HEARING ‘HER-STORY'(II): DAGMEMA. Marpa’s Wife and Milarepa’s confidante, friend and teacher, her life, textual sources, visual depictions and new translation of Praise to Marpa by 17th Karmapa

“I have decided that you are a bad person for [forcing Milarepa to do] the meaningless work [of building] a fort. Please hold the great magician with compassion and [teach] the Dharma.”
–Dagmema to Marpa

“Marpa said, ”Great Magician, show me your back.” When he had finished examining it carefully, he said, ”My Master Naropa underwent twenty-four mortiflcations, twelve great and twelve minor trials, all of which surpass yours. As for me, without a thought for my life or my wealth, I gave both to my Master Naropa. So, if you seek the teaching, be humble and continue the work on the tower.” Dagmema said to Milarepa, ”the lama will not give you the teaching now, but in the end he will surely give it to you. Meanwhile, I will instruct you.” Then, she gave him the method for meditating on Vajravarahi.” 
–from Tsangnyon Heruka’s Life of Milarepa

“Blazing with bravery, like a great lion soaring through space
Turquoise mane of thousands of oral instructions on the tantras’ meaning
Bellowing laughter that stirs the ‘earth’ of the whispered lineage
Remembering again the supreme translator.”
–17th Karmapa’s Praise to Marpa


For the anniversary yesterday of Marpa Lotsawa, the famous Tibetan siddha, translator and revered teacher of Je Milarepa and others, International Women’s Day today, and Women’s History Month here is the second instalment of a short series (that addresses the invisibility of women in androcentric, male-centred Buddhist cultures, history, texts and scholarship) on Dagmema, Marpa’s wife and consort, and Milarepa’s confidante and some-time teacher. 

Yesterday, a Marpa Guru Yoga was also performed as part of the Arya Kshema annual event for the Karma Kagyu nuns being held at the Vajra Vidya Institute, Sarnath, India (see photos below and video here).

This brief post considers:

  • Life-stories of Marpa
  • Absence of biographical texts about, or by Dagmema 
  • Dagema’s important role in the life of Je Milarepa
  • The few visual depictions of Dagmema with Marpa
  • New translation of Verse of Praise to Marpa by 17th Karmapa

As I spoke about here in my video Introduction to Dakini Translations, Marpa has been a big inspiration for me in my own work as a Dharma translator. Unpopular, unliked, and initially unsupported, Marpa risked his life and spent his own wealth to make the long and arduous journeys to Nepal and India (a very difficult task from Tibet) in order to bring back the Indian tantric/Vajrayana teachings. May remembering Dagmema and her crucial role in the life of both Marpa and Milarepa be of benefit in remembering the important role of women in the lives of these great yogis but also as practitioners and teachers in their own right.

For more research and translations on Marpa, see this section of the website here, and Bibliography below.

Music? Mantra of Marpa Lotsawa, Milarepa’s Song of Remembering His Guru and Marpa’s wrathful wisdom and love,  Gotta Be Cruel to Be Kind by Nick Lowe, and finally, At Last by Etta James.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 8th March 2023.


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 was dedicated to the 16th Karmapa! Other renowned Kagyu masters, such as Je Gampopa and Pawo Tsuglag Threngwa also wrote liberation-stories about Marpa.

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 Dr. Cecile Ducher. 

Marpa Chokyi Lodro (mar pa chos kyi blo gros) was born in 1012 in Chukhyer (chu khyer) in the Lhodrak (lho brag) region of southern Tibet

“He was also an insolent and short-tempered youth, so at the age of fifteen his parents sent him to study with the acclaimed scholar Drokmi Śākya Yeshe (‘brog mi lo tsA wa shAkya ye shes, c.992-c.1072) at the latter’s hermitage in Mangkhar Mugu Lung (mang mkhar mu gu lung). Marpa studied Sanskrit and Indian vernacular languages under Drokmi Lotsāwa’s direction for three years, but could not afford to pay the high fees his teacher charged for initiation and dharma instruction. This led Marpa to seek the dharma from other teachers by traveling south to Nepal and India. To that end he joined the company of Nyo Lotsāwa (gnyos lo tsA ba, 11th century), whom he attended as a servant on their way to Nepal.”

