Reviewing the lives of our lineage ancestors,
and how they helped the Dharma flourish in Tibet

Victoria Dolma

Ven. Kalu Rinpoche has called the Kagyu lineage a golden rosary because, in his words, “All the beads are gold. There are no stones or rocks among them. They form an unbroken succession of individuals as precious and perfect as the finest gold...because each points out to the next the actual introduction to the mind.”

The Kagyu (meaning Lineage of Precept, or Lineage of Command) officially began with the birth of the first Karmapa in 12th century Tibet. But it traces its origins to the cosmic Buddha, Vajradhara, who exists outside of time and is one with all of space.

To gain some notion of who Vajradhara » is and of how he exists, we need to understand what is known as the doctrine of the three Kayas (bodies). Vajradhara is the Dharmakaya, or Truth Body, which is formless and fully integrated with ultimate reality. As such, he is depicted as blue, the color of the vast, open sky without center or boundary. He is also like the sun in that he is omnipresent. Just as the sun is only obscured because of clouds, or the turning of the earth, so the blessing of the Dharmakaya only appears to be absent because of beingsʼ clouds of afflictive emotions.

The wisdom of the Dharmakaya is permanent because it is uncompounded -- that is, whole or seamless, rather than constructed of multiple elements which will inevitably pull apart. It also has the quality of clarity (cognizance), emptiness (the ability to manifest as whatever is needed), and compassion.

Since the Dharmakaya is formless, it cannot be seen. And so, for the benefit of exceptional beings, it manifests as the Sambhogakaya, or subtle form body. This body is characterized by the 32 major marks of Buddhahood, including the ushnisha (wisdom bump at the crown of the head), and its possessor teaches only at the Mahayana level because those who can see him or her have attained that advanced a degree of understanding.

The Dharmakaya can also manifest as the Nirmanakaya, which is a body potentially visible to all, including those who are not even on the Path. An example of such a form body would be that of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or the Karmapa himself. This body teaches at all levels -- Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana -- according to the varying needs of beings.


Returning to Vajradhara, he was able to manifest as all three kayas according to the prevailing need. With respect to the Kagyu lineage, he manifested as the historical figure, Tilopa, who was born into a family of Brahmins (scholarly/priestly caste) in East Bengal in the 10th century. He is often depicted as blue-gray, indicating that he was at times Sambhogakaya, at others Nirmanakaya.

From an early age Tilopa manifested signs of exceptional compassion and studiousness. He also had periodic visionary contact with dakinis, wisdom women who guided him along his way. Tilopa was ordained by his uncle at the famed monastery of Somapuri, and thereafter went on to traverse the three stages leading to complete Buddhahood. These stages are: The All-Good; Vanquishing Behavior; and Victorious in All Directions.

In the first stage Tilopa played the role of the fully obedient monk, obeying the Vinaya (rule for monks and nuns) to the letter. But in due time a dakini alerted him to the fact that in order to attain a higher stage of realization he must quit the monastic life. To do so, Tilopa engaged in apparently disruptive behaviors, shouting and running wild on the monastery roof, and hurling the treasured Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) text into the river below. Needless to say, he was quickly dismissed!

For 12 years thereafter, Tilopa meditated in a charnel ground until his dakini guide appeared again to direct him to a woman named Barima. As it turned out, Barima, while herself being a dakini, was playing the role of a whorehouse madam! As such, she hired Tilopa to engage in the socially despised work of grinding sesame seeds by day (hence, his name Tilopa, since tila is the Sanskrit word for sesame), and acting as her pimp by night. The dakiiniʼs motive in sending Tilopa on this seemingly shocking path was to break him of the pride that resulted from his high birth, and to teach him to go beyond concepts. Moreover, the extracting of oil from sesame seeds became a metaphor for the realization of beingsʼ intrinsic Buddha nature. “Even the foolish know sesame oil to be ever-present as the very heart-nature of sesame,” Tilopa later explained in a teaching. “Likewise, innate essence-wisdom is the very heart-nature of all sentient existence.”

After 12 years with Barima, Tilopaʼs dakini guide appeared once again, telling him to visit the Dakini realm, there to study with the most advanced among these wisdom women. Whether this realm exists as an actual geographical location, as a deep, inner level of realization, or both, is open to debate. The fact remains that Tilopa had to pass a series of tests which the dakinis presented, not to taunt Tilopa, but rather as a means of protecting the teachings and helping him to grow. In the end, however, Tilopa proved that his understandings surpassed those of the dakinis. Indeed, he had no personal need to go through these experiences at all, except that it was important from the standpoint of his future disciples that he receive the dakinisʼ blessings which would strengthen and lend continuity to his lineage.

Having received the dakinisʼ pith instructions, empowerments, authorizations and explanations, Tilopa came into his own as the full-fledged Dharmakaya of the BuddhaVajradhara. And when asked who his teacher was, he famously said: “I, Tilo, have no human guru. My guru is mighty Vajradhara.” This is not to say that Tilopa was unappreciative of his human teachers; simply, he had arrived at a level where he identified with Vajradhara and recognized that in truth the ultimate teacher is one's own mind.

Tilopaʼs chief disciple was our next lineage master, Naropa, who is discussed below. Tilopa passed into parinirvana around 1069 AD.


