Milarepa: His Personal Teaching of Renunciation


The Buddhist Yogi C. M. Chen

I. Renounce Family and Native Place

When Milarepa was in his hermitage, one night he dreamt his familys home was ruined and dilapidated, his mother dead and his sister begging friendless in the world and his field was overgrown with weeds. He then left his Guru and went homeward. He found everything had happened the same as was in his dream. After he found his mothers bones, he set himself into Samadhi in which he communed spiritually with his mothers eighth consciousness and the spirits of the divine and the grace of Guru and remained in that state of tranquility for seven days. His mother was thus saved from transmigration and got a good rebirth in the Pure Land. Without thinking about how to find his sister and his betrothed wife, he decided to go into solitude to meditate. He sang the following song:

When my mother lived I had gone away,
When I came home my mother passed away.
Little profit, even though we could both stay,
So I should like to live in cave & pray.
When the house stood firm, master was away,
When the master came back, the house broken lay.
Little profit, even though we could stay,
So I should like to live in cave & pray.
Parents, native place and my home,
All empty and nothing handsome!
Those fools may enjoy all of them,
But I should like to overcome!  

II. Renounce Every Worldly Thing

He then lived in a cave and begged alms from everywhere. Once he met his betrothed wife Miss Zesay. She wept copiously and embraced him and told him the manner of his mothers death and about his sisters wandering. He was greatly saddened and also wept bitterly. He then said to her: "I shall find my food as the mice and birds do theirs. I need not the field, I will dwell only in caves and lonely solitudes. I need no house, you may use them with my sister. I realize that even though I should possess the whole world, at my death I would have to give up everything and so it will confer happiness in this and the next life if I give up everything now. I am thus pursuing a life which is quite opposite to that followed by the people of the world. Give up thinking of me as a living person."

His betrothed wife then asked him, "Is your practice also opposed to that of all other religious persons?" He replied, "I am of course opposed to those hypocrites who have assumed a religious garb only for the sake of the honor attending it, and their aim being merely the acquisition of wealth, fame, and greatness, who have succeeded in knowing by heart the contents of a volume or two and who having strong party feelings strive for victory for their own party and defeat for the opposite party. My path is called total self-abnegation for the purpose of attaining Buddhahood in one lifetime, and to attain Buddhahood thus we must scatter this lifes aims and objects to the wind."

III. Renounce Almsgiving From Others

Although never was there an ancient Dhuta which prohibited begging, yet our Guru Milarepa was so diligent that he took the vow of not descending to any village to beg. In the following of his poems he has shown his determination of complete renunciation.

Even though of fast I die,
Ill not go to seek alms; Even though of cold I die,
Ill not go to seek trims; Even though of sad I die,
Ill not go to seek enjoyment; Even though of disease I die,
Ill not go to seek treatment.

And he added, "Should I break these vows, seeing that it is better to die than to live a life without seeking to acquire truth, may the Divine Beings who protect the Faith cut my life short immediately, and may my Gurus and Devas?grace combine in directing my next life to religious pursuits and endow it with the firmness and intellect necessary to enable it to surmount all obstacles and triumph over them."

IV. Renounce Food

When he practiced physical exercise with a desire to develop the Estatic Warmth (Tumo),

Yes. I think it is usually written as Tummo.

he had the idea to go about for a little recreation. He was about to start forth when he instantly recollected his own vows, he stopped and sang the following songs to himself:

Excite not your mind but let it remain at rest,
If hanker after desires, whom can you trust,
Pursue not your cravings but give them away,
If attached to them how could a hermit stay.
Walk not forth but rest content upon your seat,
If forth you walk may the stone strike hard your feet.
Raise not your head but hang it down,
If seek out for vain, it is wrong.
Sleep not but continue only your devotion,
If fall asleep youll be subdued by poison.

Thus he took only water and nettles which were around about his cave. His body became shrunken to a mere skeleton and it was greenish in hue just like the nettles, and over it grew a covering of greenish hair.

