Does Practice Make One Perfected?

The Role of gTum mo in the Six Yogas of Nāropā


Gwendolyn Taunton


six yogas of naropaTantric Buddhism, as with all Buddhist Traditions, places great emphasis on the goal of Enlightenment and consequentially, liberation from imprisonment in the constant repetition of the perpetual cycle that consists of death and rebirth. Only when the human mind transcends and sees the world clearly does this goal become attainable. The question is how does this spiritual development arise – how does one awaken their Buddha nature in this life or even the next? In answer to this, the Tantric Buddhist schools developed a system of teachings that would enable one to achieve Buddha-hood in not only this lifetime, but also in future lifetimes, or even in the intermediary stage known as the Bardo, which is thought be a state of consciousness that exists between life and death. This teaching is known by the title of the Six Yogas of Nāropā, and it encompasses a set of complex teachings taught in successive stages. The first stage is most commonly referred to as gTum mo or the inner fire practice. gTum mo was first elucidated by Vajradhara in the Hevajra Root Tantra, and because of its presence in the Hevajra Tantra, gTum mo is practiced within all Tibetan Traditions.

The word gTum mo itself, means ‘fierce one’ and is generally used to refer to heroines.[2] The meaning of this term is also suggestive of an association between gTum mo and the Hindu Tantric equivalent of kundalini as both are raised in a similar way. The red blood cell at the centre of the navel is also called gTummo because it’s function is similar to that of the fierce heroines[3] Lama Anagarika Govinda also notes the similarity between the Tibetan and Hindu Tantric Traditions, and equates the meaning of the inner fire with the concept of tapas, stating that,

Tapas is here the creative principle which acts upon matter as well
as upon mind. With regard to matter it is the forming, organizing,
order creating principle: “Out of the flaming Tapas order and truth
were born” (Rig Veda 10, 190, 1).[4]

In this context, tapas, and consequently gTum mo, can be seen not only as a process of generating physical heat or fire but also in an abstract sense, as a type of psychic fire or energy that acts in the nature of heat. It is seen, not as flame but as a force that is intrinsically tied to the life force itself under the control of an awakened mind. Fire or heat, is used as a metaphor for spirit – it should be thought of not as heat is by modern physics, but as an abstract term used to describe a concept based on the personal, religious experience. gTum mo is best understood from the perspective of an etic viewpoint, as a technique which is thought to awaken an inner energy that is activated by the trained mind. Because of its vital energy and role in the stimulation of the mind to awakening, the practice of gTum mo seems to have a connection to the achievement of Buddha-hood, either in this life or in the next, and it is frequently referred to as an important teaching. Why, though, should the first teaching have such a wealth of literature purporting that it is the most important of the Six Yogas; why is this first transmission of Nāropā so important to the success of those on the path to Buddha-hood?

The answer can be found not by examining the role of gTum mo in isolation to the other teachings, but in its interaction with them. The importance of gTum mo in Tantric Buddhism can only be understood by examining its relationship with the other teachings of the Six Yogas of Nāropā. The  main practice of the Six Yogas of Nāropā is defined by Chang as follows:

1. Instructions on the Heat of gTum mo Yoga – The Foundation of the Path
2. Instructions on the Illusory Body Yoga – The Reliance of the Path
3. Instructions on the Dream Yoga – The Yardstick of the Path
4. Instructions on the Light Yoga – The Essence of the Path
5. Instructions on the Bardo Yoga – That Which is met on the Path
6. Instructions on the Transformative Yoga – The Core of the Path.[5]

