Indian foundations of Vajrayana: Naropa and Tilopa
In the eleventh century, a renowned Buddhist scholar named Naropa was sitting in the sun at the famed Nalanda monastic university in northeast Indian, studying his texts. Suddenly, in a revelation that broke open his life, an old hag appeared out of empty space and confronted him with the truth that in spite of his surpassing intellectual knowledge of the dharma, he had no idea of what it actually meant on a human level. She declared that to acquire genuine wisdom he must cast away his books, leave his comfortable and prestigious monastic lifestyle, and abandon what most people in his Indian context identified as the epitome of the dharmic life. His only hope, so he was informed, was to set out into trackless jungle wastes “to the east,” in search of a Vajrayana master named Tilopa, who alone could show him the path to awakening.
LOOKING FOR THE TANTRIC TEACHER
Naropa saw no other option but to follow these rather imprecise instructions. As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, however, he was unable to find this tantric teacher. One day, coming to a certain small monastery, he was admitted and apparently invited to join the monks in their noonday meal. After the doors had been locked from the inside, as was the custom, Naropa happened to be in the cooking area. Suddenly, there appeared out of nowhere a dark-complexioned and very filthy beggar. This strange individual then began to roast live fish over the cooking fire. Naropa, scandalized that anyone would so blatantly contravene monastic procedure, attempted to restrain him but was uncessful. Given the Buddhist prohibition against the taking of life, the monks of the place were horrified because of the disrepute such actions would bring upon their establishment. The dark man responded, “If you find this displeasing, I will put the fish back in the water again.” He then went outside and threw the roasted fish back into the adjoining river and, springing to life, the swam happily away.
Apparently non of the monks was particularly impressed by this peculiar series of events, and they returned to their usual business. Naropa, on the other hand, realized that something noteworthy had just occurred, In fact, he suspected that this filthy miscreant was a siddha, an enlightened tantric teacher. Perhaps, indeed, this was the long-sought-after Tilopa.
Naropa forgot about his meal and followed after the beggar, going so far as to prostrate himself and plead for instruction. Abruptly, the beggar turned on him and began to beat him, meanwhile speaking not a single word. However, when Naropa then began to think, “Is this Tilopa? Is this Tilopa?” The beggar replied out loud, “I am. I am.” Then, when Naropa began to think, “No, this couldn’t be Tilopa,” the beggar replied, “I am not. I am not.”
His mind swimming with confusion and disorientation, Naropa realized that this must be the master he sought, and he began to follow him as his guru. Although now Tilopa – for it was indeed he – sometimes acted like an accomplished yogin and at others like a madman, Naropa entertained no more doubts. Attending Tilopa for many years, through the most harrowing of circumstances, having sacrificed literally everything he had in body and soul, the erstwhile scholar eventually attained the genuine realization he sought.
Source: “Secret of the Vajra World – The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet” by Reginald A. Ray, Shambala