The story of Milarepa, the celebrated Tibetan yogi of the eleventh century, remains one of the most popular folk tales in the Tibetan tradition. His early life was fraught with tragedy, revenge, and regret. Despite this, Milarepa became a great dharma master and a beloved figure to generations of Tibetans. Under the demanding tutelage of his guru Marpa, Milarepa gained insight into the nature of reality and attained enlightenment. He spent the latter years of his life wandering the mountains of Tibet and Nepal and guiding numerous followers. His teachings are characterized by a direct and spontaneous wisdom, best known through his Songs of Enlightenment. This version of his life, drawn from classical accounts, comes from a manuscript, “Milarepa the Great Magician,” by Julia Lawless and Judith Allan.
I come from the village of Tsa in southern Tibet. My father was a great landowner from a rich and noble family. As an only son, I was spoiled and my early childhood was happy and carefree. Sadly, though, when I was only seven years old, my father died.
From that point on, everything changed. In his will, my father had entrusted the care of his estate to my uncle and aunt until I reached the age of fifteen. Yet, in spite of his best intentions, my relations seized our property for themselves. While they enjoyed a life of luxury, we were forced to live like servants in our own home!
When I reached the age of fifteen, my mother reminded my uncle and aunt of her late husband’s will. But over the years they had become accustomed to their position of power and my mother’s pleas were hopeless. The villagers felt sorry for us but were afraid to help. And we, of course, had no means to challenge our relatives.
When my mother realized that her family was now destitute, she was poisoned with bitterness. “Now our only hope of avenging our enemies,” she wailed, “is through magic. I want you, my beloved son, to learn the art of sorcery. Apprentice yourself to the magician Yungton. If you are not successful, I will kill myself.”
I therefore had no choice but to leave our village and study magic with Yungton of Ngak, the “Great and Terrifying Magician of Evil Spells.” Unfortunately, although I spent a whole year with him, I learned nothing. Knowing I could not return home without having mastered the art of black magic, in desperation I sought the help of another sorcerer. This time, as an apprentice to Khulungpa, the “Ocean of Virtue,” my perseverance was rewarded and I made rapid progress in mastery over the spell of death.
Once I was truly confident of my capacity, I set out to avenge my family. My magic was indeed powerful! After only fourteen days of practice, my teacher told me that I would see signs of success. Sure enough, that night the guardian spirits that I had invoked appeared before me, bringing with them the bleeding heads and hearts of thirty-five corpses which they piled upon my altar.
I later found out that my magical ritual had coincided with the death of thirty-five guests at my cousin’s wedding feast. During the meal, strange things had happened. The courtyard of our house was filled with a writhing mass of snakes, lizards, spiders, and frogs. The horses tethered in the stables went wild with panic. Rearing up, they kicked down the stable walls, causing the whole building to collapse. All the guests inside were killed, but unfortunately my uncle and aunt escaped.
My mother was overjoyed when she heard of the disaster. Tying a rag to the end of a long stick, she paraded it through the village shouting, “How happy I am to see this day! Through my son’s power we have at last taken our revenge.” The villagers were furious at her display of heartlessness and plotted to murder our whole family. Knowing this, my mother craftily sent me a message with a pilgrim, warning me of the danger. However, even death threats had not restrained my mother’s wish for revenge, for in her letter she now asked me to destroy the entire village!
Once again, I had no choice but to return to my previous teacher, Yungton of Ngak. I begged him to teach me how to gain power over hailstorms, for in this way I could ruin the villagers’ crops. When the harvest was almost ripe I set off for my village. Once in the hills above the valley, I began to perform the magical rite.
At first a cloud no bigger than a sparrow drifted by. Nothing seemed to be working. Suddenly a huge, menacing black cloud began to overshadow the valley. Giant hailstones smothered the houses and completely destroyed the crops, which were the very livelihood of the village.
On my return to Ngak, my teacher Yungton congratulated me on my success, but I felt no joy. Instead I was filled with a deep sense of remorse. My mind was tormented with guilt and I longed for a way in which I could find relief from my suffering. Seeing my distress, Yungton also felt deep regret for his life of black magic. As I was still young, he offered to help me in my search for redemption.
