Seeking Niguma, Lady of Illusion
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.
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:
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. 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! 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 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. 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. 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.
Read more at the Tsadra Foundation blog…