Nicole Riggs’s Like An Illusion: Lives of the Shangpa Kagyu Masters is a collection of translations of the autobiographies of key figures of Shangpa Kagyu, an important lineage of Tibetan Buddhism dating from early 11th century to recent. It traces the origin, development, key concepts and practices of Shangpa Kagyu as well as gives us quintessential examples of how Tibetan religious autobiographies are written and how they are different from Western counterparts in various aspects.
As a translational work, Like An Illusion offers few analyses of the autobiographies besides in its introduction written by Bokar Rinpoche. Therefore, it is up to the readers to analyze and understand the texts through the lens of their own choice. Considering the total number of autobiographies and similarity among many of them, I will mainly focus on a selected few of chapters to discuss rather than cover the whole book, which will be less than useful to serve my purpose, that is, to lay out a general idea of how these autobiographies are structured, what are their uses in Shangpa Kagyupa lineage, and how we can put them into the historical background which gave rise to their composition in the first place. The chapters I will present will be Chapter 3: Life of Sukhasiddhi, Chapter 4: Life of Khyungpo Naljor, and Chapter 22: Life of Taranatha.

I. Life of Sukhasiddhi

One of the two “mothers” of the Shangpa lineage, Sukhasiddhi was a poor woman living in Western Kashmir with her husband and six children. The family being destitute with barely any food to eat, Sukhasiddhi gave the only rice they had to a poor person passing by the door, which angered her husband and children, who had nothing left to eat. They threw Sukhasiddhi out of the house and told her never to return. Without family and money, Sukhasiddhi left Kashmir and headed west for Uddiyana, by which time she was already 59 years old. Helped by the dakas and dakinis she met on the road, Sukhasiddhi obtained a bag of rice and decided to make beer from it and became a beer merchant. Since her beer was the tastiest in Uddiyana, she got the chance to meet the great yogi Virupa, whose consort only came to her to buy beer. Impressed by her great devotion, Virupa empowered Sukhasiddhi with yogi practices as well as the secret practices of the generation and completion stages. Sukhasiddhi also became Virupa’s secret consort, which gave her further empowerment and realization that not only beautified her body like a sixteen-year old girl, but also transformed her into a dakini of magical illusions who dwelt in the sky. As a key figure of Shangpa Kagyu lineage, Sukhasiddhi gave pure instructions on Six Yogas’ secret practices, mother tantra instructions to the first lineage holder, Khyungpo Naljor while he was in India, and continued to inspire future lineage holders such as Mokchokpa and Kyergangpa.

In terms of length, the autobiography of Sukhasiddhi is very short, covering merely four pages, less than one tenth of the length of Life of Khyungpo Naljor. Not only is it short, but it also lacks the details like traveling in search of great teachers, spending years in reclusive meditation, performing magics and overcoming great ordeals on the path towards enlightenment, which usually mark the storylines of autobiographies of major figures in Tibetan Buddhism. The fact that references to women in Like An Illusion are both quantitively and qualitatively sparse can be understood as a reflection of the gender dualism in Tibetan religion, if not in the entire society. We can see that women as important as Sukhasiddhi and Niguma to the Shangpa Kyagu lineage, are given merely symbolic importance rather than substantial significance compared to their male, but junior counterparts such as Khyungpo Naljor and Kyergangpa. Bokar Rinpoche addresses this problem in the introduction, urging that “readers uncomfortable about the absence of details on women" to "set aside dualistic preoccupations and concentrate on achieving an internal blossom of experience.”(p 13) But the tension is not solved for those who read this book from a socio-historical perspective, and we are compelled to confirm “dualistic” preconceptions from the readings.