He spent three years studying with Vajrayana masters (and disciples of Naropa) in Nepal in the area of Swayambunath before travelling to India, where he stayed for twelve years.

“This was the first of three trips Marpa is said to have made, during which he first met two Nepalese teachers and ultimately their master Naropa, the famous Bengali scholar who had by that point abandoned Nalanda monastic university for a forest retreat. After twelve years, he returned to Tibet with the Hevajra and Guhyasamaja Tantras, as well as the teachings of Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa. Back in Lhodrak his fame as a teacher grew, and he acquired both wealth and a household. Nevertheless, he returned to India twice more to train further with Naropa. It should be mentioned that Sakya polemicists, relying on what seems to be shaky history, later attempted to undermine Marpa’s authority by arguing that he never actually met with Naropa.”

He began to teach but soon desired to return to India. In order to find sponsors for the journey and obtain provisions necessary for the trip, he travelled the countryside giving dharma instruction in exchange for gold and other gifts. It was during this time that he met two of his chief disciples Ngokton Choku Dorje (rngog ston chos sku rdo rje, 1036-1097) and Tsurton Wangi Dorje (mtshur ston dbang gi rdo rje, d.u.). As Marpa’s fame grew, he gained both a large following and great wealth. He established a home and teaching center in Trowolung (bro bo lung) and married Dakmema (bdag med ma), who gave birth to Marpa’s son Darma Dode (dar ma mdo sde). (He is said to have had nine wives and seven sons altogether.).

The death of Darma Dode is one of the defining legends of the practice of ejecting consciousness, or powa, that Marpa brought back from India. According to legend, Darma Dode was murdered by rival translator Ra Lotsawa Dorje Drak. At the moment of his death he ejected his consciousness into the body of a pigeon, flew to India, and took possession of an Indian youth who grew into a Buddhist teacher named Tipupa, who went on to become a teacher of powa.”





Marpa the Translator depicted with his wife Dagmema (on the right) and Milarepa on the bottom left.

Considering Dagmema was Marpa’s wife and mother of his son, it is indicative proof of the male-centred and patriarchal culture and history that little is written or known about her other than through the voice of Milarepa, whom she tried to help. In the literature and books I have read on Marpa, translated into English, as well as contemporary research and PhDs, such as those by Dr. Cecile Ducher, hardly any mention is made of the character, life and experience of Dagmema. I asked Ducher if there was a text in which someone had written about Dagmema specifically and she said she had not seen one.

Thus, the most valuable source of information about Dagmema are the Life-Stories and Songs of Milarepa, where Milarepa speaks about how he would seek advice, help and comfort from her, when he felt sad and disheartened by Marpa’s conduct towards him.

For example, in the Life of Milarepa (tr. Lobsang P. Lhalungpa, 1977),  Marpa would beat Milarepa all the time and kick him out of the teachings, saying, ‘These teachings are not for free, what are you going to give me?’ Marpa’s wife Dagmema felt bad and gave Milarepa her turquoise jewelry to give to Marpa as payment. When Milarepa presented them, Marpa recognized them and said, ‘These are mine. Are you stealing my things?’ And he beat him up more and threw him out.

Dagmema, out of compassion and love for Milarepa intervened and tried to help him in these ways. However, was this ‘idiot compassion’ or not, is hard to tell. In the Buddhist view, without wisdom and inner realisations, compassion and love by itself does not really help a person, and may even harm them. For example, when Milarepa finished the tower and undertook the completion of the covered walk. By that time he had sores on my back. Pus and blood ran from three wounds. He showed his back, which was one mass of sores, to the Dagmema. She looked with concern at his sores, and tears poured from her eyes. After she came to Marpa and discussed about his wound. 

Milarepa was sent to Marpa’s room. Marpa said, ”Great Magician, show me your back.” When he had finished examining it carefully, he said, ”My Master Naropa underwent twenty-four mortiflcations, twelve great and twelve minor trials, all of which surpass yours. As for me, without a thought for my life or my wealth, I gave both to my Master Naropa. So if you seek the teaching, be humble and continue the work on the tower.” Dagmema said to Milarepa, ”the lama will not give you the teaching now, but in the end he will surely give it to you. Meanwhile, I will instruct you.” Then, she gave him the method for meditating on Vajravarahi.

