Mar pa

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MAR PA (Marpa, 1002/10121097) is acknowledged as the "forefather" who introduced the Lineage of the Oral Precepts (Bka' brgyud), later one of the four major schools of the Buddha's doctrine (the Kagyü), in Tibet. After the collapse of the Tibetan empire with the death of King Glang dar ma (Langdarma, r. 836841), who had done away with the centers of monastic learning in the Land of Snows, the Buddhist tradition soon degenerated, creating a situation akin to one documented in a remote Himalayan valley in the early twenty-first century (Sihle, 2001). Some ritual techniques were preserved, but uninterrupted masterdisciple transmission of the initiations and meditational instructions gave way to a legitimacy based solely on clan descendance and mere ownership of the books. Especially lacking was a cohesive overview of Buddhist learning, and the ability therein to distinguish the essence.

The responsibility for a potential revival rested on the shoulders of Tibetan aspirants willing to make the difficult journey to the firya lands, acquaint themselves with the spoken and written idiom of the country, study at the great monastic universities, or train under individual masters in India and Nepal. Among these, Mar pa Chos kyi blo gros ("Dharma Intellect" from the Mar clan) stands out as the lo tsā ba (yogin-translator) par excellence. One of the earliest Golden Garland redactions (by the thirteenth-century Rgyal thang pa Bde chen rdo rje [Dechen Dorje from Gyalthang]) that relates Mar pa's life in the context of a Bka brgyud lineage history introduces the subject by way of his previous birth as an Indian brahman, thus accounting for his future relative ease in picking up Sanskrit and the Indian ver-naculars.

Mar pa Lo tsā ba was born in Lho brag (Lhotrak, "Southcliff"), the youngest of four siblings. An older sister, a Rdzogs chen (Dzogchen, "Great Perfection") practitioner, achieved the rainbow body. An older brother is explicitly mentioned as "being remarkable for his patience," the very trait that the young Mar pa entirely lacked, for he is described as a wild youth who quarreled with everyone. His relatives were more than willing to sponsor his removal to a monastery in distant Mu gu lung (Mugu Valley), headed by the long-term India resident 'Brog mi Lo tsāba (Drokmi Lotsāwa, c. 992/31043/1072). But when the latter exacted fees far beyond Mar pa's means for every meditational instruction imparted, young Mar pa decided to travel to the south.

Further funding by his relatives was meager compared to that of (the future) Gnyos Lo tsā ba (Nyö Lotsāwa) from Kha rag, whom Mar pa encountered en route, and who traveled in grand style, with a large entourage. Mar pa became his servant, setting up camp, cooking meals, fetching water, sweeping, and so forth. In the Nepal Valley they came across a huge religious gathering, presided over by two of the disciples of Nāropa (10161100), the Newar "Bald Head" (Bal po Spyi ther pa) and Guru Pentapa (probably Paindapa, "the alms gatherer"), and attended largely by the local "twice-born" (brahmans ). The former granted Mar pa the Hevajra initiation; under Pentapa he continued his Sanskrit studies. Most important of all, they dispatched a messenger to India with an introduction letter to Mahā shrī Nāropa.

At the monastic university of Nālandā, Gnyos tried to dissuade Mar pa from studying under Nāropa, since the latter had switched from being a respected Doorkeeper Scholar to a possessionless Kusulu jungle-dweller. Mar pa remained adamant, and in the course of three journeys to India studied, under Nāropa and a number of other masters, all the main cycles of the Tantras, especially of the Mother and Father class in Highest Yoga. The range of his learning became extremely wide. No wonder, then, that even during his lifetime, Mar pa was regarded as a living buddha, and he is depicted as such on the well-preserved fresco portrait at the Nine-Storied Prince's Castle built by Mi la ras pa (Milarepa, 1028/40-1111/23) in Lho brag, wherein Mar pa is shown seated on a Buddha's lion throne and attended by standing bodhisattvas in old Indian attire.

Back in the Lho brag area, he established his own teaching center at Gro bo lung (Trowo Valley). There he became responsible for the transmission of: (1) the six yogas of Nāropa, directly obtained from that master, and (2) the "great sealing gesture" or mahāmudrā, specifically taught to him by Maitripa Mahāsiddha (c. 10071085). Elements thereof eventually spread to the other main schools. The cycles centered on the Mother Tantras gained major ascendancy in the Bka' brgyud line.

