Female Buddhist Adepts in the Tibetan Tradition. The Twenty-Four Jo Mo, Disciples of Pha Dam Pa Sangs Rgyas


The Tibetan term jo mo, generally translated as ‘noble Lady,’ ‘female adept,’ or ‘nun’ and documented from the very beginning of Tibetan history, has a mainly religious meaning (and to a lesser degree a social one). Besides various women adepts referred to as jo mo present throughout Tibetan tradition up to the present day, a hagiographic text from the late thirteenth century entitled Jo mo nyis shus rtsa bzhii lo rgyus, “The Stories of the Twenty-four Jo mo,” has preserved the short life stories of twenty-four female Tibetan adepts (Tib. jo mo) of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, disciples of the Indian Tantric master Pha dam pa sangs rgyas (d. 1117). The realizations attained along the Path by the jo mo in question were mainly attested to by relics (Tib. ring bsrel) and other miraculous objects or events witnessed at the time of their deaths. The aim of this paper is to analyze the religious identities of the twenty-four jo mo as described in the JMLG, while exploring some of the ways in which the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has negotiated the ambiguous religious status of these female Buddhist adepts.

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  1. 1.

    Among the mountains known as jo mo in Buddhist tradition, there is A ma yanggri (‘gril) ri, also called Jo mo yanggri (‘gril) ri, located in the Helambu valley (Nepal). I owe this information to Davide Torri, whom I thank here.

  2. 2.

    Uebach (2005), p. 39.

  3. 3.

    On Jo mo Byang chub, see Demiéville (1987) (reprint), pp. 25–33; Houston (1980), p. 69 n. 28. Richardson (1980), p. 64; Richardson (1985), pp. 32; 82–83. As a patron of Hva šan Mahāyāna, Jo mo Byang chub is mentioned among those who sit on the right side at the Buddhist council of Bsam yas, i.e., the Chinese side (Houston, ibid.).

  4. 4.

    Roerich (1979); (hencefoth BA), p. 409. Actually, Gzhon nu dpal, the author of the BA, mistakes this Jo mo Sgre mo for another Jo mo Sgre mo, known as dge slong ma Sgre mo, who was a disciple of Vimalamitra (eighth century); on Jo mo Sgre mo who is possibly to be identified with the known disciple of Ras chung pa (1083–1161), see Martin (2005), pp. 58–59.

  5. 5.

    For the hagiographies on Jo mo Sman mo, see Dargyay (1977), Rev. Ed., (1979), pp. 771–774; Dudjom Rinpoche–Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje (1991), pp. 119–123; see also Allione (1984), repr. 2000, pp. 291–294.

  6. 6.

    BA (1979), p. 731.

  7. 7.

    Id., 920.

  8. 8.

    Jo mo zhang mo was a consort of Bla ma Dkon mchog rgyal po (1034–1102) and mother of Sa chen kun dga’ snying po (1092–1158).

  9. 9.

    Stearns (2001), p. 133 n. 164.

  10. 10.

    Regarding other possible dates of Ma gcig Lab sgron, see Martin (2005), p. 52 n. 5.

  11. 11.

    Edou (1996), pp. 130–131.

  12. 12.

    Stearns (2001), pp. 126–127; 130–131; 131 n. 159.

  13. 13.

    Edou (1996), pp. 148–149.

  14. 14.

    Nebesky-Woikowitz (De) (1975), p. 195.

  15. 15.

    On the Tshe ring mched lnga, see also id., pp. 177–181.

  16. 16.

    Tsomo (1999), p. 178.

  17. 17.

    LaMacchia (2008), p. 41 ff.

  18. 18.

    Id., pp. 42–47.

  19. 19.

    Watkins (1996).

  20. 20.

    Id., pp. 191–194; 241–243.

  21. 21.


  22. 22.

    The JMLG is part of an old collection of manuscripts, now available in a five volume reprinted edition (Kun dga’ et al. (1979), p. 4, 314–323). It was compiled by Kun dga’ (1062–1124), the chief disciple of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas. The JMLG is actually the second part of the text entitled Jo mo nyis shus rtsa bzhii zhu lan lor rgyus dang bcas, “Answers to the Questions of the Twenty-Four Jo mo, together with their Stories,” in Kun dga’ et al. (1979), vol. 4, pp. 302–323; the first part of this text, Jo mo nyis shus rtsa bzhii zhu lan, “Answers to the Questions of the Twenty-four Jo mo” (in Id., 302–314), is not taken into consideration here and will be the subject of a forthcoming publication.

