Built in 1777 AD, Milariba Pagoda was constructed by the master “Losang Daggye” in memory of the founder of the Kagyu Pa of Tibetan Buddhism, “Milariba,” following his master’s orders. The pagoda has nine floors, is over 40 meters high, and has a total construction area of 4,028 square meters.
The pagoda has a unique architectural style, reflecting the characteristic of “no stone or wood visible on the inside or outside” in its design. It combines the castle-style architecture of the Tibetan with the tower-style architecture of Buddhist pagodas.
Inside the pagoda, there are many art treasures such as Tangka paintings, murals, embroidery, and butter sculptures. Many scroll paintings depict the life of Milariba and his diligent cultivation. The original pagoda was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The current pagoda was rebuilt in 1988 according to the original style and took four years to complete.
The 1st floor
The 1st floor is dedicated to Qiangba Buddha, also known as the future Buddha – Maitreya Buddha. The Buddha is divided into three periods: past (Dipamkara), present (Shakyamuni), and future (Maitreya).
According to Buddhist scriptures, it is prophesied that after the Nirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha, in 13,000,000 years, Maitreya Buddha will replace the position of the Buddha and propagate the Dharma to the human beings.
To the left of Qiangba Buddha is the Bodhisattva Manjusri, also known as the deity of wisdom, or the Bodhisattva of Wonderful Sound. To the right is the Bodhisattva Vajrapani, the deity who eliminates all evil in the world.
The individuals to the left of Bodhisattva Manjusri are all significant contributors to Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism.
Among of those, the third figure is “Tangdong Gyebo,” a monk of the Kagyu sect and the founder of Tibetan opera. Legend has it that he invited the seven sisters of the Baina family to form a singing and dancing troupe to raise funds to build over a hundred iron bridges. Therefore, he is also known as the “Iron Bridge Living Buddha,” and Tibetan opera performers consider him the founder of Tibetan opera.
The sculpture to the right of “Vajrapani Bodhisattva” are significant figures in Tibetan history. The first is the famous 33rd generation Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo, with his queens, Princess Wencheng and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal, both devout Buddhists who devoted their lives to the spread of Buddhism in Tibet.
The third figure is Chisong Detsan King, who supported the creation of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet, the Samye Monastery. Finally, there is Tumi Sangbutsa, Songtsen Gampo’s minister, who created the Tibetan script by studying languages and scripts in India at the behest of Songtsen Gampo. After returning to Tibet, he created the Tibetan phonetic script based on Sanskrit, which has been in use for over 1,300 years.
The 2nd floor
The 2nd floor is dedicated to the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. In the center is Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug sect (Yellow Hat) of Tibetan Buddhism. Tsongkhapa was born in 1357 AD in the area where the Ta’er monastery in Huangzhong, Qinghai, is now located. At the age of 3, he received lay vows from the 4th living Buddha of the black hat lineage “Karma·Rab Dorje” of Karma Kagyu Sect. At 7 years old, he joined the Xaqiong Monastery in Qinghai, where he studied under the founder of the Xaqiong Monastery, a great monk of the Kadampa sect named “Dundru Renchen”. When he was sixteen, he went to central and western Tibet to study Buddhism and earned the title of “Geshe”. At the age of thirty, he initiated religious reforms, advocating the use of yellow robes, wrote extensively, and established the theoretical basis of the Gelug Pa. In 1409 AD, with the help of local nobles, he founded the Ganden Monastery and became its first Ganden Tripa (abbot), officially establishing the Gelug Pa. After his passing in 25th of the 10th month 1419 AD (Tibetan calendar), his disciples built the Drepung, Sera, and Tashilhunpo Monasteries in Lhasa, Shigatse, and Ta’er (kumbum) monastery in Qinghai, Labrang monastery in Xiahe respectively. These monasteries, along with the Ganden Monastery, are known as the six great Gelug pa monasteries in Tibet.
To the left of the Tsongkhapa statue is his chief disciple, Gyal Tsabje. Before his passing, Tsongkhapa passed on his robes and position to Gyal Tsabje. After Tsongkhapa’s passing, Gyal Tsabje succeeded as the 2nd Ganden Tripa (abbot). In 1430, Gyal Tsabje passed the position to Khe Drupje, who became the 3rd Ganden Tripa. The statue of Khe Drupje is to the right of Tsongkhapa, and these three are known as the “Three Great Masters and Disciples.” Khe Drupje was later recognized as the first Panchen Lama by later generations.
To the left of Tsongkhapa is Gendun Drub, who was later recognized as the 1st Dalai Lama by later generations. The third figure to the left of Tsongkhapa is the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, who established the Gelug Pa’s dominant position in Tibet during his reign. By the time of the 7th Dalai Lama, the Gelug Pa had officially established a system of combined religious and political rule in Tibet.
Straight in the 1st place on the left, the statue is Atisha, a prominent Indian Buddhist monk who was invited to Tibet in the Northern Song Dynasty (1042 AD) to propagate Buddhism. He played a significant role in the revival of Buddhism in Tibet and is considered the founder of the Kadam Pa lineage.
