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From Brilliant Scholar to Wandering Yogi

Naropa, among the many most revered figures in Vajra­yana Buddhism, started as one in all Nalanda’s foremost scholar–practitioners. Elizabeth Monson tells the story of his transformation from sensible pandita to fierce and wild yogi.

“Mahasiddha Naropa,” Kham Province, Eastern Tibet, nineteenth century Pigments on material Rubin Museum of Art. Previously from the Collection of Navin Kumar, New York. C2005.20.4 (HAR 65496)

The Great Mahasidda Naropa, Guardian of the Northern Gate of Nalanda University, lived throughout the tenth and eleventh centuries in northern India. The approximate dates he lived, and lots of particulars of his life story, will be present in legends and miracle tales, exalted descriptions of this nice scholar–practitioner, whose life exemplifies a big motion in Buddhist improvement across the flip of the millennium, because the practices of the Mahayana led to the emergence of the Vajrayana ethos and the religious strategies for full liberation related to it.

Naropa’s life story serves as a metaphor for this motion in Buddhist historical past. His instance reveals that full liberation requires not solely an entire understanding and absorption of the view of vacancy and compassion, but in addition the belief via direct expertise of the essence and readability of issues as they’re. On a wider historic degree, Naropa’s life stands as a paradigmatic instance of a motion that happened in Indian Buddhism from institutional, scholastic, and philosophical beliefs to an emphasis on experiential, contemplative, and transformative skillful means, transmitted from trainer to scholar, all aimed toward a approach of being that’s free, spontaneous, and in concord with the reality of how issues really are—an embodied and absolutely current manifestation of actuality itself.

Although Naropa’s information, perception, and follow of essentially the most profound Buddhist instructing was exemplary, he had not but absolutely transcended the realm of the mind to uncover the huge openness and readability of his personal consciousness.

One key side of Naropa’s story is his departure from Nalanda University, on the high of his profession, to search out and examine with the mysterious guru Tilopa. To perceive this radical shift in Naropa’s path, it’s useful to perceive somewhat of what the Vajrayana is and the way it works. Vajrayana, or tantra because it was extra generally recognized in tenth-century India, is an orientation and set of highly effective practices that transfer the practitioner from fantasy to actuality, from delusion to fact. Tantra’s subtle religious applied sciences reveal a approach of being and residing in deep concord with the reality of actuality, the reality of how issues really are, not how we think about, hope, or worry them to be. Discovering this fact—and studying to abide inside it—just isn’t solely the aim of the tantric path, but in addition it’s the view the yogi embraces to journey that path and the perception that leads to the belief of that aim: tantra begins with actuality; continues with actuality; and culminates with actuality.

While examine, contemplation, and meditation follow lay the muse and develop the view for understanding liberation, it’s via direct expertise that tantric practices purify the blockages, obscurations, and reified patterns of thought and emotion that stop us from accessing actuality as it’s. Tantra takes the practi­tioner past fixation on ideas and concepts, immersing her as a substitute within the experiential move of her personal being and inspiring her to let go of all discursive greedy to understand her personal interbeing with all that’s. This is vital for Naropa. Although at the moment his information, perception, and follow of essentially the most profound Buddhist teachings is exemplary, he has not absolutely transcended the realm of the mind to uncover the huge openness and readability of his personal consciousness, a sphere of vivid wakefulness in tune with the wants and struggling of all beings. To take this step, he should preserve the Mahayana view of compassion and vacancy, and leap into the hearth of his personal purification, the blazing bonfire of karmic cleaning required to break him free from attachment, clinging, and ego fixation.

So, in a single transformative occasion, Naropa abruptly realizes what he wants for full liberation. He is thrust out of the nice and cozy cocoon of monasticism, scholastic examine, debate, and follow into the wilderness of direct expertise—the progressive shedding of attachment and ego-fixation below the watchful and typically wrathful eyes of his tantric grasp, Tilopa.

The daybreak was delicate, the sky clear and open. A delicate breeze stirred the leaves of the traditional Amra bushes that encircled the ponds dotting Nalanda University’s expansive grounds. Naropa sat the place he at all times sat, simply outdoors the gates of the northern entrance on an increase of grassy earth. It was early, the solar’s warmth nonetheless in abeyance, and his cup of morning tea despatched up fronds of steam into the gentle air.

