Tilopa (988-1069)

TILOPA WAS BORN THE KING of a province in India. Although as a king he had always possessed wealth and title, his mind was not completely satisfied, and he left his kingdom to find a teacher of the Dharma. He searched India in all directions for such a master.

Nagarjuna, knowing that Tilopa was searching for a teacher and would soon be approaching, pretended that he was stuck in the middle of a very wide river. When Tilopa came to that place, he asked Nagarjuna what he was doing. Nagarjuna answered that he wanted to cross the river but was stuck in the middle, unable to cross and unable to return. Tilopa promised that he would carry him to the other side. Nagarjuna replied that since he was very big and Tilopa was very small, how could he possibly be able to carry him to the other side of such a huge river? Tilopa, however, was intent upon keeping his word, and because of his determination was able to carry Nagarjuna to the other side.

After Tilopa helped Nagarjuna cross the river, Nagarjuna said, "Oh courageous son of a noble family, it is your courage and determination that enabled us to cross the wide river!" Nagarjuna predicted that because Tilopa's courage and willpower were so effective, he would be able to work to benefit living beings, and told him to return to his kingdom and become a king once again.


When Tilopa returned to his kingdom to look after his people he found his country in a state of crisis and engaged in a war with another powerful state in India. Because Tilopa was king, his subjects feared that they would be unable to defeat their enemy as Tilopa seemed so small, weak, and powerless. Tilopa made a public pronouncement in which he told his people that they need not fear; he knew of a way the enemy could be defeated without bloodshed.

Tilopa went out to defend his country. The army marching against his kingdom was great in number and intent upon victory. Alone, Tilopa approached the forest where the army was encamped. When the soldiers saw him approach, they prepared to charge; Tilopa instantly transformed all the trees in the forest into soldiers ready to follow his command. When Tilopa ordered, "Look at the enemy!" all the trees that were transformed into soldiers gazed at the enemy. When Tilopa ordered, "Charge!" they all ran toward the enemy. Since there were uncountable trees, the trees were transformed into uncountable soldiers whose numbers were so frightening that the enemy fled the country without a battle. In this way, Tilopa's prediction to his people, that he could defeat the enemy without bloodshed, came to pass.


Next, Tilopa went to the northern part of the country to practice the Dharma. There he obtained teachings from the dakinis and went to meditate in a cave. After making a commitment to meditate there for twelve years, he chained both his legs together so he would not be able to come out of the cave. In this way he meditated for twelve years.

After twelve years passed, the chains that were tied around Tilopa's legs broke of themselves; he had achieved some realization as a result of his diligent meditation but had not yet accomplished the ultimate realization of Vajradhara. He wished to go out and wander and lead the simple life of a siddha.

However, the dakinis were hesitant to let Tilopa leave his cave and his practice. As it was not proper for him to disobey, he thought he would try to influence them by demonstrating his realization. He picked up a fish in his hand and transferred its consciousness out of its body. The dakinis witnessing this saw that he was a highly realized being and gave him permission to wander as a simple siddha, just as he wished. His goal was to travel to the eastern part of Bengal and find Nagarjuna.

When Tilopa was abiding in a certain cave, Nagarjuna sent the dakini Matongha to give him teachings. When Matongha appeared, Tilopa inquired about Nagarjuna and was told that Nagarjuna was not in the human realm at that time but was giving teachings in the god realm. Matongha also told Tilopa that Nagarjuna knew Tilopa would be in this particular cave and had sent her to give him teachings.

As Nagarjuna requested, Tilopa received teachings from Matongha. During this time, Matongha noticed that because Tilopa had been king and of royal caste, his mind possessed a strong pride that hindered his progress, and she told him that his arrogance must be removed. Tilopa was given instructions to go to a certain village to seek out a woman there who was a prostitute and to work for her. The woman worked during the day making oil out of sesame seed and worked at night as a prostitute. As he was instructed, he worked for the woman during the day by pounding sesame seed, and during the night by soliciting her customers. In this way Tilopa lived as the prostitute's helper.


One day as Tilopa was pounding sesame seeds in the village, he realized ultimate buddhahood, the Vajradhara aspect of enlightenment. As a sign of his achieving complete realization, Tilopa levitated to the height of seven royal palm trees while still holding a mortar and pestle in his hands and continuing to grind sesame seeds. The news that Tilopa hovered in the air at the height of seven royal palm trees quickly spread through the village.

When the prostitute who employed Tilopa heard that someone was levitating very high in the sky, she hastened to see who it was. To her surprise she discovered that it was her employee in the sky, and that he was still working for her, even as he hovered, by continuing to grind sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle. She felt ashamed to have given such work to a highly realized being, and with great regret, she confessed this to Tilopa and requested him to accept her as his student. As she mentally made this request, Tilopa threw a flower down to her from the sky. The flower hit her on the head, instantaneously causing her to reach complete realization. She then levitated to the same height as Tilopa.

So once again, the news went out and quickly spread among a great number of people. When the news reached the king, he went out himself to witness the blessed event along with all his people. With everyone assembled below, Tilopa sang a song of the Dharma, using the example of the sesame seed in his teaching. In his song, Tilopa explained that although a sesame seed contains oil, it cannot produce oil by itself; without the hard work of grinding the seed, the oil cannot be extracted. So although buddha nature is within every living being, without the hard work of practicing the Dharma, there is no way to realize our inherent buddha nature.

As Tilopa sang this song, the king and all his people immediately understood his teaching and came to complete realization. At the instant of their enlightenment, the village appeared to be momentarily empty of all its inhabitants.

After that day, Tilopa became very famous. His great renown came about not only because of his profound realization, but also because, as he sang in many of his songs, he had no human guru. This was to show that he had received his transmission directly from the Vajradhara aspect of enlightenment.


This teaching on the Life of Tilopa was given by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche at KTD, Woodstock, NY, March 25-30, 1986. It was translated by Chojor Radha, and edited by Tina Armond.

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