GRINDING SESAME SEEDS TO EXTRACT THE ESSENCE: THE SACRED SPACE OF CHAKRASAMVARA, MAHASIDDHA TILOPA. New translation of Tilopa and Dharima’s ‘Vajra Song on Sesame Oil’, his cave in India and wooden sesame-seed grinder.

“The abiding sesame oil is its essence,
Although the dull-minded know it is in the sesame seed,
If they do not know how its constituents are combined,
It is not possible for the sesame oil essence to emerge.
Likewise, the co-emergent innate primordial awareness,
Although present in the hearts of all beings,
Is impossible to realize unless it is shown by a guru.
By grinding the sesame and clearing away the husks,
The essence, sesame oil emerges.”

–Excerpt from Tilopa and Dharima’s ‘Vajra Song on Sesame Oil’, from Marpa’s biography of Tilopa

This is the all-Buddhas’
Father Cakrasamvara.
Even if a rain of vajras fell from the sky,
How could it subdue him?
–Dakinis song about Tilopa after he subdues them

“Because of the obscurations and negative accumulations of sentient beings they are not able to perceive the form of Chakrasamvara directly. So Chakrasamvara emanates as an impure being, an ordinary manifestation being born among humans so he is visible to human beings who need to be caught about how co gain liberation. Without any doubt Tilopa was an emanation of Chakrasamvara.”—Thrangu Rinpoche 

“The Ḍākinī transformed herself into the mandala of Chakrasamvara in the sky in front of him, giving Tilopa the pith instructions of the creation and completion stages of practice. …..With these two pith instructions, Tilopa attained a degree of realization and the Ḍākinī said, “Now throw out your bhikshu ordination and go about acting like a madman, practicing in secret so that nobody knows what you are doing,” and then she vanished into the sky. This Ḍākinī who bestowed these instructions and empowerments on Tilopa was called Karpo Sangmo.”


For Guru Padmsambhava day today, am happy to offer this new research and translation post inspired by my recent pilgrimage to the Mahasiddha Tilopa’s Cave near the Tilogpur Nunnery, Kangra Himachal Pradesh, India.  I have visited the cave several times previously, but this was the first time to visit it, after the two year COVID lockdown of all the Tibetan monasteries and nunneries in India. I have previously written about Tilopa’s Instructions from a Dakini, editions of his biographies here. I also wrote about my visit to Tilogpur Nunnery and interview with the two Gelongma residing there, here.

In this post, I first compile some background research about Tilopa’s name, life and activities and his relationship with his primary consort and teacher, the low-caste prostitute Dharima.  I also share my own new translation of Tilopa and Dharima’s ‘Vajra Song on Sesame Oil’ (Tilatailavajragiti) with Tibetan.

Secondly, I share photos of the Tilopa Cave, how to get there and so on, as well a photo of Tilopa’s sesame seed grinder, preserved in the Tilogpur Nunnery with a Tibetan text of Praises to Tilopa, presented with the wooden grinder.

May we all realise the essence of phenomena and keep grindin’ until we do! Music? Tilopa’s Song to Naropa read by Samaneri Jayasara and as Dharima’s slave….‘Slave to Love’ by Bryan Ferry.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 11th May 2022.

Tilopa’s name, four human aspects, four tantric lineages and founder of Kagyu
Image of Tilopa from an old edition of Marpa Lotsawa’s biography

I have written before about the Mahasiddha Tilopa’s life-stories here. There are several biographies about him, as also detailed thoroughly in Chapter Two of the most recent and detailed publication about his life Tilopa: A Buddhist Yogin of the Tenth Century by Fabrizio Torricelli (LTWA, 2019).  The main Tibetan sources are by Marpa, Gampopa, Gyalthangpa, Dorje Dze O, Ogyenpa, Montsepa, Tsangnyong Heruka, Kunga Rinchen, Wangchug Gyeltsen and Lhatsun.

Black sesame seeds from India, the kind that Tilopa would have ground to extract oil.

