Teachings | Life, Traditional
A talk on the life of the great Indian yogini, Sukhasiddhi, an important figure in the Shangpa Lineage.
Okay, the subject matter or the topic this evening is the life story of a woman who came to be known as Sukhasiddhi. She’s one of the lineage figures in the Shangpa Kagyu. Khyungpo Naljor was a Tibetan master who lived in about the twelfth century and he started off as a Bon priest and then studied Dzogchen. And at the age of 57, which was a quite a respectable age for Tibetans in those days, he felt that he had not come to the level of spiritual understanding that he wanted, so he set out for India. And in his travels in India, which was an extremely dangerous journey in those days, he studied with a number of teachers, the four most important are Niguma, Sukhasiddhi, Maitripa, and Rahula. These were all Indian adepts.
And that’s how Sukhasiddhi comes into the Tibetan tradition, through Khyungpo Naljor and the Shangpa Kagyu. Sukhasiddhi’s own story, I’m going to relate it to you but as I do I want you to consider the question: given that this is all we know about Sukhasiddhi, why was this preserved? And why is this all we know?
It begins with a woman who is married, and has three sons in addition to her husband. They’re extremely poor and all they have left is one measure of rice. So the men say, “We’re going out to look for work, look for food, I hope we’ll bring some back. If we don’t we’ll cook up this last measure of rice and that’ll get us through and we’ll try again tomorrow.” So the men set off. One goes north, one goes east, one goes south, one goes west. And while they’re away there’s a knock on the door and the woman answers. It’s a religious mendicant, in Indian society a saddhu, begging for food. The woman sees him and is confident that her husband and sons will find food, so she cooks up the rice and gives it to the saddhu. He thanks her and leaves. And the men come back, husband hasn’t been successful, nor has the oldest son, nor the second, nor the third. So they say well let’s have the rice. And the woman says, “Well there isn’t any rice.” “What do you mean?” “Well this saddhu came and I gave him the rice because I thought you guys would find some food.” So the men got very angry with her, beat her and threw her out, and said, “Get out of here we don’t want you anymore.”
So she wandered away, completely destitute and went into a neighboring country. And she begged and she was able to get some barley and some rice and she brewed some beer. And then she went to the marketplace and was able to sell it. Happened to be very good beer. And with that she was able to buy some more barley and rice and she brewed some more beer and pretty soon she had a good business going. A stall in the bazaar, a steady flow of customers—she was doing fine.
One day this quite extraordinary woman came, very striking, and she said, “I’d like to get some beer.” And the old woman said, “Is it for you?” And she said, “No it’s not. It’s for my teacher, Virupa. He’s a siddha who lives up in the mountains.” She said, “Oh in that case just take it. Don’t worry about paying me.” So everyday she came to the bazaar and the woman gave her a measure of beer, and she went on and took it to Virupa. And Virupa thought, “You know this is really good beer.” And so he asked this woman, “Where do you get this beer? You keep bringing this beer—it’s really good.” And she says, “Well it’s from this old woman in the bazaar.” “Well that’s nice. It’s really good beer it must be expensive.” “No she gives it for free.” “To everybody?” “No, no, I said that you were a great master, and she said, ‘Well fine just take the beer,’ so she’s been offering it to you all this time.” “Well, we’ll have to do something for her. Bring her here.”
So the woman was brought, presented to Virupa, and Virupa gave her empowerment and initiation into the mysteries and the old woman had such profound experience that her body transformed into that of a sixteen year old maiden, and she took the name Sukhasiddhi. And she studied and practiced very, very deeply and became very famous as this great teacher. And that’s her story.
In the Shangpa tradition she’s usually depicted seated with the finger pointing to the sky. And this is because among her many teachings one is particularly well known:
In the sky, in the empty sky where there is no awareness, plant your mind which is endowed with awareness, plant your mind and relax. It’s a pointing out instruction.
Okay, so that’s the story of Sukhasiddhi. Now as a life story it’s not a lot to it is there? Or is there? What do you make of it?
Well let’s look at it in a slightly different way. Maybe it isn’t about a woman, maybe it’s about what happens. These stories in Tibetan are called rnam thar (pron. nam tar). That’s the term, and they’re a record of freedom. thar (pron. tar) is the word for freedom. So you have a woman and a family, in other words you have the old order, and what has happened to this old order, this conditioned system? It’s broken down completely; it can no longer support itself. It’s down to its last resources. And so the system goes out tries to find something, but what’s left at the center? It’s the woman, and one has to remember that in Eastern thought the woman is always the symbol for wisdom, for pristine awareness, for natural knowing. And when all of the conditioning is out trying to do its thing, trying to sustain itself, what happens? Well, there’s a knock on the door, there’s a spiritual opening, there’s a saddhu, right?
