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Often when people think of Tibetan Buddhism they have a limited vision of that social reality, perhaps one that imagines monks sitting in meditation or focused on the Dalai Lama. Rarely is the historical role of female Buddhist masters central to one’s understanding of contemporary Tibetan life. In Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet (Columbia University Press, 2016), Holly Gayley, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, centers women’s leadership through an introduction to the important Tantric master, Khandro Tāre Lhamo (1938–2002). Through an examination of hagiographic literature, the personal letters between Tāre Lhamo and her husband Namtrul Rinpoche (1944–2011), and field research, Gayley offers an in depth study of the role of Buddhism in the revitalization of Tibetan culture and identity in the post-Maoist period. Central to her analysis is understanding how hagiography aids in healing cultural trauma brought on by the minority policies of the Chinese Communist Party and the brutal years of the Cultural Revolution. The reframing of historical events fosters cultural revival in Tibet envisioned through a Buddhist lens. In contrast to the lofty images presented in biographies, the fifty-six letters exchanged between Tāre Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche offer a personal self-narration of their relationship, which is steeped in Tantric imagery, Tibet folk genres, and Buddhist cosmology. In our conversation we discussed the Nyingma Buddhist tradition, the effects of the Maoist period on Tibetans, forms of agency, ethnographic accounts of ritual ceremonies, female religious authority, revelatory texts and treasure teachings during degenerate times, contemporary preservation of their teachings through multimedia sources, the couple’s activities within the community, and Tāre Lhamo’s legacy today.

Kristian Petersen is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Old Dominion University. He is the author of Interpreting Islam in China: Pilgrimage, Scripture, and Language in the Han Kitab (Oxford University Press, 2017). He is currently working on a monograph entitled The Cinematic Lives of Muslims, and is the editor of the forthcoming volumes Muslims in the Movies: A Global Anthology (ILEX Foundation) and New Approaches to Islam in Film (Routledge). You can find out more about his work on his website, follow him on Twitter @BabaKristian, or email him at

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