The Story of Milarepa

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal (Archive #1544)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaches on guru devotion, using Milarepa’s life story as an inspiring example, at Kopan Course No. 38, Kopan Monastery, Nepal, in Nov–Dec 2005. This teaching is excerpted from Lecture Three of the course. Lightly edited by Gordon McDougall.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Mahayana Buddhist Association (Cham Tse Ling), Hong Kong, April 2016.  Photo: Lobsang Sherab.

When our mind is purified, we see the Buddha wherever we are, right there. It doesn’t matter which place. The minute our mind is purified we see the Buddha there, right in front of us.

For example, Kadampa Geshe Jayulpa was offering service to his guru, Kadampa Geshe Chengawa. His guru devotion practice, correctly devoting to the virtuous friend, was unequaled, incomparable. In the teachings it is explained that we make prayers to be able to practice guru devotion like Kadampa Geshe Jayulpa and Milarepa.

There are quite a few, such as Milarepa, who did incomparable guru devotion practice. Because they had been very badly treated by their aunts and uncles, his mother advised Milarepa to learn black magic from a lama, which he did. He went to a mountain, I think, maybe a monastery, a hall, I’m not sure, and meditated for up to seven days to do black magic to harm their uncle’s family. The uncle’s family were having a wedding in a house, with so many people upstairs and all the horses downstairs. (At that time, there was no cars in Tibet.)

Milarepa did black magic from the mountain and the whole house collapsed. All the pillars downstairs broke and then the whole house collapsed, and all the people and animals died. I’m not sure how many people there were, maybe thirty or forty. His mother, who had been waiting for revenge, came out and went onto the roof, placing a pair of trousers on a stick, shouting “Victory” or something like that.

I’m sure Milarepa felt regret, so he went back to the black magic lama, who told him if he wanted to practice Dharma, he had to go to see Marpa. The lama who taught Milarepa black magic advised that. So, Milarepa went to see Marpa.

Marpa himself is Buddha Vajradhara, Heruka, the already enlightened being, but when Milarepa came, he appeared to be working in a field with his wife, as a married couple, like an ordinary being, his body hot and dusty, plowing in the field, drinking wine. This is how it appeared. There are verses but I don’t remember them. Milarepa said, “I have nothing, so I offer my body, speech and mind to you. Please give me Dharma and also give me food.” Marpa accepted, but he didn’t give teachings or initiations to Milarepa for a long time, for years and years.

Marpa asked him to build a nine-story tower alone. He was not allowed to hire other porters or other people to help build it. Only Milarepa himself could do it. So, he built this nine-story tower. And after that, Marpa asked him to tear it down again, putting each stone back in the place he brought it from. So he did that. The skin on Milarepa’s back became very hardened, very bluish, from carrying all those stones. And then after that, Marpa told Milarepa to rebuild the tower, and after finishing it to tear it down and put the stones back. And then again to do this a third time. I guess the third one still exists in Tibet, in Lhokha, the southern part of Tibet. You can still see Milarepa’s nine-story tower there. I haven’t been there yet.

There was a statue of both Marpa and Marpa’s wisdom-mother in this tower. I don’t remember clearly but it seems the statue was there when Tibet was invaded by the Communist Chinese army in 1959.

I came to know about the statue from one of my gurus, His Holiness Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche. I received hundreds of initiations and many teachings from Rinpoche. He was extremely loving and always took care of me, guiding me like his child. His attendant was with him when they escaped from Tibet.

Besides His Holiness Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, my guru, there is also Serkong Dorje Chang, who is the reincarnation of Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche’s father who was great yogi in Tibet. He became extremely learned in the Buddhist sutra and tantra teachings, becoming a Lharampa geshe, the top level of geshe, He took the geshe examinations in Lhasa in the presence of thousands of learned monks of Sera, Ganden and Drepung. Then, I think he went into a cave, a hermitage, to actualize the path. So, he is somebody who completed the path to enlightenment, a great yogi who achieved the unification of clear light and illusory body, who actually completed the path with the wisdom-mother. He passed away in Tibet and then reincarnated. Serkong Dorje Chang, the reincarnation, studied again in the monastery and completed the whole path again. There is no question that the past life’s great yogi, Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, was the father of Serkong Dorje Chang.
When they were escaping from Tibet with a group of people, the Communist Chinese army was coming from many directions and it was very difficult for them to get out. Without telling other people, both of them just went quietly into this tower, and His Holiness Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche verbally talked to the statue. Because he was the reincarnation of Darma Dodé, the son of the great yogi Marpa, when he saw the statue of Marpa, he called it “father,” and asked the statue to guide them. Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche had either a bell and damaru or a bell and mala that had belonged to Marpa so many years ago, so he offered it to the statue of Marpa and to the wisdom mother, saying, “Father, mother, please help.” I think maybe the mala belonged to her, I’m not sure. Anyway, that’s how I found out there was a statue in the nine-story tower that Milarepa built.

