Evans-Wentz’s edition of the The Life of Milarepa begins in a particularly Mahayana context: Rechung (Ras chung pa), a disciple, dreams, and walks through the Western land of Urgyan. He finds images of a jeweled stupa upon which Buddha Ashobhya is seated, and requests transmission of the teachings. The histories of Tilopa, Naropa and Marpa are told, and a greater story is anticipated, the story of Milarepa, Jetsun-Mila-Zhadpa-Dorje, or ‘Mila the Cotton-Robbed’, “which would surpass in wonder that of any of the aforementioned beings...”(1283) Marpa, Milarepa’s Guru, is tied to the Indic tradition; these ties place Milarepa at the forefront of the Tibetan Kargyutpa tradition. Milarepa’s example supersedes others: disciples elucidate how Milarepa achieved enlightenment in one lifetime. The teachings take place at Ugyen, but where is Milarepa now? “He is either in Og-min or Ngon-gah”: the former is the Heaven of Adi-Buddha, and latter, the Heaven of Indra. (1283) These heavens are revered as the end of a practitioner’s journey towards Dharma. The biography is the classic Tibetan namtar: after Milarepa’s great hardship and a misguided path, the Dharma reveals a path to liberation.

Foundation and Turn to the Dharma

Milarepa was born in Male Water-Dragon year [A.D. 1052] into descendants of the Josays (Descendents of Noblemen) Sept of the Khyungpo (Eagle) Clan. He greets hardship at the age of fifteen when his father dies. His father’s death provides a foundation for the namtar (Wylie: rNam-thar). While dying, Milarepa’s father, Mila Sherab Gyaltsen, requests that his son receive his inheritance, and leaves the inheritance in the trust of his aunt and uncle. Later, when Milarepa’s mother request the bestowal of the inheritance, his aunt and uncle claim none exists, and leave Milarepa, his mother, and sister with nothing. Great sorrow then envelopes the whole family. Obligations of the deceased are key biographical elements in this episode. Milarepa’s mother laments, “look at the treatment we have to endure, thou who didst say, ‘I will watch over our from the realm of the dead!’” In Tsangnyon Heruka’s later version, Milarepa’s mother claims her husband’s words were: “I shall watch you from my grave.” (25) There is a direct connection between the living and the dead, who live on in another realm. Without his father’s help from a life beyond, Milarepa is forced to turn to away from his family. At the behest of his mother, he searches for a master of magic at Kyorpo in Yarlung, and finds Lama Yuntun-Trogyal, and Lama Khulung-Yonton-Gyatso in the valley of Tsangpo. Under Gyatso, Milarepa learns black magic, which he uses to take revenge upon his aunt and uncle. Through supernatural acts of revenge, he destroys his familial enemies.

After much destruction, Milarepa repents, and turns away from black magic. He travels to the Dowo-Lung (Wheat Valley) in the southern province of Lhobrak, and seeks the teachings of Marpa the Transalaor, a disciple of Naropa, the Indian saint. After much suffering at Marpa’s hands, Milarepa adopts the Vajra, or Immutable Path (Vajra-Ya), establishing himself within the Kargyupta Sect’s line of gurus. Milarepa receives specific tantras and meditative practices. In a scene that is perhaps biography’s dénouement, Milarepa develops awareness of other realms: “I beheld very distinctly, the Twenty-Four Holy Places, the Thirty-Two places of Pilgrimage…”(2719) Specific teachings are conferred until Milarepa crosses over the “Ocean of Worldly Existence”: awareness of the spiritual realm is achieved. Milarepa is ready to depart in search of the remaining teachings, and eventually, enlightenment.

