Inviting the demon.
(Milarepa, Tibetan Buddhism)(The Shadowissue)
Vol.22 No.2 (Summer 1997)
COPYRIGHT 1997 Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition
When the young prince-turned-mendicant, Siddhartha, sat down on a
seat of soft grass on the east side of a pipal tree, he vowed not to
arise until he had attained full awakening. Because of his
meditative experience, he knew what lay before him. He knew that in
a certain way, awakening was direct and simple, a spontaneous
experience of clarity and radiance, born of lifetimes of a settled
discipline of mind. But he also knew that he must be strong and
resolute, for he would be attacked by Mara,(1) the demon lord of
death and destruction, and his awakening depended upon maintaining
an open but unyielding attitude toward these attacks. Mara
represented the unacknowledged or unfinished karmic tendencies,
emotionality, and conceptuality inherent in Siddhartha himself and
in all human experience.
As he sat still, it is said that Mara attacked Siddhartha in nine
great storms -- a whirlwind, a great rainstorm, and showers of
rocks, weapons, hot coals, hot ashes, sand, mud, and darkness.(2)
Each storm blew its its, only to become a gentle rain of flowers as
it approached the compassionate prince, who remained immovable on
his meditation seat. As he and Mara faced each other down,
Siddhartha claimed his right to the seat of awakening, summoning the
earth as his support and witness, and Mara and his hordes slunk
From the earliest teachings of the Buddha, the practitioner has
been encouraged to go against the stream of conventionality, to look
at everything in experience including that which one would rather
avoid or ignore. The way which the Buddha discovered was based on
opening to all, including the "shadow," to see fearlessly what is
there, and to integrate lost shadow material as a source of
spiritual richness. A central meditative strategy of Buddhism has
always been quiet sitting, allowing the unclaimed features of the
inner life to arise to awareness. Then, following the specific
instructions of meditation practice, these negativities, sufferings,
and anxieties are recognized and allowed to dissipate on their own.
This instruction is also clear in the first recorded teaching
of the Buddha, that of the Four Noble Truths,(3) given in a lush
grove inhabited by wild deer outside the city of Varanasi. There he
instructed five bedraggled yogins, his former companions, saying
that the first Noble Truth upon which his awakening was based was
the truth of suffering. This teaching points to an aspect of the
shadow experience, that within whatever occurs, there is an
undercurrent of undesired anxiety and discontent. Duhkha, the
Sanskrit word for suffering, derives from the word kha, literally,
an axle-hole which must be carefully driven at the very center of
the wheel in order for the fide to be smooth. Duh means bad or poor,
referring to an axle-hole which is off-center, causing an uneven or
bumpy ride. This word imaginatively captures the uneasiness of human
existence which gives rise to our yearnings for wholeness.
According to these insights of the Buddha, any attempt to escape
suffering merely intensifies the experience of anxiety. Likewise,
attempts to cling to suffering and to indulge in anxiety and
discontent merely gives our psychological logic another twist. Our
discontent solidifies into a "problem" which occupies our attention,
while the real anxiety moves to another level of subtlety. The only
remaining solution is that of the Middle Way, of investigating the
negativity we desire to escape, seeing it clearly, and then letting
it go. We must ride the tricky waves of this negativity, allowing
its chameleon-like intractability. All of this is done through the
medium of Buddhist meditations, in their varieties of forms. But
this is most explicitly described in the tradition of Tibetan
tantra, which strategically invites psychological material(4)
directly into meditation practice and transforms it into wisdom.
How are we to understand this "not accepting, not rejecting" way of
working with the "shadow" in Buddhism? A most instructive example
can be found in the life story(5) of the twelfth-century Tibetan
yogin, Milarepa, who began his fife in great adversity.(6) His
father, a successful and prosperous trader, died when Mila was still
a small boy, leaving him and his mother and sister at the mercy of a
greedy uncle. When the uncle stole their inheritance and forced them
into servitude, Mila's enraged mother insisted that he avenge his
family's honor. He apprenticed himself to a powerful sorcerer and
learned to cause devastating hailstorms and pestilence. Returning to
his village, at his mother's urging he murdered his uncle's entire
family and then fled into the mountains. When he realized what he
had done, he experienced great fear and regret, and sought a
Buddhist teacher to repair his damaged karma.
In the language of Jung, Milarepa became enmeshed in the flight
from his shadow at the onset of his spiritual journey. His training
with the great guru Marpa was fraught with great hardship and
misguided intentions, as Marpa exacerbated his troubled student's
neurosis. The most striking example came in Marpa's command that
Milarepa build a series of tall stone towers with his own hands.