So anyway, Marpa asked Milarepa to build the tower three times. Not only that, during those years, Marpa never gave him teachings, and if he came along very quietly with the other disciples to seek teachings from Marpa, when Marpa saw him there in the group, Marpa immediately scolded him and kicked him out. So many times he beat and scolded him without a nice word or any praise, only scolding and beating. If this had happened now in the West it would be called abuse! Maybe the police would be called!

Anyway, for years and years Marpa never gave any teaching to Milarepa, only scolding and beating him. Finally, Milarepa’s wisdom-mother, feeling great pity for Milarepa, couldn’t bear it and she pushed Marpa, insisting he give Milarepa teachings. Then, Marpa gave teachings and initiations to him, and guided him to a mountain where he could go to meditate and actualize path. So Marpa even pointed out the place he should go and guided him in everything.

Then, Milarepa went to that isolated place and practiced exactly as Marpa advised. He achieved total control, total freedom of his mind, of the chakras, wind and drops. He gained control over his speech. From his realizations, the Dharma came to him very naturally, without any effort, in the form of songs or hymns. He had total control over such things as the psychic power to fly from place to place. He achieved full enlightenment in that life, in a brief lifetime of degenerated time.

This happened because of his guru Marpa’s skillful guidance, such as asking him to build the tower three times which was like doing all the preliminary practices, the many hundreds of thousands of prostrations, the many hundreds of thousands of mandala offerings, the many hundreds of thousands of Vajrasattva mantras, the many hundreds of thousands of refuge prayers. There are many different preliminary practices to do, a hundred thousand of this, a hundred thousand of that. Letting Milarepa build the tower three times by himself was all preliminary practice for Milarepa. Building it three times contained the many hundreds of thousands of prostrations, the many hundreds of thousands of Vajrasattva mantras, of mandala offerings, of all these things. Each time Marpa scolded Milarepa was an incredibly powerful purification, purifying Milarepa’s negative karma. Each time Marpa beat Milarepa it was incredibly powerful, purifying so many eons of negative karma.

Milarepa became enlightened in a few years, in one brief lifetime of degenerate time, because of his guru Marpa’s most skillful way of guiding him. Because it was the quickest way to purify his negative karma and to collect the most extensive merit, he was able to achieve the realizations of the path to enlightenment very quickly. And the very important thing is that, during all those years when he was never given any teaching, only hard work and scolding and beating, from Milarepa’s side he never had a bad thought about Marpa. From Milarepa’s side, he never developed any heresy, any negative thoughts towards Marpa. He was such an incredibly devoted disciple, a perfect disciple. He never thought Marpa was abusing him or taking advantage of him. He never had a single thought of heresy, never one negative thought about Marpa. Because of that, he never created an obstacle to hinder his realizations.

He followed every single piece of advice that Marpa gave him exactly. That’s how he was able to achieve the unified state of Vajradhara, full enlightenment, in a number of years in one brief lifetime of degenerate time. That’s why Milarepa is always used as an example when we pray to be able practice guru devotion. Among the names of those who are incomparable in devoting to the virtuous friend, Milarepa is the name most used.

Reading Milarepa’s life story is extremely beneficial. If you haven’t read it or even if you have read it before, to read it again is very good, especially if you are training your mind in order to have a realization of guru devotion, that which is the root of the path to enlightenment. It brings the success of the whole path, beginning with the graduated path of the lower capable being, the realization of how this human rebirth is qualified with the eight freedoms and ten richnesses, how it is so precious, or of the graduated path of the middle capable being or the higher capable being, all the way up to enlightenment, including the tantric path.

The realization of guru devotion is what makes actualizing the whole path to enlightenment successful, from the beginning of the path, the realization of the graduated path of the lower capable being, how our own body which is qualified with the eight freedoms and ten richnesses is so precious. If you are training the mind to have this realization, it is very good to read the great yogi Milarepa’s life story, how he practiced guru devotion, how he sacrificed his life, how despite all the many hardships he bore, he remained totally devoted, never giving rise to any negative thoughts, any heresy or anger.

There are many other life stories of great yogis that are extremely inspiring. Reading them gives us insight, courage, it makes us happy. No matter how hard it is, in our mind, in our heart there is so much happiness, so much incredible joy, bliss, to follow the advice of the guru, to do the practice.