Late in the eleventh century a wandering mendicant, the Yogin, starved himself in the frigid mountains of southern Tibet while undertaking ascetic practice. He lived in solitude on a diet of boiled nettles. His skin is said to have turned green as a result. He is then said to have become a buddha, a perfect teacher, who was also famous for his poetry and songs of spiritual realization. Four hundred years later, a tantric adept emerged from the jungles of Tibet’s border with Northeast India, naked, human entrails wound in his dangling dreadlocks. This adept, the Madman, composed a new and novelistic version of the Yogin’s life. The story it told of a great Tibetan saint would inspire new forms of religious literature across the Himalayan world, new styles of artistic production, new traditions of spiritual practice. Great teachers would emulate the deeds it described and quote from it freely in their own autobiographical writing. In time, the Madman’s version of the Yogin’s life would become Tibet’s most famous book. But it was also the first Tibetan book translated into a European language.
The Life of Milarepa (Penguin Classics 2010) is a new English translation of the Yogin's celebrated biography. While numerous early Tibetan versions of the life story exist, including several that may date from his lifetime, the best known account was composed in 1488 by Tsangnyon Heruka, the so-called “Madman of Tsang,” based upon numerous earlier works. Its narrative focuses on Milarepa’s early wrongdoings, his subsequent training and meditation, and eventual death. It is a companion to the collected spiritual songs of Milarepa (often referred to as The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa), also arranged and printed by Tsangnyon Heruka, which records Milarepa’s later teaching career through a compilation of his religious instruction and songs of realization. Tsangnyon Heruka's version of The Life of Milarepa is known and read throughout the Tibetan Buddhist cultural world and widely accepted as a landmark of literary achievement by Tibetans and western scholars alike.
The account of Milarepa’s life profoundly impacted the development of sacred biography in Tibet, a prominent genre in Tibetan Buddhist culture, and has influenced the way in which Tibet’s Buddhism and culture have been understood in the west. It is perhaps the single greatest work of Tibetan literature, a powerfully evocative narrative, full of magic, miracles, suspense, and humor, while reflecting the religious and social life of medieval Tibet.