Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Harding’

“As for the Blessing of Vajravārāhī, Marpa Lhodrakpa does not have it.” WTF?

by Sarah Harding

In the beginning, my work translating the Pakmo Namshe[1] by the 2nd Pawo Rinpoche Tsuklak Trengwa (dPa’ bo gtsug lag Phreng ba, 1504-1566) presented several surprises. I had always believed that this was a commentary about the secret practice of Vajravārāhı based on the sādhana by the Sixth Karmapa Tongwa Dönden (mThong ba don ldan, 1416-1453) that we had all practiced in three-year retreat. I had certainly used it as such. But as soon as I came across the actual words of the sādhana within the text, it was clearly not that. Tsuklak Trengwa gives the title of the sādhana as simply dPal rdo rje rnal ‘byor ma’i gsang ba’i grub thab, or Srı Vajrayoginı Guhya Sādhana, authored by Nāropa and translated by Marpa. Well that’s easy, I thought, because there’s a three-folia verse text in the Peking Tengyur by Nāropa, or rather Mahā Nāḍapāda, with just that Sanskrit name.[2] Great—only that was not it. Then I actually opened and looked at every single text attributed to Nāropa in the Tengyur, and could not find a match. Then for weeks there were random feverish searches on TBRC under every conceivable word, like “yoginī,” “secret,” “vajra,” “pig,” and so on. Finally one fine day brought up the Miscellaneous Works (gsung thor bu) of the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (Dus gsum mkhyen pa, 1110-1193), and there I found it among several other secret Vajrayoginī practices, 29 folios and with no author, under the title dPal rdo rje rnal ‘byor ma’i gsang bsgrub [rdo?] rje btsun mo lhan skyes.[3] That was what I call a researcher’s moment of glory. It’s been all down hill from there.

The second big surprise was the nature of the text. I was looking forward to translating Pakmo Namshe because I understood it to be a practice commentary. Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa even says, “It is this sādhana exactly as presented by the bhagavatī herself that will be expounded here.” But after the first fifty pages I realized that it’s really a rebuttal, a giant polemic in defense of Kagyu practices. I’ve since found that many if not most Kagyu commentaries on Vajrayoginī written during this period, the 15th-16th centuries, are similarly on the defensive. At first I thought that if I could make it through the history section, just fourteen folios, then finally there would be the Dharma. But that naiveté was again shattered when a few pages into the so-called “actual instructions,” even in the section on the location in which to practice, (Mountain peaks and charnel grounds/ Lone tree trunks and empty caves/ Hermitages and isolated places,… ) the narrative bends around to start sections with that red warning flag of “mkhas pa kha chig gis,” and somehow launches into another tirade. The one most shocking for me was the quote early on that is the title of this paper, “As for the blessing of Vajravārāhı, Marpa Lhodrakpa does not have it.” I mean, what? There’s been great controversy about mahāmudrā and maybe some suspicious creative innovations by lineage masters, such as evidenced by the accusations leveled at Gampopa. But Marpa? And he doesn’t even have the blessing? As I figure it, we’re screwed. So I decided to jump right in to the fray and try to figure out what’s going on here. Truly it is a can of worms, and I barely got the lid off. In order to make some use of the considerable time and energy that I already spent on Pakmo Namshe, although my work on it has now been set aside, I will present excerpts primarily from my translation of that, and some from other researches, especially Sakya Paṇḍita, Gorampa, Padma Karpo, Tashi Namgyal, and Lowo Khenchen. I’ll also make available a polished translation of the history section. What follows is basically a travelogue of my confusions, or my ‘khrul pa’i thob yig.

Separating the issues
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What I did over Christmas Vacation

 A few good nuns

With the support of Tsadra Foundation, I ventured forth to the 11th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, held from December 28th through January 3rd, in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, in Vietnam. There, I presented a paper entitled “Seeking Niguma, Lady of Illusion” extracted from my forthcoming book of translations of the works of this 11th century Indian saint.

Sakyadhita—”Daughters of the Buddha”—is a global coalition of Buddhist Women established in 1987. It has 2000 members and friends in 45 countries, and has an international conference every two years in a different country, and national conferences in individual countries. There is a strong emphasis on women’s scholarship and on supporting the bikkhuni sangha (fully ordained nuns) in the various Buddhist countries. In their own words:

 Working at the grassroots level, Sakyadhita provides a communications network among Buddhist women internationally. The organization promotes research and publications on Buddhist women’s history and other topics of interest. It supports Buddhist women’s initiatives to create education projects, retreat facilities, training centers, women’s shelters, and local conferences and discussion groups. Members strive to create equal opportunities for women in all Buddhist traditions. The goal is to empower the world’s 300 million Buddhist women to work for peace and social justice. Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo

Since the first small gathering in Bodhgaya with the Dalai Lama as keynote speaker, the movement has gained momentum under the able leadership of Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo, an American nun and author who divides her time between the University at San Diego and Asia. The conference this year in Vietnam boasted the overwhelming attendance of over 2000 people from 34 different countries, the majority of them nuns.

many good nuns

I really didn’t know there were so many! There were nuns of every stripe and color. The majority were, of course, from Vietnam itself, where nuns in grey and saffron robes mix beautifully. Others were also there in force: There were the brilliant dayglo-orange nuns from Sri Lanka, whose membership of fully ordained nuns has gone from 0 to over 1000 in just ten years since Sakyadhita has been there to support them.