Once a party of hungers gave him a little meat which he used sparingly until at last it was full of maggots. He once thought of clearing off the maggots and using it again, but he considered that it was not intended for him to enjoy the meat since he would have to dispute about it with the maggots which would be robbery. And he thought that however nice it may be, it was not worth his while to go to the length of committing robbery for a meal. So he allowed the maggots to take the meat while he himself fell back upon his own nettle broth.

Again some hunters of Tza came to his cave and asked him for a loan of some food. He replied, "Yes! Let me make a fire to boil nettles. This is what I can do for you." They expected something to season the soup with such as meat bone, marrow or fat. But he applied some short nettles in place of seasoning. They again asked for flour or grain to thicken the soup with. He said that all of these things he had not for some years and he then added some nettle tips instead. They asked again for salt, he took some fragments of nettle in place of salt. They said, "You take such a kind of food, you are the most pitiable and miserable person in the whole world." Our Guru Milarepa replied, "No, I am one of the most fortunate and best among all who have obtained human life. By denying myself the trivial pleasures to be derived from food, clothing, and fame, I am subduing the enemy of ignorance in this very lifetime. But you are accumulating sins by the pound and stone. How foolish and perverted are your aims in life. I am not only rejoicing in the prospect of Eternal Bliss but also enjoy those things which give contentment and self-approbation. Please listen to my song of five comforts."

Comfortable is the hard mattress,
Which supports me to sit in Bliss.
Comfortable is the old cotton pad,
Which warms me with heat I never had,
Comfortable is the meditation band,
Which enables me to get the truth at hand.
Comfortable is the body with a diet of nettle,
Which makes me free from all worldly things to be settled.
Comfortable is the mind without any attachments,
Which lead one go to full Enlightenment.  

V. Renounce Clothes

After he had meditated for some years without going out begging for clothes, all his old clothes were worn out. He had only some rags of cloth which his aunt had given him as the price of his field. He once thought of sewing the rags together and making them into a sort of bedding and then he thought that if I die in that very night what would be the use of such sewing; better far to go on with my meditations. So spreading the tattered skin dress underneath as bedding, he made it serve as a covering for the lower part of his body by wrapping its end around him as well as it could. While he covered the upper part of his body with a ragged empty flour sack and with what remained of the cloth he covered those parts of his body which required it most. But it seemed to him that this was too much self-abnegation and he must sew the rags together which would save him from so many actions to put them on this and that part of his body. As he had no needle and thread, so he twined the rags about his body in three pieces, knotted them in three places and kept them in position by the ends of a rope tied together to make a girdle. Under this he passed the days; and at night, the ragged sack and the remains of the tattered skin dress afforded him some protection from cold.

One night a thief, believing that Milarepa possessed some wealth, came groping about, stealthily pried into every corner of his cave and touched every part of his body and found out only so many small pieces of rags. Upon his observing this, Milarepa laughed outright and said, "Try if you can to find anything by night where I failed by daylight." The thief could not help laughing too and then he went away.

Once his sister Peta came to offer him a piece of blanket-cloth woven of wool which she had collected from the leavings of others. She asked her brother to sew himself an under-garment from this blanket and left with her desire to beg some more for her brothers upper part of his body. But Milarepa used the material in play. First he cut up the blanket and sewed himself a cape to cover his head entirely, even including his face; next he sewed a cover for each of his fingers and a pair of coverings for his feet; thirdly,he sewed a cover particularly for his penis. When his sister came back and asked whether he had sewn the blanket into a garment, he showed her what he had done. She said, "O Brother, you are not only devoid of the sense of shame, but have spoiled the blanket which I prepared with so much trouble. At some time you appear to have no time to spare for anything except devotion, while at other times you seem to have ample leisure." He replied, "You do not know what is really shameful and what is not. Therefore listen to my song"

Your shame is born of Ignorance,
To me they have no difference.
Free from natural shape of sex who can,
Each man possesses certain organs.
Those acts which truly are of shame:
Evil wealth are the daughters of shame,
Black lies are the children of shame,
Thief. robber are the friends of shame,
Few persons can refrain from them.

* * * * * *

Those Hermits who have given up wealth,
And taken to the practice of Truth,
Found the great teaching of secret path,
They neednt shame of naked but true health.  

