Buddhism Marpa
Andrew Quintman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0070


Marpa Chokyi Lodro (Mar pa Chos kyi blo gros, b. c. 1012–d. 1097), a renowned lay Buddhist master and translator of Sanskrit texts, is recognized as the first Tibetan founder of the Kagyü sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Traditional biographies often describe him as a reincarnation of the Indian adept Ḍombī Heruka. Marpa was born after a long period of political fragmentation in Tibet, during which time Buddhist institutions had largely disappeared. As a young boy, Marpa is said to have shown great skill in learning Sanskrit and Indian vernacular languages. He later sought Buddhist instruction in India—an arduous journey he famously made three times during his life. He first spent a number of years in Nepal, where he trained under the teachers Chitherpa and Paiṇḍapa, who further encouraged him to seek out the master who would become his primary guru, the great Indian adept Nāropa (b. c. 956–d. 1041). While some contemporary scholarship has called his meeting with Nāropa into question, traditional accounts describe that Marpa then studied with the adept at the forest retreat of Pullahari and received the initiations, instructions, and texts for a series of major tantric systems, especially those that would become known as the Six Doctrines of Nāropa (Nā ro chos drug). From the Indian adept Maitrīpa (b. c. 1002–d. 1077), Marpa received instructions on the meditation system of mahāmudrā and the tradition of dohā, or spiritual songs of realization. Marpa eventually returned to Tibet, where he married, established a home as a landowner and farmer, and began his career as a teacher and translator. Marpa transmitted his lineage to a number of disciples, but he is perhaps best known in Tibetan religious histories as the guru of the renowned yogin and poet Milarépa (Mi la ras pa, b. c. 1040–1123).

General Overviews

A number of general introductions to Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan religious history describe Marpa’s life and activities, as well as Kagyü history and doctrine more generally. Thuken 2009 presents a traditional survey of Tibetan religious traditions written by an 18th-century Tibetan author, including a chapter on Kagyü history and doctrine. Kapstein 2006 provides one of the most comprehensive surveys of Tibetan political and religious history, including an overview of the rise of early Kagyü institutions. The introduction to Lopez 1997 gives a useful summary of Tibetan religious history and practice. Powers 1995 and its abridged version, Powers 2008, offer more-detailed surveys of Tibetan religion and practice, including extended sections on Marpa’s religious legacy. For a brief overview of the principal Kagyü founders and institutional divisions, see Quintman 2004.

  • Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetans. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    A useful introduction to the religious and political history of Tibet. Chapter 4 outlines the activities of early teachers in the Kagyü tradition, as well as the rise of its religious institutions.

  • Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Religions of Tibet in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

    A collection of introductions and short translations from original Tibetan sources on various aspects of Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice, including ritual manuals, pilgrimage guides, biographies, and historical materials.

  • Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1995.

    Provides a useful overview of the basic doctrine and practices of Tibetan Buddhism. It includes a chapter on the history and doctrines, as well as the meditation practices, associated with the Kagyü sect.

  • Powers, John. A Concise Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2008.

    An abbreviated version of Powers 1995, which includes a chapter on the four orders, including the Kagyü.

  • Quintman, Andrew. “Bka’ brgyud.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 1. Edited by Robert Buswell, 47–49. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.

    A brief overview of the principal Kagyü founders, sects, and subsects.

  • Thuken Lozang Chökyi Nyima. The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems: A Tibetan Study of Asian Religious Thought. Translated by Lhundub Sopa. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009.

    A traditional survey of Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice by the acclaimed historian Thuken Lozang Chökyi Nyima (b. 1737–d. 1802). Chapter 6 (pp. 1117–1156) presents a brief history of the Kagyü lineage, together with an overview of its central doctrinal tenets.

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