E-letter No. 64: September 2008

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe, Lake Arrowhead, 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.

Dear Friends,

Thank you for receiving and reading our monthly e-letter.

Books in the Works
Here at the Archive, thanks to your kind support, things are going well. Our redesigned versions of Lama Yeshe’s The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Virtue & Reality are at the printer’s. We will let you know as soon as they are available to be ordered. We are very grateful to the sponsors of these two reprints. Thank you so much.

Wisdom Publications have just published a wonderful new Lama Zopa Rinpoche book, How to Be Happy, which was prepared by LYWA editor Ven. Ailsa Cameron. LYWA members will be receiving a free copy next month. We are also working on several other Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche books for Wisdom Publications and when those are published members will also be receiving them. Your memberships help us edit the Lamas’ teachings for publication and we encourage non-members to adjust their status! Thank you so much.

In the meantime, work continues on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s The Heart of the Path, the Lamas’ 1975 seminar in the UK (book and DVD), and a DVD of two 1982 interviews with Lama Yeshe to be titled Bringing the Dharma to the West, which should be available soon.

Website Redesign
In October we expect to launch our redesigned website. The new website will feature categories and tags for all website content, which will hopefully make it easier for you to find what you are looking for—and to perhaps find more of what you didn't even know was there! Our team of programmers and dedicated volunteers have been hard at work for the past few months converting all our content into the new format. So don't be surprised if over the next few weeks you visit our site and see a completely new look. We'll highlight all the new features in next month's e-letter.

Happiness and Its Causes
Finally, we’d like to remind you of the wonderful San Francisco conference being organized by our friends at Liberation Prison Project and Tse Chen Ling Buddhist CenterHappiness and Its Causes—which will be held in San Francisco November 24–25.

This month’s previously unpublished teaching is an excerpt from The Heart of the Path.

Much love,
Nick Ribush


Lama Zopa Rinpoche blessing land in Washington state, USA, 2008. Photo by Holly Ansett.Milarepa is one of the most inspiring examples of incomparable guru devotion. Milarepa had such strong devotion that nothing could affect it. By hearing Milarepa’s life-story, we want to become like him. We want to have the same realizations that Milarepa had and we want to find a virtuous teacher just like Milarepa’s.

I first read Milarepa’s life story in Solu Khumbu when I was a small boy, maybe six or seven years old. I think when I was young my mind was probably clearer because reading Milarepa’s biography was a little like having visions of the stories.

I had a strong desire in my heart to find a guru like Marpa, just as Milarepa had. When I first went to Tibet with my two uncles and was at Tashilhunpo, the Panchen Lama’s monastery, I met a Sherpa monk, Gyaltsen, who looked a little like a dob-dob. He had a black shemtab that was smeared with a lot of butter and carried a long key. He didn’t seem to study or go to pujas but mainly traveled back and forth between the monastery and the town of Shigatse.

We stayed at Tashilhunpo for a week. We didn’t go to the pujas but when a puja had finished, we got into the line of monks to receive the money offering. I think Gyaltsen probably guided us. On the very last night before we were to leave, Gyaltsen insisted very much that I should stay and become his disciple. Both my uncles agreed that I should stay there. I didn’t have the slightest desire to become his disciple! I had an unbelievably difficult time. I don’t think I had any sleep that whole night, wondering how I could escape from this. I couldn’t think what to do. I don’t know how it happened, but fortunately the next morning my uncles allowed me to leave with them.

A little while later, in Phagri, I met Losang Gyatso, a senior monk in Domo Geshe’s monastery. When I first met him he asked me whether I would be his disciple and I replied, “Yes, okay.” The whole thing was up to karma. I asked Losang Gyatso, “Can you be like Marpa?” He said, “Yes.”

I think I have been very fortunate to have met many virtuous teachers with the same qualities as Marpa. The problem is not that I haven’t met a guru like Marpa. From the guru’s side everything has been perfect; they have had everything that Marpa, Milarepa and Naropa had. The only problem is that from my own side I haven’t done a single practice.

