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Just as the greatly accomplished Virupa was the major Indian patriarch of the Sakya tradition, the mahasiddhas Tilopa and Naropa are the forefathers of the Kagyu. Tilopa (988-1069) received the teachings of mahamudra directly from Buddha Vajradhara, and from Vajrayogini he received the special dakini hearing-lineage. Both of these he transmitted to Naropa (1016-1100) who inturn passed them on to his Tibetan disciple Marpa Chokyi Lodro (1012-1096), popularly known as Marpa the translator.

Marpa’s principal heart-son and dharma heir was the beloved Jetsun Milarepa (1052-1135) and it was through these illustrating founding fathers that the Kagyu, or Ear-Whispered, tradition came from into existence. Thanks to an unbroken succession of great practitioners such as Gampopa, Pagmo Drupa and the Gyalwa Karmapas, this tradition has remained alive and undegenerated right up to the present day.Milarepa’s apprenticeship to Marpa is often held up as the epitome of the guru-disciple relationship. These two differed from each other in almost every respect except their intense dedication t o the dharma. Marpa was a solidly built, gruff householder with a large family while Milarepa is often pictured as an emaciated ascetic, living alone in caves high up in the Himalayas, his skin having turned the green color of the nettles that made up his meager diet. Yet, as the translators of Marpa’s biography have written:

Each of them forged his own path based on who he was  and what his resources were. Their life stories are examples how one’s life -anyone’s life-could be devoted wholeheartedly  to the practice and realization of the buddhadharma.

It would be impossible to do justice here to the eventful life stories of these two spiritual geniuses, but a few significant features can be mentioned briefly. Marpa made his first journey to India because he was frustrated in not being able to receive the dharma instructions he desired in Tibet. It was his intention to study the Vajrayana at the monastic centers of northern India, but he had to pause in Nepal for three years to acclimatize him self to heat of the lower elevation.

It was here he met disciples of Naropa and immediately knew that was the guru with whom he must train. in all Marpa made three trips to India and spent twenty one years there, sixteen of which were in the service of Naropa. He also studied with Maitripa and from this Mahasidhha he received an additional Mahamudra lineage.

As for Mahamudra itself, this term encompasses a wide range of interrelated practices all leading to a direct, intuitive realization of the mind’s ultimate nature. Through following these practices assiduously it is possible to come face to face with “suchness,” the actual way things exist, devoid of preconceptions and elaboration, beyond the reach of words and intellect. We can glimpse the freedom attainable though mahamudra meditation from one of the songs Marpa sang to express his realizations, one stanza of which reads:

The essence of realization is nowness,Occurring all at once, with nothing to add or subtract.
Self-liberation, innate great bliss, Free from hope or fear is the fruition.

During Marpa’s last stay in India Naropa decided to test the Tibetan’s ability to hold the lineage of his teachings He therefore manifested the entire mandala of  Hevajra, Marpa’s main meditating deity, and said to him:

Your personal yidam Hevajra with the nine emanation goddess has arisen in the sky before you. Will you prostrate to me or to the yidam?

Thinking that it was usual for him to see his guru while this was the first time he had ever directly beheld his meditating deity, Marpa prostrated to the bright and vivid mandala appearing before him. Naropa then dissolved the entire mandala back into his own heart and admonished Marpa that if it were not for the guru even the names of the enlightened beings would not exist. He then predicted that even though Marpa had eight sons, his dharma lineage would not be passed on by the descendants of his own family. But he also predicted:

Although in his life your family lineage will be interrupted, your dharma lineage will flow on like a wide river as long as the teachings of the Buddha remain… All the future disciples of the lineage will be like the children of lions and garudas [birds of extraordinary power], and each generation will be better than the last.

In particular Naropa prophesied that it would be Marpa’s disciple Milarepa, whom Naropa had never met, who would be of special renown. When Marpa had first mentioned Milarepa to his guru Naropa placed his joined hands on top of his head said:

In the pitch black land of the north

Is one like the sun rising over snow.To this being known as Thopaga [i.e. Milarepa]I prostrate.