nuns in panchos

There were the grey armies from Korea, who burst into smiles and antics at the merest glance, including one favorite singing nun who serenaded our taxi ride with “Santa Rucia.” There were several grades and colors from Thailand, the white-robed novice meji and the controversial fully ordained nuns, most bravely represented by Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (Chatsumarn Kabilsingh—more on her later). There were pink and white nuns, maybe from Nepal or Burma, and many greys and browns from the Chinese tradition, mostly from Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

multimedia nuns

There was a tight team of Ladhaki nuns who came with minimal sponsorship, seeking more. The six or so Ladakhis, along with one Bhutanese, one Singaporean, and several Indian-based nuns from Kinnaur and Dharamsala, were the only Asians representing the Tibetan tradition.


 The main maroonies were Westerners, including the most venerable Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, who is absolutely the rock star of the bikkhuni world.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo holding court

The same goes for the Japanese traditions, which were represented by a decent turnout of ordained priests from San Francisco Zen Center, but little else. A good many lay people also attended from countries like Malaysia, Mongolia, Australia, Serbia, Germany, Britain, PRC, Canada, and the States.

the view from the podium

The crowds of participants jammed into the biggest temple in Ho Chi Minh City  reflect the state of that city altogether. Seriously—and I’ve been to a lot of Asian cities—I have never before dealt with traffic like that! Crossing the road was utterly harrowing. Generously, the conference paid for all taxis to and from the temple. So walking the short distance to the hotel was only necessary on the many occasions when I had to rush back at midday to a cold shower and air-conditioning. The conflict was in deciding which was more unbearable: the hot sticky smog-induced sweat or crossing the road? Each day was a different conclusion. Meals were also generously supplied by the temple, so the question too was between battling the army of nuns for the delicious vegetarian meals or just settling for the banana stolen from the breakfast-included hotel. These were the daily dilemmas for seven full days.

But I guess I should talk about content!  Every day for the whole morning, papers were read by various scholars and quasi’s (like me). Each person had only ten minutes, so this basically consisted of reading as fast as possible. Foreign papers had been previously translated into Vietnamese and Chinese, and then “edited” by the government. The Vietnamese version was broadcast loudly over the speakers (and Vietnamese is not a gentle language), while English and Chinese could be heard with difficulty in the headphones connected to a little steamy booth on the upper level where nuns were diligently reading and trying to keep up. The papers ranged from excellent to a good opportunity to visit the porto-potties. The subject of the conference this time was “eminent Buddhist women”, so many of the papers were straightforward histories of women and nuns whose stories might easily have been overlooked were it not for this conference. This in itself is one great gift of the Sakyadhita organization. Many of these stories were of Vietnamese women, and I felt the sense of wonderment from the readers that there seemed to be people who actually wanted to hear their stories. The end of exclusively andocentric story-telling is surely in sight. There were other topics as well, including about the environment, Buddhist pedagogy, animal rights, women’s leadership, social work, and engaged Buddhism. Individual paper topics and abstracts can still be viewed on the Sakyadhita website.

A fgood paper?

For my own paper, cut and pasted from the introduction to the Niguma book, I explored the rather unpopular notion that our great dakinis and precious female role models in the Tibetan tradition might be male symbols of enlightenment—basically yogi pin-up girls. For the exciting conclusion to this query, you can see the paper attached, or read the book.

workshop on loving animals

In the afternoons there were various workshops to choose from. The ones I attended suffered greatly from communication and translation issues, but were wonderful opportunities to get to know some of the people. Two personal consequences of the workshops were an interview in The Guardian (Asian version), and a vow of vegetarianism (OMG!). One afternoon late in the conference there was a significant workshop in the main hall that requires a little background information:

Two distressing events happened in the Buddhist world immediately before this conference that you may or many not know of. One is that, according to Thich Naht Hanh, the inhabitants of two of his monasteries in Vietnam, Bat Nha and Phuoc Hu, were violently evicted by government forces. This is of course denied by the government, and from what I’ve read, the situation is not so clear. The other event concerning Thailand and Australia is even more complicated. Very briefly, one of the senior western monks of the Thai Forest Tradition, Achan Brahm, bestowed the full bikkhuni ordination on some women before receiving the approval of the conservative monk leadership in Thailand (which he apparently knew he would not get and therefore “rushed” the ordination). Achan Brahm was then excommunicated from the order. The distressing part to western Theravadin practitioners has been that two of their senior male teachers, the highly respected Achans Amaro and Sumeda, came out in support of the leadership and against the ordination.

These two events were the elephants in the temple, and I wondered if they would ever be noticed. Of the first one, there was ne’er a whisper (which was probably wise, if we wanted to even have a conference in Vietnam). But the issue of bikkhuni ordination, it was finally announced, was going to be the subject of an afternoon workshop late in the conference. It was well attended, and there was a senior representative of the Thai Forest Tradition from Australia on the panel. I had spoken with her and another senior nun of that tradition earlier, and had only noticed great resistance to the subject. Her speech at this workshop was underwhelming at best, and a study in describing the stitching in the emperor’s new clothes at worst. Nothing of the controversy was even mentioned. So it was left to Dhammananda Bikkuni, or Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh of Thailand, to finally air it. I had met Dr. Kamilsingh before, at the conference of Women Religious Leaders in Geneva, soon after her ordination as a bikkhuni. And I had watched as the Thai monks in attendance walked out of the room as soon as she took the podium.

