Outside the land of Tibet where the stories and songs of Milarepa are very well-known and loved, far too little is known of this great Buddhist sage. In English,  French and German, biographies, partial or complete, have been published but a great number of Milarepa’s Songs have remained inaccessible, except to those reading Tibetan, until very recently. It is possible to reproduce here sixty of his songs on the Dhamma through the kind permission of the translator, Prof. C. C. Chang, and the courtesy of his publishers, University Books Inc, New York. 
The songs printed here all concern that Dhamma which is common to the whole Buddhist tradition. Everyone who has read some of Lord Buddha’s Discourses in the Pali Canon will find the subject matter here familiar to them. The nearest approach in Pali literature to these Dhamma-songs of Milarepa are the inspired utterances of Lord Buddha in the Sutta Nipata, Udana and Itivuttaka (and also in the Dhammapada), and the poems of gnosis spoken by the great bhikkhus and bhikkhunis of the Noble Sangha, now collected into such books as the Theragatha and Therigatha. Among the Bhikkhus living in the Buddha-time, Vangisa Thera was outstanding for his inspired utterances (see Sn 1:8; Theragatha 395). The mind inspired and illumined with the knowledge of liberation (vimutti) pours forth its wisdom with ease in the shape of verses of great beauty and deep significance. Such was the case with Lord Buddha and some of his immediate disciples, and later, such was the case with Milarepa.
His songs have been arranged here according to subject, though no rigid classification is possible since many of the songs deal with more than one aspect of the Dhamma. First come Milarepa’s descriptions of some of his hermitages, then songs on renunciation and the dangers of samsara, followed by many more on impermanence. After them come songs describing different aspects of samsara—such as the Six Realms of Birth; birth, old age, sickness and death; and home relatives and wealth. Next are songs relating to practice—advice on how to practise and warnings about what not to do; then upon the Six Paramita and other such helpful qualities for practice as loving-kindness (metta), striving (viriya) and mindfulness (sati). Last of all come songs describing aspects of Milarepa’s realization—his contentment, happiness and non-attachment—concluding with his blessings to his patrons.
It will be seen from the above sequence that the Teaching here is not at all strange to Theravada, including as it does the Impermanence (anicca) of all things, states, people, places; that they are impermanent since they arise dependent upon conditions (paccaya); that what is conditioned, and therefore relative, is also devoid of essential being (sabbe dhamma anatta) and void of self (suñña); and that by not recognizing these truths and by thinking in terms of permanence, self, etc., we come to experience unending unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). Milarepa also points out the way to transcend dukkha and emphasizes the keeping of precepts (sila), concentrating the scattered mind (samadhi) and the development of Wisdom (pañña).
In making comparisons of different Buddhist traditions many similarities are apt to come to light. One that might be mentioned here is the immense respect and honour paid to Enlightened Teachers in any Buddhist tradition, quite regardless of the differences of time and place. One who has seen and known the Way from his own experience has always been lauded as worthy of the highest honour and the greatest devotion as in Pali: ahuneyyo, pahuneyyo, dakkhineyyo, añjali-karaniyo. Indeed, we find this as much in the pages of the Pali Canon as from the Hundred Thousand Songs. It is heard as much in the exalted devotion of Pingiya (Sutta Nipata 1131 ff.) as in the paeans of praise uttered by the principle disciples of Milarepa, Rechungpa and Gambopa. It is found in modern times in seemingly diverse surroundings—whether in a jungle monastery in Thailand where a thudong (dhutanga) bhikkhu is respecting his Teacher; or whether it is Tibetan bhikkhus or laymen receiving a meditation transmission from their Lama. The same devotion here finds expression; it is called saddha or bhatti (bhakti—a word first occurring in Indian literature in the Pali Canon), for this is the act by one still unenlightened, of setting his heart upon Enlightenment in the presence of one who is Enlightened.
Then again, the Hundred Thousand Songs many times mention the “Whispered Transmission” of meditation instructions which are imparted by the Teacher, here Milarepa, to his disciples. By some this is contrasted with the statement of Lord Buddha that He was not a Teacher who had a ’closed fist’, that is, one who keeps some Teaching secret or esoteric. Nonetheless, He is well-known for his remarkable ability in preaching exactly the right Dhamma to fit the situation and meet the understanding of those who listened. He did not teach the deep truths of Dhamma to those who were not prepared as yet to receive them and in a like fashion Milarepa graded his teachings for varying circumstances and intelligences.