With each tower's completion, Marpa insisted that Milarepa tear it
down and return the stones to their original spots. Throughout this,
Milarepa experienced great devotion, but never understood the great
agony of the tasks his master set forth for him. Finally, as
Milarepa contemplated suicide, Marpa gave him the teachings he
sought and sent him to the remote and desolate caves of southwestern
Tibet to do a lifelong retreat. Through this retreat, Mila
successfully met his own shadow and reclaimed its offerings.
While Milarepa dwelt in the Eagle Tower caves of Red Rock Jewel
Valley,(7) he went out one day to gather firewood in the nearby
valley. There a great storm arose, with strong and penetrating wind
which blew the wood away as quickly as he could pick it up and which
threatened to tear off his meager robe. Frustrated, he thought,
"What is the use of practicing Dharma if one cannot subdue
ego-clinging? Let the wind blow my wood away if it likes. Let the
wind blow my robe off if it wishes!"(8) And so saying, he fainted.
Upon reviving, he found the storm had abated and his ragged robe
fluttered in a nearby tree.
Eventually he returned with firewood to his cave, and found it
invaded by five horrific demons with eyes as large as saucers.
Shocked, Milarepa politely introduced himself and asked them to
leave. At this, the demons became menacing, surrounding him while
growling, grimacing, and laughing maliciously. Milarepa was alarmed
and attempted the most powerful of exorcism recitations, to no
avail. The demons became even more threatening. Next, the yogin
tried with great compassion to pacify them with Buddhist teachings,
but they still remained, more vivid and horrible than before.
Finally Milarepa realized that his approach was mistaken, and that
he needed the most direct means possible. Supplicating his teacher
Marpa, he acknowledged that the demons, and all phenomena for that
matter, were of his own mind, which is of the nature of luminosity
and emptiness. The demons were his own projections, and seeing them
naively as external demons served as an obstacle to his practice. At
the same time, their malicious nature was actually radiant and
transparent, no different from awakening itself. If he could respond
to them appropriately, he could reap great spiritual benefit.
Milarepa then applied his guru's instructions and sang one of his
famous dohas, or songs of realization. In it he proclaimed his
lineage of wakefulness and the mastery of his own mind. He prayed to
Marpa, who had himself conquered the Maras, referring to him as a
queen snow lioness, a golden Garuda (intrepid master of all birds),
and as the king of fishes. Then, professing himself as Marpa's son
in each of these forms, he proclaimed his meditative maturity and
unshakable fearlessness, leaping from the snowy precipices, flying
in the lofty heights of the sky, or swimming the thundering waves of
the ocean. Finally, he spoke of himself as a Buddhist meditator, son
of his guru's lineage.
Faith grew in my mother's womb. A baby, I entered the door of
Dharma; A youth, I studied the Buddha's teaching; A man, I lived
alone in caves. Though demons, ghosts, and devils multiply, I am not
I, Milarepa, fear neither demons nor evils; If they frightened
Milarepa, to what avail Would be his realization and
Having proclaimed the fearlessness which he had discovered in his
practice, Milarepa followed the training given him by his guru. He
invited the demons to stay with him and to receive his hospitality.
He also challenged them to a friendly contest of teachings.
Ye ghosts and demons, enemies of the Dharma, I welcome you today! It
is my pleasure to receive you! I pray you, stay; do not hasten to
leave; We will discourse and play together. Although you would be
gone, stay the night; We will pit the Black against the White
Dharma, And see who plays the best. Before you came, you vowed to
afflict me. Shame and disgrace would follow If you returned with
this vow unfulfilled.(10)
We may notice that when Milarepa invited the demons, he displayed
several moods successively. This can be understood in terms of the
Tibetan tantric expression of four enlightened stages of skillful,
appropriate action, called the four karmas. These karmas are the
strategies employed by the realized yogin when working with
intractable situations, whether they be in practice or in daily
life.(11) These methods are based on "not accepting, not rejecting"
in the sense that the most threatening situations are excellent
opportunities for practice.
The first karma is "pacifying," in which one opens fully to
negativity, with the line "I welcome you today!" When we open to the
shadow in this way, we reverse the habitual tendency to ignore or
hide it. Next, the yogin inspires the unacknowledged aspects with
confidence by creating an atmosphere of celebration, free from
aggression, in an action called "enriching" ("It is my pleasure to
receive you!"). Taking the attitude of enriching, we affirm the
power of the shadow rather than discounting it as we usually do.
Then, with the third karma of "magnetizing," the yogin draws the
negativity toward him or her with an actual invitation: "Do not
hasten to leave; we will discourse and play together ... stay the
night." In this way, the shadow is charmed into relationship and its
power is harnessed.
