Even though the sacred oral instructions can  become extremely milky nectar flowing down,
Without the blessings of lineage, they are the same as a ‘hot spring’.
གསུངས་པ་གདམས་པ་བདུད་རྩི་ཤིན་ཏུ་འོ་མ་མར་མང་གྱུར་ཀྱང། ་བྱིན་རླབས་བརྒྱུད་པ་མེད་ན་བཀོད་མའི་ཆུ་དང་མཚུངས།

—Marpa in his introduction to the Oral Descents of the Blessings Lineage[1]

That called ‘Kagyu’ is no different from the previous teachings of the Perfect Bhagavan Buddha’s oral transmission, regardless of what lineage of Buddhism it may be, they are the same teachings   These had their original source among the Indian mahasiddhas, beginning with the great Mahasiddha Tilopa of India, which descended on him from Vajradhara and then were  passed down by Tilopa to the great Mahasiddha Naropa. As it is the Dharma of those siddhas, it is the Dharma of the Kagyu. In dependence on that, it is called Kagyupa [which literally means ‘oral transmission]. As it is the Dharma of Naropa,the Four Descents (kabab zhi), it is called the Kagyupa,

—16th Karmapa (1976, Vermont TV interview)

“In all his activity, Marpa is shown as not holding anything back. His style is depicted as uninhibited, direct, and stubborn. When he saw what he wanted, he went after it. When he saw what needed to be done, he did it. Thus, early in his life, he saw that the dharma was true and worthwhile, and sought it wholeheartedly. Realizing that he would have to make the long and dangerous journey to India to obtain the dharma, he did not hesitate to go. Having convened most of his possessions into gold and overcome the objections of his parents, Marpa began the first of his three journeys to India.

—excerpt from The Life of Marpa the Translator: Seeing Accomplishes All.

16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje in 1976 Vermont TV interview

In the second article in a series of posts for the 16th Karmapa’s forthcoming paranirvana commemoration (November 5th), I offer a research piece on the meaning of the ‘Four Descents’ (kabab zhi) and how it relates to Kagyupa lineages. As I mentioned here, in the transcript of a 1976 interview the 16th Karmapa, when asked to describe the meaning or essence of Kagyu, stated that it was the teachings of the Buddha, as passed down by the Indian Mahasiddhas, Tilopa, Naropa to Marpa Lotsawa then from there to Tibetan masters. In the interview, Karmapa says a couple of times that this means the lineage of the Four Descents/Transmissions. The oral translator, Achi Tsephel, asks him what that means and the Karmapa replies in a rather baffled way, as if asking Achi, how can you ask that? Achi does not then mention the Four Descents at all.

After publishing the transcript, I was asked about the meaning of the ‘four descents’. As I did not know the answer clearly myself, I did a little research, I realized there was very little information about them available online, or even in English language books, and that the information that was available was not that accurate or clear.

The only in-depth consideration of the ‘four descents’ I could find was in the excellent research of Cecile Ducher, when discussing the Marpa-Ngog tradition, and the origin of Marpa-Kagyu. As most people will not have the time or inclination to read Ducher’s whole PhD or other articles, I pull out some of the key points here, focusing mainly on the ‘four descents’ passed down to Marpa,  including his song (cited in his biographies) where he details these four descents and the places he went to get them.

For anyone interested in the origin of the Buddhist secret mantra transmissions into Tibet and into Kagyu, the ‘four descents’ are very important to know and that it why it is surprising not more is taught or known about them more generally outside of an academic context.  In terms of the ‘second spreading’ of Buddhism in Tibet, after it was almost obliterated in the 10th Century, Marpa plays a very prominent role. I learnt a lot from writing this article and I hope that it also is of benefit to a wider, public audience.

However, lack of knowledge about Marpa’s lineage and transmissions, was something Marpa himself sang about, so perhaps not surprising it is like that now![2]  As Marpa makes clear in this opening quote, without the blessings of lineage it is nothing but ‘hot air’! [3]  As it says in the intro to the English translation of Tsangnyon Heruka’s Marpa Biography: ‘Dedicated to HH 16th  Gyalwang Karmapa. May his blessings continue!”

Music? For Marpa’s arduous journeys to India and Nepal, Many Rivers to Cross by Jimmy Cliff and for sheer willpower and devotion, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 29th October 2021. Copyright.

Kagyu and the Four Descents – Tilopa to Naropa
Statue of Tilopa carved out of Rhinoceros horn by the 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje. Preserved in Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim, India.

In Tibetan the word ‘kabab zhi literally means ‘oral descents/transmissions’. Bab has the sense of ‘falling down’, in Tibetan they say the ‘rain descended’ (charpa bab). Ducher translates this as transmission, but I prefer ‘descent’ as it has that sense of coming down from a ‘higher source’.

So what are the four descents? This is not an easy question to answer, as Ducher describes (2017a), the use of the number ‘four’ in the Kagyu lineage is commonplace and applies to Tilopa, Nāropa, Marpa and Marpa’s ‘four pillar’ disciples.  

There are several different accounts of the four descents of Tilopa. All agree that Tilopa received four sets of yogic practices from various gurus, which he transmitted to his principal disciple, Nāropa. The four special transmissions became the primary source for the six yogas of Nāropa (Na-ro chos drug). Often the four special transmissions are said to comprise the yogas of illusory body, dream, luminosity, and candali[4].  

There is also a description of the ‘four transmissions’ of Tilopa in Karmapa the Black Hat Lamas of Tibet (Douglas and White 1976: 5-6)):

Tilopa travelled throughout India, meeting many fine teachers from whom he received initiations into many esoteric practices. Sometimes he pounded sesame seed (Skt: Til) to earn a living and it is said that his name derived from this. His main teacher was the Celestial Buddha Vajradhara, from whom he received the
direct transmission of the teachings, without the need of any intermediary. The Mahamudra especially was revealed to him in this way. Of the Siddhas with whom he came into contact some of the better known were Luipa , Krishnacharin, Vajraghanta , Matangi , Vinapa and Darikapada.  From the Four Directions he received the Four Precious Doctrines, and the three esoteric teachings of Norbu Korsem were also revealed to him. “

Ducher (2017a) gives a very helpful detailed analysis of the four transmissions in terms of Tilopa[6]. For more detail on Tilopa’s transmissions, I would recommend reading Ducher’s work (see Bibliography below).

“By undergoing hardships, Nāropa matured on the path and became able to receive Tilopa’s instructions. These teachings on the highest yoga tantras’ phases of creation and perfection descend from four lineages of instructions (bka’ babs bzhi) that are a central theme in the Kagyu lineage historiography. (Ducher 2017)[5]

I also wrote an article about Tilopa’s transmissions/teachers here and compilation of the various extant Tilopa biographies and instructions from a dakini, see” Mahāsiddha Tilopa: Catalogue of Biographies and ‘Ḍākinī’s Instruction to Tilopa on the Bardo‘.

