Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Fixated neither on Samsara nor Nirvana,
Free of both acceptance and rejection,
Not hoping for fruition from others,
With mind free of preoccupation and complexity,
Avoiding all of the four extremes,
Non-meditation and non-wandering,
Free from thought and speech,
Beyond any analogy whatsoever –
Through the kindness of the
Guru, I realized these.

Since these realizations have dawned,
Mind and mentation have ceased,
And space and insight are inseparably one.
Faults and virtues neither increase nor decrease;
shunyata and luminosity are unceasing.
Therefore Light arises beyond coming and going.

Kagyü Gurtso MARPA

Viharas or monastic centres preserved the inextinguishable presence of Buddha and the vitality of the Dharma in India for fifteen centuries. They were also the bases from which Buddha's teaching spread along royal highways to the northwest, across silk routes north and then east, and over sea lanes to Southeast Asia, China and Japan. The Sangha or Order was the community of committed disciples who had taken vows to practise and propagate the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path through realization and service. Over the centuries the Order gradually formalized its monastic functions and emerged as the preserver and interpreter of the sacred texts. Lay disciples always had a place in the Buddhist tradition, however, as was shown by the enthusiastic welcome extended to Chandragomin at Nalanda by the great monk and teacher, Chandrakirti. Nonetheless, the greatest monastic centres were not free of the vulnerabilities of religious and educational institutions, and they suffered from ossification of venerable practices and from scholastic aridity.

The rise of tantric systems first threatened the traditional relationship of monastic and lay communities by drawing lay disciples away from the broad umbrella of monastic influence. But in time the monastic community absorbed tantra and helped fashion it into Vajrayana, the diamond vehicle, for which it provided texts, techniques and commentaries. Though Vajrayana infused the viharas with new vigour, many individuals still found that the heavy hand of scholasticism impeded their efforts to realize Buddha's message in the core of their own being. By the tenth century the tradition of tantric adepts who mastered their practices independently of the formal Sangha had grown to include monks who were trained in the viharas and who had left them to deepen their own insights under the guidance of a teacher who set his own rules and based his instructions on the lineage of teachers to which he belonged. On the positive side, the monastic community provided continuity for Buddhadharma, whilst the tradition of independent lineages of teachers broadened and redefined the idea of the Sangha. Both cast shadows: the monastic community sometimes violated the spirit of Buddha's teachings by engaging in such technical disputations over their dead letter that monks sacrificed spiritual striving to cerebration, and lineages not subject to the consensus or guidance of the community could drift into psychic delusion or even black magic. Nevertheless, the Vajrayana tradition gave potent meaning to the guru-chela relationship and invoked one critical aspect of Buddha's own activity. Both traditions entered Tibet with Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava and have remained there until the present day.

Marpa was born into a wealthy landowning family in Lhotrak in A.D. 1012. Lhotrak lies almost due south of Lhasa near the border with Bhutan, and its Buddhist contacts were not lost during the persecution of Lang Darma and the subsequent disintegration of the Tibetan empire. Marpa was hearty and dynamic to a degree which led his parents to decide to educate him as a Buddhist. He began his education at the age of twelve and soon mastered reading, writing and the teachings available in the region, receiving the nameChökyi Lodrö(Dharma Mind). His thirst for the teachings was countered by an inability to control his temper – one of the most difficult tasks, according to Buddha in the Dhammapada – and his parents agreed to send him to Western Tibet for advanced training.

In 1054, when he was already middle-aged, Marpa came to the Nyugu Valley, where Drogmi had established a monastic community the year after Atisha entered Tibet. Drogmi had studied in India and had brought valuable texts to Tibet, where he translated them. They found their way into the Tibetan canon, and Drogmi became the philosophical parent of the Sakya tradition in Tibet. Marpa remained with Drogmi for three years, learning Sanskrit along with Buddhist teachings, and prepared himself so well for his own work as a lotsawa or translator that he is sometimes known to history as Marpa the Translator. Although he made great strides in self-discipline, his thirst for Buddhadharma was unassuaged, and he decided to follow the familiar but treacherous route to India. After winning the approval of his reluctant parents, he converted his possessions to gold and set out on the journey which was to mark the real beginning of his spiritual odyssey.