The last karma, "destroying," is the final resort for an
accomplished yogin like Milarepa. Often the shadow material does not
require this final step, for its ferocity has rested primarily on
our denial of it, and the inviting nature of the first three karmas
removes its threatening qualities. However, when negativities are
entrenched in conceptual justifications and defenses, we must employ
"destroying," in which we challenge and threaten the crystallized,
residual negativity with extinction. Milarepa did this with the
challenge, "we will pit the Black against the White Dharma, and see
who plays the best." Here he was referring to the black magic and
sorcery of his past training, his central shadow, directly
confronted by the white magic of Buddhism, which can accommodate and
purify the black. Having challenged the demons, Milarepa arose and
rushed with great confidence directly at them. They shrank in
terror, rolling their eyes and trembling violently, and then swirled
together into a single vision and dissolved. With this, the
destroying was completed, and Milarepa the black sorcerer was
reclaimed by Milarepa the white sorcerer.(12)
It is important, however, to understand that in Buddhism the
motivation to reclaim the shadow can never be in service to the ego,
or fulfilling only one's own personal potential. The "white
sorcerer" Milarepa was the great Buddhist yogin who harnessed the
powers of the destructive magician, who was interested only in
egocentric ends, and brought them into the service of the Dharma,
the egoless aspiration for the awakening of all beings. In his
practice, following the tantric instructions, Milarepa transformed
the power of his passions into blazing devotion to his teacher,
dedicated service, committed retreat practice, and blissful
realization. The intensity of these transmuted passions can be seen
in the legacy of realization songs he left for his students. He
summed it up in this song:
Previously, I was confused by delusion, And staying in the dwelling
of ignorant confusion, I perceived gods who help and demons who harm
Now, through the kindness of the jetsun siddha, I understand there
is no samsara to stop, no nirvana to accomplish. Whatever appears
arises as mahamudra.
With the realization that confusion is groundless, The water that
reflects the moon of awareness is clear of murkiness. The sun of
luminosity, free of clouds, Clears away the darkness of ignorance
from the edges. Deluded confusion disappears. The true nature arises
The precious thought that perceives demons Is the wonderful
clarifier of the unborn bias.(13)
With this, Milarepa acknowledged that perceiving external demons is
a precious opportunity to open our minds to direct experience of
things as they are.
The Red Rock Jewel Valley vignette closes with the explanation that
the great Obstacle-Maker, the demon-king Vinayaka, had caused these
apparitions and the storm preceding them. Blessing his guru,
Milarepa acknowledged that Marpa's protections and instruction had
kept him from harm. And, the biographer finally concludes, "after
this, Milarepa gained immeasurable spiritual progress."(14)
(1.) Mara, a cognate of "mortal," refers to death, pestilence, and
most explicitly in Buddhism, vulnerability to the passions. The Lord
of the Maras was depicted as leader of an army of denizens, a kind
of demon in his own right. Maras are four, according to the
Dharmasamgraha; skandha-mara, klesha-mara, devaputramara, and
mrtyu-mara. These are detailed in many texts of the Tibetan
(2.) There are many versions of this account, but this is taken from
(3.) Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta, Samyutta-nikaya LVI.11.
(4.) It must be acknowledged that this is Western psychological
terminology which is described in the Tibetan tradition as merely
one aspect of the mind. Nevertheless, it has been exceedingly
helpful in contemporary psychology to study Tibetan Buddhism for its
sophisticated understanding of the emotions, the unconscious, and
(5.) Namthar, literally "liberation story" in Tibetan, a classic
literary form which uses hagiography as a way of presenting the
potent teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism without the obscuration of
philosophy or logic.
(6.) Sources in translation on the life and songs of Milarepa
include The Life of MIlarepa, Lobsang P. Lhalungpa, tr. (new York:
E. P. Dutton, 1977); The hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, Garma
C. C. Chang, tr. (Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala Publications, 1977);
Selected Song of Jetsun Milarepa, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso and
Elizabeth Callahan, trs. (Cupertino, Calif.: Marpa Foundation,
1995); Drinking the Mountain Stream: New Stories and Songs by
Milarepa, Lama Kunga Rinpoche and Brian Cutillo, trs. (Novato,
Calif.; Lotsawa, 1978); even a classic comik book by Eva Van Dam,
The Magic Life of Milarepa, Tibet's Great Yogi (Boston: Shambhala,
(7.) This is drawn from "The Tale of Red Rock Jewel Valley,"
Chapter I of Chang, op. cit., pp. 1-7.
(8.) Ibid., p. 1.
(9.) Ibid., p. 7.
(11.) For a brief but accessible presentation of the four karmas,
read Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, The Myth of Freedom (Boston:
Shambhala Publications, 1976), chapter IV, pp. 73-82.
(12.) Marpa continued to call Milarepa "Great Sorcerer" throughout
his life, referring to these qualities.
(13.) Gyamtso and Callahan, p. 3.
(14.) Chang, p. 7.