Marpa Kagyu
Marpa with teachers and main students (19th Century Tibetan thangka). Source:

A general audience will probably be familiar with the Tibetan translator and master, Marpa (Mar pa Chos kyi blo gros, 1002?–1081?), as being famous for having received in India the transmission of several major highest yoga tantras (niruttaratantra, bla na med pa’i rgyud) from important Indian masters of the time, and for having brought back to Tibet empowerments and instructions for these major tantras[7].   

As Kagyu (which originated in Tibet) stems mainly from the Marpa’s tantric transmissions. which he then passed onto his four main disciples, I will focus on Marpa’s four transmissions in this article. How did these transmissions get passed on to Marpa and the Tibetan Kagyu forefathers? It is said that:

“At the end of the twelve hardships, [Tilopa] gave [Nāropa] the instructions. Lama Mar pa stayed twelve years in Nāropa’s presence and underwent similar difficulties. After he offered gold maṇḍalas again and again, [Nāropa] gave him these instructions.”

However, as we shall see below, Marpa relied not only on Nāropa for the transmissions but received many different transmissions from different teachers. As Ducher (2017b) explains these lineages (some of which were in danger of extinction) were later preserved by Jamgon Kongtrul 1st in the Treasury of Kagyu Mantras (Kagyu Ngag Dzo).[8] For example, for more on the thirteen tantras of Marpa, preserved in the Treasury, see my article here.

Sources of Marpa’s life-story


You body thrives with unconditioned bliss, benefiting others.
Your speech turns the wheel of dharma, the experience of the great yana.
Your mind is the lord of the five wisdoms, completing the two benefits.
Great being, Jetsun Marpa the Translator: To your body, speech, and mind I respectfully render praise and prostrate!

—Tsangnyon Heruka’s Praise to Marpa in The Life of Marpa the Translator: Seeing Accomplishes All.

Most people will be familiar with Marpa’s life-story from the 1982 English-language publication of  Tsangnyon Heruka (gtsang smyon He ru ka “The Madman Heruka from Tsang”, 1452-1507) [9]’s 16th Century biography of Marpa by the Nalanda Translation Committee (guided by Chogyam Trungpa) – which coincidentally was dedicated to the 16th Karmapa!

There is also a more recent brief biography published on Treasury Lives by Andrew Quintman. Although, these are useful sources, the only accurate and detailed research that has been done to date on Marpa’s life-stories, is by Cecile Ducher, the other biographies either do not discuss, or leave out crucial information (and discrepancies) about Marpa’s life and main teachers. For that reason, I rely on Ducher’s research here.

A SILVER INLAID COPPER ALLOY FIGURE OF TSANGNYON HERUKA TSANG, CENTRAL TIBET, 16TH CENTURY Inscription translated, ‘Homage to the scholar-yogin, the mad man of Tsang, Sang gye Gyaltsen’. Himalayan Art Resources item no.10874

Ducher (2019: 4-6) helpfully lists six main sources of Marpa’s Life Story, some of which are listed in Tsangnyon’s biography on Marpa, as having originated from Marpa’s disciples, Milarepa and Marpa Golek, as well as Gampopa and Lama Zhang:

The first phase of Marpa’s life writing, its foundation, is made up of six main works with their sub-branches. Among the six, three are major sources of our knowledge of Marpa’s life, and three are minor sources that did not prove as influential and far-reaching as the first three. Two of these most ancient sources are referred to in the colophon of Tsangnyön’s biography of Marpa[10]….Thus, according to Tsangnyön, the first sources of Marpa’s life story are the oral narratives that Milarepa and Marpa Golek, two of Marpa’s disciples, gave to their own disciples: Ngamdzong Tönpa received some stories from both Milarepa and Marpa Golek; Rechungpa received some from Milarepa. The two are said to have discussed their findings, and each then told Marpa’s life story. [11]Tsangnyön also mentions a version of Marpa’s life story coming from the Ngog clan.[12] And lastly mentions biographical accounts descending from Tsurtön and Metön. No such work has been identified in the corpus.

There are, however, three more texts that can be considered ‘minor foundations’. The first is a short biography composed by Gampopa (sGam po pa, 1079–1153), another of Milarepa’s disciples. The second comes from a rosary composed by Lama Zhang (Bla ma zhang, 1123–1193), influenced by Ngog Dode as well as by Gampopa’s versions . The last is part of a series of life stories transmitted in the Dochen Kagyü (mDo chen bKa’ brgyud) tradition, a sub-branch of the Drukpa (’Brug pa) lineage started by Madünpa Dowo Chewa (Ma bdun pa mDo bo che ba, 12–13th c.).

For the most detailed listing and analysis of the biographies of Marpa, see Ducher’s Building A Tradition (2017b).  

“These six texts, and particularly the first three, are the foundations of Marpa’s biographical tradition. Some of them show a clear reliance on Marpa’s songs. They represent the first stage of song utilisation, when songs were used to construct the biography.” (Ducher 2019).

Marpa with teachers and students, including his wife, Dagmema (bottom right).
Marpa’s four main teachers and his Song on the Four Descents

In the Lhasa edition of Marpa’s Collected Works, the first volume refers to the life-stories of the four transmissions. For a translated outline I did of that edition of Marpa’s Works, see here[13].  These Collected Works also show the transmissions Marpa received and passed down.

Marpa sang a song about four main lineages/transmissions (reproduced in English and Tibetan in full below here), which is influential in Marpa’s biographies[14]. In it Marpa describes himself as the recipient of the four lineages of India, with:

  1. Jñānagarbha (ye shes snying po)[15] in the West,  from whom he received the Guhyasamājatantra, the meaning of the path in five stages, and instructions on the illusory body and luminosity[16].
  1. Śāntibhadra (zhi ba bzang po) (c. 11th C.) [17] in the South, from whom he received the Mahāmāyātantra,  the meaning of the three yogas, of form [and so on], and the instructions on the Triad of Illusions. That master is generally said to live on the island of a noxious lake, in the south of India.
  1. Maitrīpā[18] (986-1063) in the East,  from whom Marpa received the mahāmudrā and Mañjuśrīnāmasaṅgīti, trained in the realization of the dharma of Mahāmudrā, established the abiding mode of the entity of mind, And saw the true nature of the uncontrived basis.
  1. Nāropa[19](1016-1041) in the North, from whom he got the tantra of Hevajra, instructions uniting [the six doctrines] of mixing and transference, the karmamudrā of inner heat, and the key points of the Aural Tantra[20].
Nāropā (1016-1041)

Song by Marpa on the Four Transmissions

“Lord Vajradhara of this age of strife,

Supreme being who has practiced hardships,

You remain above everyone’s head like a crown,

Glorious Nāropā, I bow my head down at your feet!


