Rather than take an in-depth look at a single work, I want to take a very quick tour here through some of the books in which material on the famous Six Yogas of Naropa is presented in English. Whenever this material is published it is stressed – and it is important that I also stress – that for a number of reasons it is neither advisable nor even possible to attempt these practices outside the context of transmission from a qualified, authorized teacher of the tradition, a process that involves explanations, empowerments, guidance and so on. Some of the exercises are physically quite dangerous – on a more subtle level it is questionable whether they really even have any point at all if they are taken out of the context of the “transmission” of meditative realization.
In the past an ordinary person, even an ordained person in a monastery or nunnery, would not even have been allowed to look at these texts, let alone study them on their own. (At least, that has been said. Chris Fynn has pointed out in a comment that this is probably something of a myth, and I think he’s quite right – I stand corrected!) But that particular horse bolted long ago – Evans Wentz published his translations on the Six Yogas back in the 1930s – so although it is important to respect the reasons why these things were once literally secret, it is silly to try to shut the stable door now. In particular, it is a fact that the fascination and power of these teachings has meant that inaccurate, even bizarre, interpretations and modifications are increasingly in circulation. Since the highly controlled, step-by-step introduction to these teachings may be ideal, but is increasingly becoming a thing of the past for many of us, is it not better to be reasonably well-informed than to be informed only by the weird and wonderful fantasies of opportunist would-be gurus?
So just what kind of thing are the Six Yogas anyway? Where do they fit into the scheme of Buddhist meditation? They are an important exemplar of the more advanced tantric methods – so what, therefore, is tantric? We don’t have to search the net very long to see that the word “tantric” has been used (and abused) in some startling ways, and the question of what tantrism is really about in the Buddhist context is something for another article. To put it very, very briefly the classic course of practical training in Tibetan Buddhism would begin with reflection on things like impermanence, suffering and on the precious opportunity presented by a human birth; it would continue with practices designed to develop loving kindness and compassion, and insight into the true nature of things – emptiness. Developing mental stability is a key issue at this stage. All of this (and it is a huge, rich field) is classified as the “sutra” method, in contrast to “tantra”.
A number of “preliminary” or “foundation” exercises designed to engender a sense of purity and of devotion might well follow, in the lead up to the tantric practice proper, which is known as the “two stages”. These two stages are the “developing” stage and the “perfecting” or “completing” stage. The developing stage is where the practitioner visualizes herself or himself as a deity, and the world outside as a palace or mandala. This stage can involve elaborate ritual and the recitation of many, many mantras. The relationship between this stage and the “completing” stage is itself a matter of some subtlety, but we can perhaps say that the completing stage is where the practitioner goes beyond visualization of the deity in its palace and actually becomes transformed in body, speech and mind, by the practice. In some contexts the completing stage simply emphasizes dissolving the visualization into clarity and emptiness, but in other contexts the completing stage is much more elaborate. This is where the Six Yogas come in.
Meditation in the style of the perfecting stage places an intense focus on our bodies, our bodily energy and our breath. The first and most important of the Six Yogas is known as tummo, the inner heat. It is taught that the control of our energy that comes from successful practice of tummo provides the basis for the other methods. In fact the list of the other yogas varies, and the total does not always come to six – it is just that the Six Yogas of Naropa are perhaps the most famous version. In at least one system, the whole body of this material is just referred to as tummo, with the other five yogas of illusory body, dream, clear light, the intermediate state (between death and birth) and consciousness transference at the time of death all being counted as supplementary practices to the tummo.
Be that as it may, my purpose here is not to provide any meaningful sort of introduction, but just to pass comment on some of the books that are most easily available. Many, if not all, of these would be available from the Snow Lion bookstore. So what do we have?