Meditation instructions given by Lord Buddha to his disciples were also fitted to their temperaments and abilities. It is true that one may now read books explaining the principles of meditation in Theravada Buddhism, but with books alone, even if one reads all the Pali Canon, the disadvantage remaining is very great. In all Buddhist countries, it is always assumed that one must have a Teacher if meditation practice is to be really successful. It is this Teacher who, like Lord Buddha in past times, imparts to one the details of the practice and how, moreover, it applies to one’s special problems and circumstances. As Bhadanta Nyanaponika Mahathera has written in his “Heart of Buddhist Meditation”: ’A brief statement on practical meditation, even if limited to the very first steps as is done here, cannot replace personal guidance by an experienced teacher who alone can give due consideration to the requirements and rate of progress of the individual disciple.’ This is, if not a “Whispered Transmission”, at least an Oral Instruction.
The ’grace’ of the Teacher (guru) consists of those merits which he has gathered by his own practice and which, it is believed, may be transferred to the disciple, thus ’blessing’ him. This can only happen, however, provided that the conditions (of spiritual purity, faith, concentration, etc.) exist between that master and disciple. It is a great mistake to suppose that the disciple is getting something for nothing, for in the absence of these conditions he will experience no ’help’ from the teacher.
* * * * * *
For the dramatic and very inspiring life-story of Jetsun Milarepa as written down by a great-grand-disciple in his tradition, we have but little space here. Those interested in reading it may consult the book mentioned in the footnotes above. Suffice to say here that the Jetsun was born in BE 1596 (CE 1052) into a wealthy merchant family. As a boy he was known as Tubhaga (“Delightful-to-hear”), a name which people said was particularly appropriate since he had a fine voice and frequently sang the local ballads. His voice was later to be used for spreading the Dhamma, and those who heard it were deeply moved.
Fortunately, Milarepa has given an outline of his life in one of the songs he later sang for his disciples and we cannot do better than introduce an extract of it here.
I am Milarepa blessed by his (Marpa’s) mercy.
My father was Mila Shirab Jhantsan,
My mother was Nyantsa Karjan.
And I was called Tubhaga (“Delightful-to-hear”).
Because our merits and virtues were of small account,
And the Cause-Effect Karma of the past spares no one,
My father Mila passed away (too early in his life).
The deceiving goods and belongings of our household
Were plundered by my aunt and uncle,
Whom I and my mother had to serve.
They gave us food fit only for the dogs;
The cold wind pierced our ragged clothing;
Our skin froze and our bodies were benumbed.
Often I was beaten by my uncle,
And endured his cruel punishment.
Hard was it to avoid my aunt’s ill temper.
I lived as best I could, a lowly servant,
And shrugged my shoulders (in bitter resignation).
Misfortunes descended one after the other;
We suffered so, our hearts despaired.
In desperation, I went to Lamas  Yundun and Rondunlaga,
From whom I mastered the magic arts of Tu, Ser and Ded  .
Witnessed by my aunt and uncle, I brought
Great disaster on their villages and kinsmen,
For which, later, I suffered deep remorse.
Then I heard the fame of Marpa, the renowned Translator,
Who, blessed by the saints Naropa and Medripa,
Was living in the upper village of the South River.
After a hard journey I arrived there.
For six years and eight months (I stayed)
With him, my gracious Father Guru, Marpa.
For him I built many houses,
One with courtyards and nine storeys;
Only after this did he accept me.
(Page numbers in the complete translation: pp. 267–8)
Then Milarepa lists the meditation-instructions which he was given by his Guru Marpa after he had thus served a long period of hard probation and tells how by their practice he reached Enlightenment (see conclusion of this Introduction).