I, this Mar-pa Blo-gros from Lho-brag,

Met with the Dharma when I reached my thirteenth year.

It was like reawakening previously trained habits.

First I learned the letters of the alphabet.

Then I learned the translation of words.


Finally, I went south to Nepal and India.

I stayed three years in the Nepal Valley.

From Newar [gurus] blessed by the father [Nāropā]

I heard the Catuṣpīṭha, renowned as a powerful tantra,

Obtained the instructions on transference and entering another’s body,

And received the goddess Dhūmāṅgārī as a protector.


That alone did not suffice to quench my desire:

I traveled for Dharma to the central country, India.

I crossed poisoned rivers with undrinkable water.

The poison on my body [made] my skin shed like a snake’s,

[But] I dared risking my life for the sake of the Dharma.

[I traveled] to the west, to the city of Lakśetra

Where I touched the feet of glorious Jñānagarbha.

I heard the father tantra of Guhyasamāja,

Learned the meaning of the path in five stages,

And obtained instructions on the illusory body and luminosity.


I went to the south, to the island of a boiling toxic lake.

At times, the midday sun faded into darkness,

And the path, clear a moment before, would disappear.

Forsaking [the fear] of losing my life, I searched for the Venerable,

And met the glorious Śāntibhadra in person.

I heard the mother tantra of Mahāmāya,

Learned the meaning of the three yogas, of form [and so on],

And obtained the instructions on the Triad of Illusions.


In the East, I crossed the Ganges, river of accomplishments.

In a tumultuous charnel ground on a mountain,

In the Capturing the Luster of Flowers Hermitage,

I touched the feet of the Sovereign Lord Maitrīpā.

I heard the profound tantra of Melodious Praise [Mañjuśrīnāmasaṅgīti].

I trained in the realization of the dharma of Mahāmudrā,

Established the abiding mode of the entity of mind,

And saw the true nature of the uncontrived basis.


I went to a wonderful place revealed by the ḍākinīs,

Phullahari in the North.

In the hermitage of the glorious accomplished one,

From the gatekeeper, mahāpaṇḍita Nāropā,

I heard the profound tantra of Hevajra.

I received the instructions uniting [the six doctrines] of mixing and transference,

Requested in particular the karmamudrā of inner heat,

And was introduced to the key points of the Aural Tantra.


The above [masters] are famous throughout Jambudvīpa

As the lineage rivers of the four directions.”[21]

The four transmissions/teachers can thus be summarized as follows (image from Ducher 2019:9):

Marpa’s Journeys to India and Nepal – two or three?
Image from Marpa’s Life Story (1982)

Marpa’s journeys to India to get these four transmissions were no easy task as Marpa also attested in his songs. There were no cars, bikes, airplanes, no internet, laptops or online resources:

“Leaving from Lhotrak, he had to travel over three hundred miles to the western edge of Tibet, at Kungthang. Though there were many plains and mountains to cross, Marpa remembered in particular the large desolate plain of Palmo Palthang and the high, snowy pass of K.hala Chela (probably over 15,000 feet) in the region of Kungthang. Then, following the Trisuli river valley down to Kyitrong and into Nepal, Marpa descended quickly into the humid and hot foothills of Nepal. This complete change of altitude and climate could be quite dramatic for a Tibetan, and often led to sickness.

Therefore Marpa stayed for three years in Kathmandu to acclimatize himself to the heat, before descending further to the even hotter plains of India. It was here in Nepal that Marpa’s karmic connection to his guru, Naropa, was reawakened through meeting two of Naropa’s disciples, Chitherpa and Pai~9apa. These two Nepalese teachers gave Marpa a great deal of dharma and language instruction, and then sent him to meet Naropa in India.

On the border of Nepal and India, Marpa encountered famine and greedy tax collectors. And throughout his journey, he faced the dangers of bandits, wild animals, swollen rivers, sheer precipices, rickety bridges, and the like. Overall, he certainly traveled over seven hundred miles and descended over 10,000 feet in elevation to reach Phullahari, the place where his guru Naropa lived.  A final danger that Marpa encountered on his first trip was a difficult traveling companion. Partway across Tibet, Marpa met Nyo of Kharak who traveled with him all the way to India, and later, in India, became Marpa’s rival in mastery of the dharma.” (1982: Introduction).

Marpa’s song here mentions three journeys to India. However, this is not that clear from the biographies, according to Ducher:

“If we believe what all biographies say, in one way or another, Marpa made two journeys to the Indian subcontinent. The first lasted approximately a decade. During that time, Marpa met his gurus and received their transmission. He travelled a lot within India, and according to some versions also went back to Nepal to reprovision. When he came back, he lost his texts, so he had to resume travelling again. When he did, Nāropa was not teaching anymore as he had ‘entered the practice’ ; Marpa relentlessly searched for him and received prophecies that he would meet him, as he finally did.

Despite the straightforward progression of this version of the master’s life, Marpa said in songs that he went to India three times. To adhere to that declaration, different strategies were adopted. Tsangnyön Heruka, preceded and followed by several others, adds a rather insignificant second journey. In Ngamdzong Tönpa’s version and all the ones which follow him, the first journey is interrupted by a return to Nepal, and the two sojourns in India proper last five and seven years, thus accounting for three journeys altogether. Another version is proposed by Gö Lotsāwa (’Gos Lo tsā ba, 1392–1481) in his Blue Annals: he mentions a third journey during which Marpa only met Maitripa (986–1063). We can see with these variations that three journeys are not easy to justify. However that may be, Marpa sang so, at least in the eyes of the various authors, and so it must be: he went three times to India. This illustrates the importance of Marpa’s song in the biographies’ genesis.” (Ducher 2019:6)

Marpa’s Songs of Dharma
Scholar, translator and world expert on Marpa, Dr. Cecile Ducher at the ancient seat of the rNgog family lineage, in sPre’u zhing in the rNam rab valley (TAR, China) in June 2014.

To end this article, it is also worth mentioning that Marpa also composed songs to teach the Dharma and was not only among the first translators of the later dissemination of the Dharma, but also among the first to sing such songs. He also created an entirely new distinctive genre of verse forms.  Ducher (2019b) has written the most extensively on Marpa’s songs:

In the eleventh century, Marpa went to the Indian subcontinent and learnt its languages and culture. In India, Nepal, and Tibet he is said to have sung songs, often during tantric ritual feasts (gaṇacakra), in which he merged the Tibetan tradition of singing about episodes from one’s life with the Indian tradition of ‘songs of experience’ (dohā). Thus, by drawing thematic inspiration from the Apabhraṃśa songs of the Indian Buddhist tantric masters, and imagistic and metrical resources from indigenous bardic and popular verses, [he] created an entirely distinctive family of verse forms. (Kapstein and Töndup 1993, 1290) Marpa’s famous song about his dream meeting with Saraha (8th c.) is an example that challenges the idea that the gur of the first Kagyüpas were exclusively modelled on the Indian dohās.

