Learning from the Lives of Lineage Holders 3
A series of talks on Khyungpo Naljor, Niguma, and Sukhasiddhi.





Khyungpo Naljor Download

A talk on the life of the great Tibetan yogi, Khyungpo Naljor, an important figure in the Shangpa Lineage.




Section 1

Okay, now Khyungpo Naljor lived in about the 12th century.

Student: How do you spell his name?

Ken: K-h-y-u-n-g-p-o N-a-l-j-o-r.

Student: Khyungpo Naljor.

Ken: Yeah, depending on the dialect it’s Khyungpo or Chyungpo—Rinpoche’s dialect was Chyungpo. Now this is the first teacher of the lineage which we have a fairly detailed biography, at least in comparison to the ones for Sukhasiddhi and Niguma. It’s quite detailed and we certainly can’t cover everything about his life in one evening, a short period of time. Just going to hit a couple of the points about the earlier part of his life because I think they bring up a number of dilemmas that many of us have experienced, and are quite common.


Section 2

And Khyungpo Naljor was born into a Bon family. Bon was the indigenous Tibetan religion, at least that’s the usual way that it’s cast. It’s not entirely clear that it was the indigenous Tibetan religion but it was, it predated Buddhism to some extent, and Buddhism and Bon have experienced a kind of rivalry which Buddhism largely won, but Bon continued and survives to the present day; there are Bon practitioners. And as often happens when you have two religions or spiritual paths that are competing with each other, they both take the best of the other. And so they come out actually very similar. The difference with Bon is that it does everything in the opposite direction of Buddhism, so in Buddhism you circumambulate, so it’s like walking clockwise, and in Bon you circumambulate walking counterclockwise, so forth, so forth.

Anyway, he’s born into this family and studied Bon quite seriously and became a great practitioner. A master of it, and a teacher to many, many people. And he was able to inspire students who had visions and all kinds of mystical experiences and things like that. So this was not a failure, but it didn’t satisfy something in him. And when he was born an Indian saint had kind of shown up at the doorstep, and made all of these grand prophecies about him and he recalled this. So he thought, “Hmmm, I think I’ll go to India and study with people there.”


Section 3

Now he was in his fifties at this point, which in Tibetan’s at that age, would be equivalent to being about 70, 75 now. And the journey from India to Tibet was no joke right? Much more difficult. I mean it’d be like walking across Death Valley today, or something like that. It was tough; very tough. So he gathered up a bunch of gold to use for offerings when he got to India. But before he left he went to see his parents, and his parents said, “Oh, please don’t leave us. We’re old, you know India’s a long way away and you may not come back and we’d really miss you.” etc. Anybody have this one? [Affirmations]

And he went, “Okay, okay, okay.”

They said, “There’s lots of good Buddhism here in Tibet. If you don’t have to go all the way to India to do that. You can do it right here at home.”

Anybody have this one? So he said, “Okay fine.”

So he studied dzogchen, and in particular he studied what’s called the mind section of dzogchen which is a large section. It’s got about 18 different series of teachings in it. And he mastered them all, and had very, very good experiences, etc. But it still didn’t satisfy. You know something was missing.

And he would say, “There was no one contesting my abilities, no one debating me, no Indian adepts or translators ever translate these Bon texts, so when I ask for debate people refuse telling me I’m not a dharma practitioner. I’m a Bon practitioner.”

So there was something missing for him. And he was looking for something deeper, something to engage.


Section 4

So after that he then studied with a very highly regarded mahamudra master by the name of Nirupa. This is not to be confused with Naropa. This is Nirupa, who lived in Tibet, and received many, many teachings from him, and came to understand these and practice them. And then at a certain point Nirupa says to him, “Khyungpo, now you are like me. We’re equal in our realizations. You know all that I know. You’re outstanding.”

And here’s what Khyungpo Naljor, has to say about this: “This raised doubts in my mind. Well, I thought, I’ve been taught the entire doctrine, and have spontaneous devotion for the dharma. I’ve studied all the teachings, yet in truth I don’t have the slightest sign of extraordinary or even common abilities. Now my lama Nirupa is the greatest adept in Tibet, so if he says that he and I are equal it must mean that he hasn’t attained any realizations either. I think I really need to go to India.”


Section 5

So that’s what led him to set off on this path. And it, it may not seem so today but the dharma didn’t come cheap in those days. You know, the really special teachings—you had to amass a lot of wealth. And then you went and you made these offerings, and maybe these teachers took you on, maybe they didn’t.

So he amassed as much wealth as he could and saying went to his very wealthy Uncle and then he says, “Can I borrow some gold and turquoise for these teachings?”

And they wouldn’t support him in that though his aunt secretly gave him some things. And then he went to India which was, you know, you…you’re coming from 10 or 12,000 feet where the air is totally clear and clean. Down generally through the jungles of Nepal, which were difficult, very difficult, into a land that is just full of disease, and moist—you know, it’s a tropical climate, so your susceptibility to disease was extreme. A lot of people died on this.