II. Life of Kyungpo Naljor

Born to a noble family in Nyemo Ramang in the Gangkarda area, Khyungpo Naljor was the first lineage holder of Shangpa Kagyu school. He was prophesied to become a great teacher of Dharma when he was born, and excelled in reading, writing, arithmetic, and both Chinese and Indian astrology at the age of ten. Initially instructed with Bon teachings, Khyungpo Naljor soon began to have doubts as a Bon practitioner and turned to Buddhism. After traveling extensively in Tibet and receiving instructions from great lamas, he decided to go to India and search for further teachings that would enable him with siddhis (神通) and realization. Along the way, he encountered numerous teachers such as Lama Dorjedenpa and Shri Bhadrasajnana but soon surpassed them in terms of Dharma. Then he met the dakinis Niguma and Sukhasiddhi, from whom great empowerment and realization were achieved. But Khyungpo Naljor continued to study from different masters even after his dharma had already topped them all. By the time he returned to Tibet, he had become a famous lama across the region and attracted thousands of disciples and believers. With ever increasing fame and influence, Khyungpo started to erect monasteries one after one, which would finally reach the number of one hundred and eight. He also frequently performed wonders in front of others to elicit great belief and devotion. By the time of his death, he had already established himself as the greatest “human disciple” (p86) (of buddha).

A quick examination of the autobiography of Kyungpo Naljor reveals a clear pattern of writing. It follows exactly the template that most masters use to encompass their life: “first, as a precocious child with an early renunciation for the snares of samsara. Next, as a student encountering Lamas and teachers… (then readers are shown) the teachings and empowerments the master receives. (They follow him into) retreat where his meditative challenges and triumphs are revealed. (They are impressed with) his ability to visualize deities.(They see) disciples gather around him. (They) find him in a monastery or, as in the tradition of independent yogis, in the wilderness.” (p 7) Such pattern bears a decided resemblance to the phases written in the hagiographies of Shakyamuni, which provides Kyungppo Naljor with a powerful seal of validity. By putting all the autobiographies together, we can see a great continuity in terms of life experience, teaching, and realization among the Shangpa Kagyupa masters, which by its own right testifies to the solidarity of the lineage.

III. Life of Taranatha

Jetsun Taranatha (1575-1634) was the abbot of Jonang Monastery, which was the seat for Jonangpa Transmission of Kagyupa teaching after early 14th century. But as his autobiography mostly follows the same pattern as outlined in the chapter above, I will not summarize his life experience but rather use it as a springboard for the discussion of the historical context of it.

According to Bokar Rinpoche, one of the central point of contention between Shangpa Kagyu and Gelupka is their difference in the philosophical views of ultimate nature. Taranatha held a position of “Empty-of-Other” (gzhan stong) on the ultimate while the Gelupkas held the Middle Way philosophy that expresses the ultimate by negation. This idea had been rebuilt and expanded by Taranatha, whose early life experience was marked by realization and renown. However, later in his life, civil wars broke out in Tibet and eventually the Gelupkas gained ascendancy. This event had long lasting implication for the Shangpa Kagyupa lineage. As the 5th Dalai Lama assumed supremacy, he banned the publication of Jonang texts. Since Tarantha was the transmitter for both the Shangpa and the Jonang traditions, “his repression drove the Shangpa lineage underground,” (p6) which can be partially corroborated by the discontinuity of the flow of autobiographies after Taranatha.

By putting Taranatha’s autobiography along with earlier hagiographies of Shangpa Kagyupa masters against the historical context of their composition, we can also discern a clear watershed that marks two different periods in terms of religious freedom. Before the civil war and the rise of Gelupka, Tibet was relatively liberal in its acceptance of different beliefs. Various religions and schools like the Bon, the Shangpa Kagyu coexisted relatively peacefully. Even though religious clashes still broke out quite often, they were incomparable to those after the 17th century in terms of both magnitude and intensity. However, since the 5th Dalai Lama ascended to power, the religious landscape of Tibet had changed permanently, with supremacy and repression taking place of coexistence and competition.

IV. Conclusion.

With all its accurate and beautiful translations of autobiographies, Like An Illusion is a great inspiration for anyone who seeks enlightenment from an old and rare Tibetan Buddhist lineage. It also serves as a great source for scholars learning premodern Tibetan hagiography and history.
Riggs, Nicole. 2001. Like an Illusion: Lives of the Shangpa Kagyu Masters. Eugene, Oregon: Dharma Cloud Press.