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Building a Tradition
COLLECTANEA HIMALAYICA 5
Cécile Ducher

Building a Tradition

The Lives of Mar-pa the Translator

INDUS VERLAG, Munich 2017
326 pages, cloth-binding
ISBN 978-3-940659-04-0


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Mar-pa Chos-kyi-blo-gros (1000?–1081?) is the founding figure of the Bka’-brgyud-pa school of Tibetan Buddhism, which still occupies today an important place in the Tibetan religious landscape. He was a translator of many tantric instructions and is a pivotal figure in the later transference of Buddhism to Tibet. Being one of the most well-known Tibetans, both in Tibet and abroad, his statue is present in almost every Bka’-brgyud temple, and his life story is frequently given as an edifying example. Yet, a close scrutiny of the literary sources available to approach his life reveals how little we know about him for certain.

This monograph examines the corpus of Mar-pa’s biographies in order to map out the genesis of this literary tradition, in which more than thirty independent texts are now identified. The first part is an introduction to Mar-pa’s life and to the genre of hagiography. In the second and main part, all biographies available are placed in a chronological and logical order, organized according to the metaphor of a house. This architectural image illustrates the way the biographies have been approached, from the earliest to the latest, in order to place the reader at the place of the writer: what could he know when he wrote, and what did he build on? Each significant biography is thus presented individually and in relation with the other works in order to understand what place it occupies in this biographical tradition. The third part is a selection of a few cornerstones in Mar-pa’s biographies: Mar-pa’s songs; verbs indicative of indirect speech that mark the author’s presence in the biography; Mar-pa’s status as a reincarnation; the practice of entering another’s body (grong ’jug); and Mar-pa’s relationships with Naropa and with Gnyos Lo-tsa-ba. In the appendices, the reader will find translations of two of the earliest biographies of Mar-pa, redacted by Ngam-rdzong ston-pa (12th c.) and Rngog Mdo-sde (1078–1154). These two translations provide fascinating alternatives to the well-known biography of Mar-pa composed by Gtsang-smyon He-ru-ka in the early 16th century and mark the beginnings of Mar-pa’s biographical tradition. Thus the book presents a welcome addition to the growing literature on the early Bka’-brgyud-pas and is the first to deal in detail with this major religious figure of the second spread of Buddhism in Tibet.

Author:
Dr. Cécile Ducher is a research fellow in Tibetan Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris. Her current research focuses on the history and transmission of the Mar-rngog Bka’-brgyud lineage.

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