The name by which he is known in Tibet is Jetsun Milarepa. ’Jetsun’ is an honorific meaning ’holy’, while ’Repa’ means ’clad in cotton’. Mila was a family name. Hence, in English he may be called Holy Mila the Cotton-clad. He earned the latter name by his power to live throughout the bitter Tibetan winter with only one length of cotton cloth. Where others would have died, he lived happily immersed in the various states of samadhi producing, by his control of them, sufficient body heat. After twelve years of intense meditations in remote mountain caves far from the haunts of men in the valleys below, he succeeded in winning Enlightenment. After this time, disciples gradually gathered around him, the first being Rechungpa, his ’moon-like’ disciple, while later came his ’sun-like’ disciple Gambopa.  His closest disciples went forth from their homes to take up homeless life with him. Gambopa and some others were already bhikkhus, while many more such as Rechungpa were called ’Repa’, that is, yogis clad in one piece of cotton.
Like Lord Buddha, the Jetsun taught Dhamma to all—to the emissary of a king and to shepherds, to nuns and wealthy ladies, to bhikkhus and yogis, to bandits and merchants. His conversion of the hunter, Chirawa Gwumbo Dorje, is as popular a story in Tibet as is the pacifying of Angulimala by Lord Buddha, in southern Buddhist lands.
At the age of eighty, Jetsun Milarepa relinquished the body, passing away surrounded by disciples both human and celestial. For 900 years the traditions of meditation in which he trained his disciples have been handed down in Tibet. It has come to be known as the Ghagyupa (sometimes seen as Kargyutpa) which is translated as the “Whispered Transmission.” This school of Buddhist practice has, of course, its own special emphasis upon certain doctrines but songs concerned with them are not included in this booklet and the interested reader is requested to consult the “Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa.”
In the time of Milarepa, as is evident from these songs, many bhikkhus spent long years in study but never gave much heed to practice. Thus is the divorce of patipatti-dhamma or sila (moral precepts) and samadhi (meditation), from pariyatti-dhamma or simply learning. Scholar-bhikkhus of Tibet were evidently, at that time, very able in arguing the finer points of Buddhist philosophy and well-equipped with logic to worst outsiders as well as fellow Buddhists in debates. Somehow, in the welter of this study (and the Tibetan Canon and its Commentaries are considerably more extensive than their lengthy Pali counterparts), the urge to practise meditation, many of its foremost exponents were masters not possessing the monk’s robes. This was true of the spiritual forebears of Milarepa (his immediate Guru, Marpa and of the Indian yogis, Naropa and Tilopa). In several places he criticizes those bhikkhus, and indeed anyone, who studies the Dhamma just for intellectual satisfaction or even for worldly advantage. Many sincere bhikkhus did approach him for meditation instructions and, thereafter, practised with him as their Teacher. He was, therefore, a source for the spiritual regeneration of the Sangha in Tibet.
With his insistence upon the practice of Dhamma, Milarepa’s life and teaching present striking similarities in many respects, to the Way as practised by the thudong (dhutanga) bhikkhu. The greatest difference is that a bhikkhu in any country is bound to observe his Fundamental Precepts (Patimokkha) which, as Milarepa did not have the bhikkhu ordination (upasampada), he did not have to keep. Nevertheless, even a quick look at his life after he began his practice would reveal that he maintained scrupulously those injunctions given him by his Teacher, Marpa the Translator, as well as cultivating those twin bases of moral conduct in the Dhamma, Wisdom and Compassion (pañña-karuna). Far greater than this are the resemblances between him and the thudong bhikkhu. For instance, both praise contentment with little, living remotely with utter detachment from worldly affairs, great ability in meditation, and so on.
Though he had not the formal ordination of a bhikkhu and wore not the monks’ robes, yet Milarepa was truly one gone forth (pabbajita). No one reading of his life and some of the songs included here can possibly doubt this. According to definitions given in the Dhammapada, he was indeed a true bhikkhu:
“Not by adopting the outward form does one become a bhikkhu” (266).
“He who has no attachment whatsoever towards the ’mind-and-body’ and who does not grieve for what he has not,—he indeed, is called a bhikkhu” (367).
“Whoso herein, has abandoned both merit and demerit, he who is holy, he who walks with understanding in this world,—he indeed, is called a bhikkhu” (267). 
These various points, and perhaps others, could be raised to point out that it is in the practice of Dhamma (patipatti) that different schools of Buddhist thought are shown to have many similarities. Finally, it is in realization of the Dhamma (pativedha) where all divergence ceases, since all the methods practised by all the schools are without exception aimed at the experience of Bodhi, or Enlightenment. If the Dhamma is only studied from books, then many differences are seen separating the many Buddhist traditions but in practice there is very much in common. Since all Buddhists are urged to practise their Teachings, it is through this that harmony between the divergent traditions of Dhamma may be discovered.