Marpa, who was among the first translators of the later dissemination of the Dharma, was also among the first to sing such songs. Although Terry Ellingson showed that Tibetan gur using the Indian style of singing already existed during the first dissemination of the doctrine, it is difficult to assess whether these songs attributed to 8th-century authors [Padmasambhava and Vairocana the translator for instance] were simply later songs added to the traditional accounts by later editors, or whether they represent a genuinely earlier style which was a radical departure from secular mgur traditions, perhaps due to Indian Buddhist influence.’ (Ellingson 1979, 231)

To remain on the safe side, we can assume that Marpa was the first during the second dissemination of the doctrine to use this style of expression. He was followed by his most famous disciple, Milarepa, who is still regarded today as the greatest poet of Tibet, and this kind of gur became a major feature of the Kagyü lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.

Although Marpa and Milarepa are both famous for their songs, their style and legacy differ. On the one hand, even Milarepa’s earliest biographies contain sections in which songs are distinct stories depicting episodes of the poet’s life. Although Tsangnyön was the first to compile a distinct song anthology (Tsangnyön and Stagg 2016; Quintman 2014, 59–60, 85–86; Quintman and Larsson 2015), the songs formed a discrete part of Milarepa’s biography from the beginning of the tradition. On the other hand, Marpa’s songs never had a life of their own as most do not relate specific episodes of the translator’s life but are general summaries of his journeys to India. As such, they do not exist independently of his life’s writing.” Ducher (2019: 3):[22]

It is hoped that this short article enables learning about the origin of the Kagyu lineage and the Four Descents. May the teachings transform into milky, sweet nectar and not remain a hot fountain of air!

Sources/Further Reading

Ducher, Cecile:

2017a. “A Lineage in Time: The Vicissitudes of the rNgog pa bka’ brgyud from the 11th through 19th centuries.” (Ph.D. diss). École Pratique des Hautes Études, France.

2017b. Building a Tradition: The Lives of Mar-pa the Translator. Indus Verlag, Munich, vol. 5.

 (2019a). “The Treasury of Kagyü Mantra: A Nineteenth-Century Collection of Marpa’s Tantric Teachings.” In Reasons and Lives in Buddhist Traditions: Studies in Honor of Matthew Kapstein, edited by D. Arnold, C. Ducher, and P. J. Hartner. Boston: Wisdom Publications (in press).

 (2019b). From Song to Biography and from Biography to Song: The Use of gur in Marpa’s namthar, Life Writing, DOI: 10.1080/14484528.2019.1621444. 

Marpa, Chokyi Lodro (11th Century): “dka’ ba ji ltar spyad lugs kyi mgur/.” In “mar pa’i mgur chen nyer lnga/.” In ‘bri gung bka’ brgyud chos mdzod chen mo/. TBRC W00JW501203. 5: 467 – 469. A mgon Rin po che. 2004. The Great Treasury of the Drikung Kagyü, ’Bri gung bka’ brgyud chos mdzod chen mo. Lhasa: [s.n.].

Nālandā Translation Committee (tr.). 1999. The Rain of Wisdom: The Essence of the Ocean of True Meaning Bringing the Rain of Wisdom, the Spontaneous Self-Liberation, the Blazing Great Bliss, the Quick Path to Realization of the Supreme Siddhis. The Vajra Songs of the Kagyü Gurus. Boston: Shambhala.

Quintman, Andrew “Marpa Chokyi Lodro,” Treasury of Lives,

Sernesi, M. 2011. “The Aural Transmission of Samvara: An Introduction to Neglected Sources for the Study of the Early Bka’ brgyud.” In Mahāmudrā and the Bka’ brgyud Tradition: PIATS 2006, edited by R. Jackson, and M. T. Kapstein, 179–210. Andiast: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies.

Tomlin, Adele (2021):

REVIVING MARPA THE TRANSLATOR’S LINEAGE AND LEGACY: Hevajra Tantra, Marpa-Ngog Lineage, Six Bone Ornaments of Nāropa, Editions and contents of Marpa’s Collected Works and Drikung Kagyu.

‘GOLDEN TEACHINGS’ OF KAGYU TANTRA: Marpa the Translator and student Ngog, the Seven Ngog Mandalas, Thirteen Tantras of Marpa, Kongtrul’s ‘Treasury of Kagyu Mantras’, 17th Karmapa’s birthday teaching and Drikung Kagyu ‘Mar-Ngog’ activities:

Mahāsiddha Tilopa: Catalogue of Biographies and ‘Ḍākinī’s Instruction to Tilopa on the Bardo’

Tsangnyön Heruka and the Nālandā Translation Committee (tr.). 1982. The Life of Marpa the Translator: Seeing Accomplishes All. Boston: Shambhala Publications.


[1] This short quote, translated by myself is from p.1 of a Lhasa (2009) edition of Marpa’s Collected Works (gsung ‘bum/_chos kyi blo gros/). TBRC W1KG12222. See also Tomlin (2021):

[2] In an article I wrote earlier this year, I provide a new translation of a song by Marpa which describes this lack of knowledge, see here: I reproduce the song here for ease of reference.

“The lineage is not renowned

Yet it possesses the Dharma vision of ḍākinīs.

The forefather is not renowned

Yet Tilopa is the innate face of Buddha.

The guru is not renowned

Yet he possesses the Dharma vision of Nāropa.

I, myself, am not renowned

Yet I am the heart son of Nāropa.

The pith instructions are not renowned

Yet they are three wish-fulfilling gems.

The distinctive Dharma is not renowned

Yet they are the mixing and transference, absent in all others,

And the aural transmissions, absent in all others”

བརྒྱུད་པ་སྙན་པར་མི་སྒྲག་ཏུ། མཀའ་འགྲོ་ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྤྱན་ཅན་ཡིན། མེས་པོ་སྙན་པར་མི་སྒྲག་ཏུ། ཏེ་ལོ་སངས་རྒྱས་ཉག་ཅིག་ཡིན། བླ་མ་སྙན་པར་མི་སྒྲག་ཏུ། ནཱརོ་ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྤྱན་ཅན་ཡིན། ང་རང་སྙན་པར་མི་སྒྲག་ཏུ། ནཱ་རོ་ཐུགས་ཀྱི་བུ་ཅིག་ཡིན། གདམ་ངགས་སྙན་པར་མི་སྒྲག་ཏུ། ཡིད་བཞིན་ནོར་བུ་རྣམ་སུམ་ཡིན། ཁྱད་ཆོས་སྙན་པར་མི་སྒྲག་ཏུ། ཀུན་ལ་མེད་བའི་བསྲས་འཕོ་ཡིན། ཀུན་ལ་མེད་བའི་སྙན་རྒྱུད་ཡིན།

—–by Marpa Lotsawa (Excerpt from Marpa’s Life Story by Ngog Dode)[1]

[3] I have translated the Tibetan literally here as ‘hot spring’. In English, we might say that it is like a lot of ‘hot air’. Marpa is making the point here that even though there may be many teachings of Dharma, which can be very sweet and lovely, if they are not accompanied by lineage of blessings, they are like hot air.

