Sometimes you have to build a house, brick-by-brick, and then take it down, brick-by-brick, and then build another, brick-by-brick, and then take that down, brick-by-brick. Sometimes this work might seem pointless and redundant, and you might think to yourself, “Why am I spending all this time in labor when I could be having fun, or sitting in meditation all day”? Yet if you persist, this house building, this labor and effort, can itself become your meditation practice, and a gateway to the Bodhi-Mind.
What did Marpa do when Milarepa requested he teach him the Dharma?
To my reckoning, part of the tantric method (e.g. in Vajrayana) is to transform our everyday experiences into modes that lead toward liberation and enlightenment. At the tantric level this includes things like our passions and emotions (anger, lust, greed, etc.), yet it also includes other aspects of our lives, like work. Rather than setting up a dichotomy of “spiritual” and “mundane”, and imagining these to be in conflict (e.g. meditation vs. work), the tantrika embraces all in a non-dualistic way. Everything is potentially a vehicle that can lead towards liberation and enlightenment.
In the case of Milarepa, before he went in search of the Dharma he used “black magic” in revenge against wrongs that were committed against his family. When compassion began to grow in his heart/mind, and he realized what he had done (the story goes, he killed an entire village with his magic), he decided to find a Dharma teacher. This turned out to be Marpa. It was Marpa who told Milarepa to build a tower, and then take it down, and then another, and another, and another (4 times in all, each time frustrating further, and giving contradictory instructions and promises). But it was this labor that was exactly the kind of preparation Milarepa needed. He later become one of the most beloved Buddhist saints, an extraordinary contemplative. A glimpse of his Bodhi-Mind was captured in his Songs of Milarepa. Worth a gander, if you haven’t read them.