The Life of Milarepa recounts the life and legacy of Milarepa (Wylie: mi la ras pa), a yogin from Western Tibet (Kya Nyagtsa village, in modern-day Ngari) who achieved great renown for his unyielding religious devotion and potent meditation techniques. Born in 1052, Milarepa develops in the context of a conceited society wherein the death of his father triggers his family’s humiliation and enslavement by deceitful relatives. The Life depicts Milarepa’s struggle to find true justice, which first leads him through a sinister path of vengeance. The narrative is thus bifurcated into the karmic darkness of his youth and his struggle to perfect the Dharma that sets him free. But instead of only seeking his own salvation, Milarepa’s rejection of past sin is soon eclipsed by his concern for sentient beings. In turn, the text emphasizes the liberating effect of Milarepa’s teachings on seemingly unredeemable characters, resulting in a popular following that continues to this day.
This edition was translated by Lobsang Lhalungpa in 1977, while the original text was transcribed by Durto Rolpai Naljorpa (also known as Tsangnyön Heruka [Wylie: Gtsaṅ-smyon He-ru-ka]) in 1484. Differentiating Lhalungpa’s work from other translations, this text utilizes primarily humble, unsophisticated language to more closely represent Milarepa’s simple persona. The text is presented as genuine autobiography, or rangnam (Wylie: rang-rnam).

The Life of Milarepa is presented as a frame story, wherein the questions of Milarepa’s ardent disciple Retchung Dorje Drakpa (Wylie: ras chung rdo rje grags pa) guide Milarepa’s recounted narrative. Despite Milarepa’s initial apprehension to share his lamentable past, Retchung explains that Milarepa’s transformation from dejected to Enlightened is exactly what makes his story all valuable for suffering beings. His life is thus laid out in a roughly chronological order.

Born Mila Thöpaga (“Mila Good News”), Milarepa originates from a prosperous family with a history of Buddhist virtue. The family name Mila, for example, stems from the last words uttered by a demon that his distant ancestor—a valiant yogin—defeated. Preceding Milarepa’s own compassion, his family’s wealth amassed by helping villagers with sutras. However, the death of Milarepa’s father posed an opportunity for his jealous aunt and uncle, who quickly exploited the vulnerability of a newly widowed mother, a seven-year old Milarepa, and his younger sister Peta Gonkyi (“Peta Happy Protectress”). Disregarding the father’s will, the aunt and uncle seized the survivors’ property and made the family their servants. Given “food fit for dogs, […] work for donkeys,” (18) the family is mocked by villagers and soon become ill. However, words of wisdom from the family of Milarepa’s betrothed Zessay emphasize that poverty means little “since [riches] are said to be ephemeral like the dew in the meadow” (19). In this context, the narrative first introduces impermanence—a recurring theme in The Life—as a form of solace.
Hoping for better fortune, Milarepa’s mother sends him to Tsa to become literate. Upon his return, his mother’s misery devolves into vengeance and she begs him to learn black magic in order to destroy his aunt, uncle, and cruel villagers. Inspiring pity, Milarepa is taught to conjure hailstorms, which he uses to punish the “heads and bleeding hearts” of thirty-five guests at his aunt and uncle’s house (27). However, his mother’s excessive pride brings even greater misfortune on the family at the hands of the villagers. Establishing a sinister reputation with a final hail that violated both mountains and harvests, Milarepa provides his mother with defense but is left distraught and alone. Ultimately, Milarepa learns that despite good intentions, human indulgence can corrupt even hard-earned justice. Milarepa soon sees that the true enemy is sensation.

