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The Life of the Mahasiddha Tilopa

The Life of the Mahasiddha Tilopa
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Back of the Book The Life of the Mahasiddha Tilopa, thought to have been composed in the 11th century by the renowned Tibetan yogi Marpa Lotsawa, is a compelling account of the ‘complete liberation’ of the guru of Naropa, and belongs to the genre of ‘Buddhist hagiology’. As such, it will be of interest to followers of the Kagyud school of Tibetan Buddhism as well as to those who are fascinated by the lives of the Buddhist saints and masters. This fine transl...

Back of the Book

The Life of the Mahasiddha Tilopa, thought to have been composed in the 11th century by the renowned Tibetan yogi Marpa Lotsawa, is a compelling account of the ‘complete liberation’ of the guru of Naropa, and belongs to the genre of ‘Buddhist hagiology’. As such, it will be of interest to followers of the Kagyud school of Tibetan Buddhism as well as to those who are fascinated by the lives of the Buddhist saints and masters.

This fine translation is presented in a vivid and accessible manner, and the translators have included a transliteration of the original Tibetan text for scholars who wish to study this early biography of Tilopa in both languages.



We are pleased to publish this short work on the life of the Indian mahasiddha Tilopa, which appears a have been composed in the 11th century by the great Marpa Lotsawa Chos-kyi bLo-gros of Tibet.

This text is an account of the ‘complete liberation’ of the guru of Naropa; as such it will be appreciated not only by disciples of the Kagyud-pa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, but also by others interested in the lives of the Buddhist saints and masters.

The work has been ably and devotedly translated by Italian scholar Fabrizio Torricelli in collaboration with Sangye Tendar Naga from our own Research and Translation Bureau. We delight in the merit they gain by making this text accessible to the reading public. In addition to the translation, they have provided a transliteration of the original Tibetan script for scholars who wish to read the account in both languages. May the contents of this book be beneficial for all beings and help to spread the rays of Buddhism throughout the world.



The text we present is the earliest biography of the mahasiddha Tilopa of which we have direct knowledge. In fact, from the dedicatory verses and the colophon, it appears to have been composed by the great dKarbrgyud-pa master Mar-pa Chos-kyi-blo-gros (1012-1097) for the benefit of his son Dar-ma mDo-sde.

It is a short work included in a collection of texts of the Mar-pa dKar-brgyud-pa tradition: bDe-mchog inkha’‘gro snyan-rgyud, vol. kha—brGyud-pa yid-bzhin-nor-bu’i rnam-par that-pa, fols. Ib-lib. Such texts are connected with the oral tradition (snyan-rgyud) transmitted by the disciple of Mi-la-ras-pa, Ras-chung rDo-rje-grags (1084- 1161) and, because of that, they are known as Ras-chung snyan-rgyud. The manuscript, compiled by Shar-kha Ras-chen, Kun-dga’-dar-po and Byang-chub-bzang-po in the first half of the 16th century, is written in a cursive script (dbu-med), which is known as khams-bris, where many short forms are attested.

As to the genre, it belongs to what we could call “Buddhist hagiology”, being an account of the ‘complete liberation’ (Tib. rnam-par that-pa, Skt. vimoksa) of the guru of Naropa. These rnarn-thar, C. Tucci (1949: 150-151) has written, must be considered neither histories nor chronicles. The events they relate with a particular satisfaction are spiritual conquests, visions and ecstasies; they follow the long apprenticeship through which man becomes divine, they give lists of the texts upon which saints trained and disciplined their minds, for each lama they record the masters who opened up his spirit to serene visions, or caused the ambrosia of supreme revelations to rain down upon Mm. Human events have nothing to do with these works, [...]. Kings, princes and the great ones of this world have no place there, or they only appear as helpful and pious patrons. Every happening is thus seen in the light of spiritual triumphs.

A contextual reading of other Ti-lo-pa’i rnam-thar which are available has been necessary in order to understand some difficult expressions and puzzling passages in our text: especially because of the so often wrong, or unusual, spelling of many words. The most useful hagiographic sources2 we sifted through are the following:

—rGyal-thang-pa bDe-chen-rdo-rje (13th cent.), rJe-btsun chen-po Tilli-pa’i rnam-par thar-pa, in dKar-brgyud gser‘phreng, fols. la-22a. The English ‘Preface’ to the reproduction of the manuscript has the following observation to make on rOyal-thang-pa: “No biography of this master is immediately available, but it is known that he was a disciple of rGod-tshang-pa mGon-po-rdo-rje (1189-1258), the last guru whose biography appears in this collection.” The manuscript following the ‘Brug-pa dKar-brgyud-pa tradition, can be dated to the latter half of the 15th century or the first half of the 16th century and it is preserved at Hemis in Ladakh.

