A summary by Zhao (Tina) Sun
March 4, 2019
The Life of Milarepa is a biography with multiple iterations, the most famous of which was compiled by Tsangnyön Heruka in the 15th century. Various translated editions exist today, but this summary focuses on two English editions, one by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa translated in 1977, and another by Andrew Quintman in 2010, both published with Penguin for a lay general audience. Set in the 10th century in southern Tibet, the biography1 follows Milarepa’s journey toward enlightenment. Although he was born in a wealthy family, all of his material comforts were taken away by his paternal uncle and aunt when his father died. His grieving mother pushed him toward practising dark magic, causing misery and death to his uncle’s family. Despite his numerous evil deeds, Milarepa amended his ways, endured numerous hardships, and ultimately attained nirvana. His story is one of faith and endurance, written with a prose intended to move its audience toward following in his example to true enlightenment.
There exist several written accounts recounting the life of Milarepa, the most famous one of which was compiled in Tibetan by Tsangnyön Heruka in the 15th century. This version of the story encouraged various attempts at translation in other languages, such as in Mongolian, Chinese, English.1 The following paper summarizes two English versions, translated by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa in 1977 and again by Andrew Quintman in 2010, both based on Heruka’s original text. However, rather than recounting the story twice, I have chosen to closely follow Lobsang P. Lhalungpa’s retelling and will only occasionally contrast differences in interpretation with Andrew Quintman’s iteration. Indeed, a careful reading of both works reveals many similarities in the narration of the overarching story. However, both authors, no doubt due to their own backgrounds, differ in their stylistic choices when translating Milarepa’s poems.2 There are also significant divergences in their interpretation of specific Buddhist teachings.3 Considering Lhalungpa’s experience as a trained religious man, and as an interpreter for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama4 with a conscious desire to “reconcile and put into words two views of human experience and psychology which are so fundamentally different as to appear almost contradictory,”5 I elected to follow his version more closely. As such, this should be mainly taken as a summary of the 1977 translation, but I hope it will nonetheless point to the interesting differences brought about through translation, an effort which Quintman suggests to be infinite.6 In this sense, just as Milarepa’s story is meant to demonstrate the separate nature of the mundane and sacred planes, I hope this summary of two different English editions of the same story reflects the complexities of language and the difficulties of exact replication: perhaps the original and the translation should never be considered equivalents.
In both versions, Milarepa’s story is separated into two sections. The first is comprised of a prologue and three chapters. They focus on his earlier life, where misery befell him and his mother used him to seek retribution for their enemies. In chronological order, chapters one, two, and three mainly focused on the circumstances surrounding Milarepa’s birth and family ancestry; on his father’s death and his paternal aunt and uncle’s mistreatment of his mother, his sister, and himself; and on Milarepa’s study of magic at his mother’s insistence to destroy his enemies. While in Lhalungpa’s version each chapter includes a subtitle indicative of the contents within, Quintman elected to leave his unnamed.
The second half of the book, much longer than and divorced from the first, marked the beginning of Milarepa’s path to “redemption”. Awakened to the suffering that he would have to endure in samsara for his sins, he sought to learn the Dharma form Buddhist masters in hopes of attaining enlightenment. In Lhalungpa’s edition, this second section of the book begins once more at chapter one and ends at chapter nine, as if it were a clean break from chapters one, two, and three. Meanwhile in Quintman’s translation, this second half is not discontinuous from the earlier episodes: it starts with chapter four and concludes with chapter twelve. The author elected to include one additional chapter at the very end of the biography, titled “Milarepa’s Disciples.” Pulled from a separate work compiling Milarepa’s songs and poems, this is a stylistic departure from Heruka’s version that the author acknowledges in the translator’s notes.8
The biography properly begins with the prologue where a lengthy poem describes the cosmic laws Milarepa has become aware of during his life. It is followed by descriptions of his accomplishments and powers, written in a way that stylistically resembles a prophecy: it lauded the salvation Milarepa’s teachings would bring to the world. With reference to the rest of the biography, this is the only chapter that is temporally anachronistic. Milarepa’s life story starts in the first chapter. The initial sentence is written in the form of an inquiry made by Rechungpa, one of Milarepa’s most favoured disciple, asking for details concerning his master’s life. This would later prove to be a repeating trope throughout many of the subsequent chapters of the biography. Born in Kya Ngatsa in the southern region of Tibet to a family that has, over generations, accumulated land and wealth, the initial seven years of Milarepa’s life were spent in comfort. This first chapter was largely concerned with his ancestry. However, already in chapter two Milarepa’s idyllic family life was in peril. His father fell ill, and upon his death, Milarepa’s paternal uncle went against his father’s will, consolidating what should have been Milarepa’s inheritance for himself. Henceforth, Milarepa, his mother, and his sister were mistreated by his uncle and aunt, which left the matriarch increasingly desiring of revenge. Hearing of a lama who practiced dark magic, Milarepa’s mother sent him to study with the master, hoping that he would be able to avenge his family and reclaim their riches. The third chapter describes Milarepa’s dedication to practising dark magic and the remorse he began to feel after he killed thirty-five people by collapsing the columns of a house during his cousin’s marriage. His mother, unrepentant, delighted at having caused misery to his aunt and uncle. This, combined with Milarepa’s destructive powers, frightened the villagers and forced him to flee. At the end of section one, Lhalungpa’s version of the text offers an illustrated map of the various locations Milarepa traveled in order to get his education.
