Milarepa’s guru, Marpa the Translator, was an enlightened master who was also a farmer and family mam In the tenth century he returned to Tibet from India, bringing with him the priceless instructions of the whispered oral lineage.
Marpa’s son Dharma Dode was his main disciple and spiritual successor. Once, Dharma Dode was with Marpa in retreat, on the ground floor of the stone castle that had been built by Milarepa. Both Marpa and his wife, Dagmema the Selfless, had forbidden the youth to attend a local festival He had been forewarned by a prophecy spoken through his mother not to ride horses during the retreat period, but the high-spirited young yogi could not resist. He climbed through a window, mounted his magnificent and gaily caparisoned horse, White Raven, and sped off to the village.
The townspeople were surprised to find Dharma Dode reveling among the villagers, but awe for his father, the formidable master Marpa, precluded criticism. No one but Milarepa, the singing yogi, noticed when the prodigal son quit the festivities. Milarepa followed him and found Dharma Dode lying with a crushed skull in a rocky ravine where the steed had thrown him. Milarepa sat cross-legged amidst the jagged boulders, gently laying the unconscious boy’s head in his lap, and cried.
When other disciples of Lord Marpa found them, they bound the boy’s head in silk, made a stretcher out of silk offering-scarves, and carried him home. Marpa came out to meet his disciples. Dharma Dode greeted his father, then sank into a deep coma. Marpa laid his son’s head in his lap, unwrapped the boy’s head, and wept. Dagmema, hearing her husband’s mournful dirge, came out of the retreat house; upon seeing what had befallen her eldest son, she cried out and fainted.
Marpa sang a song to clarify the teachings for all present and to help transfer Dharma Dode’s consciousness to higher planes. Then he cried out and wept, covering his head with his maroon woolen robe.
An elderly couple whose son had died approached Master Marpa and said: “Lord and master, when our son died Your Eminence explained the Buddhist facts of life concerning the immanence of death, the universality of impermanence, the uncertainty of our lifespan, the ceaseless cycle of birth and death and rebirth, the mterconnectedness of all things, and many edifying verses formerly unheard by these old ears. You exhorted us to see that this very life, including parenting a fine son, was just like a dream and an illusion, and that we need not squander the rest of this ephemeral life in depression. We found great peace through your teachings.
“Yet now you, the lord guru, master of illusion’s game, weep and wail like an ordinary person for your sonand dharma-heir, the handsome, learned, beloved, and spiritually accomplished Dharma Dode. What is the meaning of this?”
“It is true that this life is like a dream, mirage and illusion,” Marpa replied. “The death of a child is like a nightmare among dreams, like a super-illusion among illusions. Nothing is more painful than the death of one’s child. This intense grief is also unreal and illusory” And Lord Marpa wept openly.
The next day Marpa said, “My kleshas [conflicting emotions] sometimes seem as if carved in stone, yet even stone is nothing but clear light! Momentary appearances are all self-manifesting and self-liberating; this realization is the heart’s sure release.”
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.