When the Buddhist saint Milarepa was born in a small Tibetan village in 1052, his name was Thopaga—“joyful news.” Until he was halfway through his life, however, Thopaga was anything but joyful news for those around him. In fact, he was a murderer.
And yet, this murderer is one of the most famous Tibetans in history. Though he died more than 1,000 years ago, Tibetan Buddhist masters still teach his life story in lectures and write books about him. As a “public figure” page on Facebook, he has almost 17,000 likes. And as a highly respected Tibetan lama, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, said in the 2007 movie adaptation of the saint’s life, “Every Tibetan, without dispute, will accept that Milarepa was the greatest practitioner who ever lived.”
By today’s standard of flash-in-the-pan fame, Milarepa should be long forgotten, an ancient name in ancient texts. Why isn’t he?
The easy answer to this question is that Milarepa was a saint, remembered for the same reasons that Christians remember Jesus and Muslims, Mohammed. But there are many Buddhist saints, each with his own memorable story. In terms of fame, Milarepa far surpasses even the most extreme examples of sainthood—like Bodhidharma, a Japanese monk who is known for ripping off his eyelids so that he could meditate better.
Even as saints go, Milarepa was impressive (though he did hold on to his eyelids). He was the first non-ordained Tibetan to become fully enlightened in one lifetime. He also lived in a critical time in Tibet’s history, as Buddhism was replacing its native religion, Bonpo. In that era of great change, Milarepa became the first iconic example of what it means to be a Tibetan Buddhist.
Milarepa’s perseverance, for instance, is legendary; he is often portrayed with green skin, because he subsisted for years eating nothing but the nettles that grew outside his meditation cave near Mt. Everest. And he is also particularly famous for staying in hermitage for most of his life, sometimes wandering from village to village and spontaneously breaking into songs of wisdom. These teachings, collectively known as the 100,000 songs of Milarepa, still resonate with modern Tibetan Buddhist practitioners.
This has only been possible, however, because Tibetans wrote Milarepa’s story down. Perhaps credit for Milarepa’s fame really belongs to his first biographer, the Madman of Tsang.
Prior to the Madman’s version of the saint’s life, written in 1488, Milarepa was only known to a small circle of his disciples. Considered to be part of secret Buddhist teachings, these accounts of his life frequently ended with exhortations to the reader to keep the contents private.
The Madman’s version changed all this. He essentially novelized Milarepa’s biography, amalgamating all of the known descriptions and writing an account with fully developed characters and a literary plotline. Creating such a story ensured that Milarepa’s legacy would endure for centuries.
The Madman’s intentions, says Yale religious studies professor Andrew Quintman, was precisely so that Milarepa’s story could have universal appeal—so that it could be “read and understood by the most highly educated monk to the least educated, no-nothing villager.”
Quintman, who is currently writing “The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa,” believes it is because of the Madman’s story that “the figure of Milarepa is still beloved today.” Indeed, the story enjoys near-canonical status in Tibet and outside of it. In many Western college courses on Buddhism, for instance, a translation of the Madman’s “Life of Milarepa” is one of the first texts on the syllabus.
Beyond the Madman’s story, though, Milarepa is universally beloved because most of all, he is fallible.
The 2007 movie “Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint,” for example, never quite makes it to the sainthood part. It stops at “murderer,” showing only the beginning of Milarepa’s life—which was, before his enlightenment, a messy one—illustrating the importance Tibetans place on the times when Milarepa was much less than perfect.
Though Milarepa was born into a rich family, his father died when he was young, leaving him and his family in the care of the father’s brother and sister. But then the two turn Milarepa’s family into slaves and deny Milarepa his inheritance. When Milarepa’s mother turns to the village for help, all of her former friends turn their backs.
In an act of motherly manipulation that Lynne Spears would admire, Milarepa’s mother sends him to learn black magic, telling him, “If vengeance does not come soon, I will kill myself in front of you.” In the end, Milarepa kills 35 villagers. But he leaves his aunt and uncle alive, so that they can witness the destruction and suffer all the more.
Pushed to practice because he fears winding up in hell, Milarepa accomplishes in years what takes most lifetimes. His unbelievable determination to transcend his evil deeds, and his success in doing so, has remained valuable for modern-day Buddhists.
“He provided an example in his life story that people look up to,” said Aksel Lydersen, who practices Tibetan Buddhism. “He was someone who was faced with a very difficult situation. And he didn’t just endure it, he overcame it.”
Milarepa is the only Tibetan Buddhist saint who is presented as a human being, who suffers just as many people do. This has endeared him to readers of his life story for centuries, sending the message that it is possible to prevail over great suffering and attain enlightenment despite even the most severe of mistakes.
Or in Milarepa’s own words:
In the beginning I practiced negative actions.
In the middle years I practiced positive actions.
Now, I’ve transcended both.