Milarepa

by by Lama Rimpoche and B. Cutillo

“All the water and drink you’ve consumed
Through beginningless time until now
Has failed to slake thirst or bring you contentment.
Drink therefore this stream
Of enlightened mind, fortunate one.”
—Milarepa

MilarepaMilarepa has been a great inspiration to seekers through-out the world. The fascinating and inspiring account of his life, presented in the book Tibet’s Great Yogi Milarepa (by Walter Evans-Wentz), has become a classic spiritual biography. Milarepa’s beautiful songs and stories flow directly from his own profound experience and insight, and demonstrate how a great thirst for knowledge and peace can transcend enormous obstacles when steadfastness, sincerity, and tenacity are present. His definition of realization as “the natural state,” cuts through the complexity of religious terminology by directly proclaiming that the light of wisdom shines within each one’s heart. And though he lived over 900 years ago, Milarepa’s is a contemporary message which still blows from the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas where he lived, bringing freedom and peace to many across the centuries.

Below are some selections from the book, Milarepa Drinking from the Mountain Stream, Songs of Tibet’s Beloved Saint, Milarepa.
—Matthew Greenblatt

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The Indian master Phadampa Sangye once told Jetsun Milarepa, “Your lineage is like a river stream—it will flow a long way.” And it has, remaining vital up to the present day. It’s no coincidence that Milarepa’s extemporaneous teachings in song are receiving attention now from the western world’s practitioners, for our religious situation is much like that of Mila’s time.

Until the advent of Buddhism in Tibet, the people were for the most part religiously naive, following a cult of elaborate shamanism. As Buddhism began to be assimilated through the teachings of representatives of many diverse schools, a process of evaluation, adaptation, and integration was begun, leaving in its wake a newly awakened religious consciousness. Likewise in the West, our religious traditions have been established for many centuries as a tacit acceptance of certain beliefs and doctrines rather than a practice of self-liberation. And here also the impact of the religious systems of the East has lent impetus to the birth of a more comprehensive awareness of our spiritual nature and its potential.

A major element in any time of profound transition is confusion. Faced with so many alternatives in belief and practice, the Tibetans brought into play their basic sense of perspective and inclination toward unity, just as we, with our characteristic drive to ascertain the unifying principles of things, always push toward an integrated, well-ordered view of the universe. Both cultures have succumbed at times to the same mistakes in assimilating this new material: oversimplification to the point of uselessness, mixing diver­gent elements instead of integrating them into a unified system, unproduc­tive intellectual speculation, and dogmatic adherence to one interpretation over all others.

During such transitional periods, persons of practical bent are primarily concerned with evaluating the various systems of thought to ascertain the right practice. Milarepa appeared at such a time when a good number of practitioners were so engaged. Some pursued their quest in the large or small groups of monastic institutions, while others, like Milarepa, wandered the mountains and countryside in the lifestyle of the Indian sannyasin [renunciate]—long-haired, socially aloof, homeless and without possessions, begging in the streets of villages, and meditating in isolated retreats. This is the most significant difference between Milarepa’s cultural environment and ours. In the Tibet of Milarepa’s day as in India before that, there was social acknowl­edgment and even respect for the pursuit of self-realization. Though itwas beyond the scope of most people, a space existed outside the confines of social forms for those who were willing to give up home and possessions for the slim chance of gaining realization.

Even with social acceptability life wasn’t easy for a yogi of Milarepa’s time. There was competition from the hungry mendicants and from estab­lished religious institutions. It wasn’t always easy to beg a meal from poor peasants who were tired of tending the needs of wild-eyed strangers in their villages. For these villagers, Milarepa was a constant wonder and challenge. He entertained them with song, scolded and criticized, cajoled, played sarcastic jokes, and encouraged them with his compassion. He taught them the straight Dharma, and through all of it shone the uniqueness of his personali­ty, the penetrating intensity of his intellect, and the radiance of his realization.

Mila’s life and his many exploits are best told in his autobiography and in The Hundred Thousand Songs. He frequently had to explain himself, and he told his life story many times. He was born in 1052 in a small town in provincial Tibet. His family name Mila descended from a paternal ancestor who was credited with powers of exor­cism, and he was given the surname Thöpa Ga, Joy-to-Hear. Because of his father’s successful trading business, his family was wealthy by village stan­dards; but his father’s death, while Mila and his younger sister were still chil­dren, left them homeless. They were victimized by a paternal aunt and uncle, who forced the mother and her two children to work as servants and laborers.

Mila left [home] and, on his mother’s instruction, went to study with a shaman skilled in supernormal powers. Mila had a natural bent for mystical things and quickly acquired powers of a destructive nature, particularly that of causing devastating hailstorms. Thusly equipped, Mila returned to his village to satisfy his mother’s desire for vengeance. He committed the murder of his aunt’s entire family and then fled. Eventually he regretted his actions and the enormous karmic obstruction they perpetrated. Realizing that this action had to be corrected in this same lifetime to prevent a very unfavor­able rebirth, he sought religious instruction in Buddhism. His first teacher was of the old school, the Nyingma, who assured him that his system would give certain and immediate results. After a period of fruitless prac­tice, the teacher told Mila that his karmic connection was stronger with another lama named Marpa Lotsawa, “The Translator of Mar,” and sent Mila to find him.

