“Naropa was a scholar in the tenth century. There are different opinions on where he was born. Some biographers say he was born in Bangladesh, but according to Marpa, one of his main students, he was born in Lahore, India. His family was very powerful and rich. At that time, it was common for people who worked for such families, to refer to the master as king. Therefore, some biographers claim that Naropa was a prince. ”
Naropa’s childhood and marriage
In the first part of his life, young Naropa studied everything according to a Brahmin tradition. His father was probably a Buddhist because Naropa received Buddhist training at home. One day he requested permission of his father to take ordination to become a monk. His father refused.
To make his father give him permission, he said, “If I cannot become a monk, I want to marry a girl who comes from a Brahmin family, who is a Hindu, who has love and compassion. Her name is Sangmo and she is blond.” He added also that the girl must be 16 years old.
His father thought that he could never find such a girl, so he consulted a friend. The friend told him not to worry, that India is a big country, and it should be possible to find this girl somewhere.
The friend started to search everywhere. One day he saw a group of girls who were picking flowers. At that time picking flowers normally meant that one was preparing them as offerings to the gods or deities. This indicated they were Hindus. It started to rain and all the girls left. They had to cross a river so they lifted up their skirts. One of them did not lift her skirt; she just walked through the water. In that way the friend noticed that she was different from the others. On the other side of the river was a beggar sitting on the road to whom this girl gave some food. The friend also noticed that she had blond hair. He went to her and asked from what family she came. She told him she was from a Brahmin family, her name was Sangmo, and she was sixteen years old.
The friend was very happy. He returned and reported that he had seen the girl. Naropa’s father, full of joy, told Naropa the girl was found and soon he would invite her to come. A delegation was sent to the girl`s parents to ask them for the girl as a wife to Naropa. They brought with them a hundred elephants carrying all kinds of gifts: silver, gold, everything precious. In that way she married Naropa.
Naropa was a house-holder until he was 25 years old. Then he and his wife agreed that they both would be ordained and he went to Nalanda University.
At Nalanda, he studied Buddhist philosophy, both Sutra and Tantra. He became the greatest scholar of Nalanda. At that time it was a tradition that scholars from other religions (e.g., the Hindu religion) would challenge Buddhist scholars in debate. Whoever won the debate would become the teacher of the loser and his students. Therefore it was essential that the debaters knew the topics very well. In the whole of India it was like that. If the scholar was not qualified, it was a risky affair.
For that reason the four best scholars at Nalanda University would be selected to debate. Each scholar was responsible for each of the university’s gates in the four directions. Naropa became a great scholar for the North gate and engaged in many debates. He also taught and acquired disciples. He himself was convinced that he was a great scholar.
One day when he was sitting and reading his texts, a shadow suddenly fell on the book. He turned and saw an extremely old and ugly woman. She asked him, “What are you studying? What are you reading?” He replied, “I am studying Guhya-samaja tantra.” She asked, “Can you read the words?” “Yes,” he answered and started to recite the text.
On hearing that she became so happy that she jumped around and started to dance. Naropa thought: “She became so happy when I told her I can read, I will also tell her I can understand it.” He said: “I also understand the meaning.”
She then became very sad and started to cry. Naropa said, “You were so happy that I can read, but now you are so sad because I said I understand the meaning. Why?” She answered, “I’m sad because a great scholar like you is lying. This is very sad. Today in the whole world, there is nobody but my brother who understands the meaning of the words.” Naropa then asked who her brother was and where he lived. She answered, “My brother is Tilo Sherab Sangpo. It is uncertain where he lives, but if you want to meet him, I will help you.”
On hearing the name of Tilopa, Naropa felt a strong devotion that he had never experienced before. The only thought he had in his mind was to find Tilopa. He wanted immediately to go and see him.
He went back to the University and asked for permission to leave. He said he was going to meet Tilopa. All the scholars of Nalanda University pleaded with him to stay and for three months he could not leave. In his dreams he got many signs that he should go.
Finally, he told them he was sorry but that he had made up his mind, and that he would leave no matter who asked him to stay. He agreed to stay until he had completed the teachings he had already started, but he would not initiate any new teachings.
The search for Tilopa, and the 12 minor hardships
Naropa left Nalanda University to look for Tilopa. He received a prophecy that he should meditate on Chakrasamvara and complete that meditation. He then would get indications where to find Tilopa.
He went to a cemetery in southern India where he meditated for six months on Chakrasamvara. Finally he received a prophecy by dakinis telling him that to meet Tilopa he should go east. Enduring many hardships he travelled east, but he did not find Tilopa.
He was about to give up because it was too difficult and he did not have any strength left. Then he heard a voice that told him that laziness is the work of demons. Only if he gave up laziness, would he meet Tilopa and get enlightened.
From this point on, every event and everything told in connection with Naropa’s life story are actually teachings on the path to enlightenment. They describe exactly what Tilopa taught Naropa and what is necessary for someone to reach enlightenment. The first thing one has to give up is laziness, because otherwise one has no chance of reaching enlightenment; there is no enlightenment combined with laziness.