Now is this beginning to sound familiar: when the system doesn’t function something begins to open? And the woman’s response to this appearance of the spiritual is to nourish it—she feeds it rice. She’s rewarded for her efforts by the conditioning of the system. In other words she’s thrown out of the system for nourishing the spiritual opening. Sounding familiar at all? And so now she’s on her own, free of the conditioning. Free of the conditioning, she discovers resources that she never knew she had. She knows how to make beer—very good beer—which is also a symbol for wisdom.
Ken: Is also a symbol for wisdom.
Ken: Beer is, in the vajrayana.
Ken: Meat is a symbol of compassion and beer is a symbol of wisdom. Pardon?
Ken: Oh okay. And what does she do? Well, when another spiritual opening arises she nourishes that too. And then in nourishing that she creates an opening which she herself is able to engage. So this is my feeling about why this story is so faithfully preserved. It’s not necessarily about a particular woman and what she went through, but is a way of telling us, now, what we have to do. Any thoughts?
Warren: Yeah, a couple at least.
Ken: Please Warren.
Warren: I love the story. I love that all the women didn’t know that in Buddhist thought. I love the idea of beer and wisdom, I mean it’s…but most of all I love the metaphors of the knock on the door and with the opening to the unbidden, and creating abundance [unclear]. Cool story. You know I love that. It’s spiritual opening…that knock on the door. Yeah.
Ken: When everything else is in the process of crumbling.
Student: And is more what?
Ken: Is in the process of crumbling.
Student: Ken, in a cultural context, in Asia if a spiritual person comes to you begging don’t you automatically give them whatever you have?
Ken: Yes. I mean that is the culture but….
Student: Not everyone does.
Ken: Not everyone does. And you’re not always rewarded for your efforts. Yeah.
I remember when I was in India saddhus would walk around the bazaar and everybody would put a couple, you know, a couple paisa or a little food in their bowl. That’s where the Buddhist system of begging comes from. Goes back much further than that, than Buddha, and it’s still in practice today. It’s still a pretty meager existence. Yep. Nava?
Nava: What [unclear] in order to be thrown out of the system you need courage and faith in order to do what she did.
Ken: You need courage and faith? Yes. And how would you describe that faith?
Nava: This is what should be done. No expectation.
Ken: Do what needs to be done. No expectation. Yeah. It’s pretty open isn’t it?
Ken: Yeah and it’s very different from belief. Yeah and that’s important. It’s not about believing something, it’s about opening and just accepting. Going into the mystery, going into the dark, however you want to put it. Other thoughts? Clint? No. Raquel, strike any chords?
Raquel: [Unclear] Yeah.
Ken: Care to share?
Raquel: No, I’m just sitting here think….
Ken: Okay, all right.
Ken: I’m going to take various stories from various teachers’ lives but I want you to think about them quite deeply because most of the incidents that are recorded, while they may have actually happened, that’s not why they’ve come down to us today. They come down to us through the centuries because there’s something in what the record is. And one of the things that I think’s very important for us is to be able to read or hear these stories and understand what they carry. And not only understand what they carry but also know how to work with that in our own practice and in our own lives. Can you rely on the habitual, social, cultural, familial conditioning that you inherit? Hmm? Bob?
Ken: No. But how many of us do? You know? How loathe are we to actually let it go? All right.
Student: It’s really interesting because I do something which is called the Alexander technique.
Student: And it does very much with people and their habits, and how they interfere with the best use of yourself on the mental and very physical level. Because the moment you’re connected to your body, you’re becoming much more present in the moment. And how…and there are certain procedures when you sort of teach people how to discover the balances, head and spine, and all that which facilitates basically the easing in your body and pretty much you are putting yourself in the place where it’s all at ease and there’s anything possible. And what it’s stays in your way is the habitual responses. So the moment you sort of organize yourself, you take a moment, you always take a time to observe yourself and become aware as to what is it that you are doing with yourself? What is it that is happening? And then by creating, by organizing yourself, by giving yourself sort of suggestions as almost mental to organize certain balances in your body. It opens that area which allows people to be much more flexible or to musicians to connect to what they are doing and become more different relationship with the music, instrument, between music and musician and the habits are very present there and that’s what people people are struggling with and so no matter how much you try to do something this habitual way that you are doing over and over it’s not going to be a different result or anything, so habits [unclear]….
Ken: Yeah, and that goes back to what we were talking about earlier about the stories.
Student: Yes, absolutely.
Ken: So over the next week listen for the knock on the door. Nourish what’s there. Trust your own knowing, the knowing that doesn’t depend on any conditioning, or anything that you have been taught. It may make your life a little interesting. Okay?
So let’s close here. It’s about 9:30?