[4] “One of the most extensive descriptions of the four special transmissions is given by Wangchuk Gyaltscn in his biography of Tilopa. He delineates two sets of four special transmissions, one ordinary and the other extraordinary. The ordinary four special transmissions (T: thun-mongs kyi bka’ -babs bzhi), together with their respective lineage of teachers are: (1) mahamudra (Lord of Secret [Vajrapani]. Saraha, Lohipa (Loyipa), Darika, Dingkapa [Tellgipa]), (2) father tantra (bodhisattva Ratnamati, Nagarjuna, Matangi), (3) mother tantra (Sumati, Shinglopa, Thanglopa, Karnaripa), and (4) luminosity (Birvapa [Vi.lllpa], Domblpa, Bhinasa, Lavapa, Indrabodhi [Indrabhoti]).Thus Tilopa’s gurus for these teachings were Dingkapa, Matangi, Karnaripa, and Indrabodhi.

The extarordinary four special transmissions (thun-mongs rna yin-pa’I bka’ -babs bzhi) are connected with Tilopa’s receiving the practices of the six yogas. They arc: (1) Candali and dream yogas, from Krsnyacharya, (2) illusory body yoga and father tantra, from Nagarjuna, (3) luminosity yoga and nondual tantra, from Lavapa, and (4) ejection and bardo yogas and mother tantra, from Sumati Samantabhadri.” (1982: Introduction).

[5] “This chart shows that Tilopa had four human masters: Cāryapa, Nāgārjuna, Lavapa and “Sukkhasiddhī.” Except for the ḍākinī identified as Sukkhasiddhī, who is often referred to as Kalpabhadrī (skal pa bzang mo), these four are the ones generally recognized as Tilopa’s human masters. Tilopa is said to have stated in a verse:

I have human masters:
They are Nāgārjuna, Cāryapa, Lavapa
And Kalpabhadrī.

The trouble arises when one tries to ascertain what transmission Tilopa received from whom, and who were the previous masters in each of the lineages…. How, therefore, can we explain these differences?”  (Ducher 2017a: 177-8).

[6] “To summarize, although it is certain that there are several irreconcilable versions, it is possible to make sense of this mass of data on the basis of the different traditions of the bka’babs bzhi alluded to in The Four Lineages of Transmissions and Tilopa’s Hagiography. Tobegin with, it is necessary to distinguish between two levels:

– the lineage of realization and blessing;

– the lineage of transmission and experience.

In the first, the proximate lineage (nye brgyud), Tilopa receives teaching directly from enlightenment, “omniscience,” under the guise of Vajradhara, without the intercession of human masters. In the second, the “long lineage” (ring brgyud), there are four lines of transmissions, the bka’ babs bzhi. Descriptions of the four can be related to two traditions, sometimes called “combined” and “non-combined” (thun mong/thun mong ma yin pa). When Tilopa speaks of his four human gurus as Nāgārjuna, Cāryapa, Lavapa and Kalpabhadrī, this refers to the four recipients of the four non-combined transmissions. Their own lineage is sometimes detailed, but mostly not. It is likely that this tradition descends from Tilopa’s Ṣaḍdharmopadeśa (chos drug gi man ngag).

In the combined tradition, for which a single source has not been identified, Tilopa’s masters are Mātaṅgī, Karṇaripa, Indrabhūti and Ḍeṅgipa. The line ending with Mātaṅgī in this set can be equated to the one of Nāgārjuna in the previous set, and the line of Indrabhūti the Lesser corresponds to that of Lavapa, as Mātaṅgī and Indrabhūti are disciples of respectively Nāgārjuna and Lavapa. The two other lines differ in the two sets[6]. Hence, if one takes into account all the lines of transmission referred to in the two traditions, one ends up with six distinct lines of transmission….

From the above, we understand that the term “four lines of transmission” covers a large and indefinite number of Indian gurus who practiced and transmitted tantric teachings that became the core of Mar pa’s legacy in Tibet. These “four” lineages can be counted as six, sometimes seven, or more. There must therefore be reasons for the tradition to remember the number four. A hint to that is the fact that the four lines of the combined tradition are sometimes associated with the four directions of India.” (Ducher 2017a: 177-8).

[7] “Mar pa is said to have met many gurus in Nepal and India, and here too sources diverge considerably. Available texts from the rNgog family are not the most loquacious on the subject but may prove helpful to sum things up. The lHo rong chos ’byung states:In general, he had in India one hundred and eight gurus, first among them

Singhalingpa.608 There were fifty exegetical tradition holders, and thirteen who were definite changers of appearance. In particular, there were four noble gurus– Nāro, Maitri, Śāntibhadra […] and Jñānagarbha […]. Among them all, two were unrivalled: Nāro and Maitri.” (Ducher 2017a: 171).

[8] Ducher (2019a) Treasury of Kagyu Mantra (128-129): “One of them, Mi la ras pa (1028?–1111?), was followed by Sgam po pa (1079–1153), and from the latter all the Kagyü sub-orders developed. Despite the preeminence of these Kagyü traditions today, Marpa’s tantric teachings were also preserved by his other disciples, chief among them Rngog Chos rdor (1023–90) and Mtshur ston Dbang nge (eleventh century). Their lineages, however, did not survive as independent orders for more than a few centuries and, as a result, are not very well known. Because of this, several tantras that Marpa brought to Tibet and that were originally propounded. by Rngog and Mtshur ston were on the verge of extinction by the nineteenth century. It was to avert their loss and to spread once more Marpa’s traditions that the great nineteenth-century polymath Jamgön Kongtrul (’Jam mgon Kong sprul Blo gros mtha’ yas, 1813–99) compiled the Treasury. Thanks to Kongtrul’s efforts and the subsequent continuation of his lineage, particularly in the Karma Kagyü and Drikung Kagyü orders, most of Marpa’s traditions remain alive today, although some of them are very seldom practiced.”