  23. 23.

    On the JMLG and women’s spirituality in the circle of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas, see Martin (2005), 74–82.

  24. 24.

    The brief life stories of the twenty-four female disciples of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas have long been available in English, mostly abridged and with various omissions (such as the life story of Jo mo Gzhon nu ma, mistakenly identified with Ma gcig Lab sgron), reproduced in ‘Gos lo gzhon nu dpal (1984), vol. 2, pp. 1068–1073 henceforth(DT), English tr. Roerich (1979), pp. 915–920 (BA), with the title of Ma jo nyi shu rtsa bzhii lo rgyus (DT 1984, vol. 2, pp. 1068–1073). In the English translation of the text (BA (1979), pp. 915–920), the twenty-four women are referred to either as “nun” (Tib. ma jo) or “Lady” (Tib. jo mo).

  25. 25.

    Other names often used for Pha dam pa are Kamalaśīla and Kamalaśrī, and, less frequently, Karuṇasiddhi or Ajitanātha. He is also referred to as Little Black Holy Man (Dam pa nag chung or Nag gu: Martin (2006), pp. 111, 119); or Black Atsara (Black ācārya: BA (1979), pp. 872–73.

  26. 26.

    BA (1979, pp. 867–920) gives a long account of the life, miracles, teachings, and disciples of Pha dam pa, together with the lineages of the Zhi byed school. On the rnam thar of Dam pa, see PDNT (1992), pp. 1–242, and Padampa Sangye (2008). A short life-story of Pha dam pa, entitled Dam pa rin po chei lo rgyus, is available in Zhi byed dang gcod yul gyi chosbyung rin po chei phreng ba thar pai rgyan, in Gcod yi chos skor, 1974, pp. 419–606, at pp. 431–439, 1974 [TBRC W00EGS1016278]. I owe this indication to Elena De Rossi Filibeck, whom I thank here. In the Bstangyur of the Tibetan Buddhist canons and in other extra-canonical collections, around seventeen Tibetan-language anthologies of Buddhist Tantric verses were brought to Tibet, thanks to Pha dam pa sangs rgyas and his translator Zha ma ston pa seng ge rgyal po. In both prose and verses, authored or simply compiled by Dam pa, these anthologies include symbolic songs (Tib. brda mgur), expressions of realization (Tib. rdo rjeighur) and diamond songs (Tib. rdo rjeighur): see Schaeffer (2007), pp. 5–73.

  27. 27.

    ZC II, 139; see also Martin (2006), p. 111.

  28. 28.

    Martin (2006), pp. 115–116.

  29. 29.

    DT (1984), p. 1065 (BA 1979, p. 913). The nature of these Objects is not explained here. Nevertheless, elsewhere it is reported that they referred to all kind of things that could serve as causes and conditions for the emergence of Dharma (such as pebbles or special stones, for instance, or the mysterious Wheel of Interdependence, probably a chart that served for focusing concentration: see Martin (2006), pp. 115–116).

  30. 30.

    For the iconography of Pha dam pa, see Martin (2006).

  31. 31.

    Martin (2006), p. 118.

  32. 32.

    Auspicious posture.

  33. 33.

    DT (1984), vol. 2, p. 1075 (BA (1979), p. 921). The translation here is my own.

  34. 34.

    A Tibetanized version of the Sanskrit ācārya (teacher).

  35. 35.

    The Tibetan term gzir, “targeting [gaze]” (Tib. gzir [bltas]) or “piercing [look],” indicates a “gaze targeting [with concentration]”: JMLG, 314.

  36. 36.

    On the different meanings of the staring gaze in Tibetan tradition, see Martin (2006), p. 118.

  37. 37.

    PDNT (1992), 120.

  38. 38.

    Tib. nam kha: PDNT (1992), 97.

  39. 39.

    It is worth briefly noting that the tradition of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas survived into the twentieth century and is still present throughout the Buddhist Himalayas: see Aziz (1979), p. 22; Aziz (1980), pp. 21ff.

  40. 40.

    Martin (2005), p. 74 and n. 70

  41. 41.

    Id., 75.

  42. 42.


  43. 43.

    Id. pp. 78–79.

  44. 44.

    The term jo mo is always an honorific and can be used for either a nun or a gsang yum. The term gsang yum is not always an honorific, but merely indicates the wife of a Lama or a Tantric consort in secret mantra practice.

  45. 45.

