Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Drinking the Mountain Stream - Selections

Songs of Tibet’s Beloved Saint, Milarepa

About the Songs

The complete text from which these selections were taken, Stories and Songs from the Oral Tradition of Jetsün Milarepa, opens with this foreword:

Here (in Tibet) the great, famous siddha known as Milarepa, Lord of Yogis, carried on the cargo of the vehicles. Maintaining humility, he practiced austerities and was as accustomed to living in caves as a man is to wearing a hat. He perfected the practice of one-pointed concentration and poured forth twenty-eight hundred songs born of his experience and realization in eighteen, twenty-one, or forty major song cycles. Two thousand of these are said to be preserved by the ḍākinīs and are unknown in the human world. The other eight hundred are related by yogis even to this day, and utilized by them in their practice.

These eight hundred songs are preserved in writing in three main works. Milarepa’s autobiography as told to his closest disciple Rechungpa was first translated into English by Kazi Dawa Samdup under the title Tibet’s Great Yogi Milarepa (Evans-Wentz, ed., Oxford) and has been retranslated by Lobsang Lhalungpa as The Life of Milarepa (Dutton, NY, 1977). The larger collection of stories and songs, the Hundred Thousand Songs, was translated by Garma C.C. Chang and published in various editions. These two works contain the Milarepa material familiar in both the East and the West. In addition, there is a rare, little-known collection “from the oral tradition” containing, with a few exceptions, completely different material. This is the Stories and Songs from the Oral Tradition of Jetsün Milarepa, from which the material of this book, and its companion volume, Miraculous Journey (Lotsawa, 1986), was taken. In addition, several of Milarepa’s practice manuals are contained in the Treasury of Precepts, and various groupings of stories and songs are in lesser-known Tibetan editions.

In attempting to piece together a picture of Milarepa’s personality, his singing, and his teaching style, this present work is valuable, perhaps more so than the two standard works. The Hundred Thousand Songs, and possibly the autobiography also, were transcribed from the orally repeated versions at an early date by the “Mad Yogi of Tsang,” Tsang Nyön Heruka Rüs Pai rGyän. That he incorporated a good deal of his own literary skills into the transcription may be deduced from stylistic comparison of the few parallel passages in the Stories and Songs. For example, “Mila’s Meeting with Phadampa Sangye” in this book corresponds to chapter 53 of Chang’s edition of the Hundred Thousand Songs. These two versions of the same incident show marked differences. The version in this volume is about half as long as the standard version in the Hundred Thousand Songs in both narrative and song. More significantly, its poetic style is less elaborate and makes less use of developed and embellished poetic elements. Its tone is more spontaneous and its impact more direct, especially when read aloud. In such comparison it gives the impression of being extemporaneous, rather than composed.

The material in Stories and Songs existed in an oral state longer than that of the two standard works; thus it might, and does seem to, contain a certain amount of interpolated material added in the repeated tellings by yogis. Passages of this sort can be distinguished from the bulk of the text by their inferior poetry, their unusually lengthy treatment of the topic, and their uninspired, poorly paced delivery. Almost without exception the additions consist of admonitions concerning the effects of bad action, rebirth in the lower states of existence, the miseries of samsaric life, and other basic topics especially suitable for inexperienced lay audiences. Their fire-and-brimstone tone reminds us that these songs were recited by the yogis who preserved them in memory most frequently in return for offerings of food from peasants and herdsmen of the Tibetan and Nepali countryside.

In transcribing the material contained in Stories and Songs, the unnamed compiler in the large monastic center of Trashi Gyi in Amdo, Tibet, made no attempt to impose a polished literary style. Some songs or stories are just sketchy fragments; others, however, are exceptional pieces and may have been omitted from the Hundred Thousand Songs because they did not deal with a famous incident or a first meeting with a major disciple, or perhaps because they were unknown to the earlier compiler. That they are authentic may be judged from their quality and style, with the understanding that, in the oral tradition that continues to this day, there are many variant versions of the same songs.

