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Tibetan: Mar pa | Biographical Details

Marpa Chokyi Lodro, Translator (1012-1096 [P2636]): founder of one of the two schools named Kagyu (the Oral Tradition) in Tibetan Buddhism. Marpa's tradition was called Kagyu and after him was called Marpa Kagyu to differentiate the tradition from the unrelated Shangpa Kagyu founded by Kedrub Kyungpo Naljor.

Marpa's most famous student was Milarepa, but probably his most beloved student was Dharmadode. (See a Milarepa: Teachers & Students Outline).

The Important Questions:
The important questions relating to Marpa Chokyi Lodro are those concerning the meaning of a teacher and student, the concepts of lineage and school/tradition, etc. The most important are listed below. These questions can apply to any Tibetan Buddhist teacher.

1. Who were his teachers?
2. Who were his students?
3. What are his lineages, received & continued?
4. How many lineages are there?
5. What are some examples of his lineages?
6. What are the differences between his lineages and his school/tradition?
7. What are the primary extent lineages today?
8. How do we understand his school/tradition today?

Jeff Watt [updated 6-2017, 2-2018]

Marpa Chokyi Lodro Biography:

Marpa Chokyi Lodro (mar pa chos kyi blo gros) was born around 1012 in Chukhyer (chu khyer) in the Lhodrak (lho brag) region of southern Tibet. His father was Marpa Wangchuk Ozer (mar pa dbang phyug 'od zer), and his mother was Gyamo Ozer (rgya mo 'od zer). The youngest of four siblings, as a boy he showed a great aptitude for languages, learning to read and write at a young age under the tutelage of a master known as Lugye (klu brgyad).

He was also an insolent and short-tempered youth, so at the age of fifteen his parents sent him to study with the acclaimed scholar Drokmi Śākya Yeshe ('brog mi lo tsA wa shAkya ye shes, c.992-c.1072) at the latter’s hermitage in Mangkhar Mugu Lung (mang mkhar mu gu lung). Marpa studied Sanskrit and Indian vernacular languages under Drokmi Lotsāwa’s direction for three years, but could not afford to pay the high fees his teacher charged for initiation and dharma instruction. This led Marpa to seek the dharma from other teachers by traveling south to Nepal and India. To that end he joined the company of Nyo Lotsāwa (gnyos lo tsA ba, 11th century), whom he attended as a servant on their way to Nepal.

In the Kathmandu Valley, Marpa encountered a large gaṇacakra ritual feast officiated by the Nepalese teachers Chitherpa and Paiṇḍapa, both disciples of the great Bengali adept Nāropa. From Chitherpa, he received the oral instruction on the Catuḥpīṭha Tantra and the practice of Ejection of Consciousness ('pho ba), as well as the initiation of the goddess Vetālī. He continued his study of Sanskrit with Paiṇḍapa. These teachers encouraged Marpa to travel to India in order to meet Nāropa, who would become his principal guru. On their advice he first spent three years in Nepal, living at the Buddhist site of Swayambhū, in order to acclimate to the lowland heat. Chitherpa and Paiṇḍapa gave Marpa a letter addressed to Nāropa’s disciple Prajñāsiṃha, requesting an introduction to the great Bengali adept.

Once again accompanying Nyo Lotsāwa, Marpa journeyed to India and eventually reached the great center of Buddhist learning Nālānda. Upon learning that Nāropa was instead dwelling at the forest retreat of Pullahari, Nyo attempted to discourage Marpa from seeking out a master who had abandoned scholarship for yogic practice. Undeterred, Marpa travelled to Pullahari where he met Nāropa and received a series of tantric initiations and instructions. These primarily consisted of the mother and father classes of Highest Yoga Tantra, with the Hevajra and Guhyasamāja Tantras foremost among them. During this period in India Marpa also studied with the paṇḍita Jñānagarbha in Lakṣetra and the adept Kukkuripa. He further trained under great adept Maitrīpa, from whom he received instructions on Mahāmudrā and the tradition of dohā songs of spiritual realization.

