Six Yogas of Naropa: Prerequisites for Studying the Topic

The Proper Motivation for Study and Practice 

We should set the proper motivation for listening to these teachings on the six practices of Naropa (Na-ro chos-drug), popularly known as the “six yogas of Naropa.” Namely, we should dedicate our hearts to others and to attaining enlightenment in order to benefit them. To achieve such a goal, we need to listen to these teachings with this bodhichitta motivation.

Context and Brief Overview of the Lineage 

The Dharma, or the preventive measures that Buddha taught, can be divided into the teachings that form a modest vehicle of mind, Hinayana, and those which form a vast vehicle of mind, Mahayana. What we are listening to now are Mahayana teachings dealing with the resultant vehicle, the vehicle of Vajrayana, the diamond-strong vehicle of mind. Vajrayana has four classes. Of these four, now we are looking at the highest of them, peerlessly integrated deity practice, or anuttarayoga tantra. Within anuttarayoga tantra, there are the father and the mother tantras. This teaching deals with the mother tantras and, of the great Indian masters of the mother tantras, it deals with the practices of the great master Naropa. 

By relying on the instructions of his master, Tilopa, and practicing these various teachings, Naropa achieved enlightenment in his very lifetime. These teachings and practices were then transmitted from Naropa to the great translator Marpa, and from him to the ever-vigilant Milarepa, and so on. Both Marpa and Milarepa achieved enlightenment within their very lifetimes. The great peerless master Tsongkhapa also received these teachings. This lineage passed on through him and he, as well, achieved the state of a Vajradhara. 

Tsongkhapa composed a great text on this subject, The Stages for Leading (Disciples) through the Gateway of the Six Practices of Naropa as a Pathway of Methods: Possessing the Three Confidences (Thab-lam nā-ro’i chos-drug-gi sgo-nas ‘khrid-pa’i rim-pa yid-ches gsums-ldan), or just Possessing the Three Confidences for short. It forms an extremely profound and inconceivably great collection of instructions on the six yogas of Naropa. Many great masters have followed and practiced these instructions perfectly and attained enlightenment on this basis. 

Tsongkhapa composed this text so that it would be of great benefit to disciples, to others, and to the teachings. Although the meanings are found here, it is not possible to understand them directly from the written words alone. To be intelligible, it has to be explained by a peerless master who has the entire lineage. The master who explains this must be someone who has the complete unbroken and non-degenerated lineage.

The Graduated Hard Work Required

The way the text is explained requires a great deal of extremely hard work to understand despite it being explained in the proper order, gradually and sequentially. It is also not the custom to explain the whole thing all at once. If we have not received the oral transmission and lineage of this text, then we aren’t even allowed to look at it. 

A person who wishes to practice these teachings should be someone who has the realization of bodhichitta. Such a person should have, as well, all the realizations of lam-rim, the graded stages of the path, and receive the proper initiations and practices to gradually and slowly gain stable realizations. It is only after such a person has gained stable realizations that teaching of these practices is permitted and a master can begin to explain them. 

Unless a person has reached all the realizations, it is not even permitted to explain these practices to them because, if taught when not ready, it would be of no benefit. When full transmission of these secret teachings is given, however, it is either given to just small groups or, for larger audiences, a few lines of the most secret parts are mixed in here and there in between oral transmission of the rest, so that many are not even aware that they are receiving it. 

Furthermore, when someone listens to these teachings, they will not be able to understand just by listening one time. In Tibet, Dharma practitioners numbered many tens of thousands, but only those who were very excellent practitioners with all the realizations received these discourses and they did so many times.

Strict Guidelines for Practice in Tibetan Monasteries

To begin with, practitioners followed and practiced the Perfection Vehicle, the vehicle of far-reaching attitudes, Paramitayana, before they were even allowed to look at any of the tantric teachings. They were trained like that for 20 or 30 years before they were even allowed to learn about tantra. Even if the great Buddha Vajradhara himself were to come and give initiations, they would not be allowed to receive them.

When the monasteries in Tibet were founded, the whole point was to practice the Perfection Vehicle and to study logic, debating, and the definitions of things. To study and practice tantra while one was in that process was considered detrimental and the founders themselves requested the protectors to cause harm to those who dared to do so. 

As an example, one historical account concerns Drepung Monastery, home to 7,700 monks, founded by Jamyang Choje Tashi Palden. When he founded the monastery, he made a request to the protector Nechung: “If any of the monks get involved in tantric practices, please stop them.” 

There was one geshe who was studying texts and he used to make incense offerings to various deities, the offering of fragrance. Nechung caused that person a great deal of harm. This geshe went to the top of a mountain to continue making these offerings of fragrance rather than in the monastery and, eventually, he had a straightforward cognition of voidness. At this point, he had an actual vision of the Nechung protector, who said to him, “Up until now I’ve caused you a great deal of harm. This is because the founder of the monastery, Jamyang Choje, had given me very strict orders to do so. However, now that you have gained this actual realization of voidness, I will no longer harm you because, in fact, I am no longer able to cause you harm.”

