Quintman, Andrew (trans.). Tsangnyön Heruka. The Life of Milarepa. Penguin Classics Edition, Penguin Group USA, New York, New York, 2010.
“I would like to see you draped in a fine cloak and mounted upon a horse with your stirrups slashing the throats of our hated enemies. Such will not come to pass; yet success is still possible by means of treachery. So I would like you to train to become an expert in black magic, curses, and casting hail. Then you should destroy all those who inflicted misery on us, villagers and countrymen beginning with your uncle and aunt, cutting off their family lines for nine generations…Son, if you return without showing signs of black magic in our region, I, your old mother, will kill myself right in front of you.”
Such were the powerful words of Milarepa’s – then known as Töpaga (“delightful to hear) – mother Nyangtsa Kargyen, when she encouraged her son to undertake the study of sorcery that would allow them to get revenge on the family members who had wronged and betrayed them. Born into a life of wealth and privilege, the death of his father Mila Sherab Gyaltsen saw Töpaga’s family descend into despair when the greedy actions of his aunt and uncle cast them into degradation and extreme poverty. His rightful inheritance stolen and his family publicly humiliated, Töpaga begins his powerful career studying black magic with two powerful teachers, unleashing a curse so powerful it toppled his aunt and uncle’s house, murdering 35 people. To top it off, he conjured a hailstorm strong enough to obliterate the fields of grain the village needed to survive. Although his mother was beyond pleased at the vengeance unleashed upon their enemies, Töpaga felt great remorse, and ultimately turned his thoughts towards the study of dharma. And so began the transformation of Töpaga the black sorceror into Milarepa, Tibet’s greatest poet-yogi and saint, under the tutelage of Marpa the Translator, founder of the Kagyu School and student of Naropa. Written in a first-person, flashback perspective, Milarepa tells the story of his life and deeds in response to questions put to him by his disciples, who wish him to share his story for the benefit of all beings and as an inspiration to practise dharma.
Composed in 1488 by Tsangnyön Heruka (the “Madman of Tsang”), The Life of Milarepa is considered one of the most important works of Tibetan literature both from a literary and hagiographical standpoint. Translated into several languages in many different editions, it is both an engaging biography as well as a contemplative work, telling not only the story of Milarepa’s life and activities but also imparting Buddhist views of karma, samsara, morality, ethics, and living. Andrew Quintman’s translation is fast-paced and enthralling, making this edition highly accessible and very readable, even for those not familiar with Tibetan Buddhism or Buddhism in general. An excellent introduction by both Quintman and Donald S. Lopez Jr. provides background on Buddhism in the 11th and 12th centuries (when Milarepa was practising), as well as biographical information on Tsangnyön Heruka and an overview of Milarepa’s life. Also included is an appendix covering Tibetan terms as well as a glossary of Buddhist terminology.
Of note is the depiction of the powerful guru-disciple relationship between Marpa and Milarepa; in Tibetan Buddhism one relies on the guru as spiritual friend and guide on the path to liberation, and such is the strong bond between them that Marpa and Milarepa regard each other as father and son. While initially coming across as cruel and abusive to Milarepa – beating him, depriving him of necessities, forcing him to resort to begging, and setting him to impossible tasks – it becomes clear that Marpa’s actions are designed to help purify Milarepa’s compounded negative karma. Throughout the rest of the text Milarepa will offer praise to his guru Marpa (“I bow at the feet of kind Marpa…”) prior to reciting his poetry and songs, through which he imparts teachings and realisations. By relying properly on his guru, Milarepa is ultimately able to achieve liberation in a single lifetime, as evidenced by the signs and wonders described at the time of his parinirvana.
I would definitely recommend Quintman’s translation as one of the most engaging and readable versions available. In closing, I share Tsangnyön Heruka’s final wish for readers of this work:
“May it bring great happiness and benefit to the teachings and to sentient beings until life’s round (samsara) is emptied.“