The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa
Milarepa is remembered for his remarkable determination and personal growth. His inspiring story traces the very familiar, human progression from confusion to clarity. Early in his life, Milarepa came to understand tenents of both privilege and oppression. Though born to a wealthy family, the death of Milarepa’s father left him and his mother at the mercy of his aunt and uncle, who put them to work as servants for their own family. At his mother’s request, Milarepa studied the craft of black magic to be better able to retaliate against their cruelty. Not only was he successful in mastering these magical abilities, he promptly used his skills to take the lives of his aunt and uncle’s entire family. In this way, Milarepa had invited an immense amount of negative karma into his life as a young adult. Soon after committing these crimes, Milarepa’s joy at having aided his mother began to fade, making way for inescapable remorse. This transformation led Milarepa to seek out a master teacher.
It was not long before Milarepa found Marpa the translator, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher. Marpa was able to see Milarepa’s potential, but knew that the young man would have to process his remorse and uncertainty before beginning his time as a student of the dharma. In order to guide him to a place of preparedness, Marpa set Milarepa to his legendary task of building, destroying, and rebuilding stone towers. This process was intended “to purify the negativity of his past actions, so that Milarepa could begin his studies with fewer obstacles.”
Marpa’s challenge pushed Milarepa “almost to the point of suicide before he agreed to take him on as a student.” Thus began Milarepa’s journey to becoming the yogi and poet that he is remembered as today. He began his simple, solitary lifestyle, living in caves. He often wore little clothing, even in the winter months, and became known as “the cotton-clad one.” Though he did not seek students, word of his practice traveled, and he was sought out by many. It is said that Milarepa “engaged with whoever approached him,” and it is through his teaching that his spontaneous songs and poetry were shared.
“Milarepa sang hundreds of such songs. The standard collection, The One Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa is said to have been compiled by Tsang Nyön Heruka, the “Mad Yogi of Tsang,“ based on transcriptions of the songs that up to then had been only transmitted orally. In this collection, every song comes with a story about how it came about. The collection also includes many descriptions of how Milarepa worked with people, not only through song but in nonverbal ways. We can see how he interacted with his students and how he created situations that challenged them and woke them up. That is, Milarepa did not just sing [songs about] the dharma but he fully embodied the dharma. Because of that, he was able to teach freshly, spontaneously, and with great humor using a variety of skillful means.”
Milarepa’s poetic teachings have touched the hearts of his students and admirers for nearly a thousand years. His life represents that of an ideal Bodhisattva, as his deep compassion created the wish of Bodhicitta and motivated him to obtain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.