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?'"
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 be.
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 Milarepa." (4)
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 a cornerstone.
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 order.
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 Marpa.
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." (8)
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 & 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, & 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, & compassion, they will all become perfect lamas.
The transmission of this teaching will be like the waxing moon—so rejoice!"
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.
2. The Life of Milarepa, trans. Lobsang P. Lhalungpa (Shambhala: Boulder, Colo., 1977), p. 45.