Dhammananda Bikkhuni Chatsumarn Kabilsingh

There is great resistance to fully ordained nuns in Thailand, and it’s hard not to think that it relates to the fact that the more vows one has, the more worthy one is of the offerings of laypeople who make merit in this way. The absence of nuns with the full set of vows ensures that the monastic women have no economic support and must continue to serve monks in the monasteries to survive. Well, that’s the cynical view. The official reasons are nit-picky lineage stuff, concisely laid out at the workshop by a German professor and fully ordained nun at the University of Hamburg, Jampa Tsedroen:

 “Three different Indian Vinaya schools survived down to the present day. First, the Theravāda which you find in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and Vietnam. Second, the Dharmaguptaka which you find in China, Korea and Vietnam, and third, the Mūlasarvāstivāda which you find in Tibet, the Himalayan border area, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia. The bhikkunī ordination only survived in the Dharmaguptaka tradition to date. The three different Vinaya schools only emerged after the Buddha’s parinirvāna, but for a long time all believed that their own school was the first. And still many believe that only their lineage is pure and unbroken. At the end of the last century there were no more bhikkunīs in the Theravada and Tibetan tradition. Some women who already kept ten precepts in accord with their tradition asked for full ordination in the Dharmaguptaka tradition. Thus the question arose whether you can mingle two Vinaya schools, or whether bhikkus could start a new order of bhikkunīs within their own Vinaya school.”

 Dhammananda began her discussion by pointing out that the time limit imposed on her, and even the translation into Vietnamese, were signs of oppression. She described the situation clearly, if briefly. She mentioned that the concerned actions from the west, such as petitions and so forth (which I too had signed), were just making the situation worse. There was no conclusion to her talk, since this situation is on-going. One wonders how long these monks will hold out.

            Although not as oppressive, the same kind of situation is true for nuns in the Tibetan tradition. The khenpos and lamas tell them that it’s too difficult to have full ordination and that they are better off as novices, while at the same time being gelongs themselves. I discovered that this is actually the view of most of the Tibetan tradition Asian nuns at the conference. That has to change.

            I digress into all of this because it is happening right now in the Buddhist world and hopefully has been informative for you. But also because it highlights one of the main functions of Sakyadhita conferences: to inspire and uphold the Buddhist tradition of bikkhunis, and to foster equality of education and scholarship among them. Personally I think that a monastic life-style is an awesomely radical alternative lifestyle choice for a woman and a truly viable feminist stand to take, and that we should support it wherever we can.

off to work

            After the formal conference was over, there were two days of visits to nunneries and orphanages run by nuns, and of course official headquarters of various government offices connected with Buddhism, in and around Ho Chi Minh City. Then there was a five-day tour to the North, which I can only describe as the tour from hell. I’d really rather not revisit it. What’s that? You insist? OK, so here it is:

divine bus

            Up at 4 a.m. to “avoid traffic” (not actually possible in any case), then waiting in the street until 9:00 for a fourth bus to carry the “uncounted” people (oops). With Buddhist flags flying (designed by the American Colonel Henry Alcott, little did they know), we are escorted by police out of the city. Driving driving driving until lunch at a country nunnery, driving driving driving until dusk to visit a flower theme park somewhere, and then on to a zen monastery in the dark, where a male zen master gave a talk about how it really is ok to be a woman. Really it is. Sleeping on zen mats with snoring women and heruka mosquitoes for a thankfully short night. Then up at four, before dawn, to make sure we didn’t see anything of the beautiful zen gardens there. Then driving driving driving—our city bus driver crawling over the mountains, then speeding up as the beautiful coast near Danang whizzed by. Half the passengers jumping ship into the night of Hoi An (which was on the schedule to visit—ha ha) and then arriving finally in Hue after midnight. Yes, over 20 hours of driving. I can brag that I have seen half of Vietnam—at night! One day of touring around in Hue, and actually seeing some cool stuff like the royal palace and the temple of a famous 14th century princess nun. Then the next day, flying into Hanoi and only finding out en route that our hotel would actually be several hours outside the city.  OK—that’s where I lost it and took off on my own. Well actually not on my own, since several others joined me including a certain venerable. So I had a few days of wandering around in the old quarter of Hanoi, enjoying, to some extent, the masses of humanity. Hanoi, now that’s a city. Capital for over a thousand years, full of life and hope still. Almost cool, both in temperature and in attitude. (And by the way, the great legacy of the French? Coffee. Including even the weasel vomit kind.)