The Quest
Seeing that even the lama who taught Milarepa black magic feels irrevocable guilt, Milarepa realizes that practicing the Dharma is his only path to salvation. Seeking a teacher, he first encounters a practitioner who can make one a “Buddha in one day […] Buddha in one night” (42). Seeking to purge his sins, Milarepa hopes for such a simple solution but is instead sent to Lhobrak Province to meet Marpa Lotsāwa, a celebrated Kagyu monk who was the personal disciple of the Great Master Naropa of India. Marpa’s wife previously had a vision prophesizing Milarepa’s arrival, while Marpa also recognized his karmic links to the newcomer. Lobsang Lhalungpa particularly takes interest in the powerful teacher-disciple relationship between Marpa and Milarepa, which he calls the “most dramatic portrayal of learning a Master provides for pupil in all of world literature” (xi). Marpa first asks Milarepa to summon hailstorms on robbers, and after concluding Milarepa’s desperation to learn the Dharma precedes his concern for other sentient beings, tasks him with irrational and impossible projects that test his devotion. Marpa promises to initiate Milarepa after he completes the tasks, but endless construction projects and senseless criticisms result in physical anguish. Ironically, Marpa’s wife—a supportive figure Milarepa soon calls “mother”—explains that Marpa would normally grant teachings to even a dog. After failing to run away and attempting but failing to learn from Marpa’s disciple Ngokpa, Milarepa reflects on the suffering he has caused others through his sins and resolves to kill himself. As Milarepa finally negates his own pain in concern for that of other sentient beings, he is initiated and accepted as Marpa’s son. He is given the secret name Pal Zhepa Dorje (Laughing Vajra).

Reconciling with the Past

Meditating “father and son” at Tiger Nak cave (75), Milarepa gains great insight into the dharma that he hopes can be “profitable to all beings, in striving toward the limits of perfection” (79). In turn, Marpa realizes that he made the right choice in disciple. However, the wounds of the past return as Milarepa dreams of decay in his home village, and Milarepa concludes he must part ways with Marpa. Before their last farewell, Marpa grants Milarepa Initation of the Path of Awakening: a secret teaching transmittable to only one of a teacher’s disciples. His yogic powers are now complete.
Returning home, Milarepa sees his mother’s “bleached and crumbled bones” and learns his sister become a wanderer (102). Through song, Milarepa can truly express the emotions he has detached from his physical being. Milarepa also meets his former betrothed Zessay, who questions why he cannot take a wife like Marpa. Milarepa, believing attempting Marpa’s practices would be like “a hare imagining it could follow in the footsteps of a lion” (105), believes asceticism is the only option.
But for the first time, Milarepa must face the worldly responsibilities he left behind—a woman left single because of his black magic, and unmanaged property. Resolving these unsettled issues, Milarepa returns to begging while on hermitage. He encounters his aunt and uncle who both manipulate and bet him, but he begins to view his aunt and uncle as the actors who put him on the path of liberation. He prays for their enlightenment.
Years later after hearing Milarepa’s songs from others who encountered him, the aunt seeks out Milarepa to beg for forgiveness. Milarepa is finally in a position to express his true pain, but instead sings a Song of Shame and teaches his aunt the Dharma. She then becomes a yogin and achieves liberation.

After amassing followers and loyal disciples, Milarepa’s final test comes as he encounters a wealthy lama named Geshe Tsakpuhwa who doubts his legitimacy and attempts to embarrass him by asking him to interpret text. In turn, Milarepa claims “having made a monastery within my body, I forgot the monastery outside” (154). This demonstrates the sharp opposition of Milarepa’s lay-oriented oral tradition to the traditional power held by formal monastic institutions. Offended, Geshe Tsakpuhwa attempts to poison Milarepa. Milarepa, aware of the act but accepting the end of his life, ingests the poison. However, he first summons yogic powers to prove his veracity to the lama and therein gains another strong devotee, using his ailment as a “special opportunity for inner transformation” (167). Before dying, we see a large group of followers surround Milarepa and venerate his good deeds, with the closest followers devoting themselves completely to hermitage.
Milarepa died in 1135 CE. As his last gift to his followers, Milarepa left an inexhaustible sugar cube and an inexhaustible piece of cloth: two important provisions that Milarepa was once deprived of, but finally realizes can bring joy and last a lifetime.
Stepping back into the present of the frame story, we also see Retchung—referred to as Milarepa’s son—as the inheritor of the strong teacher-disciple relationship. In establishing a spiritual lineage centered on meditation, The Life of Milarepa focuses on the benefit Milarepa’s practices had on society as much as the text focuses on his life itself.

Work Cited:
Gtsaṅ-smyon He-ru-ka, and Lobsang Phuntshok Lhalungpa. 1977. The Life of Milarepa. New York: Dutton.

Alex Whitman, October 2016.