Milarepa: The Great Mystic Poet and Yogi of Tibet

Item Code: TM86
Tibetan Thangka Painting
Dimensions Size of Painted Surface 17.0" X 25.5"
Size with Brocade 27.5" X 40.0"
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Milarepa (1040-1123 A.D.) was a great mystic poet who wrote according to his own inspiration. Ever since childhood, Milarepa had been known for his good singing voice. He generally lifts his right hand to his ear in gesture that has become his trademark. As through listening to the voice of inspiration, he sings the song of the Buddha Dharma, teaching his listeners through the poetic beauty of vernacular Tibetan. The meaning of this gesture is explained differently by various scholars, some of whom consider it be "the attitude of singing his songs of realization". Others say that "it may signify his listening to the sounds of nature or refer to his use of the secret, oral doctrines that were not written down but passed verbally from master to disciple." When Milarepa breaks from esoteric abstruseness or technicalities of yoga, he soars on the wings of fancy in perfect purity, in the fire of an unquenched mystical ardour. He instills new life in the style, structure and form of the doha songs of Siddhas, who are his inspiration. With personal touches, rare in Tibetan hieratic poetry, his genius gives to Tibetan its first poesy, sensitive, warm, lyrical, not choked by dogmatic reminiscences. Milarepa is highly revered in Tibet; he dwelt in caves and had a single possession, a water pitcher. Milarepa wrote the Gurbum, "the hundred thousand songs", a book that has been handed down and from which all Tibetans know some poems.

The great yogi Milarepa had incandescent inner experience in the white snow of Himalayas. He grew to manhood surrounded by implacable hate and excessive love. He knew poverty and riches, black magic and revenge. He found a Master in Marpa, the translator of Sanskrit texts, temperamental, with the spirit of lightning and the violence of a storm. At initiation, Marpa gave his pupil the maxim, "be ardent, fly the banner of perfection." Milarepa, the naked hermit owned no books, ever singing and moved from cave to cave.

The life-story of Milarepa is written by his disciple Raschun. According to which Milarepa was born in a prosperous family, unfortunately his father his father died young. He, his mother and young sister thereafter came under the care of a greedy uncle and aunt who cheated them and captured their money and land and shamefully neglected the threesome. Eventually Milarepa's mother sent him to learn black magic in order to take revenge. Milarepa was successful in his sorcery. After his revenge came repentance and remorse. Thereafter he fined the great guru Marpa, a scholar with many students. Marpa tried him out and put him to the test many times, until finally, true instruction followed. Marpa ordered him to find a cave and to withdraw from the world. After a long time Milarepa reported to his Master the knowledge he had gained.

After reporting to his Guru about the knowledge he perceived through contemplation, Milarepa returned to his cave for further sadhana and practices. At a certain point homesickness made him leave his cave. He took the permission of Marpa and he granted permission to Mila. When they parted, Marpa realized that when Milarepa would returned to the hermit's life, he (Marpa) would no longer be alive, so Marpa told him his last secret knowledge, and revealed to Milarepa the mantra that is handed down only from guru to student, the very mantra was given by Tilopa to Naropa, who had, whispered into Marpa's Ear. Girded with knowledge and knowing that all that is physical will eventually come to an end, they consumed a festive farewell meal. During the meal, Marpa manifested himself in various divine guises with intention of showing the relative and illusory nature of everything. As final advice, Marpa told not to stray from his knowledge and faith, lest he receive an influx of negative karma, and to withdraw into the wilds of nature, instead of disseminating his knowledge to the bulk of the people because they were too materially-oriented. Finally, Marpa gave him a hand written scroll that Milarepa was to open only if he found himself in life-threatening danger.