Another significant characteristic of the material in Stories and Songs is that it makes less attempt than the Hundred Thousand Songs to idolize Mila’s personality and behavior, or to make them more consistently palatable to the reader. Here his actions are more abrupt, less polite, his humor and wisdom more devastatingly cutting, and his reactions more paradoxical. The inconsistencies and contradictions are here—there is a real, human person just behind the lines. There are new attitudes also, perhaps because they were not altered by a transcriber’s sentiments, indicating, for example, that Mila was not as uneducated as most believe and that he did teach the importance of study before intensive meditation practice.

Good teachings always vary in subject and style according to the listeners, and Mila’s songs were sung to a wide range of audiences. To peasants he met through his vow of begging only at the “first door” each day and to the rough, nomadic herdsmen he met in his wanderings, he sang of birth and death, the cause-effect relationship of action, impermanence, and ethical conduct in a simple and direct way, using everyday objects and experiences as his examples. For his own disciples he sang precise and pertinent instructions to open their minds for practice and to instruct and correct them. With disciples of other teachers, wandering yogis who would track him down for questioning and scholars eager to meet a person of real accomplishment, he was a master at assessing a person’s stature and needs. For them he fashioned songs stunning with penetrating revelations. Among his audience were nonhuman demons, to whom he sang his challenges and warnings, and ḍākinīs, to whom he sang of his most secret and personal illuminations. A few times he met masters of comparable attainment. They traded teachings and challenges, miracles and revelations, in celebration of the spiritual achievements of their powerful, yogic minds.

Most of the pieces were sung in response to a question, challenge, or a request to sing for his supper. Milarepa responded not only to the questions, but also to the motivations behind them and the context in which they were asked. The songs invariably open with a line or verse of prayer to Marpa, Mila’s lama, requesting his guidance and blessings, which for Mila and his followers had the power to improve and inspire their practice. Occasionally Mila would “supplicate” the buddhas and lamas on behalf of his listeners to direct them to Dharma or aid them in practice. When giving a teaching, he would often wrap it up with a string of concise exhortations called precepts. Most of the songs close with a dedication, or benediction, to share the merit of his practice with all beings and in particular to repay his patrons who had requested the song with an offering. Concerning the content and form of the individual songs translated in this volume, brief introductions precede each piece.

***

Let this first selection serve as an introduction to Milarepa himself. Here he’s in the frequent situation of begging from some rather irritated villagers and is in an irascible mood himself: he’s about to leave without giving the customary dedication of merit in return for his food when a monk’s criticism prompts him to explain his own special yogic way of dedicating food and some of his personal history. Amazed by this unusually eloquent beggar, they ask about his identity. Mila responds with an account of his early life, his training, experiences, and realizations, and then teaches them about the samsaric condition and gives advice for their practice. This story also records his meeting with Wangchuk Dorje, who was to become one of Mila’s regular disciples.

***
 

1. Milarepa Tells His Story

Once Milarepa, the great lord of yogis, after spending the winter in the snows of Lachi Mountain, went in early summer to beg in the vicinity of Nyekha in Tsang. He entered a village and said to some people there, “We yogis have the vow of begging at the ‘first door.’ One of you faithful give us some food.”

One patron responded, “I’ll give you a rackful of fish meat.” But Mila told him, “I don’t eat the flesh of murdered beings.”

“You don’t eat the flesh of murdered beings! That’s marvelous! I don’t have any other food.” He went away, but Mila remained where he was. Finally the patron came back with a bowlful of leftovers topped with yogurt, saying, “Oh well, you can eat this.”

Mila ate it, and while he was preparing to leave, a monk who was there said, “Don’t you know even one dedication or supplication? Can’t you find even one overcoat? Where did you come from? Where are you going? If you know how, sing us a song.”

So Jetsün sang this song:

Precious true lama,
Wishing gem whose mere memory’s enough,
I beg you with fervent devotion
Grant your blessings to your devoted son.

I’ve come from the slopes of Lachi Mountain
Which stands in the region of Nyanang.
Right now I’ve no set destination.

I’ve never gathered any wealth;
Like a beggar I take things as they come.
When given food I do as follows:
In this mansion which is the basis
This illusory body made of four elements,

I transform elements, currents, channels, and drops
Into the inner deity which depends upon them.
I change into nectar whatever I eat;
And from the mouth of each deity
A hollow tongue of light extends.