Naropa gave up laziness and became very diligent. As he continued his path he prayed to Tilopa day and night.
1) Not long after that, he arrived at a narrow path with a rock on one side and a river on the other. He met a sick woman lying on the path. She had leprosy so bad that her feet and hands had nearly disappeared. She had infected wounds all over with blood and pus coming out everywhere. She was blocking the narrow path. She said to him, “I’m sorry, but I can’t move, so you should move me, walk over me, or go another way”.
There was nothing he could do, so he held his nose, looked away because it was so disgusting to look at her, and jumped over her. Immediately she disappeared, and a voice came from the sky telling him, “If one practices the Mahayana path, one has to have love and compassion. If one does not have love and compassion, one does not practices the Mahayana path and will not be able to get the result of that path. One will also never be able to find one’s teacher. All sentient beings are like one’s parents, that is why in order to practice the Mahayana one may not exclude even one single sentient being.” He thereafter continued developing his Bodhicitta and tried to increase his love and compassion.
2) Again he went towards the east in order to find Tilopa. He came to a river where he met a ferocious dog with wounds full of worms. The dog was aggressive and barked angrily at him. He tried to send the dog away but it would not move. At last he jumped over it, because he wanted to continue his search for Tilopa. Immediately a voice told him, “If one does not understand that all beings in the world, from all six existences have been one’s parents at one time or another, then one will never be able to meet a good teacher, not even a bad teacher.” These events were Tilopa’s teachings.
3) The next person he met was carrying a heavy load. Naropa asked him if he knew Tilopa and his whereabouts. The man told him to go to the other side of the mountain where he would meet somebody able to answer his question. That person would be cutting and smashing the heads of his parents on rocks.
He went there and met the man who was busy smashing the heads and asked him about Tilopa. The man said that he knew where Tilopa was but that he could only tell him if Naropa would smash some heads himself. Naropa thought, “I am a monk, a pandit. I come from a very high cast. How can I smash heads?”
At the moment he thought this, everything disappeared. Again a voice from the sky told him that to get any kind of realization he had to give up his ego-clinging and his pride. Without understanding that there is no real self, no real individual, he could never get any realization.
At this point Naropa realized that everytime he met someone, there was a lesson to learn. He promised himself that from then on he would try to learn the lesson.
4) He continued and met two people who had captured a third person and tied him up. They were cutting open his stomach, his intestines were pouring out, and he was screaming. Naropa went over to them and asked if they knew about Tilopa. The men said that they knew, but that Naropa had to cut the intestines first. Naropa could not bare the pain of the person and refused to cut the intestines. The people vanished and this time the voice told him that the whole root of Samsara is attachment, conceptual clinging, clinging to the notion of a real I, which he should get rid of.
Tilopa was confronting Naropa with some very extreme situations. In order to give him very direct teachings. To get rid of smaller attachment and disturbing emotions is not so difficult, but in very extreme situations one should be able to keep one’s mind clear without falling into any kind of reactions. This is very difficult.
5) Naropa reached a place where he saw a terrifying scene of one person pouring hot water into the open stomach of another person. The latter was screaming and blood was flowing.
Naropa asked if they knew where Tilopa was. To get an answer he first had to pour more water into the stomach. Again he could not do it.
This time after the people had vanished, he was told by the voice in the sky that the teachings of the lamas are like the flow of water and that they have to be used to purify the impurity of one’s own mind. It cannot be done through purifying anything outside.
The impurity of his mind that he should have purified at this time was his clinging to the concept of himself as a monk.
6) Naropa continued and came to a beautiful town with a king who knew about Tilopa, but wanted him to stay in his palace for a while before giving him an answer. Naropa accepted and stayed there for a long time, making prayers for the family, and living in very comfortable conditions.
One day the king asked him to marry his daughter. As a monk, Naropa refused. The king insisted and finally got very upset at his refusal and had him beaten. Naropa got very angry and started to do his Chakrasamvara recitation in order to make black magic against the king. Just as he started, the whole town disappeared and there was only sand left.
The teaching from this was that one must abandon desire and anger. Otherwise it will not be possible to meet a teacher and without a teacher, no liberation is possible. Naropa had just demonstrated his desire by staying for so long and his anger by getting upset when he was beaten. Once more he did not understand that it was not real, and he was taught that he should understand the dreamlike nature of everything.
Whatever one experiences is created through one’s own emotions of desire and anger. These create the world we experience which has no true essence. Since beginningless time it has never existed.
7) Naropa was now convinced that it was Tilopa he met everytime.
Praying to Tilopa, he continued travelling East. Finally he came to a big forest. A deer rushed by, followed by barking dogs and a hunter. Naropa asked him if he knew Tilopa and where he could find him. The man replied, “Yes I do, but first you have to kill one antelope.”
Naropa still had some doubts in his mind because he was a monk and not supposed to kill any living being. At the same moment, the antelopes and dogs disappeared and the hunter told him that he had to overcome the clinging to his self. Like the arrow that kills the deer, his understanding should make an end to his clinging to an I.