    The epithet jo bo is also used for some Tibetan mountain deities, such as Jo bo mchim lha, Jo bo nges sum, Jo bo g.ya’ spang, and Jo bo lha bcas, or local protective deities like Jo bo ‘bo lha, or even Jo bo klu bdud mched dgu, the malevolent deities held to cause various diseases: see Nebesky-Wojkowitz De (1975), pp. 224, 239, 286, 312.

  46. 46.

    The English translation of the complete Tibetan text will be the subject of a forthcoming publication.

  47. 47.

    The Tibetan nya ma is a rather difficult term, as it can indicate a generic female being (without a grammatical male counterpart), a lady, mistress of the house, housewife, female devotee of a master, or female student; a female Buddhist beginner or part-time female practitioner. Moreover, in the hagiographies of Milarepa, nya ma refers to either his female disciples and patrons, or to both male and female disciples and patrons: see Martin 2005, p. 61, n. 29, 30; Uebach (1993), p. 393 n. 3.

  48. 48.

    JMLG,  323.

  49. 49.

    In all probability the 19th jo mo of the JMLG.

  50. 50.

    JMLG 316.

  51. 51.

    The term nye gnas ma (the feminine form of nye gnas) indicates either a generic female disciple, or the personal assistant of a spiritual master, who is performing her /his apprenticeship beside the teacher; the latter implies a significant role for the disciple: in Tibetan texts nye gnas is used to describe Ānanda’s important role as the Buddha’s personal assistant (Sk. /Pāli antevāsika).

  52. 52.

    JMLG,  320–321.

  53. 53.

    In all probability, spiritual instructions and teachings were imparted from female master to female disciples, but unfortunately the JMLG does not provide any evidence of this.

  54. 54.

    Though her name translates as Jo mo Lamp of Dharma, she is actually recorded as the “worst” (Tib. ngan shos) of the twenty-four as she broke her samaya vows: JMLG , 317.

  55. 55.

    Id., 315–316.

  56. 56.

    The Myang is documented to have been a powerful and influential clan in Tibetan history, instrumental in the construction of the Tibetan kingdom from an early date (seventh    century): see Richardson (1985), p. 44; Snellgrove and Richardson (1968), pp. 27–28. Belonging to the Myang clan was considered evidence of noble origin: see for instance Myang tsha dkar rgyan, the name of Milarepa’s mother (Mi la ras pa’i rnam thar (1959), pp. 29ff; Gtsang smyon Heruka (2001), pp. 76 ff.).

  57. 57.

    JMLG,  320. The term bzang mo translates as “noble lady,” “good lady.”

  58. 58.

    In the same way, two other jo mo in the JMLG also had their dead bodies carried into the mountains: the nineteenth, Jo mo Rje’u ma, who is referred to as a famous siddhā (Tib. grub thob ma) and the twelfth, Jo mo Lha mo. According to Martin (2005, 76 n. 74), the JMLG may have the earliest known reference to “carrying corpses up the mountains” (what is called “sky burial” by non-Tibetans).

  59. 59.

    JMLG,  319–320.

  60. 60.

    Id., p. 321.

  61. 61.

    Id., p. 315. The term btsun ma (feminine of btsun pa) generally refers to a nun. If it is not possible to identify the religious status to which Gser btsun ma belonged, we might nevertheless hypothesize that she was related to the Bka’ gdams pa tradition founded by the Indian paṇḍita Atīśa, a lineage which privileged the cenobitic status as opposed to the reclusive lifestyle of wandering yogin and yoginī. Jo mo Gser btsun ma may have lived as a nun in her father’s house, either permanently or at certain times of the year during major agricultural jobs; for references on the close ties between village life and female religious and monastic practitioners in the Tibetan tradition, see: Aziz (1978), pp. 203 ff.; Tsomo (1999), pp. 177–178; Willis (1987), p. 102.

  62. 62.

    JMLG , 315; Gianotti (2017), p. 240.

  63. 63.

    The title ma jo, not extant in Tibetan dictionaries and sometimes employed as a synonym of jo mo, can perhaps be interpreted as a contraction of ma gcig jo mo, an honorific referring to a more elevated condition than that of a simple “nun,” i.e., a “nun-teacher.” In the same way the expression ma jo smyon ma (which does not have a corresponding masculine term) presents some ambiguities regarding the religious status it conveys (maybe a female Tantric master?). Furthermore, in the English version of the BA the terms ma jo, jo mo and btsun ma are often all translated as “nun”; but though all three terms may refer to a woman following a religious Path, they do not imply the proper status of a Buddhist nun: see Martin (2005), p. 57 n. 16.

