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Beyond Buddha’s Birth- Tales of Teaching Tibetan Buddhism

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By Bridgette O'Brien

Rainbow dakinis, mandala making, governments in exile, circumambulating Mt. Kailas, mudras, stupas and a glimpse of what some refer to as “Virtual Tibet” are just a few ways my students ponder the development of Buddhism beyond the usual textbook coverage about Shakyamuni’s life and his fundamental teachings. As world religion teachers, most people include the basics about Siddartha Guatama’s life and most of us have a diversity of creative ways to expose students to the four noble truths, but delving into the different Buddhist sects within the context of their regional specificity and exploring some of the primary texts of Buddhism is where the fun (for educators and students alike) really begins! Thus, after some time exploring aspects of Theravada, Mahayana and Chan/Zen Buddhism with my students, we delve into some of the nuances of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition.

Having spent six months on the Tibetan plateau several decades ago, I find myself wanting to share with students some of the rich texture of Tibetan Buddhism that I was fortunate enough to observe. Most students have heard of the Dalai Lama, many have even seen one of the Hollywood flicks such as Seven Year’s in Tibet or Little Buddha which have exposed them to a kind of “Virtual Tibet,” but most have very little context for understanding the esoteric nature of this form of Buddhism. Thus, as a way to provide insights and deeper knowledge about Tibetan Lamaism we often begin this part of our Buddhist studies by reading excerpts from a famous Vajrayana text titled The Life of Milarepa. There are multiple translations of this text that one can use. I use a translation by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa published by Penguin Books (1979).

The Life of Milarepa recapitulates the spiritual quest of a great “sinner” who becomes a saint; the folktale not only entices students with its magic, feuds, deception and humor, but it also serves as a wonderful entrée into discussions about the Buddhist notions of egolessness, karma, Dharma, and Buddha nature. Moreover, the text provides insights into the importance of experience and practice which are vital aspects of any Vajrayana Buddhist’s spiritual endeavors.


With limited time always being an issue when trying to teach both depth and breadth in any given religious tradition, the excerpt we read is a chapter titled “Ordeals.” In this chapter, Milarepa is asked by his venerable teacher (Marpa) to build a series of different towers. Each time Milarepa begins to build a tower Marpa specifies a different shape for the structure (and unbeknownst to Milarepa there is significant symbolism behind each shape). Milarepa then proceeds to erect a portion of the tower, but before he is even half way done with his task he is asked (by Marpa) to destroy the tower and start anew. Milarepa quickly becomes frustrated as it appears to him that his hard work is to no avail. However, each time he (begrudgingly at first) destroys his work and begins again.

The point of this chapter is not only to show the importance of the karmic bond that gets developed (through these experiences and over a period of time) between teacher and student; it also illustrates the process of Milarepa undergoing the very difficult challenge of emptying himself of ego. By the end of the chapter, Milarepa is finally allowed to complete the square tower. This tower, with its four corners on the ground, represents the stability that Milarepa has now developed in his attentiveness and presence. This stability was only achieved by Milarepa after he was able to understand how Marpa’s apparent “irrational requests” to build and destroy these towers without reason was actually a form of teaching so that Milarepa could better understand what it meant to “come from a place of baseless action.”

Students are initially a bit perplexed by the reading and they often miss the significance of the tower shapes. They can appreciate the challenge that Milarepa faces and they often empathize with him as a person on a difficult spiritual quest. They want him to “get it right” (even though he was a mischievous young lad, accruing much bad karma in earlier chapters) and they want Marpa to have some compassion for him. I find that our discussions often reveal students’ frustration with Marpa and what they perceive to be his “crazy irrational demands.” (Marpa pretends to forget what he asks Milarepa to do; he feigns drunkenness; he acts as if he changed his mind as his strategies/excuses to get Milarepa to destroy the towers in progress.) Thus, in order to contextualize Marpa’s teaching strategies in terms of other aspects of Buddhism that we’ve explored we re-visit the Lotus Blossom Sutra (where the Buddha uses upaya to strategically get people out of the burning house or dukkha). With the reference to this Mahayana Buddhist sutra students are able to identify more readily with the brilliance of the transmission of the esoteric doctrine between teacher and student in the Milarepa story. Then, by the end of the discussion, they are (like Milarepa once his own awareness of Marpa’s irrational demands has become clear) eager and ready for more instruction.