This is Sekhar Guthok, “nine-storey son’s house”, the legendary tower Marpa (1012-1097) ordered Milarepa (1040-1123) to build for his son. The site is situated in Lhodrak district of Southern Tibet (click here for Google map), north of the Bhutanese border.
Milarepa had a difficult start in life, to say the least. He survived a series of challenges that left him angry and vengeful. As a result, he was responsible for killing the people who had caused his family great suffering. When he later faced his dark past, he felt intense remorse and went in search of redemption, eventually finding his root lama, Marpa. Due to the heavy karma Milarepa needed to purify, Marpa used exceptionally skilful yet unorthodox methods with his student, and Milarepa was put through unbelievable hardships before receiving the precious teachings of the Diamond Way that Marpa had brought from India to Tibet.
Marpa said to Milarepa: “I will give you the instructions little by little, just be patient! Since you’re a good worker, I’d like you to build me a house to give to my son.” Marpa had Milarepa build four towers, each of which represented one of the Four Buddha Activities. The first tower that Milarepa had to build represented pacifying activity. The second tower represented increasing activity. The third stood for fascinating activity, and the fourth stood for powerfully protective activity.
Marpa made Milarepa tear down the first three towers – a circular one at the foot of the eastern hill, a semicircular one in the west and a triangular one in the north – after he had completed them. Marpa would berate Milarepa furiously, and make him demolish whatever he had built and take all the earth and stones he had used back to where he had found them. After this Marpa gave Milarepa Buddhist Refuge, and went for a walk with him to the south-east. Coming to an enclosed hollow, he said, “Make me a grey, square tower here out of clay, nine storeys high – with a pinnacle on top, making ten. You won’t have to take this building down, and when you’ve finished I’ll give you the instructions. I’ll also give you provisions when you go into retreat to practise.”
Milarepa had already dug the foundations and started building when three of his teacher’s more advanced pupils came by. For fun, they rolled up a huge stone for him and Milarepa incorporated it in the foundations. When he had finished the first two storeys, Marpa came to see him and asked him where the stone in question had come from. Milarepa told him what had happened.
“My disciples practising the yoga of the two phases shouldn’t be your servants!” Marpa yelled. “Get that stone out of there and put it back where it came from!” Milarepa demolished the whole tower, starting from the top. He pulled out the big foundation stone and took it back to where it had come from. Then Marpa told him, “Now bring it here again and put it back in.” So Milarepa hauled it back to the site and put it in just as before. He went on building until he had finished the seventh storey, by which time his back was covered in bloody and open sores which would not heal.
In the midst of such suffering, Milarepa could have easily been moved to question his teacher’s legitimacy or sanity. He could have been angry that he was promised teachings once he fulfilled his obligation, but went unrewarded every time. Yet, through all of this, he remained resolved to receive them at all costs. Marpa was extremely happy that Milarepa had persevered and completed building the fourth high tower without giving up. He let this fourth tower stand, and it still remains in Lhodrak to this day.
It is said that Milarepa received the innermost teachings and became the principal holder of Marpa’s Kagyu lineage because of his unwavering confidence and devotion to his teacher. In the end, all of the hardships that he underwent were the foundation of his later accomplishment – the state of Buddhahood in a single lifetime.