“In the south, in the land of herbs, the valley of Trowo,
the translator, (who) emanated from Hevajra, established the source of the river of all siddhas.”
-- Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye the Great, The Song of Lodrö Thaye
Hagiographies, rnam-thar in Tibetan, are spiritual life-stories of Buddhist sages and saints. Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche presented life-stories of Shri Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, and Gampopa and on those occasions taught that hagiographies deal with motivation, faith, trust, enthusiastic endeavour, the aspects of wisdom that arise from specific practices, and the benefits that such practices bring. They were written to inspire and encourage disciples to mature spiritually.
Marpa Chokyi Lodrö was one of four sons born of a well-to-do family living in Lhodrak Chukhyer, southern Tibet. His father was Wangchuk Öser and his mother Gyamo Sa Dode. It is recorded that just the sight of the boy created a sense of fear and awe in everybody who saw him because he was very energetic and quite aggressive. Due to his unpopularity, his father sent him to study under Drogmi Sakya Yeshe Lotsawa, who was a renowned translator and teacher residing at Mangkhar (situated between Lhasa and Kathmandu). Drogmi Lotsawa (993-1050) was the first historical master in the Sakya Lineage that is passed down from father to son; he had received the transmissions of Virupa, a pious monk living at Somapuri Monastery before he became a wandering yogi and master of the historical lineage of the patriarchs. Marpa mastered the Tibetan arts, language and literature, and Sanskrit under Drogmi Lotsawa’s tutelage in 3 years (other texts state in 15 years). At that time in Tibet there were few teachers from whom Marpa could receive further instructions, so - three times in all - he crossed the high passes separating Tibet from Nepal and India in search of more profound instructions from Mahapanditas, “great sages.” The journey was hard and took months, sometimes years. Thrangu Rinpoche taught that one needed to have great strength and courage to undergo such a challenge and that Marpa’s steadfast resolution was not based on a view to only benefit himself or for short-term purposes.
It was a common practice to offer gold to great Mahasiddhas for sacred teachings. Marpa could not bring up the amount he needed, so he asked friends for help and finally approached a man named Nyur, who told him that he would not receive any teachings if he did not have any gold. Thrangu Rinpoche said that “this Nyur was not a good guy.” Nyur told Marpa that he would give him some gold if Marpa became his servant while travelling. Marpa agreed and they set out for India together. When they arrived in Nepal, Marpa studied with Shri Paindapa and Chitherpa, two accomplished disciples of Panchen Naropa, who told him where he could find their Guru. Upon hearing the name Naropa, Marpa was filled with tremendous joy. He told Nyur the good news, but Nyur reacted with indifference and said that there were many great scholars in India and that Naropa was not any better than the others. He told Marpa that he could go search for Naropa on his own but without any gold out of his pocket. Therefore Nyur and Marpa went separate ways and planned to meet when it was time to return to Tibet.
Shri Paindapa accompanied Marpa to Pullahari, situated near Nalanda University in Bihar, where Naropa resided and taught. When they arrived, Panchen Naropa imparted the “Chakrasamvara Tantra” and many other instructions to Marpa, who meditated them for three years in strict retreat. Afterwards, Marpa met Nyur and their discussion proved that Marpa had gained better understanding and realization than his travel companion, who boasted that the instructions he had were much more profound. Marpa returned to Naropa, requested the teachings that Nyur had received, and went into another three-year retreat to meditate them. Then he met Nyur, who again boasted of having been given a better teaching on the “Kalachakra Tantra.” Marpa returned to Naropa, requested the empowerment and instructions, and also meditated them for three years. He then met Nyur and again Marpa was superior in knowledge and realization. Nyur suggested that it was time to return home, so they left India together.
On their way back to Tibet, Nyur bribed the Indian ferryman, who was steering their boat across the Ganges River, to throw all the Dharma texts that Marpa had in his luggage into the river. Nyur was jealous because Marpa had only been his servant when they left Tibet and on their return 12 years later he was much more learned. Marpa took the ferryman to court to settle the matter before the king. The ferryman begged for forgiveness and told everyone that he had only done what Nyur had paid him to do. Having great compassion, Marpa thought that the ferryman was a friend who had actually inspired him to return to India to collect more texts. It is recorded that, unlike Nyur, Marpa had realized the essence of all teachings he had received and therefore the outer loss was not a loss for himself but only an obstacle to Marpa gaining credibility at home.
After having given the teachings he had received from his Gurus to his disciples, Marpa sold his property, so he had the funds he needed in order to return to his Gurus in India a second time. This time he stayed for 6 years. On the last night in Nepal while returning to Tibet, Marpa dreamt that two Dakinis had placed him on a cloth palanquin, carried it into the sky, and set him down in front of the unequalled Mahasiddha Saraha, who is said to be the First Guru of the Mahamudra Lineage and the cornerstone of the Siddha Tradition. In “The Grand Songs of Lord Marpa” (published in “The Rain of Wisdom”), Marpa sang:
“His joyous face was beaming. ‘Welcome, my son!’ he said. Seeing the lord, I was overwhelmed with joy. The hairs of my body stood on end, and I was moved to tears. I circumambulated him seven times and I offered a full prostration. I received the soles of his feet on the top of my head. ‘Father, accept me with kindness,’ I supplicated.”
