The Life of Milarepa
By Tsangnyön Heruka
Translated by Andrew Quintman
Penguin Books, 2010
$16; 262 pages
Reviewed by Ari Goldfield
Even in the best of times, no one could describe the life of ordinary Tibetans on their high mountain plateau as easy. But whatever hardships Tibetans have faced, the famous story of one man among them has for a thousand years provided his people with a source of deep solace and great inspiration. This man is known as the Lord of Yogis, Milarepa, and his story is one of intense and varied sufferings, unwavering commitment to dharma practice, and ultimate, supreme triumph.
Andrew Quintman has produced a good new translation of The Life of Milarepa by the fifteenth-century Tibetan master Tsangnyön Heruka. He based his biography on stories of Milarepa and his songs that had been collected over the centuries, including accounts by students, particularly Ngendzong Tönpa. Clear and readable, Quintman’s translation easily allows the events of Milarepa’s remarkable life to engross the reader.
Quintman’s is the third English translation of this classic biography. It was first translated by Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup, a Sikkimese scholar and published in 1928 by Oxford University Press in a version titled Tibet’s Great Yogi Milarepa, which was compiled and edited by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, who, Quintman notes, could not read Tibetan. Half a century later, The Life of Milarepa—freshly translated from the Tibetan by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa—was published, and it became the modern standard,.
Milarepa was born in the mid-eleventh century in the region of Gung-tang in southern Tibet, near the Nepalese border. Quintman reports that various scholars give slightly different dates for Milarepa’s birth, though their range is all within the twenty-five-year period of 1028–1053. “Mila” was his family’s surname, deriving from the expression “Mila! Mila!” uttered in fear and surrender by a demon exorcised by Milarepa’s great-great-grandfather. “Repa,” meaning “cotton-clad,” was a name he acquired later, derived from the simple, thin robe he wore in meditation retreat.
Milarepa’s father, Sherab Gyaltsen, was a successful merchant. At twenty, he married a daughter of a local influential family, the intelligent and beautiful Nyangtsa Kargyen. Some time later, she gave birth to a son. Sherab Gyaltsen was traveling on business at the time, and he was so delighted to receive the news that he named his son Töpah Gah, meaning “Joyous to Hear.”
Thus did Milarepa enter the world into an environment of material prosperity and familial bliss. He and his younger sister, Peta Gönkyi, lived with his parents in a mansion that had many servants, and were raised with love. But soon, everything would change.
When Milarepa was seven years old, his father fell ill and died. In his will, he made his brother and sister-in-law the guardians of his estate until Milarepa came of age, and he placed his wife, Milarepa, and Peta under their care. But Milarepa’s uncle and aunt did not honor his father’s wishes. They appropriated his wealth for themselves and forced Milarepa, his mother, and sister to live as their servants. As Milarepa describes: “Our food was food for dogs, our work, work for donkeys… Forced to toil without rest, our limbs became cracked and raw. With only poor food and clothing, we became pale and emaciated.”
When Milarepa turned fifteen and came of age, his mother scraped together what she could in order to host a banquet for his aunt, uncle, other relatives, and neighbors. She pleaded for her husband’s will to be honored, but the uncle and aunt refused, and publicly taunted and humiliated her even further: “Your possessions? We don’t have them. Even if we did, we wouldn’t give them to you. So if you are many, wage war; if you are few, cast magic.”
Little did they know that their words would come back to haunt them. For from her hysterical grief, Milarepa’s mother developed an iron resolve for revenge. She insisted that Milarepa learn black magic so he could violently punish their enemies, and she tolerated neither his hesitation nor dissent. More than once she vowed to him that she would repay anything less than complete acquiescence and success with suicide before his very eyes.
As Quintman notes, “Within the broad context of traditional Tibetan religion, the efficacy of black magic… was unquestioned.” The Life reports that Milarepa’s magic was certainly efficacious. His spells destroyed his uncle and aunt’s house and killed thirty-five people who were attending a wedding feast in the home, including the uncle and aunt’s sons and their wives. Then, at his mother’s insistence, Milarepa sent hailstorms to destroy the local harvest in response to their neighbors’ threats of reprisal.
Though the threats were pacified, Milarepa’s conscience was not. His remorse was so intense that “during the day I forgot to eat. If I went out, I wanted to stay in. If I stayed in, I wanted to go out. At night I was so filled with world-weariness and renunciation that I was unable to sleep.” He was certain that the Buddhist path could help him purify his actions and transform himself, and he went out in search of a guru. The first one he met did not see him as a proper match, and sent him instead in search of Marpa the Translator, the guide who would lead him to the pinnacle of realization.
