Printed in the Spring 2014 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Overweg, Cynthia. "Milarepa from Sinner to Saint" Quest 102. 4 (Spring 2014): pg. 18-21.
By Cynthia Overweg
Seated in a barren and frigid cave high in the Himalayas, Milarepa meditated day and night, staying warm with the advanced yogic practice known as tummo, the ability to generate body heat by manipulating channels of energies within the body. Weak and emaciated, he had been meditating in remote mountain caves for many years, leaving only to beg for food. Because of his strict adherence to a vow of continual meditation practice, his body had shrunken to a skeleton, and his eyes were sunken and hollow. His only source of nourishment for over a year had come from an abundant supply of nettles he found growing near his cave. He had eaten so many nettles that his sagging skin had a greenish hue.
Death seemed imminent, but Milarepa's physical austerities had a clear and deliberate aim: he wanted to attain enlightenment or die in the attempt. So fierce was his meditation discipline that he refused to let even severe hunger interrupt his goal. When a group of hapless game hunters stumbled onto his cave looking for something to eat, they screamed in horror, believing Milarepa was a ghost. He assured them he wasn't, as they ransacked his cave looking for money. Finding nothing, they beat him. Their cruelty filled Milarepa with compassion, and he wept for them.
A year later, a second group of game hunters showed up at his cave, but their attitude toward Milarepa was much different. They saw the value of his devotion to practice and offered him food. Milarepa told them: "I have received the oral instructions for attaining Buddhahood in one lifetime and one body. Having renounced this life, I am meditating alone in the mountains and devoting myself to achieving this enduring aim." The game hunters then left him alone to meditate.
Fortunately for Milarepa and the spiritual legacy he left behind, he did not die of starvation, and the green pallor of his skin disappeared when he stopped eating nettles and finally took some nourishing food. The beloved eleventh-century Tibetan saint went on to realize his cherished aim and then taught many others how to do the same.
Milarepa was a roving Tibetan yogi who devoted himself to meditation and tantric practice in caves across southern Tibet. What initially drove him to mountain retreats was an intense desire to overcome his devastating past, which included his participation in black magic, revenge, and murder. Feeling the weight of heavy negative karma and overwhelmed by remorse, he considered suicide more than once. But he found a gifted teacher who showed him a way out of darkness.
What his life demonstrates, says José Cabezán, Ph.D., a Buddhist scholar who holds the Dalai Lama Chair at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is that "no matter how difficult one's life has become and no matter how many wrong turns one has taken, it is always possible to turn one's life around." But, at the same time, Cabezan adds, "patience on the spiritual path and an apprenticeship to a qualified master are necessary to spiritual progress."
Milarepa learned how to turn his despair into a spiritual practice that eventually transformed him into Tibet's most revered yogi. It is said that he not only gained liberation in one lifetime, but also became a bodhisattva, a fully realized being who takes a vow to liberate all sentient beings through compassion and wisdom, no matter how long it takes. "There is always the sense that the bodhisattva starts out with basic altruism and then develops an ever more expansive vision of reality and compassion," says Francis Tiso, Ph.D., a Catholic priest and Buddhist scholar who wrote his doctoral dis-sertation about Milarepa and has studied the Tibetan saint for thirty-five years.
"Only when Milarepa realizes that he needs to find the way to liberation "˜in one body and one lifetime' in order to avoid the post mortem consequences of his evil deeds does he go in search of a teacher who can show him the virtuous way of Buddhist practice," explains Tiso, who has written a book on Milarepa and went to Tibet several times to do research. "We only begin to see Milarepa as a real bodhisattva much later in his life, when he encounters people in various desperate situations," Tiso points out.
Milarepa was born in southwestern Tibet sometime around 1052 and died in approximately 1135. The specific dates of his birth and death are disputed by historians, but there seems to be agreement that he lived into his late seventies or early eighties.
Most of what we know about Milarepa's life and teaching comes from his principal Tibetan biographer, Tsangnyan Heruka, a well-known fifteenth-century Tantric master. Milarepa's story was made famous in the West in 1928 with the publication of Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa, edited by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, a Theosophist who also brought The Tibetan Book of the Dead to the English-speaking world.
