The great monk Milarepa has a powerful presence in Tibet and Bhutan. A famous poet and singer, Milarepa practiced as a layman and never took monastic vows of a monk. Milarepa literally means “cotton clad”, referring to his austere life style. Traditionally depicted wearing white cotton, his skin was a said to be a slight greenish hue from a constant diet of nettle soup.
Milarepa is one of the most famous saints of Tibetan Buddhism. He lived from 1052-1135 CE, and was admired for his songs which are still popular in Tibet. He is generally considered one of Tibet’s most famous yogis and poets.
Milarepa was born in a village called Kya Ngatse in western Tibet to a very prosperous family. As a child, he was called Mila Thopja meaning “a joy to hear”. It is said that after his father died, his aunt and uncle took all the family wealth. His mother then sent him to learn sorcery to revenge their loss. Then in his younger years, Milarepa performed black magic in revenge for the treatment of his family. He became skilled in the sorcery of weather control, and was an expert at creating magic hailstorms that destroyed homes and crops, killing many people.
As the story goes, Milarepa’s teacher was Marpa, the famous translator and founder of the Buddhist Kagyu order. When he met his teacher Marpa, his regret for his past deeds led him to the path of Buddhahood. Marpa later told that he was very harsh with Milarepa as a teacher because of the great deal of negative karma that Milarepa had accumulated by using magical powers to create havoc on the enemies of his family, destroying their homes, crops, killing people, and destroying livestock.
Historians tell us that Marpa ordered Milarepa to construct a multi-story building with stones from a particular quarry. When complete Marpa would tell Milarepa to dismantle it and return the stones to the place of origin, in order to test to see that Milarepa was worthy of his teachings. This was repeated several times, and was later revealed by his teacher Marpa as a skillful way to to exhaust the negative karmic effects of his murders as a youth, and to make it possible for him to reach Buddhahood in his own lifetime. The last ten story tower that he built is said to be still standing to this day.
Milarepa spent much of his life in remote caves in Tibet, often with little to eat and sometimes only able to subsist on nettles. At times he encountered various travelers in the mountains and these meetings become teaching experiences for them, turning ordinary events into surprising opportunities to teach the dharma. Various events in his life become profound learning experiences for him too, such as when his only cooking pot broke leaving just the nettle residue in the shape of the pot, leading to a profound understanding of impermanence.
After twelve years of diligent study with Marpa, Milarepa reached complete enlightenment. It is said that at the age of 45 he began his practice from the famous Milarepa cave. The life and teaching of this unique personality are kept alive by faithful followers throughout Tibet and the Buddhist world.
Listen to this chant. It is said to be Milarepa’s last words. At the end of his life, it is said that Milarepa passed away in the presence of his loving students. But then – he got up from his deathbed, chanted this final message in verse, lay down again and departed. Again!
I wonder – what was he saying? Recently a good friend volunteered to translate it. Here are the first four stanzas. They’re full of metaphors and hidden meaningshard to translate from Tibetan into English.
My heartiest son Ray-Chhungpa,
Listen to the perceptual last-testament song.
1. In this ocean of suffering realm,
A sinful object is this body,
Fetching for food and clothes,
Have no time to get out of the works in this transient world.
Hey Ray-Chhungpa! Get rid of the worldly activities.
2. In the field of magical bodied existence,
A sinful invisible mind,
Always busy thinking of magnifying this human body,
Have no time to realize the true nature of dharma.
Hey Ray-Chhungpa! Cut off your mind from thinking of materialistic life.
3. In between the realization of body just as non-living object and mind into fully refined,
Self-originated wisdom comes in light and will be even sinful,
When you work for protecting it from the contamination of worldly obstacles,
Have no time to recognize the nature of unborn ultimate wisdom.
Hey Ray-Chhungpa! Hold without error the exalted position of the unborn ultimate wisdom.
4. In between this and next life,
A feather-like spirit is sinful and suffering,
Accompanied with non-human bodies,
No chance or time to realize the bare haecceity1 of an absolute wisdom.
Hey Ray-Chhungpa! Delineate the natural situation of an absolute wisdom now.
- Haeiccity refers to the quality that makes it what it is: its essence. First coined by John Duns Scotus (1266–1308), a haecceity is a non- qualitative property responsible for individuation and identity.
More verses coming soon!
Milarepa is said to have spent the later years of his life in the eleventh century in the Milarepa Cave, 11 km north of the town of Nyalam, near the Matsang River in Tibet. Milarepa’s Cave overlooks the entrance to the hidden valley of Lapchi Gang. Pilgrim’s offerings of decorated stones along the path with sweet-smelling herbs and wild flowers growing all around make it a site of great peace and beauty.
Milarepa is usually represented with an emaciated body due to deprivation and hardship. He often has a hand to one ear as if filtering his voice as a singer, with lips parted as if singing one of his famous songs of realization.