Tilopa is the first human guru of the Marpa Kagyu lineages and appeared in human form as an Indian Mahasiddha in the 10th Century. He is also considered to be a manifestation and/or actually Chakrasamvara himself. Torricelli (2019) explains that Tilopa’s name (and the different formulations of it) all come from the Sanskrit word Tila (Til) ‘sesame’ because of his extracting oil from its seeds. Marpa informs us that this is why he is known in Tibetan as the Sesame Grinder (Til brdungs zhabs). He was also known by the names Sel O (gSal ‘od), the first name he received, and  Sherab Zangpo (Prajnabhadra) , which is said to be the initiation name he received from the Jnanadakini in Uddiyana.

Marpa’s biography of Tilopa has been translated into English and published by LTWA, 1995. See image here.

According to Marpa’s biography (LTWA, 1995), Tilopa had four aspects in his life and, in his first aspect as a human being, four great qualities:

“Among the [accounts of the] perfect liberation (rnam-thar) of the siddhas’ lineage of the Nirmanakaya, at the outset, in the perfect liberation of Tilopa, there are four [sections]: his fame

 (1) as a human being (mi rang rgyud pa),

(2) as a manifestation of Chakrasamvara (bde mchog gi sprul pa),

(3) as Chakrasamvara himself (bde mchog dngos), and

(4) as the synthesis of the Bodies of all Buddhas (Sangs-rgyas thams cad kyi sku ’dus-pa).

In terms of his human being aspect, Marpa states that there were also four ways he showed himself:

(1) he was prophesised by the Dakinis, looked for a guru and practised until the accomplishment;

(2) he outshone the Dakinis and asked [them] for the Dharma with respect to the definitive meaning (nges don) he showed himself

(3) as one without human gurus, and

(4) As several manifestations, there are eight [episodes]: first he outshone a yogin, then he subdued a heretic, a magician, a barmaid, a singer, a butcher, one who denied the law of cause and effect, and a powerful sorcerer.

Tilopa together with his consort, prostitute Dharima (for more on their relationship, see below) combined four lineages of tantric instructions[1] into a new, single lineage. It is from this that the Kagyu tradition derives its name, for Ka gyu (bKa brgyud) is short for the Tibetan “thegpa. gsum. gyi. snying. don. bka. bab. kyi. chos. bzhi’i. gdams. ngag. bar. ma. chad. pa’i.“, which translates as: “the unbroken transmission (brgyud) and esoteric teachings of the four Doctrines of Oral Instruction (bKa), which form the essential meaning (shying-don, the heart-truth) of the Three Ways [of traditional Buddhism].” Here the term “bKa” is actually understood to mean bKa-bab-bzhi, the four oral Instructions of yogic mastery. For more on the four lineages from Marpa, see here.

Tilopa’s “pith-instruction” (upadesa) to one of his leading disciples, mahasiddha Naropa was a  short song, said to have been recited on the banks of the great Indian Ganges river. This is the poem known in Tibet as the Ganga Ma, or otherwise as the Ganga-Mahamudra-upadesa, the “Ganges River Pith-Instruction on Mahamudra.” For my own translation of the Ganges Mahamudra,  available for free download, see here.

The 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje gave a teaching in 2007 on Tilopa’s life at the Tilogpur Nunnery (which I was fortunate to be able to attend in person, it was my first visit to the nunnery) see video here. I hope to transcribe and publish this at some point.

Tilopa and Chakrasamvara
IMAGE: Chakrasamvara five deity mandala. From Garchen Buddhist Institute website.

Tilopa was not only prophesised by the dakinis but was also considered to be an emanation of the deity, Chakrasamvara. The dakinis appeared to him as a young boy and said:

“Your country is Uddiyana, in the West,
Your father is Cakrasamvara,
Your mother is Vajravarahi,
Your sister is [me,] Sukhada,
You are Pancapana.
Do not herd buffalo, the animals:
In the forest of the Bodhi-tree (bodhivrksa)
Herd always the buffalo of experience (anubhava)”

Tilopa (artist unknown)

As Thrangu Rinpoche in the Life of Tilopa (2019) explains:

“Because of the obscurations and negative accumulations of sentient beings they are not able to perceive the form of Chakrasamvara directly. So Chakrasamvara emanates as an impure being, an ordinary manifestation being born among humans so he is visible to human beings who need to be taught about how to gain liberation. Without any doubt Tilopa was an emanation of Chakrasamvara.”[2]

