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. 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. She had previously gathered the accumulations [of merit and wisdom] for three incalculable eons. So her body became a rainbow-like form.
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Kalu Rinpoche. She now works as a teacher, oral interpreter and translator. She has been an instructor at Naropa University since and continues to teach her Tibetan Language Correspondence Course.
Sarah is currently working on translations as a fellow of the Tsadra Foundation. Her next book is on the life and teachings of Niguma which form an important part of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage. Jeff Cox: I would like to know more about your interest in dharma, your training, and how it brought you to this point of translating the teachings of Niguma.
Sarah Harding: It is a long, old story. I was propelled out of the country when I was I went to Europe and then to more exotic places until I ended up in India and Nepal.
During my travels in Nepal, I became aware of lamas giving teachings. I did the 2nd and 4th courses at Kopan around After one of those courses, someone showed me a photo of Kalu Rinpoche and that was it!
JC: So photos really do convey a lot of information! SH: Yes, it was one of those classic hair-standing-on-end moments. The journey was arduous and I went straight as the crow flies which you are not supposed to do and from then on, I was in trouble with the Indian government. It was a strange situation with Kalu Rinpoche because he looked so different, like an alien and yet so totally familiar.
I never had a doubt about him being my teacher. I began doing the practices of the Shangpa lineage. JC: When did you decide to do an extensive retreat? On that trip, he had the idea to offer a three-year retreat for westerners. I knew immediately that I wanted to do it, but at first, he thought I was too inexperienced. It took a lot of persuading, but he finally agreed to allow me to be in the first retreat that would begin in and end in I began preparing by learning Tibetan and doing ngondro and other preparatory activities.
I lived in a couple of other places before the retreat—Vancouver and also Seattle where I studied with the Sakya teacher Deshung Rinpoche, my second most favorite lama. Kalu Rinpoche would tell us that when he was away we should turn to Deshung Rinpoche. He regarded Kalu Rinpoche as his second root guru. JC: Please tell me about the retreat.
Was it a solitary or group retreat? We were in France at Kagyu Ling. There were seven women in one retreat place called Nigu Ling, and seven men in another place called Naro Ling. Lama Tenpa was our retreat master and there was a cook.
He gave me one of his lamas to begin teaching me Tibetan and in that first day I learned the alphabet and how to spell my name in Tibetan. Kalu Rinpoche felt it was important for people to learn Tibetan because it would lead to a deeper understanding of the dharma. That is why there are so many of his students that know Tibetan. JC: Did he have a translator around him at that time? SH: Yes, he had good translators at the time.
It was a big inspiration for me to want to learn Tibetan so that I would be able to understand Kalu Rinpoche—that was my only motivation; I never planned to become a translator. I just wanted to understand him. Even with a good translator, it was unacceptable to me to have a mediator. JC: Yes, I would think that it would be that way for you. SH: Exactly, I feel that very strongly. On the other hand, I used to have profound moments with Kalu Rinpoche before we could speak with each other.
There was no one around and we would be together in silence. Once I could speak, my discursive mind could not let that silence just be—I had many questions, and now I feel I might have been missing out on the real thing that was going on. JC: Still, you experienced his depth. You really wanted to understand the dharma and wanted to study the texts in the original and come to your own conclusions without intermediaries.
SH: Every time I bump up against a dharma scene where there are various restrictions, I am so glad that I can go directly to the source and no one is blocking me. It skips a lot of bullshit. JC: In a tradition where there are many rules that can prevent access by women because they are treated secondarily, I imagine that women have had a harder time accessing the teachings.
SH: I think that it is true that women did not receive the same training except in rare circumstances where by birth they were like royalty. SH: Yes, like that. There is not a huge bias, it is just that they are overlooked as far as training goes. And they very much want that training. I suspect it was like that in Tibet from everything I have read and heard.
JC: What have you translated so far? SH: I have done several books, not all by women by any means, but I am interested in women who bucked the system and have displayed their own agency. However, it is hard to find the actual historical women, because of the cultural overlays on the great women such as Machik and Niguma.
In the case of Niguma, it is really difficult to find out about the person. Niguma did not have pen in hand to create the texts ascribed to her. Her disciple Khyungpo Naljor wrote everything down—it is not clear that he ever met her as a real person. It makes one wonder if she is a real person or just the imaginative mystical creation of a yogi. The text Stages of Illusion is attributed to her. It is a lengthy treatise, much more than just a few vajra lines. Everything attributed to Niguma was recorded by Khyungpo Naljor.