VI. His Renunciation Unmovable by His Sister and Betrothed Wife

When his sister came to see him in his cave the first time she was frightened. His body was emaciated by the deprivation and hardships; his eyes were deeply sunken into the sockets his bones showed prominently, his color was bluish green as that of nettles, hair covered his skeleton-like form, the hair on his head was stiff and formed a formidable wig and his limbs appeared as if they were about to break. Altogether he was a sight which inspired his sister with such a dreadful fright that she took her brother to be a ghost. His sister Peta said, "O my brother, whichever way I observe you, you do not look at all like a sane human being. Pray have recourse to soliciting alms and do partake of the food of men. I will try to find some cloth and bring it over to you." His betrothed wife Miss Zesay added, "Do have recourse to alms, begging for your food, and I also will come to offer you some cloth." But Milarepa said, With the uncertainty of the time of death looming over me, I see not the use of going a-begging for food nor could I afford to lose the time in doing so. Even if I were to die of the cold, it would be for the sake of Truth and religion; and therefore I should have very little cause for regret. I could not be satisfied with that show of devotion which is practiced by a circle of merry relatives and friends, revelling in unlimited quantities of food and drink and clothes in fine raiment - all obtained at the cost of real and sincere devotion. Nor do I need the clothes and visits, I will not pay heed to your advice of going a-begging for food. Please, listen to my song."

To repay the kindness of all beings,
I give myself nothing which I bring,
Like those of wild beasts, behold my lodging,
Which other persons would be timid in.
Like the food of dogs, behold my food,
Excites in others nausea, it would.
Like a skeleton, behold my body,
On which even a foe would have pity.
My body both inside and out,
Beside nettle likeness there is nought,
Yet I ever hold adoration & affection,
The Buddhas are preserved in my meditation.
Therefore my sister Peta dear,
To my real teaching give your ear,
See my acts for all the years,

Is not seeing better than hear? After hearing his song, Peta and Zesay both asked him, "How then can your heart be satisfied?" He sang the following song of what would constitute his satisfaction:

My happiness unknown to my aunt,
My sadness unknown to my enemy,
Could thus I die in solitude,
Contented would be the devotee.

* *

My growing old unknown to Zesay,
My falling ill unknown to Peta.
Could thus I die in this solitude,
Contented would be the devotee.

* * *

My death unknown to anybody,
My rotting corpse unseen by any bird,
Could thus I die in this solitude,
Contented would be the devotee.
My putrid flesh sucked by the worms,
My muscles by beasts get many harms,
Could thus I die in this solitude,
Contented would be the devotee.

With no human foot-print by my door,
Shedding no blood of my body pure,
Could thus I die in the solitude,
Contented would be the devotee.

With none to ask where I had gone,
With none to ask when I will come,
Could thus I die in this solitude,
Contented would be the devotee.

* * *

With none to crowd about my corpse,
With none to lament my life lapse.
Could thus I die in this solitude,
Contented would be the devotee.

* *

May this prayer about dying in solitude
Be granted as I wish for beings and bear fruit,
Doubtlessly satisfied I will die
In such a manner the devotee!

Once his sister met the Lama Bari-Lotsawa when she was begging and saw everything surrounding this Lama and then she went to her brother and advised him, "Make a lower garment and go to the Lama Bari-Lotsawa who is a Lama indeed, but of quite different style and practice than yourself. He has a throne under him and an umbrella over him, he is clad in silken garments and his lips are always dipped in tea and wine. He is surrounded by his disciples and followers who walk in front of him blowing trumpets by pairs. He assembles a crowd wherever he goes and collects their offerings in large quantities, thus benefiting his relatives, and is one who can be boasted of as a most eminent Lama. I would have you try to enter his service and follow him as a disciple. Even if you be accepted as his meanest disciple, that would be better than this sort of life. Your penurious devotion and my luckless life will scarcely do in this world. We cannot thus sustain life." She began to weep bitterly deploring their lot.

