Milarepa | Songs of Milarepa

Milarepa (c. 1052 – c. 1135 CE)
Milarepa (c. 1052 – c. 1135 CE)


Outside the land of Tibet where the stories and songs of Milarepa (c. 1052 – c. 1135 CE) are very well-known and loved, far too little is known of this great Buddhist sage.

The 60 songs of Milarepa, published here all concern that Dhamma which is common to the whole Buddhist tradition. Everyone who has read some of Lord Buddha's Discourses in the Pali Canon will find the subject matter here familiar to them.

The nearest approach in Pali literature to these Dhamma-songs of Milarepa are the inspired utterances of Lord Buddha in the Sutta Nipāta, Udāna and Itivuttaka (and also in the Dhammapada),

and the poems of gnosis spoken by the great bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs of the Noble Sangha, now collected into such books as the Theragāthā and Therīgāthā.

The mind inspired and illumined with the knowledge of Liberation (vimutti) pours forth its wisdom with ease in the shape of verses of great beauty and deep significance:

Such was the case with Lord Buddha and some of his immediate disciples, and later, such was the case with Milarepa.

His songs have been arranged here according to subject, though no rigid classification is possible since many of the songs deal with more than one aspect of the Dhamma.

First come Milarepa's descriptions of some of his hermitages, then songs on renunciation and the dangers of Samsāra, followed by many more on impermanence.

After them come songs describing different aspects of Samsāra - such as the Six Realms of Birth; birth, old age, sickness and death; and home relatives and wealth.

Next are songs relating to practice - advice on how to practise and warnings about what not to do;

then upon the Six Paramita and other such helpful qualities for practice as Loving-kindness (Metta), Striving (Viriya) and Mindfulness (Sati).

Last of all come songs describing aspects of Milarepa's realization - his contentment, happiness and non-attachment - concluding with his blessings to his patrons.

It will be seen from the above sequence that the Teaching here is not at all strange to Theravada,

including as it does the Impermanence (anicca) of all things, states, people, places; that they are impermanent since they arise dependent upon conditions (paccaya);

that what is conditioned, and therefore relative, is also devoid of essential being (sabbe dhamma anatta) and void of self (śūnya);

and that by not recognizing these truths and by thinking in terms of permanence, self, etc., we come to experience unending Unsatisfactoriness (dukkha).

Milarepa also points out the Way to transcend dukkha and emphasizes the keeping of Precepts (śīla), concentrating the scattered mind (samādhi) and the development of Wisdom (paññā).

In making comparisons of different Buddhist traditions many similarities are apt to come to light:

One that might be mentioned here is the immense respect and honour paid to Enlightened Teachers in any Buddhist tradition, quite regardless of the differences of time and place.

One who has seen and known the Way from his own experience has always been lauded as worthy of the highest honour and the greatest devotion.

Indeed, it is found in seemingly diverse surroundings - whether in a jungle monastery in Thailand where a thudong (dhutanga) bhikkhu is respecting his Teacher; or whether it is Tibetan bhikkhus or laymen receiving a meditation transmission from their Lama.

The same devotion here finds expression; it is called Saddha or Bhatti (bhakti - a word first occurring in Indian literature in the Pali Canon), for this is the act by one still unenlightened, of setting his heart upon Enlightenment in the presence of one who is Enlightened.

Then again, the Hundred Thousand Songs many times mention the "Whispered Transmission" of meditation instructions which are imparted by the Teacher, here Milarepa, to his disciples:

By some this is contrasted with the statement of Lord Buddha that He was not a Teacher who had a 'closed fist', that is, one who keeps some Teaching secret or esoteric.

Nonetheless, He is well-known for his remarkable ability in preaching exactly the right Dhamma to fit the situation and meet the understanding of those who listened.

He did not teach the deep truths of Dhamma to those who were not prepared as yet to receive them and in a like fashion Milarepa graded his teachings for varying circumstances and intelligences.

Meditation instructions given by Lord Buddha to his disciples were also fitted to their temperaments and abilities.

