3. Naropa 1016-1100

na' ro ja na siddhi

„In the north, in the hermitage of Ravishing Beautiful Flowers,

The learned Mahapandita Naro showed the mark of a siddha, indivisible prana and mind.”

--  Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye the Great, The Song of Lodrö Thaye


The Fathers of the Kagyü Lineage comprise "The Golden Rosary," bkha-brgyüd-gser-phren in Tibetan. Each great master in the lineage continues embodying the living transmission of the instructions that were realized and revealed by Buddha Shakyamuni and ever since are being passed on to worthy disciples from “mouth to ear,” the meaning of the word Kagyü. The first syllable, spelled bkha, refers to the scriptures of the Buddha and the oral instructions of the Guru who has realized them. The second syllable, brgyüd, means “lineage or tradition.” Therefore the abbreviated form of both syllables means "the lineage of the oral instructions." In the sequence of the Golden Rosary of realized masters, Naropa received the Mahamudra and Tantra instructions from his Guru Tilopa. Naropa in turn passed them on to his disciples, who passed them on to their disciples after they practiced and realized the paths. There are two major paths in Tantra: the path of skilful means and the path of liberation, which consists of training in the development and completion stages. The completion stage is the most profound of all levels of Tantric practice; its heart-essence practice is called the “Six Dharmas (or Yogas) of Naropa.”


Naropa was born as a Brahmin prince in Bengal and was given the name Abhayakirti. Taranatha, the prolific Tibetan historian of the 17th century, wrote that he was born in a town called Jambu, that his father’s name was Shantivarnam, and his mother’s name was Shrimati. It is recorded that there was an earthquake as well as lightning and thunder and that many rainbows appeared in the sky on the auspicious day of his birth.

Ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche spoke about the life-stories of the Kagyü forefathers in 1986 and taught that Naropa was so pleasant to look at that everyone who simply saw him experienced great joy. Even in childhood, he possessed profound wisdom and loving kindness and compassion. The king, queen, and all attendants agreed that just as a precious jewel should not be kept in dirty water but placed upon a clean shrine, it was not right for such a child of noble family to live among worldly people. They thought that the only appropriate place for him to grow up was among practitioners of their faith. Therefore, when he came of age, they sent him to a monastery in Kashmir so that he would receive the best education. Having gone through the curriculum in three years, he then studied logic, science, grammar, rhetoric, and arts with the best teachers of the time. While in the monastery, he often went to the house of a woman who sold beer and there he met a young Buddhist scholar, who had happened to leave a volume of Sutras lying there. Naropa felt extremely inspired and deep devotion in the Dharma while reading the sacred text. After returning to his home in Bengal and experiencing eight years of prearranged marriage, he left his wife and went to Nalanda University near Pullahari in the district of Bihar. Nalanda University, founded approx. in the 5th century C.E., had developed into the greatest centre for Buddhist learning. There were thousands of students and teachers. The subjects taught at Nalanda University covered every field of learning and included courses on the scriptures of Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism, vedic texts, philosophy, logic, theology, grammar, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. Five-hundred most proficient scholars were placed at each gate of the cardinal directions of the university to debate with followers of different traditions before allowing them to study there. Naropa was gate-keeper in the north for eight years; he tested many scholars of various schools daily and proved to be the most learned of all. That’s how he became famous and why he was appointed abbot of Nalanda University.

An incident illustrates the turning-point in Naropa’s life and is presented in a few slightly different versions. In 2003, H.E. Mingyur Dorje Rinpoche taught that Naropa was sitting on the roof of Nalanda University with a textbook he was memorizing on his lap. Suddenly a person’s shadow appeared on the page he was reciting. He looked up and saw an ugly old woman with long hair and no teeth. Looking down at him, she chuckled, “Ha ha ha.” He asked her, “Who are you?” She responded, “Who are you?” and inquired, “What are you reading?” He replied, “I am studying the teachings of the Buddha.” The old hag then asked, “Do you understand the teachings?” Without hesitating, Naropa answered, “I understand every word.” The hag was so happy that she giggled and danced in ecstatic joy, exclaiming, “It’s very fortunate for this earth that such a scholar as you exists.” She then asked him, “Do you understand the meaning of the words?” He didn’t want to disappoint her, so he answered, “Yes.” She fell to the ground, beat at the earth with her fists, wailed pathetically, and cried, “To think that such a great scholar as you lies.” Embarrassed, Naropa asked, “Is there anyone who really understands the meaning of the Dharma?” The hag replied, “Yes, my younger brother Tilopa.” Mingyur Rinpoche formulated this decisive moment in Naropa’s life vividly: “When he heard the name ‘Tilopa,’ all his hair stood on end, tears streamed from his eyes, and he felt deep and natural devotion. He asked the woman, ‘Where is Tilopa?’ She answered, ‘He is in a cemetery quite far off,’ and then she vanished. Naropa thought, ‘I really must go and meet Tilopa.’” It is said that the hag had 37 ugly features and Naropa realised that he was seeing the reflection of his own 37 worldly impurities the moment he heard the name of the old woman’s younger brother.


