The Life of Milarepa

23 June 2023

Unwavering virtue is the best of all medicines.

The Life of Milarepa is a book that reads like a poem and lifts the spirit at the turn of every page, a biography decorated with songs that seem to spring from the soul of Milarepa, where words alone seem not enough to express the intensity of his messages.

It is the story of Mila Zhepa Dorjé, also known as Milarepa, through the framework of twelve marvelous deeds: three ordinary worldly deeds and nine supreme deeds of peace and transcendence.

From a tormented first half of his life, where he succumbs to the lower aspects of reality by killing 35 people through his powers of black magic, Milarepa rises from the ashes with fervent, unbroken determination to purify his misdeeds, and finally attains liberation within one lifetime. His life is an example of an ardent pursuit to realise the true nature of reality through the path of yoga. 

“Through devotion to the teacher and the practice of the path, transform oneself into a perfect buddha, where the dharma is present everywhere one turns, where everything in the outer world appears as scriptures, where the profane is sacred.”

Finding his master is Milarepa’s first supreme deed and the start of his spiritual journey. A master-disciple relationship is always full of tests and this one was no exception. Marpa the Translator puts Milarepa through insufferable and exhausting hardships even before accepting him as his disciple. As happens with many other Tibetan masters (such as Tilopa with his disciple Naropa), an untrained eye may find it difficult to understand Marpa’s nuanced love towards his disciple and may not realise at first that all the hardships are hidden teachings on Milarepa’s path to enlightenment. 

For a long time, Marpa did not grant him empowerments or instructions, but Milarepa never lost faith and trusted his Guru.

Reading about Milarepa’s aspiration and his unshakeable devotion and trust in his lama opens the reader’s heart and triggers a deep aspiration within. In the following song, Milarepa highlights the role of a master for an effective spiritual journey.

The nine story tower that Milarepa single-handedly built, Sekhar Gutok, Lhodrag, Tibet.
“Then he sang this song: 
I bow at the feet of Lord Marpa the Translator. 
Those who wish to practise dharma: 
Without relying on a qualified lama, 
Though you have devotion, blessings are meagre. 
Without requesting profound initiation, 
The very words of tantra will trap you. 
Without using the tantras as an authority, 
Every deed you do leads you astray. 
Without meditating on profound heart-instructions, 
Saying you’ll renounce only harms yourself. 
Without applying remedies for mental afflictions, 
Your talk is dried-up empty sound. 
Without knowing the profound path of means, 
Although you make effort, little is done. 
Without knowing the profound essential points, 
Although you endure, the path becomes long. 
Without garnering vast stores of merit, 
Living for oneself alone is the cause of life’s round. 
Without giving up what you have earned for the dharma, 
Although you meditate, good qualities will not appear. ”

Milarepa’s life is a constant call to listen to our inner compass and follow our dharma, a reminder of the importance of spiritual practice over the mere accumulation of knowledge. As it is said in the Mahabharata, “Books are but a burden as long as we do not realise the truth beyond the words”. Yoga and meditation allow us to realise the truths of the teachings. Through them Milarepa was able to transcend the mind and win buddhahood. “Again and again I practised with no concern for words and forgot about literal meanings. Let scholars give literal readings of texts”. The following song gives us an idea of his teachings:

“Then he sang this song: 
To the compassionate one I address my prayer. 
Contemplating the lives of past masters endowed with compassion 
Is itself the very oral instructions. 
Hoping to accumulate many is cause for distraction. 
Keep in your heart the essential instructions. 
Much this and that without the essential 
Is like many trees but no fruit. 
They may have their merits but they are not the ultimate. 
Studying them is not seeing the truth. 
They have much to explain but have nothing of profit. 
Take to heart that which profits—a treasure sublime. 
If it’s wealth you desire, concentrate upon this. 
Dharma is the path of means for taming afflictions. 
If a safe path you’d keep, concentrate upon this. 
A resolute mind is a master of contentment. 
If it’s a fine master you wish for, concentrate upon this. 
Give up the whining and sloth of life’s round. 
A rock crag with no one around is your father’s house; 
A friendless and lonely abode, the deity’s home. 
Mind riding mind is a tireless steed; 
Your body, a wilderness hermitage, a temple. 
Unwavering virtue is the best of all medicines.“
Milarepa (thangka painting), 2008, Author: Otgo Otgonbayar Ershuu, Source:

