Milarepa, the most popular saint of Tibet Buddhism, was admired for his unwavering commitment to casting aside all worldly aims in the quest for complete awakening. Born in 1052, in his youth Milarepa reportedly did much evil, killing people through sorcery and black magic. Regretting these murders, he turned his mind toward enlightenment and spent the rest of his life meditating in remote mountain regions, where he eventually achieved his goal. His spontaneous songs of realization, offered to disciples and passersby, have remained a most cherished source of inspiration for Tibetan Buddhists throughout the millennium since his passing in 1135. While Milarepa was still a child his father died. By fraudulent means, his aunt and uncle took possession of Milarepa’s inheritance and forced his mother, sister, and Milarepa into a life of poverty and servitude. Seeking revenge, Milarepa learned black magic and eventually killed most of his adversaries through sorcery. Later, while contemplating the principle of karma, he was filled with remorse and decided to practice the Buddhist teachings to purify his sins. He met the renowned master Marpa (1012–1097) and immediately developed a strong bond of fervent devotion. To purify Milarepa from his negative past, and to prepare him for the esoteric teachings, Marpa challenged Milarepa with physical and mental trials before finally offering instruction.
Once Milarepa had received Marpa’s teachings,he showed an unflinching resolve to apply their meaning. Throughout his life he remained in the mountains, often meditating in solitude and always focused on Marpa’s instructions. Although
Milarepa sought seclusion, disciples slowly gathered. To these students, the foremost being Gampopa (1079–1153) and Rechungpa (1084–1161), Milarepa offered his liberating guidance. Milarepa often taught by means of spiritual songs that touched the hearts of his listeners and awakened their minds to the realization of indivisible wisdom and compassion.The penetrating insights and poetic beauty expressed in Milarepa’s songs have inspired practitioners from all denominations of Tibetan Buddhism, and to these followers he stands aloft as testimony to the human potential for full awakening within a single life.
(Andreas Doctor in “Holy People of the World”. Recommended reading: “The Life of Milarepa” by Tsangnyön Heruka)
There are many legends of Milarepa’s miraculous deeds in his later life. This is how Milarepa became the only human ever to ascend to the top of the holy mountain Kailash:
One day Tibet’s legendary yogi saint Milarepa arrived at Mount Kailash, along with a band of his cotton-clad repa disciples. They intended to circumambulate the holy mountain, and then to offer vajra feasts to the wheel of ultimate bliss, the lord of the mandala, Korlo Demchog.
The famous miracle-working Bonpo priest Naro Bonchung met them, and challenged their right to the sacred site. He told the Buddhists that the holy mountain was the exclusive domain of the Bonpos; if they wished to sojourn there, they would have to take up the Bon religion and practices. On behalf of his group, the Song Master Milarepa refused. Milarepa chanted aloud the Buddha’s prediction that Kailash would become an important site for the accomplishment of Buddhist practice, and added that his own master Marpa had likewise spoken highly of the sacred mountain.
Then a series of magical contests ensued, in order to determine who was superior, Milarepa or the Bonpo; and, by extension, whose doctrine was superior, the Buddhism brought from India only a few centuries earlier or the ancient indigenous religion of Tibet known as Bon, founded by Shenrab in the Kailash region a millennium earlier. Both masters displayed prodigious feats of magic. The disciples of both teachers were overawed. Naro straddled the entire lake with his magical body; but Milarepa placed the entire lake in his fingertip without harming a single lake-dwelling creature. Naro lifted a yak-sized rock with his little finger; Milarepa lifted the entire lake!
And so it went, the Song Master gaining the upper hand. Spontaneously singing extemporaneous songs of enlightenment, as was his wont, Milarepa delighted the ears of the dakinis, local mountain gods and human listeners with his soulful lyrics. Naro Bonchung was too proud to simply submit to Mila’s obvious superiority. As a finally gambit, he challenged the wraithlike, green-skinned yogi to a mountain climbing trial, a race to the very summit of Kailash — a race which he felt sure the emaciated, cotton-clad repa would lose. It was therefore agreed that whoever first reached the summit on the day of the full moon would be declared the rightful owner of the sacred mountain. Then Mila and his disciples spent their days praying, performing yogic exercises and meditating, enjoying the power places of the holy pilgrimage place. Meanwhile, Naro Bunchun underwent arduous training, in order to get himself in shape for the challenging climb, performing especially energetic yogic exercises and chanting magical mantric incantations, beseeching his deities to grant him the power to win the contest. On the appointed full moon day, the fifteenth day of the lunar month, Milarepa uncharacteristically slept late. Meanwhile, with the first light the Bonpo wonderworker, in a green, swastika-embellished cloak, took flight up the towering mountainside, riding upon his skullbone shamanic drum. Mila’s disciples were alarmed, and instantly woke the master. “The Bonpo is already half way up towards the summit!” they cried, while Mila leisurely stretched himself, catlike, in the morning sun. Mila slowly prostrated three times and chanted, melodiously invoking the Three Jewels; then praising his Lord Guru, Marpa the Translator, “Who put Buddhahood in the palm of my hand.” Suddenly, he gestured his right hand in a menacing, wrathful mudra in the direction of the sailing Bonpo shaman; Naro Bunchun was instantly arrested in midflight, and magically bound to circle the mountain rather than ascend further. Donning his white yogi shawl in lieu of wings, Milarepa shouted “Hung Pet!” and leapt up into the firmament. Riding the rays of the bright morning sun, in a trice he stood atop the summit of the holy mountain, claiming it as a pilgrimage place for all seekers of truth, without exception. When the Bonpo saw Milarepa in a single bound ascend the great mountain, he fell off his magic flying drum in amazement. The drum bounced all the way to the bottom, leaving step-like impressions on the southern slope, which pilgrims still use to begin ascending the mountain today.
Milarepa is not only known for his legendary deeds, but he also transmitted the dharma in many poems. One of them brilliantly describes the paradox of the master-disciple relationship and awakening:
For those of weaker minds the omniscient Buddha taught,
To accord with the predispositions of those to be trained,
That the objects of knowledge have real existence;
But from the perspective of higher truth, nothing
From a hindering spirit to a buddha has real existence.
There are no meditators, no objects of meditation,
No spiritual progress, no path with signs,
No resultant kayas, no wisdom,
And therefore no nirvana.
Solely by means of names and mental labels
The stable and moving elements of the three worlds
Are established. In reality from the very beginning
They are unproduced, uncreated, baseless, and innately unborn.