The continued life of Milarepa’s life story

by Annie Heckman

Earlier this year, my sister and I presented a paper in Leeds about student-teacher relationships in medieval literature, where I spoke about Marpa and Milarepa. I found Andrew Quintman’s work particularly helpful for contextualizing the project. After presenting, we were walking back from a laundromat one evening when I had a brainstorm rant about Milarepa’s life story in relation to concerns in contemporary filmmaking. Reflecting on Quintman’s text brought these issues back to my thinking and has given me a chance to put this rant down more thoroughly in writing, and I hope it reflects the concerns of our course discussions as well. I’m organizing the below sections roughly according to these five points, and hope to make sense of them over time.

  • Quintman’s methodological approaches
  • Three less-explored topics in the text: Visual Materials, Material from the 15th century forward, Tears
  • Meditative Visualization, Cinematic imagery
  • Two films
  • What would further study on these aspects of Milarepa’s life story look like?


Milarepa, appearing in the upper left corner of a larger thangka depicting Lama Karma Lobsang (item no. 171) Tibet 1600 - 1699 Kagyu Lineage 90.17x68.58cm (35.50x27in) Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton Collection of Rubin Museum of Art (acc.# F1997.11.2)

Milarepa, appearing in the upper left corner of a larger thangka depicting Lama Karma Lobsang (item no. 171) Tibet 1600 – 1699, Kagyu Lineage, (35.50x27in), Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton, Collection of Rubin Museum of Art (acc.# F1997.11.2)

Quintman’s methodological approaches
In The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa, Andrew Quintman uses the body as a metaphor for unraveling and organizing the many versions of Milarepa’s story over time. Here we will look at how he approaches this project methodologically, at his pointing out the need for a study of the related visual materials, and begin to question how this visual corpus might incorporate recent developments in cinema. How would a study of visual and ritual aspects of the life story build on or depart from Quintman’s work, and how could it relate to the tradition of visualization that lies at the basis of many of the practices included in the tradition of Milarepa’s life and songs?

Quintman’s chapters run through the biographical corpus with reference to a body’s development: Birth, Skeleton, Flesh, a Life being brought to Life, and ending with “Mila is Alive!” for the epilogue (p. vii). In the final pages of this epilogue, Quintman summarizes the purpose of the book: to explore those texts that emerged before the standard 15th-century version of the life story, and also to pursue the question of why, for a yogi living in the 11th century, the writing of his 15th century biographer Tsangnyön Heruka (the madman of Quintman’s title) would become the definitive telling of the story, to understand “why a work so late could seem so early” (p. 185).

“What is unnatural about Tsangnyön’s biography is precisely that it appears so natural, so real. It seems so close to its subject, to the point of being its subject. Yet it is a work composed centuries after the subject’s death. What seems wrong, then, is that this late work, so mediated, could appear so immediate as to cast centuries of biographical traditions into obscurity” (p. 185). Quintman touches on many aspects of this curious question of “how a work so far removed from its subject could claim the place of origin” (p. 185). Milarepa’s life and songs had many non-textual oral iterations, but throughout the book Quintman demonstrates that the idea of a long oral tradition without a written companion is overstated. Other explanations for the immediacy of Heruka’s poetic narrative include his claim to have been a rebirth of Milarepa, as well as the understanding that in carrying out the lineage of meditation in his practice, in addition to having received the life story embedded in tantric instructions, he would have had direct access to the yogi through visions.

How does Quintman work with this material? In his Introduction, Quintman explicitly sets out his methodological approaches for life stories, with three goals helpful to quote here (p. 20):

“to move away from traditional attempts to distill ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ in early biographical literature by acknowledging that such stories have value for understanding religious, social, and literary history even if they tell us less about the text’s purported subject than about its authors and readers.”


“to avoid conceiving of biography primarily as an inert mine of data—names, dates, lineage affiliations, and the like—to be excavated by scholars.”


to focus “on the formal literary qualities of a textual corpus while paying close attention to its production, dissemination, reception, and intertextual relationships.”

In his first and second goals, Quintman points to trends in recent hagiographical studies, and in the third he points to the work of medievalist Patrick Geary, with a lengthy exploration of this work (beginning p. 20).

Interestingly for our class discussions, Quintman demonstrates a willingness to set aside the separation of fact from fiction, with the value objects of understanding “religious, social, and literary history” hanging in the balance. It’s important for us to note, however, that the question of truth is actually disclaimed, so that we can assume from the outset that the subject is not represented as much as the other participants in the story’s development: we put aside fact and fiction in these stories “even if they tell us less about the text’s purported subject than about its authors and readers” (p. 20).

Three less-explored topics in the text: Visual materials, Material from the 15th century forward, Tears
Three excluded (or less included) and overlapping topics fell outside the focus of Quintman’s study, related to visual materials, time, and tears. When we consider these three, we can see ways that his study may be extended forward to consider visual material including cinema, and to explore more deeply reactions to and reinterpretations of the life story. In this post there is space really just to point them out and question how they are related, but I sense that they are fruitful for further study.

Selected from Quintman's 2013 paper: Milarepa on Mount Kailas, Tibet, c. fifteenth century, pigment and gold on cotton, 45.5 × 30 cm (1729/32 × 1113/16 in.). (Asian Purchase Campaign Endowment and Robert Ross Fund, 1995.277, The Art Institute of Chicago. Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago.)