 Angkor Wat

Then I took off on a little side adventure in Cambodia with my friend Sandy, who came over from the Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. She and I spent four glorious days wandering around the temple ruins like Angkor Wat and other Tomb Raider spots. (I tried telling one guide that I was Angelina’s mother, but he was no fool.) Angkor Wat—really impossible to describe, so I won’t. But pondering those ancient stones, the eyes of Buddha and Vishnu watching untold thousands of sunrises and sunsets, and the miles and miles of intricate carvings in multidimensional relief, I wondered if I could have been just a tad more patient with group activities.

awesome nuns

The mysterious Niguma was an Indian woman from Kashmir who probably lived in the 11th century. Not only are the dates uncertain, but so too is almost everything about her. I will explore what there is to know and not to know about Niguma. What does stand firmly as testimony to her existence is her legacy of teachings, which form the very core of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, one of the “Eight Great Chariots of the Practice Lineages” that were later identified as the main conduits through which experiential Buddhism spread from India to Tibet.[1]

 Who was this phantasmic lady Niguma? I will include here the brief biography found in the Golden Rosary of Shangpa Biographies, but other than that one finds only hints and guesses from other sources. For instance, here is a typical description from the great Tibetan master Taranatha:[2]

 The Dakini Niguma’s place of birth was the Kashmiri city called “Incomparable.” Her father was the brahman Santivarman (Tib.: Zhi ba’i go cha). Her mother was Shrımati (dPal gyi blo gros ma). Her real name was Srıjñ›na (dPal gyi ye shes). She had previously gathered the accumulations [of merit and wisdom] for three incalculable eons. Thus, in this life [as Niguma], based on the teachings of the instructions by the adept Lavapa and some others, she manifested the signs of progress in the secret mantra vajray›na, and attained the body of union. So her body became a rainbow-like form. She had the ability to really hear teachings from the great Vajradhara. Having become a great bodhisattva, her emanations pervaded everywhere and accomplished the welfare of beings.

The elusiveness of Niguma is typical of the lore of the dakini, the very embodiment of liminal spiritual experience.  Additionally the difficulty of pinpointing historical information may well be due to the lack of ancient sources from India, and the lack of concern about such mundane matters by the Tibetan masters who encountered her in dreams and visions and maybe in person. After all, when confronted with the blazing apparition of the resplendent and daunting dark dakini bestowing critical cryptic advice, a background check would be rendered irrelevant. Indian Buddhist hagiographies are virtually unknown, whether of men or women.[3] In Tibet, where hagiography became a prolific genre in its own right, those of women were extremely rare, for all the usual reasons. It is in the experiences of those heroes who encountered the dakini that one finds the most information, and which are invested with the value of spiritual meaning. In the Golden Rosary of Shangpa Biographies, Niguma’s life story consists of only six folia, half of which is a supplication prayer to her, while that of her disciple Khyungpo Naljor, called a “mere mention” (zur tsam), is 43 folia, and those of brother Naropa, Taranatha, Tangtong Gyalpo and so forth where Niguma is mentioned are much longer than that. Even more distressing, I have discovered that half of the remaining half of Niguma’s life story, the part that concerns her birthplace, appears to be directly lifted from a biography of Naropa![4] Perhaps she is just an adornment on the lives of great saints, a figment of mens’ imaginations.

            That, of course, is something one has to wonder and worry about in nearly all of the more ancient writings about dakinis. The idealized image of a female messenger, awesome keeper of the great mysteries to be revealed only to the deserving spiritual virtuoso, is packed with power and intrigue for both male and female practitioners. Though unique in its particulars to Himalayan Buddhism, it is found in reminiscent forms throughout the cultures and religions of the world. The mystery of the dakini herself will not be revealed because she is the very definition of mystery, and were she discovered by other than mystics, it would not be she.

But what of the actual woman behind the image? In the case of a reportedly historical woman such as Niguma, we should be able to find at least some hint of a subjective story, something to convince us that she is more than the object or projection of the practitioner’s realization. And more than the “other” of the male “self.” We seek her as the subject of her own story.

 Niguma’s Home

Niguma’s life does present us with a few crumbs. First of all, her birthplace is known to be in Kashmir, a hub of Buddhist activity, particularly of the tantric type, and probably in close quarters with the Shaivite tradition and other forms of esoteric Hinduism. The specific town, or perhaps monastery, is called Peme (dpe med) in Tibetan, meaning “without comparison,” translating Anupama.[5] But we find in her biography that this is not a real town, exactly, but one that has been created by an illusionist. The first hard fact is already shaky. The story first mentions the creation myth, as it were, of Kashmir itself, a land that was once under water. According to Niguma’s biography, it was the time of the previous buddha, Kashyapa, though in other versions the story centers around Buddha Shakyamuni’s time and his disciple nanda.[6] In any case, a disciple wished to build a temple in the area of Kashmir and stealthily negotiated with the subterranean beings, or naga, who were tricked into upmerging and forking over a large area of land. It reports that the residents were amazed, though in the same story in Naropa’s biography it is the n›ga themselves who were amazed. In any case, the amazed ones commission an illusionist to create a city, which he does based on the “blueprint” of the great celestial city of the gods called Sudarshana. But this talented architect-magician died before he could dissolve the city, and so it remained. This, then, is Niguma’s home town: a divinely inspired illusion.

