I had the honour of opening the Ottawa Tibet Film Festival on March 21, at St Paul’s University in Ottawa, with a talk about the Milarepa film. Shot in the stunning Lahaul-Spiti region of Northern India next to the Tibet border, it evokes the stark beauty of the Himalayas.
Milarepa was the first Tibetan to attain liberation in a single lifetime. His life offers a provocative parallel to the cycle of violence and retribution consuming today’s modern world. We can all identify with Milarepa as a human being with flaws. The same flaws as us – and then some! This is not a story of high lamas or reincarnation of the Buddha – it portrays dharma about ordinary life, encountering the human weaknesses and adversity that provide the engine to drive us to awaken. It is a story about ordinary people who become extraordinary through their ordeals and transformation. The name Milarepa ties this together very nicely. Mila means great man, Repa means –cotton clad one. So in his dharma name – Milarepa contains the ordinary with the great.
H.H. the Dalai Lama was reduced to tears at seeing this film about a 11th century saint, revered in Tibet as a National Hero. But one with a very dark and flawed past. Named Thopaga at birth, we see how his life is turned upside down on the death of his wealthy father. His uncle and aunt squander his inheritance and force his mother and himself into a life of poverty and destitution. In despair, anger and revenge his mother sends him to train with a master sorcerer. He excels in the dark arts, so much so that he is able to rain down a terrible storm and rock landslide on his village when his uncle and aunt are holding a marriage ceremony for their son. He kills 35 people, children, women and men. His aunt and uncle escape the carnage and send a party after him. Milarepa declares that he can kill them all and sends another rock slide their way to scatter his pursuers.
Yet he is harrowed to the bone by his deeds, the direct consequence of his anger and vengeance. The story of greed, sorcery, vengeance and murder also has redemption and awakening woven into it, the reason for the Dalai Lama to be deeply moved by the film. Milarepa from 11th century Tibet provides a vivid reflection of the tumult and agony of present times. Violence, revenge, murder, all these ingredients can be found around the world – the Middle East, Syria, Egypt, Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand and North Korea to mention only a few. What Milarepa provides is proof that we can transform adversity through deep redemption and awakening. No matter how dark and demonic our mind – we can transform it. The film comes to an end at the point where Milarepa sets out to seek his teacher of a different way – Marpa the Translator who was the spiritual heir of Naropa. He endures terrible ordeals and this is the staple of the sequel film that is not yet released. Part II as it were.
In the 1990’s H.H. the Dalai Lama and Francisco Varela collaborated to bring the Mind and Life Conferences into existence. They still continue to this day. They brought advanced meditators and neuroscientists together to study the mind and consciousness. Their joint experience and research turned science on its head, as they were able to share the finding that the mind was malleable, capable of change and transformation with the application of meditation, solitude, dharma practice and deep introspection.
Marpa the Translator on meeting Milarepa demanded to see a display of his sorcery. This was done, at which point Marpa refused to teach him until he went through a series of brutal ordeals. He had Milarepa build a stone tower and then forced him to take it down – three times in succession. The fourth multi story tower he had Milarepa build still stands at Lhodrag in Tibet. All the while Marpa taunted Milarepa, referring to him as the Great Magician to constantly remind him of his past sins and the harm he had done. He pushed Milarepa to the limits of his body and mind in the intent of purifying him of his past evil deeds.
Marpa knew what he was doing, completely in accord with the much later findings of the Mind and Life conferences. He also knew that Milarepa was his spiritual heir. Milarepa tried to leave several times and then became aware that he was the author of his own misery. Marpa was unwavering in his seeming cruelty. Relentless and ruthless until he saw changes take place in Milarepa’s mind. It took twelve years, with protracted time alone in utter solitude in the Tibetan wilderness. Milarepa lived in caves and survived on eating nettles and drinking snow melt. His mind settled and at the age of 45 he entered into full awakening. He attracted followers from far and wide and taught first of all from Drakar Taso cave – the White Rock Horse Tooth cave – and then from other caves before becoming a much sought out wandering teacher.
He left an unusual legacy – the Songs of Milarepa. When asked a question from a disciple he would go very still and the answer would emerge from deep in his mind in the form of song. He would put aside their questions about devas, gods and hungry ghosts and return the listeners to a clear understanding of the dharma, and present them with the task at hand, which was their awakening – and here were the tools to do it. His songs were beautiful dharma talks laying out a clear path of emancipation for his followers. The bottom line from Milarepa was always that the path of enlightenment is open to all, no matter how dark and dreadful the past.
A disciple once asked him if he was an emanation from a past Buddha. Milarepa provided an immediate “No”– that such a notion would deprecate the monumental ordeals and suffering he had transformed to enter full awakening. Frank Sinatra has a song for Milarepa – “He Did It His Way, In His Lifetime!”
Ian is the Zen teacher at Pine Gate Mindfulness Community and the Founder of Friends for Peace. He gives talks and retreats around the world, though prefers to stay local to turn the tide just a little bit so that good things happen spontaneously in his home city of Ottawa.