Six Yogas of Naropa: The Importance of the Common Preliminaries

The Salutation

The text begins with the verse of salutation in which a distinction must be made between the eight qualities of Ishvara (dbang-phyug), the king of the gods, and the eight king-of-the-god types of qualities. The former are the qualities of the king of the gods, and the other is using the god Ishvara as an adjective to describe eight extremely high powers of majestic command that are not the powers of that god. Therefore, the praise is made to Vajradhara, the enlightened form of the Buddha, who has the eight king-of-the-gods-like qualities.

As Tsongkhapa says in the text, if you have not properly taken the safe and sound direction of refuge in your life and properly dedicated your heart with bodhichitta to others and to achieving enlightenment, then without these preliminaries, involving yourself in these tantric practices has no possibility of successful progress. In fact, it is quite possible to fall flat on your face. 

The Four Themes of Gampopa

Milarepa had two sun-and-moon-like disciples. One was Rechungpa, and the other was Gampopa, the master physician from Dagpo. The text references the “four themes of Gampopa” (dvags-po chos-bzhi) as an example to emphasize and make clear that unless you are sufficiently ready to be able to get into these teachings, having accomplished all the preliminaries and qualifications – unless your proper time has come to actually begin – it is extremely difficult to make any progress and can even be dangerous.

We find this emphasis as well with the teaching of “parting from the four clingings” (zhen-pa bzhi-bral) imparted to Sachen Kunga Nyingpo by Manjushri: “If you cling to this life, you are not a Dharma practitioner. If you cling to samsaric rebirth, you do not have renunciation, the determination to be free. If you cling to your own benefit, you do not have a bodhichitta aim. If grasping arises, you do not have the view.” In other words, if we are obsessed with the things of this lifetime, we will be unable to accomplish real Dharma practice. If we are obsessed with gaining the splendors and happiness of the uncontrollably recurring situations of samsara, we will be unable to gain liberation. If we are obsessed with having things our own way and having just our own purposes and needs fulfilled, we will be unable to develop bodhichtita. If we have a great deal of grasping at things, we will be unable to gain a correct view of reality. Therefore, we need to gain these four types of turning away from these faulty concerns and train ourselves in the graduated path of the lam-rim.

Pagmodrupa, a master in the Kagyu tradition wrote an instruction manual on these six yogas of Naropa and in it, he makes no explicit mention of these common preliminary paths. This is because it is taken for granted that prior to this, the master has given a detailed explanation of these preliminaries to the assembly. It is assumed, as well, that the disciples have already become totally fit and proper vessels for the teachings, and then the master enters into the explicit explanation of these practices. Therefore, in this great master’s text, there is no explicit mention of the preliminary training and common paths, as it is assumed that they have already been mastered. This should not be interpreted to mean that one does not have to train at all in these preliminary paths. 

If, however, someone has built up a great deal of potential from previous lifetimes from training in all these common paths, and then in this lifetime has practiced with great love in this manner, for such a person it is possible to go into this explanation more readily. 

The specialty of this text is that it explains all the types of accomplishments found in the lineage that comes from Naropa down through Marpa, and then through the successive generations of masters. It speaks of the actual realizations and actual practices that were realized on the mental continuums of the masters, going from Vajradhara down through Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, and so on. It is not talking about things that have never existed. It is talking about things that have actually been realized and accomplished on their mental continuums. 

Three Downfalls

Likewise, if there is a disciple who is ready and prepared, if one does not explain these teachings and measures to that person, then that is ignoring the very purpose. To ignore one who is fit in that manner is a root downfall of the tantric vows, deterring those with faith. In addition, if someone asks for the teaching and is a proper vessel, if we do not give the teachings, then it is also a root bodhisattva downfall of being miserly with the teachings. This is the first type of downfall.

However, if we don’t really know these teachings and aren’t qualified to give them when someone asks us for the teachings, we don’t pretend to know. We don’t say to the person, “I can’t explain them to you because you aren’t a fit vessel. To explain to you would be a root tantric downfall.” That is not, in fact, the root tantric downfall that is involved. The downfall here is that we are just being dishonest and pretentious. 

The third situation is if we actually do know the teachings and explain them to someone who is not a proper vessel, then we have the root tantric downfall of teaching to someone who is not qualified. The point that is being stressed here in the text is how important and essential it is to train well in the lam-rim, in the graduated path. This is the primary thing we must put our energies into if we wish to have any success in the tantric practices.

Training in Logic, Epistemology and Madhyamika

All the disciples of the lineage – the masters who have followed Gampopa and his disciple, Pagmodrupa – have agreed on the absolute necessity to train in these common paths of the mind of the lam-rim. If we really wish to do well in the tantric practices, then, in addition, we need to study the entire subject of logic and epistemology, pramana in Sanskrit, and also study the middle way view of Madhyamaka.

