Tilopa’s “Six Words of Advice” is a timeless, evergreen meditation instruction that you can apply whether you’re a beginning meditator or you’ve been at your practice for decades. Deceptively simple on its surface, you could explore the profound depths of this instruction for the rest of your life and never really be done with it.
Tilopa lived in India in the 11th century CE, and is regarded as one of the forefathers of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, which survives today mainly in the form of Tibetan Buddhism. Tilopa’s best-known student was Naropa; Naropa’s best-known student was Marpa the Translator, who brought the Vajrayana Buddhist teachings from India to Tibet; and Marpa’s best-known student was Milarepa, one of Tibet’s most legendary yogi-saints.
Tilopa’s “Six Words of Advice” were presumably written down in Sanskrit and translated to Tibetan at some point; but the Sanskrit source in India has been lost, and only the Tibetan text remains.
The title for this instruction in Tibetan is “Six Nails of Key Points,” which hearkens to the English expression about “hitting the nail on the head” with a statement that goes right to the point. Literally only six words long in Tibetan, an English translation of the text requires a few more words to bring it to life.
Ken McLeod has translated the text in two ways: a version that’s as concise and literal as possible, and a version that’s slightly more elaborate but does a better job of unpacking the meaning embedded in those six Tibetan words.
First, the concise and literal version:
There's something wonderful about the no-nonsense quality of that translation, and yet, as a meditation instruction, it's something of a blunt instrument. So here is McLeod’s more elaborate translation:
Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.
The original “six words” have now swollen into a whole verse, but in doing so they become more relatable. The six lines of this verse deconstruct the fundamental patterns in the mind that block clear and open meditation. Let’s unpack the meaning of each line, one at a time.
“Let go of what has passed.”
When you arrive on your meditation seat, you come dragging behind you all sorts of stuff from your past, a trail of mental debris and dirt that hovers around you like the cloud of stink that follows Pig Pen everywhere he goes. In meditation, you can observe in real time how this cloud of stuff from the past kicks up and obscures your view of the present moment. You sit down to meditate and before long you find yourself remembering your bedroom in your childhood home, or thinking about your ex-lover and what an angel or jerk he or she was or is, or replaying the entire videotape in your mind of that annoying meeting that happened at the office yesterday and thinking what you *should* have said to your coworker instead of what you actually did say. The past haunts your mind in a million different ways—and it haunts your body, too, in the form of restlessness, fidgeting, and various kinds of tension (chronic or acute) that you carry with you wherever you go, including your meditation. Being truly present requires you to acknowledge your particular ways and patterns of holding on to the past, and to practice letting them go—over and over and over.
“Let go of what may come.”
This is the flip side of the previous line. When you’re not rehashing or trying to hold on to something from the past, you find your mind drifting into the future—anticipating things that haven’t happened yet, cooking up hopeful and fearful scenarios about what may or may not come to pass, worrying and daydreaming and planning and scheming about what you could get or say or do in order to secure a certain desired outcome at some future moment. Or maybe it’s something as dull and monotonous as wondering how much time is left in your meditation session, anticipating the ring of the bell that will signal when it’s time to get up, and thinking about what’s for lunch. Again, when you notice your mind drifting into thoughts of the future, and when you notice your body tensing up in anticipation of things that haven’t happened yet, gently let it go and come back to being present.
“Let go of what is happening now.”
When you let go of the past and the future, you find yourself very simply abiding in the present. Perhaps the feeling of being present only lasts for a moment before your habits regain control and you drift away again. Or, perhaps without noticing it, you start to drift into some kind of mental commentary on the present moment, telling yourself, “Wait, my arm itches. Okay, that’s better. Now I’ve got it. Now I’m really present. I’m calm and relaxed. My mind is quiet.” Well, obviously, no it isn’t. You’re sitting there lost in judgments and talking to yourself about the present moment instead of just experiencing it. The short translation of this line is simply, “Don’t think.” But telling someone not to think is a tall order, and sometimes you end up thinking about how bad you are at not thinking. You can’t really will the mind to stop thinking, or silence it through brute force. Milarepa said, “The mind’s impulse to sudden thought cannot be stopped by hundreds with spears,” meaning that even if you were menaced by hundreds of warriors standing around you and threatening to jab you with their spears if you allowed your mind to think, you still couldn’t stop it. Thinking happens.