All the hardship was not in vain. Milarepa at last received tantric instructions and departed from his lama. From realising the emptiness of worldly matters, he vowed to practise. “Those beings who want things with no essence can have them. A yogi, I go to achieve liberation”. This was his sixth supreme deed, where he detached from this world. “Even if I were a master of the entire world, I would still need to leave them aside at the time of death. So if I renounce these things now, I shall find happiness in this and all future lives. Doing so, my conduct is contrary to that of all other men, so you can say I am no longer a man.” Milarepa realises that a man, as Gurdjieff later put it, is asleep. Unless the inner eyes open, unless your inside becomes full of light, we are not awake. From the words of Gurdjieff, “Man is a machine. All his deeds, actions, words, thoughts, feelings, convictions, opinions, and habits are the results of external influences, external impressions. Out of himself a man cannot produce a single thought, a single action. Everything he says, does, thinks, feels—all this happens. Man cannot discover anything, invent anything. It all happens.”

During his intense practice in caves, Milarepa starts his awakening, attaining spiritual insights on the nature of reality. He would practise without eating, without moving his body even if that meant starvation, sickness or exposure. His thirst for realisation was greater than his fear of death. Here we see for the first time Milarepa as a master. He removed his fear of death and understood that all the phenomena of this world and transcendence are interdependent, and that only spiritual insight would lead him to transcendence. The following song illustrates poetically one of his intuitions on the essence of interdependence of all beings:

“The nourishing essence of solid earth 
And the light rain falling from azure skies—these two 
Form the interdependence that benefits beings. 
The essence of interdependence is dharma divine. 
An illusory body nurtured by parents 
And instructions of an authentic lama—these two 
Form the interdependence for doing dharma divine. 
The essence of interdependence is perseverance. 
A rocky cave in a deserted land 
And sincere virtuous practice—these two 
Form the interdependence for achieving whatever you wish. 
The essence of interdependence is emptiness.
Milarepa’s exertion in meditation 
And the faith of beings in the three realms—these two 
Form the interdependence for fulfilling the aims of beings. 
The essence of interdependence is compassion. 
The meditator practising in rocky caves 
And the patrons who bring him supplies—these two 
Form the interdependence for reaching buddhahood together. 
The essence of interdependence is dedication of merit. 
The compassion of an excellent lama 
And the enduring meditation of an excellent student—these two 
Form the interdependence for upholding the teachings. 
The essence of interdependence is the sacred commitments. 
Initiations that swiftly bring blessings 
And prayers of fierce faith and devotion—these two 
Form the interdependence for quickly meeting. 
The essence of interdependence is auspicious fortune.”

Milarepa renounced worldly happiness and achieved buddhahood by taming and mastering the mind. “The stallion of mind rides like the wind. To catch him, what lasso will catch him?… To catch him, catch with the lasso of non-duality. To tether him, tether with the stake of meditative absorption. If hungry, feed him the lama’s oral instructions”

He internalised the value of persevering in our practice, of tapas in our spiritual journey, and he exemplified the state of self-discipline, passion and courage of a perfect practitioner. He reminds us of the role that the law of cause and effect, karma, plays in our path towards liberation. “Because you have no conviction about the law of cause and effect, you have little perseverance in practice”

Practice for Milarepa was never confined to sitting in meditation. It meant practising virtue at the cost of one’s life. “I have understood that, in order to realise insight, one must strive without distraction to accumulate merit and purify misdeeds in the periods between meditation sessions”. His practical teachings are universal and highlight the Truth that lies in our inner compass. “Act in such a way that you will not be ashamed of yourself. Do this and even if your actions contradict the letter of some texts they will not contradict the intentions of the previous Victors”.

In the last part of his life, Milarepa took the task of benefitting sentient beings through the result of his practice. This is his eighth supreme deed. Finding life precious, he did not dare to waste an hour of time.

“Doing deeds that are of no use 
Will harm you, so set yourself straight. 
The yogin whose work is complete 
Has no need for a pile of busywork.”

Personally, the book was an impulse for my spiritual practice. It kindled my inner fire and my aspiration, and opened my eyes to spiritual tests. The intense longing of Milarepa made it tangible and I can still feel it inside myself.

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