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Tilopa (Prakrit; Sanskrit: Talika or Tilopadā; 988–1069) was an Indian Buddhist tantric mahasiddha who lived along the Ganges River.[1] He practised Anuttarayoga Tantra, a set of spiritual practices intended to accelerate the process of attaining Buddhahood. He became a holder of all the tantric lineages, possibly the only person in his day to do so. In addition to the way of insight and Mahamudra, Tilopa learned and passed on the Way of Methods (today known as the Six Yogas of Naropa) and guru yoga.[2] Naropa is considered his main student.


Tilopa was born into the priestly Brahmin caste. He adopted the monastic life upon receiving orders from a dakini[3] (female buddha whose activity is to inspire practitioners) who told him to adopt a mendicant and itinerant existence. From the beginning, she made it clear to Tilopa that his real parents were not the persons who had raised him, but instead were primordial wisdom and universal voidness. Advised by the dakini, Tilopa gradually took up a monk's life, taking the monastic vows and becoming an erudite scholar. The frequent visits of his dakini teacher continued to guide his spiritual path and close the gap to enlightenment.[citation needed]

He was born in either Chativavo (Chittagong) or Jagora in Bengal, India.[4]

He began to travel throughout India, receiving teachings from many gurus:

As advised by Matangi, Tilopa started to work at a brothel in Bengal for a prostitute called Dharima as her solicitor and bouncer. During the day, he was grinding sesame seeds for his living.[5] During a meditation, he received a vision of Vajradhara and, according to legend, the entirety of mahamudra was directly transmitted to Tilopa. After receiving the transmission, Tilopa meditated in two caves, and bound himself with heavy chains to hold the correct meditation posture. He practised for many years and then met the mind of all buddhas in the form of Diamond Holder Vajradhara. He is considered the grandfather of today's Kagyu Lineage.[2] Naropa, his most important student, became his successor and carried and passed on the teachings.[citation needed]

On the premises of Pashupatinath Temple, regarded as the greatest Hindu shrine in Nepal, there are two caves where Tilopa attained siddhis and initiated his disciple Naropa.[citation needed]


Mahasiddha Tilopa, southern Tibet, 16th-17th century AD, bronze - Linden-Museum - Stuttgart, Germany.

Six Precepts or Words of Advice[edit]

Tilopa gave Naropa a teaching called the Six Words of Advice, the original Sanskrit or Bengali of which is not extant; the text has reached us in its Tibetan translation. In Tibetan, the teaching is called gnad kyi gzer drug[6] – literally, "six nails of key points"; the aptness of the title becomes clear if one considers the meaning of the English idiomatic expression, "to hit the nail on the head."

According to Ken McLeod, the text contains exactly six words; the two English translations given in the following table are both attributed to him.

Six Words of Advice
First short, literal translation Later long, explanatory translation Tibetan (Wylie transliteration)
1 Don't recall Let go of what has passed mi mno
2 Don't imagine Let go of what may come mi bsam
3 Don't think Let go of what is happening now mi sems
4 Don't examine Don't try to figure anything out mi dpyod
5 Don't control Don't try to make anything happen mi sgom
6 Rest Relax, right now, and rest rang sar bzhag

Watts-Wayman translation

An earlier translation circa 1957 by Alan Watts and Dr. Alex Wayman rendered Tilopa's "Six Precepts" as

No thought, no reflection, no analysis,
No cultivation, no intention;
Let it settle itself.

In a footnote, Watts cited a Tibetan source text at partial variance with McLeod's in sequence and syntax, namely:

Mi-mno, mi-bsam, mi-dpyad-ching,
Mi-bsgom, mi-sems, rang-babs-bzhag.

Based on an "elucidation" provided by Wayman, Watts explained that

Mi-mno is approximately equivalent to the Zen terms wu-hsin (無心) or wu-nien (無念), "no-mind" or "no thought." Bsam is the equivalent of the Sanskrit cintana, i.e., discursive thinking about what has been heard, and dpyad of mimamsa, or "philosophical analysis." Bsgom is probably bhavana or the Chinese hsiu (修), "to cultivate," "to practice," or "intense concentration." Sems is cetana or szu (思), with the sense of intention or volition. Rang-babs-bzhag is literally "self-settle-establish," and "self-settle" would seem to be an almost exact equivalent of the Taoist tzu-jan (自然, pinyin: zì rán), "self-so", "spontaneous", or "natural".[7]

Watts had studied Chinese, and Wayman was a Tibetologist and professor of Sanskrit associated with UCLA and later Columbia University.

Mahamudra instructions[edit]

Tilopa also gave mahamudra instruction to Naropa by means of the song known as "The Ganges Mahamudra,"[8][page needed] one stanza of which reads:

The fool in his ignorance, disdaining Mahamudra,
Knows nothing but struggle in the flood of samsara.
Have compassion for those who suffer constant anxiety!
Sick of unrelenting pain and desiring release, adhere to a master,
For when his blessing touches your heart, the mind is liberated.[9]

Attachment and enjoyment[edit]

One of the most famous and important statements attributed to Tilopa is: "The problem is not enjoyment; the problem is attachment."[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nydahl, Ole (2019). The Four Foundational Practices of the Great Seal. Ontario WI: Diamond Way Press. p. 117.
  2. ^ a b Nydahl, Ole (2019). The Four Foundational Practices of the Great Seal. Ontario WI: Diamond Way Press. p. 119.
  3. ^ Mar-Pa, Chos-Kyi Blo-Gros (1995). Cayley, Vyvyan (ed.). The Life of the Mahasiddha Tilopa. Translated by Torricelli, Fabrizio; Naga, Acharya Sangye T. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. pp. 28, 43–44. ISBN 978-81-85102-91-7.
  4. ^ asf. Bangalir Itihas Adiparba By Niharranjan Roy. p. 601.
  5. ^ Kagyu Lineage History: Tilopa Archived 28 February 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Tsele Natsok Rangdröl (tr. Erik Pema Kunsang), Lamp of Mahamudra: The Immaculate Lamp that Perfectly and Fully Illuminates The Meaning of Mahamudra, The Essence of All Phenomena, Boston & Shaftesbury: Shambhala, 1989, p. 72 and n. 18.
  7. ^ Watts, Alan (1999) [First published 1957]. The Way of Zen. Vintage Books. p. 79 and n. 3.
  8. ^ Rinpoche, Thrangu (2002). The Life of Tilopa and the Ganges Mahamudra. Zhyisil Chokyi Ghatsal Trust. ISBN 978-1-877294-22-8.
  9. ^ Keith Dowman / Tilopa's Instruction to Naropa
  10. ^ Institute, Garchen. "Tilopa | Garchen Buddhist Institute". Retrieved 6 August 2023.


External links[edit]

Preceded by Kagyu school Succeeded by