This little introduction may be concluded with a stanza drawn from the autobiographical song, part of which is quoted above. More than this need not be said here, for it is better that the Jetsun sings to you his inspiring and Wisdom-inspired Songs of the Dhamma.
“I renounced all affairs of this life;
And, no longer lazy, devoted myself to Dharma.
Thus I have reached the State of Eternal Bliss.
Such is the story of my life.”
Wat Bovoranives Vihara,
6th of the Waning Moon of Citta 2508
(22nd April 1965).
In the following text, the writer of this introduction is responsible for the précis stories and the notes, except where matter is found in parentheses. The latter has been drawn from the “Hundred Thousand Songs.”
One day, after leaving his cave to collect firewood, Milarepa returned “to find five Indian demons with eyes as large as saucers” whom he thought to be apparitions of the deities who disliked him. As he had never given them any offering, he then began to sing a—
Complimentary Song to the Deities of
Red Rock Jewel Valley
This lonely spot where stands my hut
Is a place pleasing to the Buddhas,
A place where accomplished beings dwell,
A refuge where I dwell alone.
Above Red Rock Jewel Valley
White clouds are gliding;
Below, the Tsang River gently flows;
Wild vultures wheel between.
Bees are humming among the flowers,
Intoxicated by their fragrance;
In the trees, birds swoop and dart,
Filling the air with their song.
In Red Rock Jewel Valley
Young sparrows learn to fly,
Monkeys love to leap and swing,
And beasts to run and race,
While I practise the Two Bodhi-minds  and love to meditate.
Ye local demons, ghosts and gods,
All friends of Milarepa,
Drink the nectar of kindness and compassion,
Then return to your abodes.
One day, Milarepa’s patrons from Dro Tang came to visit him. They asked him what benefits Junpan Nanka Tsang had to offer. In reply, Milarepa sang:
I pray to my Guru, the Holy One.
Listen, my patrons, and I will tell you
the merits of this place.
In the goodly quiet of this Sky Castle of Junpan
High above, dark clouds gather;
Deep blue and far below flows the River Tsang.
At my back the Red Rock of Heaven rises;
At my feet, wild flowers bloom, vibrant and profuse;
At my cave’s edge (wild) beasts roam, roar and grunt;
In the sky vultures and eagles circle freely,
While from heaven drifts the drizzling rain.
Bees hum and buzz with their chanting;
Mares and foals gambol and gallop wildly;
The brook chatters past pebbles and rocks;
Through the trees monkeys leap and swing;
And larks carol in sweet song.
The timely sounds I hear are all my fellows.
The merits of this place are inconceivable—
I now relate them to you in this song.
Oh good patrons,
Pray follow my Path and my example;
Abandon evil, and practise good deeds.
Spontaneously from my heart
I give you this instruction.
One day, some villagers from Ragma came to see the Jetsun. They asked him, “Why do you like this place so much? Why is it that you are so happy here? Pray, tell us what you think of all these things!” In answer, Milarepa sang:
Here is the Bodhi-Place, quiet and peaceful.
The snow-mountain, the dwelling-place of deities,
stands high above;
Below, far from here in the village, my faithful patrons live; Surrounding it are mountains nestling in white snow.
In the foreground stand the wish-granting trees;
In the valley lie vast meadows, blooming wild.
Around the pleasant, sweet-scented lotus, insects hum;
Along the banks of the stream
And in the middle of the lake,
Cranes bend their necks, enjoying the scene,
and are content.
On the branches of the trees, the wild birds sing;
When the wind blows gently, slowly dances the weeping willow;
In the treetops monkeys bound and leap for joy;
In the wild green pastures graze the scattered herds,
And merry shepherds, gay and free from worry,
Sing cheerful songs and play upon their reeds.
The people of the world, with burning desires and craving,
Distracted by affairs, become the slaves of earth.
From the top of the Resplendent Gem Rock,
I, the yogi, see these things.
Observing them, I know that they are fleeting and transient;
Contemplating them, I realize that comforts and pleasure
Are merely mirages and water-reflections.
I see this life as a conjuration and a dream.
