From the back of the Book
Here is the illustrated biography of Milarepa, the eleventh-century yogin and poet, who is the most renowned saint in Tibetan Buddhist history. It can be read on several levels: as the biography of mystic, it presents a quest for spiritual perfection, a piece of inspirational literature, tracing the path of a great sinner who becomes a great saint. It is also a personal and moving introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. But it is also a powerful and graphic folk tale, full of magic, disaster, feuds, deceptions, and humor. Milarepa is a holy but captivatingly human figure who developed from an avenging black magician to a supremely powerful yogin, pointing the way to spiritual liberation and complete self-knowledge.
About the Author
Lobsang P. Lhalungpa was born in Lhasa, Tibet, and has passed though the major branches of Tibetan Buddhism under many of its greatest living masters. His life has drawn him into all aspects of the effort to maintain the Tibetan tradition while bearing in mind Western needs.
1 recall the childhood experience of listening to Milarepa’s life in tie form of folktales from the south of Tibet. the home province of Marpa. Deep admiration rose up in me at his will to give his whole life for the sake of his mother and at his undying determination later to save the sinking ship of his own destiny, the ship that subsequently carried innumerable people to safety across the sea of Samsara.
To the people of Tibet and to fellow Buddhists in the Asian high. lands and the Himalayas. Mila, although he lived in the twelfth century, is not a myth but still a vital figure — the embodiment of supreme excellence as well as the father of awakened masters. Never, in the thirteen centuries of Buddhist history in Tibet. has there been such a man, who not only inspired an intellectual elite and spiritual luminaries, but also captured the imagination of the common people.
To those of us who read his life and songs as the true account of liberation, and who have also received the secret transmission of higher teachings to which he contributed so much, Milarepa has great significance in our lives. The experience of illumination is being quietly repeated in an almost unbroken order in the tradition up to the present, even extending to many parts of the modern world.
Throughout pre-Communist Tibet Milarepa was held in universal veneration. It was so in the past and is still so among the thousands of refugees in the settlements of northern India, Bhutan, and Sikkim. Figures of Milarepa, in the form of icon and painting, were worshipped in temples and private homes. Wandering storytellers sang the life of Milarpa. illustrating their stories with painted scrolls. Both the narrative and the songs were simple, full of folk idioms, homely metaphors. and humorous expressions. Repas — the ‘cotton- clad ones’ — sang the songs of Milarepa as they wandered through villages across the country. Folk operas depicting the main events of his life were acted. Milarepa’s delicate, gentle features and pale complexion in the tankas and paintings contrasted strangely with his extraordinary physical tenacity and loyalty to the Truth.
In some important aspects the autobiography of Milarepa resembles the life of the Buddha, whose twelve major events correspond to the twelve chapters of Milarepa’s life. Both teachers resorted to dramatic acts of renunciation and to asceticism of an extreme kind as supports for their quest. though for different reasons and under contrasting circumstances. The Buddha’s purpose was to seek a new, practical way of eliminating the miseries of humanity and their karmic causes. Milarepa’s, at least initially, was to save himself from fear of the natural consequences of his crimes.
Besides being ‘the greatest of (Buddhist) saints.’ Milarepa fills a central place in the history of Buddhism in Tibet. Until the ninth century A.D., the hold of the Buddhist religion over the sorcery of earlier religions was precarious. With Milarepa the swing began toward the realization of inner power through meditation. The Kagyupa, the Order of Oral Transmission, has faithfully maintained this meditational tradition up to the present time. The Nyingmapa, the Ancient Mystic Order, also emphasizes the practice of meditation.
On the other hand, there were teachers who considered an intellectual foundation in Buddhist training to he indispensable. One such was the great Sakya Pandita. one of the founders of the Sakyapa, the White Earth Order. And three hundred years after Milarepa the incomparable Tsongkhapa gave Tibetan Buddhism new intellectual depth and dynamism when he elevated Buddhist studies to unprecedented profundity through the revival of monastic discipline and moral purity. This movement, which came to be known as Gelukpa, the Order of Excellence, is the one to which the Dalai Lama belongs.
