Naropa (956-1040) was an important master in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. He was a disciple of the mahasiddha Tilopa and a teacher of Marpa the translator and many others. He is also counted among the eighty-four mahasiddhas. Naropa’s visionary encounter with Vajrayogini in a form of an old, ugly woman, who exhorted him to go to Tilopa in order to attain the highest realization and to spread the intrinsic message of the Doctrine, became the pivotal point of his life.

Once when ‘Jigs-med grags-pa (Abhayakirti) — other names of Naropa, — with his back to the sun, was studying the books on grammar, epistemology, spiritual precepts, and logic, a terrifying shadow fell on them. Looking around he saw behind him an old woman with thirty-seven ugly features: her eyes were red and deep-hollowed; her hair was fox-coloured and dishevelled; her forehead large and protruding; her face had many wrinkles and was shrivelled up; her ears were long and lumpy; her nose was twisted and inflamed; she had a yellow beard streaked with white; her mouth was distorted and gaping; her teeth were turned in and decayed; her tongue made chewing movements and moistened her lips; she made sucking noises and licked her lips; she whistled when she yawned; she was weeping and tears ran down her cheeks; she was shivering and panting for breath; her complexion was darkish blue; her skin rough and thick; her body bent and askew; her neck curved; she was hump-backed; and, being lame, she supported herself on a stick. She said to Naropa: ‘What are you looking into?’

‘I study the books on grammar, epistemology, spiritual precepts, and logic’, he replied.

‘Do you understand them?’


‘Do you understand the words or the sense?’

‘The words.’

The old woman was delighted, rocked with laughter, and began to dance waving her stick in the air. Thinking that she might feel still happier, Naropa added: ‘I also understand the sense’. But then the woman began to weep and tremble and she threw her stick down.

‘How is it that you were happy when I said that I understood the words, but became miserable when I added that I also understood the sense?’

‘I felt happy because you, a great scholar, did not lie and frankly admitted that you only understood the words. But I felt sad when you told a lie by stating that you understood the sense, which you do not.’

‘Who, then, understands the sense?’

‘My brother.’

‘Introduce me to him wherever he may be.’

‘Go yourself, pay your respects to him, and beg him that you may come to grasp the sense.’With these words the old woman disappeared like a rainbow in the sky.

The venerable Naropa reflected on the vision of the old woman with thirty-seven ugly features, and taking each as an object of inspection he realized that, objectively, Samsara is misery because it contains thirty-seven kinds of dissatisfaction; that, subjectively, the body with its thirty-seven impure substances is impermanent and perishable; and that, mystically, one comes to understand coemergent awareness through reflecting on the thirty-seven pathways and thirty-seven kinds of creative potentiality.

Then he sang:

Samsara is the tendency to find fault with others,
An unbearable fire-bowl,
A dungeon dark,
A deep swamp of three poisons,
A fearful wave of evil lives,
‘Tis being caught in a spider’s web,
Or a bird entangled in a fowler’s net.
‘Tis like being bound hand to neck by Mara,
Or immersed in a pond of beastliness.
‘Tis like a deer chasing a mirage.
It is the net of fate,
A bee that honey sucks,
Milking the cow of life,
And living ‘neath the fleeting shadows of old age and birth.
‘Tis being caught by the Lord of Death’s rough-coated dogs,
A deer trapped in a snare,
A hunter merciless,
Entanglement in bondage,
An unsafe footpath,
A wild beast captured in a pit.
It is a meadow rich for dichotomic play,
A horse of eight contingencies,
A spearhead beating on a drum,
Merriment with sharpened fangs.
It is a fragile water-plant,
The intangible reflection of the moon in water,
A bubble of bewilderment,
Fleeting mist and rippling water,
A snake conquering by touch and sight,
The taste of honey on a razor blade,
It is a tree with poisonous leaves,
Shooting the poisoned arrow of disturbed emotions,
And poisoning those afflicted by defects.
It is a flame flickering in the wind,
Untruth, a dream, bewilderment,
The waterfall of old age and death.
‘Tis Klesamara, deception’s guide.
Verily I must seek out the Guru.

With these words he gave up all his belongings and books and went to seek his Guru.

Source: “The Life And Teaching Of Naropa” by Herbert V. Guenther