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Religion Buddhism
Born 1052, 1040, 1028, 1026, or 1024
Died c. 1135
Translations of
Tibetan རྗེ་བཙུན་མི་ལ་རས་པ Wylie: rje btsun mi la ras pa

Jetsun Milarepa (c. 1052 – c. 1135 CE) was a Tibetan Buddhist yogi, a student of Marpa Lotsawa and teacher of Gampopa and an important figure in the Kagyu lineage. He is generally considered one of Tibet's most famous yogis and poets.[1][2][3]

Little is known about Milarepa as a historical figure, though there is little doubt that he once lived.[1] Even his date is unsure. The traditional account says he was born in 1052 and died in 1135, other sources move his birth back to 1040, or 1028, with some sources suggesting 1026 or 1024.

He was born several centuries after Buddhism first reached Tibet, during a second wave of introduction of Buddhism to the country. The "earlier disemmination" (singa dar) took place in the seventh to ninth centuries when traditionally the first Buddhist monasteries were built and Buddhist texts were translated from Sanskrit into the Tibetan language. Traditional accounts say that this is followed by a dark age of 150 years for both Buddhism in Tibet, and the Tibetan empire. He was born during a new wave of expansion of Buddhism in Tibet known as the "Later dissemination" (phyi dar) by Tibetan historians, when Tibetan translatros traveled to Nepal and India to train under various tantric Buddhist masters and returned with new philosophic and ritual texts. [1]

The earlist account of his life, attributed to his principal disciple Gampopa, is strikingly different from the traditional account. For instance, it's his mother who dies when he is young, not his father, and his uncle and aunt on his father's side are not mentioned. Nor is there any mention of him killing anyone with black magic, or his trial constructing towers under Marpa. They seem more like lecture notes than a text authored by Gampopa directly. See #Gampopa's biography. It's not enough evidence to conclude that this earlier account is the "real" life of Milarepa. It is just an earlier version that differs on many points. Andrew Quintman, whose thesis this article is mainly based on, hasn't tried to deduce what the "real" life of Milarepa is except to say that there is good evidence that he existed as a historical figure.[1]

The traditional account was completed in 1488, three and a half centuries after Milarepa's death by the poet and nyönpa (Wylie: smyon pa) or "religious madman" Gtsang-smyon He-ru-ka. In this traditional account, Milarepa's father dies young, and his uncle and aunt steal his inheritance. Then in his youth, before he set out to find the dharma, Milarepa performs dark magic in revenge for the treatment of his mother and sister by his uncle and aunt, killing many people through sorcery. It is his regret for these deeds that lead to his path to Buddhahood. Marpa puts him through various extraordinary trials of patience, pain and endurance, including building towers by hand, stone by stone, which he then had to tear down again by hand, and then build again. This is later revealed by his teacher Marpa as skilful means to help to exhaust the negative karmic effects of his murders as a youth and make it possible for him to reach Buddhahood in his own lifetime. Milarepa spends much of his life in remote caves in Tibet, often with little to eat and sometimes only able to subsist on nettles, which turn his skin green. At times he encounters various travelers in the mountains and these encounters become teaching experiences for them, turning ordinary events into opportunities to teach the dharma. Various events in his life become profound teaching experiences for him too, such as when his only cooking pot is broken leaving only the nettle residue in the shape of the pot, leading to a profound understanding of impermanence.[1]

He practiced as a layman and never took the monastic vows of a bhikkhu. His teacher Marpa was a lay practitioner too, a married man. The two lives show different styles of practice with Milarepa living a solitary life in the mountains and experiencing great hardship, and Marpa living a social life as a farmer in society to outwards appearance no different from any other farmer. Traditionally, Milarepa is depicted as clad in white cotton, often his skin has a greenish hue from a diet of nettle soup and he has a hand to one ear as if listening to his own voice as a singer, and lips parted as if singing one of his famous songs of realization[1]

Historical development of his traditional life story

The earliest account of his life is attributed to Gampopa (though probably they are lecture notes by one of his students), and it leaves out many of the events of the later story. No hail storm, no murders, mother apparently dies young rather than his father, no building of towers[4]. This and the account by Rechungpa are the only ones where the authors stress their close association as disciple and teacher[3].

