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Buddhadharma : Winter 2010
75 winter 2 01 0 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly Reviews Mila!” uttered in fear and surrender by a demon exorcised by Milarepa’s great-great-grandfather. “Repa,” meaning “cotton- clad,” was a name he acquired later, derived from the simple, thin robe he wore in meditation retreat. Milarepa’s father, Sherab Gyaltsen, was a successful mer- chant. At twenty, he married a daughter of a local influential family, the intelligent and beautiful Nyangtsa Kargyen. Some time later, she gave birth to a son. Sherab Gyaltsen was travel- ing on business at the time, and he was so delighted to receive the news that he named his son Töpah Gah, meaning “Joyous to Hear.” Thus did Milarepa enter the world into an environment of material prosperity and familial bliss. He and his younger sis- ter, Peta Gönkyi, lived with his parents in a mansion that had many servants, and were raised with love. But soon, every- thing would change. When Milarepa was seven years old, his father fell ill and died. In his will, he made his brother and sister-in-law the guard- ians of his estate until Milarepa came of age, and he placed his wife, Milarepa, and Peta under their care. But Milarepa’s uncle and aunt did not honor his father’s wishes. They appropriated his wealth for themselves and forced Milarepa, his mother, and sister to live as their servants. As Milarepa describes: “Our food was food for dogs, our work, work for donkeys... Forced to toil without rest, our limbs became cracked and raw. With only poor food and clothing, we became pale and emaciated.” When Milarepa turned fifteen and came of age, his mother scraped together what she could in order to host a banquet for his aunt, uncle, other relatives, and neighbors. She pleaded for her husband’s will to be honored, but the uncle and aunt refused, and publicly taunted and humiliated her even further: “Your possessions? We don’t have them. Even if we did, we wouldn’t give them to you. So if you are many, wage war; if you are few, cast magic.” Little did they know that their words would come back to haunt them. For from her hysterical grief, Milarepa’s mother developed an iron resolve for revenge. She insisted that Milarepa learn black magic so he could violently punish their enemies, and she tolerated neither his hesitation nor dis- sent. More than once she vowed to him that she would repay anything less than complete acquiescence and success with suicide before his very eyes. As Quintman notes, “Within the broad context of tra- ditional Tibetan religion, the efficacy of black magic...was unquestioned.” The Life reports that Milarepa’s magic was certainly efficacious. His spells destroyed his uncle and aunt’s house and killed thirty-five people who were attending a wed- ding feast in the home, including the uncle and aunt’s sons and their wives. Then, at his mother’s insistence, Milarepa sent hailstorms to destroy the local harvest in response to their neighbors’ threats of reprisal. Though the threats were pacified, Milarepa’s conscience was not. His remorse was so intense that “during the day I forgot to eat. If I went out, I wanted to stay in. If I stayed in, I wanted to go out. At night I was so filled with world- weariness and renunciation that I was unable to sleep.” He was certain that the Buddhist path could help him purify his actions and transform himself, and he went out in search of a guru. The first one he met did not see him as a proper match, and sent him instead in search of Marpa the Translator, the guide who would lead him to the pinnacle of realization. But following Marpa was initially a supremely difficult test that pushed Milarepa to his physical and emotional limits. As Lhalungpa astutely observed in his 1977 translation, “Marpa was absolutely clear in his mind that this big-hearted little man whose mind was completely shamed and shattered could not gain the desired transformation by any normal training.” More powerful methods were necessary. Marpa commanded Milarepa to build, without assistance, a fortification tower on the border of his property, and after some time to tear it down and start over. This happened four times, and during the long, arduous process, whenever Milarepa requested dharma instructions from Marpa, the teacher berated and often beat his student. Only when Milarepa’s increasingly desperate and then even deceitful attempts to receive teachings left him on the brink of suicide did Marpa finally relent and give Milarepa all the teachings he could have wished for. Yet Milarepa’s ordeals did not end there. Though his wish to practice what Marpa had taught him was strong, his need to reunite with his mother was stronger. Although Marpa advised against it, he left his teacher and went back to his homeland. When he arrived, he found his house in ruins, with the bones of his mother inside. This stunning lesson in imper- manence gave him the final push he needed to follow Marpa’s command to meditate in mountain retreat. And there he stayed for many years, enduring tremendous hardships. His clothes turned to rags; he became so emaciated that his bones protruded; the nettles he survived on turned his skin green. Hunters and thieves who came upon him took him for a ghost. When he went begging for food, his uncle, aunt, and neighbors attacked him, and he barely escaped. His sister, who had also become a beggar, wept in misery at his apparently even sorrier state. But within, Milarepa had a perfectly clear and unwavering resolve to realize the true nature of his mind through medita- tion practice. This made him happy and content, and gave him the strength to overcome all external obstacles. His serene confidence that realizing the true nature of mind was simply the only way to gain liberation from suffering won over all who had pitied and scorned him. Both his sister and aunt became his disciples. Milarepa achieved his goal of perfect realization—buddha-