Having been blessed and after having received instructions from Mahasiddha Saraha, Lord Marpa exclaimed:
“The exhaustion of all Dharmas is the essential truth, the summit of views, Mahamudra. This sign meaning, which captures the essence of mind, I heard from the mouth of the Great Brahman. At that instant, I awoke. I was caught by the iron hook of this unforgettable memory. Within the dungeon of ignorant sleep, the vision of insight-wisdom opened up and the sun dawned in a cloudless sky, clearing the dark forest of confusion. I thought, ‘Even if I met the Buddhas of the three times, from now on, I would have nothing to ask them.’”
At home, the Dakinis told Marpa that he needed to return to India a third time to receive from Naropa the formless Dakini teachings and the Pho-wa instructions that he still did not have. By now, Marpa was old, sick, and weak, so his students asked him to let his son, Dharma Dode, go in his place. Marpa responded to their request with a song. The last verse is:
“The Gurus Naropa and Maitripa live in India. Shri Shantibhadra lives in India. And the shrine of Mahabodhi is in India. Whatever the consequences may be, I am going to India. Even at the cost of my life, I am going to India.”
Travelling alone, he met Atisha on this occasion. Pälden Atisha (985-1054), also known as Dipamkara Shrijnana, was abbot of the Vikramasila University in India, one of the greatest educational establishments of the time. Atisha assisted translators in their endeavour of rendering sacred Sanskrit texts into Tibetan faithfully and guided students in their spiritual pursuits. The roles of refuge and Bodhicitta were crucial in his presentations, the reason he became known as the “Refuge Scholar.” Pälden Atisha composed “The Seven Points of Mind Training.” This work systematizes the practice of exchanging self for other, a technique that transmutes selfishness into compassion and that was the basis for the Kadampa School which eventually divided into two streams; one stream was integrated into the Kagyü Tradition, the other into the New Kadampa School that later came to be known as Gelug. Pälden Atisha wanted Marpa to escort him as an interpreter to the farthest corners of West Tibet, a region that played a decisive role on the Tibetan Plateau after the fall of the Tubo Kingdom of Central Tibet. Atisha spent the last twelve years of his life in the Kingdom of Guge. And so, when they met, Atisha did not tell Marpa that Naropa was engaged in tantric practice and was therefore hard to find, rather he said that Naropa had passed away. Yet, Marpa did not join Atisha and, due to his deep devotion, did not give up searching for his Guru, who appeared to him in many hidden guises that caused Marpa to relinquish more subtle traces of preconceptions that still blocked his realization of ultimate reality. Marpa finally found Naropa on the summit of a cliff. Extremely happy, Marpa climbed up the cliff and embraced his Guru.
Mahasiddha Naropa greeted his beloved disciple with the words: “I am now going to reveal a teaching that is unknown in the Land of Snows. You are the one chosen to take this precious teaching there.” Marpa insisted that Naropa accept all the gold he had collected from his Tibetan friends and students as a karmic link created by making offerings to the great Pandit and Siddha for all the invaluable teachings they had received. Naropa took the gold, threw it into the air, and it fell everywhere on the ground. In this moment, Marpa felt a little bit sorry. Reading his mind, Naropa opened his hand and all the gold dust that had scattered all around was in his palms. He then pointed his finger downwards and the ground where they were sitting was instantaneously transformed into solid gold. Then Naropa gazed upwards and a huge white fish, whose body was filled with feast offerings, fell from the sky. Naropa told Marpa that it came as a blessing from his Guru Tilopa who was residing in the heavenly realm. They enjoyed the feast together and as a result Marpa’s inner strength, wisdom, and realization matured. After Maropa surmounted another slight obstacle, to refresh the memories of his teachings, Naropa gave him all the empowerments that he had given him before as well as a very profound teaching that he had never revealed to anyone, the “Six Yogas of Naropa.” Before testing Marpa a last time, though, Naropa told his disciple:
“Now, Marpa, your realization is equal to mine. There is no need for you to obtain further instructions or empowerments from me. You must go back to Tibet as my regent and spread and cultivate this lineage.”
His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche the Third often spoke about the Guru-disciple relationship. In the instructions he presented on “Calling the Guru from Afar,” Jamgon Lama taught: “Marpa Lotsawa was sitting in front of Mahasiddha Naropa. Through his miraculous ability, Naropa manifested the meditation deity Hevajra above his right shoulder. He asked Marpa to prostrate to either the one or the other, so Marpa was free and prostrated to Hevajra. Naropa then pointed out to him that the Guru is the source of all inspiration and everything is simply the display of his wonderful activities. The Kagyü Tradition developed from the deep Guru-disciple relationship between Naropa and Marpa.” And so, due to the slight mistake Marpa made, Naropa told him that there would be no continuity of the tradition through the sons he and his wife, Dagmema, had. Then Marpa asked Naropa if his disciples would need to live as monks or as householders. This was an important question for Marpa, because his plan was that the tradition would pass on from father to son. Naropa answered that this was impossible and told Marpa:
“The sky flower of your family lineage will vanish, but your Dharma lineage will flow on like a wide river. Your desires are vivid, like a carving in rock, but the ripples of samsara’s waters will vanish by themselves.”