The teachings are, however, not always six in number, as sometimes the doctrines are further subdivided into subcategories. The teachings themselves, though, regardless of how many times they are subdivided, can be grouped into a tripartite classification – firstly there is a group of teachings that enables one to become a perfect Buddha in this very life, secondly there is a teaching which enables one to become a Buddha in the Bardo (intermediary stage betwixt life and death) state, and thirdly there is a teaching that enables one to become a Buddha in future lives.[6] Of the Yogas themselves, gTum mo holds a primary position and is the key to further progress on the path, as it is the foundation teaching of Yoga on which the other teachings must be built. Without a prior understanding of gTum mo, there can be no progression to another stage of Yoga. This was recognized by the First Panchen Lama who emphasized the value of the first (gTum mo) and fifth of the Six Yogas.[7] The importance of the Inner Heat Yoga is also advocated by Chang, who states that the Yogas of Heat and Illusory Body are the primary ones and that the other four, Dream, Light, Bardo and Transformation are but ramifications of them.[8] In Lama Pal Pakmo Drupa’s lineage gTum mo is likewise thought to be the foundation of all Yogas; the Illusory Body and Clear Light Yogas are grouped together as actual or principal practices for inducing the experience of Enlightenment and the Yogas of consciousness transference to a higher realm and transference into another body are thought to be auxiliary or branch applications – here the Yogas of Inner Heat, Illusory Body and Clear Light are perceived of as being the methods for accomplishing Enlightenment in a single lifetime.[9]

Clearly, there is a relationship between the practice of yoga and the goal of Buddha-hood, yet it appears from these statements that the most important teaching of the Six Yogas is the first one, gTum mo, and not the more advanced yogic practices that one develops later after becoming proficient with the earlier teachings. In Readings on the Six Yogas of Nāropā, Glen H. Mullin also states that in the Tradition of the Six Yogas of Nāropā the main practices are those of Inner Heat, Illusory Body, and Clear Light Yogas, the remaining three Yogas – consciousness transference, forceful projection into another body, and the Bardo Yogas – are but branches of the path.[10] This thought can likewise be demonstrated by examining the following passage from Chang in the Teachings of Tibetan Yoga.

The blissful void of gTum mo Heat
Is the essence of magic play.
The Yogas of the Illusory-Body
And of Dream are of Light the essence.[11]

In the above passage, it is quite clear that gTum mo is a necessary requirement to obtain ‘magic play’ which is being utilized in this sense to describe the abilities attained by its practice. As the essence of magic, gTum mo opens up the doorways to the Yogas of Illusory-Body and Dream, which are the essence of the Clear Light Yoga. Chang later expands on this by stating that, “he who has not mastered gTum mo Yoga can neither cause the prana to enter, remain and dissolve in the central channel, nor unfold the Four Voids or Four Blisses, nor project the Illusory-Body from the Light. As a result, he cannot practice the Dream and Bardo Yoga properly: this is why gTum mo is considered to be the most important practice of the Six Yogas.”[12] Not only is gTum mo thought to be the most important practice, it is also held to be a vital component of the other five Yogas themselves. In Tantric Grounds and Paths, Geshe Kelsang Gyatsu states that,

Whenever we practice the Yogas of the central channel, drop, and wind, we are practicing gTum mo meditation because these Yogas are methods for bringing the inner winds into the central channel. If we bring our inner winds into the central channel our inner heat will naturally increase within the central channel, and this will cause bliss to arise naturally. Because these three Yogas function to increase inner heat, indirectly these are gTum mo meditations.[13]

Furthermore, because success in these three Yogas is dependent on the level of skill acquired in gTum mo meditation, it seems clear that methodologies employed to raise the Inner Fire are also employed in the more advanced yogic techniques taught within the school. The importance of gTum mo is illustrated by the repetition of its techniques. This is also reflected in the writings of Tsong-Kha-pa who dedicates special attention to gTum mo, because success in the remaining five Yogas is dependent on the level of ability one achieves with gTum mo.[14] Throughout the Tradition of the Six Yogas of Nāropā, and also in the Six Yogas of Niguma, Inner Fire Yoga is referred to as the foundation stone and life-tree of all the completion stage practices.[15] gTum mo then, is not only the foundation stone upon which all other Yogas are built, it is also the trunk of the path itself, on which the other Yogas are branches. The unique relationship gTum mo holds with the other Yogas can be seen in the following passage from the Oral Instruction of the Six Yogas by Mahasiddha Tilopa (the earliest known work on the Yogas), which briefly outlines the methodology employed in gTum-mo that is required to develop the other Yogas.

