Marpa Lotsawa (1012-1097)

Marpa Lotsawa

MARPA WAS BORN in the southern part of Tibet known as Lhodak. His father's name was Wangchuk Oser and his mother's name was Gyamo Sa Dode. Marpa was born in 1012, and he was one of four sons. From birth Marpa was naturally very powerful, and he displayed many energies and strengths. Just as the nature of fire is warmth, the nature of Marpa was to be powerful. As a fire grows, its warmth increases; and as Marpa grew, his power too increased. His natural magnetic power was so great that even his own parents, if they looked directly into his eyes, were unable to bear the feeling of strength coming from him.

When he was young, he was sent to a teacher named Lugyepa to study. Again, Marpa's understanding and wisdom was so profound that whatever the teacher taught him on one day, he would know by heart the next. So in that manner he surpassed his own teacher.

Not only did Marpa look fearsome, he was also quite aggressive. His natural look of power and strength so frightened all the people in his village that he was not welcome in many homes. In fact, the only people Marpa could visit in his village were his teacher and his one friend. All the rest developed a fear of the magnetic power that Marpa displayed, and they would not welcome him.


Owing to his aggressiveness and fearful appearance, and the resultant unpopularity of Marpa in the village, his father felt it best to send him to a different area to be educated. And so he was sent far from where he was born, to a teacher known as Drokmi Lotsawa, the Translator. From him Marpa was to learn Tibetan writing and reading, poetry, drama, and so forth. Marpa studied under Drokmi the Translator for fifteen years, and became a master not only in the Tibetan language but in the Sanskrit language as well.

Having mastered those languages, Marpa returned to his home village, but he was not to stay long. He decided to go to Nepal for further study, even though the journey from Tibet to Nepal was very long, hard, and dangerous. To help him get there, he collected all the possessions he could get from his friend and from relatives, and made the journey. But when he reached Nepal he learned that one of the most famous scholars and masters of meditation, Naropa, was in India. So he sought out this most accomplished teacher.

Traveling in India at that time was full of hardship. The journey itself was a hardship, and of course there was a good chance of meeting robbers and bandits. At that time India was also divided into many states and kingdoms, all with different kings; because of this, the biggest hardship was the problem with customs. To get through the country, one was always leaving one state and about to enter another, and to enter each state one had to go through customs again. In customs they would take anything valuable that one had, so by the time one reached one's destination, one would probably be walking naked, so to speak, through India. You must go to visit India to know about this.

Despite all these hardships, Marpa prevailed and met his teacher. And because of the hardships that Marpa was willing to go through, all the Karma Kagyu traditions and teachings became available, and are available in the same way now. Without him they would not be available; without him the Kagyu tradition would not exist.

At that period of time, when Marpa was translating the teachings from Sanskrit to Tibetan, translating did not mean only the literal word-for-word translation. Marpa himself went through all the hardships of the practice and communicated in the translation the experience of the teachings as well. He experienced it for himself. In Tibetan this is called "tasting the realization." Then he made the teachings available in their fullness. In that manner, Marpa really studied, worked, translated, and practiced for over forty years, and made all that he experienced available to others.

During that time in Tibet, no translators were allowed to give word-for-word literal translations of teachings. They had to first practice, and reach some realization of the inner meaning of the teachings. Literal translations only gave one the shallow, surface meanings of what was taught, whereas "tasting the flavor of the realization," as the saying goes, gave the translator the real experience of the hard work and fulfillment of the actual practice. Only then were the translators allowed to actually translate, as then they brought experience and understanding to the words. Thanks to the dedication and persistence of these past translators, many practitioners have achieved realization from following their words, a further proof that the teachings were accurately translated, with the inner meaning conveyed.

Marpa had already visited India twice when the dakinis predicted that he must visit India again. But he was quite old at this time, and his students in Tibet were very concerned about his undertaking such a rough journey. Since he was not very strong or in very good health, they suggested that he might send his son, Dharma Dode, in his place. Not listening to the advice of his students, Marpa left Tibet for India, according to the predictions of the dakinis.