In his early life Milarepa had learnt black magic on the advice of his mother and used it to destroy his aunt and uncle and all the other people who had treated his family badly. He received instructions on black magic from a lama and did the necessary retreats. He then performed black magic while his aunt and uncle were celebrating a marriage with a crowd of people. Many people were singing and dancing upstairs, with horses and other animals downstairs. Milarepa used black magic to break the supporting posts so that the whole house collapsed; all the people, numbering more than thirty, were killed, as well as all the animals.

Milarepa later regretted his action very much and wanted to practice Dharma. The lama who had taught him black magic advised him to learn Dharma from the great yogi called Marpa. This is how Milarepa came to meet Marpa.

Even though Marpa was an enlightened being, the actual Hevajra, when Milarepa met him for the first time he appeared to Milarepa to be just an ordinary farmer drinking beer as he plowed a field, his body and clothes covered in dust.

Milarepa said to Marpa, “I have created heavy negative karma, so I have now come to practice Dharma. I have nothing to offer you but my body, speech and mind. Please give me the Dharma and also food and clothing.” Milarepa asked for food and clothing because he didn’t have anything at all.

Although Milarepa went to Marpa solely to receive teachings, for many years Marpa never gave him any initiations or teachings. Instead, Marpa only scolded him and gave him hard work to do. Marpa advised Milarepa to build a nine-story tower, something like a Chinese pagoda. I think this tower is still there in Lhodrak in southern Tibet. Marpa told Milarepa to build it by himself, without anyone else’s help. When Milarepa finished the building there were no thanks from Marpa; he didn’t say, “Oh, you’ve done a wonderful job! Are you exhausted?” Marpa simply told him to tear it down and return every stone to its original place. He then asked Milarepa to rebuild the tower. This happened three times. Milarepa’s back became bruised, callused and infected from carrying the stones. But still Marpa wouldn’t give Milarepa initiations or teachings.

Even though Milarepa repeatedly asked for teachings, Marpa didn’t give him any for a long time. Since Marpa never called Milarepa to give him private teachings or initiations, whenever he was giving a public teaching Milarepa would slip inside and try to listen among the other people. But whenever Marpa would see him at an initiation or teaching sitting among the other disciples he would immediately shout at or beat him and kick him out. Instead of giving Milarepa teachings, Marpa would only scold and beat him. For years, Milarepa received no teachings from Marpa, only his wrath. There was no sweet talk from Marpa. Milarepa received no praise or thanks but only years of scoldings and beatings.

Imagine if you met a guru who treated you in that way, who scolded you in public and beat you and kicked you out if you tried to come to teachings or initiations. If you met a guru who treated you in the way that Marpa treated Milarepa, could you bear it? Comparing yourself to Milarepa helps you to understand and have strong faith in Milarepa. From this you can understand why Milarepa became enlightened not just in one life but within a number of years. You can also understand how Milarepa practiced Dharma, how he devoted himself to Marpa, and you can then understand why, even though you met Buddhadharma many years ago, there is still no change in your mind, let alone realizations of the path.

If I went to take teachings from a lama and all I received from the very beginning was scolding, I would feel extremely depressed or angry. I think I would run away—and maybe pray never to meet him again. These days in the West we would probably say that Marpa abused Milarepa. If someone these days were treated the way Marpa treated Milarepa or Tilopa treated Naropa, there would be a human rights investigation and Marpa and Tilopa would probably end up in court. However, this was Marpa’s skillful means to quickly purify all Milarepa’s heavy negative karma and enlighten him.

During all those years, no matter how much Marpa scolded or beat him, Milarepa never lost faith in Marpa or gave rise to anger or any other negative thought toward him for even a moment. Milarepa simply did everything that Marpa asked him to do; he totally sacrificed himself to serve Marpa. From the very first, Milarepa never generated heresy toward Marpa. His guru yoga practice was incomparable.

