history.

Closing Lunch and Address

The second Lotsawa Workshop ended with a catered lunch overlooking Lake Michigan. Sarah Jacoby and Padma ’tsho offered closing remarks, reflecting on the historic value of this workshop that brought together leading and emerging voices in a supportive environment—one that fostered a collaborative ethos, nurtured connections across generations, languages, expertise, and commitments, and valued the contributions of all its members. Lunch conversations buzzed with the tired excitement of a thrilling and exhausting weekend, with many remarking on the felt difference of this workshop that centered women’s voices and perspectives, particularly those of Tibetan women, over other conferences where such voices are marginal or unattended. It was a truly special event, and we offer our sincere appreciation for the generosity of the Tsadra and Luce Foundations for making it possible.

1. The full text of Sarah Harding’s speech can be found at: “Lotsawa Workshop: Notes for a Keynote,” Sakyadhita Newsletter no. 31 (Winter 2023), 3–5.