 Family and Friends

Niguma’s family relationships are similarly slippery, particularly when it comes to her connection with Naropa (956-1040),[7] her contemporary and a great adept whose teachings on the six dharmas learned from Tilopa spread widely in Tibet. The names of her parents given above by T›ran›tha are indeed the same as those of N›ropa in his biography in the Kagyu Golden Rosary by Lhatsun Rinchen Namgyal and are similar in other biographies.[8] Those same biographies tell the story of those parents’ first child, Shrıjñ›na, and how they had to perform special supplications for a male child after her birth. We also have the name of N›ropa’s wife, Vimala or Vimaladıpı (Dri med pa or Dri med sgron ma), with whom he parted to pursue his spiritual career. N›ropa is sometimes said to be from Bengal in the east, but there is little evidence for this theory and most authors locate his birthplace in Kashmir, along with Niguma.[9] There is even some evidence that Naropa’s well-known hermitage of Pushpahari, or Pullahari, commonly identified as being on a hillock west of Bodhgaya, may have been in Kashmir.[10] In Niguma’s biography it simply mentions that he was also in the area. Despite any misinformed discrepancies, it would seem to be quite clear that Niguma and Naropa were sister and brother. Yet scholars, mostly western, have insisted on suggesting that Niguma was his consort, perhaps his sister too, in a sort of tantalizing tantric gossip. Alas it may be the great translator Herbert Guenther who started the trend. In his introduction to The Life and Teaching of Naropa he makes a most puzzling allusion:[11]

 [Naropa’s] wife seems to have gone by her caste name Ni-gu-ma, and according to the widely practiced habit of calling a female with whom one has had any relation ‘sister’ she became known as ‘the sister of Nāropa.’

 Guenther cites The Blue Annals and the Collected Works of bLo bzang chos-kyi nyi -ma, an eighteenth century Gelukpa scholar known as Thu’u kvan Lama, as the sources where “Ni-gu-ma is stated to have been the wife of Naropa.” However, both sources state nothing so definitive. The Blue Annals, which devotes most of a chapter to the accounts of Niguma and her lineage, mentions her only as Naropa’s sister,[12] using the Tibetan word lcam mo, a combination of lcam (an honorific) and sring mo (“sister”). The second source similarly says only that she is Niguma’s lcam,[13] as do all other sources in Tibetan that I have seen. A supplication to Niguma in the practice of the white and red Khecharı dakinis uses the unambiguous term sring mo, calling her “the single sister of the awareness-holder.”[14] Admittedly the word lcam mo can be used as mistress or wife, particularly as the senior of several wives,[15] but given this bivalent meaning plus the fact that we have the identical parents’ names and the name of Naropa’s real wife, why on earth would one choose to translate it as “wife”? Even the translator Roerich does not do so in the Blue Annals, and comments elsewhere that “in the ancient language lcam means always ‘sister’.”[16] It does seem to be that tired old need to attribute a woman’s worth to her mate that plagues the annals of history, coupled with the scholarly penchant for repeating the confident pronouncements of former scholars.

Another possible source of confusion pertains to a supposed meeting between Naropa’s Tibetan disciple Marpa and Niguma. In the Introduction to the translation of Tsangnyön Heruka’s biography of Marpa called The Life of Marpa the Translator, the following information is offered, repeating the relationship in an even stranger way:

 After attaining his first realization of mahāmudrā under Maitrıpa, Marpa returned to Nāropa. This time, Nāropa sent Marpa to receive teachings from Niguma, Wisdom (Jnāna) Dākinī Adorned with Bone ornaments. She was Nāropa’s wife before he renounced worldly life to enter the dharma, and later she became his student and consort. Finally, she became a great teacher herself and her lineage of teachings was taken to Tibet (though not by Marpa) and continues to this present day. Unfortunately, our story here does not tell us very much about their meeting (xliii).

 The Tibetan text  reveals that Marpa was indeed sent on two separate occasions, first by Naropa and later by Shantibhadra, to meet a certain dakini called simply by her the metonym “Adorned with Bone Ornaments”.[17] Nowhere does it mention Niguma specifically by name in this or other biographies of Marpa. It is true that in later eulogies Niguma is described as wearing bone ornaments, but I believe this could be considered a regular wardrobe for dakinis, whose options were generally confined to charnel grounds. Better evidence of their identity than similar attire would be that both Marpa’s dakini and Khyungpo Naljor’s Niguma can sometimes both be found in the same great cemetery of Sosadvıpa (Tib. Sosaling), said to be just to the west of Bodhgaya and the vacation spot of many a great master, including Padmasambhava. It was also, however, a famous dakini gathering spot. In Marpa’s biography he finds the bone-deckeddakini on two occasions: once he receives the empowerment and instructions in the Four Seats Tantra from her, and a second time he receives a prophecy about meeting N›ropa (after he had already passed away).[18] Given the widespread prevalence, even requirement, of dakini encounters on the spiritual path of yogis, this account gives us nothing to cling to. Moreover, there is no account wherein Niguma receives any teachings from Naropa, though the similarity of content might lead one to believe otherwise. But how do we know that it was not the other way around—that Naropa did not receive teachings from his big sister?