After twelve years away, Marpa returned to Tibet once again accompanied by Nyo Lotsāwa. Local customs tax officials detained him at the border between Nepal and Tibet during which time he had a visionary dream of the great Indian adept Saraha, who imparted transmissions of Mahāmudrā. Marpa eventually reached his homeland in Lhodrak. He began to teach but soon desired to return to India. In order to find sponsors for the journey and obtain provisions necessary for the trip, he travelled the countryside giving dharma instruction in exchange for gold and other gifts. It was during this time that he met two of his chief disciples Ngokton Choku Dorje (rngog ston chos sku rdo rje, 1036-1097) and Tsurton Wangi Dorje (mtshur ston dbang gi rdo rje, d.u.). As Marpa’s fame grew, he gained both a large following and great wealth. He established a home and teaching center in Trowolung (bro bo lung) and married Dakmema (bdag med ma), who gave birth to Marpa’s son Darma Dode (dar ma mdo sde). (He is said to have had nine wives and seven sons altogether.)

Marpa then undertook his second journey to India, where he once again received instructions from Nāropa, Maitrīpa, Kukkuripa, and other teachers. As he was preparing to leave, Nāropa commanded that he come back to India once more to receive a final set of instructions. After six year away, Marpa returned to Tibet, where he settled into a life as both lay landholder and Buddhist teacher. He continued to transmit the initiations and instructions he received. Most famous among these were the elaborate system of tantric rituals and meditation practices known as the Naro Chodruk (na ro chos drug; the Six Doctrines of Nāropa), and the tradition of Mahāmudrā. Both became important Kagyu practices and were also transmitted to other Tibetan Buddhist schools. At Trowolung, Marpa met his disciples Meton Tsonpo Sonam Gyeltsen (mes ston tshon po bsod nams rgyal mtshan, d.u.) and the most famous of his four religious sons Milarepa (mi la ras pa, c. 1040-1123). It was during this period that Marpa famously trained Milarepa by commanding him to construct a nine-storied tower for his son Darma Dode. Sekhar Gutok monastery in Lhodrak was built around this nine-story tower.

Although Marpa had planned to transmit his dharma lineage to his son, Darma Dode died at a young age. According to tradition, the boy returned as the Indian Brahmin Pārāvatapāda or Tipupa (ti phu pa), who became an important figure in the aural transmission lineage of the Nine Cycles of the Formless Ḍākinīs (lus med mkha' 'gro skor dgu) passed down through Milarepa.

In order to keep his vow to Nāropa, and encouraged by a prophetic dream of Milarepa, Marpa departed on a third trip to India, encountering the acclaimed Indian scholar Atiśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna (982-1054) along the way. When he reached India, Marpa learned that Nāropa had “entered the activity” (spyod pa la gshegs pa) of a wandering yogin. Marpa undertook an exhausting search for his guru that lasted many months. After a series of visionary experiences, he finally succeeded in finding Nāropa, who then imparted a series of instructions on the aural transmissions, or nyengyu (snyan brgyud) of Cakrasaṃvara. Nāropa further commanded that these teachings be transmitted to a single disciple each generation, beginning with Milarepa. After three years away, Marpa again returned home.

Although much conflicting information exists about Marpa’s dates, he is said to have passed away in a state of meditation at the age of eighty-eight. After his death, Marpa’s disciple Ngokton preserved the corpse in a stūpa constructed at his residence in Shung. According to his most famous biography, Marpa had thirteen gurus: Nāropa, Maitrīpa, Śāntibhadra, Jñānagarbha, the "yoginī adorned with bone ornaments," Kasoripa, Riripa, Jetaripa, Prajñārakṣita, Chitherpa, Paiṇḍapa, and Atiśa. Some western scholars have identified “the yoginī adorned with bone ornaments” with the female teacher Niguma although most Tibetan sources do not support this identification.

Some twenty-four works translated from Sanskrit attributed to Marpa are preserved in the Tibetan Buddhist canon.

Andrew Quintman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University. He completed his PhD in Buddhist Studies at the University of Michigan in 2006. Published September 2010.

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