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"


Mahasiddha Naropa

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 declared:

"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 ( teaching how to be enlightened in every phase of existence—life, death, after-death, etc.

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 declared:

"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 exceedingly pure 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 his teacher.

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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