The Yogic body, a collection of energy channels,
Coarse and subtle, possessing the energy fields,
Is to be brought under control.
The method begins with the physical exercises
The vital airs (i.e. energies) are drawn in,
Filled, retained, and dissolved.
There are the two side channels,
The central channel avadhuti,
And the four cakras.
Flames arise from the chandali fire at the navel.
A stream of nectar drips down
From the syllable ham at the crown,
Invoking the four joys.
There are four results, like that similar to the cause,
And six exercises that expand them.
This is the instruction of Charyapa.[16]

This is similarly expressed in the Vajra Verse of the Whispered Tradition, as transmitted by Mahasiddha Nāropā.

The pillar of the path is the self blazing of the blissful inner heat
With the bodily posture observing seven points, meditate
On the form of the deity, the body like an empty shell
Envision the central channel avadhuti, the side channels lalannarasana,
And also four cakras, the syllables ah & ham
The blazing [of the inner fire] and dripping [of the drops]
And the entering of the life-sustaining and downward moving energies [into the central channel].
Meditate on the vajra recitation with the five root energies.
Retain and stabilise [the energies] and induce the experience of wisdom.
Integrate the four blisses and blend the root energies and drops
Energy and consciousness enter into the central channel avadhuti,
The beyond-conceptuality mind arises, distorted emotions are self-pacified,
And an unbroken stream of bliss & radiance flows forth.[17]

Chang divides these verses into five successive steps within the process of gTum mo; these include visualizing the emptiness or hollowness of the body, visualizing the main psychic nerves or nadis, [vase] breathing exercises, manipulating the bindus and bodily exercises.[18] These techniques are vital elements of practice for the Six Yogas of Nāropā, and what is learned in gTum mo is required to be used in the other five Yogas.

Having established that the methodology employed to raise the inner fire reoccurs through the teachings, it now becomes vital to examine what role gTum mo and the Six Yogas play within the wider context of Buddhism – how is gTum mo related to the goals of Enlightenment and liberation, or more precisely, how does it assist its practitioners in reaching Buddha-hood? In support of the hypothesis that there is a connection betwixt the winning of Enlightenment and the practice of gTum mo, Tsong-Kha-pa points out in the Book of Three Inspirations that the Inner Heat Yoga originates with Tilopa, who commented that it was the transmission of the Mahasiddha Krishnacharya (also known as Lobpon Acharyapa), which fuses together the teachings of the Hevajra Tantra and the Heruka Chakrasamvara Tantra.[19] Tsong-Kha-pa also points out that for this Tradition, the most important of the Indian commentaries is Krsihnacharya’s treatise on the Inner Heat Yoga.[20] It is upon the basis of the doctrine of the Hevajra Tantra that some who preserve the teachings of Nāropā have maintained that the foundation of the Six Yogas is the Heat Yoga.[21] In Snellgrove’s translation of the Hevarja Tantra, the practice of gTum mo is referred to directly although it is not named, in the following quotation:

Candali blazes up at the navel
She burns the five Buddha’s
She burns Locana and the others
ham is burnt and the Moon melts.[22]

There is also a mention of Marpa and Milarepa in regards to the transmission of the teachings of the Six Yogas. By Milarepa’s own testament as a parting gift Marpa supplied him with a manuscript on gTum mo, since Marpa was convinced that through the use of this particular yoga Milarepa would attain to the highest perfection.[23] The copper pot given to Milarepa is also symbolic of the use he will find for the teaching of gTum mo, as is indicated by the following quote from the Life of Milarepa,

