When Gampopa met Milarepa: A tale of beggars, buttocks and bliss. ‘Four Dharmas’ of Gampopa by 17th Karmapa (Part III)

Yesterday, on the third day of the teachings on the ‘Four Dharmas’ of Gampopa, the 17th Karmapa explained the importance of how Gampopa came to meet Milarepa via three beggars, what happened when he met Milarepa, what practices and teachings he was given by Milarepa and his most direct, pith instructions, which involved Milarepa baring his buttocks to Gampopa, a lesson in the importance of ‘working one’s ass off’ (as we say in English). Here is a brief summary and write-up of the first half of the teaching. The second half will be posted tomorrow. May it be of benefit!

The three beggars

Previously, the 17th Karmapa explained the conditions that led Gampopa to seek out Milarepa, his meeting with three beggars:

“Since Gampopa was only meditating on impermanence and death his mind was filled with urgency and his earlier experiences of bliss and clarity decreased. He studied with many lamas and he realized there are many practices, but meditation is most important and he went back to his homeland. One the way to his home he went to see Geshe Drepa and received the instructions on White Tara. Thus when we practice White Tara as handed down from Atisha, it originates from Geshe Drepa. When Gampopa got to his homeland, he built a retreat cabin there and he stayed there to meditate. His previous experiences of bliss and clarity had decreased and they were then restored and continued to improve. In his dreams, he saw the signs of achieving the 10th Bodhisattva level as explained in the Sutras. However, Gampopa thought, ‘I haven’t achieved that level so why am having all these dreams? Are they emanations or ghosts?’ There were many different signs and indications in his dreams.

Now, the most important thing, is when did Gampopa start to follow Milarepa? How did Gampopa get to meet and follow Milarepa, as he had had many gurus? Generally, Gampopa had heard about Milarepa and he had faith in him, but the conditions that made him absolutely want to go and see him, comes from the story of the three beggars.

Gampopa had gone back to his homeland and spent a long time on practice, then one day, in Chogri, he went off to take a walk and have a rest, and three beggars were there and killing lice on their bodies and complaining about it. Among them was one who said, ‘oh we have no merit, if we did, then we would get some big tsampa dough and soup and we wouldn’t need to look for it. Wouldn’t that be great?’ The second beggar, said ‘oh that is pointless, we need to be born as the Lord of Nadrag Tsede [a King]. That would be great.’ The third beggar said, ‘what’s so good about that? He will die some day. What we should pray for is being like Milarepa. He doesn’t need to wear any clothes, they say dakinis bring him food, he has no fear of death, that would be great!’

 Gampopa listened to the conversation and when they started speaking about Milarepa he got goosebumps and started to sob tears. He thought ‘I have to go, if I don’t go it would be wrong’ So, he went to the beggars and asked ‘where is Milarepa? How can I meet this siddha?’ One beggar said, ‘Milarepa is probably in the mountains in Drin and Nyenag.’ Gampopa said ‘if that’s the case, please take me there.’ They told Gampopa they would not be able to keep up with him because he was young and that when he reached Lhatro, to ask someone and they will know where he is.

Gampopa was delighted and gave the beggars lots of foods and gifts. Then, the next day he wanted to speak to them again but they had disappeared. Gampopa thought, they are probably Milarepa’s emanations, like messengers from him not just ordinary people. So, the primary condition for Gampopa to meet Milarepa was the conversation with the three beggars.”[i]

Seeking permission from the Kadamapa gurus and the journey to meet Milarepa

“In any case, Gampopa thought if I went straight to Milarepa without asking the Kadampa gurus first that would not be right, so he went to see them in person and asked their permission. Generally, the Kadampas were reluctant to practice secret mantra and Gampopa was going to a place where there were lots of secret mantra practitioners, and they thought he would become a ngagpa. Therefore, because they thought that it was difficult for him to get permission at first, but in the end they agreed. Eventually they agreed and one teacher, GyaYontag[i] said Milarepa must be a siddha and told Gampopa to take the teachings and come back to them, but don’t discard the Kadamapa robes. That they had gotten old and so wanted him to return and gave him provisions for the journey.

He was really insistent and in such a hurry that he did not eat or sleep much on the way. So when they got to one place, Gongton got sick and they had to rest a few days. Gongton thought he would not get better straight away and thought Gampopa might leave him there. He thought ‘I have to do something to make him not leave me’ and said, ‘it’s going to be difficult for me to get better quickly. I probably won’t die, but if that makes obstacles for you, then you go ahead and I will stay here and you go along.’ Gampopa thought ‘what a great friend. That’s great, he has no attachment to me like that.’ So he gave Gongton all the provisions and left. Gongton was not happy and thought: ‘Gampopa abandoned me when I was sick.’ Therefore, when he got better he didn’t go there and went to Kham.”