When Milarepa first came to Marpa he certainly did not appear to be a fearless lion or Garuda, or radiant sun of the dharma. On the contrary he was in a state of abject terror. Milarepa’s father had been a prosperous landowner. After he died, Milarepa’s mother, sister and himself had their inheritance stolen by a wicked uncle and aunt and were thereby reduced to bitter poverty.

To gain revenge on these people, Milarepa’s mother urged him to learn the art of black magic, which he did. Using these powers he brought about the destruction of his mother’s enemies, killing many people and animals in process. Then, overcome by horror of what he had done, and fearful of the fate that lay in store for him as a murderer, he desperately sought the refuge of a dharma master who could save him from the result of his misdeeds. It was in this state of mind that he entrusted himself to Marpa.Marpa treated this would-be disciple very roughly.

He mockingly called him “Sorcerer”- a name which stuck with him for a long time thereafter- and refused to give him any dharma instruction whatsoever. In fact, if Milarepa dared enter the room in which an empowerment or teachings were to take place, Marpa would descend from his throne in rage, thrash Milarepa soundly and throw him out! Instead of teachings, Marpa gave Milarepa back-breaking tasks to perform.

The most famous of these was the single-handed construction of a rock tower, which Milarepa was forced to tear down and rebuild three times.Despite intense hardships Milarepa persevered in serving Marpa devotedly. After years of treating Milarepa so harshly, Marpa discerned that his methods had finally produced their desired effect. These tasks had acted as purification practices, cleansing Milarepa and preparing him to receive Marpa’s most profound legacy.

Marpa then bestowed upon Milarepa the pith instructions of the teachings he himself had received from Naropa, particularly those related to the practices of Chakrasamvara, and sent him off to the mountains to do strict retreat. Through untiring effort and intense guru devotion, Milarepa accomplished the supreme task of complete self-transformation, achieving the full enlightenment of buddhahood within a few short years.

He then spent the remainder of his life wandering from place to place, revealing the dharma through spontaneous songs that touched the heart of simple and learned alike. These songs are still sung by the Tibetan people, who, whatever their affliction, regard Milarepa with abiding affection as one of their own.

To specially ripe disciples, Jetsun Milarepa -Mila, the Revered Cloth-Clad One-passed on the profound instructions handed down from Vajradhara, Tilopa, Naropa and Marpa. To Gampopa (1079-1153), a master of the Kadam tradition, he transmitted certain special teachings that Tilopa commanded be kept extremely hidden, to be passed from guru to only one disciple for thirteen successive generations. Yet one of the most powerful teachings that Milarepa ever gave Gampopa was complete non-verbal.

Milarepa had sent Gampopa away to do retreat when suddenly he called his disciple back to him, explaining that he had one further set of instructions to pass on. He then lifted up his cloth garment and showed Gampopa his own scarred and calloused backside, testimony of the years on unstinting meditation he had engaged in to win the goal of full awakening.

Deeply impressed by what he had seen, Gampopa departed, to practice just as intensely.Over the centuries the Kagyu tradition has continued to produce a succession of realized masters who have engaged in the same practices perfected by Marpa and Milarepa. Among them are the late heads of the Kagyu tradition, His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1923-1981), and His Eminence the late Kalu Rinpoche (1904-1989), both recognized by members of all Tibetan traditions as yogis of exceptional attainment.

In his last public discourse, Kalu Rinpoche described the attitude to be cultivated by the disciple toward his or her spiritual master as follows:

…what we call the Buddha, or the lama, is not material in the same way as iron, crystal, gold or silver are. You should never think of them with this sort of materialistic attitude. The essence of the Lama or Buddha is emptiness; their nature, clarity; their appearance, the play of unimpeded awareness. Apart from that, they have no real, material form, shape or color whatsoever-like the empty luminosity of space. When we know them to be like that, we can develop faith, merge our minds with theirs, and let our minds rest peacefully. This attitude and practice are most important.

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