“Tilopa had attained the wisdom arising from the creation stage and was now on the verge of completely accomplishing the completion stage. But Tilopa decided that he needed further instructions and left south India to go to northeast India where he sought out the teacher Nagpopa. From him Tilopa received the instructions and empowerments of the Chakrasamvara practice once again which he had already received from Karpo Sangmo. However, there are three lineages of Chakrasamvara with one coming from Luipa, the second from Nagpopa, and the third from Dribupa. This lineage of Chakrasamvara came from Nagpopa who became Tilopa’s third teacher. Tilopa received all the pith instructions of Nagpopa and became a fully accomplished practitioner in the completion stage.”[3]

Also, in Marpa’s biography of Tilopa, he explains how the dakinis recognized him to be Chakrasamvara:

They [the dakinis] were just about to suppress him when the Dharmakayadakini uttered these words to her retinue: 

“This is the all-Buddhas’
Father Cakrasamvara.
Even if a rain of vajras fell from the sky,
How could it subdue him?

As detailed here, there are three main lineages of Chakrasamvara from the Indian mahasiddhas, Luipa, Krishnacharya (Nagpopa) and Ghantapa (Drilbupa). It seems Tilopa received the lineage of all three[4].

Image of Krishnacharya (Nagpopa) whom Tilopa is said to have received the Chakrasamvara empowerment and teachings from. Image HAR.
Tilopa as Sesame Seed Grinder and servant of prostitute Dharima


According to his life-stories, Tilopa also received the Chakrasamvara empowerment and teachings in the Luipa lineage from the dakinl Subhagini (sKal-ba-bzang-mo) and was told by her to work as a servant for a low-caste, poor prostitute to reduce his arrogant pride. He did this for 12 years, while pounding sesame seeds to make money during the day. This was not a glamorous or sexy life, as some male scholars/translators seem to have portrayed it. At that time, such a job would have been considered the lowest and filthiest, like working in a sewer. 

In Marpa’s biography of Tilopa (1995: 30) it explains how he met his female teacher and how she instructed him to work for Dharima:

In a temple where his uncle was accustomed to read the Satasahasrikd, a woman appeared and asked him, “Do you understand its meaning?” “I do not,” he answered. She said,  “Well, I will explain it!” and she explained the meaning of that [text]. Then, she gave him the empowerment of Hevajra (He-badzra) and Cakrasamvara (‘Khor-lo-sdom-pa), and explained their tantras.

Then she said: “This is the view of Luipa (Lu-hi-pa), you must meditate on it.” “But my uncle does not let me meditate,” he said. “Fasten the Satasahasrika with a rope, throw it from the door of the temple into the water, act like a madman: meditate in this way! My blessings will prevent the Satasahasrika from being damaged,” she sail and he did as he was told. The Satasahasrika remained undamaged, but he was scolded as a madman and beaten. He then practised, inseparable with Sugatas’ Min (,bDe-bar-gshegs-pa’i thugs gnyis-su-med-pa), the two Stages. After some time, he was instructed[5].

In Bengal, in the East,  In the market-place of Pancapana, There is the prostitute Bharima and her retinue.  If you follow it as her servant, you will be purified; You will pass over the limits of practice and attain perfection!

He went there according to what she had said. There in the night-time he would do the work of inviting and accompanying men [into Dharima’s]. During the day, he worked at thrashing sesame grains, and that is why he was known as Tilopa in the language of India and, in Tibetan, as the Sesame-grinder. After that, he and Dharima went to the cemetery called Ke-re-le. There they took delight in the practice of the secret mantra (gsang-ba-sngags) and performed it to its completion.

Torricelli states (2019: 174) that:

‘With regard to the prostitute (smad ‘tshong ma) whose name occurs in the sources as Bharima/Bhari or Dharima/Dharimo, we know almost nothing. We have scant pieces of information on the town where the courtesan lived, and where Tilopa spent a pat of his life: the market town that Marpa and Dorje Dze O have referred to as Pancapana.

