His name was Milarepa and he was a murderer. The start of this yogi’s life was marred by violence, hatred and revenge. But mention his name to any Tibetan and their eyes will well up with tears of devotion and joy. For this is a story about change. This is a man who recognized his flaws and mistakes and turned his life around. This is a man who became the greatest yogi the world has ever seen.
Who was Milarepa?
Milarepa was born into a wealthy family in the snowy land of Tibet in 1052. Early on in his teenage years his father passed away and, with no one left to control the estate, his aunt and uncle stole his entire inheritance. Filled with rage and hatred the young Milarepa went away to learn various dark arts and soon returned to murder them. In fact, it is said that the vengeful Milarepa was so angry that he killed 35 people in his uncle’s village on the night of the revenge.
Meeting his Guru
Soon after these dreadful events Milarepa’s life started to fall to pieces. He had reached an extremely dark place and realized very deeply that his life had turned out all wrong. He was ashamed of who had become and what he had done to his family. He realized the grave mistake he had made.
So he set out to make things right. On his quest of redemption Milarepa met a man named Marpa who had brought all of the Buddhist teachings to Tibet from India. Marpa had endured great hardships to bring these teachings back and it is said that without Marpa the Buddhist teachings would not have survived in the land of snows.
The moment Milarepa first saw Marpa was magic. Legend tells us that Marpa was out in a field having a drink and Milarepa passed him on the road. When his eyes first fell on Marpa the whole world stood still and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Milarepa had no idea who the man was but due to their strong connection from past lives it is said that Milarepa experienced a deep state of meditation by just looking at Marpa.
The great hardships that Marpa put him through
Pictured: the final tower built by Milarepa
Milarepa studied with many Buddhist masters but none of them seemed to be able to help him. In his heart he knew had to study with Marpa. So he went back to ask Marpa and asked for help but Marpa just scolded him and chased him away. Each time Milarepa requested teachings the wrathful Marpa would beat him and kick him out. Finally, though, he gave in and made a deal with Milarepa:
“Build me a large tower and I will teach you the Dharma,” he said.
So Milarepa set to work. He gathered stones and rocks and wood from all over the country side. After many weeks of backbreaking labor Milarepa went back to Marpa and told him the tower was complete. Marpa went to inspect the work and upon seeing it started yelling at Milarepa telling him that he had done it all wrong and that he needed to start again!
This went on nine more times.
The last tower Milarepa built was nine stories high and took many months to complete. Remember, this was before cars, cranes and cement mixers. It took such a toll on his body it is said that he had open sores all over his back and that he was now a hunch back from carrying all the rocks. But he did it. And his dedication to Marpa never wavered. He wanted the teachings so much.
After the last tower was built Milarepa stumbled back to Marpa’s house where the teacher was giving some advanced teachings to some other yogis. Milarepa fell on the floor by Marpa’s feet and begged for teachings. But, as always, Marpa told him to go away.
Completely at his wit’s end Milarepa decided to kill himself. He had murdered 35 people and without the teachings of the Buddha he felt there was no way he could make things right and no way to benefit those dead people. So he hung a rope on a tree and put it around his neck. He took a deep breath and braced himself and just as he was about to step to his death Marpa approached and said that he was now ready to receive the highest teachings of Buddhism. Marpa had accepted him as a disciple.
It is said that Marpa put him through all of these hardships to help him purify his negative karma and to make him a suitable vessel for the teachings. Without those hardships Milarepa’s mind would not have been prepared and he would have made no progress due to the severity of his past actions. Marpa’s foresight had allowed him to see how the back breaking work would benefit the new yogi and help him to make quick progress.
Studying with Marpa and meditating in caves
Milarepa then received all of Marpa’s teachings. One night during a very secret teaching Marpa had a dream where a beautiful female Buddha told him that Milarepa would become the holder of his lineage and to therefore teach him well. Thus, Marpa taught Milarepa everything he had learned in India, like one pot pouring water into another pot.
Once the yogi was fully trained he said his goodbyes and set off into the wilderness. He took a vow to stay alone in the caves until he achieved enlightenment and he never broke this vow. Milarepa would sometimes brick up the entrance of his cave so that he could not leave and meditate in there for years, food and drink being passed to him through a crack in the bricks.