In terms of the actual stages of the training, it is necessary to go through the graduated path as has been written, for instance, by the great Atisha in his text Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, Bodhipathapradipa. For developing bodhichitta, there are two primary methods – the seven-part cause and effect meditation and the practice of equalizing and exchanging one’s attitudes with respect to self and others. Both of these instructions can be found within the context of Atisha’s text Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. Atisha’s text completely encompasses these traditions for developing bodhichitta – the traditions that come from Maitreya and Asanga, from Manjushri through Nagarjuna, and from Shantideva. Therefore, we should study this text well. 

Two Stages of Bodhichitta

There are two stages of bodhichitta. The first is aspiring bodhichitta and the second is engaged bodhichitta. Aspiring bodhichitta is merely the wish to be able to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit everyone. That is aspiring bodhichitta. If we wish, for instance, to become a monk it would be necessary to shave our hair and to put on the various robes. However, in order to actually have a bodhichitta aim, what we need is to learn about it and then actually dedicate our heart and energies to achieving enlightenment and to helping others. It isn’t some external thing we would need to do, such as shaving our head and putting on robes. 

When we have the heartfelt feeling that we are dedicating ourselves to others and to achieving enlightenment, we feel, “Until I actually achieve that state of enlightenment, I am never going to give it up.” This type of pledge that we make is within the scope of aspiring bodhichitta and is known as the “pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta.” We pledge never to give up our bodhichitta aim. Once we have actually developed this pledged state, there are five things that we must train in. The first four trainings are for our development of bodhichitta not to decline in this life and the fifth is for not losing it in future lives.

Five Trainings to Further Develop Bodhichitta

[1] First, we must always be mindful and remember the benefits of having a bodhichitta aim. The advantages and benefits are found extensively in such texts as the Gandavyuha Sutra or the Sutra Spread Out Like a Tree Trunk. The following are some examples from this text:

  • We see the world now as being a sphere. Just as this world is a sphere, there are many, many other worlds like this. If all of these worlds were to be filled with gold and we were to offer all this gold to all the Buddhas, the benefits of dedicating our heart once purely to others and to enlightenment would be much greater than making this grand offering. 
  • If we aim to be able to benefit all living beings and offer just one single flower with that great aim in mind, then the potential and benefits built up from that are equal to the scope of what we are doing. Since our aim is boundless, to benefit all beings, likewise the potential built up by it is equally boundless. 
  • If we offer a flower in order to be able to benefit all limitless beings, if we were to try to count them, there would be no way to count all living beings. Likewise, the potential built up would be beyond count. 
  • If we look at the liberated shravakas, listeners to the teachings, and the pratyekabuddhas, the self-realizers, they have been able to overcome all their disturbing emotions and have gained liberation from their troubles. Because of that, they have been able to achieve the state of an arhat, a liberated being. However, because their aim in mind has not been to benefit everybody, but to benefit solely themselves, they have been unable to achieve the state of a Buddha. So, if our mind is aimed at all living beings and we wish to be able to achieve enlightenment in order to be able to actually benefit them all, then we will quickly be able to actually achieve an enlightened state.

If we do have such a mind, heart, and scope, and then engage in the various hidden teachings of tantra, it is possible to achieve enlightenment within our very lifetime. However, if we lack such a mind, such a heart, and such a scope, even if we do try to get into these tantric practices, they will not bring us anywhere. Our practice will not bring us to this enlightened state. That is the first training, to be mindful of the benefits of bodhichitta.

[2] The second training is to reaffirm our bodhichitta aim over and over again – three times in the morning and three times at night. 

[3] The third training is to build up the two types of bountiful stores or networks, the two collections – a bountiful store of positive potential or merit and a bountiful store of deep awareness or wisdom. To build up a bountiful store of positive potential, we make offerings as best as we can, without any miserliness or stinginess, three times in the morning and three times at night to the Triple Gem, the three sources of refuge. 

We should also be a very giving and charitable person, providing food and drink to the hungry and help to the poor and needy. In short, we should do everything that is helpful to others, from small acts like putting out sugar for the ants and upwards. For instance, there are some people in the West who spend several thousand dollars in setting up very large feeders to give grain to the wild birds around their house. They will even forgo going on vacation and say, “I can’t go away because then the birds will have nothing to eat.” That is an extremely excellent type of practice and is indeed the practice of someone with a heart dedicated to others. Another example is of one mother who was always feeding the fish in a pond. That is also something excellent and impressive. It is not impressive to see people who are very wealthy and have many magnificent possessions; however, it is impressive to see someone feeding the birds and fish. 

