[ illustration (and text below) by Molly MacGregor ]
Trial By Tower-Building
Milarepa’s Encounter with Marpa
The road that led to Milarepa’s receiving the Teaching
of Marpa the Translator was long and difficult,
for Milarepa had a dark past to purify. Having perpetrated a great deal
of black magic in his youth, he had come to repent of his terrible deeds
and begun to search for a Teacher who would help him to practice the true
Dharma. Following the advice of two lamas, Milarepa set out for the monastery
of Drowo Lung (“Valley of the Birches”), where he hoped to find the renowned
Marpa, a personal disciple of the Great Master Naropa. Milarepa was immediately
enthralled by Marpa, as he later told his disciples:
“On hearing the name Marpa the Translator, my mind was
filled with an inexpressible feeling of delight, and a thrill went through
my whole body, setting in motion every hair, while tears started from my
eyes, so strong was the feeling of faith aroused in me. I therefore set
out with the single purpose of finding this Guru, carrying only a few books
and some provisions for the journey. All along the way I was possessed
by but one idea: ‘When shall I set eyes upon my Guru? When shall I behold
his face?'” (1)
On his journey, Milarepa frequently asked passers-by where
the great Marpa theTranslator lived. He could find no one who recognized
the name until finally one man replied that he knew of a man called Marpa,
but he did not know of anyone called Marpa the Translator. Having reached
the pass called “Ridge of the Dharma”, from which he could see the monastery
of Drowo Lung, Milarepa continued on his way.
At last he reached a field where he inquired of a child
about Marpa. The child responded, “Do you speak of my father? If so, he
bought gold with all our wealth and went to India with it. He brought back
many books studded with precious stones. Usually he does not work, but
today he is plowing his field.” (2)
Milarepa thought it odd that the lama would be working,
but he continued walking until he saw a tall monk with large eyes plowing
a field. The sight of him filled Milarepa with joy, and he remained motionless
for a moment. Then he asked the monk where he could find the house of Marpa
the Translator. The monk scrutinized him and then asked, “Who are you?”
Milarepa replied that he was a great sinner come from
the Upper Tsang to beg for the Teaching from Marpa. The monk said that
he would arrange for Milarepa to meet Marpa and that meanwhile he should
plow the field. Milarepa happily took up the plow, and the man went away.
After some time, the child to whom Milarepa had spoken
earlier returned to invite Milarepa to his house to serve the lame Marpa.
Milarepa finished his work in the field and followed the boy to his house,
where he found the same monk he had seen earlier now seated on two cushions
covered with a rug. Milarepa was confused and wondered where the lama might
When the man explained that he was Marpa, Milarepa immediately
bowed at his feet, offering himself completely in service to Marpa. Then
Milarepa made a complete confession of all his sins. Marpa responded, “It
is good that you offer your body, speech, and mind. But I will not give
you food and clothing as well as the teaching.
I will give you food and clothing, but you will have to
ask another for the teaching. Or, if I give you the teaching, look elsewhere
for food and clothing. Choose between the two. But if you choose the teaching,
then whether or not you reach Enlightenment in this life will depend solely
on your own striving.” (3) Having come for the Teaching,
Milarepa chose to look elsewhere for food and clothing, and thus began
a series of trials in the service of his Master.
First, Milarepa went begging throughout the valley for
food and cooking utensils. Upon returning to the lame’s home, Milarepa
dropped his heavy load, startling Marpa, who pushed at the sack and told
Milarepa to take his evil magic away from him.
Chagrined, Milarepa felt he would have to be careful,
because his Teacher seemed to be of an irritable nature. He took his sack
of food and utensils away and returned to offer the lame a copper cooking
pot as a gift.
Marpa received it, and then instructed Milarepa to use
his knowledge of magic to bring hailstorms upon two nearby regions and
to cast spells on the mountain people who were attacking his disciples.
Milarepa performed these tasks, though not without remorse for his actions,
and returned to Marpa for the Teaching.
Marpa declared Milarepa to be a great magician, but refused
to give him the Teaching in reward for evil deeds. He told Milarepa to
heal the mountain people and restore the crops that he had ruined with
hail. Again Milarepa obeyed his Teacher, but still Marpa would not instruct
him. Instead, he instructed Milarepa to build a tower that the lama could
give to his son. Upon receiving the plans, Milarepa began a round tower
on the eastern crest of the mountain.