Milarepa practiced guru devotion with the nine attitudes explained by Lama Tsongkhapa in The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, especially with the attitudes like the earth and like a faithful dog1. Just as the earth supports mountains and other heavy things, Milarepa was able to hold all the heavy responsibilities that Marpa gave him and follow the advice he was given. A faithful dog, no matter how badly it is treated by its master, never retaliates or runs away but always stays with its master. In a similar way, no matter how badly Marpa treated him, Milarepa never became angry or retaliated or ran away; he always stayed with Marpa. Without losing his guru devotion, Milarepa always kept a positive mind. Both attitudes emphasize following the guru without feeling upset.

Even after Milarepa had built the nine-story temple three times and received much scolding and beating, Marpa still had no intention of giving him teachings or initiations. His plan was to give him even more work to do so that, in bearing more hardships, he could purify more negative karma and become enlightened more quickly. Marpa did all this out of his great compassion.

However, Marpa’s wisdom mother, Dagmema, felt sorry for Milarepa. She secretly advised him to go to see Lama Ngokpa, one of Marpa’s disciples, and receive teachings from him. As offerings to Lama Ngokpa, Dagmema gave Milarepa Naropa’s crown ornaments and a ruby mala Naropa had given to Marpa.

Milarepa then went to Lama Ngokpa. For many months he meditated in a hole in the ground he had made there but no realizations happened—not even a good sign in a dream—because Marpa hadn’t given him permission to go to Lama Ngokpa. Even though he had received teachings from Lama Ngokpa, Milarepa had no good signs during his retreat. When Milarepa explained to Lama Ngokpa that he didn’t have Marpa’s permission to be there, Lama Ngokpa knew it was a mistake and then took Milarepa to Marpa to apologize.

Dagmema kept insisting that Marpa give Milarepa teachings until Marpa reluctantly agreed. From Marpa’s side he didn’t want to give teachings and initiations even when he did; he wanted Milarepa to continue bearing hardships in following his advice even longer. It is said that if things had happened as Marpa wanted, Milarepa would have achieved enlightenment even quicker. That was Marpa’s plan. Though Milarepa still achieved enlightenment in one brief lifetime, he took longer to become enlightened because Dagmema pushed Marpa to give teachings and initiations to Milarepa. If she hadn’t pushed and things had gone according to Marpa’s plan, Milarepa could have been enlightened even earlier.

From Marpa’s side, there was no formal sitting on a throne and giving teachings to Milarepa. Marpa grabbed Milarepa and banged his head three times on the floor. He then told Milarepa to look up at the sky, where Milarepa saw the Hevajra mandala. Marpa, who had achieved the unified state of no more learning, transformed the mandala in space and, transforming himself into Hevajra, initiated Milarepa into it.

After Milarepa had received all the teachings and necessary instructions, Marpa then advised him to go to Mount Kailash and other holy places in the Himalayas to practice and actualize all the teachings Marpa had given him.

At the end, as Milarepa was leaving, Marpa walked a little way with him from the hermitage where Marpa lived and advised, “Just as you can’t sew cloth with a two-pointed needle, you can’t practice worldly dharma and holy Dharma together. If you try to do so you lose the holy Dharma.”

After receiving this advice from Marpa, Milarepa went into the mountains of Tibet and followed Marpa’s advice exactly, doing retreat on the Six Yogas of Naropa and other practices. Milarepa went into the mountains with nothing. He didn’t have anything at all: he actually lived naked in caves and ate nothing but nettles.

Once Milarepa’s sister saw him naked and felt so embarrassed that she offered him a roll of woolen cloth. Milarepa cut some pieces off the cloth and made covers for his fingers and penis. When his sister next saw him she was shocked. Because Milarepa had achieved the Six Yogas of Naropa he had no need of clothing.

He practiced the patience of voluntarily accepting sufferings, such as cold, to practice Dharma, one of the three types of patience2. Of course, after he accomplished the Six Yogas of Naropa, even though he was naked he didn’t feel the cold. With realization of tum-mo, or inner fire, there’s no such thing as feeling cold. Even if you live in an ice cave in an ice mountain, the ice is melted by your heat.