Likewise, as another method for building up a bountiful store of positive potential, we should try as much as possible to make offerings and be of help to the monastic community. This also builds up great positive potential. In the past, people had never even heard of the Buddhist monastic community. Now, not only have people heard about them, but we can actually meet them. It is very beneficial to try to be of as much help and assistance to them as possible. When we actually make offerings like this to the monastic community, we build up two benefits. There is the benefit of our making the offering and, likewise, there is the benefit of the offering being consumed. If we make offerings on our altar, it is not being utilized by those to whom we offer them. But when we make offerings to the spiritual community, there is the additional benefit of the monks and nuns partaking of what we offer. 

To put our energies into building a center and a temple such as this place used in this spiritual manner is extremely beneficial and builds up an extremely great amount of positive potential, equal to the number of atoms in the building.

In order to build up a bountiful store of deep awareness or a collection of wisdom, it is necessary to think deeply and meditate on voidness and, likewise, to think carefully and meditate on the four noble truths, the four facts seen as true by highly realized beings.

[4] The fourth training is to never give up on even one living being and to never have the feeling that we can’t possibly work to benefit this one being. If we have such an attitude with even one living being, that will not do. 

[5] The fifth training is to abandon the four types of murky, negative actions. In giving up the four negative actions, we also engage in practicing the four types of lustrous, positive actions as the opponents to them. The four negative actions are: 

  • To lie to, fool, trick, or deceive our spiritual master or parents – the opponent or antidote is the positive action of never lying or deceiving our spiritual master or parents, even as a joke.
  • To say something detrimental or scold a bodhisattva – we should not say bad things about a bodhisattva, as we can never tell where or whom a bodhisattva might be. There are many such dedicated beings who are householders or family people. Even in the animal world, among the birds, for instance, there are many emanations of bodhisattvas. We can only really know who we are and our own state of mind. There is no way to really tell just who someone else is or where their mind is at exactly. The antidote for falling into this destructive action is to always see others in a pure manner. For instance, if we are practicing the hidden measures of tantra, see others as tantric deities in pure forms. In short, we need to recognize everyone as being our teacher.
  • To cause ourselves or anyone else to regret any constructive things we or they might have done – the opponent to this, if other people are receptive to listening to us, is to encourage them to develop a Mahayana or a vast type of mind, in the sense of encouraging them to work for the sake of all other beings.
  • To fool with or be dishonest with those who turn to us and entrust themselves to us – we should not be pretentious, dishonest, or have ulterior motives that differ from having the exceptional resolve to help them. The opponent to this, the lustrous action, is always to be honest with others, and not have ulterior motives.

If we have a pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta, these are the five points to train in.

Engaged Bodhichitta

Engaged bodhichitta is not just wishing to achieve the state of enlightenment in order to be able to help everyone. It is actually engaging in the practices to reach that state, the practices of the six far-reaching attitudes, also known as the six perfections, and the four ways of being a positive influence on others. 

For instance, if we want to go to India, the wish to go there would be similar to the aspiring state of bodhichitta. Then, to actually involve ourselves in making the money to go, getting a passport, visa, and airplane ticket, would be equivalent to engaged bodhichitta. It is not sufficient to merely want to go to India, but we have to engage in all the preparations and steps to get there. For example, if we wish to help this very great and extensive country, unless we become the top official in charge of the area, we will not be able to really benefit the land in the most effective manner. The wish to be able to benefit everyone in the land by becoming the top official would be equivalent to aspiring bodhichitta. Then, in order to become such a great official, we have to gain a good education and train in all the methods needed to benefit others. That is equivalent to engaged bodhichitta. Once we have actually developed an engaged state of bodhichitta, we take the bodhisattva vows. 

Within these vows, there are 18 actions we must refrain from, the 18 root bodhisattva vows. In addition, there are 46 faulty actions that are in opposition to the practices of the far-reaching attitudes or perfections. We must restrain from these as well. These are the things involved in taking the bodhisattva vows. Especially regarding the six far-reaching attitudes, it is essential to gain the far-reaching attitudes of mental stability or concentration and discriminating awareness or wisdom.

Entering the Tantric Path

Once we have actually trained ourselves well in all these bodhisattva pathway minds as a preliminary, we are ready to start out on the tantric paths. When we practice the perfection vehicle, Paramitayana, we need to work over a period of three zillion eons to build up enough positive potential to reach enlightenment. Whereas, if we practice with this vehicle of the hidden measures to protect the mind, the tantric vehicle, we can achieve this state of enlightenment within this very lifetime. 

If we have fully prepared ourselves with the common paths of the mind on both the method and wisdom side, and we train properly through this particular type of tantric teaching, the six yogas of Naropa, it is also possible to reach this enlightened state of a Buddha in a period of three years and three phases of the moon. However, we should not think, “I want to be very happy, so therefore I’ll do this practice to get enlightenment in three years and three fortnights. Then everything will be very nice and happy for me.” That is not at all proper. Rather, we need the very strong willpower and strength of mind to be willing to stay around and work for eons and eons, just for the sake of one limited being.