[9] “He is more commonly known as Tsang Nyon Heruka, or simply as the Mad Yogin ofTsang. Besides his biography of Marpa, his two other biographical works concern Marpa’s main disciple, Milarepa: The Life of Milarepa and The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, * both of which have already been translated and published in English. One other work, The Life and Teachings of Naropa, written by Lhatsiin Rinchen Namgyal, a major disciple of Tsang Nyon, has also been published in an English translation.” (1982: Introduction). See: The Life of Milarepa, translated by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa (Boulder: Prajna Press, 1982); The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, uanslated and annotated by Garma C. C. Chang (Boulder: Shambhala, 1977). The Life and Teaching of Naropa, translated from the original Tibetan with philosophical commentary based on the oral transmission by Herbert V. Guenther (London: Oxford University Press, 1963).

[10] The quote reads: “Thus, this hagiography of the Venerable Martön Chökyi Lodrö (Mar ston Chos kyi blo gros) [called] Meaningful to Behold, has been transmitted orally and in detail to Ngamdzong Tönpa (Ngam rdzong sTon pa, 12th c.) by the Venerable Mila and Marpa Golek (Mar pa mGo legs, 11th c.). The Venerable Mila also gave it to Rechungpa, so that he and Ngamdzong Tönpa Jangchup Gyalpo (Ngam rdzong sTon pa Byang chub rgyal po) could discuss it and compile the most important of the original hagiographies. To this, many biographies extracted from the manuals derived from the speech of Lama Ngogpa (rNgog pa), Tsurtön (mTshur ston) and Metön (Mes ston) were added. “

[11] Tsangnyön says he gleaned additional data from traditions related to Marpa’s other disciples, Ngog Chödor (rNgog Chos rdor, 4 C. DUCHER 1023–1090), Tsurtön Wangnge (mTshur ston dbang nge, 11th c.) and Metön Tsönpo (Mes ston tshon po, 11th c.).

[12] See also Ducher (2019b:5): “Several early works were composed in that familial lineage that inherited Marpa’s exegesis of the tantras and was central in the transmission of the Marpa Kagyü lore until the fifteenth century. The most important of these works does not have an author but is tentatively attributed to Ngog Dode (rNgog mDo sde, 1078–1154), Ngog Chödor’s son and Marpa’s direct disciple. It bears several features of antiquity and is called ‘dispelling doubts’ in the colophon. This is the name the second Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa (dPa’ bo gTsug lag phreng ba, 1504–1564) gives to a biography that was, according to him, composed by Ngog Dode (Dpa’ bo 2010, 201).16 It is probably in that text that one of the most famous tropes of Marpa’s life, the quest for Nāropa during the third journey, originated.”

[13] I found five recent editions of Marpa’s Collected Works (gsung ‘bum/_mar pa chos kyi blo gros/). Four are on TBRC, one was printed in 2001 (the edition collected by Chetzang Rinpoche), two were printed in 2009 (one in India and one in Lhasa, Tibet), the other in 2011 in Beijing, China, see here.

There is also a four-volume set being sold online by Namsze Bagdzo, in Tibetan, but is does not say when it was published and by whom. It is not listed on the TBRC website. For more information on Marpa’s Collected Works and Legacy, see Tomlin (2021) here:

[14] This song is called ‘The Song about How The Oral Transmissions Tradition Happened:  “dka’ ba ji ltar spyad lugs kyi mgur/. It is published in the Songs of Marpa section, in Marpa’s Collected Works published in the The Great Treasury of the Drikung Kagyü, ’Bri gung bka’ brgyud chos mdzod chen mo. Lhasa: [s.n.]. A mgon Rin po che. 2004. (“mar pa’i mgur chen nyer lnga/.” In ‘bri gung bka’ brgyud chos mdzod chen mo/. TBRC W00JW501203. 5: 467 – 469.)

It was translated and published in English first in  1982. The Life of Marpa the Translator: Seeing Accomplishes All. Boston: Shambhala Publications.  Here I have used Ducher’s translation of it.

[15] Ducher (2017a) gives an extensive explanation of Jñānagarbha:

 “One was the 8th-century svatantrika-madhyamaka philosopher who gave his ordination to Śāntarakṣita. The one with whom Mar pa studied was an 11th-century master of the Ārya tradition of Guhyasamāja, generally referred to as “paṇḍita Jñānagarbha” or the “scholar (mkhas pa) Jñānagarbha.” Although nothing indicates that the two are one, the biography by rNgog mDo sde specifies that Jñānagarbha was a Svantāntrika Madhyamaka follower, maybe because the author knew of the scholar who played a great role during the first diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet.

In the Treasury of Kagyu Mnatras, ’Jam mgon Kong sprul Blo gros mtha’ yas describes the long lineage in which Jñānagarbha appears as follows:

Vajradhara → Vajrapāṇi → Indrabhūti → the ḍākinī who was an emanated nāga (klu las gyur pa’i rnam ‘byor ma) → Visukalpa → Saraha → Nāgārjuna → Āryadeva / Śākyamitra / Nāgabodhi / Mātaṅgī → Candrakīrti → Śiṣyavajra (slob pa’i rdo rje) → Kṛṣṇasamayavajra (nag po dam tshig rdo rje) → Vimalamati (dri med blo gros) → Jñānagarbha (mkhas pa ye shes snying po).

Alternatively: Candrakīrti → Vidyākokila (rig pa’i khu byug) → Avadhuti →*Caryāvajra (spyod pa’i rdo rje) → Kṛṣṇapāda (nag po’i zhabs) → Vimalamati (dri med blo gros) → Jñānagarbha (ye shes snying po).

Not much is known about Vimalamati, the master from whom Jñānagarbha received the transmission.

As for his works, a Jñānagarbha is said to be the author of a commentary on the Guhyasamājatantra, the Caturdevatāparipṛcchāṭīkā (lha mo bzhis yongs su zhus pa’i rnam par bshad pa). As this was translated by Smṛtijñānakīrti, considered an earlier contemporary of Rin chen bzang po transmitting Jñānapāda’s tradition of the Guhyasamāja, it is unlikely that the Jñānagarbha in question was the one who met Mar pa.

A Jñānagarbha is also the author of the Śmaśānavidhi (Ro sreg pa’i cho ga), a text associated with the Hevajratantra. No translator is indicated, so it is difficult to assess whether this may refer to the same Jñānagarbha or not. As Mar pa’s master is not known for his transmission of Hevajra, this may not be the case either. The other references in the bsTan ’gyur associated with Jñānagarbha’s name all refer to the 8th-century philosopher….

The biography in which their relationship is the most detailed is the one by Ngam dzong ston pa, which is also the earliest. Unlike later biographies that tend to magnify Nāropa’s role in Mar pa’s formation, Ngam dzong ston pa describes that Jñānagarbha was the first master that Mar pa met in the West of India, at a place called Lakśetra. Mar pa spent five years there, and received the Guhyasamājatantra together with instructions on the illusory body (*māyākāya/māyādeha, sgyu lus) and on luminosity (prabhāsvara, ’od gsal). Most importantly, he also met many other yogis in Lakśetra, among them Paiṇḍapa, who introduced him to Nāropa.When Mar pa visited Jñānagarbha again during his last journey to India, the paṇḍita is said to live together with a low-caste woman, who induced a profound realization of Guhyasamāja in Mar pa. In all of these encounters, Jñānagarbha is described as leading a very tantric life, in line with the antinomian teachings of the Guhyasamājatantra.” (Ducher 2017a).

