Deeds of Bodhisattvas Awaken Confidence: lives of Shangpa Kagyu Masters Niguma, Khyungpo Naljor and Sukhasiddhi

by Ven. Lama Norlha Rinpoche

Because of the great wisdom, learning and skillfulness the Buddha embodies, he gave appropriate teachings to counteract all our emotional afflictions —eighty-four thousand different ones are mentioned. To eliminate them, he gave eighty-four thousand teachings, traditionally known as the Eighty-four Thousand Collections.

Twenty-one thousand emotional afflictions arise from the root poison of desire. As an antidote for these, the Buddha explained the teachings of the Vinaya collection, the prescriptions for ethical behavior. To eliminate the twenty-one thousand emotional afflictions arising from hatred, he gave the twenty-one thousand teachings that make up the Sutra collection. The twenty-one thousand teachings given in the Abhidharma, the third collection, were designed to annihilate the twenty-one thousand emotional afflictions arising from the root of ignorance. Yet there remain twenty-one thousand which result from the complex intermixture of the three—desire, hatred and ignorance. As antidotes to these, the Buddha gave the twenty-one thousand teachings which make up tantra, the teachings of the Vajrayana.

The teachings given by the Buddhas are not intellectual speculation, but are based on their personal experience of absolute Enlightenment. Having given up all that concerns "me" and "I," and having committed themselves to the benefit of all beings, whatever the difficulties, Buddhas continually experience perfect Enlightenment. These enlightened beings manifest in skillful ways to liberate beings, using whatever forms or appearances are appropriate.

Thus Buddhas and Bodhisattvas take all sorts of births: sometimes they come as kings and queens, princes, ministers, sometimes as commoners, peasants, animals —whatever is most practical to benefit beings, whatever is necessary to present the Dharma.

Sometimes they appear as men. Sometimes as women. I will tell the story of two women, Niguma and Sukhasiddhi, who took the responsibility of demonstrating the Dharma in such a way that their teachings continue to benefit sentient beings to this day. (Their disciple, Khyungpo Naljor, brought the teachings of what became known as the Shangpa Kagyu lineage to Tibet)

Niguma

Niguma was born in Kashmir, a Muslim country, in a region called the Land of Great Magic. During the time of the previous Buddha, this land had been covered by water, and a Naga king was in possession of it. An arhat, who was a disciple of the Buddha of that time, longed to erect a temple there, so he went to ask the naga king for a piece of solid ground. The naga king promised one, but only as big as the arhat's body could cover when he was sitting in meditation. The arhat gratefully accepted what was offered, and when the time came to take possession of the land, he performed a miracle: his sitting body covered the whole of that land. The naga king kept his promise, and the whole new land was offered to the arhat, whose name was Nyimay Gung.

With his miraculous power, the arhat made all the water disappear, and a magnificent temple and monastery were soon built there. People in the surrounding regions began to take notice of this new landscape and, especially, its most beautiful temple. They wanted to live there and discussed how to go about it. They finally decided to invite a great magician who could create a city all round the temple. Once he had done this and before he could undo his magical creation (as magicians are wont to do), the people destroyed him. So the settlement continued there, and the district acquired the reputation of a land of great magnificence and great magic.

This special place later became the birthplace of many mahasiddhas, among them Naropa. And here too was born the great female Bodhisattva Niguma, who by auspicious coincidence happened to be born as the sister of Naropa, in a virtuous, noble family. In former lives she had generated the enlightened mind and followed the path of the Bodhisattvas. She now chose voluntary birth as a woman who would benefit and liberate others. During her lifetime as Niguma, the experiences and profound teachings that she had made her own in many previous eons were now further enlarged and reviewed with the other learned Mahasiddhas of her time. As Niguma, she experienced the perfect state of the ultimate awakened mind. Enlightenment manifested through her so that her entire being; including her physical form, transcended mundane existence, and experienced perfect Buddhahood within her lifetime.