Like a reflection in a mirror—
Apparent yet insubstantial—
Deity makes offerings to deities.
Reality sports in the field of reality,
And on the state of freedom from addiction to concepts
I impress the seal of impartial dedication.
That’s my way of dedicating food.

Sometimes in mountains empty of men
I survive on the food of mountain plants,
And my yoga of food is just like the above.

But mostly I eat the food of concentration,
My yoga of food and its dedication
Merged with the gnosis of nonidentification.
That’s how I eat the food of secret practice.

Now I’ll explain my way of dress:
In accord with the style of worldly men
I wrap myself in this one cotton cloth
And in accord with advanced beings
I survive by the inner warmth of gnosis.

Like lizards and toads
My skin is rough and green
And like baboons and monkeys
My body’s covered with ash-gray hair.

Just like nettle-worms
My body’s banded with dirt-crusted creases
And just like a baby’s
My crotch lacks protection or covering.

In the manner of beggars
I find food like a bird,
And in a way I’m like the rich
With the wealth of inner satisfaction.

Like famished people
I leave no food for tomorrow,
And like madmen
I’ve no idea what to do or where to go.

Like the very wise
I hold fast to my human birthright,
And like idiots
I don’t know about social conventions.

Like the greatest of teachers
I also know how to teach Dharma,
And like great snow lions
I too live in desolate mountains.

I take after gophers
And meditate in underground holes,
And like wild foxes
I live in gorges and canyons of mountains.

Like ancient sages
I’ve borne austerities a long time,
And like garuda birds
I soar through the vast expanse of the sky.

That explains my style of dress
And my way of doing yoga.
Now I’ll sing a song of yoga,
For you said, “Sing a song! Sing a song!”
And this prattling gives me joy.

After leaving behind my homeland,
I took up practice in desolate mountains.
This mental ease and comfort of ear
Free from talk of taxes, debts, and armies
Was accomplished by myself, a beggar.
Wonderful—this blissful state of affairs!

I left behind my father’s fine house,
And while practicing in mountain caves
I’d no need for repairs or patches in roofs.
This fine stone mansion of meditation
Was built by myself, a beggar.
Wonderful—this blissful state of affairs!

Leaving behind my father’s rich field
I tamed the rough earth of my own mind.
This cultivation and pliability of mind,
This thorough perfection of love and compassion
Was accomplished by myself, a beggar.
Wonderful—this blissful state of affairs!

Lovers are trouble so I never married,
But attended the consort of clear light.
This union of method and wisdom,
This companionship of the natural state,
Was achieved by myself, a beggar.
Wonderful—this blissful state of affairs!

Away from troubles and confusion
I reared the infant of void awareness.
This resplendence of clear-light dharma-body
In unconditioned freedom from preconception
Was raised by myself, a beggar.
Wonderful—this blissful state of affairs!

I’ve never gathered worldly wealth
But relied on the wealth of satisfaction.
These seven superior treasures
Free from worries and vexation
Were acquired by myself, a beggar.
Wonderful—this blissful state of affairs!

I myself have achieved such joy;
If you think it’s blissful, you should do likewise.
And there you have my song of yoga.

They were all overcome with awe and bowed to him, asking: “Great lord of yogis, where were you born? What’s the name of your monastery? Who’s your lama? Do you have any students? What’s your name? Please tell us.”

So Mila sang another song:

Lord of Dharma and savior of men—
To the feet of my merciful lama I bow.

Now then, you patrons gathered here,
I’ll give brief answer to your questions.

My birthplace was the town of Kyanga Tsa
On Gungthang plain of Ngari Valley.
My father was Mila Sherab Gyentsen
And mother Nyangtsha Kargyen.
My own given name was Thöpa Ga,
And my sister’s Peta Gonkyit.

While I was young my father died,
And bereft of wealth by evil relations
We three were forced to work as servants.
Wearing clothing tattered as fishnet
And fed like dogs, we slaved like mules.
My mother, driven by intense resentment,
Charged me to learn evil spells to destroy them,
But later I repented and turned to Dharma.