Milarepa practiced, had all the realizations and liberated himself, overcoming death. First he was afraid of death, but then he went to the mountains to meditate and actualized tantric mahamudra. He didn’t realize just emptiness and sutra mahamudra but tantric mahamudra. He actualized the primordial mind of simultaneously born bliss and totally overcame the cycle of death and rebirth. In the beginning, he began to practice Dharma with fear of death, but he used that fear to practice Dharma. At the end he overcame the fear by developing his mind in the tantric path. With the primordial mind of simultaneously born great bliss, he was totally free from fear. He was able to free himself from all suffering.

As Milarepa himself expressed it, “Afraid of death, I fled to the mountains, where I realized the nature of the primordial mind. Now even if death comes to me, I have no fear.”

By bearing hardships, Milarepa practiced the teachings and became enlightened; he achieved the unified state of Vajradhara in that life. Milarepa didn’t possess even one dollar but he possessed a perfect human rebirth and practiced Dharma. And the Dharma practice that enabled Milarepa to become enlightened in one brief lifetime was his strong guru devotion. Milarepa correctly devoted himself to Marpa with thought and action, cherishing Marpa more than his own life. No matter how Marpa treated him, it never affected his mind; Milarepa never generated anger or heresy toward Marpa. He never lost his devotion; he always had strong devotion. And he put into practice every single piece of advice Marpa gave him. Because of his strong guru devotion, Milarepa became enlightened in that life.

Milarepa, after making unbelievable sacrifices and bearing hardships to practice Dharma, had great success. By renouncing the eight worldly dharmas and bearing hardships to practice Dharma, Milarepa achieved enlightenment within a number of years.

Milarepa was not a particularly great scholar; he hadn’t studied in a monastery for thirty or forty years. He received the essential teachings from Marpa and meditated on them. What made Milarepa so successful was his correctly devoting himself to the virtuous friend. That’s what enabled him to become enlightened within a few years, and what has enabled him to enlighten numberless sentient beings since that time.

It is our obscurations that block our actualizing the steps of the path to enlightenment. If we didn’t have negative karma and obscurations we would be a buddha and our mind would be dharmakaya. The whole point is that if our goal is to have realizations and actually achieve enlightenment for the sake of sentient beings, we need to purify our mind. Intellectual knowledge of Dharma alone can’t bring us realizations. If this were the case, the methods these great yogis Tilopa and Marpa used to guide their disciples would have been simply forms of torture. To have realizations of the path and even to understand Dharma intellectually, we need to purify our mind.

In the stories of Naropa and Milarepa there is no mention of their doing hundreds of thousands of prostrations, Vajrasattva mantras or mandala offerings. The yogis who became enlightened in a brief lifetime of this degenerate time practiced Dharma by correctly devoting themselves to the virtuous friend. No matter how much hardship they had to bear, they didn’t generate any negative thoughts. Nowadays we do many hundreds of thousands of the various preliminary practices but the best preliminary practice is to endure all the hardships these past great yogis did. This is the quickest way to achieve enlightenment.


1. The nine attitudes, taught in the sutra Laying Out of Stalks are: 1) like an obedient child, giving up your own will and submitting yourself to your lama; 2) like a diamond, being solid in your devotion and not letting anyone split you apart; 3) like the earth itself, accepting any task your lama may load upon you; 4) like the great mountains at the edge of the world, staying unshakable in your service, regardless of any troubles that come; 5) like a handservant, carrying out any task your lama gives you, never seeking to avoid it, no matter how distasteful it may seem; 6) like the dust of the earth, seeking the lowest position, giving up all pride, all pretension and all conceit; 7) like a sturdy vehicle, undertaking any burden your lama may give you, however heavy; 8) like a loyal dog, staying without anger, regardless of how your lama might berate or scold you; and 9) like a boat, never complaining no matter how much you have to come and go in the service of your lama.

2. The three types of patience are the patience that is not disturbed by the harm done by others, the patience that voluntarily accepts suffering and the patience needed to gain assurance in the Dharma.