In another example, Milarepa who felt he would never get the teachings from Marpa, enlisted Dagmema’s help to get the teachings of Ngogdon Choku Dorje, one of the Four Pillars of Marpa’s disciples. He had come to Marpa with his own group of disciples, with a hundred mules and many offerings in order to take more teachings. Milarepa and Dagmema convinced Ngogpa Choku Dorje to give teachings to Mila. He didn’t really want to but felt obliged by Dagmema. So he gave Milarepa some teachings. 

Marpa becomes angry at Ngogpa and Dagmema for helping Milarepa again (she locks herself in the temple to avoid his wrath) but eventually,  says to them all that:

“If everything is carefully examined, not one of us is to be blamed. I have merely tested Great Magician to purify him of his sins. If the work on the tower had been intended for my own gain, I would have been gentle in the giving of orders. Therefore I was sincere. Being a woman, the mistress was also right not to be able to bear the situation, yet her excessive compassion in deceiving with the sacred objects and the forged letter was a serious indulgence.

Ngokpa, you were right in the matter you have related. However, go now and bring me those sacred objects and afterward I will give them to you. Great Magician was burning with desire for religion, and he was right to use any means to obtain it. Ngokpa did not know that the mistress had sent someone under false pretenses. This is why he gave Great Magician initiation and instruction. Thus, I shall not look for a way to punish him. Although my anger rose like floodwater, it was not like worldly anger. However they may appear, my actions always come from religious considerations which, in essence, conform to the Path of Enlightenment.

As for the rest of you who are not yet immersed in religion, do not let your faith be shaken. Had this son of mine completed nine great ordeals, his complete Enlightenment, without future rebirth, would have been achieved without leaving any bodily residue. Since, due to Dagmema’s weakness, that did not take place, there will remain a faint stain of defilement with him. However, his great sins have been erased by his eight great afflictions of mind and by his numerous small agonies. Now, I receive you and will give you my teaching, which is as dear to me as my own heart. I will help you with provisions and let you meditate and be happy.”

So according to Marpa, Dagmema was right to feel compassion for Milarepa but not to use deception to do so.


There is also an interesting article by Pickens (2019) who discusses the Tibetan language Marpa uses to speak to Milarepa and Dagmema, which gives some idea of his ‘superior’ status even though Dagmema is his wife:

“We see that even though Marpa uses khyod in positive and negative statements, its use always indicates his higher social status. For when Milarepa, Dakmema, and Lama Ngokpa entreat Marpa to do certain things they never address him with khyod or use the imperative. In the next two examples (10 and 11) Dakmema is asking Marpa to teach, but rather than using the imperative her speech is framed as a request (using honorific forms and the verb zhu ba).  Dakmema does not use the imperative towards Marpa, even though her requests are extremely urgent.”

Here is my own translation: “I have decided that you are a bad person for the meaningless work [of building] a fort. Please hold the great magician with compassion and [teach] the Dharma.”  དོན་མེད་ཀྱི་མཁར་ལས་གྱིས་མི་སྡུག་ཐག་གཅོད་པ་འདུག། མཐུ་ཆེན་ལ་ཆོས་ཐུགས་རྗེས་འཛིན་པར་ཞུ༎ .  This suggests, but certainly does not prove that Dagmema was not very close to Marpa though, after all, Tsangnyon Heruka is the author here, not Milarepa, Dagmema or Marpa.
Image: Painting of Marpa with Dagmema and Milarepa. Artist and source unknown.

Another example of how Dagmema has been overlooked and ignored, not only in Buddhist culture and texts, but also in Asian and Western ‘contemporary’ cultures, is in the almost total lack of depictions of Marpa with his wife.

One of the few I have seen is by the eccentric visionary Tibetan Buddhist master and artist, 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje (1604-1674) which unfortunately is in dire need of restoration.  Hopefully, the 17th Karmapa will do another version of it, as he did with the Marici painting recently, based on the the 10th Karmapa’s painting of her. For more on the 10th Karmapa’s life and art, see here.