Vajra Song on Sesame Oil – Tilopa and Dharima’s Song

Marpa then explains that:

“Once again, while thrashing the remaining sesame grains in a market-place, he [Tilopa] attained the perfection close to the sublime Great Seal. At that moment, the people of the town had different visions of him: some saw flame blazing from him, while others saw his ornaments of bones blazing. The people asked for instruction. At this he said: “O devotees, may this inborn reality in my mind enter your hearts!”

Immediately they were liberated. Then, as the king of that country, surrounded by his retinue, came on an elephant to pay his respects, both that son of brahmana and Bharima raised this adamantine song (rdo-rje’i mgur, Skt. vajragiti) with a loud Brahma voice:

“The abiding sesame oil is its essence,

Although the dull-minded know it is in the sesame seed,  

If they do not know how its constituents are combined,

It is not possible for the sesame oil essence to emerge.

Likewise, the co-emergent innate primordial awareness,  

Although present in the hearts of all beings,

Is impossible to realize unless it is shown by a guru.  

By grinding the sesame and clearing away the husks,

The essence, sesame oil emerges. 

Similarly, by relying on a guru the meaning of nature-itself,

Like sesame oil, will be shown as a symbol.

That essence and objects are inseparable and one.  

Kyeho! So far to go, so deep the meaning  

Now itself is clear, utterly amazing!















Thus they sang, and all those who were assembled there were liberated. Unfolding the meaning of the song.  “As for the meaning, there is nothing to be rejected even though there is contradiction. There is no antidote awareness (gnyen-po ye-shes) to produce; there is no ground, no path to pass, nor is there a result to attain. The guru must show them simply through conventional symbols.”

I have arranged this new translation of the song with the Tibetan for the first time, so that people can chant it or put it to music if they wish to do so.

Tilopa’s Cave, Tilogpur, Himachal Pradesh, India
On the way to Tilopa’s Cave, a rocky pathway along the river. Photo: Adele Tomlin (April 2022).

In April 2022, I went to visit a cave in Himachal Pradesh, India that Tilopa is said to have meditated in. It is next to the river Beas, below the Karma Kagyu Tilogpur nunnery (one of the oldest Karma Kagyu nunneries outside of Tibet, about an hour’s drive from Dharamsala). It  is not that easy to get to, there are no roads or paths to get there. A taxi can take you down to the river but then it is about 15 minutes walk over rocks. Two nuns from the nunnery came with me on request. Normally, they can take a ladder to go up to the cave itself (which I have done before) but this time they felt the water was too high and did not want to bring the ladder. A thunderstorm was brewing too, so it was probably a wise decision.

After some funny scrambling over the rocks with them, we finally made it to the cave itself, marked by Tibetan prayer flags. One can only wonder how Tilopa got up there, perhaps a makeshift ladder, or like the goats and the local goat-herders he managed to find a route up there with the siddhi of swift footedness!

In terms of the time that Tilopa was at this cave it is difficult to say. I did not see any reference to the cave in Torricelli’s 2019 book on Tilopa, and so have contacted him to find out what he thinks about this cave and whether he has visited it or not. 

Here are some photos I took while there, apologies for the poor quality but they are from a mobile phone camera. There is a short film about Tilopa’s life by a Tibetan Video blogger, with some scenes shot at his cave there.

Tilopa’s Cave, Himachal Pradesh, India. Photo: Adele Tomlin (April 2022).
Tilopa’s Cave, Himachal Pradesh, India. Photo: Adele Tomlin (April 2022).
Tilopa’s Cave, Himachal Pradesh, India. Photo: Adele Tomlin (April 2022).
Tilopa’s Cave, Himachal Pradesh, India. Photo: Adele Tomlin (April 2022).
Tilopa’s wooden sesame seed grinder – preserved at Tilogpur Nunnery, India
Tilopa’s wooden sesame seed grinder preserved at Tilogpur Nunnery, HP, India. Photo: Adele Tomlin (April 2022).

Inside the main temple of Tilogpur nunnery is said to be the original wooden sesame seed grinder that Tilopa used while meditating there (see photos). There is a Tibetan scriptural inscription from the White Lotus Sutra[6] on the front of the glass cabinet it is preserved in, which is not translated into English[7], and I have not been able to find a Tibetan Khenpo, Geshe and so on who felt able to explain it either! That said, I can see from the words, that it is a praise to Tilopa from the White Lotus Sutra.

