Tribute to Tamke Wangmo

Tamke Wangmo in the retreat area.

Ani Lama Tamke Wangmo, one of the last remaining senior nuns to have re-established Gebchak Nunnery after the Cultural Revolution, passed away with all the signs of a highly accomplished practitioner in July 2012 at the age of 76. Having spent most of her long life at Gebchak, Tamke Wangmo excelled in yogic practice unique to this nunnery. For the nuns of Gebchak she was a guide, a mentor, an inspiration, an authentic yogini. Like many of the nuns of Gebchak, Tamke Wangmo’s spiritual accomplishment in her own lifetime was witnessed most brilliantly – and with great reverence – in the manner of her dignified passing.

A teaching in joyful confidence

According to the Gebchak nuns, the older the nun, the longer she has spent in dedicated practice and the greater the authentic embodiment of her meditation. And so the number of old, white-haired nuns is the measure of a nunnery’s quality and excellence of practice. These old nuns are held with great respect for their lifelong dedication to practice. They are affectionately called “Jogema” by the other Gebchak nuns – a title for those old nuns with a lifetime of practice experience.

When these elderly Gebchak nuns pass away they are often very clear, their minds luminous, sometimes visionary, and they usually stay in tukdam [1] meditation for several days after their vital signs have stopped. These elderly Jogema are also a key reason why novice young nuns make a determined choice to enter Gebchak Gonpa every year, despite the famed rigor of the nunnery’s discipline and the opportunities elsewhere for young women in modern Tibet.

The young women of Gebchak hold their elders with high regard. This image of Tamke Wangmo was taken in 2007 by Karen Harris.

Tamke Wangmo was a member of the Yamantaka[2] retreat division and died there surrounded by a dozen fellow retreatant nuns praying in their meditation boxes. A few days before she died her complexion and spirit brightened, and she passed away with joyful confidence. She remained in the state of tukdam for several days. All the Gebchak nuns celebrated her death, knowing that dying while in retreat is the best way to go. This is the way of death at Gebchak Gonpa.

Her body was offered to the vultures in a sky burial on the mountainside behind the nunnery.

Here is an excerpt from Tamke Wangmo’s own words in 2006:

“When some religious freedom was regained in the late 1980’s, my family and I returned to Gebchak. About 30 older Gebchak nuns like me returned to help rebuild the Nunnery. We taught the new nuns the former traditions of practice – how to practice the Trolo[3] sadhana, the manner of practicing in retreat, the chanting tradition and so forth.

Nowadays there are only about seven of these white-haired, older nuns left at Gebchak. The rest have passed away.”

Today there are only two elderly Jogema remaining at Gebchak Gonpa. These are the nuns that re-built the nunnery from rubble and re-established the practice traditions of Gebchak Gonpa after the Communist Revolution – a remarkable feat that was spearheaded by the nuns themselves. Those who knew Tamke Wangmo are struck by the manner in which she overcame intense hardships and truly embodied the teachings through her practice and conduct at all times.

It must be remembered that Tamke Wangmo is representative of all the elder wisdom holders of Gebchak. We have record of Ani Lama Sherab Zangmo, the Great Yogini of Gebchak, who passed away some years ago. She was another Gebchak nun displaying clear signs of a highly accomplished meditator. The elderly nuns – these Jogema – are considered most precious for it was their enormous kindness that helped to rebuild Gebchak nunnery from scratch in order to preserve their practice for future generations of younger women. The wisdom and caliber of practice achieved by these senior women have inspired new generations of Gebchak nuns, and they will always remain at the foundation Gebchak Gonpa and its practice lineage.

In 2006 Tamke Wangmo made the following great aspiration that included benefactors across the globe to connect with Gebchak through offering financial support to the nuns:

“How wonderful if it is possible, as it will allow this Dharma practice to continue.

[The full interview with Tamke Wangmo can be read here.]

[1] Tukdam: Tib – ཐུགས་དམ་. A deep meditative composure that great realized meditation practitioners can enter into after their bodies have expired. After the cessation of all vital functions the physical body is able to remain upright in this state of tukdam for several days, or even longer, and there are many witnessed accounts throughout the world of this happening with Tibetan Buddhist practitioners. More information here.
[2] Yamantaka: The wrathful aspect of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom, and in other contexts functions as a dharma protector.
[3] Trolo: A wrathful aspect of Guru Rinpoche.