Dawa Drolma, one of the great Vajrayana Buddhist lamas of the century and mother of Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, lived in Kham in Eastern Tibet. At the age of 16 she fell ill and died, but returned to her body after five days and lived into her 30’s. For the benefit of others she recorded every detail of her experiences in the bardo and pure realms.
My mother was revered throughout Tibet for her extraordinary powers as a lama, but she was more famous for being a delog (pronounced DAY-loak), one who has crossed the threshold of death and returned to tell about it. Hers was not a visionary or momentary near-death experience. For five full days she lay cold, breathless, and devoid of any vital signs, while her consciousness moved freely into other realms, often escorted by the wisdom goddess White Tara. She undertook her journey as a delog according to instructions she had received from Tara in visions, but against the wishes of her lamas, who pleaded with her not to take such a risk.
It is remarkable that she, a young woman of sixteen, had so much confidence in her meditation that she prevailed over very wise, much older lamas. However, she herself had been recognized as an emanation of White Tara, a powerful force of enlightened mind for the longevity and liberation of sentient beings. Throughout her childhood Dawa Drolma showed a remarkable depth of compassion. No beggar who came to our tent left without her offering whatever she could put her hands on—my family took to hiding its valuables lest she give them away.
Our family’s black felt tent could hold four hundred people during great ceremonies. Dawa Drolma was honored with a throne along with the other high lamas, including her four uncles, who were famous throughout eastern Tibet. She herself was a perfectionist in the performance of ritual. Her presence inspired both care in the effortful steps of practice and recognition that the underlying nature of these steps is effortless awareness.
Her dreams and visions were revelations of realization, and those leading up to her delog experience were unmistakably clear in their instructions. Later, when she traveled through the bardo, or intermediate state between death and rebirth, and the hell and preta realms, an emanation of the feminine deity Vajravarahi expressed doubt that Dawa Drolma would be able to bring about much benefit. “It may be necessary for you, my girl, to return to the human realm. But . . . having taken rebirth as a woman, you will have little authority. . . . Sentient beings in these times will be hard put to believe that your accounts are true.”
However, the direct experience of other realms did indeed invest my mother with great spiritual authority when she taught of correct conduct and karmic cause and effect. No one doubted her words, not only because great lamas such as Tromge Trungpa had witnessed her corpse coming back to life, but also because she knew the whereabouts of buried coins and actions of the deceased before their deaths—things that she could not possibly have known without having been told directly by those she encountered as a delog. Later in her life one of the most generous contributors to her projects was a Tibetan businessman who had been an adamant nonpractitioner of religion until my mother conveyed to him information about buried money from his deceased sister.
Delog Dawa Drolma’s account here is as vivid as that of a tourist describing a country he or she has visited, yet hers is really a journey of consciousness through the pure and impure displays of mind. The delog experience is extraordinary, marvelous, even within the esoteric context of Tibetan schools of Vajrayana Buddhism. Yet Delog Dawa Drolma’s account has the power and immediacy of direct experience, and I trust that those who read it will find that the phenomena of the realms correspond to aspects of their own mind’s experience. ~ Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche from the introduction to Delog