Niguma’s teacher was, famously, the Buddha Vajradhara. The only piece of specific information about Niguma’s human teachers that I have from my sources is her connection with a certain Lavapa, according to two accounts by Taranatha. However Lavapa is not mentioned by name in Niguma’s Life Story, where it says only that “she directly saw the truth of the nature of phenomena just by hearing some instructive advice from a few adept masters.” The only two named masters in the Life Story are Naropa and Ratnavajra, and then only as cohabitants in Kashmir.[19] Again, the commonly-held belief that Niguma received the six dharmas from Naropa seems to be unsubstantiated. In fact, the Blue Annals, following a similar statement in Khyungpo Naljor’s biography, quotes Niguma saying that “these six doctrines are known only to myself and Lavapa.”[20]

But it is difficult to identify this Lavapa. Taranatha provides some nice anecdotal stories of an acarya Lavapa in The Seven Instruction Lineages and discusses him again in his History.[21] He is also mentioned by Naropa’s guru, Tilopa, as one of his four human teachers and the one from whom he received dream yoga, or lucid clarity, depending on the account.[22] Some sources identify him with Kambhalapada, one of the eighty-four great adepts (mahasiddhas) of Indian Buddhism, although Taranatha does not seem to make this identity. In any case, the Lav›pa who was Tilopa’s teacher would have likely been too early to be Niguma’s teacher, and he is also associated with the conversion activities in the west of India.[23] So we are still left with a lack of information on his “Lavapa of the East,” other than that he is lesser (i.e. younger), or later. Here is another version by Taranatha, with its veiled jab at this unidentified Lavapa:[24]

 She listened for a bit to instructions from Lavapa of the East, and after meditating for seven days together with the master himself, she became a dakini of timeless awareness with a rainbow body. She manifested the realization of the eighth level. It is said that Lav›pa of the East [did not gain the full rainbow body because he] left behind a palm-sized portion of the crown of his head. This Lavapa is the lesser. The name Nigu accords with the Indian language, which is Nigupta, and it is said to mean “truly secret” or “truly hidden.” In fact, it is the code-language of the dakinis of timeless awareness.

 Code Language

The symbolic or code-language of the dakinis (mkha’ ‘gro’i brda’ skad) is itself “truly hidden.” Masters of meditation decipher these communications in moments of inspiration, but by the time we hear what they might be, they have already been translated and carry all the perils of that craft, including possible fraud. We can see a few indecipherable graphics called dakinicode-letters” (mkha’ ‘gro brda’ yig) in treasure texts, but even this is only a subcategory of the mystery code-language itself. In his commentary on the treasure text Lamrim Yeshe Nyingpo, the great nineteenth century master Jamgön Kongtrul explains:[25]

 A person endowed with the karmic continuation and destiny will, by means of a profound coincidence of place, time, and aspiration, be able to decode the symbolic meaning of these treasure letters that are nirmanak›yas, the vajra forms endowed with all eminent aspects, and establish them correctly in writing.

 Perhaps the dakini code-language is beyond verbal communication, with its necessarily dualistic and designatory nature. But then why call it “language”? Symbolic communication is specifically distinguished from non-verbal transmission in the Nyingma tripartite transmissions of dzogchen teachings, where the symbolic linage of the awareness-holders (rig ‘dzin brda’i brgyud pa) falls neatly between the non-verbal lineage of the buddhas’ ‘thought’ or intention, and the aural lineage of ordinary people. Janet Gyatso suggests that the dakini, in keeping with her playful character, is “working within language to subvert it, drawing attention to its own (dualistic) structures while never retreating outside its realm.”[26] And certainly the esoteric teachings of the tantras themselves in their written form are known to be coded. After all, the common name for those teachings is “secret mantra” (gsang sngags). The dakini code-language is a secret within that secret, and seems to be reserved for the most profound and spontaneous experiences of only very gifted practitioners.

Taranatha makes no attempt to tell us what the name “Niguma” really means in that language, leaving it rather to the initiated to find out.

            In a similar way it is difficult to precisely identify Niguma’s other attributes that recur in most sources, although they are reported as quantifiable facts. She had high-level realization, placing her in the “pure” (dag pa) or non-dissipating (zag med) levels, she attained the so-called rainbow body, and most famously, she could receive teachings directly from Vajradhara. What do these qualities actually mean, other than ways to impress us? I explore these lofty attributes in my forthcoming book on Niguma

 As much as I have searched for this dakini named Niguma and hoped to find her as an actual person and the subject of her own story, it may have been in vain. The more I dig, the more elusive she becomes. No doubt I am looking in all the wrong places, in old books and dusty corners. Still, I hope that this might be more than another case of the female as a vehicle of meaning for men, or that, as one post-Buddhist feminist puts it, “the place of the male as subject is unconsciously protected, whilst creating a notion of fluidity around the concept of the female body.”[27] I might have to admit, however, that she is primarily an important event in the lives of the men who saw her, rather than a historically locatable person. These, in any case, are really the only sources of information. Her own story, if it ever existed, is not to be found other than the few details that I have explored here.

[1] The so-called Eight Great Chariots of the Practice Lineages (sgrub brgyud shing rta chen po brgyad) is a system of identifying the streams of esoteric instructions (man ngag) that came into Tibet from India. Based on an initial listing by Prajñ›raŸmi (1517-1584), it was developed primarily by the great Tibetan savant Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé (1813-1900) as a doxographical tool in his great efforts to preserve the histories and teachings of all those lineages by collecting and printing them in the large compendiums known as his Five Great Treasuries. He enumerates these eight chariots as (1) Nyingma, (2) Kadam, (3) Lamdré, (4) Marpa Kagyu, (5) Shangpa Kagyu, (6) Zhijé and its branch of Chöd, (7) Dorjé Naljor Druk (or Jordruk), and (8) Dorjé Sumgyi Nyendrup. See Kongtrul, The Treasury of Knowledge: Esoteric Instructions.