He sent me to a famous Dzogchen master, whose teachings could give instant liberation. But I was too arrogant and lazy to realize what a valuable opportunity this was and spent most of my time sleeping! In a matter of days, the Dzogchen master was fed up with me. “I see that there is nothing I can do to help you,” he said. “You should go to the great master Marpa, with whom you have a natural connection through past lives.”
As soon as I heard the name “Marpa,”a shiver went through my spine and my hair stood on end. I was filled with a sudden longing to meet him face to face. Unable to think of anything else, I immediately set off for the southern Wheat Valley where he lived, taking only a few provisions and my book of spells.
As I entered the valley, I asked everyone I passed whether they knew where I could find Marpa the translator. Nobody seemed to have heard of him until I met an attractive young boy who said, “You must mean my father. Usually he doesn’t work on the farm, but today he is out ploughing the field by the roadside.”
This struck me as strange, for I could not believe that such a renowned master would need to be out plowing his fields. Just then I caught sight of a tall, well-built man in a nearby field. As I approached, I could see that he had penetrating eyes and a fearsome expression. Hesitantly I asked him where Marpa lived.
For what seemed like a long time he just glared at me. Then he asked, “And who are you?” I replied, “I am a deeply troubled man who has come to beg Marpa for help.” “Very well,” he said, “I will arrange an introduction. In the meantime, plough this field.”
After a while the young boy, whom I had met on the road came to show me the way to Marpa’s home. I had not yet finished plowing, however, and resolved to complete my work before I went with him.
When we finally reached the master’s house, I was shocked to see the same man I had met earlier in the fields. Although he was seated high on a pile of cushions like a teacher, he still had traces of soil in his hair and dust in his beard. I quickly glanced around the room to make sure there was no other master present. Then the man spoke, “Don’t you recognize me? I am the translator Marpa. You may present yourself!”
I bowed down at once and, placing his feet upon my head in respect, I cried, “I offer you my body, speech, and mind in exchange for food, clothing, and instructions by which I can gain redemption for my evil deeds.” “I cannot offer you both teachings and provisions,” Marpa replied, “and I warn you that if you should choose the teachings, your success will depend entirely on your own effort.”
Having agreed to find my own provisions, I was accepted into Marpa’s household, where I began sorting out my meager possessions. I was about to place my treasured book of magical spells in his shrine room when he bellowed at me, “Take your filthy book away from my sacred altar. I don’t want it defiled with such rubbish!” I removed it at once and quietly withdrew to my own room.
Since I had undertaken to feed myself, I took to begging. In the course of a few days I had collected enough to buy a large copper cooking pot with four handles, as well as beer, meat, and barley to offer as gifts to Marpa. I was so exhausted when I arrived home that I dropped my heavy load on the doorstep. Marpa was startled by the noise and shouted angrily, “You’re already getting on my nerves! Get out!” With that he strode over and shoved me outside.
I realized now my master was very short-tempered but I was not put off. Picking up the empty cooking pot, I offered it to him again. For a moment Marpa just looked at me, then tears welled up in his eyes and he took the pot, saying, “Your gift is auspicious. I, in turn, offer it to my teacher Naropa.”
He lifted the pot above his head and shook it so that its handles rang out across the valley. Then he carried it into his shrine room where he filled it with melted butter from the lamps. I was so overcome with emotion that I begged him to give me teachings.
“Passing on meditation instruction is very slow work,” Marpa explained. “First I want you to build a round tower on the eastern ridge of the nearby mountain. Once you’ve finished it, then I’ll give you teachings.” Immediately, with raised spirits, I set about building the round tower.
When the structure was only half-complete Marpa suddenly changed his mind! “Hold on!” he said. “Since I instructed you to build this round tower, I have had second thoughts. Now I want you to pull it down! Instead I would like you to build a tower shaped like a crescent moon on the mountain’s western ridge.”
Once again, just before the work was completed, he came to see me. “I must have been completely drunk when I gave you the instructions for building this tower!” he said.
