The early Kagyu Patriarchs
in India and Tibet
The following are extracts from
Ken Holmes' book "Karmapa",
published by Altea 1996
"one instant with the guru is
worth aeons of perfection-stage meditation"
Naropa's life is very reminiscent of the twelve stages of the life of the
Buddha. A bodhisattva of the highest, i.e. tenth, level, the future Naropa
realised that the time had come to enter the human life that would bring
him to full enlightenment. In the clarity of his meditation, he could see
his future father, the Buddhist king Santivarman, who longed for a son and
who himself had some physical signs of an enlightened being. His future
mother dreamt of voidness and bliss inseparable and of light filling the
entire country. Some time later, Naropa was born, his body bearing the
marks of a future Buddha. The earth shook, many rainbows appeared and
thunder rumbled. It was approximately the year 1016, in Bengal.
At the age of eight, disgusted by worldliness, he went to study dharma in
Kashmir. By eleven, he had become a brilliant scholar. Returning to his
country, the erudite prince taught Buddhist ethics to his people. His
desireless mind was devoted to Buddhism and quite content. However, at the
age of seventeen, he was virtually forced into marriage by his parents,
who were anxious for an heir. His wife became his disciple and at the age
of twenty-five he definitively renounced the world and became a novice monk
and, at twenty-one, a bhikkhu. The former royal child prodigy studied at
Pullahari monastery and eventually his renown led to his becoming abbot of
the great Nalanda monastery. His personal radiance inspired many people
onto the path. He was the ideal abbot.
However, after some eight years he had a vision of a leprous old hag
"with 37 ugly features" who informed him that she was saddened because
he only understood the teachings intellectually, not really. He realised
that he was seeing the reflection of his own 37 worldly impurities, and
"Samsara is to see fault in others"
He knew it was time to leave all and set out to find his guru, to complete
his enlightenment. Despite the long entreaties of everyone he left Nalanda
at the age of 42. There followed a long series of trials, in which he
constantly met strange phenomena, symbolic of his own remaining blockages
due to preconceived ideas about ultimate reality. These were often vivid
and painful learning processes, representing the untying of karmic knots.
In each of these episodes, he glimpsed brief visions of his guru, pointing
out his mistakes. In fact, in one form or another, his guru Tilopa had been
with him ever since he had seen the old leper woman, and at the end of
these first trials, they met properly. The first real teaching that Naropa
received from Tilopa consisted of the latter saying nothing but, in a
powerful dialogue of minds, showing twelve symbolic acts, each of which
Naropa interpreted correctly. Then Tilopa gave him empowerments and
personal teachings, including one special instruction, preparing the
ground for what was to follow:
"Don't look for bliss, or its opposite".
Then followed the twelve main teachings. Each of these shows a profound
contact between Naropa and Tilopa, which means, in reality, between Naropa
and the purity of his own mind. Each starts with a painful trial,
instigated by Tilopa, which reveals a defect in Naropa and for which a
teaching is given and then practised for about a year. For instance, in
the first trial, Tilopa instructs Naropa to climb up onto a temple roof
and jump off it. Faithful Naropa does just this. His guru then heals his
shattered body with his blessing and gives him the teachings known as the
"Wish-fulling Gem". The twelve teachings, most of which have since become
the core of the inner Kagyu transmission, were:
... 1. The "wish-fulfilling gem": a very complete
form of purification,
... 2. "Same-taste", showing the presence of the
enlightened essence with all and everything,
... 3. Commitment: maintaining a pure
relationship (samaya) with one's guru, everything and everyone,
... 4. Tummo: purification of the subtle
inner body of chakra and nadi,
... 5. Illusory body yoga: bringing wisdom
into one's perception of reality,
... 6. Dream yoga: how to understand and
master dreams, using them to purify karma and develop enlightened action,
... 7. Radiant light yoga,
... 8. Transference of consciousness,
particularly at the time of death (powa),
... 9. Resurrection,
... 10. Great bliss yoga: control of sexual
energy and realisation of the common essence of samsara and nirvana,
of pain and happiness. It is on mastering this teaching that he received
the name Naropa.
... 11. Mahamudra and
... 12. "Transitory Phase" yoga (bar.do):
teaching how to be enlightened in every phase of existence—life, death,
Through mastering these twelve Naropa's mind became almost totally
identical with the enlightened mind of his guru Tilopa, who then sent him
away to meditate further and help all beings. Naropa did this for some time,
performing many miracles, and eventually returned to Tilopa, who removed
the last remaining traces of impurity in Naropa's mind—in particular the
latter's feeling of a need to meditate—by revealing to him, in all its
fullness, mind's innate purity since beginningless time. Naropa then
"One need ask no more when the true nature is seen".
Fully enlightened, he became known as a "second Buddha" and wrought
great benefit for many beings. In particular, Tilopa instructed him to
bring Marpa, the Tibetan, to enlightenment. Through Naropa and Marpa, the
father tantra, the Guhyasamaja, went to Tibet, as well as
transmissions of other tantras, such as that of Chakrasamvara.