Niguma received the ultimate teachings directly from Vajradhara, the primordial Buddha, in the form of personal initiation into all levels of the teachings —Sutra, Abhidharma, and Tantra. As a result, she manifested as a tenth stage Bodhisattva; this means that even the subtlest obscurations were dispelled, so that her mind became one with the mind of the Buddha, attaining the Three Bodies of perfect Enlightenment. From her lifetime to this present day, she continues to manifest whatever subtle or more material form is necessary to benefit beings over limitless time.

Her foremost disciple was the Mahasiddha Khyungpo Naljor, who was born in Tibet and traveled to India to receive the full transmission from her. In granting him the empowerments, Niguma also confirmed that not only he, but all his successors and followers would in the future have the good fortune to receive the blessing of dakinis, encounter enlightened beings, and attain perfect Liberation.

Khyungpo Naljor

Khyungpo Naljor was born in a year of the tiger in the southern part of Tibet, into a distinguished family. Khyungpo is the family name —the clan of the khyung, or Garuda, the legendary great bird that is guardian of the north. His father's name was Khyungpo Chujar, and his mother's, Tashi. Thus, his own name meant "the yogin of the Garuda clan."

A portent marked his birth: The great Mahasiddha Amogha came flying through the air from India and made the prophecy that this newborn child, who was already highly realized, would in time come to India and there receive the profound transmissions that would make him a greater guide of beings.

The qualities of Khyungpo Naljor began to manifest while he was still very young. When he was five years old, he told detailed stories about his past existences, and revealed insight into his lives to come, and into the future in general. By the age of ten, he had completed the secular curriculum, the studies any learned person would undertake: philosophy, astrology, astronomy, and so on. By his twelfth year he had commenced the study of religion, beginning with Bon (the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet). He then began studying and practicing Nyingma teachings, including the core practice of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection.

At this point Khyungpo Naljor journeyed to India, where he studied with many learned and highly realized beings. Foremost among them were the two dakinis, Sukhasiddhi and Niguma. From them he received the ultimate pith instructions which led him to experience the highest stages of the Bodhisattva's path and established his mind in the enlightened state of Dorje Chang (the primordial Buddha, Vajradhara).

His meeting with Niguma came about in this fashion. After he had received teachings from many great Siddhas, Khyungpo Naljor again searched for highly realized teachers from whom he could receive more advanced instruction. The most realized teachers he encountered told him that one with his qualities should seek the great Bodhisattva who was not separate from Dorje Chang in her realization and in the profound teachings she could skillfully transmit.

Khyungpo Naljor asked where he could meet such an enlightened being and was told that her presence could manifest anywhere to highly purified beings. Unfortunate beings, those still caught in emotional afflictions, would find it very difficult to encounter her at all, since she had dissolved her physical form, attained the rainbow body, and achieved the level of Dorje Chang. Every now and again, however, she would visit the most sacred cremation grounds and, leading a host of dakinis, would preside over great ritual offering feasts (ganacakras). There someone might have an opportunity of seeing the great Niguma.

As soon as Khyungpo Naljor heard the name of the great dakini, he felt such devotion, like an electric shock, that tears swelled up in his eyes. Immediately he set out to find her at the great charnel ground called Sosaling. As he traveled, he continuously made supplications to the Three Jewels. When he reached the cemetery, he saw above him in space at the height of seven banana trees, a female deity bluish in appearance, who wore elaborate bone ornaments and held a trident and a skull. As he gazed at her, he sometimes saw one deity, and sometimes many; some were in meditation posture, and some were dancing or making graceful gestures. He felt sure that this was the great Bodhisattva Niguma, and began to make reverent prostrations to her, sincerely imploring her for transmission of the teachings.

Niguma mocked his request and sneering, warned him, "I am a flesh-eating dakini and I have a large retinue of other dakinis like myself. When they come, we may eat you. Run away before it's too late!"

But her words did not dismay Khyungpo Naljor or make him retreat. Again he proclaimed his longing to receive the transmission from her. After his second plea, Niguma made this stipulation: he must offer gold if he really wished to receive teachings from her.

