Mi la ras pa (Milarepa)

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MI LA RAS PA (MILAREPA) (1028/401111/23) was a highly revered Tibetan yogin, famous both for his austere hermetic lifestyle and for the Tantric instructions he imparted through songs of realization. Mi la ras pa is considered an early founder of the Bka' brgyud (Kagyu) sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and therefore an heir to the Tantric tradition of the Indian siddhas, or spiritual adepts, Tilopa (fl. tenth century), Nāropa (c. 10161100), and Maitrīpa (10071085). He is also esteemed throughout the Himalayan Buddhist world as an exemplar of religious dedication, perseverance through hardship, and meditative accomplishment. Themes principally associated with his life storypurification of past misdeeds, faith and devotion to the guru, ardor in meditation and yogic practice, and the possibility of attaining liberation in a single lifetimehave shaped the development of Buddhist teaching and practice in Tibet. Mi la ras pa's biographical tradition also inspired works of significant literary achievement in which readers found not only the portrait of an exemplary life but an exhortation to lead such a life themselves.

As a child, the yogin was called Thos pa dga' (Delightful to Hear) and was later given the Tantric initiation name Bzhad pa'i rdo rje (Laughing Vajra). But the master is ubiquitously known as Mi la ras pa. Mi la was his clan name; ras pa is derived from the single cotton robe (ras ) worn by Tibetan anchoritesan attire Mi la ras pa retained for most of his life. The name is therefore an appellation, perhaps translated as "The Cotton-Clad Mi la." He is universally addressed with the title rje btsun, a word difficult to translate (it is often rendered as "Venerable Lord") but which carries the meaning of both skillful guide and unsullied master.

Mi la ras pa's life story has been the subject of a vast hagiographic tradition in Tibet. Perhaps the earliest record of the yogin's life and teachings is found in an extensive work known as the Bu chen bcu gnyis (The twelve great disciples version), purportedly written toward the end of Mi la ras pa's life by a group of his close disciples. Accounts of the biography soon proliferated, and Tibetan authors writing several centuries later mention the existence of more than one hundred versions of the life story.

In the late fifteenth century, the iconoclastic author Gtsang smyon Heruka (14521507), the so-called Madman of Central Tibet, completed what would become Mi la ras pa's definitive portrait. Beginning in 1488 he published two major works concerning the yogin: a sacred biography, often known simply as the Mi la ras pa'i rnam thar (The life of Mi la ras pa), and a collection of versified teachings organized within short framing tales, the Mi la ras pa'i mgur 'bum (Hundred thousand songs of Mi la ras pa). Cast as a first person narrative, the Life draws upon traditional models of Buddhist hagiography (including the historical Buddha's pursuit of enlightenment), poignantly describing Mi la ras pa's childhood, his search for a Buddhist master, and his rigorous practice of solitary meditation. The latter collection presents Mi la ras pa's teaching career, his assembling of disciples, subjugation of harmful spirits, and forging of a sacred landscape across the Himalayan region. As its name suggests, the work also preserves Mi la ras pa's primary legacy: his songs of practical instruction and inner realization. The number "one hundred thousand" in the title is a conventional reckoning used to signify a great quantity. Compilations called one hundred thousand songs (mgur 'bum ) became a popular genre of Tibetan writing, of which Mi la ras pa's was arguably the most famous example.

While clearly based on earlier accounts, these two works became classics in Tibet. As literary masterpieces of the highest order, they quickly eclipsed all previous accounts of Mi la ras pa's life. They were also promoted, and promptly accepted, as presenting the authorized version of the saint's life, which came to be known by generations of readers around the world. Innumerable Tibetan authors refer to Gtsang smyon Heruka's editions; modern scholars continue to hail Mi la ras pa as "Tibet's most celebrated saint," largely based on the popularity of these two works.

Although his dates are debated, biographies agree that Mi la ras pa was born to a prosperous family in the Gung thang region of southwest Tibet. At an early age, after the death of his father, he lived with his mother and sister under the care of a paternal uncle, with the family estate stipulated to return to the boy upon his reaching majority. The rapacious uncle instead appropriated the estate for himself, reducing Mi la ras pa and his family to lives of poverty and privation. At the behest of his mother, Mi la ras pa sought out instruction in black magic and hail making in order to exact revenge upon their manipulative relatives.

In central Tibet, Mi la ras pa found several skilled teachers, fervently applied himself to their instruction, and quickly showed signs of success. Traditional sources describe how, through the power of a particularly effective magical rite, he murdered thirty-five people gathered one evening for the wedding reception of his uncle's family, sparing his aunt and uncle only so that they could bear witness to his revenge. In retaliation, the surviving relatives conspired to kill Mi la ras pa's mother. To defend her, Mi la ras pa once again applied himself to the practice of magic, this time destroying the crops of his village under a great hailstorm. Eventually, through the ensuing tumult, Mi la ras pa came to realize the magnitude of his misdeeds. Feeling deep contrition for his past actions, he sought to redeem himself from their karmic effects through the practice of Buddhism. He secured the support of his former magic instructor, promised to devote himself to the dharma, and set out in search of a Buddhist master.