As Marpa journeyed from Tibet to India, he met Lord Atisha, who said to him that Naropa had already "left." Now Atisha used a very polite form of the word "left" so that it translated as "passing away," and he gave Marpa no hint as to which pure realm Naropa was currently in. Atisha then suggested that he could travel to India with Marpa and himself become his translator. But again without listening to another's advice or suggestions, Marpa went on to India.

When Marpa arrived in India, he met friends and advanced students of Naropa. When he asked where Naropa was, they told him that Naropa had just disappeared, again suggesting that he had passed on to another realm. They felt, though, that Marpa, because of his deep devotion to and trust in Naropa might be able to meet him again if he looked for him.

So Marpa went to seek his teacher, without any clear idea of where he was or how to find him. He began searching in some very remote regions. Then at one point he recognized the footprints of Naropa on a rock. This filled him with new confidence and devotion. Making prayers and supplications, he went once again in search of Naropa.

He then came near a tree known as ashik and saw a vision of Dakmema, the consort of Hevajra. The image of her in the ashik tree was as clear as a mirror, and Marpa saw that at her heart were swirling mantras, all very clear. Then Marpa paid his respects and made supplications and said his prayers, but still he did not remain at the tree, but went in search of his guru. Finally, on top of a big rock, he saw Naropa, adorned with six ornaments of bone. Since he had been searching for Naropa for so long, he became filled with joy, and went to him on top of the rock and embraced him immediately.

Naropa was very pleased to see and meet with Marpa, and he said to him, "At this time I am going to reveal a teaching that has never been introduced in the snowy country of Tibet ever in the past. You will be the one who will take such a precious teaching to Tibet." Upon hearing that, Marpa offered all the gold that he had brought with him to Naropa. Although Naropa said that he had no real use for gold any more, Marpa still insisted that he should have it in return for the valuable teaching that he was going to give to Tibet. Taking all the gold dust in his hands, Naropa threw it in the air, in the forest, and it fell everywhere on the ground. As Naropa threw the gold and it scattered, Marpa felt a little regret about this action, probably because he had had so much hardship in bringing such precious gold with him. Naropa seemed to be reading his mind, and with a smile on his face, he opened his palms, and all the gold dust that he had thrown in the air was now again in his palm. Not only that, but Naropa pointed his finger, and at that very moment, the ground where they were sitting was transformed into solid gold.

Having done that, Naropa said to Marpa, "Now you must be hungry. Let's eat something." And so saying, Naropa gazed up in the sky. At that moment, from the sky fell a huge fish, whose body was filled inside with tsok (feast offerings). Naropa told Marpa it came from the heavenly realm where Tilopa resided, and it came as a heavenly gift, a blessing from Tilopa. So they enjoyed the feast of tsok, and as they did, Marpa's inner strength, wisdom, and realization matured, simply by enjoying the offering from Tilopa from the heavenly realms.

Having taken and enjoyed this blessing, Marpa once again experienced vital energies. He became stronger and more youthful, physically obtaining all his old strengths back, and he was no longer feeling the weakness of his old age. Naropa then asked Marpa to purify himself further by taking a bath in the small river that was nearby. Marpa went there to take a bath, and took off all his clothes, including a very precious protection that he wore around his neck as a blessing, called a mandala protection. He left that on top of his clothes, and went into the river to bathe. At that moment, a black crow swooped from the sky and took his mandala blessing into its beak and flew away with it. Naropa, seeing that Marpa's blessing was being taken away by a black crow, pointed his finger toward the crow, and at that moment, both the crow and the blessing fell to the ground. Now this was a symbolic omen of something in Marpa's future. It seemed to say that Marpa was going to experience some negative obstacles and hindrances, not only for himself but also for the lineage of transmission, the mahamudra. It foretold that this transmission would experience some unfavorable circumstances. Naropa promised Marpa that these obstacles he was supposed to experience would be eliminated through his special blessing, which he gave Marpa.