[16] “It is interesting to note that though Naropa was able to give Marpa the teachings on Guhyasamaja and Mahamaya, he initially declined to do so. Instead, he sent Marpa to the teacher who had specialized in that particular tantra as that person was the ”pure source.” Later, Marpa received these teachings from Naropa and found them the same in essence as what he had already received. Marpa was made to work hard to obtain these teachings and so came to appreciate their preciousness and did not regard them as spiritual trophies to collect. Nyo, Marpa’s antagonist, did not possess this attitude; hence, he later lacked the merit and karmic connection to find Kukkuripa and receive teaching from him.” (1982: Introduction).

“Lord Naropa first gave to guru Marpa the abhisheka of Sri Hevajra and the second section of the Hevajra-Tantra, and completed this with the Vajrapanjara and the Samputa. Marpa studied these for a year and then took some time off and went to a city, where he met Nyo.
Nyo said, “What did you study?”
Marpa answered, “I studied Hevajra.”
Nyo said, “Today we should compare our understanding.”
They did so, and Marpa proved to be more learned about Hevajra.
Nyo said, “Hevajrra is already well known in Tibet. There is a father tantra better than this, called the Guhyasamaja. It
enables the prana to flow through your fingertips and enables you to hold buddha in the palm of your hand. That is what we need.”
When Nyo began to use the dharma terms of the Guhyasamija, Marpa had nothing to say. Therefore he returned to Naropa and said, “Today, when I went into the city and met with Nyo, we compared our understanding of Hevajra, and I prevailed. But Nyo said that what we need is the Guhyasamiija. Please give me this teaching.” Naropa said, ”In the monastery of Lakeshtra to the West, in the vihara Pllqtacandra, there is a master of the father tantra, a pa.Qc;lita called jfianagarbha who is an exponent of svatantramadhyamaka and who has attained siddhi. You should go there
and request the dharma. You will not have any obstacles.” (1982: 13).

See also note on Kukkuripa below.

[17] “In some biographies of Mar pa (KSTC, U rgyan pa and gTsang smyon), the name of Śāntibhadra occurs together with that of Kukuripa, the “Dog Lover,” with Kukuripa’s name appearing in the first part of the text and Śāntibhadra’s in the second (Nāropa’s quest). This may give the impression that Mar pa met two different masters, Kukuripa and Śāntibhadra. Kukuripa was one of the 84 mahāsiddhas and figured among Tilopā’s masters. In what little is known about him (from Abhayadatta’s tales on the 84 mahāsiddhas), he is pictured as living in the area of Lumbini and Kapilavastu. Although gTsang smyon alludes to this place when Mar pa hides the identity of the person who introduced him to Mahāmāya from gNyos by sending him to Kapilavastu, Mar pa is never said to actually travel there–although he may have passed by on his way to and from India. It is therefore generally clear that, even though Mar pa may have met Kukuripa in addition to Śāntibhadra, it is not a direct relationship. If a transmission occurred, it was visionary. The lineages of transmission outlined in the KGND indicate that Mar pa met the wisdom body of Kukuripa, but one does not find this terminology in the biographies themselves:

Long lineage: Heruka → Vajraḍākinī → mahasiddha Kukuripa → Saroruhavajra → Doṃbipa → Tilopa → Nāropa → Mar pa. Alternatively, Kukuripa gave the transmission to Nāropa, Kṛṣṇaśāntibhadra and Maitripa, and Mar pa received the initiation and instructions from both Nāropa and Śāntibhadra. He also received Śāntipa’s tradition from Maitripa.

Short lineage: Mar pa received the transmission from the wisdom body of Kukuripa.

In general, even when the two names are mentioned, they do not represent distinct masters but Kukuripa is simply an alias of Śāntibhadra.” (Ducher 2017a).

[18] “According to the Sham Shere manuscript, Maitrī-pa is born a Brahman named Dāmodara in the Middle Country (madhyadeśa). As a brahmanical renunciate named Martabodha, he is converted and taught general Mahāyāna by Naropa; then Rāgavajra teaches him tantra. He then studies the nirākāra philosophic system under Ratnākaraśānti. The sites of these studies are not named. Going to Vikramaśīla, he studies under Jñānaśrīmitra (an adherent to sākāra). From Vikramaśīla he proceeds to Vikramapura and is ordained a bhikṣu in the Sammatīya (!) school, his name becoming Maitrīgupta–hence the Tibetans’ designation Maitrī-pa, from the honorific Maitrīpāda. Dream visions of Avalokiteśvara inspire him to remove himself to Khasarpaṇa, then to travel south in search of the siddha Śabareśvara. He receives the name Advayavajra in a waking dream that constitutes tantric initiation. (The name Avadhūti-pa, known from Sanskrit colophons and Tibetan historical tradition, is not attested by this text.) The account concludes with the last instructions and disappearance of Śabareśvara. In Tibetan accounts Advayavajra then returns to the great monasteries of the Middle Country to teach…

Let us now examine the various depictions of Mar pa’s encounters with Maitripa to decide whether this dating stands. First, it must be recognized that Mar pa relied on him as his spiritual master mostly when Nāropa was performing the practice, but he is also said to have met him earlier. Ngam dzong ston pa states for instance that Mar pa first met Maitripa in Puśpahari (the name of Nāropa’s hermitage) during his first trip, right after receiving instructions on Hevajra by Nāropa. From Maitripa, Mar pa received again Hevajra, as well as Nāmasamgīti and the mahāmudrā. With the earlier dating, that would happen around 1020/1023, which is not impossible if Mar pa was born at the turn of the millennium. Although it is unlikely that Maitripa was already giving profound mahāmudrā teachings at the time, if one is to believe Tāranātha’s description, he was leading a tantric life even before meeting Śabareśvara. Mar pa is said to meet him again during his second, and last, journey to India, when Nāropa was in the practice and unavailable. At that time, Maitripa was in the charnel ground of the Mountain Blazing like Fire, in the east of India. The text states that it was at that time that Maitrepa–called Avadhūtipa–accepted Mar pa as his disciple; he gave him the same transmissions as before and induced in him profound meditation experiences.