It is true that one may now read books, explaining the principles of meditation in Theravada Buddhism, but with books alone, even if one reads all the Pali Canon, the disadvantage remaining is very great:

In all Buddhist countries, it is always assumed that one must have a Teacher if meditation practice is to be really successful:

It is this Teacher who, like Lord Buddha in past times, imparts to one the details of the practice and how, moreover, it applies to one's special problems and circumstances.

The 'grace' of the Teacher (guru) consists of those merits which he has gathered by his own practice and which, it is believed, may be transferred to the disciple, thus 'blessing' him.

This can only happen, however, provided that the conditions (of spiritual purity, faith, concentration, etc.) exist between that master and disciple.

It is a great mistake to suppose that the disciple is getting something for nothing, for in the absence of these conditions he will experience no 'help' from the teacher.

For the dramatic and very inspiring life-story of Jetsun Milarepa as written down by a great-grand-disciple in his tradition, we have but little space here.

Suffice to say here that the Jetsun was living c. 1052 – c. 1135 CE, he was born into a wealthy merchant family:

As a boy he was known as Tubhaga (delightful-to-hear), a name which people said was particularly appropriate since he had a fine voice and frequently sang the local ballads. His voice was later to be used for spreading the Dhamma, and those who heard it were deeply moved.

Fortunately, Milarepa has given an outline of his life in one of the songs he later sang for his disciples and we cannot do better than introduce an extract of it here.


I am Milarepa blessed by his (Marpa's) mercy.
My father was Mila Shirab Jhantsan,
My mother was Nyantsa Karjan.
And I was called Tubhaga ("Delightful-to-hear").

Because our merits and virtues were of small account,
And the Cause-Effect Karma of the past spares no one,
My father Mila passed away (too early in his life).
The deceiving goods and belongings of our household
Were plundered by my aunt and uncle,
Whom I and my mother had to serve.
They gave us food fit only for the dogs;
The cold wind pierced our ragged clothing;
Our skin froze and our bodies were benumbed.
Often I was beaten by my uncle,
And endured his cruel punishment.
Hard was it to avoid my aunt's ill temper.

I lived as best I could, a lowly servant,
And shrugged my shoulders (in bitter resignation).
Misfortunes descended one after the other;
We suffered so, our hearts despaired.

In desperation, I went to Lamas Yundun and Rondunlaga,
From whom I mastered the magic arts of Tu, Ser and Ded.
Witnessed by my aunt and uncle, I brought
Great disaster on their villages and kinsmen,
For which, later, I suffered deep remorse.

Then I heard the fame of Marpa, the renowned Translator,
Who, blessed by the saints Naropa and Medripa,
Was living in the upper village of the South River.

After a hard journey I arrived there.
For six years and eight months (I stayed)
With him, my gracious Father Guru, Marpa.
For him I built many houses,
One with courtyards and nine storeys;
Only after this did he accept me.

Then Milarepa lists the meditation-instructions which he was given by his Guru Marpa after he had thus served a long period of hard probation and tells how by their practice he reached Enlightenment.

The name by which he is known in Tibet is Jetsun Milarepa:

'Jetsun' is an honorific meaning 'holy',
while 'Repa' means 'clad in cotton'.
Mila was a family name.

Hence, in English he may be called Holy Mila the Cotton-clad. He earned the latter name by his power to live throughout the bitter Tibetan winter with only one length of cotton cloth.

Where others would have died, he lived happily immersed in the various states of samādhi producing, by his control of them, sufficient body heat.

After 12 years of intense meditations in remote mountain caves far from the haunts of men in the valleys below, he succeeded in winning Enlightenment.

After this time, disciples gradually gathered around him, the first being Rechungpa, his 'moon-like' disciple, while later came his 'sun-like' disciple Gampopa.

His closest disciples went forth from their homes to take up homeless life with him:

Gampopa and some others were already bhikkhus, while many more such as Rechungpa were called 'Repa', that is, yogis clad in one piece of cotton.

Like Lord Buddha, the Jetsun taught Dhamma to all - to the emissary of a king and to shepherds, to nuns and wealthy ladies, to bhikkhus and yogis, to bandits and merchants:

His conversion of the hunter, Chirawa Gwumbo Dorje, is as popular a story in Tibet as is the pacifying of Aṅgulimāla by Lord Buddha, in southern Buddhist lands.