The copper pot you gave with the four handles signified the coming of my four great disciples. Its unblemished surface signified that your mind will become free of blemish and in your body you will have power over the bliss of the fire of gTum mo.[24]

Marpa no doubt had direct experience of the value of gTum mo as he also relied on the Heat Yoga of the Vajra in regards to meditative practice, stating their value to his practice in the following sentence: “Especially have I learned the teaching of Heat Yoga and Karmayoga.”[25] In Milarepa’s Hundred-Thousand Songs (mGur-bum), which forms an essential part of his biography, the following passage also occurs:

His whole body (yos lus) is filled with bliss (bde) when the inner fire (gTum mo) flares up (bar-bu). He experiences bliss when the pranic currents (rluṅ) of the piṅgalā (ro-ma) [the solar force] and the idā (rkyaṅ-ma) [the lunar force] enter the susumna (dhuti) [the middle nadi]. He experiences bliss in the upper (stod) Centres by the flowing down (rgyun-hbab) of the consciousness of enlightenment (byaṅ-chub-sems). He experiences bliss in the lower (smad) Centers on account of the penetrating (khyab-pa) creative energy (thig-le). He experiences bliss in the middle [i.e. in the heart centre] (bar) when tender compassion (thugs-phrad-btrse-ba) springs up on account of the union of red and white (dka-dmar) [currents of sublimated lunar and solar forces]. He experiences bliss when the body [as a whole] (lus) is pervaded (tsim-pa) by unsullied happiness (zad-med-bde-ba). This is the sixfold bliss of the yogi.[26]

When discussing the Six Yogas, Milarepa also states, “These six teachings are the heart-like pith instruction of Marpa, the final teachings of the Whisper Succession. No other teachings of any Path-With-Form can be found superior to these.”[27] These quotes demonstrate that this teaching is widely held in regard, as the use of yoga pervades the path to Buddha-hood in the Tibetan Tantras. Not only is it deemed to be an important component of the path, but the mentioning of gTum mo as being essential to the practice of yoga for Milarepa and its placement in the Hevajra Tantra indicate its direct impact on all forms of yoga, and that it is indeed the true foundation of the path on which all further yogic practices will be built. With such prominent figures as Marpa and Milarepa stressing the importance of gTum mo, it becomes apparent that there is a direct connection between success in gTum mo practice and the achievement of Enlightenment. The connection between the use of gTum mo and Buddha-hood is also illustrated in passages such as the following instruction on preliminaries to practice; “As a final preliminary, generate the bodhisattva motivation by meditating on the thought ‘For the benefit of all living beings I will achieve complete Buddha-hood in this very lifetime, and for this purpose now enter meditation of the Inner Heat yoga.’”[28] This illustrates clearly that one enters into use of the inner fire for the attainment of Buddha-hood. Geyshe Kelsang Gyatso also places great emphasis upon the teaching of gTum mo, saying that “by means of the inner fire you will quickly attain the single pointed concentrations of both tranquil abiding (Skt. Shamatha; Tib. Zhi-na) and superior seeing (Skt. Vipashyana; Tib. Lhag tong) and upon the basis of these two you will attain the Example and Meaning Clear Light. Th us the fruits of inner meditation are manifold.[29] This illustrates that it is not strictly gTum mo itself that is crucial to the Enlightenment process, but the benefits gained from its practice that aid one on the path to Buddha-hood. Chang likewise ascribes great merit to the practice of gTum mo saying that “gTum mo Yoga enables one to realize the unborn Mahamudra Wisdom, to attain freedom from all clingings and ignorance, to untie all the nadi knots, to transform all Samaric nadi into Wisdom nadi, to purify all karmic pranas and transform them into the Thig-le of Bliss, and to attain the Two-in-One Rainbow body of Perfect Buddha-hood.”[30] Chang here refers to the Great Seal, which is a high level teaching. By attaining Great Seal Wisdom, one can achieve Buddha-hood, but to attain this realization, one must first practice with gTum mo. In Nagabodhi’s Elucidation of the Summary of the Five Stages we similarly find stated;

