Vajradhara is the primordial Buddha, the embodiment of all the Buddhas of the three time periods, and the essence of the three kayas or bodies of the Buddha. Vajradhara also represents the Dharmakaya Buddha and therefore, the ultimate aspect of Enlightenment.
The Drukpa lineage traces the origin of its transmission to Vajradhara as he is truly the manifestation of the supreme essence of Buddhahood. With his right hand holding the dorje (symbolising "method"), his left hand holding the bell (symbolising wisdom), and the two crossed over his chest, Vajradhara is the ultimate representation of non-duality and emptiness, which is indeed the "Mahamudra", the Great Union - the ultimate realization sought by all practitioners of the Drukpa lineage.
Tilopa (988-1069) was born in a Brahmin family in East Bengal, India. When he was still a young shepherd, he met the great Bodhisattva Nagarjuna who gave him preliminary teachings on the Mahayana path and appointed him as the ruler of a kingdom in Bhalenta. After a number of years leading a luxurious royal life, Tilopa decided to renounce the kingdom and become a monk. He took his ordination vows at the Tantric Temple of Somapuri in Bengal and started his monastic training
Thereafter, Tilopa had a vision of a dakini guiding him on the direct and esoteric path of Enlightenment. From the dakini, Tilopa received the entire transmission of the Chakrasamvara Tantra.
Tilopa also received several teachings and transmissions from great tantric masters such as the learned translator Acharya Charyawa and the siddha Lawapa. From these gurus, he mastered the instruction and practice of Bardo (the intermediate state between death and rebirth), Phowa (the transfer of consciousness), Tummo (the practice of inner incandescence), and many other oral-pith instructions. Although Tilopa had several enlightened human masters, his root guru was Buddha Vajradhara who directly transmitted to Tilopa many esoteric teachings, including the practice of Mahamudra.
For 12 years, Tilopa was devoted to the practice of these teachings, and he took a yogini as his secret consort. The monastic order immediately expelled him due to his involvement with the yogini. Tilopa led the rest of his life in solitude, but he was a renowned great master. Amongst his disciples, Naropa was the one chosen to continue his lineage.
Marpa (1012-1096) was born in Chukhyer in southern Tibet. From the Sakyapa lama Drogmi Lotsawa he learned Sanskrit and received a few teachings. Dissatisfied with his learning progress, Marpa decided to trade all of his possessions for gold to travel to India in order to receive more teachings, and to bring them back to Tibet.
It was during his trip to India through Nepal that Marpa met two of Naropa's disciples, Kantapa and Pentapa, and received teachings from them. Marpa was so impressed by them that he decided to meet Naropa in person to receive direct instructions. For many years, Marpa studied under the guidance of Naropa. He received teachings during the day, and practiced with one-pointed devotion during the night, mastering the theoretical and practical aspects of Mahayana and Vajrayana. Naropa eventually appointed Marpa as his successor in Tibet, and prophesied that his lineage would prosper considerably in the Land of Snow.
Marpa made repeated trips to India and Nepal, brought many teachings back to Tibet, and translated them from Sanskrit to Tibetan for the benefit of the people of Tibet. He underwent several hardships, and almost lost his life during the arduous journey to seek the Dharma. He met many masters, but Naropa and Maitripa were the most important amongst all.
Although Marpa was married with wife and children, his realization was incomparable and was likened to a lotus in the mud, free from defilements. To him, samsara and enlightenment were inseparable, and all worldly phenomena were no different from Buddha nature. Therefore, he could lead a conventional samsaric life and remain unstained. Marpa truly attained the state of Vajradhara, or Buddhahood, in one lifetime.
The great siddha Naropa (1016-1100) was born to a royal family in Bengal, India. His yearning for spiritual development was so strong that at age eight, he journeyed to Kashmir to study with the master Arya Akasha and received the lay ordination.
When Naropa returned from his spiritual and intellectual pursuits, he was forced by his parents to marry a Brahmin princess. However, the marriage only lasted for eight years. Naropa unveiled his spiritual goal to his wife and she decided not to be a hindrance on his path.
Naropa took the vows of a novice monk at the Happy Garden Monastery and was subsequently fully ordained in Kashmir. Thereafter, he stayed in Pullahari Monastery to continue his learning and practice, and received further teachings and training at the nearby University of Nalanda.
Naropa's wisdom, oratory skills and spiritual understanding earned him the chancellorship of the famed University of Nalanda where he also became the Northern Gatekeeper. He was constantly faced with difficult debates with the heretics, but he was regularly victorious.
Although Naropa was well-versed in the theoretical aspects of Buddhism, he realized that he was still inept in the training of his restless mind. A dakini thus appeared before him, explaining the importance of meditation, and advised him to seek the guidance of Tilopa, a great master who could lead him to realize the ultimate nature of the mind.
Traveling eastward, Naropa finally met his destined root guru, Tilopa, who instantly put him to difficult tests. Naropa experienced 12 major and 12 lesser hardships so as to purify his karma and emotion-induced obscurations. Through receiving great blessings from Tilopa and accomplishing his own purification, Naropa realized the clarity and harmony of mind, truly experiencing the state of Vajradhara. After attaining this magnificent realization, Naropa taught in many places and had numerous disciples, especially in Kashmir where many monasteries were established by Naropa himself. Tilopa and Naropa were both recognized as two of the 84 great mahasiddhas in the history of Buddhism.
Amongst Naropa's accomplished disciples was Marpa, the translator, who succeeded Naropa in the lineage and brought the entire teachings and transmissions to Tibet.
The great yogi Milarepa (1052-1135) was born in the province of Gungthang in western Tibet, as the son of the wealthy landlord, Mila Sherab Gyaltsen. But at age seven, Milarepa's father contracted a deadly disease and passed away after entrusting all the family's possessions to Milarepa's aunt and uncle who were asked to take care of the widow and children, and to return these properties to Milarepa and his sister when Milarepa reached majority.
However, upon his father's death, Milarepa's vicious aunt and uncle took control of the property, and made his mother, sister and himself work as slaves on the farm, without any compensation. As Milarepa approached adulthood, not only did his aunt and uncle deny his rights to the property, they claimed that these properties were repayment of debts owed by Milarepa's late father. Outraged and humiliated, Milarepa's mother sent him to learn powerful black magic to punish the traitors.
Milarepa soon mastered the dark power of destruction and killed many innocent people in his vengeful acts. The regret and remorse he felt after all these misdeeds prompted him to seek a righteous master to help purify the negative karmic afflictions created. Milarepa met a Nyingmapa master, Lama Rongtön, who gave him teachings on Dzogchen. But as Lama Rongtön saw Milarepa's past affinity with Marpa, he suggested Milarepa seek the guidance of Marpa who should be able to help him on his path to liberation.
In an effort to purify Milarepa's negative karma, the great master Marpa put Milarepa through a series of difficult tasks before giving him any proper instruction on practice. Milarepa single-handedly built one round building in the east, one building in the shape of a half-moon in the west, a triangular building in the north, and a square building in the south. But before any one of them was totally completed, Marpa ordered it be demolished and another to be built in another direction. Finally, after Milarepa completed the construction of another nine-storey building according to Marpa's instructions, Marpa officially began to impart all the teachings to Milarepa, whom he considered as his heart-son.
Milarepa practiced with deep-rooted devotion, great renunciation, and willingness to endure hardship. He became the foremost wandering yogi of his time and attained enlightenment in one lifetime. Gampopa and Rechungpa were two of his most renowned disciples, the former was likened to the sun, and the latter, to the moon. Gampopa was the chosen one to continue the lineage after Milarepa.