But following Marpa was initially a supremely difficult test that pushed Milarepa to his physical and emotional limits. As Lhalungpa astutely observed in his 1977 translation, “Marpa was absolutely clear in his mind that this big-hearted little man whose mind was completely shamed and shattered could not gain the desired transformation by any normal training.” More powerful methods were necessary. Marpa commanded Milarepa to build, without assistance, a fortification tower on the border of his property, and after some time to tear it down and start over. This happened four times, and during the long, arduous process, whenever Milarepa requested dharma instructions from Marpa, the teacher berated and often beat his student. Only when Milarepa’s increasingly desperate and then even deceitful attempts to receive teachings left him on the brink of suicide did Marpa finally relent and give Milarepa all the teachings he could have wished for.
Yet Milarepa’s ordeals did not end there. Though his wish to practice what Marpa had taught him was strong, his need to reunite with his mother was stronger. Although Marpa advised against it, he left his teacher and went back to his homeland. When he arrived, he found his house in ruins, with the bones of his mother inside. This stunning lesson in impermanence gave him the final push he needed to follow Marpa’s command to meditate in mountain retreat.
And there he stayed for many years, enduring tremendous hardships. His clothes turned to rags; he became so emaciated that his bones protruded; the nettles he survived on turned his skin green. Hunters and thieves who came upon him took him for a ghost. When he went begging for food, his uncle, aunt, and neighbors attacked him, and he barely escaped. His sister, who had also become a beggar, wept in misery at his apparently even sorrier state.
But within, Milarepa had a perfectly clear and unwavering resolve to realize the true nature of his mind through meditation practice. This made him happy and content, and gave him the strength to overcome all external obstacles. His serene confidence that realizing the true nature of mind was simply the only way to gain liberation from suffering won over all who had pitied and scorned him. Both his sister and aunt became his disciples.
Milarepa achieved his goal of perfect realization—buddhahood—and won the faith and love of most all the people of his land. A few dharma teachers were jealous, and though some of these also became Milarepa’s students, one, Geshe Tsakpuwa, conspired to poison him. Milarepa knew of the plot yet went along with it anyway because he felt that, at the age of eighty-four, the time had come for him to pass away. The account of his funeral is a wonderful description of miraculous signs, and disciples arguing amongst each other and then receiving pacifying instructions from gods, goddesses, and most of all, Milarepa himself.
Although there is a lot of magic and miracles in Milarepa’s story, its power is in its accounts of his struggle, anguish, resolve, and triumph—all of which make him very recognizably human. Quintman’s translation allows all this to come through clearly. His writing style can be sensitive and poignant, as in his rendering of Milarepa’s description of returning home:
Then I walked across the doorstep and found a heap of rags caked with dirt over which many weeds had grown. When I gathered them up, a number of human bones, bleached white, slipped out. When I realized they were the bones of my mother, I was so overcome with grief that I could hardly stand it. I could not think, I could not speak, and an overwhelming sense of longing and sadness swept over me… But at that moment I remembered my lama’s oral instructions. I then blended my mother’s consciousness with my mind and the wisdom mind of the Kagyu lamas… I saw the true possibility of liberating both my mother and my father from life’s round.
Quintman’s translation is definitely worth reading. His footnotes and glossary, however, could have been more extensive. For example, when one of Milarepa’s students praises him—“You have now brought to the surface the abiding nature of things and have brought phenomena to the point of extinction”—it would have been helpful to explain that this meant that Milarepa had realized the true nature of reality and dissolved his clinging to dualistic appearances.
And though Quintman is clearer and easier to read, Lhalungpa’s translation is still worth keeping. Quintman says that Lhalungpa is “overly free in [his] rendering of poetry,” but in places Quintman’s own English runs comparatively dry and cumbersome. Also, Lhalungpa’s introduction to his translation is informative and filled with respectful and genuine affection for his subject matter that makes it a joyful inspiration to read. My advice is to read Quintman, and occasionally glance at Lhalungpa’s version when you feel the need for a different perspective.
As Milarepa himself told his students, “there is no greater misunderstanding” than to regard him as anything but an ordinary person who awakened to his own natural wisdom and compassion with the help of Buddhist meditation practice. In this way, Milarepa invites and encourages us, as if to say: “Yes, you too can do it.” Reading The Life of Milarepa is a supreme way to keep the example of this great yogi—this great human being—radiantly alive in our minds and hearts.
Ari Goldfield is a Buddhist teacher and translator who studied under Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche for many years. He translated Khenpo Tsültrim’s books Stars of Wisdom and The Sun of Wisdom, and is a contributing author to Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind.