A talk on the life of the great Tibetan yogini, Niguma, an important figure in the Shangpa Lineage.
All that, oh yeah now we’re in business. Okay, the biographies of the Shangpa masters, a number of them anyway, have been translated and published in this book Like An Illusion. The translations are okay. They’re not great, but they’re fine and this is the translation of the same text that I studied in retreat which had the biographies. It’s the English version of it of course so I think this is more or less available and you’re welcome to read ahead.
And today we’re going to talk about Niguma who is another of Khyungpo Naljor’s teachers. Khyungpo Naljor being the Tibetan teacher who established the Shangpa tradition in Tibet, and we’ll get to his biography or w’ell get to a piece of it today actually, well we may get to that.
Now you recall that in the discussion of Sukhasiddhi there was this bare bones story about this event in her life when she got kicked out and for being generous or giving alms to the saddhu and subsequently coming under the tutelage of Virupa, who was one of the great mahasiddhas and transforming through that experience and becoming a teacher. But it’s a very, very bare bones story and there’s not a lot of information there. Well, with Niguma there’s even less. There is a few paragraphs about her birth place, and then almost nothing about her, and then a prayer of praise based on the ten perfections, The Melody of Wisdom. And then there’s one incident in Khyungpo Naljor’s interaction with her which we’ll refer to so…
It starts with Niguma’s birthplace the magical city of Peme in Kashmir. Now I want you to listen to this very carefully because, as with Sukhasiddhi’s story, we could look at it in a way which suggested that there was a different kind of story being told. You know, there was the chronicle of events but one way of looking at that was that it was actually describing an internal process. So I want you to listen to this carefully and with the same attitude.
In the time of Buddha Kashyapa much before Shakyamuni there was a saint called Midday Sun. In those days an ocean covered the site of the future city Peme. The saint Midday Sun went to the area and decided that a temple should be erected. In order to develop the site he asked for the nagas’ assistance saying, “I need you nagas to give me some of this land.”
Now nagas are like serpent kings that dwell under the ground and had great stores of wealth. That’s where dragons come from and things like that and they figure very prominently in Indian mythology. They’re regarded as tempermental and difficult to deal with, and there were good nagas and bad nagas and you know the usual story.
But the King of Nagas replied, “Well, I’ll give you as much space as you take when you sit in the vajra posture.” Not much ground to build a temple. So the saint made himself very big as he sat in vajra posture he covered the whole of Kashmir. True to their word the nagas changed the ocean into solid ground and the saint built a temple named Intimate Nectar.
Now I’ve seen other versions of this and it’s not clear whether the nagas changed the ocean into solid ground or whether it was the miracle powers of this saint or arhat who was able to do that. So there’s a little variation.
When this was done, to charm and amaze the people, Midday Sun invited a great magician to build a city around the temple. The magician created the city in the likeness of the heavenly paradise in Indian mythology, it’s called Beautiful to Behold. Its unique beauty gave the name Peme the Incomparable to the city. Before the magician had time to disassemble the magical city he had created the people killed him. To this day Peme the Incomparable remains. The glorious city of Peme had no rival in all of India. There were thousands of women beer merchants and both Ratnavajra and the sage Naropa lived there.
Okay, that’s the story of Niguma’s birthplace and here’s the rest of her biography: And now let’s turn to the wisdom dakini Niguma.
Niguma was the daughter of the Brahmin Shantivarma, and it says the sister of the sage of Naropa. This is generally regarded as being the lover of Naropa—they had a close relationship. In her past lives she practiced the path for three immeasurable eons. In this life she came to reality just by meeting a realized lama and receiving a few teachings. And that’s the biography. Frustrating eh?
Student: What’s the last sentence there?
Ken: She came to reality itself just by meeting a realized lama and receiving a few teachings. I’ll expand on that but right now I want to return to the incident of Khyungpo Naljor’s meeting with her. Should have bookmarked this. Yes, here we are.
So he’d heard about Niguma and went looking for her.
Then with five hundred measures of gold on me, which is a fair amount of gold, I traveled throughout the four corners of India meeting lamas and asking who had actually seen the Buddha referring to Niguma. All sages and adepts said the same thing, “Naropa’s sister Niguma who dwelt in the three pure state was able to receive the dharma directly from Vajradhara.”
They also said, “No matter where you are with sacred outlook you will see Niguma’s face but if your outlook is impure she won’t be found no matter how hard you look.” Niguma truly dwelt in a pure state and possessed the rainbow body still I was told she could be frequently seen in the great charnel ground of Kosaling celebrating tantric feast with her entourage. Just hearing the name of the Dakini made me weep. My hair stood on end, I felt overwhelmed with devotion, immediately left for the charnel ground of Kosaling repeating the mantra Namo Buddha on the way.
Suddenly, the dakini appeared in the sky in front of me at the height of about seven palm trees. Her body dark brown in color, she was wearing bone ornaments, in her hand she held a skull cup and hook knife. She was dancing and displaying one and many forms.
As soon as I saw her I thought, “This is the Dakini Niguma.” I prostrated and made several circumambulations then I knelt down and asked for the pure oral instructions.
But Niguma shouted, “Hey you watch out! I am the cannibal flesh eating dakini, HA! Flee now as soon as my retinue comes we will devour you.” In response I simply made more prostrations and circumambulations and once again knelt down requesting the secret oral instructions.
Niguma now said: “So you really want the mahayana oral instructions? Well you’ll need some gold for that. Have you got any?”
At this I presented my five hundred measures of gold but the dakini grabbed the gold and hurled it in the air scattering it all over the forest. Seeing this I thought, “Oh, she really must be a cannibal flesh-eating dakini. She doesn’t even care for my gold.” [Students chuckle]
The dakini’s eyes darted about left and right and an immeasurable retinue of dakas and dakinis appeared from the sky. Some in a flash created a three-tiered heavenly mansion, some built mandalas of colored sand, and others gathered the implements for the tantric feast.
On the evening of the full moon the Dakini Niguma bestowed upon me the empowerments of dream yoga and illusory body yoga. Next she said, “Hey little monk come up here.” Oh, “Hey little monk from Tibet come on up here.” By means of the dakini’s magical ability I rose in the sky to a height of about 15,000 feet. Hope he had oxygen. I found myself on top of a golden mountain and above my head the dakini’s retinue was performing the mystical dance of the tantric feast and from the four sides of the mountain flowed four rivers of gold.
I looked down at the streams of gold and asked, “Does such a golden mountain really exist in India or did the dakini make it appear?”
The dakini sang,
“Whirling in the ocean…”
And these are very famous lines.
“Whirling in the ocean of samsara
Are the myriad thoughts of love and hate.”
Or attraction and aversion.
“Once you know they have no nature
Then everywhere is the land of gold, my child.
If in all things, like an illusion
One meditates, like an illusion,
True Buddhahood, like an illusion,
Will come to pass, through the power of devotion my son.”
And so that’s a little bit more about her but those are very famous lines from Niguma. Especially the last one, “If on all things…” the way that I put it in the book, “In a world which is like an illusion, you experience suffering like an illusion. You do a practice which is like an illusion and experience an awakening which is like an illusion. All through the power of devotion.”
So what do you make of all this? Birthplace first, that’s the hard one. This is where you have to work. I’ll read it again—it’s not very long.
A saint called Midday Sun went to an area and decided that a temple should be erected. To develop the sight he asked for assistance from the nagas. “I need you to give me some of this land.” Even though it’s all covered with water it’s their land because it’s underneath the ocean. And they replied, “I’ll give you as much space as you take when you sit in vajra posture.” So the saint was able to make himself very big and sat on an area that…equivalent to the size of Kashmir. All of that was presented to him as land. Then this magician came and built a temple…. No, then the temple built and a magician came and built the city around the temple. It was a very beautiful city and then everybody killed him before he could dismantle the illusion—so they had their city. And that’s the name of this Incomparably Beautiful city and this is where Niguma was born.
Okay, what’s going on here?
Student: It’s an illusion.
Student: It’s an illusion.
Ken: Yeah, any ideas?
Ken: That’s a well known….
Ken: Well trick or whatever. What that’s pointing to is that nothing is absolute in size. Everything is in relationship to everything else and if you are no longer limited to form then you can manifest in any size that you want. There’s this famous story from Milarepa called Milarepa and the Yak Horn and Milarepa and Rechungpa are traveling together and they pass this old yak horn which is just a horn, it’s hollow in side. And Milarepa says to Rechungpa, “Pick that up.” And Rechungpa who’s just come back from India and thinks he’s a hotshot because he’s got all these great teachings with him says, “Whaaahhhh whaaaaa.” and Milarepa says, “Well if you’re not going to pick it up I’ll pick it up, but it’s going to come in handy.”