The Life, on the whole, is genuine autobiography, a ritual drama recounting significant events in Mila’s apprenticeship rather than his comments on them. The unfolding story shows profound knowledge of human psychology but there is no analysis of Milarepa’s feelings, no explanation of the paradoxes in, for example Marpa’s behavior toward his pupil, which is allowed to speak for Itself until Marpa provides a brief summation, such as conventionally appears in the final pages of a detective story.
The teaching in The Life is very condensed. Discourses are few and are given mostly in homely, unsophisticated verse. Milarepa’s disciples are mentioned for the first time in a short chapter near the end of the book, where after the Master has provided a catalogue of the caves in which he meditated, his biographer makes the promising statement ‘I will now enlarge a little on the Master’s life. But what follows is merely a list of the principal disciples’ names, with details of where the Master met them. Thus the dramatic character and style of The Life, as a celebration of spiritual endeavor rather than a description of it, is preserved.
In its first three chapters the story deals with the ugliest realities of life, showing how easily human beings fall victim to selfishness, greed and vanity and even resort to deceit and the meanest acts of cruelty. Milarepa’s paternal uncle and aunt made a pledge to his dying father to act as the trustees of his wealth until Milarepa had reached his maturity. No sooner was the father dead than the uncle and aunt seized the property, denied ever having made the pledge and began treating Milarepa’s family with the grossest cruelty and injustice. The uncle and aunt exemplify human stupidity, selfishness and greed. Their prosperity and power resulting from ill-gotten wealth are in sharp contrast to the poverty and misery brought to Milarepa and his family.
The mastermind directing vengeance against these usurpers is Milarepa’s mother, who in no way conceals her desire to see them destroyed. The negative power of her will, and the resourcefulness and shrewdness she possessed help to fulfill her plan. In the youthful Mila she finds a very devoted son and a ready instrument. Out of deep love for his mother and the bitterest resentment against the uncle and aunt, he strives single-mindedly toward his mission to destroy the relatives ‘down to the ninth generation.’ The lamas, masters of sorcery, sympathize with him and, after he has shown them his extraordinary determination and need, they teach him the secret magic of destruction and guide him in his practice until he is able to accomplish all that his mother had wished — and more. At a wedding feast for the uncle’s eldest son, Milarepa’s art brings down the home of the uncle and aunt, killing all the wedding guests. Soon after, the mother sends word to her son that the people of the village seek to take their own vengeance against this slaughter. She demands that he now cause fierce hailstorms to destroy all their crops.
This is the way 1 accumulated black deeds out of vengeance against my enemies — so ends the First Part of The Life. The destruction of Milarepa’s enemies has been carried out in a manner they themselves had indicated in a moment of injured pride, when they challenged the widow to wage war against us if you are many and cast a spell upon us if you are few.
The moral consequences of his crimes dawn on Milarepa with heart-splitting agony and a consuming fear of the karmic consequences he must face in all his future lives — to be whirled round and round into further acts of destruction, inevitably ending in the annihilation of his possibilities of escape. The evident lack of any civil system of social justice seems to point up the certainty that Milarepa will not and cannot escape the karmic consequences of his moral offenses. With the same unbending determination that characterized his quest for the secrets of black magic, he now begins the search for the path of enlightenment and liberation.
Throughout The Life, the teaching about the law of karma is presented by Milarepa to his pupils in just this way, as an idea which the seeker must begin with and which has meaning at many different levels of the path. For Milarepa it represents his first awakening to the sense of a deeper order in life, a call from another level. This call to what in the text is termed ‘religion’ appears together with a tremendous shock of recognition. All along one has been obeying the wrong voice, and this is seen and felt. The second phase of Milarepa’s life begins:
I was filled with remorse for the evil I had done by magic and by hailstorms. My longing for the teaching so obsessed me that I forgot to eat. If I went out, I wanted to stay in. If I stayed in, I wanted to go out. At night sleep escaped me. I asked myself unceasingly and passionately by what means I might practice the true teaching.
