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Treasure Seeker

With research that adds important female voices to Tibetan Buddhism, Sarah Jacoby goes deep to examine the roots of human suffering, the path to liberation, and what the ‘Me Too’ movement may mean for global Buddhism

Sarah Jacoby

Sarah Jacoby, director of undergraduate studies in Weinberg College’s Religious Studies Department. Photo by Matt Golosinski

Enrollment for Sarah Jacoby’s “Introduction to Buddhism” class usually fills up within an hour or two, attracting students eager to meditate and wade into a subject they think they understand. After all, “mindfulness” has exploded in recent years. It’s shown up on podcasts, smartphone apps, magazine covers, and in medical practice, partly driven by interest in bridging the worlds of science and contemplative practice, partly by the profit motive.

The students quickly discover that meditation practice isn’t on the syllabus and their professor isn’t some surrogate yoga instructor. She is a religious studies scholar whose world brims with Buddhist deities, bodhisattvas, demons, and historical figures like Sera Khandro, a female Tibetan author, guru, and “terton,” a revealer of “spiritual treasures” like scriptures and artifacts supposedly hidden centuries ago and rediscovered through supernatural visions. Khandro’s extraordinary autobiography and her biography of her teacher and tantric partner, Drimé Özer, formed the subject of Love and Liberation, Jacoby’s award-winning and deeply researched 2014 book.

In exploring Khandro’s spiritual journey — a complex mix of tragedy, triumph, and relationships with human and nonhuman entities — Jacoby says the book provides valuable perspective on the life of a woman in early 20th-century Tibetan society.

“One of the things that’s most fascinating about Sera Khandro (1892-1940) is her nomadic world,” says Jacoby, director of undergraduate studies in Weinberg College’s Religious Studies Department. “She writes about her life and visions, but also about very personal events — the death of her guru, the death of her five-year-old child, about a stillborn birth, about domestic abuse, and a divorce she went through. These biographies are valuable both for understanding religion and for understanding how Tibetans lived.”

What’s more, Jacoby says that Khandro’s voice as a female terton (“treasure discoverer”) emerges within a Tibetan Buddhist tradition that, for centuries, has been defined by men, usually monks who have transmitted the dharma teachings that inform Buddhism to this day. In truth, Buddhism has existed in rich cultural contexts, Jacoby says, and been practiced by laypeople, nobility, poor people, women, and monastics. Yet, we usually only hear a certain kind of voice.

“There are very few women who wrote hundreds of pages about their everyday experience, including as mothers, in the Tibetan world. Sera Khandro’s autobiography is important because it tells us about women’s involvement in Tibetan Buddhist life, ritual, and religious practice,” says Jacoby, who is now translating Khandro’s 407-folio autobiography into English.

Tibetan documents

Two of the Tibetan documents that Jacoby is translating into English. At left, a facsimile of a very rare manuscript called “Ocean of Dakinis,” by Lelon Shepi Dorje; at right, the folio pages of Sera Khandro’s autobiography.

She also recently launched a research project about a very rare manuscript called Ocean of Dakinis by Lelung Zhepai Dorje, an early 18th-century monastic hierarch who not only served as a teacher to successive Tibetan rulers, but also wrote about his visions and encounters both with real women and feminine deities called dakinis (the term can refer to flesh-and-blood and supernatural figures). Jacoby is excited about this text and its potential to reveal the roles of Tibetan women circa 1720. “We don’t have many records of women’s lives in this context, and in Lelung’s manuscript we find fascinating material that I’m still puzzling through.”

She reads an excerpt she has translated in which a dakini, naked except for bone ornaments, appears before Lelung and speaks: “Have you gained confidence that we alone, the mother dakinis and no one else, are the ones providing you, master and disciples, with auspicious connections? Even though we girls engage in negative talk and gossip, in order to become a Buddha you need us girls.”

‘Not Navel-Gazing’: Curing the Disease of Suffering

For Love and Liberation — as well as the excellent 2014 one-volume survey of Buddhism that she co-authored — Jacoby drew on her extensive fieldwork and her many years of studying the history, language, and culture of Tibetan Buddhism. This is a tradition that finds the individual self to be an illusion that dissolves upon closer inspection. Buddhists often say that people are ruled by the “monkey mind,” an ever-shifting parade of impulses, misconceptions, and unhealthy attachments or aversions that result in suffering. The “monkey” may be tamed, and suffering alleviated, by skillful meditation, action, and study that permit a glimpse into the deeper truth: that all things are profoundly interconnected and that life is defined by impermanence and transformation.

In India some 2,600 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama, the historic Buddha, was said to have gained insight into this reality. His teachings have shaped centuries of Buddhist belief and continue to animate religious and scholarly discussion today. Love and Liberation, for instance, drew inspiration from a couple fundamental research questions: What does it mean to live a good Buddhist life? What does it mean to be a self in the world? Jacoby says the answers have crucial relevance for people and the planet today.