And he went to Bodhgaya, where he studied with a teacher whose name was Dorje Denma. Now this is unfortunate because Dorje Denma means “The one who holds the seat at Bodhgaya” and at this period in India, Bodhgaya was kind of like the Vatican. Now I don’t know whether there was a huge bureaucracy. There may or may not have been. But there was a very important temple at Bodhgaya which was built well before this time. It predates that and whoever was regarded as the top person in India in Buddhism at that time was given the title Dorje Denma. So when they say, “Lama Dorje Denma,” they’re actually just saying…like giving a title.

So we don’t know who this person is, really very little about him, but suffice to say that he was the top person. Atisha, who many of you have heard about, had the same title. He held the seat at Bodhgaya. And this made him virtually like the Pope in…they were recognized as being the top people in terms of both understanding and experience and scholastic mastery and actually monastic tradition. So, these were very, very substantial individuals. So, he went and studied with Dorje Denma and sang him this song:

I Khyungpo the yogi cannot bear the pain of samsara
fear rises deep within me, as I see no end to this cyclic existence,
the suffering of birth,
the suffering of death,
the suffering of the lower realms.
I am not afraid of death,
rebirth is what I fear.
Based on actions we get a certain rebirth,
and in this samsara we wander powerless.
All that you and I can do is to know death comes for us too.
Since I can die at any time, to the Dharma I give this life of mine.
I have not stayed in Nepal, India is now my goal.
With no concern for life or limb, I have left for Bodhgaya,
the place where a thousand Buddhas will appear.
To Bodhgaya the vajra seed, I come with pure attitude.
I see the face of Dorje Denma,
prophesized as the second Buddha by the victor Shakyamuni.
I give him 500 measures of gold from Gulong
It is just like seeing the Buddha himself.
My hair stands on end,
I weep profusely.
Genuine faith arises within me.
In the fit of vajra devotion I join my hands and ask him this:
Be a fountain of teachings my monastic preceptor.
Please give me the vinaya code of discipline.
Once I’ve aroused the great bodhicitta mind of compassion,
please teach me the mahayana doctrine.
Once I have received the maturing tantric empowerments,
please grant me the liberating teachings
of the generation and completion stages.

Now here we have a person who has mastered three different traditions of teaching: Bon, Dzogchen, Mahamudra. And yet he feels that his understanding is not complete. This is quite significant. And what does he say his motivations are? “I cannot bear the pain of samsara, fear arises deep within me. I see no end to cyclic existence. I know death is going to come, but I don’t know what’s going to come after that.”

And what does he ask for? He asks for the monastic discipline; he wants to become a monk. And then he wants bodhicitta, the Mahayana path, and the Vajrayana path, tantric path. So here we have this great teacher, he’s not asking for anything really esoteric, he’s not coming with any great and glorious motivation.


Section 6

Every person who treads the path, treads it for the same reason: we are going to die, our life energy is consumed by reactive patterns, which make a mess of our life both for ourselves and for other people. The process is completely out of control. The only thing to do is to form the determination to step out of it completely, which is what the monastic code is about essentially. To sustain this in this we need to have the deeper motivation of waking up completely in order to be able to help others, which is what bodhicitta is about, and for some people the further motivation that you’re going to do this using the most powerful and profound techniques, which is what vajrayana’s about. So that they really become awake—I really become awake in this one life.

Now this is a very, very, highly trained individual. How does his motivation differ from yours? How do his concerns differ from yours?

Student: Very little.

Ken: Yeah. What do you get from this? Chuck?

Chuck: Well, he seems more willing to die. [Laughter]

Ken: Yeah, he’s just going to….

Chuck: Do what it takes.

Ken: Yeah, but what did he go…what, what brought him to that?

Chuck: Well, he…his concern for being in samsara.

Ken: [Acknowledges answer] but he had—

Chuck: His concern for…for the karma that he’s generated for the next life.

Ken: Yeah, he had to go through a few things to get to this point didn’t he?

Student: All the training?

Ken: Well, he went through all of this training. He also had all of his family stuff to work through, and what…what did he have to do with all of that?

Chuck: Leave it behind?

Ken: Yes.

Chuck: His family stuff he left behind but his training I don’t think he left.

Ken: Was it serving him?

Chuck: His training?

Ken: Yes.

Chuck: Evidently not because….

Ken: Evidently not, okay. Now, the hidden message—not that hidden in this case—resonates with a passage that I’ve quoted a number of times from one of Stephen Bachelor’s work: In it’s institutional forms Buddhism provides very powerful answers to questions of the spirit. But sometimes the power of those answers overwhelms the stammering voice which asks the questions.

Now what happened with Khyungpo Naljor?

Chuck: He still had a lot of questions.

Ken: Yeah. All of that stuff that he studied did not answer the stammering voice which was asking his questions.

Student: So that is why he didn’t go to Nalanda?

Ken: I think at some point he did go to Nalanda to study with someone, but he didn’t listen to the stammering voice which was asking the questions. So he…he got all of this teaching—a tremendous amount of teaching—and mastered it, but because he didn’t listen to that voice none of the teaching hit the mark. This is one of the reasons why I keep coming back to each of you again and again with, “What is your intention in your practice? What do you want from the practice?”