Milarepa’s drastic renunciation is in sharp contrast with the inward renunciation Lama Marpa had chosen. To both Marpa and Mila as to all Buddhists the sensory pleasures and cares of samsara are no doubt devoid of true benefit. In the case of those who are powerfully self-centered, renunciation of a normal external life may be like a shock treatment, a drastic means toward breaking loose from the grip of self-clinging and thereby leading on to higher awareness, new insights and ultimately into the reality behind appearances.
Life and the seeking of the Dharma, whether through renunciation of comforts or through any other means, are incompatible, so long as a personal liberation is desired. Even asceticism, as such, is utterly hollow and liable to be taken for a means to a personal goal. Milarepa’s renunciation aimed at gaining personal liberation and did not come up to the true spirit of Dharrna until his inbred motive had been completely changed into the highest aspirations for emancipation on a universal scale according to the way of Boddhisattva.
Young Mila finally met Marpa at his country home. The events that constitute his relationship with Marpa are well known to every student of the Buddhist tradition. In all of world literature there is no more dramatic portrayal of the kind of learning that a Master provides for his pupil. No matter what else the reader may or may not take from this book, the account of ‘the ordeal of the towers’ will remain with him for the rest of his life.
A foreknowledge of what lay ahead for Milarepa. icot merely in unequalled achievement but in more practical terms of the obstacles that were in store for him, came to Marpa through his reading of the omens. This knowledge accounts for his initial behavior and many of his unexplained acts, To set in motion auspicious events charged with pure thoughts and acts of pity, it was expressly necessary to create a circumstantial conscious force so as to steer the wheel of Karma, that is like a floating boat. Both the secular and the sacred traditions of Tibetans stress the turning away from the waves of samsara. Marpa guided Mila’s journey of destiny along the course marked out by his karma. From the beginning to the e’nd of their direct relationship, each time an event did not augur well Marpa would improvise an additional phase. whose significance only he knew and did not explain till the end. For example, Marpa took the empty copper pot his new disciple offered him into his shrine room and after making it ring through the house quickly filled it with melted butter to make an offering of light. The empty container signified Mila’s scanty fare during retreats in the mountains; the ringing signified his future fame spreading everywhere; the filling with butter, fulfillment of his aspirations.
Marpa was absolutely clear in his mind that this big-hearted little man whose mind was completely shamed and shattered could not gain the desired transformation by any normal training. Thus, as the condition for receiving the Dharma, Mila was required to fulfill a series of bitterly demanding and dispiriting tasks. In enforcing the great ordeals, Marpa used shifting tactics and seemingly deceitful ways.
Milarepa struggles under the ordeals out of a need for himself. The son, whose mother declared ‘he has no willpower,’ proves himself to be a disciple of extraordinary patience and tenacity. It is only when he is brought to the brink of suicide that the ordeals are hastily ended and, much against the plan, Marpa grants Milarepa the teaching. When the ordeals are over, his ‘great sins have been erase& and his personal---need has been mysteriously transformed and is felt now ‘for all sentient beings.
Marpa is pictured for us (and we have no reason to doubt the historical accuracy of this) as big, corpulent, fierce-looking, a personage of importance — physically the exact opposite of Milarepa. Acclaimed as the King of Translators, Marpa had used his wealth for such purposes as journeying to India, where he received the teachings of esoteric Buddhism from his own Master, Naropa, and brought back to Tibet many of the most important tantric scriptures. In Tibet, Marpa successfully revived the non-monastic form of training which was begun in the seventh century by Tibet’s emperor Songtsen Gampo and his learned minister Thonmi Sambhota, and which was furthered in the eighth century by a host of lay Tibetans who were disciples of the great Guru Padmasambhava.
Marpa was not only a man of vast erudition but an enlightened teacher and a superb psychologist, who blended harmoniously the role of spiritual guide by private tutorship with a family life style. Milarepa regarded Marpa as a wise father and protector from fear, as well as the supreme guide. As for his wife, Dakmema, her compassion for Mila was humanly noble and circumstantially necessary and she was indeed his friend, mother and spiritual guide. Her biography, if found, might throw more light onto the unknown aspects of Marpa’s life and even that of Milarepa.
