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A study of the Six Yogas of Naropa as the path of methods towards liberation

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Name: Tan Huilun Ron


Ray (2001) categorises applied Vajrayana practice into three distinctive arenas: (1) the visualisation oneself as the yidam and sadhana practice; (2) the practice of the inner yogas, which work with the subtle body; and (3) “formlessmeditation in realising one’s true nature of mind. In this paper, I seek to discuss the practice of inner yoga in the subtle and energetic dimension of the body by referring to the key teachings of six yogas of Naropa based on the treatises by Lama Tsongkhapa and Shamarpa Chokyi Wangchuk . Kalu Rinpoche explains that “the six dharmas of Naropa form a group of practices allowing one to

integrate all existential situations with the path and transform them into opportunities for liberation” (Ray, 2001, p.236). First, I seek to provide a brief doctrinal background to the practice of the subtle body in Vajrayana Buddhism by drawing on the key treatises (translated by Mullin, 2006; Roberts 2011). Second, I situate the practice of the six yogas of Naropa against the backdrop of it being one of the paths leading to liberation in the Vajrayana system. As this is a very advanced practice that usually requires a practitioner to enter into strict retreat and learn directly and in secrecy from an accomplished guru, I question what purposes does it serve in one’s path towards liberation. What does the future hold in the practice of the six yogas of Naropa? Given its highly advanced and esoteric nature, will it still remain as a relevant practice for modern lay Buddhists?


Before discussing the six yoga of Naropa, it will be useful to discuss the four classes of tantra and understand where the six yogas fit into the scheme of tantrayana.


Vajrayana Buddhism classifies tantra into four main classes – the action tantra, performance tantra, yoga tantra and highest yoga tantra. For action tantra, practitioners engage in the performance of rituals, devotion and purification activities which carried out symbolically, suitable for those who “are not adept at internal visualisation and who can benefit from having physical symbols as focal points of their meditation” (Powers, 2007, p.280). Such practitioners still perceive themselves and the meditational deities as separate entities on the conventional level. It is said that for trainees of action tantra, one can achieve enlightenment within sixteen human lifetimes.

In performance tantra, emphasis is on both the external activities and internal yoga. One does a front generation of the meditational deity (or yidam), “strives to emulate the deity, chants the mantra of the deity, and endeavours to perfect one’s ability to visualise it without mental fluctuation” (ibid., p.281). Practitioners practice both types of meditationsyoga with signs and yoga without signs. The first type involves one-pointed concentration meditation on the deity (its mantra, hand gestures and form), while the second type focus on meditation on the deity’s final nature i.e. emptiness (ibid.). Those who train in this class can gain enlightenment within seven human lifetimes.

In yoga tantra, the practitioner observes two parts of the tantra – outer yoga and highest yoga tantra. Powers (2007) explains that “practitioners…view all phenomena as being naturally free from the signs of mental projection and as manifestations of luminosity and emptiness” (p.282). Here, ritual serves symbolic purposes in the training of internal yoga that is practiced with signs and without signs. The practitioner first “generates a vivid appearance of the deity, together with its retinue, contemplating both its wondrous form and exalted attributes, and then absorbs the deity into oneself, imagining that one becomes merged with it.” (ibid.) In yoga without signs, the meditator meditates “directly on suchness (de hko nan yid, tathata)” (ibid.), and trains in the non-dualistic view oneself as inseparable from the perfect qualities of the deities. In this aspect, the practitioners of yoga tantra can attained Buddhahood in a minimum of three human lifetimes.

For the highest yoga tantra, one trains in the subtle energies called “‘winds’ (rlung, prana) and ‘drops’ (thig le, bindu) which moves through a network of seventy-two thousand channels (rtsa, nadi). One then generates oneself as a fully awakened Buddha composed entirely of these subtle energies and possessing a Buddha’s wisdom consciousness” (ibid.). One first practices the stage of generation in creating the image of the deity, and then fully transform oneself into the non-dualistic mind of the deity in the completion stage. To enter into highest yoga tantra, Powers (2007) states that one must have developed understanding in both the sutras and tantras, received initiation to the practice bestowed by a qualified master, and then taking tantric vows to bond one’s mind in commitment to the goal of the practice. Hence deity yoga works directly with the illusory body in the energetic dimension. As it is said “mind consciousness rides the horse of prana on the pathways of the nadis (and) the bindu is mind’s nourishment” . Ray (2001) quotes Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s explanation of our karma or state of ignorance presents itself as “knots” that create “energetic blockages” that prevents oneself from discovering the true nature of one’s mind (p.231). Hence, one needs to practice inner yoga to “untie and resolve” our “karmic knots” in order to fully experience mahamudra or dzogchen in its nondual and unfabricated form (ibid., p.232).