Tilopa’s wooden sesame seed grinder preserved at Tilogpur Nunnery, HP, India. Photo: Adele Tomlin (April 2022).
Praise to Tilopa from White Lotus Sutra, arranged with the wooden sesame seed grinder at Tilogpur Nunnery. Photo: Adele Tomlin (April 2022).


བཅོམ་ལྡན་སྣང་མཛད་སྲས་ཀྱི་ཐུ་བོ་པ། །                         ཀུན་ཏུ་བཟང་པོ་རྒྱལ་བའི་མཐུ་སྟོབས་ཀྱིས། །

རྡོ་རྗེ་ལག་ན་འཛིན་དེ་བྷཾ་ག་ལར། །                             བྲམ་ཟེ་གསལ་འོད་སྤྲུལ་པ་དེ་ལ་འདུད། །

ཌཱ་ཀིའི་རྒྱ་མཚོར་རྡོ་རྗེ་ཡན་ལག་མ། །                            ཤེས་རབ་མར་རྙེད་མཐུ་ཡིས་འཛམ་གླིང་གི །

བསྟན་པའི་ཆུ་བོ་བཞི་བསྡུས་འོག་མིན་གནས། །                   གངས་ ཆེན་ལོངས་སྤྱོད་བཟང་པོས་འཚོ་དེར་འདུད། །

མཁའ་མཉམ་གདུལ་བྱའི་ཉོན་མོངས་ཏིལ་བརྡུངས་ནས། ། །         རྣམ་གྲོལ་མར་ཁུ་འབྱིན་ལ་སྣ་ཚོགས་གཟུགས། །

སྣ་ཚོགས་སྐད་དང་སྣ་ཚོགས་ཐུགས་འཆར་བ། །                ཟག་མེད་ཆོས་སྡེའི་རང་བཞིན་དེ་ལ་འདུད། །

ཐོག་མ་མེད་ནས་ད་ལྟའི་བར་དག་ཏུ། །                          ཁྱོད་ལ་བསྟོད་པའི་གོ་སྐབས་དེ་རིང་ཙམ། །

ད་ནི་ཁྱོད་ཀྱི་ཐུགས་རྗེའི་སྐྱོ་ཐང་གིས། །                          ཟིན་པས་ཕྱིར་ལྡོག་ཡོད་སྙམ་མ་མཆིས་སོ། །

འོན་ཀྱང་འདོད་ཆགས་ཞེ་སྡང་གཏི་མུག་དང་། །                  ཕྲག་དོག་ང་རྒྱལ་རྣམས་ལ་སྔར་འདྲིས་པས། །

བག་མེད་གྱུར་སྲིད་དེར་ཡང་མགོན་པོ་ཁྱོད༑ །                  བསྙེལ་བ་མེད་པས་བདག་ཅག་བསྐྱབ་ཏུ་གསོལ༎ ༈

Further Reading
  • Thrangu Rinpoche (2019). Tilopa’s Wisdom: His Life and Teaching on the Ganges Mahamudra, Snow Lion Publications.
  • Lodro Marpa; Tr. Fabrizio Torricelli and Acharya Sangye T. Naga (1995). The Life of the Mahāsiddha Tilopa. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
  • Fabrizio Torricelli (2019).Tilopa
  • Torricelli Fabrizio (1998), A Thirteenth Century Tibetan Hymn to the Siddha Tilopa, The Tibet Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 3-17, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
  • 12th Khentin Tai Situpa (1988) Tilopa, Some Glimpses Of His Life, Dzalendra Publishing.

[1] It is said that from Matanga a disciple of the Siddha Nagarjuna, who in turn was a disciple of the great Saraha, and also from Sri Nagarjuna himself, Tilopa received the Guhyasamaja-tantra and the secret oral instructions on “Illusory-body” yoga. From Caryapa he received the oral instructions on Dream yoga according to the method of the Mahamaya-tantra. From Lilavajra, a disciple of Lavapa, and from Lavapa himself, he was initiated into the Cakrasamvara-tantra and received the secret oral instructions on the clear Light. Finally, from the woman saint Subhagini, and from her partner Guru Vijaya, he received the complete Candalini-yoga practice according to the system of the Hevajra-dakini-tantra.

