Mila Grubum: The One Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, Tibetan Buddhist Hermit
Milarepa (or, Mi-La-Ras-Pa, 1052-1135) has been perhaps the best known Tibetan Buddhist figure in the West up to the popularization of Buddhism by the present Dalai Lama. Before the 1958 crisis in Tibet, only the work of scholars such as E. Y. Evans-Wentz and the writings of early travelers like Alexandra Neal-David were the chief sources of the world's awareness or conception of Tibetan Buddhism. But in Tibet, Milarepa was famous.
Milarepa is still the most outstanding and accessible source because he is a veritable ambassador of Tibetan Buddhism. His biography reflects the still tenuous culture of Buddhist Tibet in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, between the primitive but influential Bon and the models of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist India. Details of his life are embedded in his Songs, and in one other source.
Throughout the Mila Grubum or "Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa" --illuminating narratives of his life as well as copious dohas or "songs," devotional and poetic recitations or sayings -- Milarepa offers a complete exposition of the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, while the compilers reveal in detail illustrative anecdotes about his eremitical and teaching life. As translator Garma Chang notes of the Mila Grubum:
It has been read as the biography of a saint, a guide book for devotions, a manual of Buddhist Yoga, a volume of songs and poems, and even a collection of Tibetan folklore and fairy tales.
Milarepa means "Mila, the cotton-clothed," alluding to the skimpiness of his clothing as a hermit. His early life is a chronicle of hardship and misfortune. He was born of prosperity but his father died young, and his rapacious relatives seized all of his mother's property. Impoverished, he passed his youth laboring in harsh conditions with little benefit. When he was old enough, his mother persuaded him to learn sorcery to wreck vengeance on his relations, otherwise too powerful to overcome. Dutifully, Milarepa learned black magic, and succeeded in murdering his unscrupulous clan. So he recovered some of his patrimony for his mother and sister.
But Milarepa could not reconcile himself to the evil he had done. He repudiated his deeds and decided to devote the rest of his life to a spiritual path. He studied Buddhism but no teacher could free him from guilt and a haunted conscience until he encountered Marpa.
Marpa was a translator recently returned from India, where he had been studying, and was married: a Buddhist layman. Milarepa placed himself under the authority of this guru (Chang's translation) or "root mentor" (Robert Thurman's translation).
Marpa subjected Milarepa to a harsh regime of physical labor and mental discipline. The mentor ordered Milarepa to build a house without any help, digging, hauling, making bricks and walls, floors and roof, finishing the house fit for occupancy. Then he was ordered to tear it down and build another. This went on successively for many years, without explanation from the outwardly harsh and gruff Marpa.
Milarepa labored without respite, in cold and exhaustion. He was forced to meditate long hours without rest or exception, often put to new efforts at Marpa's apparently cruel or capricious whim, driving Milarepa to the brink of collapse and despair.
But Milarepa persisted, knowing that his past deeds were enormous in their treachery, and feeling in his heart that he deserved nothing but punishment. Gradually, the effect of his past on his mind waned without a counterpart pride or self-satisfaction. But he was not yet conscious of it.
At last Marpa judged Milarepa worthy of the final steps in breaking from his past and realizing the end of the ego that sustained it. Marpa assigned Milarepa to live in solitude on a mountain-side in meditation. Milarepa obeyed was progressing for nearly a year. But one night he happened to dream that he had returned home to discover his mother dead and his sister a beggar, and the property for which he had pursued murder now neglected and overrun. The dream disturbed him. Translator Chang summarizes:
Stricken with grief and longing to see his mother, he left Marpa and went back to his home village, where all the premonitions of his dream were confirmed. Witnessing this painful human existence helplessly and futilely consumed in fleeting evanescence, an anguish of desire to renounce the world wrung his heart. He made a solemn vow that he would meditate on a remote mountain uninterruptedly until he reached the Ultimate Enlightenment.
