This will not be a rehash of well-known facts about the life of this incredible Tibetan holy man. These are easy to find.  But his lifestory is filled with many historical facts, legends and myths, and all are important in understanding what he was all about and his significance both for Tibetan Buddhism and for all of us, yet not all the details get the “visibility” or the interpretation that they should.    The hagiography of any saint always needs careful reading—especially “between the lines”!


The first important thing to say is that there is a certain “anti-institutional” flavor to Milarepa’s spiritual path,  which kind of gets glossed over in the “official version” of  his various representations.  Milarepa was flourishing around 1100 in Tibet when that area was experiencing a profound shift in religious culture from the old Bon religion to the new one of Buddhism imported from India.  Interestingly enough in Europe at about this time it was the period between two great Western Christian saints:  St. Romuald and St. Francis, and the latter himself is also somewhat of an anti-institutional figure who has been domesticated by  ecclesial  history.  It is interesting that all three have a certain orientation to solitude, more or less.  In Francis’s case poverty was the chief value but solitude played an important role.  It can be said that the solitary one and institutional religion seldom fit together comfortably or without tension.  This can be seen in the Christian West from the Desert Fathers on.


Returning back to Milarepa, it is important to underline that Milarepa was a layman, not a traditional Buddhist monk, not a Buddhist bhikku.  He never belonged to any monastery or monastic group.  There were already Buddhist monasteries in Tibet at the time so he could have joined them, and there are stories that once his spiritual life was beginning to become known,  there were established monks who felt threatened by him and tried to show him up in their knowledge and their spiritual superiority.  Needless to say they not only failed but he “converted” them to be his disciples.  In any case, one can sense a real tension between the solitary Milarepa and the first rudiments of established Buddhism in Tibet.  Furthermore, Milarepa’s great teacher, Marpa, who was so instrumental in importing Buddhist texts into Tibet from India and translating them into Tibetan, well, he also was a layman, a married layman was Milarepa’s guru!


At this point let us note that within Tibetan Buddhism, the Kagyudpa School or lineage claims Milarepa as within their “ambience.”  In actuality this is done retrospectively, and this is perfectly fine–as long as we simply see the whole thing as a guru–disciple lineage that follows a certain line.  Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa, etc, etc.  But when the thing becomes formalized along some pretty strict institutional lines and is even called a “sect” of Tibetan Buddhism and when one sect hardly speaks to another, I think we have something that would not have really mattered one iota to Milarepa.  This is an outrageous thing to say for a non-Tibetan like myself, but in a sense Milarepa has to be “liberated” from the Kagyudpa label just as much as St. Francis has to be liberated from the Franciscans!!


If Milarepa deliberately rejected a formal institutional role for himself, he also included the institution of monasticism and priesthood in this rejection.  Monasteries are on his list of the “six deceptions”!!  Note this little quote:


“Monasteries are like a collecting-station for hollow drift.

The priestly life … is deceptive and illusory to me.

Of such prisons I have no need.”


Then he goes on to say:  “Having made a monastery within my body,

I forgot the monastery outside.”


Another rather interesting anti-institutional flavor to Milarepa’s spiritual journey is his relationship with women.  All the great world religions have problems in this regard in usually relegating women to some inferior position or as subservient to men.  Milarepa, like Jesus, does not really solve “the problem,” but in the case of both of them in their encounters with women they show the way to a transcendence of the restrictions of social norms and they empower women to overcome the narrowness of religious institutions.  In Buddhism itself, it was Ananda, one of the first disciples of Buddha, who convinced the Buddha himself to admit women into “the path”–thus you had Buddhist nuns from the beginning, but one still has the feeling that they “are riding 2nd class.”  Milarepa is much more direct and radical.  In one story he meets a young girl of about 15 with whom he has an exchange.  She is intrigued by what he is all about and wants to learn.  He tells her:

“Living in a rugged, deserted, and solitary hut is the Outer Practice.

Complete disregard of the self-body is the Inner Practice.

Thoroughly Knowing the Absolute is the Absolute Practice.

I am a yogi who knows all three.

Is there a disciple here who wishes to learn them?”


She becomes his disciple just like that, no formal “nun stuff”–and the story says that she achieves perfect enlightenment in this lifetime—just like Milarepa!  Another encounter with another young girl of 16 is even more interesting.  This time Milarepa, on another one of his journeys, stops at a well begging this girl for some food.  She rebuffs him and walks away toward her home.  He follows behind her.  She still ignores him.  He plops down outside her doorway overnight.  She has a special dream during the night, and the next morning she goes out and tells Milarepa the following:


” Please listen to me, Great Repa Yogi, accomplished One.

Looking at human lives, they remind me of dew on grass.

Reflecting on this my heart is full of grief.

My friends and relatives are as merchants passing in the street.

My native land is like a den of vice. …

My past life drives me from behind;

cooking and household duties pull me on.

This world is but a play:

the endless toil of housework,

the struggle for a living,

the leaving of one’s gracious parents,

the giving up of one’s own life to one’s betrothed.

Sometimes I think to myself: Does it make sense? To freely give yourself with your parents’ goods to someone who for life enslaves you as a servant?

At first a lover is an angel, then a demon, frightening and outrageous,

In the end he is a fierce elephant who threatens to destroy you.

Thinking thus, I feel sad and weary.

So now this maiden will devote herself to the Dharma!

Now she will join your disciples!”


Now this sounds like a REAL feminist!!  She is not too keen on her arranged marriage, and she doesn’t ask Milarepa for permission to join or to be accepted as a disciple.  She says she’s in; that’s it.  Milarepa has hardly anything to teach her; he merely gives his seal of approval as it were to her going off and being a hermitess.  What’s really funny in this story is something that is not fully evident until you stop and think about it:  she is fully in charge of the situation at all times in this story.   Years later they meet again, and she is one of the accomplished ones.



Finally, just a minor but interesting point.  Milarepa often calls himself a mendicant, a beggar.  He moves around quite a bit.  It is said that he inhabited something like 26 different caves during his life!  Usually he did not eat meat–he did not want to kill animals–but there are several stories where he does eat meat when offered it by some hunters who find his cave.  Like one of the great Desert Fathers, he considers the demands of hospitality more important than his own “purity” or the formalities of a monastic rule.


Let us conclude with a humorous but sharp observation by Milarepa:


” “When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.”





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