Milarepa’s predictions about meeting Gampopa

The 17th Karmapa then went on to explain how Milarepa had already predicted meeting Gampopa and told some of his students and followers about it:

“So how did Gampopa’s travels to meet Milarepa go? He met some merchants on the road and they came to a place two and a half days journey from where Milarepa stayed. Gampopa got very ill and collapsed and could not regain consciousness and almost passed away. Then just before he did, he looked in the direction where Milarepa was  but was unable to go by foot so he stayed there for seven days. Then a yogi came along and saw Gampopa was sick, gave him a cup of water and asked him what was his situation. When Gampopa explained, the yogi said ‘oh it’s great to meet with you.’ Gampopa said, ‘I am sick, why is it great to be with me?’ the yogi replied: ‘Guru Milarepa has been saying for the last year that a monk from U would come and would benefit many sentient beings. He has been predicting this for the last year. He even said the same thing the other day few days. So you are really great and have a lot of merit.’

When Gampopa heard this, all his exhaustion went away and he became fresh and said let’s go together and he said to the yogi, ‘I will take that big bag from you’, and they went along together. On the way, the yogi said, ‘Mila will probably also teach you some Dharma, if you get that please teach it to me.’ Gampopa thought that’s a bit foolish, he has lived a long time near Milarepa why does he need Dharma from me, so he asked him, ‘have you got the Dharma from Mila? How many years did you spend with him?’ He said, ‘I have spent many years with him and he has given me many teachings, but the one he will give you is different.’ They eventually got to Chuwar, this is where they later built a monastery, where Milarepa practised. Then the yogi disappeared. Not knowing who he was, Gampopa thought he must have been an emanation. Like the three beggars just disappeared and he thought they were also emanations.

When Gampopa reached Chuwa and begged for food, there was a woman weaving and he asked her where Milarepa was, and she said she could introduce him to a lay woman, an old woman, Nyama (all Milarepa’s females were called Nyama because on the full moon and the 8th day they practiced. In Nechung and Sikkim they still talk about Nyama). She said it will be difficult to meet Mila that day, so tonight stay at my house. She brought him into the house and gave him food. Then the old woman said when I saw the Jetsun Mila yesterday, last night I had a dream and had a silver vase that filled with amrita and a monk came from the east and he was carrying an empty crystal vase, and I dreamt that I poured all the amrita from the silver vase into it, and so now that the father is getting old and he will have a son and that son will make the teachings like the sun and will benefit infinite beings. Whoever brings him to me will never need to experience the lower realms. So, I promise to bring you there and will tell my daughter who meditates there with Milarepa. Then Gampopa though the guru has been predicting me. I must be quite special and a good vessel for the teachings and started to feel a bit of pride.”

Milarepa’s rebuke of Gampopa

Gampopa was first ignored by Milarepa for two weeks before he was able to meet him and when they did meet, Milarepa refused his offering of gold:

“The following day, Milarepa knew that Gampopa was feeling proud and so didn’t let him in and ignored and forgot about him for half a month. So, after a fortnight or so, a message came from the Guru to come. Then Gampopa finally met Milarpea and he was 31 years old, in 1108[i]. Gampopa met Mila in Tashi Gang, Drin (Drin is a valley and Tashi Gang a place). Gampopa had bought the gold  and tea to offer and prostrated many times. Milarepa said ‘gold does not agree with this old man’s mind, it does not make me happy, I need stuff to boil tea with. So you use the gold to support yourself, don’t give it to me.’ Then Gampopa joined his hands and supplicated saying:’ I have come a long way so please accept me with compassion.’ Milarepa said ‘you haven’t come that far. Some people have come from Kham, India and further away, but tell me what is your name?’ Gampopa told him his name was ‘Sonam Rinchen’. Then Mila said Sonam, Sonam, Sonam means merit, you come from the great accumulation of merit,and Rinchen means a jewel of all beings. He said his name three times like that.

Later Jetsun Milarepa said to his other students, who were all repas, ‘just hearing this student’s name will accomplish benefit for infinite beings, but I didn’t say that aloud at that time.’ Mila probably thought it would make Gampopa feel proud again. So later, there is the founder of the Talung Kagyu, Talung Tangpa, in a Supplication Praise he wrote, said there are two lineages: ‘the lineage of siddhas and the lineage of blessings. The one from Gampopa is the lineage of blessings.’ “

The 17th Karmapa then explained why Gampopa was called ‘Rinpoche’:

“When we talk about Rinpoches or jewels, they are not always precious like that. When we talk about Marpa or Milarepa, we don’t say Rinpoche.  Yet, for Gampopa they call him Rinpoche.  This may have arisen because his name ‘Rinchen’ includes that meaning of Rinpoche. It is not only for that reason though. When Gampopa blessed his students with the instructions on Mahamudra he was able to easily do that. He had an uncommon, unique and precious quality of being able to do that. So, he was like a wish-fulfilling jewel for all beings, and for that reason he was called Rinpoche.”