After he left Marpa, Milarepa’s life of asceticism and retreat is in sharp contrast to the external life of Marpa. When Milarepa is asked why he does not follow Marpa’s example in externals, he answers that for him to do so would be like a hare trying to follow the steps of a lion. And, late in the text, when one of his disciples asks ‘Can we engage in an active life if it proves beneficial to other beings?’ Milarepa answers ‘If there is no attachment to selfish aims, you can. But that is difficult.
Milarepa knew he was not Marpa. Similarly, the reader of this story will, in his own way, know he is not Milarepa. Yet Milarepa became, as it is said, ‘even greater than his teacher.’
In order to understand what Milarepa created as a field of spiritual work for those who came after him, it is useful to consider some fundamental aspects of the Vajrayana and Mahayana traditions.
The fulfillment of a seeker’s higher aspirations is not so much dependent on cumulating knowledge as on overcoming mental obstacles and gaining insight into the truth in oneself. For this, the guidance of an experienced teacher is a practical necessity. The role of teacher in an esoteric path of self, transformational through meditation and action, such as Vajrayana. is even more important because it is only after the initiatory empowerment and elucidating instructions and guidance have been given that the disciple can settle himself in the work.
The ‘success’ of Dharma practice differs markedly from individual to individual. Each responds differently. Even the effectiveness of initiation depends on the presence or absence of appropriate conditions, Sometimes all the inner vision and power of the initiatory master is not enough. for as we say even a strong hook will not catch an object with no hollow ring attached to it. The opposite case is also possible. as illustrated at the end of Milarepa’s story. While he himself took a long time and much hazardous labor to reach a state of mind conducive to enlightenments many of his own disciples achieved the glimpse of illumination instantly on hearing words of wisdom from him!
What is a spiritual master? Selection of one’s personal lama is certainly a matter of cardinal importance. In the Tibetan tradition, treatises lay down descriptions and guidelines for the qualities a lama should possess. The modern approach of judging a spiritual teacher from chance personal impressions cannot be a reliable way of examining his qualities. The present generation of lamas is fast approaching its extinction since the occupation of Tibet. Not only Western students and seekers of the Dharma, but even Tibetan refugees. no longer have much to choose from.
We may say that a master has perfect knowledge of the doctrine and the methods of practice, and embodies the ideals of the doctrine through his own personal attainment and service to humanity. He must be a compassionate person who combines knowledge of the Dharma with the experience of illumination. The role of a spiritual master or teacher in the life of the seeker is to be a true friend. Only when a master is himself free from inner delusions and is the source of transcendent wisdom can he or she perceive the hidden barriers and potentialities of individuals and respond according to the specific need of each person. Once the psychological obstacles in devotees are overcome through the lama’s skillful means, rapid illumination presents itself without the need for heroic effort.
Yet the emphasis on the role of the teacher and the disciple’s devotion to him should not be allowed to reduce the pupil to a passive state of helplessness and absolute dependence. Like the doctrine itself, the teacher is a means and not an end. The meaning of the term ‘yong-dzin,’ a synonym for teacher, suggests that he is one who holds others from falling into an abyss of inner delusion and destructive karma.
We must remember that, before his realization under Marpa, three teachers failed in guiding Milarepa in the path. The first teacher, Rongton Lhaga. failed by giving his pupil teachings that were too advanced for him. The second teacher was Dakmema, Marpa’s wife, who gave Milarepa the higher teachings of Mahamudra. also without demanding an adequate preparation. The third was Lama Ngokpa, one of Marpa’s own chief disciples, to whom he was sent by Dakmema during the culmination of his ordeals without the approval of Marpa.
The term ‘teacher’ does not always mean a human being. Milarepa speaks of three types of lamas — first, an ‘external lama’ who shows the way through linguistic symbols; second, the ‘inner lama,’ one’s own power of understanding the teaching; and, third, the ‘inmost lama.’ one’s own inmost awareness. In the word ‘lama.’ the syllable ‘Ia’ means transcendent wisdom; ‘ma’ refers to motherly love and compassion. These two aspects are united in Ultimate Awareness. Milarepa looked upon Marpa as the true embodiment of Enlightenment and as the irreplaceable means for the development of his own supreme understanding through which Milarepa realized the inmost lama in himself.
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