In the lower left corner of Atisha is the actual founder of the Kadam Pa, Dsong Dunba, who arrived in Reting in 1056 AD at the invitation of the local leader of Danmxiong in northern Tibet and presided over the creation of Reting Monastery, marking the formal establishment of the Kadam Pa.
On the right side of Atisha are his proud disciples, Bodowa, Jing ewa and Pu jiongwa, known as the three great masters of the Kadam Pa, who helped to promote and develop the Kadam Pa. When the Kadam Pa developed into the 14th century, Tsongkhapa founded the Gelug sect based on its teachings. Therefore, later generations also referred the Gelug Pa as the New Kadam Pa.
On the right in the first row, there are the five founding masters of the Sakya Pa. The Sakya Pa was founded in the Northern Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1127 AD), with Sakya County in Tibet as its fundamental site, and it promoted Buddhism through two modes of inheritance: lineage and Dharma.
The first on the right is the Sakya 4th Founding Master, “Bantida·Gonga Gyasen”, who in 1253 AD led his nephew, the 5th Founding Master – Basipa, to meet with the Mongolian prince Koden in Liangzhou and reached an agreement on behalf of the local forces in Tibet with the Mongolian royal family. From then on, Tibet surrendered to the Yuan Dynasty and officially accepted the central government’s jurisdiction. After Kublai Khan unified the China, he appointed the 5th Founding Master “Basipa” as the national teacher, who held great power over both religion and politics in Tibet and established the Sakya regime.
To the left of ” Bantida·Gonga Gyasen ” is the important figure of the Sakya Pa, “Chana Dorje”, who was the younger brother of the Yuan Dynasty national teacher “Basipa”. Kublai Khan once appointed him as the King of Bailan and married a princess to him.
The central figure on the right is the founder of Labrang Monastery, the 1st Jamyang Zhepa, who was from Ganjia town in Xiahe County. He became a monk at the age of 13 and went to Tibet to study Buddhism at the age of 21. He studied in Lhasa for 40 years, was proficient in classical texts, and had a great reputation, being known as the “2nd master after Tsongkhapa”. In 1709 AD, (the 48th year of the reign of Kangxi emperor of Qing Dynasty), Jamyang Zhepa accepted the invitation of Prince Chakhan dandzin of the Mongolian tribe in southern Qinghai and returned to his hometown to begin building Labrang Monastery. Here, there are also more than 500 volumes of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, including the Danjur and the Kangyur.
The 3rd floor
The central figure on the third level is the founder of the Nyingma Pa, Guru Padmasambhava. To his right is Chisong Detsan, the 37th Tibetan king, who organized the construction of Samye Monastery and to his left is one of the founders of Samye Monastery, Shantarakshita.
Nyingma Pa is the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism. In 754 AD, after Princess Jin Cheng’s son Chisong Detsan came to power, he implemented a series of major reforms that promoted the economic and cultural prosperity of the Tubo Dynasty, leading it to its peak. Chisong Detsan also invited renowned Buddhist scholars from India and Kashmir to Tibet to promote Buddhism. Under Chisong Detsan’s leadership, the Indian master Padmasambhava presided over the construction of the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery, Samye Monastery, with Shantarakshita overseeing the specifics. From then on, the Tibetan people had dedicated monks, known as lamas, separate from the production.
The 4th floor
On the southern right side of the 4th level, there are murals of the 21 Taras. “Tara” in Tibetan Buddhism is equivalent to Guanyin in Chinese Buddhism, and the most common are White Tara and Green Tara.
On the left side, there are murals of the 16 Arhats. This level mainly venerates the masters of the Vajrayana, including Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, Manjushri Bodhisattva, and Vajrapani Bodhisattva.
Tibetan Buddhism is divided into the Exoteric Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism. The Exoteric Buddhism practices Buddhism openly, while the Esoteric Buddhism has specific regulations for practices, offerings, and rituals and does not allow arbitrary actions.
The 5th floor
The central figure in the 5th level is the master Marpa, the founder of the Kagyu Pa of Tibetan Buddhism. He had a diverse education and never became a monk, instead, he taught disciples while engaging in trade and farming.
To his left is Milarepa, one of Marpa’s four main disciples. Milarepa was born into wealth, but at the age of 7, his father passed away, and his uncle seized the family’s wealth, driving Milarepa and his mother out. Seeking revenge, his mother sold their remaining possessions and sent him to learn sorcery from a Bon religion teacher. Years later, he used a hailstorm sorcery to kill 35 people from his enemy’s family. Overwhelmed with remorse, he sought the tutelage of Marpa, a great master of the Kagyu Pa, to learn Buddhism. The mural depicts Milarepa in a cave, engaging in meditation and teaching through song.
To Marpa’s right is his disciple, Tab Rabgye, who furthered the teachings of the Kagyu Pa and established the Dakpo Kagyu lineage.
