This classic biography is a must read for any Buddhist practitioner. I first heard about it almost a quarter century ago, but since at the time I was doing my Zen thing, and then later my Theravada thing, and then after that no thing at all, I didn’t get around to it until just recently. I must say, after reading this and the Hundred Thousand Songs, I have to wonder if Milarepa was not as enlightened as Shakyamuni himself. (Though clearly their personalities were totally different and each expressed his realization in his own unique way.)
This translation, first published in 1977, was only the second since Evans-Wentz’s in 1928. I’ve not read that translation, but from what I’ve gleaned, its English is somewhat stilted and out of date and not particularly reflective of the Tibetan, which is much more colloquial. This one is extremely readable, with informative end notes to boot.
Lhalungpa’s introduction is mercifully brief and a good orientation. It gives a quick overview of the Life as well as notes concerning its context, Tibetan Buddhism. It does this not so much via broad theoretical strokes, but by touching on some of the critical points as they relate to Milarepa’s life and practice: the role of the guru, meditation, the Trikaya (“three bodies” of the Buddha), dakinis, among other things. Like any good translator, Lhalungpa also discusses the various editions of the work and the challenges involved with its translation.
The Life itself consists of two parts and a total of twelve chapters. The story is well known: Milarepa was born into a prosperous family which falls into poverty when his father dies and the wealth is taken by his aunt and uncle. He, his mother and sister are treated like dogs until Mila’s mother prevails upon him to learn sorcery to take revenge. This he does with catastrophic results. He becomes remorseful and seeks a spiritual teacher, eventually giving himself up body and mind to the renowned translator of Buddhist texts, Marpa. For many years Marpa treats him little better than his relatives did, demanding that he build one house after another, only to tear each one down. Finally, after Milarepa builds a tower (which still stands, by the way–see right) Marpa relents and begins giving him the Teachings. Eventually he is told to go and meditate in caves, which he does to spectacular effect. Other dramas play out along the way, but Milarepa’s modus operandi–solo meditation in remote caves–is set.
Reading the Life one cannot help but be awed by this man’s ability to overcome obstacles. Simply surviving alone in some of those caves constitutes a tremendous physical and mental feat. In one instance he was actually snowed in during the winter and survived on the few food scraps he had. Remember–this is before electric blankets and space heaters, and we’re talking an unfurnished cave in the Himalayas, for chrissake!
What is also apparent is Milarepa’s mastery of a wide range of meditation techniques. In order to survive on such meager food and water, complete mental control via samadhi was essential. One has to be able to dwell in absorption for days on end. This is possible, though hardly a common feat. (Dipa Ma apparently had this ability.) But the most critical tool in his yogi tool box had to be the “yoga of heat” (tummo), which allows one to raise or lower the body’s internal temperature at will. This is a well-documented phenomenon–Tibetan lamas have demonstrated it in Harvard labs –so while it is seemingly “miraculous,” it is clearly a natural ability the bodymind has, provided one gets proper guidance and practices assiduously. As one who has suffered from a below average body temperature his whole life, and the susceptibility to cold that brings, I am really intrigued by this ability.
But enough! Read the book, you won’t regret it. If it does nothing else for you, it will give you some idea of what a determined human being is capable of. Even given the worst circumstances–a rotten family, inhospitable environment, murderous enemies, a criminal background, you name it–resolve and diligence can win the highest blessings.
Now, go meditate….
My Amazon rating: 5 stars