Marpa Lotsawa with Dagmema and Milarepa by 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje. This painting was given to the 10th Karmapa’s attendant and secretary, Kuntu Zangpo. https://www.himalayanart.org/items/33257

 The painting here has an inscription across the lower front which reads “This image of Marpa the Translator drawn by the hand of the Revered Choying Dorje was given to the heart-son Kuntu Zangpo.” (མར་པ་ལོ་ཙའི་སྐུ་བརྙན་འདི་རྗེ་བཙུན་ཆོས་དབྱིངས་རྡོ་རྗེའི་ཕག་བྲིས་ཐུགས་སྲས་ཀུན་ཏུ་བཟང་པོ་ལ་གནང་བྱིང་བརླབས་ཅན།). Kuntu Zangpo (1610-1684 [P1382]) was Choying Dorje’s servant and secretary attendant during most of his life.

The 10th Karmapa, also is said to have created this stunning statue of Marpa:

Yesterday, during the Arya Kshema ritual of the Marpa Guru Yoga at the Vajra Vidya Institute, this stunning thangka was arranged on the main shrine, which appears to also show Dagmema.  It is not stated who created this though:

Marpa with woman (probably Dagmema) in a thangka on the main shrine during the ritual of Marpa Guru Yoga yesterday for the Arya Kshema event at Vajra Vidya Institute, 7th March 2023. Source FB.

I also saw this painting online, although it is not stated who the creator was:

Marpa with teachers and students, including his wife, Dagmema (bottom right) and Milarepa (bottom centre). Artist and source unknown.
Dagmema as depicted in the huge wall mural at DGL nunnery

To re-dress this lack of depictions of Dagmema, and male-centred art, early last year, I envisioned and commissioned a painting from a local Tibetan artist, in the traditional Tibetan Men-ri style, focusing on the Kagyu forefathers, such as Marpa and Milarepa and their female teachers and students. I specifically requested that Dagmema be drawn as a similar size to Marpa, unlike most of the other few depictions of her. I also requested this be done for the other women sitting around them, but alas, the artist did not do so, it seems due to space and ‘tradition’ constraints.

I will write about the whole painting soon.  For now, here are some images of Marpa and Dagmema, at last!

Marpa and wife, Dagmema with female consorts/students. Artwork commissioned by Adele Tomlin, 2022.
Marpa’s wife, Dagmema
Marpa Lotsawa, drawn in the traditional Tibetan Men-ri style.
Praise to Marpa (2020) by 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

In 2020, HH 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje composed this verse of praise to Marpa, which I have now translated here. The Karmapa compares Marpa to a blazing, brave, thunderously laughing lion:


Blazing with bravery, like a great lion soaring through space

Turquoise mane of thousands of oral instructions on the tantras’ meaning

Bellowing laughter that stirs the ‘earth’ of the whispered lineage 

Remembering again the supreme translator.

Previously, I translated a short excerpt of praise to Marpa from Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye’s Marpa Guru Yoga here.

Further Reading/Sources

Decleer, Hubert. 2004. “Mar pa.” In Lindsay Jones, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion. Second edition. New York: Macmillan Reference, pp. 5715-5716.

Ducher, Cecile—–

2016. bKa’ brgyud Treasure and rNying ma Revealer: The Sras mkhar ma of Mar pa Lo tsā ba,Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 37, December 2016, pp. 98–126. 

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

2020. Goldmine of Knowledge – The Collections of the Gnas bcu lha khang, Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 55, Juillet 2020, pp 121–139.

 2019. From Song to Biography and from Biography to Song: The Use of gur in Marpa’s namthar. Life Writing.

Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi LodroGuru Yoga on Marpa the Translator composed while at Serkhar Gutok. Translated by Adam Pearcey, Lotsawa House, 2019.


Pickens, J. (2019). Marpa’s commands in the Milarepa Life Story. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 82(2), 303-314.

Quintman, Andrew“Marpa Chokyi Lodro,” Treasury of Liveshttp://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Marpa-Chokyi-Lodro/4354.

Tomlin, Adele (2020-2022)—–


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

JE TSONGKHAPA AND THE KAGYU LINEAGE: Marpa’s Guhyasamāja and Nāropa’s Cakrasaṃvara and Six Yogas. ‘Good Deeds’ teaching by 17th Karmapa (Day 12)

Anniversary of Marpa Lotsāwa: Jamgon Kongtrul’s Praise in ‘Marpa’s Guru Yoga’

A ‘Kagyu Treasure’ Tradition? Marpa’s Fifteen ‘Hidden Scrolls’ from Sekhar

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s