“This variety of desirous and hateful thoughts
that strands us in the ocean of cyclic existence
once realized to be without intrinsic nature,
makes everything a golden land, child.
If you meditate on the illusion-like nature
of illusion-like phenomena,
actual illusion-like buddhahood
will occur through the power of devotion.”
~ From ‘Niguma, Lady of Illusion’ by Sarah Harding
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 Shrimati (dPal gyi blo gros ma). Her real name was Shrıjnana (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 vajrayana, 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 Ananda. 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 naga 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), 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 Taranatha are indeed the same as those of Naropa in his biography in the Kagyu Golden Rosary by Lhatsun Rinchen Namgyal and are similar in other biographies. Those same biographies tell the story of those parents’ first child, Shrıjnana, and how they had to perform special supplications for a male child after her birth. We also have the name of Naropa’s wife, Vimala or Vimaladipi (Dri med pa or Dri med sgron ma), with whom he parted to pursue his spiritual career. Naropa 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. 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. 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:
[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 Naropa.’
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, 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, 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.” Admittedly the word lcam mo can be used as mistress or wife, particularly as the senior of several wives, 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’.” 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 mahamudra under Maitripa, Marpa returned to Naropa. This time, Naropa sent Marpa to receive teachings from Niguma, Wisdom (Jnana) Dakini Adorned with Bone ornaments. She was Naropa’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.
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”. 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 Sosadvipa (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 Naropa (after he had already passed away). 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. 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.”
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. 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. 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 Lavapa 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. 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:
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 Lavapa 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.
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:
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 nirmanakayas, 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.” 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.” 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.