Mar Pa (Marpa)

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Mar pa (Mar pa Chos kyi blo gros, 1002/1012–1097) was a renowned translator and lay Buddhist master. He is revered as the Tibetan founder of the Bka' brgyud (Kagyu) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. According to many traditional Bka' brgyud texts, Mar pa is the reincarnation of the Indian mahĀsiddha, or great adept, Ḍombī Heruka (ca. ninth–tenth century b.c.e.). Born in Tibet to wealthy landowning parents in the southern Tibetan region of Lho brag, Mar pa was a precocious child, characterized in his traditional biographies as having a volatile, though inwardly compassionate, personality. His parents addressed both qualities by sending the boy to study Sanskrit and Indian vernacular languages under the learned translator 'Brog mi Lotsāva Śākya ye shes (ca. 992/993–1043/1072) in western Tibet.

Because the resources for studying Buddhism in Tibet at the time were limited, Mar pa decided to seek instruction in India, a journey he would make three times over the course of his life. He first spent three years in Nepal, acclimating to the new environment and continuing his study of local languages. There he met two Nepalese teachers, Chitherpa and Paiṇḍapa, who offered many religious instructions but also encouraged Mar pa to seek out the master who would become his chief guru, the great siddha NĀropa (1016–1100).

Nāropa first submitted Mar pa to a series of arduous trials, finally judging this perspicacious Tibetan to be a fit disciple. He studied under Nāropa at the forest retreat of Pullahari, receiving initiations and teachings of several important tantric lineages. Among these instructions is a collection known in Tibetan as the Six Doctrines of Nāropa (Nā ro chos drug). This elaborate system of tantric ritual and meditative disciplines includes the yogic practices of: (1) inner heat (gtum mo); (2) the illusory body (sgyu lus); (3) dreams (rmi lam); (4) radiant light ('od gsal); (5) the intermediate state (bar do); and (6) transference of consciousness ('pho ba).

Mar pa's second great master was the Indian siddha Maitrīpa (ca. 1007–1085), from whom he received instruction in the mahĀmudrĀ teachings and the tradition of dohā, or songs of spiritual realization. Although later disseminated in different forms among various Tibetan Buddhist sects, the Six Doctrines of Nāropa and mahāmudrā became central meditation systems for the Bka' brgyud. Mar pa received other tantric transmissions from Indian masters, such as Jñānagarbha and Kukkurīpā, as well.

Mar pa then returned to Tibet, where he married several wives (the most well known is Bdag med ma, who figures prominently in the life story of the renowned yogin Mi la ras pa [Milarepa; 1028/40–1111/23]), established a home, and began his career as a Buddhist teacher and translator who was at the same time a landowner and farmer. Mar pa had planned to pass his dharma lineage on to his son Dar ma mdo sde (for whom Mi la ras pa's famous final tower was built), but the child died at a young age. Mar pa's accumulated instructions, which contributed to the formation of a new stream of Buddhist thought in Tibet known as new tantra (rgyud gsar ma), were later passed to several principal disciples including Mi la ras pa. At least twenty-four works translated from Sanskrit attributed to Mar pa are preserved in the Tibetan Buddhist canon.

See also:Tantra


Lhalungpa, Lobsang P., trans. The Life of Milarepa. New York: Dutton, 1977. Reprint, Boston: Shambhala, 1984.

Trungpa, Chögyam, and the Nalanda Translation Committee, trans. The Life of Marpa the Translator. Boston: Shambhala, 1986.

Andrew Quintman