Fortunately, Khyungpo Naljor had five hundred gold pieces with him, and these he took out and tossed up to her as an offering. As the gold came into her hands, she scattered it into the air, so that it fell all over the forest. This behavior just increased Khyungpo Naljor's confidence that she was indeed the great Niguma. A flesh-eating dakini would certainly have felt attachment to the gold and kept some.

With deepening conviction he continued to beseech her for the teachings; Niguma turned her head from side to side, and looked into the different directions with her blazing eyes. So summoned, a great throng of dakinis surrounded her, all busily at work. Some were building palaces, some constructing mandalas, and others were making preparations for Dharma teaching, and for the ganacakra that would follow.

On the day of the full moon, Niguma gave Khyungpo Naljor the empowerment and transmission of the teachings of the profound Dream Practice. In the middle of this, she said to him: "Son from Tibet, arise!"

Suddenly Khyungpo Naljor found himself in midair at the height of three banana trees. Looking up towards Niguma, he saw that the great being was on top of a golden mountain, surrounded by a vast retinue of dakinis. Down the four sides of the mountain, rivers fell. Khyungpo Naljor wondered out loud if this amazing mountain was truly there or whether he was witnessing a miraculous performance by the dakini.

Niguma answered, "When the ocean of samsara is turned over, when all attachment and ego-clinging are totally uprooted, then every place and every thing is covered with gold, forming a golden field of non-attachment. The actual nature of samsara, this phenomenal world, is like a play of dreams and illusion. When you have realized experientially that the play of the phenomenal world is nothing but a dream, or is like the illusion created by some magician, then you have gone beyond the ocean of samsara. This requires the greatest devotion to your Lama. Understand this. Now you must leave here. Go and grasp your dream.”

Khyungpo Naljor understood her instructions and entered the dream as he had been taught. In the dream state he was given full empowerment for the Five Golden Dharmas of Niguma. Three times in the dream he received the empowerments, including those of the Six Yogas of Niguma. At the end, Niguma told him this: "In this land there have been no other beings except yourself who received the total transmission of these doctrines three times in one dream.”

On the following day, Niguma once again gave him three times the complete transmissions, with the detailed explanations of these doctrines; this time the transmission took place in the waking state. One commitment she asked him to keep was this: only he and another Mahasiddha, by the name of Lavapa, had the transmission into the six doctrines of Niguma; the teachings should be kept secret until seven generations had passed in an unbroken line of transmission from one Lama to one chosen disciple in each generation. After the seventh generation, it would be appropriate to give these teachings more widely for the benefit of all beings.

Niguma's prayers of aspiration and her blessing would be directed toward that end. There is really no essential difference between the Six Yogas of Naropa and the Six Doctrines of Niguma. The notable difference is in the transmission lineage. The Six Doctrines of Naropa came from Naropa to Marpa and his successor, while the Six Doctrines of Niguma came through the great Mahasiddha Khyungpo Naljor.

Thereafter, the two doctrines were transmitted by the successive lineage holders so that there is to the present day an unbroken line in the Kagyu tradition of both doctrines, Naropa's and Niguma's.

Sukhasiddhi

At another point in his career Khyungpo Naljor questioned the Mahasiddha Aryadeva about those who would be able to advance his understanding. Aryadeva said that he himself had received teachings for seven months from a highly realized dakini, whose instructions had brought him to the eighth Bodhisattva level. Then, urging Khyungpo Naljor to search her out for himself, he told the story of how the dakini, whose name was Sukhasiddhi, had herself achieved realization.

In that same area of India where Niguma had lived, there was a great city in which lived a family: a father, mother, three sons, and three daughters, A time came when that land suffered such a terrible famine that this family's provisions were reduced to one small jar of rice, which they were keeping as a last resource. In desperation, the three sons left home and went towards the north, the three daughters towards the west, and the father towards the south, all searching for food, but all in vain. While they were away on their futile search, the mother stayed at home.