Marpa made the hard journey far to the west into the Kungthang region above Nepal, and then he descended along the Trisuli River Valley into the cis-Himalayan kingdom. Since Tibetan wayfarers had always found the descent into the plains of the subcontinent hazardous to their health, Marpa chose to remain in Katmandu for three years in order to adjust to the climate. There he met Chitherpa and Paindapa, disciples of Naropa, his future guru. Never for a moment did he think that the encounter was by chance; for him, it was the re-establishment of an ancient connection. He studied under the Nepalese disciples and prepared himself to meet their teacher, and then he made his way across dangerous territory to Phullahari near Nalanda, where Naropa lived. Naropa immediately received him, declaring that he would hold the lineage in Tibet, for his own teacher, Tilopa, had prophesied the appearance of Marpa and his worthiness as a disciple.

Tilopa has been enshrined in human memory as one of the eighty-four mahasiddhas, fully enlightened adepts of Vajrayana. After practising meditation as an ordained monk at Somapuri for twelve years, he left the vihara and worked at secular occupations for another twelve years whilst perfecting his meditation and fusing it with his daily round. Thereafter he became a wandering teacher whose renown spread throughout Bengal. Tradition holds that Tilopa received his quintessential spiritual knowledge from no embodied guru but from Vajradhara, the pure essence of Buddha's mind, which is Enlightenment itself. It is also said that he had received the transmitted teachings of a number of important lineages, which included in their lines Vajrapani, Saraha, Nagarjuna and Indrabhuti. Tilopa accepted Naropa, who is also one of the mahasiddhas, as the disciple to whom he passed the entire lineage. Naropa began as a monk and eventually occupied the distinguished and responsible position of academic gate keeper at both Nalanda and Vikramashila. Despite his remarkable attainments, Naropa realized that without Enlightenment all else was valueless, and he left the monastic community in search of a teacher who could speak from experience. When he met such a teacher in Tilopa, he was subjected to twelve trials of his worthiness, and these tests have been given such epic proportions by tradition that it is said his teacher had to restore him to physical health after each one. Naropa was in the end successful, and in combining learning with yoga, he became a teacher worthy of his guru's full confidence. He left Tilopa and moved to Phullahari to teach and await the arrival of Marpa.

Even though Naropa assured Marpa of his eventual success, he insisted that Marpa must earn his wisdom. It is impossible to specify the exact nature of the teachings passed on to Marpa, for the tantric texts do not constitute spiritual transmission. They may be given to a disciple, but it is the oral instruction of the guru which brings them to life and which illumines the disciple's understanding. In addition, the guru gives his chela suitable abhishekas or initiations which empower the disciple to practise the teachings transmitted. In doing so, the disciple is linked with various deities – peaceful, mildly wrathful and wrathful – including the yidam or personal deity of the disciple. These deities are simultaneously aspects of the Buddhas and therefore pure representations of the Buddha-mind; the active fusion of insight and compassion, prajna and karuna; the awakened nature of the disciple himself; and the path to realization of which the guru is the link, threshold, portal and guide. For the disciple, the guru is the awakened mind of the disciple, and only he who totally fuses his mind with that of the guru is worthy to receive the whole of the guru's mind or teaching. The lineage which the disciple enters, in being given one or more abhishekas, is a direct translation of Buddha's relationship with his Arhats. The unswerving faith in the first of the Three Jewels thus becomes unshakeable faith in the guru, receptivity to the Dharma becomes total acceptance of the guru's instruction, and the mutual support of the Sangha becomes the discipline imposed by the initiation. Marpa's yidam was Hevajra, a mildly wrathful deity of energy, skilful means and bliss. His initiation introduced him to the Vajrayana doctrine that the world itself is sacred, bound him to the path of realization of the sacredness in every thought, word and deed, and set him upon his way through devotion to the guru.