Milarepa departs from Marpa with vows to lead a life of aesthetic practice. He returns home, and finds that his mother has died. He retreats to Dragkar-Taso Cave to practice meditation in search of enlightenment: “Until I have attained the Siddhi, unto this solitude will I hold fast…” (4016) Solitude is not the only element of his practice, he eats little, prays to Marpa continuously, and deprives himself of rest, “Sleep not, but continue thy devotions…” (4080) Milarepa’s practice is one of performance of Meritorious Acts. After much devotion, Milarepa achieves the Vajra’s goal of enlightenment. Aside from Dragkar-Taso, Milarepa practices at many other religious sites, particularly caves. Too numerous to name, four of the “well-known” include: Nyanam-Tropa-Phug (Stomach-like Cave of Nyanam), Lapchi-Dutdul-Phug (Cave wherein Demons were defeated, in Lapchi); Brin-Briche-Phug (Yak-Cow Tongue Cave) and Tise-Dzu-Trul-Phug (Miracle Cave, in Mt. Kailasa (Kailash)). (4976) These places where Milarepa performed his meditations, and many others, are offered to later disciples as places to visit in order to accumulate merit. In this way, Milarepa’s acts of pilgrimage added to important Buddhist pilgrimage sites. His life, an example for others, established its own tradition.

Other Societal Traditions

In addition to geographical and religious (Indic) tradition, familial heritage is central to the biography, particularly the importance of upholding familial obligations. When Milarepa turns to Black Magic, he does so under the weight of an obligation to his mother. As the family’s only son, he has a responsibility to dedicate his efforts to revenge. After performing these acts of revenge, in Heruka’s version The Life, “The family line of father Mila Sherab Gyaltsen has been upheld.” (37) While in Evans-Wentz’s version, his mother remarks, “I am satisfied with thee; thou hast proved thyself worthy of the name of thy father…and my own desires have been accomplished.” (1771) Upholding the family name is paramount. Milarepa takes extraordinary measures to exact revenge for his father’s unfulfilled wishes.

The Lama-Disciple Relationship

As if spiritual premonition precedes actual events, Marpa has a dream that precedes Milarepa’s arrival, and appears prepared for his arrival as he immediately pushes hard on the disciple. At Marpa’s hand, Milarepa endures significant physical hardship, most notably, the building, tearing down, and rebuilding of buildings (in Heruka’s more recent version, the “square tower” (57)), which causes gaping sores on his back. While the hardship appears futile, the teachings are eventually conferred, but only after toil that caused him to largely giving up, and retreat to Mount Kyungding in Shung, in search of another Lama. Eventually, Milarepa returns to Marpa. Marpa asserts his specific connection to Indic knowledge, and in turn, his superiority, “Who gave me reception when I came plodding home with the load of the precious teachings on my back from India?” (2553) The guru has the power; knowledge of the Dharma is paramount. Blind obedience is required within Milarepa’s role as disciple.


Like Marpa the Translator, Evans-Wentz went to India for study. According to Donald Lopez’s introduction to the work, Evans-Wentz made several trips to India during the 1920s and 30s. His study included a translation of the life a Padmasambhava. Yet, as Lopez writes, “He never learned to read Tibetan; perhaps he did not feel it necessary, almost as if he already knew what the texts must say.” (149) This makes his work slightly less applicable in the context of modern Tibetan scholarship, as translation is paramount. Lopez again comes forth in Tsangnyon Heruka’s more recent telling of The Life of Milarepa. With this work, Lopez suggests that Heruka claimed himself to be a reincarnation of Milarepa. Surely, no closer connection can exist than this, and for its closer connection to Tibetan study, Heruka’s version is perhaps more applicable for our purpose. Yet, for its time, Evans-Wentz’s work is meaningful as an introduction to Milarepa’s life, if for no other reason than for a greater understanding of the structure of the Tibetan namtar.


Gtsaṅ-smyon He-ru-ka, Zla-ba-bsam-'grub, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, and Ras-chuṅ Rdo-rje-grags. 1971. Tibet's great yogī Milarepa: a biography from the Tibetan, being the Jetsün-Kahbum or biographical history of Jetsün-Milarepa, according to the late Lāma Kazi Dawa-Samdup's English rendering. New York: Oxford University Press.

Entry by: Ryan Cahill, November 2013