Luminosity: The Heart of The Six Dharmas of Naropa

Across the major Buddhist traditions, the mind’s basic condition is described as luminous, naturally free from afflictions or karmic imprints, which are merely adventitious, like clouds covering the sky. The Buddha refers to this naturally luminous mind in the Nikayas, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, and the tantras. Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings also emphasize natural…

By Casey Forgues

Photo by Pawel Nolbert on Unsplash

Across the major Buddhist traditions, the mind’s basic condition is described as luminous, naturally free from afflictions or karmic imprints, which are merely adventitious, like clouds covering the sky. The Buddha refers to this naturally luminous mind in the Nikayas, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, and the tantras. Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings also emphasize natural luminosity as the nondual state of awareness (rigpa). 

Tantric meditation techniques such as the Six Dharmas of Naropa focus on inducing a direct experience of luminosity as the means to liberation. Not only is luminosity taken onto a yogi’s path in this tradition, but the naturally luminous mind is the basis for liberation, and merging natural luminosity with the luminous dharmakaya, reality itself, is the ultimate goal. Luminosity is integral to the basis, path, and result of Naropa’s tantric system, and instructions on how a yogi can recognize luminosity are embedded into each stage of the Six Dharmas. A yogi cannot embark on Naropa’s path without becoming familiar with the luminous nature of their own mind.

Luminosity of the Basis: Pointing Out the Nature of Mind 

There are several traditional prerequisites for practicing the Six Dharmas: a yogi must receive a Higher Yoga tantric empowerment such as Hevajra or Cakrasamvara, carry out the common and uncommon preliminary practices, and receive pointing-out instructions from a qualified teacher. What is pointed out in these instructions is the nature of mind as naturally luminous, often referred to as one’s buddhanature. 

This naturally luminous mind we all possess is the mind’s natural state of wakeful clarity, which is recognized when a yogi experiences a state devoid of any conceptuality—when all dualistic notions, such as self and other, completely cease. A teacher who has stabilized their own recognition of the nature of mind can reveal this natural luminosity to a yogi through various direct means. Sometimes, this pointing out can happen through something as unexpected as getting hit in the head with a shoe, as was the case with Naropa himself. Jigten Sumgon, the founder of the Drikung Kagyu lineage, stated in his Six Dharma teachings, Pith Instructions on Merging, “The nature of your mind is luminous, but you do not know that it primordially abides within the dharmakaya; therefore, an authentic guru points out the luminosity of the basis as the dharmakaya, which is then put into practice.”

After the yogi’s naturally luminous mind is recognized, familiarizing herself with this natural state is what Naropa calls “the heart of the path.” According to his student Marpa, natural luminosity should not be understood only as the nature of our minds, but as the nature of everything. Marpa writes in his Four Meanings of Luminosity, “All phenomena of sights and sounds are nothing but luminosity. All phenomena are luminous, just like clouds—whether they arise, remain, or dissolve, eventually dissolve into the essence of the sky itself. Similarly, all phenomena, when arising, arise from luminosity, when remaining, remain within luminosity, and when dissolving, dissolve into luminosity.” Natural luminosity is considered to be the very basis for buddhahood—the natural state of mind, phenomena, and reality—that enables all beings to attain full awakening.

Luminosity of the Path across the Six Dharmas

Instructions on recognizing natural luminosity are present in each yoga of Naropa’s tantric system. The first yoga, the yoga of inner heat, is designed to work with the subtle energies of the body to induce an experience of empty bliss, which is identified as the luminosity of the path. The second yoga, the illusory body, works with the empty nature of form to see one’s body as the body of the deity. This practice includes visualizing the dissolution of the deity’s form into the central channel of the subtle body. This leads to the experience of luminosity, from which the deity’s form again arises. 

The third yoga, dream yoga, focuses on seeing the empty nature of appearances and recognizing dreams as dreams. When lucid dreaming, the yogi’s dream body becomes the deity’s form, travels to buddha realms, and is dissolved into luminosity. At this stage, the luminosity of the path to be cultivated in the dream state to prepare the yogi for death, as explained in Marpa’s Eight Verses:

When you are dreaming, merge your initial dream

With your practice of the pith instructions on luminosity. 