With painful longing in his heart, Mahapandita Naropa left Nalanda University to search for Tilopa. He finally found him fishing along a river. In Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s words: “When he came closer, he could see that Tilopa was transferring the consciousness of each fish to a pure realm with the snap of his fingers. Naropa prostrated to Tilopa as a gesture of respect and asked to be accepted as his student. Tilopa looked at Naropa from head to feet three times and responded, ‘You look and speak like royalty and yet you want to be a student of a fisherman? This is not proper.’” Oblivious to hunger and thirst, cold and heat, Naropa ran as fast as he could to get hold of Tilopa, who looked like he was running away while he was actually only walking.


Each of the twelve ordeals, known as “the twelve fearful experiences of Naropa,” signifies a purification process that was instigated by Tilopa, who provided an Staff for his worthy disciple to destroy his impurities and so that he would become a flawless vessel before receiving the profound instructions. In teachings presented on the life of Tilopa in 1988, Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche also tells us: “It is necessary for a student to prove to a teacher that he or she has enough confidence and trust in that teacher and in the teacher’s instructions to be able to undergo such austerities, because only someone who has that much longing and trust can actually practice this kind of teaching. If there is no willingness to undergo such austerities, then that is an indication that there is no trust on the student’s part in either the Guru or his instructions.” The twelve trials that Naropa went through in summary are: jumping off a tall building; jumping into a fire; receiving a beating upon taking the food from those who were preparing to give them as alms; being attacked by leeches while he tried to build a bridge; being burned by hot reeds; chasing an apparitional man to the point of exhaustion; receiving a beating upon attacking a minister; receiving a beating upon attacking a princess; receiving a beating upon attacking a prince; the dissatisfaction in his relationship with his consort and his job; having the consort beaten by Tilopa; and the dismembering of his body to make a mandala. Naropa underwent these twelve hardships over the course of twelve years. After each difficult ordeal, Tilopa conveyed a particular teaching to his most arduous and deserving disciple.


In the teachings he presented in Hamburg in 2007, Ven. Lama Namse taught: “Although Tilopa saw that Naropa was a most perfect vessel for the teachings and more advanced than he realized that he himself was, through the clarity of his enlightened mind he saw that Naropa was still proud and had less obvious obscurations that still needed to be purified.” Lama Namse told the incident when Tilopa and Naropa were walking through the country and arrived in a small town. They passed by an empty building and Tilopa murmured out loud so that Naropa could hear, “If I had a pupil who really trusted me, he would jump from the roof of that building without hesitating.” Naropa looked around, didn’t see anyone, and thought to himself, “He didn’t mean me, did he?” Realizing nobody else could be meant and due to his great devotion and trust, he climbed on the roof, jumped, and landed on the hard ground, smattered and smashed. When Tilopa casually returned from his walk and saw Naropa more dead than alive, he asked him, “What happened? How do you feel?” Naropa answered, “I feel awful, like a corpse.” This is why Naropa came to be known by the name Naro, which means “human corpse” (in Tibetan the term na means “illness,” ro means “corpse,” and pa means “that person”). Tilopa told him, “No problem” and put his hand over Naropa’s body. Naropa jumped up from the ground in a second and his body was even better off than before.


Ven. Khenpo Karma Namgyal taught in 2007 that “Naropa served Tilopa every day and never faltered. One day Tilopa told him, ‘Get me some food.’ Naropa went searching for food, met a group of farmers who were cooking soup, and begged for a bowl. They gave him some and he brought it to Tilopa. After having finished his soup, Tilopa told his anxious disciple, ‘Finished? Oh, very nice. Get me some more.’ Usually, Tilopa never smiled when Naropa served him well, but this time he did, so Naropa was very happy, went to the place where he had met the farmers, but they had all returned to the fields to work. He looked inside their pot on the fireplace, scooped up a bowlfull, but a farmer noticed, came running, and scolded him by shouting, ‘First you begged for food, couldn’t get enough, and now you are stealing from us. That’s very bad.’ The other farmers rushed over and beat Naropa up. Tilopa knew that this was happening but left Naropa lying alone for a while. A few days later he dropped by and asked him, ‘What happened? Are you sick?’ Naropa answered, ‘I’m not only sick, I was almost killed.’ Tilopa blessed him, so Naropa was able to rise up again and follow his teacher.” Khenpo Karma added. “There are many similar stories of students who did not receive instructions just for the asking but followed their Guru for many years. It is said that there is a special connection between a Guru and disciple in the Kagyü Lineage. If a student has unwavering faith and trusts that his Guru is a Buddha, then he will receive the blessings of a Buddha.”


