Jetsun Milarepa lived from 1052-1135 and is generally considered one of Tibet’s most famous yogi saints and poets. Born in the village of Kya Ngatsa, also known as Tsa in the Gungthang province of western Tibet to a prosperous family he was named Mila Thöpaga which means “A joy to hear.” When his father died, Milarepa’s aunt and uncle took all of the family’s wealth. At his mother’s request, Milarepa left home to study black magic. While his aunt and uncle were having a party to celebrate the impending marriage of their son, he took his revenge by summoning a giant scorpion to demolish their house, killing 35 people, although the aunt and uncle were supposed to have survived. The villagers were angry and set off to look for Milarepa, but his mother got word to him and he sent a hailstorm to destroy their crops.
Milarepa later lamented his evil ways and knowing that revenge was wrong, Milarepa set out to find a lama. He was led to Marpa the translator. Marpa proved an extremely hard task master. Before Marpa would teach Milarepa he had him build and then demolish three towers in turn. When Marpa still refused to teach Milarepa, he went to Marpa’s wife, who took pity on him. She forged a letter of introduction to another teacher, Lama Ngogdun Chudor, under whose tutelage he began to practice meditation. However when he was making no progress, he confessed the forgery and Ngogdun Chudor said that it was vain to hope for spiritual growth without the guru Marpa’s approval.
Milarepa returned to Marpa, and after practicing very diligently for twelve years, Milarepa attained enlightenment. He is said to be the first to achieve this state within one lifetime. He then became known as Milarepa, which means “Mila, the cotton clad one.” (The suffix “repa” is given to many tantric yogis since they wear white robes.) At the age of forty-five, he started to practice at Drakar Taso (White Rock Horse Tooth) cave which became known as “Milarepa’s Cave,” as well as becoming a wandering teacher. Here, he subsisted on nettle tea, leading his skin to turn green, hence the greenish color he is often depicted as having in paintings.
The essence of Milarepa lies in his writings rather than the legends that have grown up around him. The writings, often referred to as the Songs of Milarepa, are canonical Mahayana Buddhist texts and in particular emphasize the temporary nature of the physical body and the need for non-attachment. Milarepa is famous for many of his songs and poems, in which he expresses the profundity of his realization of the Dharma with extraordinary clarity and beauty. He also had many male and female disciples including Rechung Dorje Drakpa and Gampopa. His female disciples include Rechungma, Padarbum, Sahle Aui and Tseringma. It was Gampopa who became his spiritual successor who continued his lineage and became one of the main lineage masters in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.