—Grub-thob O-rgyan-pa Rin-chen-dpal (1229/30-1309), Te-lo-pa ‘i rnam-thar, in bKa ‘-brgyud yid-bzhin-nor-bu-yi ‘phreng-ba, fols. 7a-26a. Like rGyal-thang-pa, O-rgyan-pa was a disciple of rGod-tshang-pa. However, he integrated the teachings of this master with the instruction he received from a 4akini in Uddiyana (Tucci 1940; Tucci 1949: 90-91). This collection of hagiographies, following the ‘Bri-gung dKar-brgyud-pa tradition, was written between 1295 and 1304 and is conserved in the library of the Kangyur Rimpoche of Darjeling.

—rDo-rje-mdzes-’od (13th cent.), rJe-Te-lo-pa’i rnarn-thar, in bKa’-brgyud-kyi rnam-thar chen-mo rin-po-che’i gter-mdzod dgos-’dod ‘byung-gnas, fols. 27a-43b. The author was a disciple of dPal-ldan Ri-khrod-dbang-phyug, who was a disciple of 7ig-rten mGon-pd, the founder of the ‘Brigung-pa sect. This text, has been of particular use during our, work because it is the only one which has been translated into English so far. (Great Kagyu Masters: 33-54).

—Mon-rtse-pa Kun-dga’-dpal-ldan (1408-1475?), Ti-b Shes-rab-bzszng-po’i rnam-par thar-pa,’ in dKar-brgyud gser‘phreng, vol. kha, fols. 12a-23b. The manuscript, compiled and calligraphed in the last half of the 15th century and conserved at Takna in Ladakh, brings together a collection of hagiographies following the ‘Ba’-ra ‘Brug-pa dKar-brgyud-pa tradition.

—gTsang-smyon He-ru-ka Sangs-rgyas-rgyal-mtshan (1452-1507), Ti-bo-pa’i rnam-thar, in bDe-mchog mkha’-’gro snyan-rgyud, vol. ga, fols. 9b-20a. This biography of Tiopa is included in a Ras-chung snyan-rgyud which was compiled at the end of the 15th century. Even if the dating of the manuscript is quite difficult to achieve, “stylistically, a dating to the second half of the 16th century is not unreasonable.”3 This manuscript (Ms. A) is known as the Bya-btang ‘Phrin-las-dpal-’bar Manuscript; there is another set of the same bDe-mchog mkha’-’gro snyan-rgyud (Ms. B), known as the Gra-dkar Rab-’jam-pa Manuscript, but references here are given only from the former.

—‘Bri-gung Chos-rje Kun-dga’-rin-chen (1475-1527), rJebtsun Ti-lo-pa’i rnam-thar dbang-bzhi’i chu-rgyun, in bKa’rgyud bla-ma-rnams-kyi rnam-thar rin-chen gser- ‘phreng, fols. llb-13b (fol. 12 is missing). This concise text was composed in 1508 by the last abbot of ‘Bri-gung monastery to follow the pure ‘Bri-gung bKa’-brgyud-pa tradition. In fact, after him the rNying-ma-pa school gradually took over the monastery.

—dBang-phyug-rgyal-mtshan (16th cent.), rJe-btsun Ti-to’i rnam-par thar-pa, in bKa ‘-brgyud gser-’phreng rgyas-pa, fols. la-45a. This manuscript, preserved in the monastery of rDzong-khul in Zangskar, is the only one (Ms. A) from which we give references. There is however another manuscript, rJe-btsun Ti-b-pa dung N#-ro-pa’i rnum-thar rin-po-che (Ms. B fols. lb-68a), which is a part of the same collection of hagiographies following the ‘Brug-pa dKarbrgyud-pa tradition. The author, who was a disciple of gTsang-smyon He-ru-ka, wrote this mum-thur in 1523 at rDza-ri bSam-gtan Cling.

—lHa-btsun Rin-chen-rnam-rgyal (1473-1557), Sangs-rgya5 thams-cad-kyi rnam-’phrul rje-btsun Ti-b-pa ‘i rnam-nzgur, fols. la-38a. One of the closest disciples of gTsang-smyon He-ru-ka, lHa-btsun faithfully follows the teachings and contents of the oral tradition going back to Ras-chung. This text is particularly beautiful and interesting because it is the only mnam-mgur of Tiopa’s we have, i.e. a mnamthar interspersed with esoteric songs (mgur). These songs are by Tiopa himself and belong to two texts which are in the tantric section (rgyud-’greb) of the bsTan-’gyur, the Acintyamahamudr and the Mahamudropadea.

lHa-bstun compiled this mnam-mgur and printed it first in 1550 at Brag-dkar-rta-so. Even if there is another available source of the same text (Ms. B fols. la-Ma), our references are only from the former (Ms. A). After the edition of the text, the Tibetan original of the poetical passages has been given together with its English version, in order to assist the reader’s comprehension of our attempt at translation.




  Foreword v
  Preface vii
  Transliteration of the Tibetan Text 1
  Translation of the Tibetan text 25
  Notes 61
  References 79

Sample Pages

Item Code: NAC479 Author: Mar-pa Chos-kyi bLo-gros Cover: Paperback Edition: 2003 Publisher: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala ISBN: 9788185102917 Size: 8.5 Inch X 5.5 Inch Pages: 95 Other Details: Weight of the Book: 130 gms
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