My lama is Marpa of Lhodrak.
As I had no wealth to give him
I offered the service of body, speech, and mind.
And by distilling the nectar of the all-profound precepts,
He gave me the most essential secrets of his mind.

So without a trace of laziness
I pursued the goal of reality
Till experience and realization were born in mind.

I’ve got several young student repas.
We stay in the mountains’ perfect monastery,

Drinking the waters of austerity,
Eating nettles and mountain plants,
Or sometimes begging for our food.

My religious name is Dorje Gyentsen,
But I’m known as yogi Milarepa.
I go wherever I feel like going.
This is my answer to your questions.

The monk exclaimed, “I’ve heard of a siddha named Milarepa—you must be that very same lama! Now I’ve seen you with my own eyes and heard you with my own ears!” He prostrated himself and placed Mila’s feet on his head, then said, “Precious lama, at the end of your previous song you said, ‘Like garuda birds I soar through the vast expanse of the sky.’ I’m sure you’re not lying, but we could use a sure sign of your attainment.”

So Mila sang:

Embodiment of great mercy,
All pervading dharma-body of clear light,
Universal lord unified with space—
To kind Marpa’s feet I bow.

I the yogi Milarepa
Began meditation with fervent faith.
After initiation, empowerment, and instruction
I practiced with strong determination.

I entered retreat and did difficult practice
Till realization and experience were born in mind.
I realized the inner nature of samsara,
Saw the natural-state essence of mind,
Tore off the shackles of samsara,
And untied the knot of self-attachment.

Smothering the demon of belief in ego
And soaring in the vast sky free from addiction to concepts,
I saw without eyes the visible realm,
Heard without ears the sound of voidness,
Smelled without nose the natural state’s scent,
Tasted without tongue reality’s sweet taste,
Attained without body the rainbow vajra-body,
And was absorbed without mind in the mahāmudrā state.

Eh ma! The things of samsara’s three realms
Don’t exist—yet are just as they appear!
They appear—yet are voidness itself!
That’s the nature of the illusion of the superficial world.

About the nature of reality I cannot speak—
An artist without hands
Draws pictures in the sky,
Without eyes sees myriad things
In perfect vision without movement or strain.

After singing this he rose into the air to a height of one story.
The patron exclaimed in amazement,
“Is this some kind of magic trick or optical illusion?”

In reply Mila sang another song:

I bow to the feet of Lama Marpa
Who offered me buddhahood in the palm of his hand
By confronting me with reality
Through revelation of the natural state’s nature.

Listen now, faithful patrons: In the illusory city of samsara
Illusory men are completely confused;
They perform illusory actions in six states of existence.

Beings, the magical creations of action,
Ignorant of the working of such creation
Think they exist independent of creation,
But creation is essentially illusion.

Hey! Listen all you gathered here—
View mind and body in this way:
Mind is insubstantial, void awareness,
Body a bubble of flesh and blood.

If the two are indivisibly one,
Why would a corpse be left behind
At the time of death when consciousness leaves?
And if they are totally separate
Why would the mind experience pain
When harm happens to the body?

Thus, illusory appearances are the result
Of belief in the reality of the superficial,
Not knowing this action-caused conflux is illusion.

If you want to understand this illusion,
Serve a holy lama who’s removed the illusion.
Practice holy Dharma which destroys illusion,
And realize the unillusory face of the mind.
When illusion’s gone there’s no confusion.

They were all overawed. Some passed out and saw a variety of visions. In particular, the monk was made ready for direct realization of the mind’s natural state. Finally they asked him, “Precious lama, on the other side of this region there’s a fine mountain retreat called Rich Woman’s Pot. Please, your reverence, stay there from now on, or for a few years, or at least this summer and winter.”

Mila said he would stay for the summer and left for Rich Woman’s Pot. About fifteen people led by the monk and patron went with him. They all sought Dharma instruction and produced excellent realization by practicing. The monk himself was able to catch sight of the true goal. When he received profound Dharma empowerment, he was given the name Wangchuk Dorje. He later became a siddha.

Mila stayed for three months; they begged him to stay longer, but he didn’t listen. They said, “If you absolutely refuse to grant our request and must leave us now, please give some advice about practice in the future of this life and the next.”

