An excerpt from My Buddhist Journal; A Year in the Life of a Buddhist
The Story of Milarepa
From My Buddhist Journal - The Month of April
The story of the Life of Milarepa is a mainstay in Tibetan literature. I've read it a few times, finding new, inspirational nuances with every reading. True, the story comes to us through the oral traditions, so we can’t really know how much (if any) was historically accurate. Still, the story has much to teach a student of the dharma.
What is written below is just from my memory, so if I get a few facts wrong, don’t be too concerned. It’s only a story.
It’s believed that Milarepa was born Tibet around 1052. He was originally named Mila Thopaga, literally “delightful to hear,” as we are told he had a beautiful singing voice.
Thopaga’s family was reportedly fairly well off and aristocratic and both Thopaga and his sister were held dear in the hearts of the villagers. One day his father, Mila-Dorje-Senge, became ill and called his family to his bedside. He asked that his estate be looked after by his brother and sister (Yungdrung Gyaltsen and Khyung Tsha) until Thopaga (eventually known as Milarepa) came of age and married a suitable wife.
But soon Yungdrung (the uncle) and Khyung (the aunt) betrayed the wishes of their brother and rather than keep the patrimony in trust as per his instructions, they divided the property between themselves and forced Milarepa and his mother and sister to live in a squalid little building on the property – essentially a slaves quarters. They were given little in the way of food or clothing. Further, they were forced to work the fields alongside the regular labourers.
Once the darlings of the village, the two children were now underfed, dirty, ragged and lice ridden. The villagers who once held them in such high esteem now ridiculed them.
When Milarepa came of age, his mother tried to restore to him, his inheritance. She scraped together enough money and called in all her favours – enough for a small feast to which she invited the extended family and many villagers.
When the revelers had had enough to eat and drink, she stood and retold all in attendance what her husband has arranged upon his deathbed. She thanked the traitorous uncle and aunt for holding onto the land for Milarepa (holding her hatred of the two at bay), but noted that her son was now of age and his inheritance should come to him. She noted that the uncle and aunt would be well cared for and their efforts would not be forgotten.
But the greedy aunt and uncle lied and said that the estate was never Dorje-Senge’s to pass on to his son, and so Milarepa had no inheritance.
Shortly after the feast, the aunt and uncle forced Milarepa, his sister and mother out of the servants quarters and into the streets, where they were forced to beg for food, shelter and what little temporary work came their way.
The mother had now lost everything. She seethed with hatred of the aunt and uncle – in fact the entire extended family, for not one rose up to speak on their behalf, despite full knowledge of what her husband had arranged for Milarepa. She urged Milarepa to study the dark arts and take instruction from a sorcerer. She told Milarepa that she would kill herself if he did not extract vengeance on the aunt and uncle.
So, Milarepa sought out a master of the dark arts, that was known to live not far away, and became his student. At first, the master taught Milarepa only harmless charms and incantations that would cause little ill effect. Soon, though, the master sent people to the village to learn Milarepa’s full story and how he had been betrayed by his aunt and uncle, forced to work in the fields and finally been put into the streets, destitute. Knowing this, the master began teaching Milarepa powerful magic that would cause suffering and difficulties for those upon whom it was cast, for he, himself was no stranger to having wrong done to him. He knew how it felt to take revenge.
Milarepa spent a couple of weeks practicing his spells, incantations and hexes in an underground cell. When he came out, he heard that back at the village, a house had collapsed, during a wedding, killing all within, except his greedy aunt and uncle. He thought it was just and appropriate that the aunt and uncle survived so that they could witness the harm and suffering their evil deeds had caused others, but his mother wrote to him and said she was not satisfied. She reminded him that he and his sister had lost everything and been made into beggars because of the greed of his aunt and uncle. She demanded that the crops in the fields also be destroyed.
So, Milarepa hid in the mountain caves near the village and summoned hail and high winds to destroy the crops in the fields.
Now, the villagers were not completely ignorant of the dark arts. They knew a dark sorcerer lived in the caves nearby and they recognized this was no mere incident of bad luck. They put two and two together and stormed angrily up into the mountains with the intent to find the source of their suffering and undo him, but they became lost and had to return to the village, without confronting the Sorcerer.
About this time, Milarepa heard the villages talking around the ruined crops and realized he had caused damage to innocent people and returned to his master with a great sense of guilt.
With the passing of time, the Sorcerer realized that Milarepa needed a different kind of teaching – a teaching he could not easily provide. He told Milarepa it was time to seek out a dharma teacher and so Milarepa set out to do so. He soon found a Teacher of The Great Perfection (Dzogchen), but Milarepa’s mind was too unsettled, too turbulent and unfocused to receive any great benefit from the teachings that Dzogchen was offering. Milarepa, himself, sensed that he was not a suitable student for Dzogchen and set off to find yet another teacher.
Some time passes, he has a few adventures, gets into a little trouble, but eventually circumstances lead Milarepa to the great master Marpa Lotsawa (1012-1097) – often referred to as “The Translator.” Marpa had spent years studying with the great tantric master Naropa. We learn that Marpa was Narop’s dharma heir and a master of the practices of Mahamudra – literally The Great Seal – highest of the Buddha’s teachings.
The evening before Milarepa is to arrive at the home of Marpa, Marpa is visited by Naropa in a dream. He is given a tarnished dorje of precious lapis lazuli. When it is polished it had a brilliant radiance. Marpa interpreted this dream to mean that he would soon have a student with great karmic debt, but with proper training and proper world-view, would eventually gain enlightenment and so light the world.
When Milarepa arrives, Marpa did not offer him immediate training in the higher ideals of the dharma. Instead he put him to work doing backbreaking manual labour. After each task was complete, Milarepa would ask Marpa for training, but Marpa would only fly into a rage and verbally and physically abuse him.
Still, Milarepa kept on. Completing all the tasks his master set for him. One task Marpa arranged was the construction of a tower of some kind. When it was completed, Marpa simply has Milarepa tear it down and rebuild it some place else. It’s said the tower was rebuilt four times and not once did Milarepa complain even though he had become ill from the efforts and suffered greatly.
It seems all this work and harshness is best understood as a skillful means to allow Milarepa to payback the bad karma he had created with the destruction of the crops of the innocent villagers. It’s also suggested that blind obedience to your guru is necessary for proper transmission of the dharma teachings.
Long story short, after Milarepa has had enough and leaves Marpa to study with another teacher. Marpa’s wife gets involved and manages to get the two back together. Marpa relents and begins teaching Milarepa the highest forms of his craft. Milarepa moves into a cave to practice what he has been taught and devotes himself to the Mahamudra (Buddha’s greatest teachings).
It’s said that he drank only nettle soup and as a result, his skin took on a green tinge. He wore only a white cotton robe, even during the winter, and this earned him the nickname Milarepa – which means Mila the cotton-clad. During his time in the cave, he wrote many songs and poems, which, apparently are still enjoyed in Tibet today.
Milarepa eventually mastered the Mahamudra teaching and achieved enlightenment. While he did not seek out students (in the way Buddha did) students did find their way to him; among them was Gampopa Sonam Rinchen , founder of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
It is believed that Milarepa died about 1135.
So, what I take away from this brief telling of a longish story is that a simple man is able to take a bucket full of bad karma resulting from his unskillful thoughts, words and actions, but still manage – with the right training and good intentioned practice – gain enlightenment. Inspiring for me that I might end up with less bad karma at the end of this go ‘round than I had at the beginning.