Nā ro pa

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NĀ RO PA (10161100), also known as Nāapāda and Nāroapa; one of the eighty-four Indian Vajrayāna mahā-siddha s ("completely perfected ones"). Nā ro pa was the chief disciple of the siddha Ti lo pa (9881069) and the second human member of the Vajrayāna lineage. This lineage runs from the celestial Buddha Vajradhāra to Ti lo pa, thence to Nā ro pa and his Tibetan disciple Mar pa (10121096), and then to the Tibetan Mi la ras pa (10401123), with whom the Bka' brgyud pa, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, properly begins. Although the Bka' brgyud pa lays special claim to Nā ro pa, he is highly regarded throughout Tibet; in fact, most of the major Tibetan schools have over the course of time integrated his major transmissions and teachings into their own doctrinal formulations.

The earliest and one of the most important biographies of Nā ro pa (approximately twelfth century) outlines the major movements of his life. This biography is a typical example of Vajrayāna hagiography in its intermingling of the ordinary and tangible with the cosmic, magical, and supernatural. Within the genre, however, this biography of Nā ro pa emphasizes the spiritual development of its subject, concentrating on the earlier phases of his career where he is presented as an ordinary, struggling human being seeking spiritual awakening. Only toward the end of his biography do we find Nā ro pa emerging as a fully enlightened siddha, majestic in demeanor and surrounded by miracles.

According to his biography Nā ro pa was born in Bengal of the katriya, or royal caste. At the age of eleven he went to Kashmir for three years of formal study of Buddhism, a study that continued with tutors upon his return to Bengal. His Buddhist education was cut short when, at the age of sixteen, he was forced by his father to marry a brahman girl named Ni gu ma. The marriage lasted eight years, and was then dissolved by mutual agreement so that Nā ro pa could further his religious training. Ni gu ma was also spiritually inclined, took up Buddhist training herself, and in due course became the founder of an important Vajrayāna and Tibetan lineage.

After the divorce, Nā ro pa returned to his Buddhist training, taking ordination and continuing his study for nine more years, becoming accomplished in the various major areas of Buddhist learning. In 1049 Nā ro pa went to the famous Buddhist monastic university of Nālandā in northeast India and successfully participated in a religio-philosophical debate. As a result, he was elected to the powerful and prestigious position of abbot or gate-keeper, thus fulfilling the ideals of conventional monastic Buddhism and receiving his recognition within that world.

Eight years later a shift occurred in Nā ro pa's spiritual development, from satisfaction with a predominantly intellectual understanding of Buddhism to the search for greater depth of comprehension, and from the monastic life of conventional Buddhism to the nonmonastic form of the Tantric yogin. Such a shift is described in the lives of several other of the eighty-four siddha s and we may suppose that it was not entirely uncommon in those days. Nā ro pa's biography tells us that one day while studying a Buddhist philosophical text he suddenly had a vision of an ugly old hag. She made it clear to him that while he understood the text he was reading on a conceptual level, he had no inner understanding of it at all. She further revealed that if he wanted to attain genuine understanding, Nā ro pa should seek one Ti lo pa, who alone could help him.

Nā ro pa was devastated by the vision, and was unable to discount the truth it revealed. His response to the hag's revelation was to give up his position at Nālandā and to abandon the monastic life, wandering forth in search of the siddha Ti lo pa. He experienced eleven further visions, which he dismissed as worthless because they contradicted his preconceptions about spirituality, but which in retrospect were revealed to him to have been manifestations of Ti lo pa himself. In despair over his failure to find his teacher, Nā ro pa came to the brink of suicide; at just this moment, he met Ti lo pa.

As depicted in Nā ro pa's biography, Ti lo pa is a strange, enigmatic figure, anonymous in his context and unnoticed by others, but recognized by Nā ro pa as a powerful and uncompromising teacher and, most important, as his authentic guru. However, as Guenther rightly comments, Ti lo pa "is more than the individual who happened to become Nā ro pa's Guru. In a certain sense, Tilopa is Nā ro pa's total self which summons him to find himself" (Guenther, 1963, p. iv). Nā ro pa committed himself unreservedly to serve Ti lo pa, and attended him for twelve years, until the latter's death in 1069. During this time Nā ro pa underwent a rigorous training marked by much hardship and ordeal, and was put through twelve major trials by his teacher. These trials, depicted as external, literal events, no doubt epitomize moments in Nā ro pa's inner spiritual journey: at Ti lo pa's behest, he hurls himself from the top of a three-story temple roof; he leaps into a blazing fire; he is beaten senseless on several occasions by people he deliberately provokes at his master's command; he offers his body to leeches; and so on. Finally, he cuts off his own head and limbs and offers them as a fit offering to his master. At each offering Ti lo pa restores his disciple and instructs him in the next stage of his Tantric training.

By the time of Ti lo pa's death, Nā ro pa had purified his being and achieved realization, possessing a rich array of Tantric teachings to pass to his disciples. These teachings included the "six yoga s of Nā ro pa" (Nā ro chos drug ), practices particularly associated with the Bka' brgyud pa lineage but which subsequently became known and practiced among the other Tibetan schools. Nā ro pa had seven chief disciples among the many he trained, including Maitri pa, ombhi pa, and Mar pa. His chief legacy is his consolidation of the teachings received from Ti lo pa, which he then passed on to his chief disciple, the Tibetan Mar pa, thus enabling their flowering within Tibet in the Bka' brgyud lineage and other Tibetan traditions. Nineteen works in the Tibetan Bstan 'gyur (Tanjur) are attributed to Nā ro pa, including several Tantric sādhana s (liturgical meditations) on the Vajrayāna deities Vajrayoginī, Hevajra, and others particularly important to the Bka' brgyud tradition, two collections of Tantric realization songs (vajragīti ), and a number of commentaries on Vajrayāna topics.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Tibet; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism; Mahāsiddhas; Mar-pa.


The Life and Teachings of Nāropa, translated by Herbert V. Guenther (Oxford, 1963), provides a translation of an important Tibetan biography of Nā ro pa written by Lha'i btsun pa Rin chen rnam rgyal of Brag dkar (twelfth century). Included is Guenther's difficult but sometimes very helpful commentary. Nā ro pa's historical and religious context is discussed in David Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson's Cultural History of Tibet (1968; reprint, Boulder, 1980), pp. 313ff., and his well-known yogic legacy of the "six yogas" is discussed in Giuseppe Tucci's The Religions of Tibet, translated by Geoffrey Samuel (Berkeley, 1980), pp. 98101.

New Sources

Trungpa, Chogyam. Illusion's Game: The Life and Teaching of Naropa. Edited by Sherab Chödzin. Boston, 1994.

Reginald Ray (1987)

Revised Bibliography