To glimpse the epic journey of Milarepa's spiritual metamorphosis and the mastery he gained over the nature of mind, it's useful to tell the story that thrust him into an inner hell but also led him to seek Buddhahood. Milarepa was the only son born to wealthy parents who showered him with love and material comfort. His father, Mila Sherab Gyaltsen, named him Mila Thapaga ("a joy to hear"), which proved to be prophetic, since Milarepa (repa: "cotton-clad yogi") had a wonderful voice and instead of lecturing on the Buddhist teaching, known as the Dharma, he "sang" or narrated his own lyrical poems describing his spiritual insights and mystical experiences.
His mother, Nyangtsa Kargyen, also gave birth to a daughter, Milarepa's younger sister, Peta. They lived an idyllic life with enough financial freedom to do as they pleased. But the good times came to an abrupt and tragic end when Milarepa's father died of a mysterious disease when Milarepa was just seven years old. Although his father left a will with instructions on how his wealth was to be managed for the benefit of his wife and children, he did not leave the inheritance directly to his wife.
Medieval Tibet's patriarchal structure usually placed women under the protection and domination of their male relatives. This was catastrophic for Milarepa, his mother, and sister, because his dishonest and greedy paternal uncle was put in charge of the family's fortune. Soon after the funeral, his uncle and aunt confiscated their wealth, blatantly ignoring the dying wishes of Milarepa's father. Milarepa, his mother and sister were forced to live like beggars without money to buy food or clothing. They were robbed of their dignity and everything they owned. Milarepa's mother nearly went mad over the betrayal and the grinding poverty she and her children had to endure.
Once Milarepa was old enough to marry, his mother begged her brother-in-law and sister-in-law to return at least some of their money. But they taunted her by saying, "If you are many, wage war. If you are few, cast magic." Powerless to change the situation, she asked her son to learn black magic to get revenge on their tormentors and on those who stood by and watched it happen. Her grief was so extreme that she vowed to kill herself if the treachery of her in-laws was not punished.
Milarepa agreed to study the black arts and wreak revenge. He left home and found a lama who taught him how to cause terrible damage with black magic. He developed malevolent skills with a powerfully focused mind and a sustained determination that set him apart from other practitioners. The first spell he cast caused his uncle's house to collapse during a wedding feast when the house was filled with his relatives. Thirty-five people were killed.
Ironically, his cruel uncle and aunt were not injured, although their sons and wives were among the dead. But Milarepa didn't stop there. He also sent a terrifying hailstorm that ruined his relatives' crops just before harvesttime. Mother and son now had their revenge, but they continued to suffer. Survivors of Milarepa's destruction threatened to kill his mother, and she was treated from then on as an outcast. His sister, Peta, became homeless, roaming from village to village working as a servant and begging for food, while Milarepa stayed in the mountains serving the lama who taught him how to do so much harm.
It's at this point in the story that we're confronted with the full magnitude of the horrifying consequences of unbridled anger and wonder if there is any conceivable redemption for Milarepa. And that is an intrinsic element of the story: redemption is possible if you're willing to do the hard work of self-transformation.
Milarepa was haunted by remorse and a deep longing to be free from misery. Revenge wasn't so sweet after all. "At that stage of his life, he had delusions in his mind. Most of us are not murderers, but we suffer like he did from anger, fear, attachment, pride, and confusion," says Amy Miller, a Tibetan Buddhist nun and director of the Milarepa Meditation Center in Vermont. "He realized he needed a guide to help him out of his self-absorption, and he found a qualified teacher."
And so Milarepa left the lama who showed him the dark path to search for a teacher who could end his suffering. After failing with the first teacher he met, he was sent to the man who would open the door to his spiritual transformation. He is known as Marpa, "the translator," a title that honors his translation of precious Tantric texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan. Marpa was married, had a son, and taught many students. He traveled several times to Nepal and India to obtain his own initiations, which included secret oral transmissions of Tantric teachings. Much later in the story, he gave these safeguarded transmissions to Milarepa.
Once under the guidance of Marpa, Milarepa was put through a strenuous and pitiful apprenticeship in which he was repeatedly denied any teaching whatsoever. For many years, Marpa constantly tested Milarepa's resolve by humiliating him in front of others and forcing him to build, then tear down and build again, a number of tall stupas. The treatment was harsh and sometimes unbearable. Milarepa broke down and pondered suicide, believing he was too great a sinner to ever receive Marpa's teaching.