The practice of these inner yogas in the highest yoga tantras was systemised by the early Indian mahasiddha Tilopa and transmitted it to Naropa, and then to Marpa Lotsawa who then imported it to Tibet (Mullin, 2005). It is also commonly known as the six yogas (or dharmas) of Naropa. While it is not a prerequisite to enter into the practice of highest yoga tantra such as mahamudra or dzogchen, the ability to have control over the subtle energies of one’s body does expedite one’s access to the realisation of mahamudra or dzogchen. As Ray (2001) quotes Kalu Rinpoche’s explanation of the six yogas:

The six dharmas of Naropa form a group of practices allowing one to integrate all existential situations with the path and transform them into opportunities for liberation…(while) mahamudra (is) seen as a path of liberation…the six dharmas (are) called path of means. One should not see this as a separation but understand that the six dharmas are profound means for quick access to mahamudra” (p.237).


Having briefly introduced the practice of six yogas of Naropa as training the interior, psychic and energetic dimensions of one’s body in highest yoga tantra, I will now explain this practice using Mullins (2006) translation of Lama Jey Tsongkhapa’s treatise and Roberts (2011) translation of Shamarpa Chokyi Wangchuk’s treatise. As this paper is not intended to be a commentary on the treatises of these text, I will be describing the practices in a more general manner, rather than go into the specifics.


The text begins with paying homage to one’s Guru as inseparable from Buddha Vajradhara. One engages firstly in the special tantric preliminaries, and then on basis of having completed the preliminaries, meditate on the actual path. In the special tantric preliminaries, one meditates on Vajrasattva with consort and recites his mantra. Lama Tsongkhapa provides a detailed visualisation of the Vajrasattva with consort and mantra for the practitioner through the blessings of visualised light and flow of nectars, which then dissolves and become inseparable with the practitioner’s body speech and mind. Then, he instructs the meditator

to meditate on Guru yoga going through similar visualisation and blessing processes, which then again dissolves into one’s body, speech and mind as inseparable from the Guru’s. This completes the preliminaries and then one engages in the actual tantric path of generating oneself as the wrathful Heruka Chakrasamvara with the consort Kalarati. In the completion stage, the practitioner visualises himself as the mandala deity and body as inherently empty of existence. Six physical exercises are then performed: 1) “Filling the body like a vasebreathing technique, 2) “circling like a wheelphysical yoga, 3) “hooking like a hook” physical yoga, 4) “mudra of vajra binding” physical yoga, 5) “body as straight as an arrow and then expelling the air with the sound of a dog heaving” and finally “shaking the head and body and flexing the joints” (p.108). These breathing and physical practices will stabilise one’s mind in the view of the body as inherently empty, while maintaining the pure view of the deity’s mandala.

Having prepared the body physically and engaged in the correct view of emptiness, one then proceeds on “arousing the four blisses by means of drawing the vital energies into the central channel; and having accomplished that, the meditations on the illusory body and clear light yogas” (p.109). Inner heat yoga (or tummo) is employed in the process of meditation, while relying upon a karmamudra is an external condition. There are three principal techniques employed here: meditating by means of visualising the channels; meditation by means of visualising mantric syllables; and meditating by means of engaging in the vase breathing technique. Lama Tsongkhapa provides very detailed instructions on the methods in causing the energies to enter into, abide and dissolve within the central channel; thus inducing the four blisses once energies have been drawn into the central channel using tummo; inducing the four blisses by means of melting the bodhimind drops; and then meditating on innate wisdom. The instructions focus on the bodily and mental applications of the subtle winds in the body until one is able to arise in meditational absorption in innate bliss.