Mahapandita Naropa was born of royal blood in 1016. His earliest inclinations were spiritual, and at the age of 11 he journeyed, with his parentsʼ permission, to Kashmir to further his Dharma learning. The only condition placed on him was that he return within a few years to marry and continue the royal line. Naropa obeyed, ultimately marrying a Brahmin girl, but he soon became disillusioned with the householder life and returned to Kashmir. After receiving ordination, he joined the famed Nalanda University, which boasted a student body of ten thousand monks and visiting scholars. Nalanda was divided into four gates, one for each of the directions from which the students arrived.The director of each of these gates was chosen from among the most eminent scholars in his area of expertise. In time, Naropa was selected as the Northern gate-keeper because of his success in debating with and prevailing over non-Buddhist opponents. Because the largest number of students came from the northern direction, Naropaʼs post was the most prestigious among the four.

However, before long Naropa was visited by an emanation of Vajravarahi, who asked if he understood merely the words of the texts he was studying, or their deep meaning. When Naropa replied, “The words,” the dakini laughed and clapped her hands. Butwhen, in a very human reaction, Naropa thought to please the dakini yet further by pretending that he also understood the meaning, she began crying. Seeing her distress at his stretching of truth, Naropa asked who, in fact, truly understood the meaning. The dakini replied, “My brother,” and indicated that Naropa must search for Mahasiddha Tilopa.

Thereafter, against the wishes and protestations of the administration of Nalanda, Naropa gave away all his possessions save for his robes and begging bowl, and left to seek Tilopa. Thus, he embarked on what have become known as the Twelve Lesser Trials of Naropa, wherein he encountered myriad hardships blocking his way to the vision of his destined teacher. Of course, these hardships in fact sprang from his own mind and impure perception. For example, on a path between a precipice and a river,he stumbled upon a leper woman whom he addressed brusquely in his eagerness to avoid her. The woman responded, “If you look at things dualistically, dividing them into clean and unclean, you will never find the guru.” And with that she vanished into space. Realizing his error, Naropa fell unconscious.

This pattern repeated itself eleven more times until, close to committing suicide in his despair, Naropa suddenly saw Tilopa standing before him. Again yielding to human -- and endearing -- habit, Naropa upbraided Tilopa for remaining so long elusive. But Tilopa assured Naropa that in truth they had been inseparable since he, Tilopa, had appeared as the leper woman. Only because of Naropaʼs own mental defilements had he not recognized his master from the start.

There followed a 12-year training period during which Naropa underwent what are known as his Twelve Greater Trials. These included being instructed by Tilopa to jump off a high temple roof, and to make a mandala offering of his own body, head in the center and limbs surrounding. The purpose of these draconian tests was to show Naropa the depth of his mistaken identification with his own body. After each of these trials, Tilopa not only healed Naropa with his super-mundane powers, but also gave him critical teachings. These include the Six Yogas, still practiced today, which are comprised of Tummo (the yoga of the Psychic Heat); Dream (lucid dreaming and guruyoga within dream); Luminosity (retaining awareness while in the non-dream state);Phowa (the ejection of consciousness at death time); Illusory Body; and Bardo (intermediate state between death and re-birth).

We have already alluded to the three stages leading to Buddhahood: the All-Good Stage; the Stage of Vanquishing Behavior; and Victorious in All Directions. At Nalanda and while with his guru Naropa passed through the first two stages. Eventually, he evolved to the third stage which is characterized by total fearlessness and lack of inhibition. At this point the individual is as little concerned by the appearance of a tigress as by that of a mouse.

In time Naropa, fully realized, resumed his wandering life and his mission of teaching by example. After being embraced by a local king who even offered Naropa his daughter, the sage was seen appearing to hunt deer with a pack of hounds. Outraged, the courtiers told the king that he could not afford to support such apparently perverse action. In response, the king had Naropa and his consort bound, beaten, and set on a blazing sandalwood fire. But when the two were witnessed the next day dancing amidst the flames, the king relented and begged to be accepted as Naropaʼs student. Naropa agreed and sang the king a doha (sacred song) explaining why he was impervious to the pyre:

“The wheel of sandal fire
Helps to burn the trunk of ego. The wheel of harsh words
Helps to build the armor of patience.”

Here, one is wont to reflect on the fact that this level of wisdom is very much alive today in the person, among others, of HH Dalai Lama, who with each difficulty faced grows only stronger. In this way the teachings of our Dharma ancestors, passed hand to hand, self-perpetuate into the indefinite future.

In time, Tilopa gave Naropa full authorization to teach. He was also instructed to journey to another renowned monastery, Pullahari, to await the arrival of Lord Marpa who, if given proper instruction, would one day found a lineage in Tibet.

All of this came to pass, but before we examine Marpaʼs life we should shift our attention for a moment to the introduction of Dharma into Tibet, which had occurred long before Marpaʼs advent.


Further information on Vajradhara, Tilopa, and Naropa may be found in the following sources:

The Great Kagyu Masters, trans. Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen, Snow Lion Pubs.
Tilopa, by the XII Khentin Tai Situpa, Dzalendara Publishing
The Life and Teaching of Naropa,by Herbert V. Guenther, Shambhala


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