In 2000 Sri Satguru Publications published The Spiritual Biography of Marpa the Translator, providing an insightful English Language biography of one of the most influential figures in the Kagyu Lineage. Written by the 20th century teacher, Thrangu Rinpoche (Geshe Lharampa), the biography presents part of a planned series on the great masters of the Kagyu Lineage. Ken and Katia Holmes provide the English translation of Rinpoche’s work. As one of the foremost figures in the preservation of Kagyu texts and traditions after the Chinese invasion, Thrangu Rinpoche has worked hard to emphasize the role of Marpa in bringing Kagyu teachings from India to Tibet and in doing so diverges slightly from much of Buddhist biographical tradition. Thrangu Rinpoche refers to the biography as a namtar, meaning full or complete liberation focused on providing emulatable examples to readers.
Marpa’s biography begins with a prayer to Marpa and then a chronological account of his life beginning with Marpa’s early life. Born in 1012 in U (central province), Marpa was an angry and temperamental child. With the goal of helping Marpa to become more peaceful and compliant, his parents set him on a religious path under the tutelage of Drokmi Lotsawa. Marpa, while not particularly inspired by or connected to Drokmi Lotsawa, learned the main spoken dialect of India and developed an inclination to visit India.
Marpa quickly informed his parents that he has decided to go India and requests his inheritance so that he may fund his travels. During Marpa’s first voyage to India he met Nyö Lotsawa, with whom he traveled to Nepal. Marpa stayed in Nepal for three years learning Sanskrit and several other Indian languages. One day, Marpa encountered two of Naropa’s disciples from Pontengpa who trigger a memory of his past life connection to Naropa. Despite encountering some anti-Tibetan sentiment from the Nepalese, Marpa heard the teachings and chose to visit Naropa, leaving Nyö Lotsawa in Nepal. Upon meeting Marpa, Naropa informs him that his own teacher, Tilopa, once predicted Marpa’s arrival and the eventual transmission of the Kagyu teachings in Tibet.
After some time, Marpa took a break from studying tantras with Naropa and visited a neighboring town where he encountered Nyo Lotsawa.
Nya told Marpa of the Guhyasamaja tantra, about which Marpa soon realized he knew nothing. Marpa then consulted Naropa who instructed him to visit Yeshé Nyingpo to receive further empowerments and instructions. Later, in another chance encounter, Nyo told Marpa of the Mahama tantra. At Naropa’s suggestion, Marpa first journeyed to the island of poison to visit the mahasiddha Kukkuripa to receive the teaching. After a very difficult journey, Marpa arrived at the island of poison where he found Kukkuripa covered in hair and with an abnormally colored lower body. Kukkuripa resisted teaching Marpa at first, calling Naropa a joke of a Pandita, but then admited that Naropa is a tremendous teacher and gave Marpa the complete transmission of the Mahamaya teaching.
Next, Marpa took an arduous journey to the Mountain that Looked like Blazing Fire to find Maitripa’s monastery. Marpa sought the ‘longer transmission’ that Maitripa had received from Nagarjuna, who had received it from the mahasiddha Saraha. Ultimately Marpa received several tantras from Maitripa, perhaps the most significant being The Song of the Twelve Instructions, which contains the key instructions of mahamudra meditation.
After receiving The Song of the Twelve Instructions, Marpa journeyed back to Tibet with Newé Lotsawa. On the border between Nepal and Tibet, Marpa failed to pay a traveler’s border tax and strict customs officials detained him. While in official custody, Marpa had a dream in which he met the great mahasiddha Saraha’s wisdom body. After receiving Sahara’s teaching, Marpa transmited the information in the form of a song to his newfound disciples, the four great pillars of the teaching who are connected to Marpa via a karmic link. Marpa’s first disciple was Ngoktön Chödor, after whom he acquired many more disciples whilst he traveled through Tibet teaching. Subsequently, Marpa met Merton Chagu Dorjé, Marpa Golek, and Dorjé Wangngé, each of whom he impresses with his teachings and lack of desire for material things.
After acquiring disciples, Marpa returned to India, leaving behind his families and children. Marpa first traveled to Nepal, to rejoin Naropa who gave him the three levels of empowerment of the Hevajra and three tantras. Naropa then instructed Marpa to return to other teachers and receive the teachings that he did not receive during his first trip to India. He then returned to Naropa and received further teachings and was made to promise a third visit to India. Marpa left Naropa and returned to Tibet where he met his most prolific disciple, Milarepa. Marpa gave Milarepa a number of difficult tasks, such as building a tower for Marpa’s son Darmadodé and sending him to practice in a cave, to further his spiritual development.
While in Tibet, Marpa reflected on a song that Naropa sang to him and realized that he should return to India at some point. Being advanced in age, many people advised Marpa not to return to India, warning of thieves, the dangers of the Ganges River, and famine. Marpa did not listen, confident in his spiritual power, and returned to India. Marpa’s return to India proved incredibly strenuous and dangerous, improving his spiritual character even further. Upon returning to Tibet, Marpa met the great teacher Atisha, who informed him that Naropa had taken up the life of a yogi. Despite being told that it might be impossible to contact Naropa, Marpa remembered his promise to return to India and continued to seek his teacher. After eight months, Marpa felt very strongly that he would meet Naropa after all. He found a shepherd who directed him to a trail of Naropa’s footprints, which then led him to a complete mandala of Hevajra on a tree. Marpa recognized the emanation of Naropa, who then appears before him. During this last trip in India, Marpa spent time in retreat with Darmadodé, one of his seven sons. After investing much time in his son’s education, his son fell victim to the follies of youth, getting drunk and falling from a horse at a festival. His son died and his consciousness is then transferred to a series of animals and finally to a village child. The event was traumatic for Marpa, but strengthens his spiritual resolve.
Ultimatley Marpa received further teachings from Naropa, but also became very ill. Knowing that he was destined to bring the teachings to Tibet, Marpa remained confident that he would not die in India. Eventually Naropa empowered Marpa as his representative and faced a difficult return to Tibet. On the fifteenth day of the first Tibetan month of the year, at the age of 88, Marpa experienced extreme joy and passed away peacefully while sitting in mediation. At that moment the sky was filled with rainbows, flowers rained from above, and fragrances and music filled the air. Marpa’s role in the translation and transmission of the teachings between India and Tibet was crucial to the Kagyu tradition of Tibet.