Milarépa (Mi la ras pa, b. c. 1040–d. 1123) is one of the most famous figures in the history of Tibetan Buddhism. Although considered an early founder of the Kagyu sect that traces its origins back to the Indian siddhas Nāropa and Tilopa, he is equally revered throughout the Tibetan Buddhist world as an exemplar of religious dedication, perseverance in yogic practice, and meditative mastery. Little of his life is known with historical certainty, and calculations of the dates for his birth and death vary widely in the Tibetan sources. Yet it is clear that he lived during the 11th and early 12th centuries, at the outset of the formative period known as the later dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet. The most famous account of his life (the Mi la ras pa’i rnam thar, or Life of Milarepa) and collection of his songs of realization (Mi la’i mgur ‘bum, or The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa) are extremely popular throughout the Himalayan region. The themes associated with his life story—purification of past misdeeds, faith and devotion to the guru, perseverance in meditation and yogic practice, and the possibility of attaining buddhahood in a single lifetime—have influenced the development of Buddhist literature, doctrine, and practice in Tibet and continue to do so. He studied briefly under several masters before meeting his principal guru, Marpa Chokyi Lodro (Mar pa Chos kyi blo gro, b. 1012–d. 1097), who had trained under several great Indian tantric masters. Marpa bestowed numerous tantric initiations and instructions, especially those of mahāmudrā and the so-called Six Yogas of Nāropa (Nā ro chos drug), which includes the practice of tummo, or “yogic heat.” Milarépa spent the rest of his life practicing meditation in seclusion and teaching small groups of yogin disciples through poetry and songs of realization. These songs, together with their brief framing narratives, were eventually collected and published in an independent volume as The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. He was active across southern Tibet, and dozens of locations associated with the saint have become important pilgrimage sites and retreat centers. Foremost among Milarépa’s disciples were Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (Sgam po pa Bsod rnam rin chen, b. 1079–d. 1153), from whom many Kagyu lineages descend, and Rechungpa Dorje Drak (Ras chung pa Rdo rje grags, b. 1084–d. 1161).
A number of surveys of Tibetan Buddhist history provide a useful context for better understanding Milarépa’s life and times, as well as the legacy of his instruction lineages as they were promulgated through the Kagyu tradition. Davidson 2002 covers the transmission of new Indian tantric texts and traditions to Tibet during the period in which the Indian founders of the Kagyu lineage lived. Kapstein 2006 surveys the rise of the Kagyu sect in Tibet and the foundation of its principal institutions. The introduction to Lopez 1997 provides a useful overview of Tibetan religious history and practice. Powers 1995 presents a more extensive examination of Tibetan Buddhist traditions. For a brief description of the principal Kagyu founders and the tradition’s main institutional divisions, see Quintman 2004. Thuken Lozang Chökyi Nyima 2009 translates a traditional Tibetan history that includes a discussion of Kagyu history and its central doctrinal tenets. Van Schaik 2011 is a lively history of Buddhism in Tibet that covers the formative years of Kagyu institutional development.
Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Historical study of the religious and social movements that gave rise to Buddhist tantra in India.
Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetans. Peoples of Asia. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.
A general survey of Tibetan political and religious history. Chapter 4 covers the rise of the Kagyu sect and its main religious figures and institutions.
Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Religions of Tibet in Practice. Princeton Readings in Religions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
An anthology of short translations from Tibetan sources on various aspects of Tibetan Buddhist literature, doctrine, and practice.
Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1995.
A useful survey of basic Tibetan Buddhist doctrine, practice, and history, intended for the nonspecialist. It contains a chapter covering the doctrine and practices associated with the Kagyu tradition.
Quintman, Andrew. “Bka’ brgyud (Kagyu).” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 47–49. New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004.
Brief description of the Kagyu tradition, its principal founders, and its institutional divisions.
Thuken Lozang Chökyi Nyima. The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems: A Tibetan Study of Asian Religious Thought. Translated by Geshé Lhundup Sopa, E. Ann Chávez, and Roger R. Jackson. Library of Tibetan Classics 25. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009.
A traditional Tibetan survey of the various lineages of Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice, by the acclaimed historian Thuken Lozang Chökyi Nyima (b. 1737–d. 1802).
Van Schaik, Sam. Tibet: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
A lively survey of Tibet’s religious and political history from the beginnings of the Tibetan empire in the 7th century through the current Chinese occupation.
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