Milarepa tried to console her by saying, "Peta, do not speak in that fashion, I am proud that I have obtained the truth through my being a man. I am frightened at the pains and tribulations of this Samsara. I feel them as keenly as though I had been cast alive into flames. Worldly acquisitions of wealth and the need of clinging to them, as well as the pursuit of the eight worldly aims, I regard with as much loathing and disgust as a man who is suffering from biliousness regards the sight of rich food. Nay I regard them as if they were murderers of my father. Therefore is it that I am assuming this beggarly and penurious mode of life. Moreover my Guru Marpa bade me to give up all worldly concerns, aims and objects; to bear the loss of food, clothing and name, to live in various solitary places, and to carry on my devotions most energetically, giving up all prospects in this life. Such being my Gurus commandments, I am fulfilling them. By thus obeying my Gurus commandments I shall not only be able to confer temporal cause and comfort on those who are my followers but I shall also earn eternal happiness for every sentient being including myself. I give up all thoughts of this life, because I saw that there is no certainty as to when death may come upon me. If I were to think of acquiring wealth and ease I should be able to acquire as much as Lama Bari-Lotsawa himself is acquiring. So what need is there to speak of his meanest follower! Give ear to your brothers song."

At the top the umbrella has a pinnacle of gold,
Below is fringe of Chinese silk in tasteful fold.
In between ribs outspread like the feathers of a peacock,
At the bottom the red teakwood handle he holds.
These are four things if needed to procure your brother could,
But these worldly things Ive renounced them,
Thereby my sun of happiness has shone.
You please follow me renounce them too,
Meditate with me in Lapchi-Kange.

The white conch-shells sound in strong strength,
The practiced blower with full breath,
The silken ribbon in fine plaits,
The vast meeting of many priests,
These four if need why one not has? Chorus
The Temple in village place is one,
The fluent speech of novices is two,
The kitchen with good stock is three,
The busy hands of novices too,
These four if needed I too may do. Chorus
The well-liked trades, telling others destiny,
The pastor acts in rightness and modesty,
The practical pujas seem quite earnest,
The psalms sung to convert the rich laity,
These four if needed I may have a-plenty. Chorus
A building nice, tall, and massive,
A field fertile and extensive,
A store of great wealth possessive,
A crowd of servants responsive,
If needed I might be successive. Chorus
A horse with tall crest and powerful,
A saddle gem bedecked and beautiful,
An armed escort with manner fierceful,
A group of vigilants dutiful,
If needed I too may be successful. Chorus
No liking have I for your sisterly affection,
This talk of worldly things disturbs my meditation,
No time have I to postpone my deep devotion,
Please follow me to practice the contemplations.  

VII. His Renunciation Unmoved by the Criticism of Society

When Milarepa was lying on the road enjoying a view of the countryside, a party of maidens, rather gaily dressed, happened to pass by on their way to Sang-Mo, Seeing his emaciated body, one of them said, "O see how miserable this man appears! Grant that I may never be born in such a shape! " To which another added, "How piteous! It makes me quite nervous to see such a sight!" Milarepa thinking of them to be poor creatures, pitied them and getting up said, "O you girls, do not speak thus. You need not be anxious about that at all, you would not be born such as I even though you were to wish and pray earnestly for it. It is praiseworthy to pity but pity and self-conceit are opposed to each other and so inconsistent. Listen to my song."

Those sentient beings who are in evil Karma,
Proud of themselves but know not the Dharma.
Women think of a married life with desire,
Their self-conceit burns as hot as the fire.
Ah! pitiable it is to see them being so dire.

In these dark days of the Kali-yuga,
Mischief maker is believed as if god,
Imposters are prized as precious as gold,
True sages are cast aside as useless goods.
Ah! pity these foolish beings who are with ego.

Your group of sisters are in gay bright clothes,
And I the Milarepa of Gung-Thang,
Both have mutual contempt of each other,
And mutual pity on one another.
But in the lance-tilt of our mutual pity,
At last let us see who wins the reality.

This is truthful sermon of mine,
In answer your complaints as whine,
To return evil for good,
And exchange water with wine.

Upon his finishing this song, the girl who had pity on him said, "This is the famous Gung-Thang Milarepa, let us ask him pardon" and they all did so with prostrations.