But Marpa was well aware of Milarepa's past and his inner struggle. He was helping him cleanse his bad karma and teaching him to rid himself of self-importance and ego. Although Marpa knew that Milarepa was extremely capable, even destined to become his greatest pupil, it was not until Marpa was convinced that Milarepa had earned the privilege of learning a sacred and transformative teaching that he gave him instruction.
In today's vernacular, what Marpa did might be called "tough love," but there is also an esoteric underpinning to their relationship. Thus, Tiso suggests, it is important to reflect on the guru-disciple relationship. "The devotion that one experiences is not servile or obsequious; it has to come from who and what you truly are, which is a delicate balance of great humility"”our nothingness, and our greatness, the divine body into which we are transformed by spiritual practice," says Tiso.
Sensing that Marpa was the key to his spiritual regeneration, Milarepa gathered the inner strength to persevere. But Marpa continued to withhold his teaching, and Milarepa reached a breaking point. He left Marpa to find another teacher. After some twists and turns involving forgery and deceit, Milarepa returned and was finally accepted as Marpa's student. It was the first time since his early childhood that Milarepa had experienced something close to joy. It was as if he had been born again.
Milarepa began his spiritual unfoldment as Marpa (whose teaching lineage was from the Kagyu school handed down from the great Indian sage Naropa, who in turn received it from Tilopa) initiated him into the subtleties of Vajrayana, which emphasizes Tantric practice and direct experience over book learning. "Tibetans believe that every form of Buddhism is capable of transforming the mind in positive ways, but only Tantra, the esoteric path, is capable of bringing about enlightenment in one lifetime," says Cabezan.
In the most advanced form of Tantric practice, known as the "completion stage," the goal is to "transform the physical human body into a body of an enlightened being, a nonphysical body of light," Cabezan explains. "Those who attain this are said to leave no physical remains behind at the time of death. Their bodies transform into light or rainbows."
Once Marpa instructed Milarepa in Tantric practice, he demonstrated the possibilities that awaited him if he could meditate without distraction for the rest of his life. Marpa caused his body to dematerialize and rematerialize to become his chosen deities, known as Hevajra, Cakrasamvara, and Guhyasamaja. He also transformed his body into a lotus, a bell, and a sword as well as circles of light. The wondrous display of Marpa's powers filled Milarepa with happiness and the determination to have the same mastery over the constituents of his own body and mind. And he did exactly that.
After many more years of meditation and practice, Milarepa could transform his body into any form he wished, including fire and water. He also learned yogic flying"”the ability to fly through the sky and travel great distances. On one occasion when he was flying over the countryside, he saw a farmer who lost a relative to his lethal sorcery. The farmer recognized Milarepa and cursed him. It was this encounter that solidified Milarepa's resolve to become enlightened not just for his own benefit, but for the benefit of all beings.
The allure of Milarepa's mystical attainments has captivated the Western mind for centuries. It's beyond the scope of this article to attempt to explain the Tantric practices that are supposed to turn an ordinary man or woman into something superhuman. Suffice it to say that Milarepa learned how to practice the Six Yogas of Naropa and Mahamudra meditation and, having mastered them, he became free of the mind's boundaries. It was a gradual process supervised by Marpa, which is also a central theme"”the essential guidance of someone who knows the way to freedom. "The question is: "˜how free do you want to be?' We're OK being relatively free, but when something bad happens to you, or you do something bad, what then?" asks Amy Miller, whose work at the Milarepa Meditation Center focuses on helping people discover their relationship to their own suffering.
Milarepa's life is filled with so many dramatic events that for the sake of brevity, only the highlights can be given here. Before we proceed to arguably the most compassionate moment of his life, mention should be made of his sorrow when he found the bones of his mother; his joy when reuniting with his sister; his wisdom when coming to terms with his aunt and uncle; and his gratitude for visitations from the mysterious dakinis, celestial female deities who gave him prophetic advice and instruction. But perhaps it is the final episode of his life that best illustrates his transcendent journey.