By means of the Inner Heat Yoga, Great Bliss arises as the force of the mind. The meaning of this passage is that one engages in the Yogas of energy control, such as the vajra breath repetition and so forth as taught in the Guhyasamaja Tantra and other such systems, until eventually the experience of the clear light consciousness know as ‘final mind isolation’ is induced. This achievement depends on one first achieving proficiency in the Inner Heat Yoga, as taught in the Hevajra and Chakrasamvara systems, by means of which one induces the four blisses – and thus induces the experience of semblant clear light consciousness that arises together with the inner bliss.[31]

Here it is inferred that these higher teachings of yoga are dependent on the level of skill one has with gTum mo. One must first become proficient at this yoga to progress. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso mentions a prayer that is to be recited three times as a preliminary to practice:

I wish to become within this short lifetime
A perfected Buddha for the sake of all beings
Th us now shall I practice the Inner Fire Yoga
To attain my goal with the greatest speed.[32]

In this preliminary prayer we see that gTum mo is practiced with the goal of attaining Buddha-hood, and in this case, it is hinted at that the practice of gTum mo is the quickest method by which to attain Buddha-hood. Like the Secret Mantra Vehicle itself, gTum mo is an accelerated form of learning that provides one with direct knowledge of the experience of emptiness and the arising blisses, for it is a knowledge based on actual experience, as opposed to material that is simply learned and recited. Th us, because it provides the mind with this direct experience, gTum mo quickens the pace on the pathway to Enlightenment. In line with this train of thought, Chang, in The Teachings of Tibetan Yoga, emphasizes the importance of gTum mo practice, stating that one should spend at least half or one third of his time in practicing gTum mo, even when his main work is on other Yogas.[33] Once again this suggests that gTum mo is the core practice of the Six Yogas, and that the other five Yogas cannot be successfully implemented without prior success in gTum mo. Th is is what is implied when gTum mo is referred to as the foundation or trunk of the path. In the Clear Light of Bliss Gyatso also puts forward the hypothesis that the goal of the Inner Fire pervades all completion stage practices.[34] This great importance can be attributed to gTum mo, because in the art of mastering the special transformation yoga and the entrance yoga, one must first be able to gather all the pranas into the central channel, and the practice of Inner Fire yoga is the best method to accomplish this.[35] Also, because the techniques for gathering the winds into the central channel can be the same in different Yogas, a yogic practice can be a direct of indirect Inner Fire meditation. What determines if it is a direct or indirect gTum mo meditation is determined by the actual object of the practice.[36] Here again the connection between gTum mo and the other Yogas is outlined; even when the are not directly perceived to be gTum mo meditations, they can be classified as gTum mo meditations because the methods used to gather the winds into the central channel is the same as used in gTum mo.

