Esoteric Instructions on Death and Liberation

Tibetan literature devoted to the topic of death and dying in the context of Buddhist meditative practice is immense. This literature can be organized into several related genres that comprise not only those texts that came to be treated as canonical (see Section 1 above) but also include the instructional advice, dam-ngak (gdams ngag), on yogic and contemplative practice derived from the esoteric experiences of advanced Tantric Buddhist teachers. Characteristically, these instructional systems provide important insights into how the ordinary dying experience, and the subsequent intermediate bardo period, can be altered and purified through a process of intense training, involving the radical manipulation of physical and psychological energies to bring about transformative and extra-ordinary states of consciousness.

By at least the sixteenth century, the many traditions of dam-ngak circulating throughout Tibet had been uniformly classified into an eight- fold scheme. Of these eight sets, two are represented in the texts chosen for this section of the exhibit: the traditions derived from the teachings of the Indian supermen (siddha, “perfected ones”) Tilopa and Naropa, which were transmitted to Marpa Chökyi Lodrö (Mar pa chos kyi blo gros, 1012- 1097); and the lineage drawn from the teachings of Khyung-po Nenjor (Khyung po rnal Îbyor,



The work entitled Esoteric Instructions on the Six Yogas of Naropa, which is actually comprised of two smaller texts, is included in the Tantric section  of the Tibetan Ten-gyur or “Translated Treatises” (see Section 1 above). It  focuses on the yoga practices gathered by the great Indian renouncer Tilopa (988-1069) from the spiritual masters of several individual lineages of Tantric teaching. These sets of yoga teachings, which Tilopa later transmitted to his principal disciple, Naropa (c.956-1040), became the primary source of the so-called “Six Doctrines (or Yogas) of Naropa” (Naro Chö-druk, na ro chos drug). The Six Doctrines are comprised of the yogas of mystic heat (tum-mo, gtum mo), radiant clear light (ö-sel, Îod gsal), illusory body (gyu-lu, sgyu lus), dream state (mi-lam, rmi lam), intermediate state (bardo), and transference of consciousness (phowa, Îpho ba). Of these six advanced techniques, only three are directly connected with the yogic practices surrounding death and dying; namely, radiant clear light, intermediate state, and consciousness tranference (we will discuss these topics in more detail below). The remaining three yogas are indeed fundamental to the practices of dying but are not as explicitly related to these techniques.


The Six Yogas, collectively presented as a coherent system (perhaps for the first time) by Tilopa in his Esoteric Instructions on the Six Yogas of Naropa, are without doubt founded upon the religious experiences of early Indian mysticism, and play an important role in the development of the basic components that make up much of Tibet’s later literature on death, intermediate state, and rebirth.

The Six Yogas constitute the most significant yogic and meditative techniques of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism or “Transmission of the Oral Teaching Sect” (bkaâ brgyud pa), founded by Naropa’s chief Tibetan disciple, Marpa Chökyi Lodrö. The sixteenth century Kagyu leader, Pema Karpo (Padma dkar po, 1527-1592), was a prolific author and scholar-practitioner, whose intimate relationship to the Tibetan yogic tradition is best exemplified in his written commentaries and meditation guides on the Six Yogas, such as this skillfully composed digest entitled A Brief Synopsis of the Six Yogas of Naropa. Pema Karpo’s text provides a succinct overview of all six yoga practices, including a remarkably detailed description of the specific exercises involved in the subtle yoga of radiant clear light. According to this tradition, the clear light is the most subtle, profound, and powerful level of consciousness. Indeed, it is the fundamental nature of the mind itself, whose appearance is said to be like the sky’s own natural cast at dawn before sunrise, its brilliance radiating everywhere in all directions. This mind of radiant clear light is indestructible and untainted by the emotional and psychological confusions that perpetuate the ongoing cycle of birth and death (samsara). We are told that the clear light is experienced briefly by all human beings at the very first moment of death, by advanced yogic practitioners in the highest states of meditation, and unceasingly by all Buddhas. Interestingly enough, this very subtle radiance is said also to be experienced, though rarely noticed, in more mundane moments, such as fainting, sneezing, and orgasm, as well as in the first instant before and after dreaming. However, only at the moment of death is the conscious and unwavering realization of the clear light tantamount to the achievement of Buddhahood.

