Inviting the demon.
(Milarepa, Tibetan Buddhism)(The Shadowissue)

Judith Simmer-Brown

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 
            afraid .... 
            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 
            as real. 
            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 
            from within. 
            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 
            Jataka I.68.5. 
            (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. 
            (10.) Ibid. 
            (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.