As McLeod’s longer translation of this line suggests, it’s less about stopping thoughts and more about letting go of what’s happening now, including thoughts. The mind’s tendency is to try to take hold of what is happening now, grasp it tightly, to own it and say “This is what I’m experiencing” and make a big deal out of it. But clutching at the present moment is like clutching at water in your fist: the more tightly you grasp, the more the water escapes your grasp. The present moment is always unfolding, always flowing, always changing, and it can’t be pinned down because it’s not an object; it’s an infinitely unfolding process. Whatever arises within the space of the present moment, notice it, and let it come and go. The wave of the present moment is always cresting, rising up from the past and dissolving into the future, and you are balanced right there at the edge, surfing the wave. But you can’t hold on to a wave, or change it in any way. Ride it while you can, let it dissolve, and then ride the next one, and the next one. No big deal.
“Don’t try to figure anything out.”
As you sit there in meditation, notice the little voice in the back of your mind quietly analyzing and murmuring about your experience. “Am I doing this right? What is my breath supposed to feel like? Is my posture okay? When I’m in the present moment, how is it supposed to feel? Is this it? Aha, I think I had it there for a moment.” The short translation of this line is telling: “Don’t examine.” Look at your mind’s tendency to always be examining your experience, analyzing it, questioning it, doubting it. Now drop that, and see what your experience actually feels like without the additional responsibility of trying to figure anything out. Can you just be with it, and at the same time leave it alone?
“Don’t try to make anything happen.”
You might sit down to meditate with big ideas and plans about how it's supposed to go, what sort of blissful and enlightened state you’re supposed to attain. But your beautiful plans always seem to be falling apart, and you’re always scrambling to pick up the pieces and recreate the idea you have in your mind of what’s “supposed” to be happening. It’s a project-management mentality. The thing is, you can’t project-manage your way through meditation. You can’t force your mind into stillness and silence and presence, because those aren’t states that can be created through effort. Those are the natural qualities of awareness, which you settle into when you stop being a control freak and stop agitating yourself with your mind’s habitual patterns. Imagine a glass of water with some dirt in it; if you keep stirring the water, the dirt always obscures the water’s natural clarity. But if you just leave it alone for a while, the dirt settles to the bottom of the glass and the water’s natural clarity is revealed. The more you “try” to make the water clear, the muddier it will become. You can’t create clarity; but you can stop obscuring it, stop interfering with it. It’s a matter of getting out of your own way. Stop trying to make something happen. Let everything be.
“Relax, right now, and rest.”
This final line is Tilopa’s instruction in a nutshell, and sums up the other five lines. You’re letting go of the past and the future and fully arriving in the present moment; letting go of the mind’s tendency to think about the present moment, comment upon it, analyze it, project-manage it; letting go of any effort to control your experience or make it conform to some ideal you have in your mind of what should be happening. Okay, now what are you supposed to do? *Nothing.* Let go and relax in a state of non-doing, a state of just being: being aware, hovering right now and right now and right now on the edge of that ever-cresting wave of the present moment, and allowing your body and mind to rest.
Rest is the simplest thing in the world, really. Yet human beings are so absurdly complicated that we have to re-learn to find a natural state of rest and settle into it because we have such strong habitual patterns of restlessness. Our minds and our nervous systems are chronically overstimulated, riddled with tension and hangups and things we’ve convinced ourselves we’re supposed to be doing. So most of us actually find it quite challenging to just come into a state of rest and stay there.
Tilopa’s “Six Words of Advice” help us dismantle, one by one, the mind’s major patterns of restlessness, and arrive back at the original state of simple, clear awareness that became clouded over somewhere along the way.
Enjoy your practice.