Nāropā (956-1040 CE)
Indian Tantric Buddhist master whose life and teachings were highly regarded in Tibet. Nāropā, also known as Naḍapāda, was one of the greatest Indian Buddhist spiritual masters of his time. He is particularly important in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, for his lineages of teaching were transmitted to most Tibet schools within a century of his passing. He is well known for his role in the dissemination of numerous Buddhist tantras, such as the Hevajra and Cakrasaṃvara traditions, as well as for his synthesis of the highest yoga tantras as exemplified by his Six Yogas (Tib. na ro chos drug).
In Tibetan literature Naropa is usually referred to as a “perfectly accomplished one” (Tib. grub chen; Skt. mahāsiddha). That is, one who has attained siddhi, or tantric accomplishment. Tantric accomplishment may be mundane, such as clairvoyance, telepathy, astral travel, and so forth; and supermundane, the attainment of supreme enlightenment itself. Nāropā is counted among the eighty-four Indian Vajrayana mahāsiddhas and the chief disciple of the siddha Tilopa (928-1009). Siddhas like Nāropā were always depicted as highly eccentric, non-conventional, and having great spiritual powers and magical abilities.
The life story of Nāropā reveals how an ordinary, struggling human being seeking spiritual awakening undergoes miraculous transformation through devotion to the teacher. Every Tibetan knows by heart the many fantastic stories concerning Nāropā.
numerous Bengali and then Kashmiri teachers in the early part of his life. He became famous as a scholar and eventually attained the position of abbot at the renowned Indian monastic university of Nālandā. He served as abbot for eight years, achieving widespread fame as a scholar and also as a mentor to many Buddhist scholars of India.
However, during his fortieth year he underwent an encounter that profoundly altered the course of his life. At the time he was silently studying scriptures when he suddenly noticed a repulsive old woman watching him. The old and ugly woman questioned Nāropā, “Do you understand the words or the sense of what you are reading?” Nāropā replied, “The words.” The old woman laughed and asked, “And do you understand the sense?” Again Nāropā replied in the affirmative, whereupon the old ugly woman began to weep and tremble “Here you are lying,” she scolded.
Over the days to follow, the conversation transformed Nāropā, and he eventually came to the conclusion that he would have to leave the life of the monastery to search for a tantric teacher or guru. Thereupon he gave up his position in the monastery and left in search of a tantric master. After much wandering and many great trials, he encountered Tilopa.
Nāropā’s search for and then training under Tilopa is a story told in allegorical and mystical language which relates the attitude that an aspirant must generate to properly approach a master teacher. Among his encounters during his search were a man catching and eating lice, a leper woman, and so forth, each encounter offering a new clue on the spiritual attitude to be cultivated in order to become worthy to meet the tantric guru. Eventually Tilopa appears to Nāropā, and thereupon a twelve-year training period follows which results in Nāropā’s enlightenment.
In the later part of his life Nāropā attracted many disciples from India, Nepal, and Tibet. His teaching lineages spread to all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, but most predominantly the Kagyu (bka’ brgyud) school.
James B. Apple