About halfway through the project, Marpa proclaimed that
he had not fully considered the tower and that it was not right. He told
Milarepa to tear it down and return the earth and stones to their places.
Milarepa did this and then, on Marpa’s instructions, began a semicircular
tower on the western crest of the mountain. Again, halfway through the
tower Marpa declared that the building was not right and that Milarepa
should return the earth and stones.
Next day Marpa took Milarepa to the top of a mountain
to the north, and, explaining that he had been tipsy when he issued the
last instructions, asked Milarepa to begin again, this time on a triangular
tower. The disciple pointed out that it was wasteful to tear down a tower
in the middle of construction, and he begged Marpa to consider carefully
if he was certain of what he wanted. Although Marpa firmly declared that
this tower would not be torn down, Milarepa was only one-third done when
the lama came to ask Milarepa for whom he was building the tower.
Milarepa explained that it was the lama himself who had
asked for the tower. It was to be a gift for Marpa’s son. Marpa said that
he could not remember giving such orders. He must have been crazy. He wondered
if he had lost his mind.
“‘I clearly remember suspecting it would be like this
and respectfully asking you to think about it carefully. You replied it
was fully thought out and that this tower would not be demolished,’ replied
Marpa asked who was his witness and suggested that perhaps
Milarepa was building the triangular tower as a magic triangle with which
he would cast spells upon Marpa. And the lama angrily demanded that Milarepa
demolish the inauspiciously-shaped tower and replace all the stones, after
which, Marpa declared, he would give him the Teaching.
In despair, Milarepa replaced the stones. By now he was
suffering from sores on his shoulders, which he showed to the lame’s wife,
Dagmema, begging her to help him obtain the Teaching. Seeing the state
Milarepa was in, Dagmema went to Marpa and asked him to have pity on Milarepa.
The lama told his wife to bring Milarepa before him, which she did.
Now, at last, Marpa began to instruct Milarepa, but only
by expounding on the Triple Refuge, a general Teaching. He did not yet
divulge the secret Teaching. Instead, he talked at length about the trials
that his own Master, Naropa, had undergone in order to gain liberation.
He made it clear that for Milarepa also the way would be very difficult.
Marpa’s instruction renewed Milarepa’s faith and readiness to carry out
his Teacher’s requests.
After several days Marpa took Milarepa on a walk to another
plot of land, where he told Milarepa to construct a square white tower
nine stories high. This, he said, would never be torn down. Marpa reiterated
that when the tower was completed, Milarepa would receive the secret Teaching.
Milarepa suggested that it would be wise to have the lama’s
wife as a witness. Marpa agreed and began to draw on the ground his plans
for the building: When these were complete, Milarepa invited Dagmema to
witness the agreement that was about to take place.
Milarepa reminded them both that he had already built
three towers, which the lama had caused him to destroy because he had been,
at Marpa’s own confession, tipsy or crazy or not quite sure of his plans.
Now he was asking Milarepa to build another tower, with a promise to expound
the secret Teaching when the work was done.
Dagmema said that she was happy to witness the agreement,
but was uncertain of her value as a witness because the lama was not a
reasonable man. Also, this plot of land belonged jointly to Marpa and his
cousins, and a large tower would undoubtedly bring about a quarrel. Marpa
repeated his promise and told Milarepa that he could either accept the
demand or leave.
Because of his great desire for the Teaching, Milarepa
began to lay the foundation for a square tower. While he was putting up
a wall, three of Marpa’s disciples brought a large rock and placed it as
When Milarepa was ready to start the second story, Marpa
came to inspect the work. He immediately noticed the large cornerstone
rock and asked where it had come from.
When Milarepa explained that the disciples had brought
it, Marpa exclaimed that it could not be used. Milarepa must return it
to where they had gotten it. In order to do this Milarepa had to demolish
the building once again.
Then, no sooner had he returned the rock than Marpa told
him to retrieve it and use it, after all, as a cornerstone. Milarepa submitted
to all this and labored on until the tower reached the seventh story, by
which time he had a large sore on his back.
At about this time another disciple came to request an
initiation from Marpa, and Dagmema, feeling this to be an appropriate time,
encouraged Milarepa to ask again for the Teaching. And so once more he
approached his Teacher, but Marpa threw him out of the house. Milarepa
wept the whole night and Dagmema came to console him and to encourage him
not to give up.
The next morning Marpa himself came to Milarepa and told
him not to continue with the tower. He said that if Milarepa would only
build a shrine room at the base of the tower surrounded by a covered walk
with twelve columns he would give him the secret Teaching.