Glenn Mullin has been a very active author in this field for some years, and has probably made the most valuable material available. From him we have:
- Six Yogas of Naropa, The; Tsongkhapa; trans. Glenn H Mullin; Snow Lion Publications; 1996, 2005; 1-55939-234-7
The various branches of the Kagyu school are probably the ones most famous for the Six Yogas of Naropa, while Tsongkhapa on the other hand is most famous as the founding figure of the Gelugpas. He is also particularly noted for having initiated the unique intellectual slant of that school. It seems, however, that he was highly renowned as a yogi, and was even more prolific as a writer on tantric subjects, much of which he would have learnt from Kagyu teachers. His knowledge of these fields was therefore very much “mainstream”, and this translation is certainly a candidate for the clearest description of a version of the Six Yogas available in English.
Complementing the above work closely, we have:
- Readings on the Six Yogas of Naropa; Tilopa, Naropa, Jey Sherab Gyatso, Gyalwa Ensapa, Lama Jey Tsongkhapa, 1st Panchen Lama; trans. Glenn H Mullin; Snow Lion Publications; 1997; 1-55539-074-3
and complementing it a little more loosely, but still very interestingly:
- Selected Works of the Dalai Lama II; The Tantric Yogas of Sister Niguma; Dalai Lama II; trans. Glenn H Mullin; Snow Lion Publications; 1985; 0-937938-28-9
- Bliss of Inner Fire; Heart Practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa; Lama Thubten Yeshe; Jonathan Landaw; Wisdom Publications, Boston; 1998; 0-86171-136-X
the charismatic Lama Yeshe (of the FPMT – Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition) explains the practice with great clarity on some of the key points, although with relatively little detail. This book is much easier to read than those I recommended above, and does perhaps convey some of the flavour and some inspiration effectively.
Closely related practices are described in a Kagyu context in:
- Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines; Various; trans. Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup (prob.); edited W Y Evans-Wentz; OUP; 1958 (my reprint was 1970)
Back in the 1960s and early 1970s it may have been difficult to get hold of much material about Tibetan Buddhism outside of the series of translations edited by Evans-Wentz. It must, however, be said that his understanding of the subject was necessarily limited, the editing, and the inclusion of supplementary material from other traditions is often unhelpful and frequently downright misleading, while the pseudo-biblical language is enough to make you scream. Read it if you have it, but there is much better material available now.
- Six Yogas of Naropa and Teachings on Mahamudra; Tilopa, Rangjang Dorje, Lama Kong Ka, Drashi Namjhal; Garma C C Chang; Garma C C Chang; Snow Lion Publications; 1963 (1977 reprint); 0-937-938-33-5
This one should be beautifully clear, based as it is on a concise text that nevertheless presents the epitome of the practice. Unfortunately, however, the translation leaves an awful lot to be desired.
- Clear Light of Bliss; Geshe Kelsang Gyatso; Tharpa Publications; 1992; 0-948006-21-8
In some ways I would have preferred not to mention this one, due to the political and other problems that have nothing to do with the subject of this article. It is, however, readily available. The flavour is somewhat idiosyncratic, the level of detail quite high, but of a nature that would only be useful to somebody following this specific tradition of the practice. If one felt that one would rather keep away from something so closely associated with the NKT (“New Kadampa Tradition”, as they call it), one could again stay with the first few books I mention above, and know the one was not missing terribly much.
- Esoteric Teachings of the Tibetan Tantra; Karma Lingpa, Tsongkhapa; Chang Chen Chi; C A Muses; Samuel Weiser; 1961/1982; 0-87728-307-9
This book is a curious assortment, including texts on, for instance, Space Dharma Empowerments as well as a translation of the Six Yogas commentary. It makes an interesting comparison with Mullin’s translation at times, but once again the Mullin versions are clearly superior.
When I started to write this, I didn’t know how much praise I was going to give to Glenn Mullin’s “Six Yogas of Naropa” and the associated books, but comparing them side by side like this it becomes clear how much I would recommend them over the others.
I hope anybody who is inspired by reading any of these things will use what they learn as background, as fertilizer if you like, and will take the necessary steps to get the necessary understanding, blessing, empowerment and teaching to put that into practice for the benefit of all beings!