However the later story of the life of Milarepa is based on the traditional "Songs of Milarepa" and "Life of Milarepa" by Gtsang-smyon He-ru-ka. He was a nyönpa (Wylie: smyon pa) or "religious madman". When local villagers saw his body covered in human ashes and blood with his hair adorned by human fingers and toes [from corpses in charnel grounds], they gave him the name 'Nyönpa'.[1] He later used the name Trantung Gyelpo (Wylie: khrag 'thung rgyal po) "King of the Blood-drinkers", "blood drinker" being the Tibetan name for the meditational deity Heruka sometimes used in deity yoga. These eccentric ways were influenced by an Indian sect of yogis called Kapalikas or "skull-bearers", who practiced austerities as well as dressing in loincloths and human ashes and carrying symbols of the dakinis such as bone ornaments and skulls.[5]. Many monks questioned his behavior and way of dress but Tsangnyön was known to strongly defend his unconventional practice through rigorous argument and accurate quotations from scriptures. As well as a famous teacher, he was also a composer of religious songs. These are classics of Tibetan literature.[1]

Whether or not there was a true dark age of Buddhism, the eleventh century did see a revival of Buddhism. Milarepa's principal teacher Marpa the translator was one of the individuals who did this. Milarepa traditionally was the source by lineage of the Kagyu lineage and several other lineages also started with this disemmination of new texts into Tibet. The Nyingma lineage predates Milarepa, and in his life story Milarepa encounters a Nyingmapa teacher, but is unable to follow his instructions in the practice of the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen), which is described as a path that could lead him to Buddhahood easily with no effort. Having discovered this path is not suitable for him, he sets off on his quest to receive the teachings from Marpa the translator.[1]

Early life

According to the traditional life of Milarepa, he was born in the village of Kya Ngatsa – also known as Tsa – in Gungthang, a province of western Tibet, to a prosperous family, he was named Mila Thöpaga (Thos-pa-dga'), which means "A joy to hear." His family name, Josay, indicates noble descent, a sept of the Khyungpo or eagle clan.[6].


When his father died, he entrusted the upbringing of his wife and children to his brother. But Milarepa's uncle and aunt took all of the family's wealth and forced his mother and his sister Petra to work as servants, while Milarepa himself was sent away to study reading and writing. At his mother's request, Milarepa studied black magic whose efficacy was unquestioned at the time. While his aunt and uncle were having a party to celebrate the impending marriage of their son, he took his revenge by summoning a giant hailstorm to demolish their house, killing 35 people, although the uncle and aunt survived. On request of his mother, he then sent a hailstorm to destroy their crops destroying the entire harvest just as they were about to be reaped[1].

Amongst other attainments the biography says he was able to master Lung-gom-pa or long distance running by a series of bounds rather than in the conventional method used by modern runners. It is said to allow a practitioner to run at an extraordinary speed for days without stopping. [7][8] in Tibet, is said to allow a practitioner to run at an extraordinary speed for days without stopping. This technique could be compared to that practised by the Kaihogyo monks of Mount Hiei and by practitioners of Shugendo, Japan.[9][10]:

Many of Milarepa's deeds took place in the homeland of Chö kyi Drönma, the Samding Dorje Phagmo, and his life and songs were compiled by Tsangnyön Heruka, sponsored by her brother, the Gungthang king Thri Namgyal De.[11]

Milarepa later lamented his evil ways in his older years in conversation with Rechungpa: "In my youth I committed black deeds. In maturity I practised innocence. Now, released from both good and evil, I have destroyed the root of karmic action and shall have no reason for action in the future. To say more than this would only cause weeping and laughter. What good would it do to tell you? I am an old man. Leave me in peace."[12]

Overlooking Pelgyeling Gompa at Milarepa's Cave, Tibet.
The nine storey tower that Milarepa single-handedly built, Sekhar Gutok, Lhodrag, Tibet.