And after a few hours of travel they are caught in a snow storm—it’s a blindingly cold blizzard and Rechungpa’s trying to make a fire, and he looks around and he can’t find Milarepa anywhere. And then he hears Milarepa singing but he can’t see him. Milarepa was very famous for his songs and eventually he looks and he sees this yak horn and and the song’s coming from inside the yak horn. So he bends down and he looks inside and there’s Milarepa with a nice fire going and he’s totally warm and, and this is the crucial point, the yak horn was no larger than it was and Milarepa was no smaller then he was usually.
Ken: And so it’s pointing to this being beyond the relativity of relationship of form with size and so forth so. So that’s a standard thing, it arises elsewhere, so you have to look deeper. Anybody else?
Ken: I think it goes a little further than that now the saint or the arhat Midday Sun creates a temple, okay, builds a temple. That’s something holy, sacred, okay? Everybody’s attracted to the temple. What do they want? A place to hang out right? So this magician comes and creates this illusion of a city and then people kill him before he can take away the illusion and now they live in an illusion right?
Now, when I read this and was thinking over it I went through exactly the same process to do with Sukhasiddhi. Why was this story kept? This is the most substantial part of Niguma’s life story and what’s meant to be her biography. Why was it kept? What I want to suggest to you is that this is exactly what happens in religious institutions in all kinds of traditions. There’s a core of spiritual awakening which attracts attention, but people are not able to relate necessarily to the actual awakening so they construct an illusion and live in that illusion and kill whatever was producing all of that so that they can stay in the illusion.
Nevertheless, good things still come from the core. That is why all of these great siddhas, Ratnavajra and Naropa and Niguma, were attributed to being born there. Does this make sense to you Kate? Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch. [Unclear] Pardon?
Student: I was just thinking…I was thinking about Jesus Christ—the same idea. You know that the inner core there and then all of these people are drawn to him and they end up killing him and….
Student: …and they live in the illusion.
Ken: Yeah. Loren?
Loren: That reminds me of another thing I wasn’t even thinking about until you mentioned it but I’m thinking about two stories other stories that connect so much with that. One is when Christ came back from the grand inquisitor he…all the priests decided, you know, he’s coming back and he’s like a lot of us so we better kill him if we want to maintain the illusion. But that was a lot of [unclear] I didn’t mean to take us away from [unclear] stories.
Ken: No, let’s, no I just want to turn to the other section of Niguma’s where she has this encounter with…or Khyungpo Naljor has this encounter with her. Just to review very quickly: there’s Khyungpo Naljor’s seeking very deep devotion, very deep longing to meet her. Eventually finds her—she appears. Offers his gold, she just throws it away, you know, scatters it in the jungle. Says, “I don’t need it,” and confers empowerments, and then this wonderful song that samsara is propelled by the forces of attraction and aversion, and when you know their nature then everything is like gold. And that we live in illusion, experience a suffering that’s like an illusion. When we practice which is like…it’s like…illusion’s not really quite the right word, it’s like magic. And so the suffering arises like magic, we do a practice which is like magic, we experience an enlightenment or awakening which is like magic all through the power of faith.
And when I first heard those lines, which is like many, many years ago now, they just struck me so very, very deeply. One of the ways that we’ve been talking about this is by going into the experience of things and experiencing them completely. When you experience something completely you know what it is. You know what it is, you know its nature. What is the nature of thought?
Student: It comes and it goes.
Ken: Yeah, and it’s empty. What is the nature of emotion? Okay, what is the nature of all experience? We just did the Heart Sutra on this you guys should know this—it’s empty. When you know your experience completely you know that’s its nature. Now, that knowing is not an intellectual knowing—one can read about this and yeah it’s all there but the actual knowing when it arises isn’t an intellectual knowing it is a knowing which comes from being one with the experience. And that’s how you know its nature is because you’re one with it and there’s no separation. And at that point there’s no confusion so it doesn’t matter what arises it’s just an experience. Like a dream, like a mirage, vivid—very clear—but no confusion. And this is what Niguma is pointing to here. Okay? Joe.
Joe: She also threatens him or perhaps more correctly warns him against…that she will eat him.
Joe: Because he will be annihilated which is perhaps one of the reasons why we don’t go here…why it’s hard to go here.
Ken: Yes, that’s the act of manifestation of awakening. You’re not going to survive this process ideally. Not and have the same habituated way of relating things—that has to die, quite right. Okay, we’ll close here for this evening. Next week we’ll look at Khyungpo Naljor a little bit.