Become completely stable in the experience 

Of merging luminosity with your dream practice.

Then, at the time of death, the first bardo of becoming, 

when ignorance arises as luminosity,

Because you are steady in your experience 

Of the subtle body and dream practice, 

You completely dissolve into luminosity, attaining the dharmakaya.

The fourth yoga is called luminosity yoga, which is sometimes referred to as “taking ignorance as the path.” This yoga focuses on directly recognizing luminosity in deep, dreamless sleep, when a yogi is in a state of what is called “ignorance.” According to Buddhist Tantra, at the time of death, the body’s elements of earth, water, fire, and air naturally dissolve, followed by the dissolution of consciousness, after which a state of ignorance naturally arises as luminosity. This process is mimicked whenever one falls asleep; therefore, the yogi trains in recognizing luminosity when this ignorant state occurs before the arising of dreams. The fifth yoga, the bardo yoga, prepares the yogi to recognize the dharmakaya as the ultimate luminosity that naturally occurs at the moment of death. Bardo yoga and luminosity yoga are deeply intertwined in Naropa’s Six Dharmas program. The sixth yoga, the yoga of transference, trains the yogi in transferring one’s consciousness to a buddha realm at the time of death. The instructions on transference usually begin with transference to the dharmakaya, which is described as the ultimate transference of simply recognizing luminosity at the time of death.

Six Dharmas literature often includes instructions on nonconceptual meditation, referred to as meditation on Mahamudra, as a means to stabilizing the recognition of the naturally luminous mind. Naropa’s instructions titled Vajra Scroll on Luminosity and Ignorance, which were hidden in the walls of Marpa’s house along with other Six Dharmas teachings, include a luminosity meditation pith instruction for resting in a state of Mahamudra through sky gazing:

With the wish to attain stability, 

Gaze at the late afternoon sky 

And meditate on Mahamudra.

Do not conceive, do not think, do not contemplate, 

And do not meditate or analyze. 

Rest one’s own natural mind in meditative equipoise 

As connate wisdom.

To remain in a state free of elaborations, 

It is important for your eyes to look into the midst of the sky. 

This is the pith instruction of luminosity meditation in the day. 

Luminosity of the Result: Merging with the Luminous Dharmakaya

The method of Naropa’s Six Dharmas is centered on merging the experience of luminosity cultivated on the tantric path in this life with the ultimate luminosity of the dharmakaya, the nature of reality. For a yogi who has thoroughly trained in the Six Dharmas, after the dissolution of the elements and consciousness that occurs while dying, the luminosity of the path and the ultimate luminosity meet. This coming together is described to be like “a child jumping into the lap of a mother,” “a river meeting with the ocean,” or “like recognizing an old friend.”

In the First Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa’s Questions and Answers, he states that “The luminous dharmakaya exists for all beings at the time of death. If it is not recognized, samsara will continue to arise. If the luminous dharmakaya is recognized, you will not enter samsara and won’t become distracted from the state of nonduality.” Although the dharmakaya arises for everyone at the moment of death, most people will not recognize it and will instead be driven by their karma to continue the cycle of rebirth. 

A yogi who has become familiarized with their luminous nature of mind through the Six Dharmas practices will be able to clearly see the dharmakaya, attaining buddhahood, and becoming free from the bonds of samsara. In Naropa’s Instructions on Luminosity, he writes, “Ignorance, which is like a hook, should not be mixed at all with cognition. Instead, directly perceive its essence as luminosity itself; attain enlightenment in this life. Then, you will be able to travel to any realm that you desire.”

Casey Forgues

Casey Forgues is a translator, researcher, and editor of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and tantric meditation manuals. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna, editorial director of Khyentse Vision Project, and contributes translations for 84000. Her research focuses on tantric philosophical views on the luminous nature of mind according to the early Mahāmudrā tradition (eleventh–thirteenth centuries). She has published on topics including death and dying in tantric Buddhism, buddha nature, the six yogas of Nāropa, and luminosity in the Kalācakra tradition.