Because Milarepa wore white clothes while teaching, so the Kagyu sect is also known as the White Sect. Over the centuries, various sub-sects of the Kagyu sect emerged, including the Four Major and Eight Minor lineages. The system of recognizing living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism was originally established by the Kagyu sect’s Black Hat lineage, and has been widely adopted by other major sects of Tibetan Buddhism.
The four scroll paintings on the southern wall of the 5th and 6th levels depict the story of Milarepa’s meditation practice.
The 6th floor
The 6th level features a Vajrayana Buddha image, with the central figure being Mahakala, also known as the Great Black One, derived from the Hindu deity Shiva. Offering rituals to Mahakala are believed to enhance power and ensure success in various endeavors. Due to this belief, the Sakya sect’s leader, Pasipa, presented a Mahakala statue to Kublai Khan, making it one of the idols worshipped during the Yuan Dynasty.
The 7th floor
The central figure enshrined on the 7th level is a Vajrapani Bodhisattva. Vajrapani typically holds a vajra in the right hand and a vajra bell in the left, symbolizing unwavering determination and wisdom to destroy all evil. In Vajrayana Buddhism, this is considered an image that emerged when Shakyamuni Buddha taught esoteric teachings.
The 8th floor
The 8th level enshrines five “Tathagatas,” which are Buddhas with different bodies of truth. “Tathagata” is an epithet for Buddha, and there are also thirty-five other Buddhas, including Shakyamuni.
The 9th floor
The 9th level is purely symbolic. The raised structure on the roof represents a mandala, a recreation of the place where Shakyamuni Buddha gave esoteric teachings to the public.
The Buddha statues enshrined from the 3rd to the 8th level are all carved from sandalwood and juniper.
On both sides of each floor, there are a total of 1025 statues of Milarepa, each measuring one cubit in height, and 20 statues of Shakyamuni, also one cubit in height. Additionally, there are statues of the founding patriarchs of various sects of Tibetan Buddhism, including the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug, and Kadam sects. There are also numerous main deity statues of the four divisions of Vajrayana Buddhism, such as Vajrakilaya, as well as 215 statues of Dharma protectors and wealth deities. In total, there are 1272 Buddha statues within the entire pagoda complex. Surrounding the courtyard of the pagoda are 130 copper prayer wheels and a main gate and a white stupa.
Like all Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, the top of the 9th level pagoda houses a Dharma-chakra, also known as the “Two Deer Listening to the Dharma,” symbolizing the story of Shakyamuni Buddha giving his first sermon in the Deer Park, signifying the eternal turning of the Dharma wheel and the continuity of the Buddha’s teachings.
Milariba’s Exhortation Dance for Goodness
The monks of Milariba Pagoda hold various religious activities every year, strictly adhering to the form of religious dance passed down from the Thashilunbu Monastery. The dance is solemn and grand, depicting images of animals, ghosts, gods, good, evil, and humans. The costumes and masks are unique, and the sound of the drums and gongs is stirring.
Milariba’s “Exhortation Dance for Goodness” is the main religious activity of Milariba Pagoda. The performance tells the story of Milariba persuading the hunter “Gongbo Dorje” and is a form of religious drama that combines performance and preaching. The plot is relatively simple and interesting, and it is the largest gathering activity during the July religious puja.
The religious drama of this “dance” is said to have been compiled by the Gongtangcang Living Buddha of Labrang Monastery and consists of five sections. The first four sections have little to do with Milariba persuading “Gongbo Dorje”, and the main story is performed in the 5th section. The plot is based on the story of Milariba in “The Life and Songs of Milariba” and is a special method of preaching to encourage people to believe in Buddhism, believe in cause and effect, and not commit sins such as killing.
At the beginning of the performance of the “Exhortation Dance for Goodness,” the protagonist Milariba carries a scripture on his back, holds a Zen stick, and wears a white robe with a red border. He sits on a chair after arriving at the scene. Then two deer enter the stage and dance, and after the dance, they crouch in front of Milariba’s seat. Two hunting dogs follow and arrive at the scene. Seeing that the two deer being chased are motionless, they sit on the left and right sides of the two deer. The actor playing Milariba stands up, looks for the dogs and deer, and drums while preaching with a clear and melodious tone. The main idea is to persuade the deer not to be afraid because death is inevitable until they are liberated, and to persuade the hunting dogs not to have killing thoughts because the cycle of cause and effect will ultimately lead to suffering. After the preaching, the deer and dogs dance in turn and then crouch on the left and right sides of Milariba. At this time, a tall and strong hunter with a red mask, braided hair, a coral headband, a water otter fur coat, and Tibetan boots enters the scene and jumps into the crowd on the left side while talking to himself in a rough and humorous tone. After the hunter arrives, he looks for the two deer and runs to Milariba to search. Seeing that the hunting dogs and deer are tame and motionless, he shoots arrows at them, but not only does he miss, but the arrows bounce back. He is very surprised and realizes that Milariba is extraordinary. He returns to the front to observe. Milariba stands up and explains the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence in detail. The hunter then has a great realization and converts to Milariba, and the deer and dogs are overjoyed and dance together. The preaching conference ends successfully.