[2] Clearing up Darkness of the Mind, TCW, 17:459 (f. 22a1-4). T›ran›tha (1575-1635) gives his full name as Kunga Nyingpo Tashi Gyaltsen Palzangpo (Kun dga’ snying po bkra shis rgyal mtshan dpal bzang po). He used the Sanskrit translation of his title Drolwai Gonpo (sGrol ba’i mgon po) as his name to show his close connection with the Indian tradition, as he studied directly with Indian teachers in Tibet. T›ran›tha was an incredible realized master, historian, and philosopher, whose prolific writings encompass nearly every aspect of knowledge in Tibet, with his collected works numbering twenty-three volumes. He is thought of particularly in connection with the Jonang school, as his most common epithet Jonang T›ran›tha or Jonang Jetsun clearly indicates, but his influence is much broader. 

[3] Janet Gyatso, Apparitions of the Self: “Even Indian Buddhist hagiographical narratives are scarce and are limited to idealized renderings of the life of the Buddha and a few other works” (115).

[4] The Life Story of the Supreme Learned N›ro Pa˚chen (mKhas mchog n› ro pa˚ chen gyi rnam thar) by Sangye Bum, in the Rwalung Kagyu Golden Rosary, vol. 1: 87-129.

[5] Advaitavadini Kaul mentions a monastery in the town of Anupamapur› (grong khyer dpe med) in connection with Gunakarasribhadra (Buddhist Savants of Kashmir: Their Contributions Abroad, 49).

[6] See, for example, the recounting of this tale by Bu-ston, translated by Obermiller in The History of Buddhism in India and Tibet, 89-91. One of a group of nanda’s disciples called Madhy›ntika is prophesied by nanda to be the future settler of Kashmir, “the place suitable for mystic absorption and the best resting-place.” In fulfillment of that prophecy, the events of the story unfold more or less as related here. In terms of the drastic environmental change in the geography of Kashmir that resulted, the time of the previous Buddha might be more appropriate. See also note 65??

[7] N›ropa’s dates are given as fire-dragon to iron-dragon year, which would be 956-1040. Atısha’s departure for Tibet is reliably dated to 1040, and he brought relics from the cremation of N›ropa with him. The stÒpa in which they are enshrined still survives in Nethang Dolma Lhakang temple, founded by Atısha. According to Peter Roberts’s introduction to Mah›mudr› and Related Instructions, the common erroneous dates of 1016-110 (such as in Guenther, The Life and Teaching of N›ropa ) was the result of taking literally an episode in Tsangnyön Heruka’s version of the life of Marpa in which he visits N›ropa. However it turns out that the visit and Naropa’s song are derived from one of Tsangnyön’s visions and are without historical basis.

[8] See Guenther, The Life and Teaching of N›ropa (16), with the following information: born into the Shakya clan, brahman caste, his father named Zhi ba ho cha (Shantivarman) and mother dPal gyi blo gros (Srimati) who was the daughter of the great king sKal lden grags pa. They had only one daughter, the princess dPal gyi ye shes (Srıjñ›na). N›ropa’s wife was Dri med pa (Vimala) whose mother was the Brahmini Nigu. (Note that the Sanskrit names are reconstructions from the Tibetan.) These names accord with those given in the biography by Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339). However in The Life Story of the Supreme Learned N›ro Pa˚chen by Sangye Bum, the father’s name is given as the brahmin dGe ba bzang po, and his mother’s name as the brahmini dPal gyi ye shes (89-90; f. 2a6-b1), which in other places is actually the daughter’s name.

[9] The earliest biographies of N›ropa, such as that of Gampopa (1079-1153) and Lama Zhang (1123-1193), do not name a specific birthplace other than simply “the west.” All accounts of Naropa include the story of a ˜›kinı appearing to him and telling him to “go east” to find his guru Tilopa, which really only makes sense if he is somewhere in the west. In The Life Story of the Supreme Learned N›ro Pa˚chen, which claims to have compared five different biographies, Sangye Bum gives his birthplace as the “land of Moslems” (kha che’i yul), almost universally interpreted to mean Kashmir (88). (Recall that Moslems gained control of Kashmir in the 14th century). In case this is not clear, Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339) specifies “ka smi ra”, transcribing the Indian “Kashmir” as nearly as is possible in Tibetan in his version of the life story (f. 26a2). Kachö Wangpo (1350-1405) is even more specific, saying: “In the east of India, the town of Jammu (‘Dzam bu) in Srinagar (Sri na ga ra), a district of Bha ga la.” Srinagar and Jammu are easily identified in the south-eastern part of the Kashmir valley, but “bhagala” is not so clear. The biography by Lhatsun Rinchen Namgyal (1473-1557), which was translated by Herbert Guenther in The Life and Teaching of N›ropa, is a verbatim copy of Kachö Wangpo’s, a very common practice in Tibetan literature where plagiarism is truly the highest form of flattery. Dorje Dze-ö ‘s biography of Naropa, translated by Khenpo Könchog Gyaltsen in The Great Kagyu Masters, has the same information. It seems that it is only in the inexplicable identification of the Tibetan transliteration “Bha-ga-la” as “Bengal” in these two translations (despite the obvious reference to Srinigar and Jammu) that N›ropa has been widely viewed in the western world as Bengali.  But later Tibetan authors such as T›ran›tha have upheld Kashmir as his birthplace. One last twist to this research is that Sangye Bum’s description of “the land of Moslems”, identical to the one in Niguma’s life story, adds that it is also called “Kosala”! (89; f. 2a6) This ancient kingdom where the Buddha Shakyamuni spent most of his teaching life is nowhere near Kashmir or Bengal, but somewhere in the middle. This seems to come out of nowhere and I have no explanation for it. On Naropa’s birthplace see also Templeman, The Seven Instruction Lineages, 46 and 115, n.157.