Though Naropa could teach Marpa everything, he followed the tradition of sending his disciple to other teachers who were adepts in particular Vajrayana practices. Among others, he went to Maitripa, who had once taught Atisha to learn the skill of singing dohas, spontaneous songs which express the essence of one's insight and experience. Marpa's dohas inaugurated the doha tradition in Tibet in the form which has persisted to the present day. Although the inner teachings of the lineage cannot be recorded in writing, Marpa's dohas show the significance, value and effect of what he assimilated. Maitripa also gave Marpa the great mahamudra teaching. Mahamudra literally means 'great gesture' or 'great seal', but according to the mysterious Chakrasamvaratantra, mu represents the wisdom of shunyata, Voidness; dra refers to emancipation from Samsara, the ocean of illusion and cyclic existence; and maha signifies their ultimate indivisibility. When one sees with a pellucid mind that reality is free from illusion, it becomes the self-validating symbol of Enlightenment. The ground of existence is dharmata, unchanging, indestructible, unceasing reality, best represented by empty space. Realization of this ground is perfect insight, self-luminous and therefore capable of manifesting anything and everything. Mahamudra, the union of dharmata and prajna beyond even the intimation of duality, is thus the seal of that spiritual alchemy in which the fusion of Nirvana and Samsara is both understood and lived out. Upon assimilating this teaching, Marpa sang:

This unceasing dharmata
Is self-luminous insight without obstruction.
Within innate insight, unity,
Spontaneous wisdom is the view. . . .

The essence of realization is nowness,
Occurring all at once, with no plus or minus.
Self-emancipation, innate great bliss,
Is the fruition free from hope or fear.

Marpa returned to Naropa, who confirmed the instructions he had received from other teachers, and after twelve years he began the journey back to Tibet. After numerous adventures, many of which tested his hard-won knowledge, he settled down in his native Lhotrak, took a wife, and began to teach disciples even while he raised a family. In one sense, Marpa's life in Lhotrak was unexceptional for a farmer and family man with all the duties of a landowner and a householder. In another sense, his behaviour, especially with his disciples and in the performance of magic, was quite unusual. In time Marpa made a second trip to India, which took six years and followed the pattern of his first sojourn. When he took leave of his guru for the second time, however, Naropa sang an enigmatic song in code language and promised special instruction on his return. Back in Lhotrak, Marpa farmed and waited for the disciple Naropa had told him about – Milarepa. Since Milarepa had been impetuous in the use of psychic powers, Marpa compelled him to undergo a number of trials which seemed designed to inflame his ego and ignite his impetuosity, yet aimed to purify his whole nature. During this time, Marpa ordered Milarepa to build stone towers for no very clear purpose. Remnants of these constructions survive to support the story of Milarepa's labours. When Milarepa was ready to receive Marpa's teaching and to go into retreat to master them, Marpa suddenly understood Naropa's cryptic song and hastened to return to India.

When he reached the vicinity of Phullahari, he made a horrifying discovery. Naropa had taken up an extremely advanced stage of Vajrayana practice called spyodpa la gshegspa – entering the action – in which one abandons any fixed abode and encounters the world directly. Like a Taoist Immortal, Naropa was glimpsed everywhere but found nowhere. The geography of Marpa's journeys had become unconscious reference points in the mind, presumed certitudes which have no place in enlightened consciousness. All such reference points, mental, psychological, moral and physical, were torn from Marpa during his desperate search of eight months for his guru. When he finally met Naropa, he joyously thrust the gold he had brought as a gift into Naropa's hand, but his teacher cast the gold into the forest, as if the traditional offering were meaningless. Then he touched the earth, and where his fingers felt the ground, the earth became gold. He said, "All the world is gold for me", and at once the innermost meaning of the mahamudra, the actuality of the great seal, arose in Marpa's mind. He no longer thought of the world as sacred, because he now saw that it was so. And so he was ready for the highest teaching, arcane truths which could be put in no ordinary tongue nor traced with pen on paper. Rather, they were written with the diamond stylus of insight on Marpa's spiritual heart.

Yet one final test was given to Marpa. Naropa magically formed the mandala of Marpa's yidam in the sky. When Marpa beheld Hevajra in the vault of the heavens, he prostrated before it rather than before his guru, forgetting that it was only through the guru that such a marvel could come to be. He corrected himself but became terribly ill. When his sickness eventually passed, Naropa explained that it was the immediate purgation of the karma which produced and was generated by that fateful, if momentary, error. Restored to wholeness by this final realization, Marpa returned to Tibet for the last time, sad in heart at leaving his guru but aware that his guru was one with him for all the days of his life. In addition, Naropa told Marpa that Milarepa would be his successor in receiving the entire lineage and that he in turn would give rise to four related noble lineages which would preserve the teaching. Marpa had hoped to pass his teaching to his own son, Tarma Dode, but the youth died in an accident. His death deeply affected Marpa, his wife and his circle of disciples and became the focus of their understanding that nothing in manifest existence is permanent and worthy of being considered real.