One day there came to her door a great Siddha, who by his clairvoyance knew that she had a jar of rice tucked away. He told the mother that he had not eaten for a very long time, and begged her to offer him some of the rice. Moved by his plea and by his virtue, she offered him the rice, cooking it for him and eating a little herself. When the sons, daughters and father came back empty-handed, exhausted and famished, they told the mother to bring out the last of the rice, so they could have at least one meal. Then she had to confess that there was no rice, that she had given it to a Siddha who had come begging. She explained that she had been certain that at least one of them would bring some food home, so she had felt it proper to offer the rice.

They were all outraged and turned her out of the house; she would have to go her own way and take care of herself, She had never been away from her family before. She went among her neighbors asking for advice. Everywhere she got the same suggestion: she should go to the west, to Oddiyana, a rich country whose people were understanding and generous. There she might find the basic necessities of life.

So the mother went to Oddiyana and found that its people were indeed sympathetic. Shehad come at an auspicious time, the season of the harvest, and the people gave her quantities of rice. She took that rice to a town called Bita and used it to make chang, a kind of beer. She sold the chang, bought rice with the proceeds, made more chang, and so gradually began to make her living as a brewer. She was soon able to open an inn, and amongst the people who came to buy her wares was one regular customer, a young girl who came every day to buy chang and meat. The mother became curious about this girl, who never ate or drank anything, but carried it all away. Where was she taking it? One day she ventured to ask the girl. The young woman answered, "Quite a way from here in the mountains, there is a great Mahasiddha, Virupa, who is constantly in meditation. Every day I take this as an offering to him."

The mother thought about this, and said, "In that case, I would certainly like to make my chang an offering to the great Mahasiddha."

She went on to tell the young woman the story of her misfortunes, her exile from her family, and how now in her declining years she was realizing the futility of involvement with material existence.

As a way of accumulating merit, she wanted to make offerings of her chang to the Mahasiddha.

From that time forward, she regularly offered the best chang to the Mahasiddha, and the young attendant brought it every day to the master. One day Virupa happened to ask how she was able to bring chang and meat every day without ever having to pay anything —who was making these offerings? The young woman explained that an elderly woman, new to the town, seemed very devoted to him and wanted to make regular offerings.

The great master Virupa said, "Today this elderly woman, who must already be someone of great merit, should be brought to me in person. I will guide her to complete Liberation." When this message was brought by Virupa's young attendant, the mother grew excited, and taking along generous offerings of chang and meat, went to visit Virupa.

When she came into his presence, Virupa bestowed Empowerment upon her. She was ripe for such an experience and in many ways was nearly a realized yogini already. The transmissions Virupa gave enhanced her Realization, with the result that she became a great Dakini. This woman, who was to be called Sukhasiddhi, was fifty-nine years old when she was banished from her family, and it had taken her a year to establish a livelihood, so when she received the profound instructions from Virupa she was sixty-one. With one-pointed conviction and commitment she received the totality of the empowerment and became an enlightened Dakini not only in essence, but also in form and appearance. She took on the form of a sixteen year old maiden.

Sukhasiddhi was completely dedicated to practice and had surrendered her ties to the phenomenal world. Through practice and devotion she in time equaled in Realization other great yoginis such as Niguma. Like them, she had visions of Dorje Chang from whom she received complete transmissions. After attaining such Realization, she devoted her profound abilities to manifesting in ways that would help and guide other beings. For over a thousand years since then fortunate beings have been and still are able to perceive Sukhasiddhi, in the form of an unchanging, youthful woman.

This was the story Aryadeva told Khyungpo Naljor about the life and Liberation of Sukhasiddhi. Aryadeva went on to explain that sometimes on the tenth day of the month, Sukhasiddhi could be seen in the thick of a certain forest, surrounded by a retinue of Dakinis. Fortunate beings sometimes encountered her there, if she made herself visible to them.

So Khyungpo Naljor, carrying gold to offer, went towards the forest as he had been directed. There, above a most beautiful juniper tree, a great Dakini was to be seen, brilliantly white, her hand in the "unborn" mudra. She was surrounded by a retinue of other Dakinis in the midst of a vast cloud of light. At his First sight of this great being, intense devotion was born in the heart of Khyungpo Naljor: his hair stood on end, and tears sprang to his eyes. The presence of the Dakini brought immense joy like that at the attainment of the first Bodhisattva level.