When tummo is perfected and completed, one is then prepared to move on to the meditation on the illusory body and clear light yogas. The doctrines originate from the Guhyasamaja Tantra where it is said that having generated the complete signs of wisdom awareness of final mind refinement that illusory body would manifest. Lama Tsongkhapa elucidates the practice by meditating on the illusory body as a meditational object during the clear light waking state, clear light of sleep and clear light of death.

Once the foundations of gaining control over one’s mind and both in both waking and sleeping states as described above, one can then enter into the actual practice of meditating for cultivating the realisation of the illusory body and the clear light. Here, the practitioner is able to achieve stabilisation in the realization of emptiness by taking all forms as the deity, seeing them as illusory appearances and then seeing the illusions as great bliss.

Lama Tsongkapa then moves on to explain methods on meditating on dream illusions (dream yoga) that involves the four trainings: “learning to retain conscious presence during dreams; controlling and increasing the content of dreams; overcoming fear in dreams and training in the illusory nature of dreams; and meditating upon suchness [i.e. emptiness] in dreams.

Thereafter one then practices the bardo yogas which is dependent on the familiarity with the illusory body trainings in both the waking and dream states. It involves taking everything that manifests in the bardo experience and transforming it into the supporting and supported mandala’s by means of one’s meditation.

Lastly, the yoga of consciousness transference (or phowa) is practiced where the visualisation of mantra syllables, together with the control of vital energies, which is the final yoga of forceful projection of consciousness into another body.


Shamarpa first pays homage and takes refuge with the deity Sahaja . Here, Shamarpa categorises the practice into the preparation stage, the main practice and then the conclusion stage. The preparation stage is similar to Lama Tsongkhapa’s treatise of the preliminaries in Vajrasattva with consort meditation.

In general, both Lama Tsongkhapa and Shamarpa’s treatise are similar in terms of the procedures. There are slight differences in terms of visualisation techniques, but it is not the intent of this essay to go into the details of comparing these differences. I will outline the structural differences in main practice of the six dharmas here. Roberts (2011) presents Shamarpa’s treatise first with inducing the yoga of candali: 1) attaining that which has not been attained, 2) stabilising the attainment and 3) increasing the benefit of that attainment. Tummo is discussed in this stage.

Then, the second stage is the practice of illusory body into three parts: 1) training in the impure illusory body; 2) training in the pure illusory body and 3) the special training in extremely subtle winds and drops as the illusory body.

Thirdly, dream yoga is practiced in clearing away the delusions by: 1) recognising dreams; 2) training in dreams and 3) meditation on the true nature of dreams.

In the fourth stage, luminosity or clear light is practised by: 1) bringing daytime appearances into luminosity and 2) remaining in the luminosity of nighttime’s deep sleep.

In the fifth stage, one meditates on the spontaneous liberation of the bardo into the three parts: 1) The first bardo as manifestation of the dharmakaya; 2) the second bardo as the illusory body arising as the deity’s body and 3) the third bardo as closing the doorways to rebirth in the six existences.

The final stage of the yoga involves the transference of consciousness (phowa) where it has three parts: 1) the superior transference into luminosity; 2) the medium transference as an illusory body and 3) the lesser transference as a deity’s body.


Having provided a brief account of the treatises of the six yogas from the Gelug and Kagyud lineage, I will now discuss the relevance of this practice for the modern Vajrayana practitioner. As explained earlier, the purpose of the perfecting the six yogas of Naropa is to gain control over one’s mind and body. Having established the stabilisation of meditation through the specific esoteric instructions over the control of one’s internal winds, it serves as a firm support for the Vajrayana practitioner’s final entry into highest yoga tantra such as mahamudra and dzogchen according to the Kagyud and Nyingma schools respectively (Ray, 2001). While the tantra do not list six yogas of Naropa as a prerequisite to realise mahamudra or dzogchen, it can be inferred that it is definitely an enabler if one aspires to seek liberation within a short time frame. As the mind and body are mutually dependent on each other, gaining control over one’s physical and energetic body by employing six yogas of Naropa is thus crucial for the highest yoga tantrikas.

Moreover, since early Buddhist lineage realised masters such as Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Shamarpa, Karmapa, Lama Tsongkhapa and many others have all written highly detailed instructions on the practice of the six yogas (Mullins 2006; Mullins 2007; Roberts 2011), I argue that six yogas are indeed a very crucial practice for any Vajrayana practitioner in his or her quest in achieving the awakened state of Buddhahood. These highly realised Buddhist masters would not have taught the six yogas if mahamudra or dzogchen would have sufficed. Thus, I hold the view that the human body, with gross defilements of the mind of body and karmic knots of ignorance, the six yogas are taught as a specific method to overcome the blockages in order to achieve stabilisation of one’s mind and to rest in its natural, primordial state.

