The Life of Milarepa, translated by Tsangnyön Heruka, read like it was a screenplay for a fictional movie. The prologue wasn’t a part of the assigned reading, but it gave insight into the basic themes in the novel. I specifically use the word novel to describe this book because it reads less like a spiritual tale, and more like a fiction book, not very different from what I would have picked up from the library a few years ago. The prologue moves through the gist of his life and explains the structure of the book. It is divided into two main parts, which make the distinction between the ordinary deeds, and the supreme deeds of Milarepa. These parts are then broken into separate chapters to explain each of the deeds, three ordinary, and nine supreme.
The story begins with the first of Milarepa’s ordinary deeds, “This was the first ordinary deed, the deed of his birth”. Although I am not inferring that this was not a vital part of the story, I think the most important chapters of these deeds are following two. The second chapter tells us the story of the little boy, whose family was treated badly by his uncle. The father had left all of the money in the hands of the uncle to give to Milarepa and his mother once he had become the right age and had agreed to marry the woman he was betrothed to from birth, but instead he dismissed the family, and forced Milarepa’s mother to beg for money from those around them. “This was the second ordinary deed, the deed of his practicing the truth of suffering in its entirety”. Finally, before I get into analyzing the cause of Milarepa to adopt religious beliefs, there is the narrative that explains how Milarepa became a sorcerer of black magic. As his mother had asked, Milarepa went to study the art of black magic, and as revenge on his Uncle, caused his house collapse, killing 37 people, including his uncle’s entire family. This part takes up a small portion of the book, but is the reason for Milarepa to purify his karma.
Once Milarepa had completed the task he set out to do, he regrets his actions, and turns to a teacher to understand the concept of karma. Before Milarepa could acquire any of the qualities of enlightenment, he had a few tasks to complete before he could reach a worthy state. This was the beginning of his “supreme deeds”. Milarepa felt remorse for what he had committed, and as well as taking full responsibility of his actions, he decided that the first task would be to find a teacher. Showing his willingness to repair his past, he dedicated his whole body and soul to his master with no doubts, as any “good Buddhist” practitioner should. As an obedient student, he began the next stage, which was the meditation of many months. This signified one of the most significant moments of his transformation, illustrating his understanding of Buddhist philosophy.
One of the questions we were asked to analyze is the effect of women in the story. The main female character in this part of the story is the mother, although later on the sister and aunt have a prominence as well. There is a distinctive importance given to female characters in the life of Milarepa, which is different from any of the other religions I have studied, but regardless have an lasting impact on the direct actions of Milarepa. The question remains, had Milarepa not been coerced by his mother to perform the acts that devastated those who had betrayed him in the path, would he have seen fit to dedicate his life towards compassion? In fact, this is not the only story that moves in this direction from “terror” to “enlightenment”, the story of King Ashoka has a similar tale. After a series of vindictive battles that cause a bloodbath of human sacrifice, King Ashoka (conveniently) declared that he had seen what was wrong in his path, and decided to live a life of a Buddhist, without harming anyone.
I enjoyed reading the chapter of that gave us a picture of Milarepa’s life immediately after the betrayal from his uncle. The concept of black magic had never struck as a part of the Buddhist beliefs, but it was interestingly incorporated into the life of Milarepa. One of the issues that I think could cause some discussion is if Milarepa had not come through to the stage of anger and revenge, would he have had the determination to restore his karmic balance and lead a path towards enlightenment (as far as we’ve reached in the book, we aren’t quite aware yet how it will be completed, and if Milarepa would reach full enlightenment).