  64. 64.

    See Gianotti (2017), p. 240.

  65. 65.

    Gianotti (2017), p. 242.

  66. 66.

    The ninth jo mo lived on water alone for 12 years; it is said of the sixteenth jo mo that her urine turned into honey, and the twenty-second jo mo transformed herself into a pigeon (Tib. phu ron).

  67. 67.

    In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition the interpretation of relics can also be related to the theory that the awakening of Buddha nature may manifest in physical form. Klong chen pa (1308–1364) describes the ring bsrel as a manifestation of the Buddha-nature, primordially present and inherent in all sentient beings, visible after the spiritual maturity of the adept. Moreover, the various relics are interpreted by the Rnying ma master as a post mortem spiritual experience, i.e., an enlightenment occurring either during death or in one of the post-mortem stages: see Germano (2004), 56 ff.

  68. 68.

    The two common Tibetan terms for “relic”—ring bsrel (which means “kept for a long time” or “cherished”) and gdung (or sku gdung, honorific for “bone,” but also “remains” in general)—have a broad and a narrow meaning. The broad meaning includes mantra, dhāraṇī, images of various material, tsha tsha, consecrated articles such as dam rdzas and so on, while in the narrow sense they are the so-called “mustard seed like relics”: see Martin (1994), pp. 274; 278–279. The JMLG only uses the term ring bsrel.

  69. 69.

    Gianotti (2012), pp. 203–208.

  70. 70.

    Germano (2004), p. 69.

  71. 71.

    Regarding the division of relics in Indian literature, see for instance the Mahāparinibbānasuttanta, “The Great Discourse on the Definitive Nibbāna,” (tr.) (2001), pp. 1191–92; for the division of relics in Tibetan literature, see for instance the rnam thar of Milarepa, compiled by Gtsang smyon Heruka, which gives the account of the long dispute between the mkha’ ‘gro ma and the human disciples of the master (Mi la ras pai rnam thar (1959), pp. 182–204; Gtsang smyon Heruka (2001), pp. 286–311). In the same way, the rnam thar of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas relates the unequal division of the ring bsrel between the mkha’ ‘gro ma of ‘U rgyan, the nāga and the Indian master’s human disciples, male and female, who were only left with few relics: PDNT (1992), pp. 153–54,

  72. 72.

    Sku gdung 'bar ba chen po'i rgyud, in Rnying ma rgyudbum (Mtshams brag dgon pai bris ma), vol. 11, 788–815 [TBRC W21521]. For the commentary of the KDBG, see Sku gdungbar ba rin po chei rgyudgrel (KDBGG), in Rigdzin padma gling pai zab gter chos mdzod rin po che, (1975-1976) vol. 6, 623–636, [TBRC W21727]. On the KDBG see Martin (1992), pp. 183–191, and Martin (1994), pp. 281–285.

  73. 73.

    KDBG, 808.

  74. 74.

    Id., 809.

  75. 75.

    Sha ri ram, Tibetan transliteration of the Sanskrit śarīram “body,” is used interchangeably with ring bsrel: see Martin (1994), p. 275. Ba ri ram, chu ri ram, bse ri ram, and nya ri ram are different types of sha ri ram described in KDBG,  809-811 and in KDBGG, 626–636.

  76. 76.

    KDBG, 809–811.

  77. 77.

    Id., 811–812.

  78. 78.

    Jacoby (2009), p. 47.

  79. 79.

    JMLG), 314.



Roerich, G.N. (1979), The Blue Annals, Calcutta 1949, repr. Delhi.


‘Gos lo gzhon nu dpal (1984), Deb ther sngon po, 2 vols, Chengdu.


Sku gdungbar ba chen poi rgyud, in Rnying ma rgyudbum (Mtshams brag dgon pai bris ma), vol. 11, 788–815 [TBRC W21521].


Sku gdungbar ba rin po chei rgyudgrel (1975–76), in Rigdzin padma gling pai zab gter chos mdzod rin po che, vol. 6, 623–636, [TBRC W21727]


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Gianotti, C. Female Buddhist Adepts in the Tibetan Tradition. The Twenty-Four Jo Mo, Disciples of Pha Dam Pa Sangs Rgyas. DHARM 2, 15–29 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42240-019-00038-x

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  • Tibetan Buddhism
  • Pha dam pa sangs rgyas
  • Female adepts
  • Jo mo
  • Relics
  • Female religious status