“This is not navel-gazing or some kind of fascination with esoterica,” says Jacoby of her work. She points out the pervasive “doctor” metaphor in Buddhists texts, which aims at diagnosing and curing the “disease” of human suffering. “It’s important for us in modern America to realize that our sense of individualism — the notion that it’s ‘all me’ and that the world is here for my benefit, that I’m cut off from everything else — this viewpoint is no more real or true than anything else. In fact, this view has devastating consequences for the very continuation of humanity, let alone the environment and biodiversity.”

Remembering what it means to be a self is not some kind of “given,” Jacoby adds. That personal identity is culturally and linguistically constructed.

From Boston to Dharamsala

Jacoby’s upbringing in Boston had little to do with Buddhism. “I didn’t grow up near the Tibetan Buddhist world in any way, shape, or form,” she says. A high school course in non-Western religions piqued her interest, but it wasn’t until her sophomore year at Yale University in Stanley Weinstein’s History of Indian Buddhism class that she really knew she wanted to focus on religious studies, something she would continue to do later as a doctoral student at the University of Virginia.

Jacoby Office

Details from the office of Sarah Jacoby, religious studies.

“It just clicked,” she recalls. “In particular, the Buddhist understanding of the nature of suffering, why we suffer, how we get here as a product of karmic consequences, and how suffering can be eradicated, that made sense to me in a rational way.”

An undergraduate semester abroad in India, Nepal, and Tibet galvanized Jacoby’s enthusiasm, and during the excursion she had an inspiring meeting with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. Tibet’s vast open spaces, much of it above the tree line, provided a startlingly clear perspective: “It’s just unbelievable. The sky is filled with stars and this vividness that you don’t ever really see,” says Jacoby. “I became fascinated with not only the abstract philosophy of Buddhism, but with the Tibetan language and with what it means to live in a Buddhist idiom in a Buddhist culture.”

‘McMindfulness:’ Path to Liberation or Threat?

Jacoby says she still hasn’t lost that initial passion for her scholarship that she had when she was 19. Today, though, Buddhism’s globalization means she and her students also examine issues related to “transplanted” traditions. Jacoby says she sometimes finds herself playing Devil’s advocate with her undergraduate students in courses like “Buddhism in the Contemporary World,” which includes questioning whether mindfulness really can be scientifically studied, something that, sparked by the Dalai Lama’s great interest in science, initiated the first “Mind and Life” meeting in 1987.

A meditator herself who believes that this practice can provide insight and reduce suffering, Jacoby takes a more jaundiced view of what’s been called “McMindfulness,” a trend to secularize and commodify meditation by stripping away its Buddhist core. While many of Jacoby’s students view the proliferation of mindfulness as a net gain for humanity, she’s less certain: “We have these meditation apps on our phone, produced by the very people in the tech industry who created our addiction to technology,” she says.

She adds that, while the mainstreaming of mindfulness is “always sold as secular,” its historical antecedent is explicitly Buddhist — including the language of mindfulness.

“Mindfulness comes from a Buddhist word — sati — which is in the Eightfold Path and which is fundamental to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. It’s not an abstract thing. It comes from a particular worldview, and not a secular one. What bothers me is that usually the people who are marketing and monetizing it are white men in business suits. Once you divorce something far enough from its South Asian roots, does that make it okay to make money hand-over-fist by selling it? The religious studies scholar in me says no, there’s something being abused in that.”

Jacoby and her students also have examined another kind of abuse: the sexual scandals that have hit the global Buddhist community recently, including one making headlines in The New York Times. She says she has long seen this “Me Too” reckoning coming, and that within Tibetan Buddhist circles sexual abuse has been an open secret. When asked whether one possible solution is to elevate more women into senior roles, Jacoby says it’s not that easy.

Tibetan Buddhism’s globalization has brought it into places that are not traditionally Buddhist — like Boston — resulting in more women in leadership positions. But Jacoby cautions against a kind of “modern, secular” arrogance that assumes it knows how to “fix” Tibetan Buddhism.

“We have to step back and ask, ‘Do we even know enough yet about all the ways that women have contributed to the tradition that we have inherited to be able to say that we know how to improve it?’” Jacoby asks.

Not yet, but that’s starting to change, including thanks to a research project Jacoby is looking to get funded: she is working to spearhead a major English translation effort of a 52-volume library of Buddhist women’s biographies and religious teachings compiled by Tibetan nuns and sent to Jacoby two years ago. She sees this as a global collaborative research effort that will include an inaugural conference she is arranging. She also is growing Northwestern’s Buddhist studies strengths, applying funding from a generous Khyentse Foundation grant she won to hire a Tibetan language lecturer.

“It’s not just me sitting here studying Tibetan,” she says. “We’re bringing the Tibetan language to the broader Northwestern community and we have a growing number of doctoral students coming here to study Tibetan language and Buddhism at the University.

“Like other great research across Northwestern, our work also aims at reducing suffering in the world.”

By Matt Golosinski