With that promise, Marpa's guru once again gave him all the empowerments that he had already given him before, to refresh the memories of his teachings. In addition to that, he gave a very profound teaching that he had never revealed to anyone before, and that was called the Six Doctrines of Naropa. Naropa then said, "Now, Marpa, your realization is entirely equal to my realization. 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." At that time Naropa predicted that, although Marpa had seven sons, there would be no continuity of his family in the future, just as no flower could grow in the sky.

However, Naropa predicted that the line of the lineage holder would continue into the future, and that each successive lineage holder and his students would be brighter and have greater opportunity to achieve realization. And when he heard that Marpa's student was Milarepa, he immediately folded his hands together in a gesture of reverence and respect, and bowed toward the direction of northern India. Naropa predicted that where there are beings living in the womb of darkness, Milarepa would be like the sun radiating upon the stainless snow, removing the darkness. It is said that because of this gesture of profound respect, all the trees there seem to also bow in that direction.

Having received such a blessing and empowerment, Marpa offered a great feast. With the precious teaching from Naropa, Marpa returned to Tibet. Although the journey through India to Tibet was very dangerous, because of his determination and courage he was able to return safely.

On his return, Marpa gave many teachings. He was especially trying to spread the teaching of ejection of consciousness, of which he had had a very special transmission. With the accomplishment of this practice one can enter into the physical body of any dead being, and then become that being.

But as we mentioned, Marpa was not too successful during his lifetime at accumulating students. He remained a short-tempered and aggressive teacher, and not many students liked him, and not many believed in his realization and his accomplishment.

But when Marpa was passing away, he performed many miracles. And after he passed into parinirvana, his transmissions became very widely cultivated and spread around Tibet. Only then did the people in his village and other villages realize what a highly realized and important person Marpa really was; only then did they start to develop profound feelings for him.

After his passing, there were four students who continued to spread Marpa's teachings, or the transmission of Marpa. There were three students who emphasized the learning of the skills that Marpa taught, and only one student, Milarepa, who emphasized meditation, the practice, the experience of Marpa's teaching.

Milarepa was born in the year 1052 in the upper part of Tibet, in the state known as Upper Tsang. His father's name was Sherap Gyaltsen and his mother's name was Kargyen. His parents had a son and a daughter, and Milarepa was the older child. The life story of Milarepa has been put into many books now, and all the detailed information can be found there. But in essence the meaning of Milarepa's life was to be found in the progress of his life and is a teaching in itself.

At the beginning of his life, his family had wealth, property, and land. It did not give them pleasure or happiness, but led him and his family to difficulties and hardship. It is first a teaching on the meaninglessness of samsaric possessions. After the death of his father, Milarepa's life became one of pain and torture dealt out to him at the hands of his own aunt and uncle. It is a tale that really brings many tears to many beings. This led to the next lesson. Because of the terrible punishment inflicted on Milarepa, he desired to seek revenge. He learned and performed feats of black magic for the destruction of many beings. Yet he became a great realized being, a saint, because he found and followed the right guru, and through his guidance overcame past negative accumulations and became purified.

We then go on to learn from Milarepa's life that, in order to remove not only the negative karma of this lifetime but all that we have accumulated throughout many lifetimes, we need to have determination, perseverance, and diligence in removing faults. Milarepa learned the importance of persistence and diligence in following the teacher's directions, and the importance of developing deep devotion for the guru.

Milarepa's life was also an example of the rewards of devotion to the practice. He never gave up, he never surrendered, he kept on practicing with a kind of determination and enthusiasm that is necessary to actually get rid of negative karma. Then finally he showed that, if one develops all those qualities, meeting the right guru, having devotion and perseverance, without giving up, it leads to the positive result of realization; it is not simply a waste of one's self or energy or time. Through his practice Milarepa achieved realization, performed miracles, and eventually became the strongest person, comparable to the diamond. By following and staying on the path to enlightenment, he reached the complete fruition of his goal. This is a symbolic example to all.


This teaching on the Life of Marpa was given by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche at KTD, Woodstock, NY, on March 25-30, 1986. It was translated by Chojor Radha and edited by Andrea Price. Part I appeared in Densal Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter 1986/87; Part II appeared in Densal Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 1987; and Part III appeared in Densal Vol. 8, No. 3, Summer 1987.