So Mila sang them this song:

Listen “great meditators,” men and women:
At best, you should do austere practice
In desolate mountains for the rest of your lives.
Next best is to wander the countryside,
Impartial, directionless, detached from this life.

Next best, follow me, unattached to your homeland,
And at least until self-sufficient,
Learn holy Dharma from a true lama—
Experienced and realized—and remember key points.

Avoid three faults of a pot when listening to Dharma.
Restrain body, speech, and mind and reflect on its meaning.
Hang on well to the words that strike home.
Stem the outbreak of afflictive emotions.

Make fruitful the holy Dharma you’ve heard.
About the things of this life think as follows—
About involvement in all the complex affairs
Of politics and government think thus:

Desires achieved increase thirst like salt water.
Work has no end like a river’s ripples.
Prosperity and decline are like a pond’s filling and drying.

These preconceived obsessive emotions
Are a curtain which hides high birth and freedom,
An iron hook dragging us to low birth in samsara,
The seeds of repeated growth of afflictions,
A massive cloud raining down mystery,
A thief who robs our virtue and assets,
The root that produces all of our faults.

To probe deep into your roots:
The ignorance and confusion are you yourself.
The preconceptions which are yourself
Are envoys and agents sent by yourself.
From beginningless time till now you’ve dragged yourself
Through the mire of bad actions in samsara’s ocean.

Now examine yourself closely:
You yourself have no color or form. If sent you won’t go.
If restrained you don’t stay. If looked for you can’t be seen.
If grasped for you can’t be caught.

Previously ignorant of your own nature,
You spun on the wheel of affliction in the ocean of life.
Now, in the mansion of concentration and physical composure,
Examine before you with eyes of critical awareness
And station behind the watchman of recollective awareness.
Return to your natural state without effort or distraction.
Know the way of such relaxation, fortunate ones.

Mila then left for Lachi Mountain accompanied by Wangchuk Dorje and several others, and there they practiced.

***

The previous story is a model of Milarepa’s history and teachings as told to peasant audiences, covering a wide range of material he commonly taught them. The next two pieces are peasant stories also and expand on some of the themes presented in the opening story: samsara and its frustrations, impermanence, and the triumph of Mila’s own yogic lifestyle.

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2. Song for Poor Patrons

Again, while Jetsün was staying at Red Block Rock a patron named Auspicious Fortune came to meet him. After offering respects to Mila he said, “Father, precious Jetsün, you have lived in desolate mountain retreats with no regrets. Now, while engaged day and night in generating the profound mental power to provide for the welfare of beings, consider us, the people of Dam Valley, with compassion. We have poor faith and no opportunity to practice. We’re completely involved in the affairs of this life. We are paupers lacking even enough flour to make torma offerings. Please focus your profound mental power on us and, though we have no way to make the proper offerings, teach us one session of Dharma to plant the seeds of liberation through your compassionate vision.”

So Jetsün taught them Dharma about the cause and effect relationship of action and afterward sang this song:

I pray to the translator renowned
Named Marpa Lotsawa,
Excellent man of Lhodrag
With the precious power of speaking two tongues.

I, Milarepa, well nourished
By my holy lama’s kindness,
Don’t know much about worldly affairs;
But when I stay in mountains empty of men—

Stores of food and wealth left ungathered—
Faithful patrons, men and women,
Gather like a swarm of bees
On a sweet-smelling lotus blossom.

All this is my lama’s kindness—
Pray grant me your constant blessings.

I, Mila of the mountain retreats,
Don’t engage in business or trade;
But while I’m living on desolate mountains,
Not relying on alms to subsist,
Faithful patrons, men and women,
Bring me delicious food and drink.

All this is my lama’s kindness.
I offer worship to repay that kindness—
Pray grant me your constant blessings!

I, Mila of the mountain retreats,
Don’t rely on the food of circle feasts
Or on the essences of yogic pills;
But when I live in desolate mountain retreats
Faithful patrons, men and women,
Supply me with ambrosial drink.

All this is my lama’s kindness.
I offer worship to repay that kindness—
Pray grant me your constant blessings!