In this way, during the decades in which one is involved in the study of logic and debating, one is not permitted to engage in tantric practices. When the geshes passed all their examinations and became completely qualified on that level, they then went specially to separate monasteries, which were called Gyuto and Gyume, the tantric colleges for upper and lower Tibet. There, they began their tantric studies and practices. It would be like graduating from high school and starting university. The tantric teachings were explained only to the monk-practitioners within these two monasteries. 

It was not permitted to explain or teach these various things to anyone outside those monasteries. Not even the way the cymbals were played in tantric practices at these monasteries, let alone anything else, was allowed to be explained outside the tantric colleges. Furthermore, they had special ways of reciting the texts and such recitations weren’t permitted outside these two monasteries either. Householders in Tibet, then, were generally not taught tantra. Drubkang Geleg Gyatso, for example, stayed at home and took care of family business and affairs. Only when his parents died did he then sell everything and use the money he received to enter a monastery and do intensive practice. This is important example. 

Changing Times and the Passing On of the Lineage

Tantric practices are extremely difficult to learn and to realize. They are not permitted to be explained in public and are not given just to anyone. However, the conditions have changed in Tibet and now we are spreading out into various countries where people have a great deal of interest and positive intention with respect to the Dharma practices. Within these new circumstances, you have requested me to explain to you about this most profound teaching. Still, normally, I would not accept; nevertheless, since you have shown such great interest, I have accepted the request and will give you the lineage, so that the lineage itself will not degenerate but will continue to be passed on. 

However, in general, it is still something that can be extremely dangerous for the listeners to the teaching, and extremely dangerous for the person who explains the teaching. It is not something to be treated in an off-hand or trivial manner. Naropa himself underwent great hardships and difficulties in the course of receiving teachings from his teacher, Tilopa. This is very clear from studying his enlightening biography. The translator, Marpa, also underwent many difficulties and hardships to come to India, listen to the teachings and receive instruction from his master, Naropa. This too can be found in the enlightening biography of Marpa.

Likewise, Milarepa himself had to undergo a tremendous amount of difficulty and hardships to study with the great master, Marpa. He had to construct a nine-story tower by himself with his hands, carrying the rocks on his back. He carried so many that his back became completely sore with terrible wounds, so he had to carry the rocks on his front side. He underwent such tremendous difficulties to construct this tower and to be able to receive and practice these teachings of the six yogas of Naropa. This is all found in the enlightening biography of Milarepa.  

The lineage continued within the Kagyu tradition with many great masters who have practiced and mastered these six yogas. The essential point is that this is a type of instruction and teaching that only when the time has actually come for one specific disciple to be able to practice this, it is only at that time that the teaching is given to that particular disciple because it is something very special and very dangerous. This is an extremely advanced text, with extremely advanced practices. It is not something that most of us would be able to understand.

Furthermore, it is something that I am not permitted to explain to you and therefore I will not explain it to you. “Well, what am I going to explain?” 

I am going to give an explanation in the manner in which you will receive the transmission and lineage so that the lineage does not degenerate. Then, in the future when you gain the realization of, the graduated path of lam-rim and bodhichitta, then, if you are ready and persevere very strongly and request many times, and when it is your time to actually be able to do this practice, at that time it would be possible to explain it. Before that, it is not allowed. This is the procedure that is followed. 

It is not a matter of asking for teachings, getting them explained, and then we can understand everything and gain immediate realizations. It is not that type of trivial matter. We can see this from the examples of the biographies of Naropa, Tilopa, Marpa, and Milarepa, that it is not a simple matter to be able to study these teachings and how they are not permitted to be explained.

There was a great master in India, Dharmakirti, who wanted to learn the hidden words and practices of non-Buddhists. For 12 years he became the servant of a non-Buddhist teacher in order to gain access to the secret rituals and words. He underwent many hardships and difficulties during that time. For example, when the wife of this non-Buddhist master would go out to milk the animals, Dharmakirti would stoop down on the ground and act as a chair for the wife to sit on. Even though he served as a faithful servant like this for 12 years, still the non-Buddhist teacher would not explain or share the secret words and rituals. However, the wife felt very sorry for him. She took pity on him and told him to hide under the master’s bed. Then, as she asked questions and spoke to the master about these secret words and rituals, by hiding under the bed, Dharmakirti was able to overhear and learn about them. 

If such rules are followed for the non-Buddhist teachings, then, likewise, they exist for the Buddhist teachings that enable us to achieve enlightenment in our very lifetime. It is not something that is to be explained to just anybody.

The Importance of the Preliminaries and Lam-rim

Keep this in mind, that it is essential to do the preliminaries for this practice in terms of training in the lam-rim, the graduated stages of the path. On that basis, then slowly, slowly, after a long time, perhaps you will be ready and able to get into these teachings. Think of sustaining an extremely long and continuous practice to be able to do this. You should not just think that these six yogas of Naropa are far-out and, because of that, you would like to get into their practice. Don’t think you can just go and hear about them and practice them for five or six years, or two or three years, and immediately have all the realizations. It is not like that. Rather, you need to put your emphasis on all the preliminary lam-rim training and think to sustain that as an extremely long and continuous practice in order to eventually work up to something as advanced as this.