Mi la ras pa briefly studied Rdzogs chen (dzogchen, Great Completion) practice under one lama before meeting his principal guru, the great translator of Indian texts Mar pa Chos kyi blo gros (Marpa Chokyi Lodro, 1002/10121097). The relationship that developed between Mar pa and Mi la ras pa would become a celebrated example of the link forged between guru and disciple in Vajrayāna Buddhism, emphasizing the central role of faith and devotion in the reliance upon a spiritual guide. It is said that the mere mention of Mar pa's name caused Mi la ras pa's body to shake with devotion. Mar pa, however, was famous for his quick-tempered and demanding personality, and he did not immediately teach his new disciple. He instead subjected Mi la ras pa to repeated abuse, segregating him from other students and forcing him to undergo various ordeals, such as the famous trial of constructing immense stone towers. Pushed to the brink of despair, Mi la ras pa contemplated escape, and later suicide. Mar pa finally assuaged his disciple, revealing that the trials were actually a means of purifying previous negative karma. He explained that Mi la ras pa was, from the beginning, a disciple prophesied by Mar pa's own guru, the Indian siddha Nāropa. Mi la ras pa received numerous Tantric initiations and instructionsespecially those of mahāmudrā and the practice of gtum mo (tumo ), or yogic "inner heat"together with the command that he should persevere against all hardship, meditating in solitary caves and mountain retreats.

Mi la ras pa spent the rest of his life practicing meditation in seclusion and teaching small groups of disciples, mainly through spontaneous poetry and songs of realization. He had little interest in philosophical discourse and no tolerance for intellectual pretension. His songs are composed in vernacular idioms, abandoning the highly ornamental formal structures of classical poetry in favor of a simple, direct, and often playful style. Employing metaphors from everyday Tibetan life, they illuminate the nature of mind, emphasize meditation over study, and reflect a love for solitude in nature.

Mi la ras pa traveled widely across the Himalayan region where he attracted a devout following among ascetics and householders alike. Dozens of locations associated with the yogin have become important pilgrimage sites and retreat centers. He spent much of his life in southern Tibet, at caves sites such as Brag dkar rta so (Drakar Taso, White Rock Horse Tooth), La phyi (Lapchi), and Chu dbar (Chubar), and he visited Nepal on several occasions. According to tradition, he secured Mount Kailåsa (Kailash) as a Buddhist pilgrimage site after defeating a priest of the Bon religion in a contest of magic. One account records his stay at the acclaimed Stag tshang (Taktsang) hermitage in Bhutan, first consecrated by the eighth-century Indian adept Padmasambhava. Mi la ras pa's disciples, including the illustrious Sgam po pa Bsod nams rin chen (Gampopa Sonam Rinchen, 10791153) and Ras chung pa Rdo rje grags (Rechungpa Dorje Drak, 10841161), established a lineage of Bka' brgyud masters that continues to play an important role in the dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism.

The figure of Mi la ras pa has likewise remained deeply embedded within the Tibetan religious world. Buddhist practitioners of all sectarian affiliations throughout the Himalayan region still memorize his songs; elaborate temple murals and scroll paintings record episodes from his life story in great detail; monastic dances reenact his meetings with important disciples; Tantric rituals and guruyoga sādhanas invoke his presence as an enlightened being; and new generations of Buddhist yogins embark on solitary meditation retreats, often in caves that he is said to have inhabited, with him as a chief inspiration. Mi la ras pa's biographical tradition also played a central role in the study of Tibet by early European and American scholars. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the Life and Hundred Thousand Songs were among the first Tibetan texts to receive widespread attention. Compilers of the earliest Tibetan-English dictionaries made frequent use of passage from these works as models of Tibetan literary usage and style. The figure of Mi la ras pa, the tales of his life, and the penetrating wisdom of his songs persist as part of a living tradition within Tibetan Buddhist communities, and now serve as potent symbols of Tibet to the rest of the world.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Tibet; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism; Mahāsiddhas; Mar pa.


The first complete English translation of Mi la ras pa's life story was edited by W. Y. Evans-Wentz (in collaboration with the Sikkimese translator Kazi Dawa Samdup), published as Tibet's Great Yogī Milarepa (Oxford, 1928). A modern translation by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa, The Life of Milarepa (New York, 1977), has now largely superseded this pioneering effort. The standard collection of Mi la ras pa's songs appears in Garma C. C. Chang, trans., The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa: The Life-Story and Teaching of the Greatest Poet-Saint Ever to Appear in the History of Buddhism (New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1962). Two further volumes of Mi la ras pa's stories and songs have been translated by Lama Kunga and Brian Cutillo in Drinking the Mountain Stream (Novato, Calif., 1978) and Miraculous Journey (Novato, Calif., 1986). These works are of particular interest since they include material left out of Gtsang smyon Heruka's versions and may therefore offer, in the translators' words, "pieces from the cutting-room floor."

Andrew Quintman (2005)