He had simply completed his morning ablutions. First, he washed himself within the waters of the lengthy azure pool that wound across the college buildings, reveling as he did so within the sensible colours of crimson Kanaka and blue lotus flowers floating on the water’s floor. He reveled additionally within the coolness of the water sliding over his pores and skin, sloughing off the darkness of the evening.

Finished along with his tub, he entered the shrine corridor simply contained in the northern gate. Carefully, he eliminated the silken scarves and brocades that dressed the golden Buddha statues and rinsed their yellow arms and gleaming torsos. The Buddhas sat, luminous and silent, filling the room with a vivid presence that awed him. Naropa organized choices of flowers and lit the lamps and incense as he chanted prayers and supplications. A novice may have carried out these duties, however Naropa liked to do them himself. He liked the simplicity of the ritual that required no thought, simply presence. As he completed, he bowed and sighed somewhat, making an attempt not to dwell on the nagging feeling of insufficiency and frustration that appeared to linger just under the floor of his ideas.

Outside, on a low desk, stacks of manuscripts awaited his consideration. As common, he meant to spend a few hours studying and finding out earlier than turning his consideration to inspecting the keen candidates to Nalanda, who would quickly collect close by. They got here every single day, typically alone, typically in teams, anticipation written throughout their faces like a overseas language he’d come to know intimately. It pained him, typically, to see that anticipation, that hope—which had propelled the possible scholar to this very gate—finally fade, as, confronted with the difficult questions he should ask them, the scholars realized what they had been dealing with. Only a only a few had been able to appropriately answering the questions and interesting within the rigorous debate he put them via. Only a only a few would go beneath the towering gates and into the rarified world of examine and follow that was Nalanda University.

Naropa thought of his studying choices. He may return to the lengthy treatise he had not too long ago begun on Panini’s Sanskrit grammar, a subject way more complicated than Naropa had ever imagined, or he may refresh his reminiscence of treatises on Madhyamika expounded by the first-century sage Arya Nagarjuna. Most of those texts he knew by coronary heart, but it surely by no means ceased to amaze him how each time he reread them, he found extra that he had not understood. There was nonetheless pleasure in these contemporary discoveries of latest perception and understanding, and the practices of recognizing vacancy had modified his life. And but, he couldn’t assist feeling that one thing was lacking. He raised his gaze, adjusting the folds in his monk’s robes as he did so.

Already some potential college students had gathered, awaiting his consideration. He grunted to himself. They would have to wait. His morning examine time was sacred, ever since he had graduated from Nalanda’s rigorous curriculum, attained the title of Mahapandita, and brought up the distinguished posting because the guardian of the Northern Gate.

He flipped via folios in regards to the ideas of Buddhist philosophical debate and sighed. It was exhausting to admit, however not too long ago, over the previous few years, Naropa discovered himself shedding curiosity in his research. It was actually not, he reminded himself, that he knew and understood the entire array of subjects taught at Nalanda, every part from weaving and portray to metropolis planning, drugs, astronomy, literature, logic, lexicography, debate, faith, the Vedas, Yogasastras, and, lastly, essentially the most profound teachings in Buddhist philosophy, follow, and morality. He was extremely educated, educated to essentially the most exalted degree potential in his world. He had achieved the much-coveted place of Dwarapandita, Guardian of the Gate, and had, by all counts, absolutely succeeded in intellectually understanding and placing into follow all components included in Nalanda’s rigorous curriculum. He was forty-two years outdated and on the high of his recreation. So, why did he really feel so stressed and impotent? Why did he really feel like he had reached a plateau from which he may ascend no additional?

“Focus your mind, Naropa,” he admonished himself. “You have work to do!”

He turned his gaze again to the folio on Buddhist debate in entrance of him. But, after a second, he thrust it apart and rifled via the stack till he discovered the textual content he was searching for, the Cakrasamvaratantra, an in depth exposition on the deity practices of the yab/yum Cakrasamvara/Vajrayogini. As he learn, his again to the rising solar, the outer world of sounds, smells, and sights light away and his consideration targeted, razor-sharp and clear, on the phrases and the doorways they appeared to open in his thoughts. It was at all times this manner with him. When he studied, when he turned his thoughts to the Dharma, nothing else existed. The phrases burned into his consciousness, whilst that consciousness expanded, hinting at dimensions of expertise Naropa may virtually, however not fairly, style.