The Six Yogas tradition of the Kagyu School, represented here in this Collection of Kagyu-pa Texts on Naropa’s Six Yogas, teaches that there are actually three intermediate periods, or bardo states: the transitional periods between birth and death (Bardo of Ordinary Life), between falling asleep and waking (Bardo of Dreams), and between death and the next life (Bardo of Becoming). At any given moment, all living beings are caught in one or more of the three bardo situations, propelled forward by the force of their own past actions (karma). A unique feature of the Six Yogas tradition is that it offers a set of meditative techniques for mastering each of these three states. The most powerful of such practices, however, is the yoga of dying, which is meant to be exercised in the first moment of the bardo between death and rebirth (Bardo of Becoming). According to the texts, death begins with a gradual process of dissolution, in which the senses and energies that worked in cooperation with consciousness degenerate by stages. These dissolutions are experienced, only partially, in our daily life while falling asleep, and can be consciously generated in meditation by advanced yogins; but only at the time of death are they experienced both completely and inevitably. When practitioners become skilled in inducing the dissolution phases, they gain the ability to apply the same techniques during sleep, and ultimately during the first moments of dying. The dying process culminates in the appearance of the radiant mind of clear light (see above). For those individuals who had gained mastery of the bardo yogas in their lifetimes, the true nature of this fundamental radiance is immediately recognized, as the Tibetans say, like a child being returned to its mother’s lap. At that very moment of recognition, the dying practitioner is liberated from the cycle of birth and death. In most ordinary cases, however, the dying individual is generally unfamiliar with the mind of clear light, and is thus unable to recognize it. Consequently, he or she is propelled with little or no control into the bardo state of becoming, which leads eventually to rebirth in a new existence.

In addition to constituting the most notable meditative practices of the Kagyu-pa order, the tradition of the Six Yogas of Naropa was adopted also by the powerful Geluk-pa or “System of Virtue Sect” (dge lugs pa), which was founded by the brilliant philosopher-saint Dzongka-pa (Tsong kha pa, 1357-1419), and which eventually became the institutional seat of the successive Dalai Lamas. Dzongka-pa’s treatise, A Book of Three Inspirations, is regarded as one of the finest works on the subject of the Six Yogas, and over the past five hundred years has served as a standard for the majority of works that later followed. In A Book of Three Inspirations, Dzongka-pa discusses the practices of all Six Doctrines with extraordinary precision and depth, quoting from a wealth of Indian and Tibetan sources as well as drawing upon his own profound inner experience. For our interests, however, Dzongka-pa’s text is distinguished by its detailed presentation of the yoga of consciousness transference or phowa, including a rare description of the extremely secret yoga of forceful projection or drong-juk (grong Îjug). Briefly, phowa is the practice of ejecting the consciousness out from the top of the head at the time of death and transferring it to a more favorable realm of existence. A person may choose to practice this method of consciousness transference in order to be reborn in a heavenly realm or a Buddha’s Pure Land, or in order to have the energy of his or her past meritorious karma continue, without interruption, into the next life. Traditionally it is held that the appearance of a tiny hole at the fontanelle of the dead person’s head is a sign of a successful transference of the individual’s consciousness. During certain meditative exercises designed to prepare people for this practice, teachers test their students’ proficiency in the yoga of transference by sticking a flower stem in the hole that begins to develop at their crown. If their preparatory training is successful, and this hole in turn grows larger, it is said the flower will actually stand upright.  

Directly connected with the yoga of transference is the esoteric method of forceful projection or drong-juk, in which a practitioner projects his or her own consciousness into a corpse of either a dead human being or animal. The practice is thus metaphorically referred to as the “reanimation of corpses.” In A Book of Three Inspirations, Dzongka-pa informs us that drong-juk was brought to Tibet from India by Marpa Chökyi Lodrö, the teacher of Milarepa (Mi la ras pa, 1040-1123), who in turn gave it to his÷Marpaâs÷son, Dharma  Do-de (Dharma mdo sde). Unfortunately, Dharma Do-de met with a sudden and untimely death, taking with him the authentic wisdom of the drong-juk technique. Nevertheless, in spite of this apparent break in the lineage of transmission, Dzongka-pa says that the practice of forceful projection continued to be taught secretly in the oral transmission traditions and is never to be discussed publicly.

In Tibet, there are actually two principal traditions of the Six Yogas, one attributed to Naropa and the other to his sister Niguma. The Six Doctrines (or Yogas) of Niguma (Nigu Chö Druk, ni gu chos drug) were transmitted in a vision directly through the female yogini Sukha Siddhi to the Tibetan poet and scholar-practitioner Khyung-po Nenjor, founder of the obscure Shang-pa Kagyu sect or “Transmission of the Oral Teaching of Shang Valley” (shangs pa bkaâ brgyud). Nigumaâs Six Yogas are essentially the same as those of Naropa, differing only in points of emphasis, and are particularly associated with the Shang-pa order. Khyung-po Nenjor’s brief Instruction on the Three Bardo States, drawn from his visionary revelations, elucidates the yogas of the three bardos—those of the waking state, dream state, and after-death state—within the context of Niguma’s esoteric doctrines, and explains how these three intermediate states are to be implemented as a spiritual practice whose ultimate goal is liberation from the ongoing rounds of rebirth and the subsequent achievement of Buddhahood.