“Milarepa” - Neten Chokling (2006)

Milarepa (aka Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint and The Life of Milarepa - Part I; 2006) is a film about UJetsun Milarepa (1052-1135), one of the most famous and revered of all Tibetan Buddhist Lama/Saints [1].  The film covers the early, sorcery period of Milarepa’s life, prior to his conversion to Buddhism.  

An interesting feature of the film is that it was made by Tibetan monks and shot with local, nonprofessional actors in the picturesque Spiti Valley in northern India near the Tibetan border [2].  Indeed, the film’s director and co-scriptwriter, Neten Chokling, is, himself, an important lama from Bhutan who was recognized at an early age by the 16th Tibetan Buddhist Karmapa as the reincarnation of an eminent earlier Buddhist lama [3,4].  Chokling has long been associated with another Bhutanese lama/filmmaker, Khyentse Norbu, and he most likely learned much about filmmaking from his participation in Norbu’s films The Cup (1999) and Travelers and Magicians (2003), on which he had small acting parts.   In addition, one of Neten Chokling’s teachers, Orgyen Tobgyal, is another important lama in the Neten Chokling Rinpoche family line (people in this culture can be linked to a family line by religious certification that they are reincarnations of earlier family members), and he plays a significant role as a key yogi/tutor of the protagonist in Milarepa [5] (he also had a small role in Norbu’s The Cup).  

Thus the film probably has a more Tibetan Buddhist practitioner’s focus on this depiction of their saint’s formative years, and this is a general perspective that the film presumably shares with Khyentse Norbu’s films. Stylistically, Chokling seems to have learned from his work with Norbu the production skills associated with the latter’s adroit use of picturesque long shots that are combined with expressive closeups and which together offer a uniquely expressive philosophical visual landscape.

This story of Milarepa’s early years follows traditional accounts and passes through three phases.  During this early period of his life, prior to his conversion to Buddhism, he was known by his given family name, Mila Thopaga.

1.  Thopaga’s Early Years
Thopaga is born into a prosperous Tibetan family, but at the age of seven, Thopaga’s wealthy father becomes mortally ill.  The father formally confers the guardianship of his wife Kargyen (played b y Kelsang Chukie Tethong) and his son to his brother and sister, and he gets their solemn promise that they will pass onto the boy his rightful inheritance when he comes of age at sixteen.  However, immediately on the father’s death, Thopaga’s greedy aunt and uncle confiscate the deceased father’s wealthy possessions and subject Kargyen and Thopaga to menial servitude.  

When Thopaga (Jamyang Lodro) reaches the age of sixteen, his mother, hopeful that justice will be restored, hosts a coming-of-age ceremony, at which she formally requests before the community that Thopaga’s inheritance be bestowed on him, as had been promised.  But Thopaga’s uncle angrily dismisses the request and says the family wealth all belongs to him.  He rudely shoves Kargyen to the ground, and a scuffle breaks out, during which the assembled community members show no support for Kargyen and Thopaga.  Kargyen is humiliated and vows revenge.

She sells her last possessions in order to send Thopaga away to study sorcery under a master so that Thopaga can come back and wreak her desired vengeance on his evil aunt and uncle.  Before he departs, she swears to him
“If vengeance does not come soon, I will kill myself in your very presence.”
2.  Thopaga Learns Sorcery
Thopaga sets off on his journey to study sorcery under renowned master Yongten Trogyal (Orgyen Tobgyal). Hearing about his nephew’s intentions of learning sorcery, Thopaga’s uncle  gathers a posse to chase after the boy and thwart his plans.  However, a fortuitous or magical intervention by Yongten Trogyal’s son, Dhama, casts a spell of confusion over Thopaga’s pursuers, and the boy arrives safely at the yogi’s remote mountainside residence.  There Thopaga learns various sorcery techniques. all intended to deliver great harm to one’s enemies. None of the techniques, it seems, can be used to bring about good or loving connections.

But Thopaga feels that the magic he is learning is not strong enough to carry out the vengeance he is seeking, so Yongten Trogyal sends the boy to an even greater sorcery master, Yonten Gatso.  After spending fourteen days entrapped continuously meditating in an enclosed stone cell, Thopaga finally acquires the vast powers he is seeking.  He returns to his village.

3.  Thopaga’s Return
Upon Thopaga’s return, he stops by a mountainside outside his town and uses his newly acquired magical powers to conjure up a devastating storm to strike his village.  The storm demolishes the village and kills 35 people, but Thopaga’s uncle and aunt somehow manage to survive.  Thopaga’s mother, Kargyen, joyfully and triumphantly celebrates her revenge.  For her, long-sought justice has finally prevailed.  But Thopaga is disturbed when he sees all the suffering he has wrought.  Nevertheless, when his uncle discovers Thopaga’s whereabouts on the mountainside and leads another group of surviving villagers to capture him, Thopaga uses more magic powers to launch a massive rockslide that devastates his attackers.

