A Clash of Clawed Significations:
Reading and Rereading the Life of Yeshé Tsogyal and the Story of the Starving Tigress
For an eager bodhisattva intent on honing the virtue of generosity, there would appear to be no shortage of starving tigresses to feed, or so it must have seemed to Yeshé Tsogyal, an eighth-century tantric adept renowned for her role in disseminating Buddhism throughout Tibet. Within her earliest biography, the Life of Yeshé Tsogyal (14th century), she encounters an emaciated tigress on the verge of devouring her cubs—a tigress much like the one to whom the Buddha, in one of his previous lifetimes, fed his own body. But when Yeshé Tsogyal’s story is set against the Buddha’s, we see the tale take a remarkable turn. Where once a prince met his gory, albeit praiseworthy end, now a princess sees her shredded limbs restored by an act of truth and the kindness of a predator who plays against type.
Recasting Yeshé Tsogyal as the protagonist of the Tigress Jātaka—a popular, multiform tale that typically stars the Bodhisattva—might seem a curious choice on the part of the Life’s author, but ultimately, it is a brilliant intertextual move, one that stands to (1) mobilize in the model reader certain, perhaps otherwise mute, expectations vis-à-vis the figure of Yeshé Tsogyal and (2) resignify the familiar story of the starving tigress in tandem. After clarifying the relationship between these works, this talk will demonstrate how they stand to interanimate one another through a “clash of significations,” a process by which both stories emerge, in the end, more than the sum of their parts.
Liz Angowski an Assistant Professor of Religion at Earlham College where she teachings courses on Buddhist ethics, hagiography, and religion and ecology. Her current research focuses on Tibetan literature and the figure of Yeshe Tsogyal.
Sign up here.