Great compassion rises in my heart
For those without a knowledge of this truth.
The food I eat is the Space-Void;
My meditation is Dhyana—beyond distraction.
Myriad visions and various feelings all appear before me—
Strange indeed are Samsaric phenomena!
Truly amazing are the dharmas in the Three Worlds, 
Oh, what a wonder, what a marvel!
Void is their nature, yet everything is manifested.
This song was sung to a young, well-dressed girl who after asking Milarepa about his father and mother, brothers and sisters, further enquired: “But do you also have any Samsaric companions, sons and belongings?” Milarepa then sang in reply:
At first, my experiences in samsara 
Seemed most pleasant and delightful;
Later, I learned about its lessons;
In the end, I found a Devil’s Prison.
These are my thoughts and feelings on samsara.
So I made up my mind to renounce it.
At first, one’s friend is like a smiling angel;
Later, she turns into a fierce exasperated woman;
But in the end a demoness is she.
These are my thoughts and feelings on companions.
So I made up my mind to renounce a friend.
At first, the sweet boy smiles, a Babe of Heaven;
Later, he makes trouble with the neighbours;
In the end, he is my creditor and foe.
These are my thoughts and feelings about children.
So I renounced both sons and nephews.
At first, money is like the Wish-fulfilling Gem;
Later, one cannot do without it;
In the end, one feels a penniless beggar.
These are my thoughts and feelings about money.
So I renounced both wealth and goods.
When I think of these experiences,
I cannot help but practise Dharma;
When I think of Dharma,
I cannot help but offer it to others.
When death approaches,
I shall then have no regret.
On his way to Shri Ri to meditate, Milarepa lodged at an inn where a merchant, Dhawa Norbu (the Moon jewel), was also staying with a great retinue. Milarepa begged alms from him upon which the merchant remarked that it would be better for him to work to support himself. Milarepa pointed out that enjoying pleasures now is the source for more suffering in the future. Then he said: “Now listen to my song.”
The Eight Reminders
Castles and crowded cities are the places
Where now you love to stay;
But remember that they will fall to ruins
After you have departed from this earth!
Pride and vain glory are the lure
Which now you love to follow;
But remember, when you are about to die
They offer you no shelter and no refuge!
Kinsmen and relatives are the people now
With whom you love to live;
But remember that you must leave them all behind
When from this world you pass away!
Servants, wealth and children
Are things you love to hold;
But remember, at the time of your death
Your empty hands can take nothing with you!
Vigour and health
Are dearest to you now;
But remember, at the moment of your death
Your corpse will be bundled up and borne away!
Now your organs are clear,
Your flesh and blood are strong and vigorous;
But remember, at the moment of your death
They will no longer be at your disposal!
Sweet and delicious foods are things
That now you love to eat;
But remember, at the moment of your death
Your mouth will let the spittle flow!
When of all this I think,
I cannot help but seek the Buddha’s Teachings!
The enjoyments and the pleasures of this world
For me have no attraction.
I, Milarepa, sing of the Eight Reminders,
At the Guest House in Garakhache of Tsang.
With these clear words I give this helpful warning;
I urge you to observe and practise them!
Milarepa once said to Shindormo, his patroness: “But if you have a precious human body and have been born at a time and place in which the Buddhist religion prevails, it is very foolish indeed not to practise the Dharma.” Milarepa thus sang:
At the feet of the Translator Marpa, I prostrate myself,
And sing to you, my faithful patrons.
How stupid it is to sin  with recklessness
While the pure Dharma spreads all about you.
How foolish to spend your lifetime without meaning,
When a precious human body is so rare a gift.
How ridiculous to cling to prison-like cities
and remain there.
How laughable to fight and quarrel
with your wives and relatives,
Who do but visit you.
How senseless to cherish sweet and tender words
Which are but empty echoes in a dream.
How silly to disregard one’s life by fighting foes
Who are but frail flowers.
How foolish it is when dying
to torment oneself with thoughts of family,
Which bind one to Maya’s  mansion.
How stupid to stint on property and money,
Which are a debt on loan from others.
How ridiculous it is to beautify and deck the body,
Which is a vessel full of filth.
How silly to strain each nerve for wealth and goods,
And neglect the nectar of the inner teachings!
