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A Rarity in an Age-Old Role

Dagmola Jamyang Sakya, who fled when the Chinese took over Tibet, passes along Buddhist teachings from hundreds of years of tradition to audiences in Los Angeles.


Had fate been different, Dagmola Jamyang Sakya would be ensconced in a glittering palace life in western Tibet as the first lady of Sakya, the wife of a high lama representing the 1,000-year-old lineage of one of Tibetan Buddhism's four major orders.

She would be attired in jewels and a ceremonial headdress, overseeing a bustling household of servants, supervising vast estates of crops and yak herds. She would be planning the menus and offerings for endless rounds of religious ceremonies and raising the future religious ruler of the Sakya order, her firstborn son, Minzu.

That destiny changed dramatically after the Communist Chinese completed their takeover of Tibet in 1959. Sakya, along with her husband, His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya, and their family, fled for their lives. And so it is that fate brought this graceful woman with an easy smile and jet-black hair to the United States--and this week, to Los Angeles--to offer teachings on Tibetan Buddhism.

One of the religion's rare female teachers, Sakya was in West Hollywood and Little Tokyo to offer empowerings, or blessings of the mind, body and spirit. Her initiations focused on her major guide and protector: Tara, the Great Wisdom Mother and female emanation of the Buddha of Compassion.

'The Loving Mother Who Cares'

At the West Hollywood gathering, she guided a rapt audience of about 50 people through various mantras, offerings and meditations. One key tool was visualization--for instance, of light rays emanating from Tara's heart to the initiates, cleansing them, removing fears and filling them with radiant light. In a purification ritual, Sakya poured nectar from an urn topped with peacock feathers into the cupped hands of initiates, who sipped it and wiped the liquid on their heads.

"Tara is like the loving mother who cares about all sentient beings," said Sakya, 66, as she sat surrounded by a Tibetan thanka painting of Tara and a table piled high with offerings of fruit. "When you call, she will protect you."

Tara practice, observed by most Tibetan Buddhists, is regarded as one of the tradition's most powerful and effective ways to overcome obstacles, dissolve fears and bring healing and health. The deity is seen as a savior who can help liberate people from negative emotions and the delusionary state known as samsara. In the tradition's colorful lore, stories abound of Tara's blessings--from exorcising demon spirits to curing leprosy to answering the prayers of women longing for children.

Later, in an interview, Sakya explained that Tara represents the same qualities of female mercy and compassion as Kuan Yin of Chinese Buddhism, Kannon of Japanese Buddhism and even the Virgin Mary of Catholicism. His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said the late Mother Teresa was also an emanation of Tara.

Striking a Chord With Men and Women

Her teachings seemed to strike a chord among men and women alike. Craig Wood, 47, a Palmdale postal worker, became intrigued with Tibetan Buddhism through its teachings on death--the hopeful message of rebirth and eventual enlightenment through spiritual practice. As a Catholic, he holds a special feeling for the Virgin Mary and came this day to embrace Tara as a similar emanation of "loving mother kindness."

Sakya, however, was initially a reluctant teacher. She was eminently qualified: From age 8, she had received all the teachings of Tibet's four orders as the only girl in a Buddhist monastery school, thanks to the insistence of her uncle, an influential lama. But when some Tibetan lamas in the United States proposed that she begin teaching to fill the demand for women teachers here, she refused, feeling unqualified.

She and her family had moved from a refugee camp in India to Seattle in 1961 under a Rockefeller Foundation grant to teach Tibetan history and culture. When the three-year grant expired, the ruling scions of Sakya suddenly had to scramble to make ends meet. Her husband found part-time work at a university museum, she began work at a blood bank, and their five sons mowed lawns and washed cars.

In 1974, they set up the Sakya Monastery in Seattle. Soon they found many of the American practitioners asking not only for Buddhist teachings and blessings, but also for advice on marital problems and the like--questions Tibetans never ask their lamas. "I don't know--you answer!" the lamas would tell Sakya in Tibetan, and she began to take on an informal role as spiritual counselor.

She continued to resist entreaties for formal teaching, however, until 1985. That's when a group of women practitioners sent a plea to her uncle in India to grant permission for her to teach. He did, and Sakya decided she could no longer refuse.

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