I have always been proud that the Shangpa lineage was founded by Niguma and Sukhasiddhi, but the question remains: Are they the actual women or the names for the inspiration of Khyungpo Naljor?
We think that the presence in Tibetan culture of inspirational beings called dakinis somehow indicates that women are highly respected, but that is wishful thinking.
Our cultures seem to need to believe that powerful women became so because of powerful men. JC: Because the Shangpa lineage had Niguma as a founder, do you think that there is greater respect in that lineage for women of wisdom? SH: I do think it has had an effect.
Once a woman is recognized as a dakini, there is no longer any question of respect for that person. Kalu Rinpoche was open to women practitioners receiving equal training. He had confidence that the women were equally capable. But he also had limits. He recognized them as capable teachers; they are now continuing his work after his death. SH: Chagdud Tulku was very important for me having any confidence at all. I translated his written work and his oral teachings for a number of years—he had no issue about women at all.
I would say he had more confidence in women than he did in men. He certainly had more confidence in me than I had in myself. JC: We need our teachers to see our potential for growth and to relate to that.
SH: Women often have confidence issues, so for him to display confidence was huge for me. Every interview I translated, he would give me half of the donation. JC: How is the Shangpa lineage different from others? SH: It stands out as a different lineage. In the case of the Shangpa, Khyungpo Naljor received teachings from approximately masters in India, and among them were Niguma and Sukhasiddhi.
The Tibetan lineages are traced to one person, usually, who received teachings from outside Tibet. Each lineage has different teaching emphases. For example, the yogas of Niguma are more straight-forward and simple than those of Naropa. In Shangpa, you are encouraged to visualize your root guru instead of Vajradhara.
This indicates that the devotional aspect may be emphasized differently. In my mind this seems particularly feminine. Niguma was a person who was hard to find—illusory in that sense. That ephemeral quality is the very definition of dakini. Most of the teachings on the paths and grounds are incredibly fixed and detailed as to what happens at each stage.
JC: It is a little too structured when you consider how life actually is, how it moves. SH: Exactly. How do you approach this complex path to enlightenment from the viewpoint of illusion? SH: Yes, for the Buddha, his Prajnaparamita teachings have been personified as the feminine. Niguma gave me a way to relate to the path literature. More about the book.
Niguma, Lady of Illusion
Kalu Rinpoche. She now works as a teacher, oral interpreter and translator. She has been an instructor at Naropa University since and continues to teach her Tibetan Language Correspondence Course. Sarah is currently working on translations as a fellow of the Tsadra Foundation. Her next book is on the life and teachings of Niguma which form an important part of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage. Jeff Cox: I would like to know more about your interest in dharma, your training, and how it brought you to this point of translating the teachings of Niguma.
Niguma, Lady Of Illusion
Biography Details Providing a rare glimpse of feminine Buddhist history, Niguma, Lady of Illusion brings to the forefront the life and teachings of a mysterious eleventh-century Kashmiri woman who became the source of a major Tibetan Buddhist practice lineage. The circumstances of her life and extraordinary qualities ascribed to her are analyzed in the greater context of spiritual biography and Buddhist doctrine. This volume includes the thirteen works that have been attributed to Niguma in the Tibetan Buddhist canon. These collected works form the basis of an ancient lineage Shangpa, which continues to be actively studied and practiced today. These works include the source verses for such esoteric practices as the Six Yogas, the Great Seal, and the Chakrasamvara and Hevajra tantric practices that are widespread in Tibetan traditions. Also included is the only extant biography, which is enhanced by the few other sources of information on her life and work. The collected works and biography are gems of insight into the spiritual journey of this elusive figure whose realization culminates in the perfection of timeless awareness and an illusory rainbow body.
Niguma, Lady of illusion
Tibetan Buddhism Review quote "Such an important historical female figure as Niguma has been obscured by centuries of overlaid mythology, but now Sarah Harding has skillfully managed to separate the wheat from the chaff and to reveal something of the woman behind the legend, along with her place in the Shangpa tradition and her fascinating writings on Yoga. The collected works and biography are gems of insight into the spiritual journey of this elusive figure whose realization culminates in the perfection of timeless awareness and an illusory rainbow body. Deftly written, the account is a treasure trove of information about tantric practices and attainments focused especially on the nature and power of illusion. Of special relevance to those who happen to be women this time around. She became a student of the late master Kalu Rinpoche, and in , she completed the traditional three-year retreat under his guidance.