[10] For example, in his translation of the Blue Annals, George Roerich notes that modern Tibetan pilgrims believe the location of Pullahari to be in Kashmir near Srinagar (400). And more interestingly, the colophon to Tilopa’s Esoteric Instructions on the Six Yogas (Chos drug gi man ngag) states that it was translated by N›ropa and Marpa in Pu˝hpahari in the place of the Moslems (kha che’i gnas), again referring to Kashmir (Toh. 2330, f. 271a2-3).

[11] Guenther, “Introduction”, The Life and Teaching of N›ropa, xi-xii.

[12]N› ro pa’i lcam mo“, Gö Lots›wa, 2:854 and again on 855 (Roerich, 2:730).

[13] Th’u’ Kvan Lama, Collected Works of bLo bzang chos-kyi nyi-ma, vol. Kha, f.3a1.

[14] Increasing Enlightened Activity: the Feast offering and Concluding Rites of Red and White Kecharı in the Shangpa Tradition (Shangs lugs mkh’a spyod dkar dmar gnyis kyi tshogs mchod dang rjes chog phrin las yar ‘phel), ST, 3:300 (f. 2b5-6).

[15] BD 1:765.

[16] Roerich, BA, 390.

[17] rus pa’i rgyan can. The actual description is “the ˜›kinı of timeless awareness with whom it is meaningful to be connected [and who] has bone ornaments” (ye shes kyi mkha’ ‘gro ma ‘brel tshad don ldan rus pa’i rgyan dang ldan pa) (Tsangnyön Heruka, 38). Fun fact: Tsangnyön Heruka was also called “Adorned with Bone Ornaments” (gTshang smyon he ru ka Rus pa’i rgyan can).

[18] Nalanda Translation Committee, The Life of Marpa the Translator, 32 and 80, respectively. The Four Seats Tantra (Catu¯pı˛ha; gDan bzhi) is a mother tantra of highest yoga tantra. In Sangye Bum’s Biography of Marpa in the Rwalung Kagyu Golden Rosary (a collection of biographies of the Middle Drukpa masters in Rwalung), Marpa receives this from ‘Phags pa rang byung (1:136). Khyungpo Naljor did not receive this tantra from Niguma either; it did not seem to be in her repertoire.

[19] grong khyer der che ba’i pa˚˜ita n›ro ta pa dang/ rin chen rdo rje gnyis bzhugs so (ST, 1:40; f. 2b4).

[20] The Blue Annals (Deb ster ngon po) by Gö Lots›wa Zhonnu Pal (1392-1481): “chos drug gi gdams pa ‘di rnams shes pa nga dang lwa ba pa ma gtogs med “(vol. 2:856). In the translation, Roerich inserts Kambalap›da as another name for Lav›pa, though this identity is not certain in this case. The statement in Khyungpo Naljor’s life story is in Shangpa texts, vol.1:92 (f.17b4).

[21] Templeman, The Seven Instruction Lineages, 33-36; and T›ran›tha’s History of Buddhism in India, 241-245. The supplementary notes in the back of the latter (408) reveal that the translators also identify him with Kambhala, as in the Blue Annals, although the author Gö Lots›wa did not make that identity explicit.

[22] Esoteric Instructions, 137; TOK, 1:526. He is also mentioned often in the various biographies of Tilopa, including Marpa’s biography of Tilopa, The Life of the Mah›siddha Tilopa, page 5 in the Tibetan transliteration. By some accounts, it was lucid clarity that Tilopa received from Lav›pa, and T›ran›tha would seem to corroborate, although there are many versions. For a discussion of this see ibid., 69-70, note 31.

[23] Templeman, T›ran›tha’s Life of K¸˝˚›c›rya/K›˚ha, 82.

[24] A Supplement to the History of the Lineages, DZ vol. 18:102-103 (ff. 2b6-3a3). For a brief and confusing discussion of Lav›pa’s identities and dates, see T›ran›tha,The Origin of Tara Tantra, 60, n. 173. Also see some stories about this siddha in Dudjom RInpoche’sThe Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism 1:485-487. Here he is identified with IndrabhÒti the Younger, son of King Ja, as his teacher, whereas T›ran›tha associates with IndrabhÒti the middle. In fact much of this confusion may arise from the multiple IndrabhÒtis.

[25] Padmasambhava/Jamgön Kongtrül, The Light of Wisdom: Vol. I, 37. Translation by Erik Pema Kunsang.

[26] Gyatso, Apparitions of the Self, 251.

[27] Campbell, Traveler in Space, 139.