We need to think of the incredible kindness of all other beings, and how we are totally dependent upon their kindness. We must have the feeling in which we cannot bear for anyone to have suffering, problems, or unhappiness even for one moment, and that we absolutely have to become a fully enlightened Buddha in order to be able to help them. That is the type of very strong motivation that we need to have to enter into these hidden measures of tantra. 

Once we have such an extremely strong motivation and feeling, then as a start for getting into these tantra teachings, we need to develop a wholehearted commitment to our tanric master in all the proper ways, as explained in the Fifty Stanzas on the Guru. This is something to receive teachings on and study, and then, on that basis, we need to entrust ourselves wholeheartedly to our tantric master in the proper manner, by seeing our master as a fully enlightened Vajradhara. 

However, if we do not get rid of our obsessive involvement with the things of this lifetime, then we will not be able to achieve any type of stable spiritual practice. The word “obsession” means to be tied up. If we cannot get out of our entanglements and being totally tied up with the things of this lifetime, we will not be able to gain a stable spiritual practice. To break the entanglements, we have to think about impermanence, about how no situation ever remains static. In that way, we will be able to have a more stable spiritual practice.

Without complete confidence in the Dharma, we will not be stable in molding our behavior in terms of the laws of behavioral cause and effect. Without total confidence in the laws of karma, then our practice of the Dharma will not be very refined. It will not be like refined flour; rather, it will be full of lumps. To gain this confident respectful belief in the words of the Buddha, think about what the Buddha said concerning voidness, the absence of all impossible ways of existing. The complete truth of what the Buddha said about reality, about voidness, is something that can be confirmed and understood with logic and reasoning. With such analysis and examination, we will gain very stable confidence in what Buddha said as being totally reasonable, logical, and correct.

However, when the Buddha explained that if we act in a positive and constructive manner, we will be reborn as a god, and if we act in a destructive manner, we will be reborn in one of the worst states of existence, a hell realm and so forth, this is something that cannot be understood by logic and reasoning. We can only gain confidence in the truth of that statement on the basis of scriptural authority. However, the way to develop acceptance of Buddha as a source of correct information is to see that what the Buddha said about voidness and reality is logical and correct. On the basis of that, we can gain confidence that everything the Buddha said is correct. In this way, we will develop stable confidence in the validity of the Buddha as a source of correct information.

On this basis, we take various vowed restraints concerning our behavior and will be able to keep them and safeguard all these vows very strictly, down to the finest detail.


In short, whichever way we look at it, whether we are following Paramitayana or Vajrayana, it is necessary to train very thoroughly in all the paths of the minds for the three graded levels of motivation. Once we have trained in all these common preliminaries and have actually achieved these common paths of the mind, then it is important to receive proper initiations to be able to enter into tantra. 

There is no disagreement about this whatsoever among all the traditions of Buddhism: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug. Everybody agrees on the necessity of receiving an initiation. All four major spiritual disciples of the great translator Marpa have agreed on the absolute necessity for receiving the full initiations, as well as keeping the vows and close bonds to the practice. The four main disciples of Marpa – Ngog Choku Dorje (rNgog Chos-sku rdo-rje), Tsurton Wanggi Dorje (mTshur-ston dBang-gi rdo-rje), Meton Tsonpo (Mes-ston Tshon-po), and Milarepa (Mi-la ras-pa bZhad-pa rdo-rje) – all agreed on the necessity for practicing all these common preliminary paths. 

To repeat, these teachings of the six practices of Naropa are extremely advanced and high teachings. I am not just saying that on my own, but I am pointing out in the text the emphasis being made on that fact and the necessity of having all the preliminaries. This is extremely important. 

An airplane can go very fast through the air, but we can’t get on it while it is flying very quickly through the air. If we want to get on it and travel by it, we have to go slowly, get our ticket, walk through the gate, go up the stairs and get on it from the beginning. We cannot just climb on while it is flying fast through the air. In the same way, the practice of these six yogas of Naropa is not something we can climb onto in mid-air. We have to actually work up to these teachings gradually, through all the preliminary steps. 

In the text, it says that in order to even get into the tantric teachings, it is necessary to receive instruction and teaching on the Fifty Stanzas on the Guru and start from the beginning in terms of our commitment to a spiritual master. If this is something we do not even know about, then it is just like trying to get on the airplane while it is flying through the air. There are excellent spiritual masters here and you should ask them for teachings on this Fifty Stanzas on the Guru. Then, you will slowly learn about these things.

Once again, the importance of training in these common paths of the minds of lam-rim, the graduated path, is attested to by all the masters, such as the great Milarepa in his collected songs.