Selected from Quintman’s 2013 paper. Milarepa on Mount Kailas, Tibet, c. fifteenth century, pigment and gold on cotton, 45.5 × 30 cm (1729/32 × 1113/16 in.). (Asian Purchase Campaign Endowment and Robert Ross Fund, 1995.277, The Art Institute of Chicago. Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago.)

First, Quintman mentions visual and ritual materials that are relevant to his project but cannot be included (p. 266, note 1). He offers brief reference to these throughout the text, and has produced scholarship on certain topics within this vast body of material already, for example, in his 2013 work on the shaped inscriptions that appearing on the back of thangka, and one thangka of Milarepa in particular.

Secondly, The Yogin and the Madman traces the story of Milarepa’s biographical corpus roughly from the time of the yogin’s passing through to the publication and dissemination of Tsangnyön Heruka’s popular compendium. The project therefore covers this development roughly from the 11th to the 15th centuries, with some addressing of subsequent translation, dissemination, and reception. This leaves me with questions about the story’s life after it took this widely popular form. What happened next? How do new media and politics relate to the use and production of new forms for the life story?

Thirdly, Quintman briefly mentions tears in relation to reading Milarepa’s life story: “[T]he tale was indeed powerful. A trope common in many Tibetan memoirs describes how reading Tsangnyön’s Life of Milarepa triggers moments of great emotion, often accompanied by tears, and profound spiritual awakening.” (p. 183) Earlier this year I had come across a reference much like the one Quintman describes, where Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche describes his early encounters with Milarepa’s life story:

When I was eight my tutor recommended that I use the life of Milarepa as part of my reading practice. I remember clearly the illuminated manuscript of Milarepa’s life that I used. Occasionally I would look at the illustrations and try to understand the contents. Reading this text not only improved my literacy, but aroused my feeling for the Kagyü tradition and my admiration of Milarepa’s life and his asceticism. I wept and laughed as my reading practice went on (The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, Volume 5, p. 285).

Considering how readers or listeners react to the story opens up a new body of questions.

Meditative Visualization, Cinematic imagery
These topics seem key to understanding the life of Milarepa’s life story into the 21st century. First, the visual and ritual materials have general implications in terms of religion and material culture, but there is also the question of visualization itself and the intertwining relationships among text, image, oral instructions, and the kinesthetic aspects of meditation, the sitting and actual embodiment of the words. That is to say, Quintman’s method hinges on the unexplained freshness with which Tsangnyön Heruka appears to embody Milarepa’s story and songs, and one thing that Milarepa and Tsangnyön Heruka held in common was a long tradition of instructions to sit down and imagine various images in particular arrangements, and those images had material visual and textual correlates, but if we consider those traces outside of the practice of meditative practice, we may miss their integrative influence in shaping this idea of the continued presence of the yogin, or in understanding poetry as evidence and enactment of realization. Quintman refers to this question of embodiment in his 2013 article, saying that writings on the back of thangka paintings “embody a special form of biographical writing intended not to record—or be read as—a life through narrative, but to vivify the image, thereby maintaining the subject’s living presence within a community of viewers and worshipers” (Material Religion volume 9, issue 4, p. 270). If we consider the complex interrelations of text and image in this early material, how then can we understand the subsequent memoirs and responses, with reports of tears upon hearing or reading the story, and the process of this emotional integration in interpreting and re-telling a story over time?

Two Films
Given that we may be able to trace this story and its visual embodiments up to the present date, how can we consider the issues Quintman raises in relation to cinema?

In 1974, Liliana Cavani directed a film called Milarepa, “Liberamente ispirato a” Milarepa’s life story, in 108 minutes, with a surreal entry to Tibet via a Wizard-of-Oz-like scenario. Leo, a young Italian Tibetologist, identifies with Milarepa while translating his life story, and finds himself propelled into the story, and spiritual transformation, by an auto accident.

A 2006 film inspired by the life story of Milarepa, directed by Neten Chokling Rinpoche, generally follows Tsangnyön Heruka’s narrative. The filmmaker divided the work into two parts, with Part I beginning with Milarepa’s childhood and ending just before Milarepa meets Marpa. Part II was scheduled for 2009, but has not yet been released. Many critics expressed disappointment over the way the story translated to film. The splitting of the story into two parts also led some writers to view it primarily as a revenge fantasy. Future film projects are sure to expand on this foundation. The film does not refer extensively to the text format, or use some of the storybook conventions we might find in the graphics of other epic genres, and reproduces Milarepa’s hail-casting and meditation visions through special effects. This question of how to show extraordinary events and visions in hagiographic cinema forms opens many possibilities for questioning how conventional or more experimental forms can embody this material.

What would further study on these aspects of Milarepa’s life story look like?
How can Quintman’s methodological approaches for the literary corpus help us think through the way Milarepa’s life story takes shape in cinema and newer media? First we would need to consider the separation of fact from fiction, and how this plays out in cinema, which deals with its own set of expository modes and expectations for truth-telling. Secondly, we would need to consider this question of mining the text for data, for example, considering the film’s literal resemblance to the earlier texts, the accuracy of locations, our interest in knowing what a movie version looks like relative to a book version, and so forth. Third, we would need to carefully consider the contextual production and dissemination of these materials, and the education and funding of Tibetan filmmakers in the diaspora, and the use of Milarepa’s story as representative of a folk tradition in contemporary China. What does the continuing interest in reproducing and interpreting this story tell us about this notion of a corpus, about the body as a metaphor for tracing literary history, and about the way histories are written?