On another occasion, Tilopa and Naropa saw a princess and Tilopa told Naropa, “Bring her to me.” Naropa transformed himself into a Brahmin and put flowers on the girl’s head while uttering Vedic mantras. He grabbed her and ran away, but her servants caught him and beat him half dead. Naropa recovered again due to the blessings of his Guru. On another occasion, they saw the daughter of a minister and, acting as though he wanted to marry her, Tilopa told his faithful disciple to pay the usual price for the girl. According to the custom, Naropa gave her parents the right amount paid for a girl of highest caste. On their way to Tilopa, Naropa got sick, so he and the pretty girl couldn’t resume their journey for many days. During this time, Tilopa recited mantras for his disciple, so Naropa recovered, was able to bring the girl to their destination, and offer her to his Guru, who noticed how infatuated she was with his disciple and saw the love-glances she gave him. Tilopa was furious, shouted at the girl, “You prefer him to me,” and beat them both up. Other similar trials and tasks were produced by Tilopa so that Naropa’s worldly impurities would be relinquished and his devotion would develop and increase. And during all these incidents, Naropa never had slightest doubts that Tilopa was a realized master and his unfailing Guru.


Finally, Naropa offered his Guru a mandala and supplicated him, saying, “Please, please, give me the teachings.” Tilopa pulled a sandal off his foot, grabbed Naropa by his hair, and told him, “One cannot understand the nature of mind by words. One needs to recognize it oneself.” Tilopa gave Naropa the teachings known as the “Wish-fulfilling Gem” by hitting him on the head with the sandal. Naropa fainted and when he regained his conscious state, he immediately had a vision of the nature of mind. In that moment Tilopa and Naropa became inseparable - their realisation of the nature of the mind became identical and therefore they became renowned as the sun and moon of India.


In teachings on the life-story of Naropa, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche said that students should take the example of a rusted vessel in case they might still wonder if harshness on the side of a teacher is necessary so that a disciple reaches enlightenment. He reminds us that it’s impossible to remove the rust by rubbing the vessel lightly with a soft cloth. If it is rubbed using a substance that is rougher than the rust, then the rust can be removed. Similarly, negative karma that obscures the true nature of one’s mind cannot be removed smoothly or when a teacher is overly gentle and kind. If a teacher is too soft-hearted and allows his students to be lazy, then they will not be able to uncover and purify their mental defilements and delusions. Naropa’s arrogance and complacency were fully uprooted when he went through the hardships.


After his wonderful disciple mastered the instructions, Mahasiddha Tilopa sent Naropa far away to meditate further and to help all beings. Naropa did this for a while, performed many miracles, and returned to his Guru, who removed the last remaining trace of impurity in his mind. Having overcome the feeling of a need to meditate after Tilopa revealed to him mind’s innate purity that is always present, Mahasiddha Naropa exclaimed:


One need ask no more when the true nature is seen.”


Shri Naropa had many students who became panditas, “scholars,” and gate-keepers. One of his foremost disciples was his consort and wife, Yogini Niguma. She had achieved the pure stages of practice and had the ability to communicate with Buddha Vajradhara at will. In “The Rain of Wisdom. The Vajra Songs of the Kagyü Gurus,” Paindapa and Chitherpa are mentioned as disciples of Naropa; they became famous Gurus in Nepal.


Thrangu Rinpoche spoke about Lord Naropa’s enlightened activities on many occasions. During his visit to Malaysia in 2000, Thrangu Rinpoche said: “Tilopa, through his clairvoyance, predicted that the future proper vessel who would uphold the lineage would be one by the name of Marpa Chökyi Lodrö. Therefore he instructed Naropa that he should transmit all his teachings to Marpa.” In Shri Tilopa’s words to Naropa as told by Marpa Lotsawa in “The Grand Songs of Lord Marpa (also available in another translation made under the direction of Chögyam Trungpa in “The Rain of Wisdom”):


„Just as the children of a garuda become stronger and more powerful than the mother to whom they are born, so each generation of Marpa’s students in Tibet will be more accomplished than their teachers.”


Marpa Lotsawa, the “Translator,” offered many verses of praise to his most excellent Guru and wrote in “The Grand Songs” that Mahasiddha Naropa replied to his first praise of realization by generously giving him the following instructions:


“You, Marpa, the translator from Tibet! Do not make the eight worldly dharmas the goal of your life. Do not create the bias of self and other, grasping and fixation. Do not slander friends or enemies. Do not distort the ways of others. Learning and contemplation are the torch that illumines the darkness. Do not be ambushed on the supreme path of liberation. Previously, we have been guru and disciple; keep this with you in the future; do not give this up. This precious jewel of your mind, do not throw it in the river like an idiot. Guard it carefully with undistracted attention, and you will accomplish all needs, desires, and intentions.”


In the section in this song in which Marpa Lotsawa wrote of his many amazing teachers, he tells us:


“Amongst all of them, the most worthy of offering is the unrivalled Lord Naropa, who is the great Vajradhara in human form. There is no way to repay this lord’s kindness.”


Mahasiddha Naropa, the great scholar and saint, passed into Paranirvana at Pullahari near Nalanda University. In his short life-story offered at Samye Ling Monastery we learn: “His enlightened body faded back into voidness amid myriad rainbows and beautiful celestial music. His life was an intense example of the power of faith. Fully enlightened, he became known as a ‘Second Buddha’ and wrought great benefit for many beings.”


May goodness and virtue increase!



(Compiled and written for students of Karma Lekshey Ling in Nepal by gh, solely responsible for any mistakes, July 2008.

© Karma Lekshey Ling Shedra, Post Box No.8435, Swoyambhu, Kathmandu, Nepal