The metaphor “ripples of samsara’s waters” refers to Dharma Dode, who Naropa prophesied would die before becoming a sage and saint. However, Naropa told Marpa that the lineage would continue into the future through his disciples, saying:
“Your sons will be like the children of lions and garudas. Later disciples will be even better than the previous ones. Having realized the meaning of the great yana, those of good karma will be ripened and freed. You are the king of those worthy students.”
When Mahasiddha Naropa heard that Marpa’s closest student was Milarepa, he folded his hands in reverence, bowed toward the north, and predicted that Milarepa would be like the sun radiating upon the stainless snow, dispelling the darkness of those beings living in darkness. It is said that because of Naropa’s gesture of deepest respect, all the trees in that area bowed in the same direction.
“The Grand Songs of Lord Marpa” records that when Marpa took leave of Naropa, his “Dharma brothers and sisters escorted him away, carrying all his belongings and gear. Lord Marpa himself, walking backwards and prostrating until he reached the bottom of the stone steps of Pullahari, prostrated to the Guru at each step. At the bottom of the stone step he prostrated many times with intense yearning. At that place, Lord Marpa left a footprint in the stone, which is still there now.” Marpa then offered farewell prostrations to his Gurus: Lord Maitripa, Shri Shantibhadra, Jnanagarbha, Chitherpa (who had died), Paindapa, Simhadvipa, Asamavajra, and many others. He returned to Tibet after having been in India 3 years and meticulously translated all the texts he had brought back from India into the Tibetan language for the benefit of his disciples. He became renowned as “the Great Translator,” Marpa Lotsawa. Although a householder, Marpa’s realization was incomparable and is described as a pure lotus growing in a muddy pond.
Lord Marpa did not have many disciples, because only a few people saw how highly realized he was. In “A Spiritual Biography of Marpa,” Thrangu Rinpoche tells us: “Marpa Lotsawa not only received and integrated the sacred teachings fully in his life, but he also made sure that they were transmitted to his pupils flawlessly. He not only gave everything he possibly could to his students, but he also made sure that they understood and practiced the teachings correctly so that they would be able to pass them on to others perfectly. He inspired his students to integrate the precious teachings in their lives.” His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama spoke about the Kagyü Lineage Masters and explained that “because the teachers were qualified, their actions had meaning. In such situations, it is necessary that from the disciple’s side all of the actions of the teacher be respected. But this cannot be compared to the case of ordinary people.” It was after Lord Marpa’s Parinirvana that he was given the praise he deserved. At the time of his passing in the year 1097, he showed that he was inseparable from the Buddha.
Four of his outstanding students who spread the teachings came to be known as the “Four Pillars.” Ngok Chöku Dorje was Marpa’s principal student to receive and master the Tantras. Tsurtön Wangi Dorje was the main student to receive and master Pho-wa (“transference of consciousness”). Metön Chenpo was the main student to receive and master the practice of Öd-säl (“clear light”). Milarepa was the principal student to receive and master the view, meditation, and conduct of Mahamdra, which is the culmination and synthesis of all sacred teachings. Milarepa became the most celebrated and accomplished of Tibet’s tantric yogis. He achieved the ultimate goal of enlightenment in one lifetime and continued the Lineage of the Kagyü Golden Rosary that originated with Buddha Vajradhara and that was passed on to him through the kindness of Shri Tilopa, Shri Naropa, and Lord Marpa Lotsawa, who continues reminding us that
“Of all the Buddhas of the three times,
the Guru is the source of all accomplishments.”
The Golden Rosary, in: Official Website of H.H. the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, 2008.
The Rain of Wisdom. The Vajra Songs of the Kagyü Gurus, transl. under the direction of Chögyam Trungpa by the Nalanda Translation Com., Boston & London, 1980.
The Dalai Lama, Answers: Discussions with Western Budhists, N.Y., 2005.
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, The Life of Marpa, in: Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (Lineage History), N.Y., 2008.
Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, A Spiritual Biography of Marpa the Translator, Colorado & Auckland, 2005.
Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, The Life & Spiritual Songs of Milarepa, Colorado & Auckland, 2003.
Simhananda, Lineages – Marpa Lotsawa, 2006.
Ken Holmes, Lineage Masters, in: Kagyu Samye Ling, Scotland, 2007.
May goodness and virtue increase!
Compiled and written for students of Karma Lekshey Ling in Nepal, who holds copyright, by gh, solely responsible for any mistakes, July 2008.