Who was Maitripa?

Maitripa was originally a monk at Vikramasila monastery in North-East India under the Abbot Atisha. Atisha found it necessary to expel Maitripa from the monastery for breaching the monastic rules (vinaya) when he was caught drinking alcohol and consorting with a woman during his Vajrayogini (Buddhist Tantra) practices. It is recorded that when Maitripa left the monastery he shocked his contemporaries by miraculously floating away down the Ganges on his meditation mat.

After experiencing a vision of Avalokiteshvara, Maitripa traveled to the south of India, where he encountered his guru, the mahasiddha Savari. Savari is said to have shattered Maitripa’s preconceptions and expectations by appearing as a common swine herder in the company of two women. The next time they met, Savari appeared as a hunter of wild boar, further confronting the conventions of Maitripa’s worldview. However, on being instructed by Savari that, “Whatever is unborn is undying,” Maitripa’s doubts and hesitations were instantly dissipated. Thereafter, he received the Mahamudra (esoteric Buddhist) precepts and practices from Savari who had finally appeared before Maitripa in his ordinary human form.

Maitripa subsequently became a very influential teacher, attracting many accomplished disciples, foremost among whom was Marpa, who was a prominent Tibetan Buddhist master. He also wrote many philosophical works on the Mahamudra doctrine of non-fabrication (amanasikara), and is credited with rediscovering and propagating the Mahayana-uttaratantra-sastra Buddhist text of Maitreya/Asanga, which had fallen into disrepute and become lost by the eleventh century. This is the sastra which Gampopa, renowned Tibetan Buddhist Master, later claimed as the doctrinal basis of Mahamudra.

Maitripa is part of the ‘long transmission lineage’ of the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism; a lineage which begins with Saraha and goes directly to Nagarjuna, Savari, Maitripa and Marpa. This lineage is principally associated with the transmission of Mahamudra, and hence is known as the ‘lineage of Mahamudra realization’.