Then Thopaga takes refuge for the night with an old Buddhist hermit monk, who tells the young man about Buddha.  The old monk solemnly urges Thopaga to
"Cease negative actions, cultivate positive actions, and tame your mind."
After spending the night in agony dreaming about all the suffering he has caused, Thopaga returns to Yongten Trogyal and Dharma and laments to them,
“Revenge doesn’t solve any problem.  It only creates more.”
So Yongten Trogyal decides to send Thopaga to what he believes is the most enlightened master, Marpa the Translator (aka Marpa Lotsawa).  The film ends with Thopaga setting off on that journey to Marpa in order to acquire the true compassionate enlightenment of Buddhism.


Most religions, it seems, have a major theme of vengeance to them.  There is a strong emphasis on punishing sinners, and this is called “justice”.  I once asked a friend of mine, who was a former Baptist minister, what he thought about punishment.  Isn’t punishment primarily intended as a deterrent, I asked – a threatened outcome that is intended to deter future wrongdoing?  No, he responded, punishment is “justice”, itself.  For people along this line of thinking, there is some abstract bookkeeping system in the sky that must be kept in balance, and this has nothing to do with deterrence.  A wrongful deed, they say, must be punished, full stop.  This is a response to the visceral feelings of resentment and revenge that can affect most people.  And this is what Yongten Trogyal’s powers were used for in the story – to harm one’s enemies, who are supposedly guilty in some way.  Indeed Yongten Trogyal ruefully laments at one point in the film that his powers cannot be used to save people; they are only used to exert harm.

But there are spiritual teachings that can point us in the positive directions of love and compassion, and Buddhism encompasses some of those teachings and practices.  Milarepa tells the story of a man who acquired awesome powers of vengeance-inspired retribution.  But he voluntarily renounced those powers and the path that led to acquiring them, because he knew, inside himself, that this was the wrong way to go.  He didn’t need to be told this by a teacher; the inner-god within him (“The Kingdom of God Is Within You”, following Tolstoy) led to this conclusion.

It could be said that a weakness of the film is that it focuses too much on Milarepa’s (Thopaga’s) involvement with revenge, and doesn’t cover his period of spiritual enlightenment.  But this film is unlike most films about vengeance, which typically place a great emphasis on the atrocities that have inspired the feelings of revenge.  In contrast here in Milarepa, there is relatively scant coverage of those revenge-inspiring events.  Instead, the focus is on Milarepa’s turning – his inner journey of discovery and turning away from vengeance and resentment.  And that is why this film, despite its varioous rough edges, is interesting.

Still, it would be nice for us to have a film from an authentic Tibetan Buddhist perspective covering the remaining portions of Milarepa’s story – Neten Chokling only had funds sufficient for filming the first part of Milarepa’s life.  Fortunately, there is such an account available in the form of a multimedia work consisting of static images, text, and atmospheric background music – Milarepa: Murderer and Saint [6].  This was put together by Ogyen Topgyal Rinpoche, whom I identified above as a lama and close associate of Neten Chokling (he was one of Neten Chokling’s tutors) and Khyentse Norbu.  The text presented in this work is mostly derived from the traditional Tibetan Buddhist account of Milarepa’s story, The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan [7].  From this we learn that Marpa the Translator was a very difficult and demanding master, and Milarepa’s path to enlightenment under his tutelage took a number of twists and turns in the second half Milarepa’s story.

This multimedia presentation, Milarepa: Murderer and Saint, is available on Youtube as nine linked chapters [8].  It has a contemplative mood, and it emphasizes the value and virtues of serious meditation as a path towards enlightenment and universal compassion. So I recommend it to those who are interested in this subject.
★★★ 

Notes:
  1. “Milarepa”, Wikipedia, (9 May 2018).    
  2. Dennis Schwartz, "Earnestly capturing in spirit the emergence of a holy man", Ozus’ World Movie Reviews, (11 May 2008).
  3. “Neten Chokling”, Wikipedia, (10 March 2018).   
  4. “Neten Chokling Rinpoche”, The Rigpa Shedra Wiki, (28 March 2018).   
  5. “Orgyen Tobgyal”, Wikipedia, (18 April 2018).  
  6. Ogyen Topgyal Rinpoche, “MILAREPA part 1 - 'How I met Marpa'”, Youtube, (26 September 2015).  
  7. Heruka, (Lobsang P. Lhalungpa, translator), The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan, Penguin Books, (1 February 1992).  
  8. The nine linked chapters of Milarepa: Murderer and Saint can be found on Youtube here:

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