I, yogi-repa of the mountains,
Don’t want fine, soft silken clothes
From desire for impressiveness or beauty;
But when I’m living in mountains empty of men
Faithful patrons, men and women,
Provide me with good woolen robes.

All this is my lama’s kindness.
I offer worship to repay that kindness—
Pray grant me your constant blessings.

These were all external matters,
Now I’ll tell my inner story:

When I practice as instructed
By my true and holy lama,
Having offered him body, speech, and mind,
Blessings and accomplishments fall like rain,
And bliss-warmth of experience glows in my body.
This is the best way of serving a ruler—
I’ve left all worldly rulers behind.

When I concern myself with the things at hand
And shoulder the burden of austerities,
Worldly affairs are all forgotten.
Such direct influence on the four elements
And sustenance by the food of absorption
Are the best of all means of nourishment—
I’ve left worldly food and drink behind.

When I drink at the stream of enlightenment,
Or the cool blue waters of a mountain cascade,
Which is the property of no one else,
Strong tea and beer are both abandoned.
Such easing of the pain of affliction
Is the best way of taking drink—
I’ve left tea and beer behind.

When I develop my currents, channels, and such,
Wearing only the cotton robe of repas,
Clothes of the great, silk of nobility,
And fine, soft wool are all abandoned.
Such warm burning bliss of tummo
Is the best way of wearing clothes—
I’ve left fine silken cloth behind.

When I make my home in mountain caves,
Great mansions and troublesome environs
Of homeland are abandoned.
Such a fine mansion of absorption
And homeland of mental stability
Is the best way of taking abode—
I’ve left homeland and fine houses behind.

When I cultivate the friendship of wisdom,
I abandon the problems
Of an ever-troublesome mate.
Such integration of method and wisdom
Firmly based on love and compassion
Is the best kind of companionship—
I’ve left the problems of marriage behind.

When I nourish the infant of clear light,
I abandon the quarrels of inimical children
Who in return for their loving care
Are the main trouble of their parents’ old age.
Such relationship of mother-reality and child
Put to rest in the natural state’s cradle
Is the best way of raising offspring—
I’ve left the misfortune of dear children behind.

When I rely on the seven superior treasures,
I abandon attraction, aversion, and strife
For the sake of wealth which binds to samsara.
Such wealth of knowing all things as illusion
And of realizing what is sufficient
Is the best way of amassing treasure—
I’ve left all worldly wealth behind.

When I subdue the enemy egoism
And hold fast to humility,
I’ve left the land where the three poisons are born.
Such freedom from inimical afflictions
Through realization that all beings are our parents

Is the best way of taming enemies—
I’ve left the fighting of worldly foe behind.

When I press toward the goal of reality,
I read the path of the six transcendences
And guide with the four social means
Relations who’ve lovingly nursed me
Throughout the beginningless space of samsara.
This is the best mind of relationship—
I’ve left worldly relationships behind.

When I work for freedom of all beings, our mothers,
With the good intent of enlightenment mind,
Such varied work for the welfare of beings
By showing them the vehicles’ stages
Suited to the mental needs of each
Is the best of all kinds of friendship—
I’ve left worldly friendships behind.

That was my inner story—
Now I’ll tell my secret story:

In the face of reality’s illumination
There is neither self nor other,
No duality, no division—void of identity
And yet neither void
Nor not void,
There’s no perceiver at all.
Eh Ma! Until a mountain yogi
Has realized well the meaning of this,
He should not disparage cause and result!

May you patrons, men and women gathered here,
Have the fortune of long life, no sickness,
With enjoyment of perpetual bliss.

May you have the fortune of dharma-body in the face of death,
And the fortune of realizing buddha-body in your body,
Buddha-speech in your speech,
And buddha-mind in your mind.
May you have the fortune of the three bodies
Spontaneously achieved with body, speech, and mind.
Singing this auspicious song of experience
In this auspicious mountain retreat,
Consider, Auspicious Fortune, the host of ḍākinīs
Auspiciously assembled here
And a multitude of the fortunate
Worshipping them with auspicious song.

Overcome with powerful emotion, the patrons provided him with service and requested him to stay. This song belongs to the first series of songs sung while he lived at Red Block Rock.