The practice of gTum mo, then, should be thought of as the fundamental teaching on the path to Enlightenment for the Tantric Buddhist, for it is upon this teaching that future meditative practices will be based. It is also the trunk of the tree, the primary teaching of which the remaining Yogas of Nāropā are but branches. The fact that it is placed first amongst the teachings, indicates the prominence of Inner Fire Yoga. It is taught first because without being successful at the practice of gTum mo, the skills required to achieve Buddha-hood in this life or the next cannot be achieved. Th is can be ascribed to the fact that the technique for gathering the winds into the central channel, which is part of the gTum mo teaching and is required for advancement in the Six Teachings of Nāropā, will not have been learned. Likewise, without this teaching the student would not be able to merge the Son and Mother Clear Lights at the time of death. For the Tantric Buddhist, whether the goal is Enlightenment in this lifetime or in the next, gTum mo needs to be mastered in order to progress through the Tradition of the Six Yogas of Nāropā. Even though this is not the only pathway to Buddha-hood for the Tantric practitioner, it is thought to be the fastest route to achieve this goal, as it provides direct experience of the four blisses, which in turn will give rise to other meditative experiences with the other Yogas. This also helps to explain the importance and prevalence of the gTummo teachings in Tibet; like Tantra in general, it is a quick means to achieve Enlightenment, even possibly in this lifetime, and thus it sits well with the Tantric mindset, as the Secret Mantra Vehicle emphasizes the speed of the path. By providing direct experience of transcendental states of mind (either via meditative experience or ritual acts) the Tantrika learns more quickly and the goal of Enlightenment is no longer so distant. What makes gTum mo so important in the Tantric Buddhist Tradition is the repetition of its practice; by means of gTummo, the Yogin will learn skills that are necessary to progress on the path to Buddha-hood. This is why the teaching had such great emphasis placed on it by Marpa and Milarepa; it is the foundation teaching of the Six Yogas of Nāropā, on which further education will be based. It must be learned and mastered to reach a sufficient level of practice to permit the use of other yogic techniques, and the only way to succeed at this goal, is to keep practicing gTum mo itself. The practice of gTum mo can indeed make a Perfected One.


1  Gyatso, G. K., Clear Light of Bliss (London: Wisdom Publications, 1982), 34-35.
2  Ibid., 34.
3  Ibid., 34.
4  Govinda, A., Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism (London: Rider and Company,
1973), 161.
5  Chang, G. C.C., Teachings of Tibetan Yoga (New York: University Books, 1963), 54.
6  Muses, C. A., Esoteric Teachings of Tantra (Switzerland: Falcon’s Wing Press, 1961),
7  Mullin, G. H., Readings on the Six Yogas of Naropa (New York: Snow Lion
Publications, 1997), 8.
8  Chang, G. C. C., Teachings of Tibetan Yoga, 78.
9  Mullin, G. H., Readings on the Six Yogas of Naropa, 14.
10  Ibid., 148.
11  Chang, G. C. C., Teachings of Tibetan Yoga, 51.
12  Ibid., 116.
13  Gyatso, G.K., Tantric Grounds & Paths (London: Th arpa Publications, 1994), 124.
14  Mullin, G. H., Readings on the Six Yogas of Naropa, 15.
15  Ibid., 143.
16  Mullin, G. H., Readings on the Six Yogas of Naropa, 156.
17  Ibid., 36.
18  Chang, G. C. C., Teachings of Tibetan Yoga, 55.
19  Mullin, G. H., Readings on the Six Yogas of Naropa, 20.
20  Ibid., 20.
21  Muses, C. A., Esoteric teachings of the Tibetan Tantra, 147.
22  Snellgrove, D. L., The Hevajra Tantra, Part i (London: Oxford University Press,
1971), 50.
23  Govinda, A., Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, 167.
24  Lhalungpa, L. P., The Life of Milarepa (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977), 185.
25  Muses, C. A., Esoteric teachings of the Tibetan Tantra, 165.
26  Govinda, A., Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, 170.
27  Muses, C. A., Esoteric Teachings of the Tibetan Tantra, 166.
28  Mullin, G. H., Readings on the Six Yogas of Naropa, 144.
29  Gyatso, G. K., Clear Light of Bliss, 34.
30  Chang, G. C. C., Teachings of Tibetan Yoga (New York: University Books, 1963), 81.
31  Mullin, G. H., Readings on the Six Yogas of Naropa, 143.
32  Gyatso, G. K., Clear Light of Bliss, 36.
33  Chang, G. C. C., Teachings of Tibetan Yoga, 166.
34  Gyatso, G. K., Clear Light of Bliss (London: Wisdom Publications, 1982), 33.
35  Muses, C. A., Esoteric Teachings of the Tibetan Tantra, 169.
36  Gyatso, G. K., Clear Light of Bliss, 33.

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