Milarepa’s teachings to Gampopa on secret mantra, tummo and instructions for the future

“Then, Gampopa went to a solitary place and made a hut out of grass and wood there, using the gold and so forth to get provisions needed. He then asked Milarepa to give him Dharma instructions and Milarepa gave him the Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi of the Sindhara Mandala and Transferring and Mixing instructions. At that point, Gampopa said to Milarepa,’ I can meditate for forty days continuously, that’s good isn’t it?’ But Mila said ‘That’s good, yes. However, it does not matter how good a meditator you are, you will only be reborn in the formless realms. No matter how much you squeeze sand, you will never get oil out of it. ‘

Gampopa also had a conversation with Mila about Kadampa and secret mantra. Mila said ‘a huge monster has got into Tibetans’ breasts, Atisha was not allowed to teach secret mantra, and that has just ruined everything. Everything has been ruined.’ Then Gampopa said, ‘the Kadampa also have secret mantra practice.’ Milarepa said ‘they may be secret mantra  but they aren’t pith instructions and without pith instructions you won’t achieve accomplishment. Meditating on the stages of the path  and selflessness is not actually meditating on the ultimate, direct path. So don’t talk too much, shut up, do what I say and meditate on the path of means.’ Then, Gampopa meditated on prana, tummo and did that for one year. He spent thirteen months in total with Milarepa, and got all the profound complete, instructions of  Kagyu.

Then, when Gampopa was thirty-two years old, in 1018, he prepared to return to U in Tibet and there was a river and Gampopa said I am not going to cross that river, it seems a bit dangerous.’ So he stayed a little while there with Milarepa who gave Gampopa a flint and steel and told him, in the past when I had trouble with practice, so this time if you have difficulty in the future, these pith instructions came in handy for me. In the future when you have difficulty with practice, they will be useful for you too.’

Then Mila gave Gampopa the pith instructions on the inseparability of prana and mind.  He bestowed the pith instructions for the generation and completion stage of Varahi and the inseparability of prana and mind. These have become an important and unique feature of the Karma Kamtsang.

Mila said to Gampopa, ‘you probably are going to be a great meditator, so now don’t have any arrogance about that. If you have family or friends, don’t have any clinging or attachment to your relatives. Give up on this life. Be a child of the mountains. Practice bringing all Dharma  into one. I’m an old man, but continually supplicate me. In particular, do not go along with people who have great desire, anger or delusion because their minds will influence you and their faults will be contagious. Wherever you go, like a wounded animal be careful, and do not let your mindfulness decrease. In your conduct be peaceful and tamed. Always be patient and forgiving. No matter who you meet, be in harmony with them. Be very clean. However, don’t think too much. At all times, try to maintain silence, don’t talk too much and stay in strict retreat. Even though you realize your mind to be Buddha, do not abandon the guru. Even though there’s no accumulation or purification to be gained, gather even the smallest merit. Even though you realize there is no establishment of karma cause and effect, do not commit the smallest misdeed. Even if you understand others’ vehicles, do not denigrate other paths.’ He gave instructions like that.

Milarepa’s final instructions: his bare buttocks

The final instructions that Mila gave to Gampopa were unconventional to say the least, but a lesson in the importance of ‘working one’s ass off’ (as we say in English):

Mila told Gampopa: ‘Come on 14th day of the year of the Hare and meet me, and made the prophecy of Daglha Monastery. Gampopa said to Mila, ‘before you mentioned there was one Dharma instruction for me and you have forgotten to say this, as I am going now, please tell me.’ Mila’s buttocks were totally callused, like a monkey’s butt . He didn’t have any cushions like we sit on. Milarepa showed Gampopa his bare buttocks and said: ‘I practiced so much it became like that, you also need to ‘work yourself to the bone’ and have sheer gritty determination when you meditate.’

That was the first half of the teaching yesterday, I will continue the write-up tomorrow which covers how Gampopa realised the nature of mind and some of his students.

Apologies for any errors. Wishing all a very happy and meaningful New Year 2021!

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 31st December 2020.



[i] 17th Karmapa also explained that: Generally, when we think about the teachers of Gampopa, the reason they are called Gya is because they are from the Gya clan. Some think it means they are from China. Some people in order to prove that Gampopa’s view  of Mahamudra is that of the Chinese Hashang say it is since his teachers are all called Gya. At that time in Tibet it does not necessarily mean that. For example, Gya Yontag spent his whole life devoted to practice. He gave instructions on non-thought and Mahamudra from Gampowa. Gya Yontag probably received instructions from Je Gompo.  In any case, Gampopa asked for permission and went with his friend to To in Tibet.

[ii] The 17th Karmapa explained here, that when he [the Karmapa] was younger, his teachers did not think it important to study maths, they told him that was for people who looked after the finance of a monastery. For that reason, he often got dates wrong.


[iii] The 17th Karmapa explained that: “In general, the life-stories give two different accounts about how he came to have the intention or wish to see Mila, as I described yesterday. One is the one I described yesterday, the other is in the dialogues of Dusum Khyenpa, when he was in Phenpo in Tibet he met the three beggars and that seems more likely to be true.”

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