Mullins (2005) observes that the six yogas of Naropa has a strong presence today. However, I disagree with his claim as six yogas of Naropa has not been very accessible to the modern practitioner. While we do not have any quantitative data of the number of practitioners whether in open or in secret, the six yogas have been systemised for adepts in a very limited manner today e.g. to practice by entering into a 3 year 3 months retreat in a hermitage or retreat centre. Except for a selected few either for yogis or monastics, the six yogas have not been popularised as a crucial practice for Vajrayana practitioners. Also, as initiation into the highest yoga tantra is required, six yogas remain an intellectual treatise based on early masters’ works, rather than as an experiential treatise written by modern masters or lay Buddhists for Buddhists.

The notion of secrecy is understandable due to the esoteric nature of this practice, but I call for more investigations to the scientific understanding of this method. While modern research into the mind and neuroscience has increased our understanding on the subtleties in the workings of one’s cognition and mental states, more openness in the discussion and treatment of the six yogas of Naropa is needed as it deals primarily with the physical states as a basis for higher gnosis in a Buddhist’s training. The purpose of my call for a scientific participation in understanding the six yogas is not to lend credence to the practice itself, but rather, to enlarge the interdisciplinary understanding of this esoteric spiritual practice using scientific principles so that this ancient practice can be systemised, codified and opened to more people who aspire to embark on this path towards liberation. Scholars from various disciplines globally are already collaborating in researching on the mind, such as the Mind and Life Institute – perhaps six yogas should be given some serious treatment as much as how mindfulness studies have already emerged as a discipline in itself and acknowledged by many in the medical and psychological community.


Based on the six yoga texts by Lama Tsongkhapa and Shamarpa Chokyi Wangchuk, I have given a very superficial outline what the practice entails. Due to the limitations of this paper as well as the very esoteric yet practical aspects of the practice, I am unable to provide any insights but merely relied on what the texts have explained it to be. While earlier commentaries such as Chang (1963) treated the subject of six yogas with much mysticism, later translations by Mullins (2006) and Roberts (2011) presented the topic of six yogas true to the original texts as what it should have been. I have argued that while the treatises of the six yoga by different masters have been painstakingly and meticulously presented as a core inner practice for one to realise the true nature of mind in the highest practice of Mahamudra and Dzogchen schools, the six yogas still remains very much an advanced topic that has not been very accessible to the lay Vajrayana Buddhists today due to the cultural tradition of Vajrayana secrecy. While much has been written about the different tantras, especially on subjects such as deity yoga and even other highest yoga tantras, the practical aspects of inner yoga have not been fully explored in the academic realm. Today, translations of the different treatises have been made public, but more commentaries by actual practitioners are very much needed - especially since we have established that the six yogas serve as a basis for the mahamudra or dzogchen aspirant to access the true nature of mind quickly, then perhaps more scholars can investigate into this topic and shed light on this very ancient practice. With the advent and improvements of technology and scientific knowledge today, more knowledge on the six yogas can become an “open secret”, just like how many books on vipashyana and samatha meditation practices have been written, so that the six yogas can be applied by the practitioners and aspirants on their path to achieve the awakened state of Buddhahood.


Chang, Garma C. C. Teachings of Tibetan Yoga. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1963.

Mullin, Glenn H. The Six Yogas of Naropa: Tsongkhapa's Commentary Entitled a Book of Three Inspirations: A Treatise on the Stages of Training in the Profound Path of Naro's Six Dharmas, Commonly Referred to as the Three Inspirations. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2005.

Mullin, Glenn H. The Practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa. [2nd ed.] Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications, 2006.

Kyabgon, Traleg. The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice. Boston: Shambhala, 2001.

Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, N.Y., USA: Snow Lion Publications, 1995.

Ray, Reginald A. Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Boston: Shambhala, 2001.

Roberts, Peter. Mahamudra and Related Instructions Core Teachings of the Kagyu Schools. New York: Wisdom Publications, 2010.