Milarepa found a mountain cave and dwelt there alone in meditation for twelve years. His methodology was mahamudra, an equivalent of Chan or Zen in its emphasis on practice and No-Mind, but including breathwork, recitation, and bowing. The story tells how Milarepa remained in the cave year round, naked and subsisting on nettles, his body turning green from the nettles (or from the algae growing on his skin). But finally Milarepa attained enlightenment, and a new phase of his life began.
Milarepa's Hermit Life
Milarepa's feat did not go unnoticed in the region, so that though he was consequently always a hermit, his fame was already widespread. Nor did he throughout his life refuse visitors who sought his advice, blessing, discipleship or to engage him in contentious debate. This period properly marks the beginning of his "Hundred Thousand Songs," which, of course, were never written by him but were recorded by adherents, contemporaries, successors, and oral tradition. So uniform in structure, content, and doctrine are the songs, embodied in biographical frames, that taken together, the extant songs (the original number will never be known) form an exemplary pattern of both Milarepa's life and his teaching.
Milarepa's chief place of meditation was Snow Mountain in the so-called Red Rock Jewel Valley. Here he remained in summer. In autumn he traveled, a wanderer or mendicant seeking alms. In winter he dwelt in forests, meditating. In spring he emerged again, wandering meadows, hills, and brooks.
During the months of public wandering, Milarepa taught freely, but even in seclusion others came to listen to him. One typical song relates that he "stayed in a village for some time, but soon became very saddened by the worldliness of everyone there." He did what he could, teaching, and then moved on.
Milarepa was able to abide his frigid mountain home because of the ability to generate tummo, or "vital heat," a Tantric discipline by which he was able to keep his body warm. With little to eat, nevertheless, solitude sustained him:
The falling snow enclosed my house of meditation.
Dakinis [i.e. goddesses] gave me food and sustenance.
The water of Snow Mountain was the purest draught.
All was done without effort.
There is no need to farm where there is no demand for food.
My store is full without preparation or hoarding.
By observing my own mind, all things are seen;
By sitting in a solitary place, the royal throne is reached.
As a wandering mendicant and solitary, Milarepa is reminiscent of a Jain ascetic, a Hindu sadhu, a Japanese hijiri, rather than a Buddhist bhikku typically identified with a monastery. But Milarepa deliberately rejected a formal institutional role for himself. He included monasteries in his list of the six "deceptions":
Monasteries are like collecting-station for hollow drift.
The priestly life ... is deceptive and illusory to me.
Of such prisons I have no need.
Naturally these sentiments did not endear him to Buddhist and Bon religious. They sought him out with the purpose of catching him in doctrinal error, of humiliating him before the common people, being jealous of his popularity. During a famine, a local monastery had turned away beseeching villagers seeking food, insisting that because the monks did not serve the villagers or consult "heretics" such as Milarepa, they owed nothing of their stores to anyone.
The monks had decided to drive Milarepa out of the locale. "Milarepa's teaching is heretical and evil," they agreed. A group of three representatives came to Milarepa, who had been forewarned of their approach by his own disciple Rechungpa. The scholar-monks challenged Milarepa on three points: 1) that he was a layman unfit to teach, 2) that his practice was wrong, and 3) that he had an ignorant layman as his mentor. Milarepa responded so clearly and convincingly that the three scholar-monks joined the disciples of Milarepa. When their superiors saw the monks in Milarepa's entourage, they were "consumed with rage" and cried out: "You scoundrels, dirty lice, betrayers!" These superiors confronted Milarepa in contentious discussions of philosophy and practice until they, too, became convinced of Milarepa's knowledge and holiness. This lengthy section of the Songs is entitled "The Challenge from the Logicians."
The confrontation with Bon priests was not over doctrine but magic. A Bon priest wanted to outdo his rival in miracles but was consistently outdone by Milarepa. These scenarios reflect cultural tensions of the era, the decline of one religion and the ascension of another. But Milarepa was not interested in magic. Though the miracles reported in the Songs vary from practical (such as healing the sick) to imaginative and hagiographical (becoming invisible, holding up a lake, splitting a boulder with a look, shrinking to fit in a yak's horn, ascending to the sky and disappearing, flying from one place to another), Milarepa insists that miracles are intended only to convert the impious and to improve practice. The "natural" miracles of tummo, solitary living, ascetic life, and enlightenment dominate the narratives.