The second half of the novel begins with Rechung asking his master how he first came to learn of the Dharma. Milarepa then counted the story of how he became increasingly anxious over his own wrongdoings, so much that the lama who taught him dark magic recommended he leave for Tsangrong in search of a teacher who could teach him the “purest of all Dharma.”9 On his way, he met the son of Marpa the Translator, who brought him to his father’s monastery. Marpa agreed to take Milarepa as his disciple after seeing his own master, Naropa, bless Milarepa in a dream.10 Chapter two tells the tale of the numerous hardships Marpa forced upon Milarepa, such as repeatedly asking him to erect a tower and then unceremoniously destroying it, while going back on his promise to teach him the Dharma if he accomplished his tasks. Marpa’s wife, Dakmema, took pity on Milarepa, who grew increasingly miserable at being insulted and mistreated. She even tried to find him another lama (Ngokpa) to study with, but in the end Milarepa returned to Marpa Lotsawa. In the following chapter, it is revealed that Marpa purposefully mistreated Milarepa to purify him of his past sins while at the same time testing his genuineness and patience. Due to his religious fervor, his persistence, and his capacity to endure and not resent Marpa, Milarepa was finally deemed fit to be a student of the Dharma. The fourth chapter depicts his life studying with Marpa, his incredible progress, and his prophetic dream, which allowed him to learn some secret esoteric instructions which were only transmitted from one master to one disciple.
Starting from the fifth chapter, Milarepa and Marpa’s paths would begin to diverge. After a sorrowful dream where he saw his former house in shambles, Milarepa was overcome with the desire to return home. He bade tearful and final farewells to Marpa and his wife. Once back in Kya Ngatsa, he saw the skeletal remains of his mother, who died in anguish without being given a proper funerary ceremony, and learned that his sister was wandering the world as a beggar. Confronted with the impermanence of life, Milarepa retreated into a cave and began meditating. In the sixth and seventh chapters, he meditated alone in extremely harsh conditions, occasionally visited by brigands, his previous fiancée, and his long-lost sister. To all of these people, he would preach indiscriminately. Although they admired his capacity to endure the hardships of meditating and detaching himself from worldly attachments, they could not follow in his example, frightened by his bony appearance and his physical and material impoverishment. Later, despite being mistreated by his aunt again, he ceded his land to her and even forgave her for her misdeeds. In fully detaching himself from worldly concerns, Milarepa began to awaken magical powers.
The final two chapters quickly explain Milarepa’s enlightenment, and his subsequent renown. Recognized now as a true lama with powers, he traveled to meditate in other caves, which would become famous, and would garner him many disciples. In the end, an influential lama named Geshe Tsakpuwa, jealous and skeptical of his abilities, poisoned his drink one night. Fully awakened and aware of this but knowing he would have to depart this world soon, Milarepa drank the poison and demonstrated its effects by making his pain felt by the Geshe. The final paragraphs switch once again to Rechung’s perspective, as the disciple rushed to his master’s side upon dreaming that he was about to depart. Milarepa’s last request, that his teachings be passed on, were alluded to have come true in the narrative style of the biography.
The biography concludes with the statement that Milarepa’s story was one of liberation, which could point people toward “the path of emancipation and supreme knowledge.”11 To drive this point home, the colophon at the very end is written in the form of a poem, which confirms once again the importance of learning the lessons of Milarepa’s story.
1. While Quintman believes it to be a biography, Lhalungpa seems to be convinced it is an autobiography.
2. Quintman, The Life of Milarepa, p. xix-xx.
3. As they were intended for a general audience, both authors have chosen to predominantly use English translated words to describe specialized Buddhist vocabulary. However, the specific words they chose not to translate differed in both versions. This is especially noticeable in the stylistic choices they have chosen for Milarepa’s poems. Whereas Lhalungpa predominantly sought scriptural fidelity, Quintman valued comprehension and criticized Lhalungpa as being too liberal in his choice of wording (p. xxxiv).
4. Furthermore, Lhalungpa seems to genuinely believe this to be an autobiography of Milarepa, despite it being written by Heruka; meanwhile, I suspect Quintman remains skeptical. In light of this, I found it much more interesting to read Lhalungpa’s more invested interpretation.
5. Quintman, The Life of Milarepa, p. xxxiv.
6. Lobsang, The Life of Milarepa, p. xxxii.
7. Quintman, The Life of Milarepa, p. xxxvi.
8. Quintman, The Life of Milarepa, p. xxxvi.
9. Lhalungpa, The Life of Milarepa, p. 42.
10. Quintman’s version questioned whether Naropa could really have been Marpa’s master, considering records reveal he had died before Marpa could have traveled to India. Curiously, this same skepticism was not found in Lhalungpa’s version, not even in footnotes.
11. Lhalungpa, The Life of Milarepa, p. 200.