At the age of 80, Jetsun Milarepa relinquished the body, passing away, surrounded by disciples both human and celestial.

For 900 years the traditions of meditation in which he trained his disciples have been handed down in Tibet. It has come to be known as the Kagyu-pa which is translated as the "Whispered Transmission":

This school of Buddhist practice has, of course, its own special emphasis upon certain doctrines but songs concerned with them are not included in this booklet and the interested reader is requested to consult the "Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa".

In the time of Milarepa, as is evident from these songs, many bhikkhus spent long years in study but never gave much heed to practice:

Thus is the divorce of paṭipatti-dhamma or śīla (moral precepts) and samādhi (meditation), from pariyatti-dhamma or simply learning.

Scholar-bhikkhus of Tibet were evidently, at that time, very able in arguing the finer points of Buddhist philosophy and well-equipped with logic to worst outsiders as well as fellow Buddhists in debates.

Somehow, in the welter of this study (and the Tibetan Canon and its Commentaries are considerably more extensive than their lengthy Pali counterparts), some of the best practitioners of meditation were not even possessing the monk's robes:

This was true of the spiritual forebears of Milarepa (his immediate Guru, Marpa and of the Indian yogis, Naropa and Tilopa).

In several places he criticizes those bhikkhus, and indeed anyone, who studies the Dhamma just for intellectual satisfaction or even for worldly advantage.

Many sincere bhikkhus did approach him for meditation instructions and, thereafter, practised with him as their Teacher. He was, therefore, a source for the spiritual regeneration of the Sangha in Tibet.

With his insistence upon the practice of Dhamma, Milarepa's life and teaching present striking similarities in many respects, to the Way as practised by the thudong (dhutanga) bhikkhu:

The greatest difference is that a bhikkhu in any country is bound to observe his Fundamental Precepts (Pāṭimokkha) which, as Milarepa did not have the bhikkhu ordination (Upasampadā), he did not have to keep.

Nevertheless, even a quick look at his life after he began his practice would reveal that he maintained scrupulously those injunctions given him by his Teacher, Marpa the Translator, as well as cultivating those twin bases of moral conduct in the Dhamma, Wisdom and Compassion (paññā karuṇā).

Far greater than this are the resemblances between him and the thudong bhikkhu:

For instance, both praise contentment with little, living remotely with utter detachment from worldly affairs, great ability in meditation, and so on.

Though he had not the formal ordination of a bhikkhu and wore not the monks' robes, yet Milarepa was truly “one gone forth” (pabbajita). No one reading of his life and some of the songs included here can possibly doubt this.

According to definitions given in the Dhammapada, he was indeed a true bhikkhu:

"Not by adopting the outward form does one become a bhikkhu" (266).

"He who has no attachment whatsoever towards the 'mind-and-body' and who does not grieve for what he has not, - he indeed, is called a bhikkhu" (367).

"Whoso herein, has abandoned both merit and demerit, he who is holy, he who walks with understanding in this world, - he indeed, is called a bhikkhu" (267).

These various points, and perhaps others, could be raised to point out that it is in the practice of Dhamma (paṭipatti) that different schools of Buddhist thought are shown to have many similarities.

Finally, it is in realization of the Dhamma (paṭivedha) where all divergence ceases, since all the methods practised by all the schools are without exception aimed at the experience of Bodhi, or Enlightenment:

If the Dhamma is only studied from books, then many differences are seen separating the many Buddhist traditions but in practice there is very much in common.

Since all Buddhists are urged to practise their Teachings, it is through this that harmony between the divergent traditions of Dhamma may be discovered.

This little introduction may be concluded with a stanza drawn from the autobiographical song, part of which is quoted above. More than this need not be said here, for it is better that the Jetsun sings to you his inspiring and Wisdom-inspired Songs of the Dhamma:

"I renounced all affairs of this life;
And, no longer lazy, devoted myself to Dharma.
Thus I have reached the State of Eternal Bliss.
Such is the story of my life.