Naropa passed away, literally, at Pullahari, his enlightened body fading
back into voidness amid myriad rainbows and beautiful celestial music.
His life was an intense example of the power of faith, faith being an
essential quality for the swiftest path of mahamudra within Kagyu Buddhism.
By perfectly following
his guru's advice and maintaining his dedicated commtiment, he finished
his journey to enlightenment.
Marpa the Translator
Marpa, born in 1012 in south central Tibet, was the first Tibetan
patriarch of the Kagyu tradition—which is often called the Marpa Kagyu in
his honour. He was also the first Patriarch who would reappear again and
again in the lineage. Marpa is believed to have been the mahasiddhas
Dombipa, Sri Simha and Darikapa in previous lives in India. In eighth
century Tibet, he was the astrologer who chose the site of Samye monastery.
Later he was reborn as Dharma Semang, one of Guru Rinpoche's secretaries,
writer of terma and expert in wrathful practices. Then he became Marpa, at
the 11th century period of restoration of dharma, and subsequently other
masters, including the famous Taranatha. In the Kagyu tradition, besides
being Marpa he was also to become Drogon Rechen, to whom the first Karmapa
handed his prediction letter, Yeshe Ö, the second Karmapa's disciple
who found the hidden land of Sari,
the golden lineage holder Ratnabhadra, guru of the fourth Karmapa and
Choji Gyaltsen, who was given the title "Tai Situ" by the Chinese Emperor
Yung Lo (Ch'eng Tsu) in the early fifteenth century. The incarnations have
been known as Tai Situ ever since.
Marpa's determination was strong, even as a child. In order to acquire Buddhist
teachings for his country, he made three journeys to India. This was no
mean feat at the time, as the dangers and health risks of travel were great.
To acquire for Tibet the good karma assuring that those teachings would
be long-lasting, he put much energy into collecting offerings to take to
Indian masters, on behalf of his people. In order to properly accomplish
his task of acquiring and translating teachings, he spent three years in
Nepal, acclimatising to humidity and heat as well as the lower altitude.
While there, he learnt more than thirty Indian dialects.
His main teacher in India was Naropa. He spent sixteen years and seven
months studying under his guidance, during which time he received the full
transmission of all that Naropa had received from Tilopa. Furthermore,
Naropa sent him to other gurus, especially Maitripa, Jnanagarbha, Kukuripa,
and the wisdom dakini of Sosarling. He received each of their special
dharma transmissions: the complete mind teachings of mahamudra, Guhyasamaja,
Mahamaya and Dorje Denshi. Although he could have received all of those
lineages from Naropa himself, Naropa wanted him to go to the best
specialists of the day in each practice, so that the teachings Marpa
carried to Tibet would be as charged as possible with lineage blessing.
From Naropa himself he received the Hevajra tantra and Naropa's
special techniques—the essence of vajrayana taught him by Tilopa—and above
all the full transmission of the Chakrasamvara tantra. Marpa not only
learnt but practised and gained results in these and many other vajrayana
teachings. In particular, Naropa helped Marpa to break through the
conceptual blockages preventing his complete liberation and thereby
brought him to total enlightenment. In their oneness of enlightenment, he
shared the vast treasury of his mind with Marpa.
Naropa made Marpa his dharma regent for Tibet and entrusted him with the
task of bringing a very exceptional being, Milarepa, to enlightenment
. It is said that Naropa himself prostrated towards Tibet when Marpa told
him of his disciple Milarepa.
Marpa had always hoped that his own son, Dharma Doday, would become
his spiritual heir but Naropa informed him that this was not to be. The
Kagyu tradition is not a spiritual succession based upon family dynasties,
as other lineages in Tibet were in the past and, in part, still are. In
fact, one of the reasons (besides that of his immense spiritual presence)
why the second Karmapa was given prominence by
the Chinese Emperor was because the Karmapa was self-recognised and could
be born into any family. The Chinese empire of the time was tired of
sending endless gifts to religious dynastic families, which were also too
powerful for their liking.
After his three journeys and twenty-one years in India, Marpa spent the
last years of his life firmly establishing in Tibet the teachings he had
secured. He had four highly gifted disciples, each specialised in different
domains. His main heir, who received everything from him, just as he himself
from Naropa, was Jetsun Milarepa.
The Great Yogin, Milarepa
Milarepa's moving and inspiring life story is the most accessible of all
the Tibetan biographies published to date. It stands as a gripping story
in its own right and the reader is highly commended to it. He was born in
1052 into comfortable circumstances but, while still a child, saw the life
of his immediate family shattered by the death of his father and subsequent
takeover of the family assets by an avaricious uncle and aunt, who
thereafter used Milarepa, his sister and his mother as slaves. Milarepa's
mother patiently awaited his coming of age to reclaim the family land,
house and wealth, but when the time came, this proved unsuccessful. The
only way she could imagine the injustice being righted was for her son to
learn magic and curse the relatives. She threatened suicide if Milarepa did
not do as she asked.