It is so important because here is a person who from the age of thirteen to fifty was steeped in this stuff, and it still didn’t hit the mark. And the only way is for you to be clear about why you’re practicing, and not listen to all of the reasons why you should be practicing that other people are telling you. You have to come to your own. When you do come to your own it’s extraordinary how similar they are. You know, as we hear Khyungpo Naljor describing. But you have to make them your own! And the only way you do that is by, you…you can’t read about it and say, “Oh yes, that makes sense to me. I’ll do that.” That’s very feeble, that doesn’t work. You have to sit down, and you have to think, you know…okay, “Am I going to die?”


Section 7

Well? Evidence is pretty good. Do I care about that? And you may find that you don’t. And if you don’t care about it, you don’t have any basis for practice.

Chuck: If you don’t care if you’re going to die?

Ken: Yeah! I mean…I was with Rinpoche in Hawaii, and this is our first trip. And we’re on O’ahu, and we were staying with a couple who retired in Hawaii and she was a kind of strange woman—extraordinary palm reader. I mean just totally extraordinary—very sweet person. And her husband was such a grouchy, old, retired, aeronautics engineer, who had no time for things mystical. So dinner was a debate between him and Rinpoche. I mean he was just picking holes, and Rinpoche would be answering—I was doing all the translating. Great fun.

And that evening Rinpoche started off his talk—about four hundred people there—in a way that I’ve never heard him open up a talk before. He said, “Some of you may be wondering why it’s important to study the dharma, study Buddhism. Well, I want to be very clear about this. It’s not important for everybody. There are three kinds of people who don’t need to be here tonight. First, if there are any of you who know that you aren’t going to die—you’re never going to die—there’s no reason for you to be here, so you might as well leave right now.”

Nobody left.

Second is, “Those who know when they die nothing happens: it’s over, it’s done, nothing. If you know that, there’s no reason for you to be here, so you can leave too. Third, those people who know that when they die they’re gonna be born into circumstances that are definitely better than the ones that they have here. If you know that for certain, there’s no reason for you to be here tonight. It’d be just a waste of your time. But if you don’t know one of those three things then maybe you should stick around.

[Laughing] I’m sure he was talking to the grouchy old engineer. But the point here is: It’s not enough to hear it from somebody else. You can take in those teachings but you’ve got to think about them, and think about them, and think about them until, you know, “Right! I, I am going to die. And if I die like I am now I’m not gonna feel very good about it. I feel I won’t really have done anything meaningful in my life. And I’ll have these questions that I haven’t answered, and I will die with regret.”

And that has to become very, very strong. And that’s it. The shade and flavor of it is actually a little different for everybody. It can be expressed in general terms but it really has to become one’s own experience and motivation. You cannot adopt that as a motivation without having gone through the process of making it your motivation. When you make it your motivation by really thinking about what is important, deeply, deeply important to you in your life. You follow? And it is absolutely essential.


Section 8

Ken: And then you come to what you want from your practice. And I ask people this. And sometimes I get different answers, and that’s fine because each person has their own answer. Some people, they say, “I want clarity.”

Okay. And other people say, “I want peace.” That’s fine. And other people say, “I just want to understand how things are.” And that’s fine. And one person said, “I just want to feel that I know something before I die.” Which if you think about, that’s a very profound thing.

So through that reflection on death you’re going to come to what’s important for you, and that’s where you intention’s going to be. And when you have that intention, then you’re gonna be clear about your practice. And one of the reasons it’s very important to do this is that different practices do different things. So, you meditate on death and impermanence—that does one thing. You meditate on compassion—that does something else. You meditate on the four immeasurables—that does something. You meditate on insight—that does something.

Each of these practices has a different intention. What Khyungpo Naljor did for the first part of his life—like the first forty years of it—his spiritual life—was to engage in practices which did not touch his own intention in practice. He had such extraordinary abilities that he mastered them anyway. But because they did not touch his intention, he never fulfilled his intention.

Student: Do you think he knew his intention in the early days?

Ken: No, I don’t think he did.

Student: Yeah, yeah, he did it for the sake of practice.

Ken: Well he did it because he was raised in the Bon tradition. You know, and so—and that happens to many people. “I was raised in the tradition, and so I practiced this,” and that fundamental questioning never takes place. And sometimes when people do that fundamental questioning they actually find that they can find those answers in the tradition that they’re brought in. And other people, they’ve got to look elsewhere.

And then the second round was that he listened to his parents; they didn’t want him to leave. So again he engaged in a practice which was not his intention. Mastered it, helped others understand it, and benefit from it greatly. And then he studied with a teacher who thought that being awake was one thing. And when he told Khyungpo Naljor that he had now mastered everything, and Khyungpo Naljor went, “Oh. This is it?”

Then he realized this person hadn’t really had anything to teach. What this person had taught him wasn’t his intention in practice. So now at the age of well, I think fifty-seven—when he finally went to India—now he started to work from his own intention, and he stopped listening to anybody. He thought “This I’ve got to do.” Okay? All right.

Student: So there’s more to the story.