Milarepa began to build the covered walk, and Dagmema
brought him food and drink to comfort him while he worked. When Milarepa
was nearly finished another of Marpa’s disciples came to request an initiation.
Again, Dagmema encouraged Milarepa to ask for the Teaching, and she provided
Milarepa with gifts to offer Marpa.
When Milarepa went before Marpa, the lama asked what gifts
his disciple had brought. When Milarepa placed the gifts before his Teacher,
Marpa rebuked him, saying the gifts were already his possessions.
Again, he threw Milarepa out, and again Milarepa despaired.
Dagmema came to console him, but he spent the whole night weeping. When
the lame came the next morning he told Milarepa to finish the covered walk
and the tower, after which he would give Milarepa the Teaching
By this time, Milarepa had large sores on his back, from
which pus and blood were oozing. He showed himself to the lama’s wife and
pleaded with her for aid.
When she saw the condition he was in, Dagmema went to
Marpa and begged him to be merciful, explaining how terrible the wounds
were and how diligently Milarepa had labored. “I have heard about sore-backed
ponies and donkeys before this, and seen some, too; but never before he
I heard of a sore-backed human being, much less seen one. What a disgrace
it will be to thee if people come to hear of it!” (5)
Dagmema then brought Milarepa to her husband and showed
Marpa the sores on Milarepa’s back. Marpa examined the wounds carefully
and declared that what Milarepa had undertaken thus far was nothing compared
to the trials Naropa had undergone in order to gain the Teaching. He admonished
Milarepa to be humble and to continue his work on the tower. Then he made
a pad to protect the wounds so that dirt would not infect them. But secretly
Marpa shed tears when he saw how diligently Milarepa carried out his every
When the sores became inflamed and Milarepa was unable
to go on working, he rested and was served by Dagmema with food and drink.
Marpa however, soon declared it was time for Milarepa to return to work.
Dagmema continued to conspire with Milarepa to obtain
the Teachings for him, even going so far as to enact a little play in which
she pretended to restrain Milarepa from leaving. Marpa, however, was unrelenting
in his demand that Milarepa finish his work, and Milarepa saw that he had
no choice but to continue.
Some time later Milarepa was mixing mortar for the shrine
room when another of Marpa’s disciples came for an initiation. This time
Dagmema gave Milarepa a beautiful turquoise that she had kept secretly
for years. Milarepa took it and offered it to Marpa, who asked how Milarepa
had come by it.
When he replied that Dagmema had given it to him Marpa
sent for her immediately. Dagmema explained that her parents had given
her the turquoise at the time of her marriage in case she should ever need
it, and she pleaded with Marpa to give Milarepa the Teaching.
Marpa, however, tied the turquoise around his neck and
declared that if it belonged to his wife, it also belonged to him. Without
further ado, he threw Milarepa out of the house for bringing no fitting
gift. Milarepa again despaired and wept through the night.
Next morning the lame sent for Milarepa and asked him
if he was angered by Marpa’s refusal to give the Teaching. Milarepa replied,
“I have faith in the lama, and I have not uttered a single word of rebellion.
On the contrary, I believe that I am in darkness on account of my sins.
I am the author of my own misery.” (6)
When the lama told him to get out, Milarepa was miserable.
This time he decided to leave without saying a word to anyone, and he packed
his books and started down the road. When Dagmema saw that he had gone,
she went to Marpa and told him. The lama wept, prayed for Milarepa’s return,
and then sat motionless.
Milarepa, having remembered Dagmema’s kindness, returned
at that moment to thank her. She brought him before Marpa, who declared
that if Milarepa would only complete the remaining three stories of the
tower he would give Milarepa the Teaching. But Milarepa felt it was useless,
and he prepared to leave again.
Dagmema, seeing his intentions, told him that she would
find a way for Ngogpa, one of Marpa’s disciples, to initiate Milarepa if
he would stay a little longer and pretend to work. Milarepa was overjoyed
at the possibility and stayed. Meanwhile, at the first opportunity Dagmema
took two of the sacred treasures given to Marpa by Naropa and forged a
letter from Marpa to Ngogpa, who lived a little distance away.
These Milarepa took to Ngogpa, saying he had been sent
by Marpa to receive initiation and instruction. The lama, thinking it a
direct order from Marpa gave Milarepa the initiation and told him to meditate
in an abandoned cave on a nearby cliff. Milarepa walled himself in and
began to meditate constantly. However, because Marpa had not assented to
his initiation, Milarepa experienced no inner signs.