Tutelage under Marpa

Knowing that his revenge was wrong, Milarepa (then known by his boyhood name 'Fortuitous') set out to find a lama and was led to Marpa the Translator. Marpa proved a hard taskmaster. Before Marpa would teach Milarepa he had him build and then demolish three towers in turn. Milarepa was asked to build one final multi-story tower by Marpa at Lhodrag: this 11th century tower still stands.[13] When Marpa still refused to teach Milarepa, he went to Marpa's wife, who took pity on him. She forged a letter of introduction to another teacher, Lama Ngogdun Chudor, under whose tutelage he practiced meditation. However, when he was making no progress, he confessed the forgery and Ngogdun Chudor said that it was vain to hope for spiritual growth without the guru Marpa's approval.[1]

Milarepa returned to Marpa, and was finally shown the spiritual teachings. Milarepa then went into retreat under instruction from his teacher Marpa and supplied with food by Marpa's wife. After some years he had a dream that his mother was dead and his only sibiling his sister Peta Gonkyi was wandering friendless. He went to ask leave of his teacher, who said he could go, giving him parting instructions.[1]

He returned to his homeland briefly, to find his mother dead and her bones lying in a dusty heap in the ruins of the family house. Profoundly moved by this experience of impermanence, he then starts a series of retreats in remote mountain caves, and after protracted diligence for 12 years he attained the state of Vajradhara (complete enlightenment). He then became known as Milarepa. 'Mila' is Tibetan for; 'great man', and 'repa' means; 'cotton clad one.' At the age of 45, he started to practice at Drakar Taso (White Rock Horse Tooth) cave – "Milarepa's Cave", as well as becoming a wandering teacher. Here, he subsisted on nettle tea, leading his skin to turn green with a waxy covering, hence the greenish color he is often depicted as having, in paintings and sculpture.[1]


Nyanang Phelgyeling Monastery, also known as Sonam Gompa later in Nepal, which later became very famous in Nepal, is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in a tiny village called Nyanang in Tibet near the border of Nepal. Fortunately Nyanang Phelgyeling Monastery has the rare statue of Milerapa which was created by his own disciple (Bhu Rechung Pa ). The statue was created in the lifetime of Milarepa. The cave is consecrated to Milarepa. It is built around the cave where he once lived. "It was destroyed but has now been rebuilt and decorated by Nepali artisans. This is one of many caves associated with Milarepa between Langtang and Jomolungma."[14]


Milarepa statue, Pango Chorten, Gyantse, Tibet.

"In paintings, his slender torso is usually draped with a simple white cotton robe, the attire of a repa ( ras pa , literally “cotton-clad”), or itinerant yogin. His face may look hollow from years of living in the frigid caves of Tibet’s high snow mountains, or it may have a greenish hue from a diet of nothing but the broth of wild nettles. His legs are loosely crossed and wrapped with a special belt to help maintain a proper posture during long meditation sessions. His left hand rests in his lap in a gesture of deep contemplation. His right hand is held to his ear in the pose a singer might strike to better hear his own voice; his lips may be slightly parted as if singing one of the spontaneous songs of inner realization for which he is so famous. Surrounding him might be the many disciples he taught, or the demons he tamed and converted to Buddhism, or scenes of the miracles he performed.Such images would be instantly identifiable to all Tibetans, even the small community of non-Buddhist Tibetan Muslims and Christians. Members of every sect of Tibetan Buddhism venerate him as an exemplar of religious dedication and mastery. Many can recite his songs from memory."[1]

Milarepa's lama was Marpa Lotsawa, whose guru was Naropa, whose guru in turn was Tilopa. Milarepa is famous for many of his songs and poems, in which he expresses the profundity of his realization of the dharma. His songs were impulsive, not contrived or written down, and came about while he was immersed in enlightened states of consciousness.[citation needed]

Milarepa's life represented the ideal bodhisattva, and is a testament to the unity and interdependency of all Buddhist teachings – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. He showed that poverty is not a deprivation, but rather a component of emancipating oneself from the constrictions of material possessions; that Tantric practice entails discipline and steadfast perseverance; that without resolute renunciation and uncompromising discipline, as Gautama Buddha Himself stressed, all the sublime ideas and dazzling images depicted in Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism are no better than magnificent illusions.[15][16] He also had many disciples, male and female,[17][18] including Rechung Dorje Drakpa and Gampopa. His female disciples include Rechungma, Padarbum, Sahle Aui and Tsheringma.[19]

