Gyalwang Karmapa’s “Life of Milarepa” Play Performed in Bodhgaya
January 1, 2010 – Bodhgaya, India
After three years of reading the biography of Milarepa to Kagyu Monlam attendees, two hours at a time, His Holiness transmitted the entire life of Milarepa in a single, magnificent evening. In what was nothing short of a world-class theatrical event, approximately 12,000 people turned out and many viewers were watching live online to view a play of Milarepa’s life created by His Holiness and performed by actors from the Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts (TIPA). Adding the title of playwright to a list of accomplishments that already seems impossibly diverse, Gyalwang Karmapa himself composed the script for the six-act play. Over the past months, His Holiness has also overseen stage design, rehearsed actors in his temporary residence in Gyuto and generally provided creative direction at all stages of the production. According to TIPA, this was the largest theatrical event in Tibetan history.
A multi-level stage and massive performance arena were specially constructed under the instruction of His Holiness for the play was constructed as depicting the thousand arms Chenresig. 250 Bhikshu and Bhikshuni on left and another 250 on right portraying 500 eyes and 500 arms on each side making it 1000 eyes and arms of the Chenresig. The 11 steps on the top of the stage depicting 11 faces.
High-end theatre technology was imported for the event and put to great effect. Even before the performance began, the audience burst into rounds of applause as the stage lighting subtly shifted shades while the audience slowly filtered into the arena. Multiple cameras captured the event for projection on massive screens that flanked the arena, greatly enhancing visibility for the massive crowd.
The troupe of over 60 actors and singers traveled from Dharamsala to perform for the event, held on New Year’s day. The play incorporated elements of traditional Tibetan opera into a modern theatrical format, without sacrificing a distinctly Tibetan flavor. In the interludes between acts, Tibetan monks and nuns chanted Buddhist prayers, set mostly to melodies composed by His Holiness. The evening concluded with a rousing series of folk dances from the three regions of Tibet.
Signaling the cultural importance of the play, Kagyu Member of Parliament Sherab Tharchin opened the event mentioning such events were celebrated at the conclusion of Monlam from the times of 7th Karmapa Choedrak Gyatso, and Gyalwang Karmapa himself provided the concluding remarks. Plans for a DVD of the play are already in progress.
As His Holiness himself pointed out, the performance of life stories of important spiritual figures on New Year’s Day is a deep-rooted Tibetan tradition. While the life of Milarepa has already been captured in numerous works of Tibetan literature, a number of features distinguish His Holiness’ production from other representations of the life of the great Tibetan yogi. On the most basic level, whereas generally a literary Tibetan is most commonly used in theatrical performances, His Holiness created a script in colloquial Tibetan.
This renders the play far more accessible to a general public, and even for audience members who are highly conversant with literary Tibetan, the shift to a colloquial register of speech allows for a more intimate and immediate encounter with Milarepa as a human being.
Additionally, His Holiness treatment of the character of Nangasa Kargyen, Milarepa’s mother, reflected great sympathy for her plight as a mother rendered powerless in her efforts to care for her children. With visceral scenes of the physical, verbal and psychological abuse inflicted on her children by their Uncle and Aunt, the drama made clear that Milarepa’s mother had exhausted all other options before charging Milarepa with the task of learning sorcery to bring low their enemies.
As she sends Mila off to study sorcery, she tells him, “Other people’s sorcery is the hobby of the rich and pampered. Our sorcery is the last chance of desperate people.”
Throughout, His Holiness made full use of the genre of theatre to bring Milarepa’s suffering and spiritual transformation to life, allowing the audience to connect with Milarepa’s in new and vivid ways. When Milarepa returns to his native land hoping to see his mother, he learns instead that she has long since died of a heartbreak, and her neglected corpse was left to rot in their abandoned home. Finding her weathered bones piled in the ruins of the house, Mila falls to his knees and tenderly gathers her bones in his lap. The viewing screens erected throughout the arena were put to great effect during this scene, as a close-up shot of the tears streaming down Mila’s grieving face allowed the audience to share in the depth of Mila’s emotions. At this point, tears were shed by many audience members as well.
One learned Tibetan geshe commented that while viewing this play he was moved to tears on five separate occasions, including the moment when Milarepa’s mother collapsed in anger when he arrived home drunk from the classes she had arranged in seeking to give him an education.
Another audience member—not herself a student of the Gyalwang Karmapa—noted that for her the drama brought Milarepa to life more vividly and movingly than any of the films or other performance she had observed thus far.
The drama offered moments of comic relief as well, much appreciated by the audience. When Milarepa introduces himself to Marpa as “a great evildoer from Lato,” Marpa replies: “Maybe you are a great evildoer. But why are you bragging to me about it? I’m not the one who made you commit evil deeds. What evils have you done, anyway?” prompting bursts of laughter from the audience.
A winter chill further heightened the realism and contributed to the intensity of audience involvement in the performance as well: As temperatures dropped steadily during the evening, the character of Milarepa appeared on the windswept stage, clad in scene after scene in a thin white cloth, as audience members huddled together shivering in their jackets and wool shawls. Viewers were left to reflect on the contrast between Milarepa’s unflinching mountaintop asceticism and their own responses to the relatively mild cold of the Bodhgaya night. Meanwhile, the 500 bhikshus and bhikshunis seated to either side of the stage continued to watch intently with right arms bared and shaved heads exposed to the night air.
During his concluding comments, His Holiness gazed out upon the many thousands of audience members for a moment, and then commented that the benefits of having heard Mila’s life story include protection from rebirth in the lower realms and liberation. Gyalwang Karmapa expressed how happy he was that everyone had come to the play, and with great generosity, thanked the audience for their forbearance of the cold.
Gyalwang Karmapa’s “Life of Milarepa” Play Performed in Bodhgaya