Once some hunters who were coming toward his place for a meal, heard his song. They said, "O! Hermit, you possess a very musical voice for singing. What are you doing with a broken earthen pot and inner pot of hardened encrustation of froth of nettle broth; and how come it is that you are so emaciated and greenish in appearance?" After Milarepa gave an explanation to them, they were filled with wonder and asked him to partake of their meal. While he was eating, one of the younger hunters said: "Why, you seem to be a powerfully built man. Instead of undergoing such troubles and privations, if you would take a worldly career and if things went well you would be riding a horse like a lion and accoutered in arms like a thorn-bush you would be subduing the enemies. By accumulating wealth you would be protecting your affectionate kindred and you would be happy. Or else you could devote yourself to trade in which line you could serve as a servant to obtain good food and clothes; as regards your body and mind, you would be far better off than this." One of the old hunters said: "He appears to me to be a very good devotee, better keep quiet. He would not want our worldly counsel." Then he said to Milarepa, "You possess a very fine voice. Please sing us a song which will do good to our minds!" Milarepa replied: "You all seem to think me very miserable, but there is no one in the world who is so happy as myself, nor one who can boast of greater sense or a nobler and more successful life; but you could not understand it. Listen to me, I am going to sing a song which is named "The Yogis Race."

My body is the Bodhi-Pagoda,
My breasts wherein is the Buddha altar.
My heart wherein is the chamber triangular,
The horse of my mind prances in particular.
What lasso must be used to catch the horse?
What post must it be tied to in its course?
What food is to be given in its mouth?
What drink is to be given as its nurse?
What things are to be given as its clothes?
Samadhi is the Lasso to catch the horse!
Samatha stages are the posts in the whole course!
Gurus teachings are food in its mouth!
Awakeness is the drink as its good nurse!
Voidness is to be worn as its clothes!
For saddle is the will; for bridle, intelligence,
For girths and cruppers the fixed coherence!
For head-stall and nose-band is the inhale strength!
Its rider is the youth of supreme sapience!
He wears the helmet of mahayanic reality!
Hearing, thinking and practicing there in his large coat,
Upon his back he carries a hard shield so patient,
In his hand he lifts up the long spear of aspirant,
And by his side hangs the sharp sword of intellect.
The smoothed reed of universal mentality,
Being made straight by getting rid of pride and hate,
And barbed with the kind feathers of four non-limits,
Tipped with the sharp arrow-head made by Intellect,
Then fixed within the plain bow of spiritual talent.
In the aperture of wise path and with method right,
He draws out to the deep fathom and long diameter,
And the arrows fall amidst all the nations when shot,
They save all the faithful once and slay the selfish sprite .
Hence all the enemies of five passions would be nought,
And all the hundreds of six worlds might be in safety,
By running such a race I go toward enlightenment,
Judge if this be like your own idea of felicity.
Pardon me! Your worldly happiness I covet not.

On hearing this they were moved with faith and went away in that mood.

VIII. Renounce the Helpfulness of Patrons

When Milarepa came home he met the son of his former private tutor who asked him to stay and he would give him of his best. But Milarepa refused with the following song:

Alas! You the unfortunate beings
Who cling to the useless worldly things,
You whirl and whirl, till into hell
Pursue not the truth you would fall.
Where are my sheep and cow?
Where is my well built-house?
Where is my noble father?
Where is my kind mother?
There is only a heap of bones!
There only the rat or fox comes,
Everything now plenty and then empty.

On his singing this melancholy, the host sighed and said, "Excellent, you are quite right!" And the wife of the tutor shed copious tears.

When Milarepa became known to all those Buddhists of Tibet, there were many believers who asked him to be allowed to be his patron. But none of them could lure him with a beautiful building and good food.