Milarepa went away and fulfilled his mother's wishes. Magical demons
conjured up by him destroyed his uncle's house during a feast, killing
25 members of his family. Milarepa let it be known that the nightmarish
wrecking of their home was his work and threatened to do worse if his
family's house and land were not restored. Despite the fear he had inspired,
it was dangerous for Milarepa to remain in the area and so he returned to
The latter was ageing and starting to regret the darker deeds that he and
his disciples had wrought. He placed his hope in Milarepa, feeling that
this determined and good-hearted young man might achieve both their
salvation. He sent him to dharma teachers to learn virtue and, above all,
purification of misdeeds. This eventually led Milarepa to meet Marpa.
Marpa gave the repentant mass murderer a rough time, insisting that he
build a tower for him. Once built, he made him tear it down. This was
repeated several time, with towers of different shapes. In the end,
Marpa insisted on a great castle tower, eight stories high, before he
would give Milarepa any formal teachings. This seemingly cruel exploitation
was, in fact, his way of helping Milarepa purify the bad karma. Using one
or two simple tools and his bare hands, Milarepa slaved until he was all
but broken, physically and morally. At one point, he even ran away in
desperation, but never losing faith. In the end, after the hardest of all
spiritual apprenticeships and with the tower almost completed, he was
admitted among Marpa's students. He was given ordination and teachings and
entered solitary retreat, where he meditated with a butter-lamp on his
head, not being allowed to move until the lamp burnt out. He gained good
results and Marpa eventually sent him to meditate in isolated caves and
mountain fastnesses for many years.
Milarepa's diligence and faith were second to none. Through them, he
achieved something exceedingly rare, almost unique: he achieved
enlightenment in a single lifetime. Famous for his mastery of Naropa's
six yogas, he performed many miracles such as flying through space,
passing through rocks and living for months in the snows at some
5,000 metres sustained only by life-breath while wearing nought but a
thin cotton cloth, hence his name. Mila was his family name and repa
means someone clad in cotton. An itinerant hermit, he was the perfect
example of the Buddhist mendicant yogi. His enlightened songs, one of the
greatest treasuries of Kagyu teaching, have been an inspiration for many
people since their publication in English. He had one disciple (Gampopa)
like the sun, one (Rechungpa) like the moon, twenty-five like stars and
many thousand others.
Gampopa, father of the various Kagyu traditions
We have seen something of Gampopa in the samadhirajasutra chapter. This
tenth-level bodhisattva was born, in central Tibet in 1079, as the son of a
very wise doctor. As a teenager he completed his own medical training and
gained proficiency in several meditation practices of the Nyingma tradition.
In his early twenties he married and fathered a son and a daughter.
However, his wife and both children died, having all caught an incurable
disease sweeping the area. His wife made him promise to become a monk after
her death and this he did.
He became the monk Precious Virtue and spent an intensive period of time
travelling and studying under excellent teachers of mahayana Buddhist
philosophy and vajrayana technique. In particular, he benefitted from the
Khadampa teachings brought to Tibet by Atisa Dipankara. He could meditate
comfortably for many days without moving or needing food or drink and his
presence was one of great peace and finesse. However, he then started to
have visions of a ragged yogi; visions which uplifted him to states he had
never before experienced. The increasing intensity of these visions caused
him to leave everything behind and set off in search of the yogi, who by
now he knew to be Milarepa. In a strange world where meditation experience
intermingled indistinguishably with his perception of reality, he made his
way through a series of highly-meaningful symbolic experiences until he
eventually encountered his guru.
Milarepa had inner knowledge that Gampopa would be his future spiritual
heir long before the latter's arrival and realised what a magnificent and
virtuous being he was. Over the next years, in a relatively short period of
time, Milarepa passed on all his teachings to him and supervised his
progress with great love and care. He even gave him the ultimate initiation,
into diligence, by showing him the hard skin and callouses on his bottom
where he had sat meditating for months and years on end on rocks in wild
mountainsides until realisation was attained. When he had taught Precious
Virtue all he could, he sent him to Mount Gampo, with instruction on how to
meditate there. He told him the signs of achievement by which he would know
that it was time to teach others and predicted that a great number of
people would eventually gather there as his disciples.
The man of Mt Gampo - Gampopa - achieved his enlightenment there and soon
many people came to seek his advice. He established the very first Tibetan
Kagyu monastery there and taught dharma on all its levels, from the very
basics through to vajrayana. By bringing the monastic training and the
erudition of the Khadampas into the Kagyu transmission, he had fortified
and broadened it, fulfilling in part Naropa's prophecy that it would go
from strength to strength in its next generations. Gampopa had many eminent
scholars and yogis among his disciples. The most renowned was His Holiness
the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa.
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