It was Gampopa who became Milarepa's spiritual successor, continued his lineage, and became one of the main lineage masters in Milarepa's tradition. Gampopa established the Kagyu path, based on the Mahamudra teachings he received from Milarepa, and the Indian Mahasiddha practices brought to Tibet by Marpa, which he combined with the Kadampa Lamrim teachings and the Kadam monastic and scholastic traditions.[20]

Gampopa's biography of Milarepa

The earliest accounts of his life are a text which though attributed to Gampopa seem instead to be "hurried lecture notes" by one of his disciples.[4] This story does not mention his mother and paternal relatives, or his father's death, and instead implies that his mother died early, the opposite of the traditional account, saying: "Since there were none but father and son, they were extremely poor". His training in sorcery is covered in a single sentence "He travled to Ü in search of sorcery, studied much sorcery and then returned. There is no description of murder or hail casting. When it comes to the meeting with Marpa, then the Nyingmapa lama just says "It is said that the one called Marpa Lotsawa who possesses instructions has arrived, so go there. I am unable to go because I am old and infirm. If I were able, I would go."

There is no mention of his meeting Marpa disguised as a simple plowman, or the trial of constructing towers, or his first meditation retreats. Those are just covered with "There are many stories about that period".

Gampopa mentions an interesting episode that is omitted from the later account. As a novice on his first retreat, he confused ordinary lamp light for the profound illumination of mediative experience.[4]

Milarepa then meditated in a cave with a butterlamp set upon his head. He opened his eyes at daybreak and [saw] there was a brilliant light. Just after that experience he thought some good qualities [of meditation] had developed but he had forgotten about the butterlamp.

This account has a brief mention of one of his songs, and the account of his death omits all the miraculous occurrences of the later account. Instead it just says that after he passed away, his body was cremated at both his long term retreat at Drin in Southern Tibet and Tise, at Mount Kailasa in the west.


See also


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 Quintman, A. and Heruka, T., 2010. The Life of Milarepa.
  2. Quintman, A., 2013. The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the biographical corpus of Tibet's great saint Milarepa. Columbia University Press.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Reviewed by Rondolino, M., 2015. The Yogin & the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 22, pp.13-24.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Quintman, A., 2013. The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the biographical corpus of Tibet's great saint Milarepa, [page 160 and following. Columbia University Press.
  5. Beer, Robert (2003). The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. Serindia Publications, Inc. p. 102. ISBN 978-1-932476-03-3. 
  6. Gtsang-smyon He-ru-ka, The life of Milarepa, tr. Lobsang Phuntshok Lhalungpa, Viking Press, 1979, p.12
  7. David-Néel, Alexandra (1993). Magic and mystery in Tibet. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books. p. 199. ISBN 9780809484065. OCLC 29182597. 
  8. Magic and Mystery in Tibet p.212
  9. The run of a lifetime Archived 2006-11-17 at the Wayback Machine.
  10. David-Néel, Alexandra (1932). Magic and Mystery in Tibet. pp. 202, 203. OCLC 1330945. ISBN 0285637924.  Google preview of alternate edition WorldCat list of 60 versions
  11. The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan translator Lobsang P. Lhalungpa written by He-Ru-Ka
  12. The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan translator Lobsang P. Lhalungpa written by He-Ru-Ka p.12
  13. Sekhar Gutog monastery in Lhodrag near Bhutan
  14. Dowman, Keith. 1988. The Power-places of Central Tibet: The Pilgrim's Guide. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London & New York. ISBN 0-7102-1370-0, p. 282.
  15. Mi-la-ras-pa (1999). The hundred thousand songs of Milarepa : the life-story and teaching of the greatest Poet-Saint ever to appear in the history of Buddhism = Rje-btsun Mi-la-ras-pa'i Mgur 'bum bzugs so. Zhang, Zhenji. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN 9781570624766. OCLC 40359306. 
  16. Mi-la-ras-pa. The hundred thousand songs of Milarepa : a new translation. Gtsa?-smyon He-ru-ka,, Stagg, Christopher,, Dzogchen Ponlop, Rinpoche (First edition ed.). Boulder. ISBN 9781559394482. OCLC 946987421. 
  17. Women in Tibet
  18. Rechungma
  19. Website of Gyalwa Karmapa, see: Women Disciples of Milarepa
  20. Gardner, Alexander (December 2009). "Gampopa Sonam Rinchen". The Treasury of Lives: Biographies of Himalayan Religious Masters. Retrieved 2013-08-18. 