After reaching his home Milarepa found his parental house in ruins. His mother had died and that his family's house and religious books were in dismal neglect. Thereafter he took up his life as a hermit again and kept on learning. In his wandering he came to his uncle's house who tries to shoot him with bow and arrow. Following this, Milarepa back to cave and spent time in meditation and learning. Years passed, his only companion was the scroll, which, out of respect for Marpa, he sometimes placed on his head. Passers-by and visitors were cheered by his instructive songs. He had numerous students around him. However, his success also made him enemies. One attempted to poison him. The first time it did not work, but the second time Milarepa consciously ate the poisoned food. He felt he had reached the end of his earthly existence. Students and others gather gathered around him to hear his last words. He sang once more and fell into a comatose trance from which he never awoke.

In the present painting green complexioned Milarepa is shown seated on an antelope skin on a rock in mountainous field. There is a water pitcher besides him. His body became green after consuming the diet of nettle soup, which was the only food he took during a period of his early meditation. His uncle is trying is to shoot him, depicted left side of Milarepa's seat. Three more figures of Milarepa are depicted in the foreground. His robes are decorated with roses. The upper left corner shows seated Milarepa in front of cave. His both the hands are in contemplative gesture.

Select Bibliography

Alice Getty, Gods of Northern Buddhism, Tokyo, 1962

Ben Meulenbeld, Buddhist Symbolism in Tibetan Thangka, Holland, 2001

Lokesh Chandra, Transcendental Art of Tibet, Delhi, 1996

L.A. Waddell, Buddhism and Lamaism of Tibet, Delhi, 1978 (reprint)

This description is by Dr. Shailendra K. Verma, whose Doctorate thesis is on "Emergence and Evolution of the Buddha Image (From its inception to 8th century A.D.)".

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How are Thangkas made?

A Thangka is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist painting that usually depicts a Buddhist Deity (Buddha or Bodhisattva), a scene, or a mandala. These paintings are considered important paraphernalia in Buddhist rituals. They are used to teach the life of the Buddha, various lamas, and Bodhisattvas to the monastic students, and are also useful in visualizing the deity while meditating. One of the most important subjects of thangkas is the Bhavacakra (the wheel of life) which depicts the Art of Enlightenment. It is believed that Thangka paintings were developed over the centuries from the murals, of which only a few can be seen in the Ajanta caves in India and the Mogao caves in Gansu Province, Tibet.

Thangkas are painted on cotton or silk applique and are usually small in size. The artist of these paintings is highly trained and has a proper understanding of Buddhist philosophy, knowledge, and background to create a realistic and bona fide painting.
The process of making a thangka begins with stitching a loosely woven cotton fabric onto a wooden frame. Traditionally, the canvas was prepared by coating it with gesso, chalk, and base pigment. Image
After this, the outline of the form of the deity is sketched with a pencil or charcoal onto the canvas using iconographic grids. The drawing process is followed in accordance with strict guidelines laid out in Buddhist scriptures. The systematic grid helps the artist to make a geometrical and professional painting. When the drawing of the figures is finalized and adjusted, it is then outlined with black ink. Image
Earlier, a special paint of different colors was made by mixing powdered forms of organic (vegetable) and mineral pigments in a water-soluble adhesive. Nowadays, artists use acrylic paints instead. The colors are now applied to the sketch using the wet and dry brush techniques. One of the characteristic features of a thangka is the use of vibrant colors such as red, blue, black, green, yellow, etc. Image
In the final step, pure gold is coated over some parts of the thangka to increase its beauty. Due to this beautification, thangkas are much more expensive and also stand out from other ordinary paintings. Image
Thangka paintings are generally kept unrolled when not on display on the wall. They also come with a frame, a silken cover in front, and a textile backing to protect the painting from getting damaged. Because Thangkas are delicate in nature, they are recommended to be kept in places with no excess moisture and where there is not much exposure to sunlight. This makes them last a long time without their colors fading away. Painting a thangka is an elaborate and complex process and requires excellent skills. A skilled artist can take up to 6 months to complete a detailed thangka painting. In earlier times, thangka painters were lamas that spent many years on Buddhist studies before they painted.
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