The sublime and arcane teaching which Marpa passed on to his disciple can no more be put into ordinary words than can the instructions given to Marpa by Naropa, Maitripa and eleven other adepts. When the disciples gathered as a group, however, Marpa often answered general questions by singing a doha. Many of these were preserved in the Kagyü Gurtso, a collection of such songs from the whole Kagyü tradition, and in a biography of Marpa. Their expression of the fruits of insight and understanding are meant to provide inspiration for disciples and to serve for meditation and reflection. On one occasion Marpa sang:

The three worlds are primordially pure.
Ultimately, there is naught more to understand.
Absence of negation, unceasing continuity,
Unchanging – such is the view.

Innate essence is by nature luminous.
Unconditioned, meditation is unceasing.
Free of negation, beyond loss and gain,
Without desire or attachment – such is meditation.

Arising from natural coincidence,
The play of illusion is unhindered.
Free of negation, all things
Are unpredictable and sudden – such is action.

Mind shines as bodhichitta,
The three kayas of Buddha are not attained.
Free of negation, beyond hope and fear,
Groundless and without root – such is fruition.

Besides providing guidance, orientation and focus for disciples, Marpa sometimes provided commentaries on difficult and confusing doctrines in his songs. For example, in addition to the mysterious conception of the three kayas of Buddha – Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya – Marpa spoke of the Svabhavikakaya, the essential unity of the three kayas, and of the Mahasukhakaya, the indivisibility of the other four kayas. When asked about the teachings of Maitripa at a sacred feast in honour of the gurus, Marpa declared, "There is no harm in revealing some aspects of Maitripa's intention in a song." Then he expounded the doctrine of the kayas:

The Dharmakaya, like the sky,
Is Buddha, the great Vajradhara.
The thick rain clouds of wisdom
Are the two Bodhisattvas. . . .

Self-luminous unchanging insight
Is characterized as unborn Dharmakaya.
Unceasing self-born wisdom
Is described as the manifold of Nirmanakaya.

These two fused in coemergence
Are described as Sambhogakaya.
And these three, free from origination,
Are called the Svabhavikakaya.

All these, transcending conditions,
Are the Mahasukhakaya.
These are the five ultimate kayas.
O friends of the heart! Are your minds gladdened?

Marpa repeatedly reminded his disciples of the centrality of devotion to the guru, for the union of the receptive mind of the disciple with the omniscience of the guru's mind alone permits the full transmission of the Dharma. Paradoxically, the spiritual submission of the chela awakens his real consciousness, so that he begins to grow into his innate nature, increasing understanding and attracting those spiritual forces – the Sangha – which support striving towards realization.

The merit of praising the guru
Is equal to offering to the Buddhas.
Through praising the masters,
May all beings serve spiritual friends.

When Milarepa returned from his secluded meditations, Marpa gathered his disciples together and gave them the full transmission of the teachings he had received from his gurus. True to Naropa's prophecy, which was also a command, Milarepa received the most advanced doctrines. Then Marpa sent them on to their own work while he himself retired to his farming duties. Save for his effortless display of magical powers, he lived out an ordinary life in the world, for his real life was on planes of consciousness inconceivable to unawakened minds. Though the Kagyü lineage traces its origin to Vajradhara and Tilopa, Marpa was its founder in Tibet and his disciples organized the Kagyü Order, which survived the tumults of Tibetan history and has recently spread to India, Europe and America. Its strange and easily misunderstood rituals and practices cannot be penetrated without the perspective provided by Marpa in his spontaneous dohas, sung to his disciples.

If I explain all of my realization,
Some of you would not be able to hold it in your mind.
If I were to explain just an aspect, it would be this:

Confidence in luminosity
Is perception free from bias or partiality.
Meditation is continuous, like the flow of a vast river.
By refusing to limit meditation to the four periods,
And by renouncing even the vestige of hypocrisy,
There is no distinction between meditation and what comes after it.
By gaining the power of prana and mind,
The fear of Samsara disappeared long ago.
This is my realization.