Further reading

  • Liberation in One Lifetime: Biographies and Teachings of Milarepa, by Francis Tiso. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, June 2014. ISBN 978-1-58394-793-7.
  • The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet's Great Saint Milarepa, by Andrew Quintman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-231-16415-3.
  • Life Story of Milarepa, by Ken Albertsen, adapted from the translation by Lobsang P.Lhalungpa, Publications, 2008, ISBN 978-1-879338-07-4 (also available as audio-book).
  • The Life of Milarepa, translated by Andrew Quintman, Penguin Classics, 2010, ISBN 978-0-14-310622-7
  • The Life of Milarepa, translated by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa, Book Faith India, 1997, ISBN 81-7303-046-4
  • Milarepa: Songs on the Spot, translated by Nicole Riggs, Dharma Cloud Press, 2003, ISBN 0-9705639-3-0
  • The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa: A New Translation,Tsangnyön Heruka; under the guidance of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, translated by Christopher Stagg of the Nitartha Translation Network. Boulder, Shambhala, 2017. ISBN 9781559394482 OCLC 946987421
  • Milarepa, The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, translated by Garma C.C. Chang, City Lights Books, 1999, ISBN 1-57062-476-3
  • Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa: A Biography from the Tibetan. Edited by W. Y. Evans-Wentz. 1928. Oxford University Press. Paperback reprint 1974.
  • The Yogi's Joy: Songs of Milarepa Sangharakshita, Windhorse Publications, 2006, ISBN 1-899579-66-4
  • The Shadows of the Masters, Leonardo Vittorio Arena, ebook, 2013.
  • Drinking the Mountain Stream: Songs of Tibet’s Beloved Saint, Wisdom Publications, ISBN 0-86171-063-0

External links

Preceded by
Marpa Lotsawa
Kagyu school Succeeded by

YouTube Videos

Search for videos:

Selected videos:

  • Who is Milarepa?
    Description: A documentary exploring the historical Milarepa, based on interviews, footage from Milarepa (by Neten Chokling) and thankas depicting the life of Milarepa. Featuring Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Pema Chodron, Robert Thurman, Lobsang Lhalungpa and Trangu Rinpoche. This the first 4 minutes of the special feature on the DVD Dharma Edition and DVD Special Edition. Please see our website for more information.
  • Tale Of The Red Rock Jewel Valley - Milarepa
    Description: This story is read out of the book called "The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa" by Garma C. C. Chang.
    Description: Late in the eleventh century a wandering mendicant, the Yogin, starved himself in the frigid mountains of southern Tibet while undertaking ascetic practice. He was later recognized as a buddha famed for his poetry and songs of spiritual realization. Four hundred years later, a tantric adept emerged from the jungles of Tibet’s borderlands, naked, human entrails wound in his dangling dreadlocks. This adept, the Madman, composed a new and novelistic version of the Yogin’s life. The story it told of a great Tibetan saint would inspire new forms of religious literature across the Himalayan world, new styles of artistic production, new traditions of spiritual practice. In time, the Madman’s version of the Yogin’s life would become Tibet’s most famous book.

    In this lecture, Professor Andrew Quintman explores the extraordinary life story of Yogin Milarepa, drawing on his new book, The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa, tracing its historical formation, changing narrative voices, and enduring legacy across the Tibetan region. He presents a new way of reading The Life of Milarepa by foregrounding the unique relationship between Yogin and Madman together with the processes through which the narrative took shape.
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