Like his teacher Milarepa, Gampopa’s pursuit of Dharma was fueled by direct experience of human suffering in its rawest form. Born in 1079 CE in Nyel in central Tibet, Gampopa was the eldest son in a family with a long and illustrious history. By all accounts, he was a bright and inquisitive youth. Recognizing his aptitude, his influential family provided him with a broad education, as well as training in the medical profession that many in his family practiced. At the age of 22, already acknowledged as a learned physician, Gampopa married and dedicated himself to the life of a householder. Soon thereafter, two children were born to Gampopa and his wife, one boy and one girl.
As such, Gampopa appeared to have laid the foundation for a successful life, both in terms of family and medical career. However, while his children were still small, an epidemic broke out, ravaging the area. As an eminent local physician, Gampopa attended patient after patient, yet even the fullest deployment of his medical knowledge was no match for the force of the illness. Gampopa found himself powerless to help as one patient after another suffered and then died, caught in the relentless grip of the disease.
As one who relied upon his knowledge to be able to control and combat illness, this experience alone could have sufficed to spark an existential crisis in the young physician. Yet Gampopa’s encounter with the inevitability of suffering and death would penetrate even more deeply into the core of his being, when the epidemic struck his own family.
First to contract the disease was his beloved son. All remedies failed, and Gampopa had thrust upon him the experience most feared by parents the world round: having to bury one’s own child. Grief-stricken, Gampopa carried the tiny corpse to the burial site himself, said prayers for his son there, and headed back home. As he entered the house, his heart already heavily burdened by the experience, he discovered his daughter now also lying ill, having contracted the same disease. Days later, she too succumbed. Once again Gampopa took up in his arms the child in whom he had placed so much love and hope, and carried her to the same site he had taken his son.
Upon his return home, he found his wife too presenting symptoms of the disease. Her condition deteriorated rapidly, and she swiftly reached the brink of death. As Gampopa looked on helpless, his wife hovered at the edge of life, battling for every breath and racked with pain, yet unable to let go. When it became clear to Gampopa that she was only postponing the inevitable and causing herself further torment in the process, Gampopa asked her what it was that kept her clinging to her failing body.
She replied, “I am not attached to possessions, nor wealth, nor faith, but I am very attached to you.” Gampopa understood that this was preventing her from peacefully preparing for her passage to the next life and asked her what he could do to help her. She replied by telling him her dying wish that he devote the remainder of his life to the practice of Dharma and become freed from the attachments that keep all human beings tethered. Gampopa replied that his only aim after she was gone was to spend his life in Dharma practice. His wife was pleased with his response, but sought further assurances and asked that he swear to his intentions before a witness. Once he had done so, she was able to rest in peace and Gampopa then buried the last remaining member of his fragile family.
She replied that it was her attachment to him, her husband, that prevented her from peacefully preparing for her passage to the next life. Her dying wish, she said, was that he devote the remainder of his life to the practice of Dharma and become freed from the attachments that keep us tethered. Gampopa replied that his only aim after she was gone was to spend his life in Dharma practice. His wife was pleased, but sought further assurances, and asked that he swear to his intentions before a witness. Once he had done so, she was able to rest in peace, and Gampopa buried the last remaining member of his fragile family.