In one long episode (missing from Gtsang smyon Heruka's [Tsang Nyön Heruka, "the mad saint from Tsang"] fifteenth-century biography of Mar pa) Rgyal thang pa insists on the emanational (nirmāakāya ) nature of Mar pa, his wife Bdag med ma (Dagmema), and their seven sons, all of them bodhisattvas. As proof he points out that the sons all died in ascending order, from the youngest up to Dar ma sdo sde Dar ma mdo sde (Tarma Dode), who dissolved into Bdag med ma who dissolved into Mar pa, whose consciousness dissolved into a rainbow. He likens this to the dissolving of the maala deities at the end of the Hevajra meditation scenario. (This is counter to Gtsang smyon Heruka's narrative of Dar ma mdo sde's transmigration into the body of a brahman boy in India, and his own rebirth as Ti phu pa.) In a view entirely in tune with the more important role accorded to Bdag med ma by Rgyal thang pa, upon Mar pa's return to Gro bo lung, Lord Nāro appeared to him in a dream and delivered a verse injunction to take Bdag med ma as his wife. This markedly differs from the somewhat misogynous tone of Gtsang smyon Heruka's redaction, which contains several snide remarks aimed at her (e.g., "A woman leading a meeting [is like] a goat leading the way, [like] a prairie dog serving as a sentry," 1986, p. 166).

The translation of Gtsang smyon Heruka's Life of Marpa has each chapter prefixed by a calligraphed nges don (definitive meaning), which applies to the instructions embedded in the spiritual songs. Much historical research is reflected in the notes, although Gtsang smyon Heruka's own intention was, rather, the creation of a flawless, near-filmic scenario, similar to a jewel box in which to enshrine the songs of instructionthe ones translated and commented upon in a masterly fashion in Trungpa Rinpoche's introduction. Studied in conjunction with a step-by-step mahāmudrā instruction like Si tu Pa che's spirited commentary to the root verses by the third Karma pa, the uniqueness of Mar pa Lo tsā ba's heritage retains a sense of timeless wonder.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Tibet; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism; Mahāsiddhas; Mi la ras pa; Nā ro pa.


Rgyal thang pa Bde chen rdo rje's thirteenth-century Dkar brgyud gser 'phreng (Golden garland of the white [cotton robes] transmission) is so far unavailable in English translation, except for the root verses of the Tilopa chapter, which can be found in Fabrizio Torricelli's "A Thirteenth Century Tibetan Hymn to the Siddha Tilopa," The Tibet Journal 23, no. 3 (1998): 1824. The only complete translation of a Mar pa biography is Chögyam Trungpa and the Nālandā Translation Committee, The Life of Marpa the Translator, Seeing Accomplishes All, by Gtsang smyon Heruka (Boston and London, 1982; reprints, 1986 and 1995). A superb introduction to Mar pa's mahāmudrā heritage is Lama Sherap Dorje, trans., Mahāmudrā Teachings of the Supreme Siddhas: The Eighth Situ-pa Tenpa'i Nyinchay on the Third Gyalwa Karmapa Rangjung Dorje's "Aspiration Prayer of Mahāmudrā of Definitive Meaning" (Ithaca, N.Y., 1995). Its adaptation in the Dge lugs (Geluk) system is flawlessly presented in Alexander Berzin, trans., The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra: H.H. the Dalai Lama's Commentary to the First Panchen Lama, Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen's "A Root Text for the Precious Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra" (Ithaca, N.Y., 1997). Although not intended as such, Nicholas Sihle's unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, "Les tantristes tibétains (ngakpa ): Religieux dans le monde, religieux du rituel terrible: Étude de Ch'ongkor, communauté villageoise de tantristes du Baragaon (nord du Népal)," Université de Paris (2001), probably presents the most authentic image of the state of much post-Glang dar ma Buddhism in Tibet. Hubert Decleer's preliminary study, "The Melodious Drumsound All-Pervading, Sacred Biography of Rwa Lotsāwa, about early Lotsāwa rnam thar and chos 'byung," Proceedings of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Narita, 1989 (1992): 1328, offers a few introductory remarks about the historical problems involved.

Hubert Decleer (2005)

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