In the summer of 1986, a few months after my father passed away, I went on a pilgrimage of sorts to my neighbourhood monastery, the 12th century Changangkha lhakang in Thimphu, for a month.

There I would sit with an old lady, who came for her daily circumambulations, a 13-year-old novice monk at the monastery, and an old man, who lived further up the hill.  Sometimes there were others who would join us.  We would sit in the courtyard and listen to the koenyer (caretaker), read out the Mila Kabhum (life story of Milarepa) to anyone who cared to listen.

The namthar of Milarepa is familiar to most Buddhists.  It is, perhaps, the only story of a Tibetan-Buddhist master that parallels that of the historical Buddha.  Milarepa is much loved and admired for his ability to transform in one lifetime (1052-1135) a life of hate and sin to one of full-realisation.  He is also known for his poetic prowess.

As Milarepa came to me through the age-old tradition of oral transmission, he was, meanwhile, also travelling to global audiences through the pens of many authors in the west.  His travels through the pages of people’s writings had started from as early as the 17th century, when a Jesuit missionary, Ippolito Desideri, wrote of a “certain hermit of Tibet,” who studied magic, repented his sins, wore no clothes, and ate nettles.  The Jesuit noted how every hermit kept a book on Milarepa and tried to emulate his life.  It is no surprise then that Milarepa was the first Tibetan book to be translated into English.

The latest such work on Milarepa in the west is a study undertaken by Andrew Quintman, assistant professor of religious studies at Yale University.  His book, The Yogin and the Madman, which was published in 2014 (Columbia University Press), is perhaps the most detailed and only study of the biographical corpus of Tibet’s great saint.  In amazing detail, Quintman analyses and traces the literary transformations on the writings and studies of this poetic mendicant over the centuries.  The book clearly explains how to approach the writings and hagiographical studies on Milarepa to understand Tibetan literary traditions.  Often Buddhist texts on religious figures/sacred biographies have been criticised for distortion of the truth, and being fantastical.

“Scholars have long understood the importance of such works as repositories of historical data,” writes Quintman. “Religious biography thus could serve not only as a window into medieval religious life, but also, he quotes Patrick Geary here, as ‘a privileged source for the study of social values’.” According to Quintman, The Life of Milarepa may be one of the most influential stories in the history of Buddhism in Tibet and the Himalayas. “This means the figure of Milarepa and his narrative traditions are deeply interconnected with other forms of religious expressions, such as development of sacred geography and pilgrimage, artistic traditions, ritual practice, doctrine, liturgy and so forth.”

Having surveyed a wide range of previously unstudied sources and rare manuscripts, The Yogin and the Madman enlightens us with how the yogin’s life story emerged from a few “skeletal writings” by disciples to a full-bodied, fleshy biography over time.  These writings provide great insight into the religious and historical conditions including the forms of writing/literature that proliferated in Tibet over the centuries.

The book also has a great analysis on the life and writings of Tsangnyon Heruka, whose work on Milarepa “has formed the yogin’s enduring image in both Tibet and the West.”

This is not Quintman’s first book on Milarepa.  In 2010, Quintman translated “The Life of Milarepa,” published by Penguin Classics.  His fascination with Milarepa started from as early as 1988, when he spent time in Nepal and in Dharamsala with many eminent Buddhist teachers.  His introduction to Lobsang Lhalungpas “The Life of Milarepa” was the start of a study of a character that would last more than 25 years. “The life of Milarepa is compelling for many reasons,” he said. “It tells the story of an ordinary and deeply flawed individual, who was able to attain great spiritual mastery by virtue of his own dedication and fortitude. In that sense, the narrative holds the promise that everyone is capable of profound inner transformation.” Quintman also remarks on how the text is a great piece of literature that can stand together with other great works of Asia and the West.

The Yogin and the Madman is a treasure trove for anyone, who wishes to learn more about literary traditions in the Himalayas, Buddhist history, and about the life of Milarepa.

“All worldly pursuits have but one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow; acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings in destruction; meetings in separation; births in death.”  Milarepa.


Contributed by 

Sonam Ongmo