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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email email@example.com to express your interest.
- Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
- Abortion, Buddhism and
- Ajanta Caves
- Ambedkar Buddhism
- Ancient Indian Society
- Archaeology of Early Buddhism
- Art and Architecture In China, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in India, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Japan, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Nepal, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Tibet, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road," Buddhist
- Asceticism, Buddhism and
- Awakening of Faith
- Beats, Buddhism and the
- Bhāviveka / Bhāvaviveka
- Bodh Gaya
- Body, Buddhism and the
- Buddha, Three Bodies of the (Trikāya)
- Buddhism and Ethics
- Buddhism and Law
- Buddhism and Marxism
- Buddhism and Modern Literature
- Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast A...
- Buddhist Hermeneutics
- Buddhist Ordination
- Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, ...
- Buddhist Thought and Western Philosophy
- Buddhist Thought, Embryology in
- Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
- Cambodian Buddhism
- Canon, History of the Buddhist
- Caste, Buddhism and
- Central Asia, Buddhism in
- China, Esoteric Buddhism in, (Zhenyan and Mijiao)
- Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950
- Colonialism and Postcolonialism
- Compassion (karuṇā)
- Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology
- Culture, Material
- Dalai Lama
- Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism
- Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, The Philosophical Works and Influ...
- Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)
- Dzogchen (rDzogs chen)
- Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)
- Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism
- East Asian Buddhist Art, Portraiture in
- Ellora Caves
- Emptiness (Śūnyatā)
- Environment, Buddhism and the
- Ethics of Violence, Buddhist
- Family, Buddhism and the
- Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism
- Four Noble Truths
- Funeral Practices
- Gandhāra, Buddhism in
- Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa)
- Gender, Buddhism and
- Hakuin Ekaku
- History of Buddhisms in China
- Image Consecrations
- India, Buddhism in
- India, Mahāmudrā in
- Internationalism, Buddhism and
- Intersections Between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand
- Iranian World, Buddhism in the
- Islam, Buddhism and
- Japan, Buddhism in
- Korea, Buddhism in
- Laos, Buddhism in
- Linji and the Linjilu
- Literature, Chan
- Literature, Tantric
- Local Religion, Buddhism as
- Lotus Sūtra
- Mahayana, Early
- Mahāvairocana Sūtra/Tantra
- Malaysia, Buddhism in
- Mantras and Dhāraṇīs
- Merit Transfer
- Miracles, Buddhist
- Modernism, Buddhist
- Monasticism in East Asia
- Mongolia, Buddhism in
- Mongolia, Buddhist Art and Architecture in
- Music, and Buddhism
- Myanmar, Buddhism in
- New Medias, Buddhism in
- New Religions in Japan (Shinshūkyō), Buddhism and
- Śāntideva (Bodhicaryāvatāra)
- Nuns, Lives, and Rules
- Oral and Literate Traditions
- Pagan (Bagan)
- Perfection of Wisdom
- Perfections (Six and Ten)
- Philosophy, Chinese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Indian Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Japanese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Tibetan Buddhist
- Pilgrimage in India
- Pilgrimage in Japan
- Pilgrimage in Tibet
- Preaching/Teaching in Buddhism Studies
- Psychology and Psychotherapy, Buddhism in
- Pure Land Buddhism
- Pure Land Sūtras
- Religious Tourism, Buddhism and
- Saṃsāra and Rebirth
- Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity
- Shinto, Buddhism and
- Soka Gakkai
- South and Southeast Asia, Devatās, Nats, And Phii In
- Southeast Asia, Buddhism in
- Sri Lanka, Monasticism in
- Sōtō Zen (Japan)
- Stūpa Pagoda Caitya
- Suffering (Dukkha)
- Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)
- Texts, Dunhuang
- Thai Buddhism
- Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
- Tibet, Buddhism in
- Tibet, Mahāmudrā in
- Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Tri Songdetsen
- Uighur Buddhism
- Verse Literature, Tibetan Buddhist
- Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)
- Vietnam, Buddhism in
- Vision and Visualization
- Visualization/Contemplation Sutras
- Warrior Monk Traditions
- West (North America and Europe), Buddhism in the
- Wheel of Life (Bhava-Cakra)
- Women in Buddhism
- Women in the West, Prominent Buddhist
- Zen, Premodern Japanese