“Demolish it at once.” Next he took me to the northern ridge of the mountain where he ordered me to build a triangular house. This time I asked him if he was sure that this was what he wanted. I was now utterly dejected and exhausted.
When I had scarcely completed one third of the building, Marpa paid me a visit. He shouted at me, “Great Magician, who told you to build this house?” He always called me by this name to remind me of my terrible past. Totally bewildered now, I replied, “You ordered it and swore that it would not be torn down.” “Are you challenging me?” Marpa growled. “Tear the walls down at once.” I felt completely disheartened and had no choice except to do as he bid.
By now I had developed running sores on my back. Persuaded by his compassionate wife, Dagmema, who felt sorry for me, Marpa finally consented to give me the most basic instructions. He then told me about his own ordeals under his teacher Naropa and how he, too, had to show unceasing perseverance. As he spoke of his struggles, I inwardly vowed to do anything in order to understand the real nature of existence.
The next morning Marpa told me to start building a square tower. I was beyond knowing what to believe. Despite my resolution to endure anything, I was close to suicide. I was still working on the tower when he sent for me. “Do you hate me for refusing to teach you?” he asked. “No. I have complete faith in you,” I replied. “I alone am responsible for my misery.” Waves of sadness suddenly welled up inside me and I broke down in tears. Marpa’s reaction was to rebuke me harshly yet again. Something inside me broke and I could not take it any more. Without telling anyone, I left.
When Dagmema discovered that I was missing, she chastised Marpa, “The Great Magician has gone. Now are you satisfied?” At this news, Marpa’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh, please bring me back my destined spiritual son,” he prayed.
I, meanwhile, had realized that I had no option but to return to Marpa. When I arrived home, he was furious with me for having left. “If you are so impatient for the truth,” he admonished, “then you must be ready to give your very life for it.” I was in total despair. Just as I had given up all hope, Marpa summoned me to be the principal guest at a ceremony. Fearfully, I took my seat among the other disciples. “Although I may have appeared unreasonable,” Marpa began, “I am not to blame for the Great Magician’s suffering. I actually used my rage as a skilful tool to test him thoroughly and purify him of his past ill-deeds.”
Turning to me, he continued, “Now I will give you the essential teachings that are as dear to me as my own heart. I will also provide you with everything that you need. Let us be happy!” As he spoke, I couldn’t help wondering, “Am I awake or am I dreaming? If it’s just a dream, I hope I never wake up.”
That very evening Marpa cut off a lock of my hair as a sign of my commitment. He offered me a cup of consecrated wine, which I drained in one draught. Finally, dressing me in robes, he gave me my new name “Milarepa,” meaning the Cotton-Clad One.
The next day, Marpa explained the theory and practice of meditation. Placing his hand on my head, he said, “My spiritual son, I knew from the very beginning that you would be a most worthy disciple. Both Dagmema and I had prophetic dreams the night before your arrival.
“I dreamt that my teacher Naropa gave me a five-pronged vajra of lapis lazuli, symbolizing diamond-like indestructibility. He told me to cleanse it with nectar from a golden vase and mount it on top of a magnificent Banner of Victory. Its radiance blazed forth and lit up the whole universe, subduing all negative forces.
“Dagmema also had an auspicious dream, in which two beautiful women appeared before her holding a crystal container, which I cleansed with nectar before placing it on a mountain top. It shone with a brilliant light, more dazzling than the sun and moon.
“This was why I set out to meet you disguised as a farm laborer. When you drank all the beer I offered and finished plowing the field, I knew for certain that you would be able to take in and understand the full meaning of the teaching and transmission.”
He continued, “The copper pot with its four handles which you offered me foretold the coming of my four greatest disciples. Its smooth surface meant that your mind will become completely pure, but its emptiness signified that you will be close to starvation while you are in retreat. For this reason I filled it with melted butter to provide for you in later years and made its handles ring out to announce your future acclaim. I put you through a series of grueling ordeals, yet you never lost faith or had ill thoughts about me. This means that your own disciples will be able to endure terrible hardships. Through you, the precious teachings will grow and flourish like the waxing moon. Let us all rejoice!” This was the beginning of my happiness. Now that I had been accepted by Marpa, he was very kind and provided me with everything I needed. He asked me to remain near him and sent me to practice meditation in an isolated cave known as the Tiger Cave.