Enlightenment in one lifetime
The Buddhist teachings say that it is possible for someone to attain enlightenment in one lifetime but that it is extremely rare. For most Buddhist practitioners it will take many many lifetimes to accumulate the wisdom and compassion that is needed. But Milarepa did it. He is renowned as the only person in Tibetan history to have attained complete enlightenment in one body, one life time. And that is why he is the greatest yogi of all.
What Milarepa can teach us about living life
Milarepa was known as a great poet. He would often roam around the countryside singing songs and writing poems for the local people. I would like to share with you some of Milarepa’s most famous poems, teachings and quotes in the hope that it might benefit someone out there.
1. Be humble
“Take the lowest place, and you shall reach the highest.” – Milarepa
Milarepa was known to be very humble. He would wear nothing but a few dirty old rags and he would never sit on a high throne or seat. He had no fancy monastery but instead chose to dwell in caves and on mountains.
Many of his songs are about humility. Milarepa often talks about how humility allows us to develop compassion and love whereas arrogance causes us to feel better and more important than everyone else. He often scolded local people for being arrogant saying that pride is the cause suffering because it is so self-centered. And when you are arrogant and proud and things don’t go your way, you suffer.
2. Be mindful of death
“Life is short, and the time of death is uncertain; so apply yourselves to meditation. Avoid doing wrong, and acquire merit, to the best of your ability, even at the cost of life itself. In short, act so that you will have no cause to be ashamed of yourselves; and hold fast to this rule.” – Milarepa
One of the key themes in Milarepa’s poems and songs is death. It seems as though his past as a murderer stayed with him and he was always mindful of the fact that death could come at any time. But Milarepa used this knowledge as inspiration, not as a cause for depression. Instead of worrying about death he faced his fears and used his mortality as his primary motivation to practice hard.
I often try to encourage my readers to do the same. We have no idea when we are going to die but we know that death is a certainty. So we should use this precious opportunity to achieve our goals and do some good. That is what Milarepa did. He made the most of his time by being constantly aware of the fact that time could run out.
3. Be mindful of impermanence
“All worldly pursuits have but one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow; acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings in destruction; meetings in separation; births in death.” – Milarepa
One thing that I wish my parents spent more time educating me on is the truth of impermanence. It is a very useful thing to understand but one which most people, sadly, never really grasp.
Milarepa often told people not to bee too attached to things because it wouldn’t last. Relationships, wealth, jobs, houses, countries, etc. All of it will fade like a rainbow. None of it will last forever. And by understanding and respecting this truth one is able to enjoy life a lot more. Our relationships to the world become more realistic and healthy. We are not always grasping at things trying to prevent them from ending. When we understand impermanence we are more likely to appreciate something while it is here.
4. Don’t be fooled by worldly distractions
“The affairs of the world will go on forever. Do not delay the practice of meditation.” – Milarepa
I love this quote. In fact, I have it as my desktop background and I read it when I need to remind myself that there is something else to do other than work, eat, sleep and work.
We can all identify with this saying, even if we aren’t meditation practitioners. The affairs of the world will go on forever. There will always be someone or something getting in the way of our hopes and dreams. It might be work or money or some other obstacle but as soon as you overcome it, a new one will appear.
Milarepa is telling us not to waste time but to get on with it. There are always going to be distractions and problems but we need to make progress anyway. This is very important.
5. Live and die without regret
“My religion is not Buddhism. My religion is to live and die without regret.” – Milarepa.
This is my favorite quote of all time. Not just of Milarepa, but of anyone, anywhere. I read it and I feel inspired to be a better man and to do everything I can to make my life beneficial and worthwhile. I love it because it hits to the heart of the matter and expresses how horrible it would be to be on death’s door and have regrets about things you have done (or not done!) during your youth.
The Songs of Milarepa
If you are interested in learning more about this great yogi I highly encourage you to read the famous book called The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. This is my all time favorite book. It is a majestic collection of all of Milarepa’s songs and poems and teachings.
It is an extremely pithy read. Sometimes he sings about what it is like living inside a cave and you really feel like you are right there next to him. Other times he sings about how his compassion burns inside him like a fire and you get a sense of what it must be like to experience true love.
All in all it is an amazing read. This book has been in every household in Tibet for hundreds of years. It is read to children at a young age and then studied in the monasteries by the monks. You would be hard pressed to find a single Tibetan who cannot recite at least one of Milarepa’s poems off by heart.
This post could have gone on forever. Milarepa’s life story can teach us so much about who we are and what we can become. Most of all, however, it shows us that we all have the potential to change our lives and our own situations. We are the masters of our own destiny.