He by no means knew how lengthy he sat, absorbed within the textual content, when abruptly, the web page darkened and he may not learn the script. At first, he thought a cloud had lined the solar, however elevating his head, he noticed that the daylight was throughout him, pouring itself golden and heat over the grassy hillock upon which he sat. Turning his head, he noticed a darkish determine, silhouetted towards the brilliant mild of the solar, standing behind him. Thinking that one of many scholar–candidates had develop into impatient to start the doorway examination, he returned his gaze to his textual content, saying, as he did, “Go sit down; it’s not time for the exams yet.”

His web page remained darkish. With rising irritation, Naropa once more regarded again. “What is it?” he requested, gruffly. He hated being interrupted when he was finding out. The darkish determine loomed over him, silent and immobile. Naropa turned all the way in which round, making an attempt to see who was there. As he turned, he felt himself being pulled into the silence of the shadowy determine as if right into a vortex. All sounds ceased, his imaginative and prescient darkened, and he misplaced all sense of his physique. The gates and grounds of Nalanda vanished like an phantasm or a swiftly dissolving dream. Naropa’s coronary heart pounded as he strained his eyes, making an attempt to see who was standing in entrance of him. Abruptly, every part shifted and once more, he discovered himself standing on the grass, the excessive partitions of Nalanda gleaming with the early mild, the sounds of the birds tinkling within the light breeze that wafted over him.

In entrance of him stood a really outdated, very ugly girl. Her face was darkish blue in coloration with a protruding brow. Her bloodshot eyes had been sunk deep of their sockets, and her wild crimson hair exploded from her head in tufts and strands. A big goiter hung trembling from her chin, which was lined with a yellow beard moist with spittle. As Naropa gazed at her with a mixture of horror and revulsion, her thick black tongue emerged from her mouth, licking her lips as she made sucking sounds that appeared to curdle the air round them. Her physique was bent, stooped, and twisted, with a big humpback as she rested her gnarled fingers on a picket cane.

“What… who…,” he stammered, making an attempt to formulate a sentence, however the crone interrupted him.

Gesturing along with her cane towards the textual content he had been studying, she spoke in a deep, guttural tone, “What are you studying?”
Naropa whipped his head round to look on the textual content, its folios fluttering a bit within the breeze, noticing, peripherally, that the group of scholar–candidates appeared to have vanished.

“Philosophy, bodhicitta, and epistemology,” he knowledgeable her, feeling a way of bewilderment, “but, who are you?”
Ignoring his query, she peered at him intently via crimson eyes behind which he thought he may see flames blazing. “Do you understand them?” she requested.

Naropa felt barely insulted. Didn’t she know he was the premier scholar of Nalanda University? But all he stated was, “Yes.”

“Do you understand the words or their meaning?”

Unnerved by the outdated girl’s depth, Naropa stated, “I understand the words.”

Again, with a suddenness that rocked Naropa again on his heels, the outstanding world dissolved. All he may understand was a multi-colored move of sunshine inside which the outdated girl simply lifted her cane over her head and commenced to dance wildly, her laughter crackling via the air like lightening. As she danced, her brilliant hair elongated, sending up tendrils like crimson silk, and her type appeared to shift into the slim, elegant form of a younger girl, eyes blazing with fireplace, lithe type leaping via the air like a circus tumbler. Naropa watched with amazement, his pores and skin tingling, his physique full of vitality like an electrical present. Hoping to encourage her, he advised her, “But I also know the meaning!”

Abruptly, every part stopped and Naropa was blinded by warmth and a vivid crimson mild that penetrated all his senses. When he may see once more, the outdated hag was huddled in on herself, her physique emitting a pungent darkness that assailed him. She sobbed and muttered, clasping one hand to her chest and plunging her cane into the bottom with the opposite.

Surprised and anxious, Naropa cried, “Why did you laugh when I said I understood the words but wept when I said I knew the meaning?”

It appeared to take a number of moments for his phrases to penetrate the crone’s consciousness, however after they did, she sobbed up at him, “Because when said you knew the words, you spoke the truth, but when you, a great Mahapandita, said you knew the meaning, you lied!”

Naropa stared at her in shock. No one had ever known as him a liar, not in his whole life. A robust move of disagreeable vitality surged via him, however he caught himself, simply earlier than lashing out, wanting to deny the outdated girl’s stinging phrases whilst one thing inside him registered the reality of her assertion. In a flash of reduction, he thought, “This is it. She has hit the nail on the head. This is the reason I feel so uninspired, so blocked in my progression toward liberation. I do understand the words. I understand so many words, but the meaning? The experience? I can feel it, but I don’t know how to actualize it, how to practice it!”

