17. Marpa
(cat. pl. 38)
c. 14th century
Copper alloy
h. 13.3 cm


Marpa (1012-1097) was born near the beginning of the Chidar (second great diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet) and enthusiastically sought Buddhist instruction in India. Although he eventually became a highly accomplished Buddhist master, Marpa neither founded nor joined a Buddhist institution, choosing instead to remain a married householder, landowner and businessman. In this portrayal, his lay status is reflected in his apparel, which includes a long-sleeved robe secured at the waist by a thick sash and a heavy outer cloak, as well as boots. His long hair is combed into a whorl at the crown of his head.342 He holds the vajra and bell (ghanta), in accordance with one of his traditional iconographic forms.343 Marpa was famous in Tibet as a translator of Indian Buddhist texts and as the spiritual teacher of Milarepa, the much loved Tibetan saint. Before seeking Marpa as his teacher, Milarepa had mastered the arts of black magic in order to take revenge on unscrupulous relatives. Full of remorse for the deaths and destruction he had wrought, Milarepa began to long for Buddhist instruction. He was referred to Marpa by another teacher who was unable to provide effective instruction. As a means of nullifying the effects of Milarepa's previous misdeeds, Marpa chose to withhold the teachings that Milarepa sought. Eventually, seeing that his long suffering disciple was at last ready for teachings, Marpa communicated all that he knew. Milarepa achieved spiritual liberation and henceforth praised his beloved guru, Marpa. (cat. pl. 38)

342. Another portrait of Marpa is shown with a similar coiffure, published in Pal (1997), pp. 36-7. See also a c. fourteenth-century painted portrait of Marpa in which he appears with long, shoulder length hair, published in Singer (1997), fig. 48; and rhinoceros horn carving of the master, similarly showing shoulder-length hair, published in Douglas and White (1976), p. 14.
343. See Lokesh Chandra (1987), fig. 1330 in 1991 edition.

images © Nyingjei Lam
text © D. Weldon, Jane C. Singer