Later that year Marpa’s son, Dharma Dhoday, unexpectedly died. Marpa was devastated. Looking for signs to indicate the future of his lineage, he instructed his followers to watch their dreams closely. That night all Marpa’s foremost disciples had outstanding dreams, but none of them related to the lineage. I, however, had a dream of a huge mountain like Mount Meru. It was at the center of the world and was encircled by four great pillars.
Upon the Eastern pillar crouched a great snow lion
with a flowing mane of turquoise;
From the southern pillar a tigress roared
spreading her claws through the dense forests;
Above the western pillar a giant eagle soared
gazing upward toward heaven;
While in the north a vulture spread its wings above a nest
and fledgling, while the sky became full of little birds.
When I had finished relating the dream in full, Marpa was overjoyed. He sang a song which interpreted my dream and revealed the future of the lineage.
Mila is like the vulture
whose outspread wings signify
his realization of the secret instruction.
Its eyrie in the steep cliff means
that his life will be as hard as a rock.
The vulture’s fledgling shows that
he will have a peerless spiritual son,
and the small birds scattered in space
represent his many disciples
and the spread of his teachings far and wide.
His gaze and flight towards heaven shows
he will leave the world of birth and death
and arrive in the realm of perfect freedom.
If the words of this old man are prophetic
it is a most favorable dream for us all.
It was all as my dream had predicted. Meditating on the fire of “Inner Heat” in solitary places became my main practice, the one best suited to my nature. Marpa also conferred on me the hat of Maitripa and the garments of Naropa. My life as a yogi was very tough and my path not without obstacles, for I was challenged both by non-human and human adversaries. Through my master’s blessings, however, I eventually gained full realization.
Later I had many disciples. My first, the wayward Rechungpa, always remained close to my heart, while my female disciple, the beautiful young girl Paldarbom, embodied all the qualities of a living dakini and became enlightened.
Towards the end of my life, I had another dream about the future of the lineage:
I dreamt that an eagle flew to Central Tibet
landing upon a precious jewel.
Many geese flocked around it.
After a while they dispersed and then returned,
each bringing five hundred more companions.
Soon all the surrounding plains and valleys
were filled with geese.
This dream indicated that although I was a lay yogi, many of my followers would become monks. Foremost amongst these would be my spiritual successor, the physician-monk Gampopa. I was happy beyond words for the continuation of the tradition was now ensured. My own service to the dharma was completed.
I’m a yogi who wanders the countryside,
A beggar who travels alone,
A pauper who’s got nothing.
I left behind the land of my birth,
Turned my back on my own fine house,
And gave up my fertile fields.
I stayed in isolated mountain retreats,
Practiced in rock caves surrounded by snow,
And found food as birds do—
That’s how its been up to now.
There’s no telling the day of my death,
But I have a purpose before I die.
That’s the story of me, the yogi;
Now I’ll give you some advice:
Trying to control the events of this life,
Trying and trying to be so clever,
Always planning to manipulate your world,
Involved in repetitive social relations—
In the midst of these preparations for the future
You arrive unaware at your final years,
Not realizing your brow is knit with wrinkles,
Not knowing your hair is turned white,
Not seeing the skin of your eyes sink down,
Not admitting the sag of your mouth and nose.
Even while chased by envoys of death
You still sing and rejoice in pleasure.
Not knowing if life will last till morning,
You still make plans for tomorrow’s future.
Not knowing where rebirth will occur,
You still maintain a complacent contentment.
Now’s the time to get ready for death—
That’s my sincere advice to you;
If its import strikes you, start your practice.
—“Arriving at Ber Tser” and “Closing Verse” appear in Drinking the Mountain Stream: Songs of Tibet’s Beloved Saint, Milarepa, translated by Lama Kunga Rinpoche & Brian Cutillo. Reprinted by permission of Wisdom Publications.