Like hermits East and West, Milarepa was a challenge to institutional religious orders and to conventional beliefs and practices. And like hermits East and West he was respected and admired by local common people once he was known to them. Milarepa was judged both by his lifestyle and the content of his words.
His chief disciples came from the villages through which he passed, not from the learned or wealthy but from the farmers. But all classes of people were attracted to him. While his most famous disciple was Rechungpa, the ox-herder -- who was to be called Milarepa's "heart-son" -- another was Gambopa, the son of a physician, who was to be called his "foremost disciple."
Women and the Path
Perhaps Milarepa's most important disciples were women, and what Milarepa says of them was a particular challenge to both orthodox belief of his day and to social custom. One song is specifically titled "A Woman's Role in the Dharma." Here are two stories, about Barbadom and Sahle Aui.
One day Milarepa was traveling alone and came to a house where a fifteen-year old girl was directing laborers in the harvest. Milarepa asked for alms and Barbadom directed him to the house, where she would go shortly. He entered the house, where the grandmother rushed at him, angrily shouting:
You miserable yogi-beggars! I never see you in one place. In the summer you come begging milk and butter! In winter you come for grain! Now likely you want to sneak in here and steal the jewelry of my daughter and daughter-in-law!"
But Milarepa bid her to patience and offered a lengthy song that assuaged the old woman's anger and frustration with teachings and virtues of Buddhism. When Barbadom listened to Milarepa she was moved to admire his words and to ask further of his practice. Milarepa responded:
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?
Barbadom pursued Milarepa with a firm line of questions to elicit from him his complete teachings, and these she vowed to follow.
From then on, Barbadom strove to meditate upon the true nature of the mind, and eventually she achieved perfect eealization in one life. At her death she flew to the Dakini's Pure Land in her human body. People all heard the sound of the small drum that she was carrying at the time.
The importance of the life of Bombardom is in demonstrating that women were "capable" of enlightenment and could, furthermore, practice without authorities overseeing them. The story of Sahle Aui is even more instructive.
Sahle Aui was sixteen years old. One day, while fetching water home, she encountered Milarepa on a road, where he requested a meal from her. Sahle Aui put him off but he followed her. She left him outside overnight, that night dreaming auspiciously. She took it as a sign and going out with food the next morning asked the alms-beggar if he was Milarepa, as her dream had suggested. He acknowledged. She was then encouraged to recite her own perceptive songs.
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!
This is a clear feminine voice, not only in the history of Tibetan Buddhism but in any literature, resonating beyond time and place. And it is directed to a hermit.
Sahle Aui's song continues, revealing her depth of understanding, making Milarepa's elucidation of philosophy and practice hardly necessary. She gave a great feast in honor of Milarepa, then "renounced all worldly affairs and went to meditate on the mountain of Non yul in the Mya Non area, while Milarepa left for the Red Rock of Drin."
Some years later, Milarepa set out to visit Sahle Aui, whom he now addressed as "Sahle Aui, the hermit." Meeting her, he inquired of her practice. Her song reveals her progress:
I have renounced all men, and given myself to meditation.
For many years I have avoided soft cushions,
and meditated in mahamudra without distraction.
I am a woman aspiring to Nirvana. ...
Sahle Aui became one of the four great yogini disciples of Milarepa.
Milarepa and Animals
While Milarepa's ideas about women were radical in their day, he also interpreted the issue of killing and eating animals, which some contemporary Buddhists leave ambiguous. Passages of the Songs do suggest that Milarepa ate whatever food was presented to him, but full narratives of how he felt about animals are more compelling.
Milarepa could not tolerate the killing of animals for any reason. On one occasion, he intervened to save a deer from a hunter and his dog, preaching the dharma to each, so that the hunter renounced his bow and arrow. Another time Milarepa entered a village just when a butcher was slaughtering a sheep. The sheep was mortally wounded but managed to escape to Milarepa, who performed the Transformation Yoga for the sheep and delivered its consciousness to the Bodhi-Path. With overwhelming compassion, Milarepa sang:
How pitiful are sentient beings in Samsara ...
