The life of Tilopa
A key figure for the Karma Kagyu lineage is the Indian master Tilopa (988-1069), one of the 84 Mahasiddhas or highly realised yogis. Tilopa is often depicted at the top of the traditional paintings (Tib. thangkas) of the Kagyu refuge trees.
He first became a monk at the temple of Somapuri in Bengal. It is said that one day a dakini (female embodiment of wisdom) came to him in a vision and offered him her knowledge. Tilopa requested her teachings and received the initiation into the Chakrasamvara Tantra. He practiced this teaching at Somapuri, but when the monastery saw him take a female consort for the practice of union yoga, he was forced to quit the community.
Tilopa profited from his expulsion by travelling throughout India, searching out many teachers and learning their methods. He earned his living during this period by grinding sesame seeds (Sanskrit: Til) for oil – giving him the name by which he became known. It is said that he was given direct transmission of Mahamudra by the Buddha Vajradhara (Tib. Dorje Chang), who became his main teacher. Although he chose to live his life in remote and inhospitable regions, his fame as a meditation master brought him excellent students. The most important for the Kagyu lineage is Naropa, as he is the one who later on transmitted the teachings to Marpa.