CASE #6: The Green Yogi

When Milarepa had finished his training with Marpa, he roamed the land in search of a suitable place for meditation. Along the way farmers fed him with grains and cereals. Later, his sister Peta offered him bread, butter, and wine. In the years between, he meditated in White Rock Cave, where there was a stream with good water and a patch of stinging nettles. From the nettle Milarepa made cloth to cover his body, and flour for inner nourishment. Eventually his skin took on the color of nettle, and even the hairs on his head became bristly and green.


Jetsun Milarepa (1052-1135 C.E.) was a Tibetan yogi and poet. When his father died, his aunt and uncle stole the family’s wealth. Seeking revenge against them, Milarepa’s mother had him schooled in the dark arts. Using sorcery, Milarepa summoned a great hail storm which destroyed his aunt and uncle’s house, causing death to 35 people. Milarepa’s desire to atone for this evil later led him to study under Marpa the Translator. Like Milarepa, Marpa is an important influence on the Karmakagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

Stinging nettle has long been used for medicinal purposes, and in some cases as a source of food. As early as the Bronze Age, its fibers were used to make cloth, slings, bags, and other functional items. Today nettle tea is used to treat a variety of health problems, from allergies to asthma, joint paint to intestinal disorders.

An English rhyme reads:
Tender-handed, stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains.
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.

Yogis have long been “men of mettle,” able to live on nettles like Milarepa, or like the prophet Elijah, on the food brought to him by ravens in the wilderness. Most of us think we couldn’t live like that. But the truth is, we choose not to.

And why not? Even Shakyamuni drank milk when it was offered at the end of his trials. And Milarepa accepted bread and butter from his sister in the end. But neither sought what they did not have, and neither went out of his way for special clothing or food. Wet put the earth to such pains for our tender-handed existence, then smart with outrage when it stings. What nonsense!

Popes live in palaces. And gurus are often gold, not green. But the truth never changes. We don’t get enlightened without gathering what we need to live from what lies close at hand.

If stinging nettle
Is all there is to eat, well…
What could be better?
Mountain people are simple,
Valley people use a hoe


Read all the Green Koans.

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