He should free himself from doubts. As long as he still had doubts in his mind he would not be able to meet his teacher.
8) Naropa came to a lake where he met an old couple. He asked them if they knew Tilopa and where he could find him. They said they knew him, but first they wanted to invite Naropa into their house for a meal.
The wife was preparing the meal, putting live frogs and fish into boiling water. Naropa was offered the soup. Seeing the animals being boiled, he had doubts if he as a monk could eat it. Furthermore as he was a monk he was not supposed to eat in the evening time. When he looked at the soup the husband said to his wife, “This man is following the lower school of Buddhism, Theravada, so he is not allowed to eat in the evening.”
Then he took the frogs and the fish and threw them up in the air where they dissolved into rainbows.
The old man told Naropa that as long as he had the smallest concepts of the lower path left in his mind he would not find his lama. Before he disappeared he said that he would kill his parents the next day.
This teaching meant to show the necessity for Naropa to let go of his clinging to ideas and concepts of the lower vehicle (Hinayana or Theravada).
Naropa expected to meet somebody killing his parents who might know where Tilopa was. This time he was prepared and determined to do whatever he was asked and find out where Tilopa was.
9) The next day he did meet a person killing his father with a trident and digging a hole in the ground to bury his mother alive. The parents were screaming to Naropa, “Please, help us. We have been so kind to our son and now he wants to kill us. Please, help!”
Again Naropa asked for Tilopa. The man knew about him, but wanted Naropa to help him bury his mother first. The screaming and the pleading of the parents where too much for Naropa; he still had some small doubts in his mind. Immediately the parents disappeared. The man then taught him that he had to completely dissolve any kind of dualistic concept, any kind of clinging to object and subject.
This man told Naropa that the next day he should go begging for alms.
10) Naropa thought that it meant that he would meet a begging monk who could help him to find Tilopa. Therefore he went to a monastery. When he reached there, he met a few monks. One of the monks living in the monastery had met Naropa before and the others had heard about him since he was a famous scholar from Nalanda. So they invited him inside.
Again he asked if they had heard about Tilopa and where he could find him. They never heard about this great teacher but they knew about a poor beggar called Tilopa.
Naropa was sure he would meet his teacher. With some monks from the monastery he went to a place where a man was sitting on the ground. Sometimes he would take a frog, throw it into the fire, and eat it. As Naropa was convinced that this was his teacher Tilopa he started prostrating in front of him and asked if he could be his disciple.
The man agreed, took a handful of lice from his body, gave them to Naropa, and told him that he had to give up all concepts. He then asked him to throw the lice into the fire. The monks from the monastery were all looking at him, so Naropa hesitated. The beggar then told him that if he did not burn all 51 mental events arising in a mind functioning on it’s ordinary level he could not meet the right lama.
11) Naropa continued his journey and the next day he arrived at a very strange place with lots of people who did not look like ordinary people. One person was speaking without a tongue; another was deaf, but listening to a sound; a blind man was watching; some were walking without legs, and some corpses were dancing. There were all kinds of weird appearances.
He got quite distracted looking at these phenomena. Suddenly he realized that he was distracted and that he should instead pull himself together and concentrate on finding Tilopa.
The moment he realized that everything disappeared. He was told that how he was looking for his lama was not the right way.
“The lama you want to find is a realized being. In order to find him you have to concentrate your mind on him. Whenever you do so he will be there. Now you were just looking at these strange appearances and you got distracted.”
“These strange beings you saw symbolized that there is no real subject and object.
The blind man watching symbolized that if you want to understand the nature of mind, the Mahamudra, you must realize that there is nobody looking at anything, you must go beyond the idea of somebody looking at something.
The person speaking without a tongue and the deaf listening to a sound symbolized that realization as such can never be expressed by words.
The man walking without legs symbolized that the nature of mind is beyond coming and going. It is not coming from anywhere and also not going anywhere.
The dancing corpses symbolized that you must free yourself from the idea of a perceiving object and a perceiving mind.”
12) Naropa realized that it had all been a creation of his lama and that he had not really understood what was going on. He felt sad and he regretted that he had not been able to understand it. He decided that from now on he had to stay at this place and meditate.
So he did, but since he still did not meet with Tilopa, he lost all his courage. Naropa thought he might not be able to meet his teacher in this life, so he decided to make very strong wishes that he would be able to meet him in his next life, and he was planning to kill himself.
He took a knife, put it to his throat but in this moment a bluish man with red eyes appeared in front of him. Naropa realized that this was Tilopa himself. Full of devotion he opened himself to Tilopa and asked why he had not appeared before and why he had not been able to see him.
Tilopa told Naropa that since the time he started looking for him, he had always been with him. Whomever he had met had always been Tilopa himself. Only the obscurations in Naropa’s mind had prevented him from seeing his teacher. Now he was free of obscurations and was able to see Tilopa.
Kagyu Life “International”, No.3, 1995