Nangsa Obum

Human life is very difficult to find
If we do not follow the Dharma at once,
It will be over, like a flash of lightning.

~ Nangsa Obum

Nangsa Obum is perhaps the most popular female Tibetan folk hero. The central character of one of Tibet’s seven or eight dramas traditionally performed by troupes of male actors, she epitomizes the struggle for self-determination in religious practice. 

In most versions of the Life of Nangsa Obum, this woman was born into a wealthy family in the Tsang area of southwestern Tibet in the eleventh or twelfth century. Her parents, Kunzang Dechen and Nyangsa Saldron, were overjoyed at the arrival of their newborn girl, who paid homage to the goddess Tara as soon as she took her first sip of mother’s milk. Young Nangsa had a happy childhood replete with loving parents, hard work, and the study of the Dharma.

When she was fifteen, Nangsa Obum was chosen by the king of Rinang to be wed to his son, Drakpa Samdrup. She protested, but her parents would hear none of it and sent her to Rinang. Seven years later she gave birth to the son of Drakpa Samdrup, Lhau Darpo. She was declared to be free of a “woman’s five faults” (she was not indecisive, weak-willed, easily swayed by others, extremely greedy for food and wealth, and obstinate) and possessed of “an intelligent woman’s eight qualities” (she did not act under delusion even without a man around, loved her spouse, bore many sons, was able-bodied, did not talk a lot, was levelheaded, was steadfastly friendly, and was an excellent worker).

Because the king of Rinang and his son were both in love with Nangsa Obum, they decided to give the keys to the royal storehouse to her. But their affection for her proved to be her undoing as her place in the court became more and more tenuous. The storeroom keys had formerly been the privilege of the king’s sister, Ani Nyemo, who became fiercely jealous and began a campaign of intrigue and insult against the heroine. Nangsa Obum sang the first of her laments, bemoaning the fact that her present situation — and in particular her son, a “samsaric rope” — prevented her from entering the religious life.

As Nangsa Obum showed favor toward a traveling yogin and began to turn away from her domestic life, Ani Nyemo convinced the king that his daughter-in-law was being unfaithful to the family. In a rage he beat her and took her son away. Nangsa Obum died, struck down by a fierce melancholia from the treachery that beset her. In death she travelled to the underworld and met Avalokitesvara in his wrathful form as the lord of the dead. Looking into the “karma mirror” he saw that she was a virtuous person, and thus sent her back to the world of the living to be a revenant and aid others in virtuous conduct.

With a new vision of human life, she returned to her family and, in a series of emotionally gripping songs exchanged with her son, she declared her newfound zeal to practice Dharma. She attempted to teach her husband, father-in-law, and aunt about impermanence, karma, and suffering, but was unable to reach them due to their karmically habituated negative attitudes. Fearing only that she would seek retribution for their crimes against her, they attempted to placate her with a visit to her mother and father. Back at home she once again attempted to preach the Dharma to her family and their servants. She sang many beautiful songs to all who would listen, including a “loom song” to the weavers of her family’s compound, in which each part of the loom was likened to a point of esoteric philosophy. But her preaching through song succeeded only in angering her mother, who kicked her out of the house.

This final act of disparagement by her family convinced Nangsa to find a religious master and begin her Dharma practice in earnest. After a series of further trials, she was accepted as a disciple by Shakya Gyaltsen, a yogin in the tradition of Milarepa. Under this master she was granted many tantric instructions, was provided with a small dwelling for solitary meditation, and within three months achieved perfection in her contemplative experience.

Meanwhile, Nangsa Obum’s husband and father-in-law learnt of her whereabouts and set out to attack the hermitage of Shakya Gyaltsen and retrieve “their woman Nangsa.” As the two men and their army destroyed the master’s institution, captured him, and killed his disciples, Nangsa Obum — now a revenant and powerful yogini in her own right — emerged from contemplative reverie to rebuke her father-in-law for challenging the master. Angered at her insolence, the king of Rinang readied an arrow while his son lifted a sword, both fixed upon killing Shakya Gyaltsen. But at that moment the old yogin revealed his supernormal powers to the king by moving a mountain, bringing his slain disciples back to life, and flying up into the sky to deliver a song. He was followed by his foremost female disciple, as Nangsa Obum transformed her hermit’s robes into wings and soared above her men and their army.

Dumbfounded at this display, the army retreated, the king and his son repented, and the family that had scorned her bowed to Nangsa Obum’s higher status as the goddess Dorje Phagmo. As the Life of Nangsa Obum came to a close, the grand results of her desire to practice religion against all odds manifested. The king and her husband promised to hand the kingdom over to her son, Lhau Darpo, who ruled with the ten virtues and the sixteen laws, and supported the hermitage of Shakya Gyaltsen with generous patronage. Ani Nyemo left household life to become a disciple of Nangsa Obum and Shakya Gyaltsen, willingly giving up her power over the younger woman of her family. And our heroine finally died a proper saint’s death, leaving footprints in the rocky walls of her meditation cave for all “up to the present day.”

Sources: “Himalayan Hermitess: The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Nun” by Kurtis Schaeffer; “Women of Wisdom” by Lama Tsultrim Allione.

Image: “River To Paradise” by Wang Yi Guang.