The outdated girl stopped crying. Her bloodshot eyes peered at him with a peculiar depth as if she was listening to his ideas. Swallowing his pleasure, he requested, “Who does know the meaning?”

“My brother Tilopa,” she replied with a glad smack of her lips.

At the moment she spoke the identify “Tilopa,” Naropa’s hair stood on finish and tears sprang from his eyes. He dropped to his knees as spontaneous devotion blazed up in him, engulfing him in a longing so deep he bowed his head, letting the tears move down throughout his cheeks. The vitality surging via him was so sturdy that his thoughts couldn’t grasp the depth of what was unfolding. He was speechless, inconsiderate, consumed in an vitality so highly effective he barely knew how to keep current. For an indeterminate time, he knelt on the grass on the ft of the outdated girl, his face moist with the depth of the craving that flooded his whole being. Finally, elevating his head, he met her blazing eyes. “Please,” he begged, “take me to your brother!”

He thought he glimpsed an expression of satisfaction flash throughout her face, however all she stated was, “Supplicate him. Practice. Go find him yourself.”

As she completed talking, the air round her started to flutter, to tremble, till it appeared to Naropa {that a} doorway opened, a channel of rainbow mild into which the outdated girl entered, her type shifting and altering. For a short second, she morphed once more into that important model of herself he had seen earlier, a vivid, blazing being of crimson fireplace; the flash of an upheld knife gleaming in her proper hand the place her cane had been; her physique clean and nubile, a determine of sunshine and fireplace, dancing into dissolution. Within moments, she was gone, vanished, forsaking solely the acquainted panorama surrounding the Northern Gate of Nalanda University.

Naropa rose to his ft, shocked and silent, his face turned to the east. It was all he may don’t to instantly begin strolling to discover this particular person, this trainer, this Tilopa, who was the brother of a dakini, as a result of clearly, the outdated girl was not simply any outdated girl. Naropa acknowledged her now from his studying and follow of tantric texts as Vajrayogini, the Great Mother of fireplace and compassion, the sky dancer of perception and love.

Just the considered Tilopa’s identify despatched shivers of longing, anticipation, and pleasure via his veins, and he puzzled at himself, he, who had dismissed the tales of the significance of the guru for actualizing the Buddhist teachings. Even figuring out and working towards, as he had, so many tantras, and recognizing intellectually that the core of tantric follow is the transformation of each the practitioner and the universe of which he is part, Naropa by no means believed he himself would ever need or want such a trainer. He believed primarily within the energy of his formidable mind to penetrate the reality, the essence of the teachings, and within the pressure of the view of compassion, his love for all beings, to allow him to dedicate his life to serving to those that got here his approach. Now one thing inside him had irrevocably shifted. He knew, past any shadow of doubt, that true awakening required not solely the view he already possessed, but in addition the deep internal expertise of the character of actuality itself.

From this second on, Naropa’s life fully modifications. He leaves Nalanda and units out to discover Tilopa, the loopy mahasiddha, who places him via a sequence of brutal trials, every one designed to take him deeper and deeper inside the layers of karmic encrustation which have saved him certain and trapped. Ultimately, Naropa’s devotion to his trainer collectively along with his dedication to a path of follow that explodes his ideas and concepts set him free. Today, we would liken Naropa’s trials to the preliminary practices each Vajryana scholar should full earlier than stepping immediately into the mandala of actuality that may develop into the bottom for manifesting on this planet as a realized being.

Naropa’s life story echoes down to us via the centuries as a transparent instruction that irrespective of how a lot time we could spend in finding out and considering the Buddhist teachings, it’s via harnessing the energies of the physique and our feelings because the working floor for liberation that we discover precisely what we want for freedom. Freedom will be discovered solely in what is correct in entrance of us—our expertise in every current second. While the precise trajectory by which the practices of the Vajrayana turned seen in Indian and Himalayan Buddhism could also be misplaced to the mists of historical past, Naropa’s determination to go away Nalanda and enterprise into the wilderness of his personal direct expertise below Tilopa’s tutelage stands as a pivotal second in Buddhist historical past—a landmark occasion that reconfigured the trail to enlightenment for a lot of generations of practitioners to come.


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