Afterwards, Mar pa went in search of Nāropa. This again fits with the earlier dating, according to which Maitripa comes back to Madhyadeśa after 1035/1038, that is to say when Nāropa was in the practice and Mar pa searching for him. Ngam dzong ston pa’s descriptions also fit with Mar pa’s songs, in which Maitripa figures prominently.

rNgog mDo sde’s biography of Mar pa states that Mar pa first met Maitripa at the peak of the Mountain Burning like Fire, near the banks of the river Ganges, right after his first encounter with Nāropa, during his first journey.657 At the time, he mostly received teachings on mahāmudrā. He met him again during his second journey, when Nāropa was in the practice, and during the third journey, when he was searching for Nāropa and Maitripa foretold the meeting. None of the meetings are very detailed. The third main text in Mar pa’s biographical tradition, the one from the Aural Transmission, says almost nothing about Maitripa. Mar pa meets him during his last journey in India. Despite the lack of details, he is said to stay seven years by his side.” (Ducher 2017).

[19] “In conclusion, I could say that on the basis of Mar-pa’s biographical tradition, I am quite convinced that he met Nāropā, even though my only “proof” resides in the traditional narratives. These narratives—songs that can putatively be attributed to Mar-pa and biographies that were written a few decades after his death—all state that he went to India and met Nāropā at one point or another. The encounter or encounters may not have lasted for twenty years, as some biographies would have it, but they were certainly central for Mar-pa, and, of course, for those who followed his lineage and who inherited his transmissions. It is no wonder that this connection was disputed, given the tensions between the different lineages. Grags-pa-rgyalmtshan’s account, however, is not built on strong ground, but on the hearsay of one of Mar-pa’s alleged disciples. Therefore, until more convincing evidence has been provided, I think we can assume that the Bka’-brgyud tradition is not completely baseless, even though its foundation stage was magnified over the centuries to make it appear bigger than it actually was. The meetings may only have consisted in a few months and a few transmissions, but they had a profound and enduring effect on the history of Tibetan Buddhism.” (Ducher, 2017a:226).

[20] Ducher writes about Marpa and his meetings with Naropa in Building a Tradition (2017a: 213-5).

“These differences in the presentation of the first journey fade away in the descriptions of the last one, where the biographies unanimously state that Nāropā was no longer available for disciples at large, as he had “entered the practice” (spyod pa la ’jug pa/gshegs pa). This term refers to a specific type of practice of the Mahāyoga- and Yoginītantras,706 which is called caryā …..The treatment of Nāropā’s behavior in Mar-pa’s biographies varies from one text to another, but the fact that he engages in the practice is one of the most regular features. The accounts of Sgam-po-pa and Bla-ma Zhang are quite succinct; for them, Nāropā’s “entering into the practice” simply means that he no longer teaches. Thus, even though Mar-pa is said to meet him, Nāropā does not instruct him, but only occasionally leads gaṇacakras that he attends.

Ngam-rdzong ston-pa provides a more detailed version of Mar-pa’s relationship with Nāropā during that special time, one that derives from Marpa’s description of his quest in the songs. The importance of these visions in songs explains their centrality and ubiquity in the biographies.709 After stating that Nāropā is no longer available, as he has entered the practice, Ngamrdzong ston-pa has Mar-pa visit his other masters and then return to Nāropā’s place in Vikramaśīla, after which he has many visions of the Indian siddha, and then meets him and receives his teaching. Although the descriptions of the visions originate with the songs, it is Rngog Mdo-sde’s narrative that really initiates two motifs: the predictions by his other masters that Mar-pa would meet Nāropā, and Marpa’s quest for the Indian siddha. This recurring description cannot be found as such in songs, and it is likely that its fame goes back to Mdo-sde’s version, which was taken up by Mar-ston Tshul-khrims-’byung-gnas and thus acquired a central status in most of Mar-pa’s biographies. In these descriptions, the search has become systematized: each month, Mar-pa visits one of his masters and makes offerings to him, and then the master prophesizes the future meeting with Nāropā. After this collective endeavor, Mar-pa spends several months alone and has visions of Nāropā. Finally he meets him, and this is the climax of the biography. In many respects, this motif seems paradigmatic. Not unlike Nāropā with his twelve major and twelve minor hardships, Mar-pa has to endure hardships in order to purify himself and be able to meet his master at the most subtle and secret level, as shown in this example taken from Ngamrdzong ston-pa’s narrative:

After seven days, the glorious Nāropā himself arrived bearing a human skin, a skull-cup, and a khatvāṅga. He was naked, his matted hair was drawn on the top of his head, and he was adorned by the six bone ornaments. With exceedingly great joy, [Mar-pa] cried and shrieked, embraced [Nāropā] and pressed heart against heart, forehead against forehead. With both faces touching, [Mar-pa] narrated the story of his hardships and bemoaned the lord’s lack of compassion. [Nāropā] answered: “It is through this complete purification of your continuum by the maṇḍala of body, the maṇḍala of speech, and the maṇḍala of mind that I now give you my spiritual influence!”

[21] The song continues:

“Yet there are yogins roaming in charnel grounds

And kusulus dwelling under trees;

Some of them are completely unknown.

I requested from them many details on the perfection phase.

Their means of accomplishment

And minor instructions are beyond number!

When on the way [back] we reached the Nepal Valley,

I, Mar-pa Lotsā from Lho-brag,

And Gnyos Lotsā from Kha-rag,

Were asked who the most learned translator was

And who held the greatest instructions.

Later, when we reached the border between Nepal and Tibet,

It was he who received financial and material fortune.

When we reached the four parts of La-stod,

We obtained equal fame as translators.

When we arrived in the Tibetan plain of Dbus and Gtsang,

It was I who was renowned for my instructions.

Do not imagine that there is any higher instruction,

As these come from my encounter with accomplished gurus.

Though I do not search for enlightenment in words and conventions,

May all the exegetes who revel in them do as they please!”

Ducher writes about Marpa’s relation with the Gnyos Lotsawa: The figure of Gnyos Lo-tsā-ba and his role in Mar-pa’s first journey to India are among the most memorable elements of Mar-pa’s life as told by Gtsangsmyon Heruka. This biography popularized the depiction of Gnyos as a jealous villain who obliterated twelve years of Mar-pa’s efforts by plotting the destruction of his texts. As Hubert Decleer showed in an article on Rwa Lo-tsā-ba that explores the differences between rnam thar and chos ’byung

[22] Ducher (2019b) proposes that: “This may be due to his poetic style: while Milarepa was more lyric, describing his experience in vivid and inspiring songs, illustrating his daily yogic life but not summarising it, Marpa was more pragmatic; he did not sing on random occasions but during tantric gatherings or at the request of disciples who wanted to hear about his journeys. Consequently, Marpa’s songs were never completely extracted from their biographical context and although several manuscripts of collections of songs exist,6 they did not spread widely. The famous ‘eight great songs’ emphasised by Tsangnyön and anthologised in the Kagyü Gurtso (Bka’ brgyud mgur mtsho) are merely extracts from the biography by Tsangnyön without further editing.”

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