The teachings in this text are the profound instructions and methods for being able to achieve enlightenment in one’s lifetime. However, that alone is not of any help, because the person who attempts these practices needs to be qualified and ready to practice them. If we ask, “What type of person is a proper person to be able to practice these most profound teachings and practices?” First of all, it must be someone who has completely turned their mind away from all obsession and involvement with just the things of this lifetime – like food, clothing, fame, and reputation. 

It also needs to be someone who is always mindful of death and impermanence. If we never think about death, it doesn’t make death go away, because everyone is going to die one day. Therefore, it requires someone who is continually mindful of the fact that they are going to die and is aware of impermanence, in that no situation ever remains static. 

The next thing that is required of such a person is that they do not have any thoughts or desires to be reborn as a god, like the most splendid king of the gods, Indra, and so forth. Nor do they have any wishes to be reborn as the richest human being that could ever be, nor as a king or someone extremely powerful. Rather, they realize that no matter what type of situation we might be reborn in, in the context of uncontrollably recurring existence, samsara, it involves nothing but problems and suffering. It has to be someone who turns away from all obsessions about being born in a good situation in future lives. 

An example of this would be going up to the top of the famous Eiffel Tower. We go up to the top, like being reborn as a god, but once we get up there, the only thing left to do is to come back down. We need an attitude of mind with which we wish to be free from all suffering and problems of uncontrollably recurring existence – samsara. 

This wish to be free from all our problems is something we can accomplish on the working basis of this human life that we all have. On this basis, we must search for a correct understanding of reality or voidness and understand that there is a total absence of anything corresponding to all impossible ways of existence. By gaining this realization, we will be able to gain liberation all our problems and suffering.

Developing the Root of a Mahayana Path

However, just to accomplish that much is of no great help. We have to see that everybody else is likewise in the same predicament – stuck with the suffering and problems of uncontrollably recurring samsaric existence – and then generate the attitude with which we wish everyone else to also become free from their problems, suffering and unhappiness. This attitude is what is known as compassion. This is the root of developing all the Mahayana pathways of the mind. The attitude with which we wish everyone to be happy is known as love. The attitude with which we feel, “I am going to free everyone from all their problems; I am going to bring everyone to happiness” – this sense of universal responsibility is known as the exceptional resolve, the resolve to liberate everyone ourselves.

It is very nice to wish to do all of this, but if we examine ourselves, we do not really have the ability to accomplish this. Who does have that ability? Only a completely enlightened Buddha has the ability. When we have the attitude of wishing to achieve the state of a Buddha in order to be able to benefit all beings, it is known as bodhichitta. It is a heart dedicated to others and to achieving enlightenment in order to be able to help them as much as is possible. This is the entranceway for any of the Mahayana paths. 

The Three Thresholds to Tantra Practices

To engage in the various tantric practices, the hidden measures to protect the mind, it is necessary to receive an empowerment or initiation. The initiation is the entranceway for becoming involved with tantra. To do so, there are three thresholds that we must pass through. 

The first threshold or gateway for becoming involved in the Buddhist teachings, in general, is to take refuge, meaning to put a safe and sound direction in life. This is an extremely extensive, important, and vast topic. There are many great texts on that subject matter, which should be studied extensively. 

Next, we need a dedicated heart of bodhichitta, without which we cannot enter into any of the actual Mahayana paths. Therefore, it is something we should put a great deal of energy into. It is very important. If we look at the example of the life of Atisha, he spent 12 years in the Golden Isles in Indonesia learning about and training in bodhichitta. Likewise, in the Kadampa tradition in Tibet, Geshe Chekawa spent 12 years learning about bodhichitta with his master, Geshe Sharawa. Based on a firm development of bodhichitta and correct understanding of voidness, we are permitted to enter into the tantric practices. 

The third threshold or gateway for entering into the practice of tantra is receiving an initiation. Having received an initiation, it is necessary and extremely important to safeguard properly and correctly all the vows and close bonds – the samaya or damtsig – of the practices. If we safeguard the vows and close bonds very purely lifetime after lifetime, simply on that basis, even if we do not do the various meditations, we will be able to achieve enlightenment within 12 or, at most, 16 lifetimes. The person who can practice these very profound instructions has to be someone like all of this.

A long time ago, there was a Westerner who came to Tibet, and he gave us a bit of advice. He said that it was not sufficient to have a Dillinger pistol; what was required was a “Dillinger-type” person to shoot it. Likewise, it is not sufficient simply to have the text of these teachings of the six yogas of Naropa, but we need a six yogas of Naropa-type person who can actually do them. To use these teachings for attaining better rebirths or liberation for just ourselves is like using the finest Dillinger pistol for hunting and shooting mice!