In a crowd of fools, the clear and sensible
Should practise the Dharma, as do I.
A yogi who had great faith in Milarepa came with other patrons, bringing copious offerings, and they asked Milarepa “how he had managed to undergo the trials of his probationship and had exerted himself…” Milarepa answered with…
The Six Resolutions
When one has lost interest in this world,
His faith and longing for the Dharma is confirmed.
To relinquish one’s home ties is very hard;
Only by leaving one’s native land
Can one be immune from anger.
It is hard to conquer burning passions
Towards relatives and close friends;
The best way to quench them
Is to break all associations.
One never feels that one is rich enough;
Contented, he should wear humble cotton clothes.
He may thus conquer much desire and craving.
It is hard to avoid worldly attractions;
By adhering to humbleness,
Longing for vain glory is subdued.
It is hard to conquer pride and egotism;
So, like the animals,
Live in the mountains.
My dear and faithful patrons!
Such is the real understanding
That stems from perseverance.
I wish you all to practise deeds that are meaningful, 
And amass all merits!
Milarepa went out one day for alms and coming to a meeting of Dharma-followers, was ridiculed. One of them, however, recognized him and said: “To inspire those attending this meeting, therefore, please now sing for us.” In response, Milarepa sang a song,
The Ocean of Samsara
Alas, is not samsara like the sea?
Drawing as much water as one pleases,
It remains the same without abating.
Are not the Three Precious Ones like Mount Sumeru,
That never can be shaken by anyone?
Are there Mongol bandits invading yogis’ cells?
Why, then, do great yogis stay in towns and villages?
Are not people craving for rebirth and Bardo? 
Why, then, do they cling so much to their disciples?
Are woollen clothes in the next life more expensive?
Why, then, do women make so much of them here?
Do people fear that samsara may be emptied?
Why, then, do priests and laymen hanker after children?
Are you reserving food and drink for your next life?
Why, then, do men and women not give to charity?
Is there any misery in Heaven above?
Why, then, do so few plan to go there?
Is there any joy below in Hell?
Why, then, do so many prepare to visit there?
Do you not know that all sufferings
And Lower Realms are the result of sins?
Surely you know that if you now practise virtue,
When death comes you will have peace of mind
and no regrets.
(p. 539 extract)
- See Tibet’s Great Yogi, Milarepa, translated by Lama Kazi Dawo-Samdup, edited by Evans-Wentz, published by Oxford University Press.
- The complete work, from which all the songs reproduced below are extracted, is the Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, first translated from Tibetan into English by Prof. C. C. Chang, in two volumes, published by the University Books Inc, New Hyde Park, New York.
- Lama = acariya or teacher. It is not the Tibetan equivalent of ’bhikkhu’ (which is ’gelong’). Thus in Tibet not all bhikkhus are Lamas.
- “Three different arts of black magic”. Notes in parentheses are quoted from the translation of the Hundred Thousand Songs.
- In English, we have his Jewel Ornament of Liberation, translated by H.V. Guenther, London, 1959.
- Translated by Buddharakkhita Thera of Bangalore, India.
- The Bodhisatta’s Vow and Practice to save all sentient beings either in Mundane respect when Voidness has not been realized, or as Transcendental when Suññata has been experienced. His practice includes the Perfections, or those qualities which help one in “crossing over” from samsara to Nibbana—the Parami(ta).
- Or Three Realms—of Desire, of Form and of Non-Form. “They include all sentient beings in the various Realms of Samsaric existence.”
- The realm of repeated birth-and-deaths brought into experience by the mistaken conceptions of ’I’, ’self’, ’ego’, and ’soul’ as abiding entities.
- Used throughout to express the Buddhist teaching of deeds which bring harm on others (and ruin to oneself). This action is ’unskilful’ (akusala) and ’sin’ here must be understood in thus sense.
- Delusion; illusory nature of samsara.
- Virtuous deeds that lead one to Enlightenment.
- The intermediate state of existence between death and rebirth (Skt: antarabhava, sambhavesi), but its existence is disputed in Theravada, where rebirth is said to be immediate. The question is complicated by the fact that Time is a relative concept (paññatti) and its perception dependent upon the possession of certain senses. Bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhism, is a very important state, like crossroads, and the fate and fortune of one’s rebirth depends much upon it.
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