In the meantime, Marpa had nearly finished the tower for
his son himself. He sent a message to Ngogpa, under whose instruction Milarepa
was meditating, inviting him to come to the consecration of the tower.
And he told Ngogpa to bring along a “certain evil-doer” who belonged to
When Ngogpa showed Milarepa the letter, Milarepa admitted
that Marpa had not sent him, and he asked for permission to go to the consecration
with Ngogpa as his servant. When the day came, the lama gathered all his
worldly goods, except for an old goat with a broken leg, and told Milarepa
to proceed ahead of him.
Approaching Marpa’s home, Milarepa met Dagmema and asked
her to bring refreshments to welcome Ngogpa, who would arrive soon. She
sent Milarepa to Marpa to make the request, but Marpa, who was sitting
on his terrace, would not look at Milarepa. Prostrating, Milarepa made
the request, explaining that Ngogpa was arriving with all his wealth.
Breaking into an apparent rage, Marpa shouted, “What!
Who gave me a reception when I came plodding home with the load of the
precious teachings on my way back from India? When I brought home the precious
gems of the quintessence of all the four divisions of Buddhist Doctrine,
did so much as a lame bird come out to greet me or receive me? And must
I, a great translator, go and receive Ngogpa just because he is bringing
me a few straggling cattle?”‘ (7) So saying he refused
to greet the lama.
Milarepa left to report this interchange to Dagmema, who
came with Milarepa to greet the guests. Meanwhile, a great many people
had arrived to celebrate the occasion. After Marpa sang a chant, Ngogpa
offered his gifts. As a test of the lama’s devotion, Marpa instructed him
to go back after the lame goat and bring her to him. The lama did this,
and Marpa gave initiation and instruction to him.
Then Marpa asked for a full accounting of how Ngogpa had
come to give Milarepa instruction. Marpa appeared to be so angry at hearing
the story that Dagmema locked herself into a temple. In the depths of despair,
Milarepa decided there was nothing to do but kill himself and hope to be
reborn worthy of religion. Ngogpa however, restrained him, explaining that
to take one’s life is the greatest sin.
At last Marpa’s rage abated and he sent for Dagmema and
Milarepa, who came, still fearful, into his presence. Marpa received them
calmly and began to explain at last what he had been up to all this time.
He had been testing Milarepa to purify him of his sins, and, although it
was understandable that Dagmema, moved by womanly compassion, had sought
to comfort Milarepa, her forging of the letter was going too far. Now,
however, if they would bring him the sacred objects, he would indeed initiate
and instruct Milarepa.
Marpa explained the nature of his anger, saying, “Although
my anger rose like flood water, it was not like worldly anger. However
they may appear, my actions always come from religious considerations which,
in essence, conform to the Path of Enlightenment. As for the rest of you
who are not yet immersed in religion, do not let your faith be shaken.”
Marpa went on to explain that if Milarepa had only completed
nine great trials, he would have been assured of freedom from rebirths.
However, the ordeal he had undergone was sufficient to undo the karmas
of his sins. “Now, I receive you and will give you my Teaching, which is
as dear to me as my own heart. I will help you with provisions and let
you meditate and be happy.” (9)
Milarepa wondered if he was dreaming. Joy swept over him
and he and the others prostrated themselves before Marpa, in whom their
faith had been restored and made strong. Preparations were made for the
ceremony, and the following day Milarepa was initiated. Afterward, Marpa
placed his hands on Milarepa’s head and told him that from the first moment
of his approach he had known that Milarepa was destined to be his disciple
and that he would prove fit to receive the Teaching. He went on to speak
of Milarepa’s own future work:
“Each time that I cruelly drove you out from the ranks
of the disciples and overwhelmed you with grief, you had no bad thoughts
against me. This signifies that your disciples will have first of all the
zeal, perseverance, wisdom, and compassion necessary for every disciple.
Next, not desiring the wealth of this life, they will endure meditation
in the mountains through their ascetic discipline and energy. So finally,
through inner experience, spiritual energy, wisdom, and compassion, they
will all become perfect lamas. The transmission of this teaching will be
like the waxing moonso rejoice!” (10)
1. Tibet ‘s Great
Yogi Milarepa: A Biogaphy from the Tibetan, 2nd ed., ed W.Y. Evans-Wentz
(London: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 87.
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