Once he was on the way to the snow mountain Rachi when the people of the village of Thama asked him to stay there, saying they would like to support him to meditate there forever. It was winter and Rachi was very cold, nobody could offer him there anything but a cave where snow was piled up for a depth of many feet. He refused the people of Thama saying that his Guru always taught him that one should not stay in any village or town where persons gathered. Hence, those patrons carried some food which could be used for several days meals and went along with him for some miles. When they left Milarepa alone and went homeward, a heavy snow fell in a whirl and laid two or three months of snow altogether on the earth. Those patrons were weeping for they thought their Guru would die in the cold if not dying by hunger as the food they had prepared was not sufficient for eating over such a long time. They actually held a meeting to commemorate their Gurus death. When the snow finally dissolved, they went up to his cave with a desire to find his corpse and get some of his holy relics for a blessing. On their way to his cave they found some traces of beasts. They wept for the reason that their guru might have been killed by those wild beasts. When they came close to the cave, they saw a black bear and suddenly it disappeared and a nice voice in song was heard. They all were very glad for they knew their Guru was still alive. When they arrived at the cave. Milarepa said I have prepared your food here. They began to be aware that the black bear was a transformed body of their guru and all that food which they had offered to him many months earlier he never took and now they took it themselves.

IX. Renounce Book Knowledge

Once there happened to be a great marriage feast to which Milarepa was invited and he was placed on the highest seat at the head of the first row of guests. A Pandita named Geshi [ed note: Geshe] Tsaphuwa was seated next to him. He bowed down to Milarepa expecting that the latter would bow down to him in return. But Milarepa never did so to anybody except his Guru. Geshi then wanted to do his best to lower him in the esteem of the public. He produced a book on philosophy and addressed Milarepa thus: "Please be so kind to dissipate my perplexities by going through this book and explaining it to me word by word."

Upon this Milarepa answered, "As for mere word-by-word explication of these dialectics, you yourself are sufficiently expert; but to realize their true import it is necessary to renonounce worldly ambitions lopping off their heads to subdue the illusion of belief in the personal ego and, regarding Nirvana and Samsara as inseparable, to conquer the spiritual ego by meditation in mountain solitudes. I have never valued and studied the mere sophistry of worldly knowledge, set down in a book in conventionalized form of questions and answers to be committed to memory; these lead but to mental confusion and not to such practice as to bring actual realization of Truth. Of such book knowledge I am ignorant, and if ever I did know it, I have forgotten it long ago. I pray that you will give ear to my song through which I am going to show my reasons of forgetting book knowledge."

Accustomed long to thinking of love & pity,
I forget to differ myself and other party.
Longing to meditate on my guru oer my head,
I forget the lowly fleshly form.
Longing to meditate on real Truth,
I forget all those sayings of books?growth,
As I have studied the real Buddhist science,
I forget the errors of ignorance.
As I meditate on the three bodies so dear,
I forget to think of either hope or fear.
By seeing this and further life as oneness,
I forget the dread of birth and fear of death.
Longing to study all by my own experience,
I forget the need of seeking friends?opinions.
Longing for my own spiritual growth,
I forget all creeds and dogmas and rules.
Thinking of the unborn, the indestructible and unabiding,
I forget all definitions of this and that special study.
Meditating on all things being of the Dharmakaya,
I forget all those mind-made meditations and yoga.
Keeping my mind in the uncreated state of freedom,
I forget conventional and artificial form.
Longing for the humbleness of mind & body,
I forget the proud manner of the mighty.
Longing to regard my fleshly body as a hermitage,
I forget the case and comfort of retreats in any stage.
Accustomed to know the meaning of the wordless,
I forget the ease and comfort of retreats in any stage
O learned one please trace out,
Those things which are endless.  

X. The Consequence of Renunciation

He renounces worldly foods but gets the food of samadhi and the celestial food directly offered by the gods. He renounces worldly clothes but gets the clothes of Dhyana and the heavenly clothes directly offered by the angels. He renounces worldly houses but gets the house of Dharmakaya and the mandala which appears in the sky more beautiful than those buildings made by the experts. He renounces worldly human life and gets the non-death of Sambhogakaya. Some disciples have seen his body as Dorje Chang, others have seen his body as the Mahadeva. He renounces the false reputation of a guru, but gets many real worthy disciples in heaven and in the six realms. Some of his disciples have accomplished the realization of Bodhisattvas, others have achieved the eight siddhis. To the short sighted Pragmatist his renunciation was a very foolish one. But to the far sighted pragmatist he might be regarded as a fully enlightened Buddha. Readers, think of yourself, which way you should follow!

Editing notes in square brackets added by Stanley Lam on Oct 31, 2000.

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