How foolish and sad it is to indulge in killing;
How sad to commit an act that in the end will hurt oneself;
How sad to build a sinful wall of meat, made of one's dying parents' flesh;
How sad to see meat eaten and blood flowing!
These passages are unambiguous. But compassion does not depend on a belief in Buddhism. Milarepa's sentiment here is universal.
On another occasion, Milarepa arrives too late to assist an dying man, but when he arrives at the house, he forbids anyone present to move. He delicately sifts dirt from an inner room to discover an insect, which is the reincarnated man, for whom Milarepa performs an expiatory practice.
Milarepa's eremiticism involved a strong component of teaching, but his notion of discipleship was never based on authority or ritual. His criteria for a potential disciple was a simple set of questions pointing out the nature of the hermit life:
Can you persist in the ascetic life?
Is your will strong enough to renounce desire?
Can you persevere alone in rugged places?
Can you depend upon a qualified mentor?
Can you live in destitution and endure hardship?
Can you produce the warm and blissful Inner Heat?
Can you live alone in a desolate land?
Can you live in a humble and lowly way?
Do you realize the precariousness of all life?
To Milarepa, discipleship means eremitic life. But his criteria is not doctrinal and is open to the lay person. Milarepa was, of course, confident that meditation and enlightenment converged with certain principles. But he celebrated the hermit life as the path itself:
A yogi, I roam the mountains.
Like a great Mandala, my body is full of bliss.
Cleansed of desires and pride, I feel well and happy.
With longing for diversions extinguished, I feel joy in solitude.
Since I have renounced all things, I am happy in a desolate land.
Since I have cut all ties with kin, getting and saving are not worries.
Happy and joyous do I live ... without plans or schemes.
I want neither fame nor glory.
Wherever I stay, whatever I wear or eat,
I fell truly content.
Favorite passages expressive of the hermit life include "The Song of a Yogi's Joy" the "First Meeting with Rechungpa," and the "Gray Rock Vajra Enclosure," all too lengthy to quote here. The following passage from the preaching at Mt. Bombo might serve as an epithet:
I have no regret for my past deeds.
Now I am old but why should I be regretful?
When I die I shall have no fear, only joy.
Dearest disciples, you who renounce the world:
Practice with determination,
With a "happy-to-die" feeling when you meditate.
The "Hundred Thousand Songs" were compiled anonymously and contain biographical information; the more complete and traditional biographical material was collected by Gtsan-smyon He-Ru-Ka in the 15th century.
- The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, translated and annotated by Garma C. C. Chang. New York: University Books, 1962 (2 vols.); reprinted as 1 vol., Boston: Shambhala, 1999. [61 songs]
- Drinking the Mountain Stream: Songs of Tibet's Beloved Saint, Milarepa : Eighteen Selections from the Rare Collection : Stories and Songs from the Oral Tradition of Jetsun Milarepa, translated by Lama Kunga Rimpoche and Brian Cutillo. New York: Lotsawa, 1978; revised edition, Boston: Wisdom, 1995. [18 songs]
- Milarepa: Songs on the Spot, translated by Nicole Riggs. Fremont, CA: Dharma Cloud Press, 2003. [19 songs]
- Songs of Milarepa. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003. [8 songs]
- Tibet's Great Yogi: a Biography from the Tibetan, translated by Lama Kazi Sawa Samdup, edited with annotations by W. Y. Evans Wentz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928; new foreword by Donald S. Lopez, 2000.
- The Life of Milarepa, translated by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa. New York: Dutton, 1977; Boston: Shambhala, 1984; London: Murray, 1994; New York: Viking-Penguin, 1995.
- The Life of Milarepa, Tibet's Great Yogi, condensed and adapted by Lobzang Jivaka from the original translation of W.Y. Evans-Wentz. London: Murray, 1994.