By his early sixties, Milarepa had attained enlightenment. He spent the rest of his life teaching his disciples, including a few women, how to achieve liberation. But his cave-dwelling lifestyle and lack of academic or monastic credentials sometimes caused jealousy among other teachers and brought him ridicule. On a cool autumn day, Milarepa was invited to be the guest of honor at a wedding celebration attended by his disciples and many other guests. In the audience was the man who would become Milarepa's assassin. His name was Gesha Tsakpuwa. The Gesha (a scholarly monk) had no use for what he viewed as Milarepa's pretense to wisdom. Wanting to embarrass him in front of the crowd, he asked Milarepa a number of intellectual questions about the Dharma.
Milarepa responded that to understand the nature of reality one should fast and meditate in the mountains. This felt like an insult to the Gesha, who kept challenging Milarepa on an intellectual basis. But the crowd booed the Gesha and told him to hush. Humiliated, the GeshÃ© plotted a murderous revenge. And now we've come full circle in the story: revenge started this spiritual saga and reappears at the end of Milarepa's life.
Not wanting to kill Milarepa himself, the Gesha induced his girlfriend to poison him. To get her cooperation, he promised to marry her and gave her a beautiful piece of turquoise to sweeten the deal. They hatched a plot to bring Milarepa some tainted food.
The minute the Gesha's lover showed up with poisoned food as an offering, Milarepa knew what they were up to. Through his clairvoyance, he saw their devious scheme. When the woman offered Milarepa the food, her conscience took over, and she had a sudden change of heart. She begged him not to eat it, confessing that it was poisoned. But Milarepa believed his life's mission had come to an end and that his death could be used as a teaching on impermanence. He offered to purify her evil intentions and suggested that if she were to meditate, she could transcend the limits of her mind. He then told her the poisoned food could not hurt him and ate it. The implication is that Milarepa was choosing to die and that while the body would disappear, he would not.
When Milarepa showed signs of sickness, the Gesha came to see him, feigning concern. Believing that Milarepa had no spiritual power, he urged him to send the illness to his own body. Instead, Milarepa transferred the illness to the door of his retreat cell, which broke into pieces and crashed to the floor. Still not persuaded, the GeshÃ© again asked Milarepa to send the sickness to him. Milarepa did so. The GeshÃ© crumpled to the floor, writhing in pain, and nearly died before Milarepa withdrew the poison back to his own body.
Finally convinced of the yogi's greatness, the Gesha wept uncontrollably and begged for forgiveness. He vowed to practice meditation and to serve others. Pleased by the Gesha's sincerity, Milarepa offered to give him his teaching.
When the great yogi died, there was a miraculous display of light in the heavens with hosts of celestial beings honoring the saint. The air filled with fragrance, and beautiful flowers dropped to earth. Then Milarepa's body disappeared in a blaze of light that became a beautiful rainbow.
Francis Tiso summarizes Milarepa's voluntary death this way: "The choice to die becomes emblematic of the Kagyu tradition: to turn negative circumstances into skillful means; to identify oneself with ordinary humanity in order to liberate; and to emphasize spiritual practice and experience over scholarship and verbal expressions of Buddhist views."
We may never know all the facts about the historical Milarepa, and perhaps it doesn't matter. It was his relentless pursuit of spiritual realization in the face of his frightening past that gives his story a powerful transformative resonance that has endured for nine centuries and reaches far beyond the borders of Tibet.
In Milarepa's life, we can see shades of our own dysfunctional lives coexisting with our highest spiritual longing, and we can find inspiration to keep our own inner work alive. His arduous spiritual journey illuminates the sacred and the profane as one continuum in an ever-evolving human story.
Chang, Garma C.C. The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. Boston: Shambhala, 1999.
Evans-Wentz, W.Y. Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928.
Heruka, TsangnyÃ¶n. The Life of Milarepa. Translated by Andrew Quintman. New York: Penguin, 2010.
The Milarepa Meditation Center. www.milarepacenter.org.
Tiso, Francis V. Liberation in One Lifetime: Biographies and Teachings of Milarepa. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic,-
CYNTHIA OVERWEG is a journalist, writer, and teacher who has presented programs at the
Krotona School of Theosophy in Ojai, California. Her study has focused on H.P. Blavatsky, Ramana
Maharshi, and Christian mystics. During the Balkan war, she traveled as a photographer with United
Nations relief organizations. Her images of war-traumatized children won awards from the National
Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute. In 1985, her play Madame Blavatsky was
produced in Los Angeles. Recent articles for Quest include profiles of Joy Mills and Ravi Ravindra.