[2] p.3

[3] “The Bhagavati was extremely impressed with Tilopa and said, “You are the father of all Buddhas; you are the actual emanation of Chakrasamvara. You have the prophecy, the perfect samaya, and are fully accomplished. Therefore, I bestow upon you these jewels from each of my three treasuries.” So she revealed to him these three jewels. Tilopa understood them instantly, saying, “Through these three jewels from the three treasure houses I will accomplish enlightenment. I am fearless and fly in the sky like a bird and there is nothing that can obstruct me. I am Sherab Sangpo (Tibetan for “deep wisdom and good”). Subsequently, Tilopa has been known as Tilopa Sherab Sangpo.” (Ibid.)

[4]Krishnacharya (Nagpopa Chopa, or Nagpo Chopa. nag po spyod pa) associated with the Chakrasamvara Cycle of Tantras. His name is also translated into Tibetan as Nagpopa. Krishnacharya, is also represented in both the Vajrasana and Abhayadatta Systems of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas.”

Krishnacharya is an Indian Buddhist practitioner As a sign of his attainments he is most often depicted with seven parasols and seven drums floating in the sky above. As a mount he is commonly portrayed atop an animated corpse or zombie. He is known in literature for being surrounded by five hundred yogis and yoginis – this however is not typical in painting and sculpture. Jalandara was the main teacher of Krishnacharya and their principal practices were the Chakrasamvara, Hevajra and Mahamaya Tantras. There are three most famous traditions of Chakrasamvara in Tibet known as the ‘Lu Nag Dril Sum’ which refers to the three famous siddhas Luipa, Krishnacharya and Ghantapa.”

[5] According to Marpa, the woman who gave him this instructionwa s Dakini Sukhaprada. Howeer, other biographies say it was Matangipa (2019: 173-4).

[6] Sad-dharma-puṇḍarīka-sūtra [dam pa’i chos padma dkar po’i mdo]: Sad-dharmapuṇḍarīka-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra [dam pa’i chos padma dkar po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo], Peking No. 781, Vol. 30, pages 1.1.1-84.2.5, folio 1-205a5, mDo sna tshogs VII, Chu.

[7] bcom ldan snang mdzad sras kyi thu bo pa/_/kun tu bzang po rgyal ba’i mthu stobs kyis/_/rdo rje lag na ‘dzin de b+haM ga lar/_/bram ze gsal _ts+tshAny+nyo_’od sprul pa de la ‘dud/_ /DA ki’i rgya mtshor rdo rje yan lag ma/_/shes rab mar rnyed mthu yis ‘dzam gling gi_/bstan pa’i chu bo bzhi bsdus ‘og min gnas/_/gangs can longs spyod bzang pos ‘tsho der ‘dud/_/mkha’ mnyam gdul bya’i nyon mongs til brdungs nas/_/_/rnam grol mar khu ‘byin la sna tshogs gzugs/_/sna tshogs skad dang sna tshogs thugs rgyuzla’achar ba/_/zag med chos sde’i rang bzhin de la ‘dud/_/thog ma med nas da lta’i bar dag tu/_/khyod la bstod pa’i go skabs de ring tsam/_/da ni khyod kyi thugs rje’i skyo thang gis/_/zin pas phyir ldog yod snyam ma mchis so/_/’on kyang ‘dod chags zhe sdang gti mug dang /_/phrag dog nga rgyal rnams la sngar ‘dris pas/_/bag med gyur srid der yang mgon po _thokhyod|_/bsnyel ba med pas bdag cag bskyab tu gsol//_!_jo bo nA ro pa la bstod pa _ lnga rig pa’i dge sbyong chen po chos kyi spyan can brtul zhugs kyi spyod pa mdzad pa dpal nA ro pa la phyag ‘tshal lo//_

[8] The Four Great Rivers or Currents [flowing in the four directions from Mt. Kailash, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Yamuna, Indus].

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