He made offerings of flowers, and circumambulated the tree below the great Dakini and her retinue. With a one-pointed mind, he begged her to teach. Sukhasiddhi said that the teachings she held were the highest in the Vajrayana, transmitted to her directly by Dorje Chang: to be worthy of receiving them, he must have an accumulation of merit, and make offerings of precious substances such as gold. Then, with palms joined together, he must generate intense devotion in order to receive the Empowerment, the Scriptural Transmission and the Instruction (wang, lung and tri, the three phases of preparation in the Vajrayana).

Khyungpo Naljor was directed to sit in the most respectful position to receive the profound teachings. Looking at him, Sukhasiddhi said that the experience of the precious human birth, and the opportunity of receiving the supreme Dharma in her presence was a great wonder. In this way Khyungpo Naljor made offerings and received her instruction.

Sukhasiddhi told him that in the future he would be the main lineage-holder of the teaching she had transmitted, and that the teaching itself would continue to exist and be available for the benefit of beings. Khyungpo Naljor received the four empowerments—of body, speech, mind, and the union of all three—into the Six Doctrines of Sukhasiddhi, which are similar to the Six Doctrines of Niguma. Then she prophesized that he would attain supreme Enlightenment and from the pure realm of Amitabha his activities would benefit all. Sukhasiddhi's realization, as embodied in her teachings, has continued to this present day through practitioners in many countries of the world.

Deeds of Bodhisattvas Awaken Confidence

Stories about the lives of enlightened beings provide us with examples of conduct that will inspire us and, especially, arouse a confidence that we too can follow in their footsteps. Our commitment to the Dharma and our practice of it can result in exactly the same sort of Enlightenment we see manifested in their lives. A strong sense of conviction and of dedication is essential, as we can see in the life of the great yogi Milarepa, After all the exhausting tasks Marpa had set him were completed, Milarepa was finally able to see the manifestation of Marpa as the Yidam Hevajra —in form as well as essence.

After Marpa had appeared with all the splendors and ornaments of the Yidam, he asked what Milarepa had experienced. Milarepa said that devotion had arisen in him, and confidence that such a state as Marpa had manifested could be realized. Milarepa then made a one-pointed aspiration to achieve it himself.

In our own situation as intelligent beings able to communicate, listen, make sense and explain, we have to understand clearly the distinction between samsara and Nirvana, learn what really needs to be done, and then take practical steps to do it. That is the real teaching and intention of the Buddha.

The greater our involvement in samsara, the greater our suffering. That is how things work. The Buddha said, "The greater the power, the greater the misery; the greater the wealth, the greater the miserliness; the more caught up we are in samsaric situations, the greater our self-deception." We have to realize that what we want to experience, and can experience, is ultimate happiness, a state that is indestructible, beyond circumstances and conditioning factors. To attain this we must give up temporary satisfactions, which in any case are full of false promises and pretense. We go to restaurants and social spots to have fun, to try to cheer one another up and grasp some measure of good feeling and security. Even if we don't mean it, we say how good everything looks, how well everything is going, and so on. But eventually we have to face reality, and that's very painful. The more we try to run away from suffering by pretending that it really doesn't exist, the more suffering we bring ourselves. That is not the way of Dharma. If you have recognized your need for Enlightenment, you will give up these deceptive pursuits and work towards ultimate happiness, which involves a total commitment to the practice of Dharma.

Enlightened beings, whether from long ago or in our own day can inspire admiration and then devotion. Therefore, we should take their examples sincerely to heart, and follow them by working towards Liberation for our own benefit and the benefit of all beings.

Click for info on Shangpa Kagyu Lineage

Women, Siddhi, Dharma. The Dharma: That Illuminates All Beings Impartially Like the Light of the Sun and the Moon (SUNY Albany Press)

1986 Kagyu Thubten Choling Reproduction not permitted without written permission from Kagyu Thubten Choling

Photo courtesy of Linda Jordan / Kagyu Samten Choling