Illustrated manuscript of the Life and songs of the Yogi Milarepa.
Who was Milarepa?
Milarepa (1040–1123) was one of the most famous and beloved Tibetan saints. His life story and his collected songs of spiritual realisation are among the best-known pieces of Tibetan literature.
Born into a fairly wealthy family, Milarepa’s father died when he was seven years old. His paternal uncle and aunt appropriated his father’s estate and casting Milarepa’s family into a life of terrible poverty. To take revenge, his mother urged Mila to seek a teacher in order to learn and become an expert in black magic. Milarepa dutifully finds a teacher and acquires black magic skills which he uses to kill thirty-five people attending a wedding feast at his aunt and uncle’s house. Later, he felt intense remorse at the terrible crimes he has committed and decided to set out on a spiritual path and find a qualified Buddhist master to teach him. He trained with a number of Buddhist masters until, at the age of thirty-eight, he found his main or ‘root’ teacher Marpa (1012–1097), also known as Marpa the translator. The connection that developed between Marpa and Milarepa would become the most celebrated story of the teacher-disciple relationship in Tibetan Buddhism and an exemplar of the fundamental importance of devotion to a spiritual guide. Marpa did not teach Milarepa immediately but, instead, he forced Milarepa to endure a series of ordeals, including, in one of the story’s most memorable episodes, the construction of four immense stone towers. Finally, when Marpa thought that the right time has come, he taught Milarepa the numerous precious teachings that he had brought back from his travels in India. Milarepa put these teachings into practice during long solitary retreats in mountain caves, sometimes under extremely austere conditions, until he finally reached full spiritual realisation.
Another part of the book relates episodes from Milarepa life as a mature teacher, including a variety of stories of encounters with human as well as non-human disciples. Most importantly it contains a large number of songs in which he sings about his inner realisations and gives practical instructions for meditation. These songs are still used to teach meditation in the schools of Tibetan Buddhism that follow in the tradition of Milarepa.
The manuscript on display is an illustrated version created about a century before the well-known printed edition published in the 16th century by a master known as the ‘Madman from Tsang’.
- Article by:
- T H Barrett
- Sacred texts, Buddhism
The Buddhist ‘canon’ is vast, complex and difficult to define. Here Professor Tim Barrett outlines some of the key works for the different branches of Buddhism.