Marpa was an unusual person. He was a married householder, a great tantric teacher, and the translator of many Sanskrit Buddhist works that have become a standard part of the Tibetan canon. He survived several difficult and dangerous trips to India on which many of his fellow Tibetans had died. In India his principal guru was Naropa, and Naropa’s in turn was Tilopa, who had received his teachings from their originator, the Tran historical Buddha Vajradhara, the primordial Buddha of the Kagyu sect. Thus Marpa was the direct successor of the Kagyu lineage. Back in Tibet, Marpa translated the works he had learned in India and transmitted their teachings to his disciples.

In teaching, he projected a stern and forbidding personality over his basi­cally warm and compassionate nature. This method of working with his disciples proved especially appropriate for Milarepa, whose many negative elements and great karmic obstructions had to be purified. Marpa subjected Milarepa to several years of frustrating trials before he taught him directly. After such intense purification and appetite-whetting, Mila devoted himself wholly to the task of practicing these teachings newly transplanted from India onto Tibetan soil. He was successful, or so the Tibetans believe, and achieved his goal of full experiential verification of the Buddhist system of liberation, leaving in his wake generations of accomplished practitioners and a wealth of teaching in song.

Once Mila had left Marpa and was on his own, he pursued his practice continually, staying mostly in caves in the more desolate mountains of southwestern Tibet and western Nepal. His austere practice of wearing just a single cotton robe year round earned him the title “repa,” which when added to his family name forms “Milarepa.” Occasionally, he would visit a village or encampment of herders to beg food, and in return would sing extemporaneous teaching songs, a custom already established in his day. Things were hard at times, but Mila always exhibited indomitable courage in facing the hardships of practice and adverse conditions. Eventually word of him spread among the people, and some believed him to be an accom­plished siddha [perfected being].

Fame didn’t please him, however, and he wasn’t easy to meet. One might think he was a yogi so concerned with his own welfare that he had lost all interest in human relationships and viewed social contact as unnecessary trouble. Mila did state such feelings in his songs, and it seems as if he were always rejecting would-be disciples and their offerings; but this is just one of the many paradoxes of his unique personality—paradoxes he used with great skill in training people. Mila had a wry sense of humor tending to sar­casm and was absolutely candid and direct in dealing with people. But his teachings, though differing on the surface from Marpa’s (judg­ing from the number of his accomplished disciples) were even more effective. He had a lot of followers for someone who made such an effort to avoid peo­ple. They were drawn to him, like satellites succumbing to the irresistible pull of a great planet: loners, scholars, disciples of other teachers. And there were even innumerable peasants and householders whose natural human drive for transcendence was kindled on meeting this great yogi.

Milarepa explains the natural state as follows: “The various mental events and apparitional experiences occurring in the mind equipoised in such correct understanding and firmly based on quiescence are termed (developmental) experiences. The direct confrontation of the goal, the natural state, supported by these experiences is realization.”

Realization, then, is the direct experience of the goal of analysis, termed the natural state in the Kagyu system. It is the transcendent, inexpressible experience of direct perception of the voidness, or lack of an inherent independent ego, of persons and identity of things.

Milarepa As Seen by W.Y. Evans-Wentz
At the time when Milarepa was meditating amid the snowy vastness of the Tibetan Himalayas, the Culture of Islam was flowing throughout Hindustan and England was experiencing the efforts of the Norman Conquest. It is due to Milarepa, as well as to his teacher Marpa, who made a number of journeys to India to collect manuscripts of Indian and Buddhistic lore, that much of India’s spiritual inheritance (which was then threatened with destruction) was applied to the needs of Tibetan society and was preserved until today.

In Milarepa’s One Hundred Thousand Songs it is recorded that when the King of Khokhom and Yerang, in Nepal, invited Milarepa to the royal presence, he refused to leave the hermitage. The one who delivered the invitation asked, “When a yogi, who is a mere man, is summoned by a mighty king is it not seemly that he should set out and go to do homage at the king’s feet?” Milarepa replied, “I am likewise a mighty king, of the Wheel that Revolves; and a king who abounds in riches is in no wise happier or mightier than I.” Then, when the spokesman asked where Milarepa’s kingdom was, Milarepa answered: “Circle of officials of the kingdoms of the World, if you but served such a Kingdom as is mine, you would be transformed into the mightiest of monarchs; and the power and wealth of all things would spring forth (for you).”

Milarepa, the Socrates of Asia, counted the world’s intellectualism, its prizes, and its pleasures as naught; his supreme quest was for that personal discovery of Truth, which, as he teaches us, can be won only by introspection and self-analysis, through weighing life’s values in the scale of the Bodhi-illuminated mind. In him, the teachings of all the Great Yogis of India, including Gautama the Buddha, when put to the test of scientific experimentation, failed not.

Milarepa perceived early in life, as most men do when too late, that: “All worldly pursuits have but the one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow: acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings, in destruction; meetings, in separation; births, in death. Knowing this, one should, from the very first, renounce acquisition and heaping-up, and building, and meeting; and, faithful to the commands of an eminent teacher (guru) set about realizing the Truth (which has no birth or death). That alone is the best science.”

From Drinking from the Mountain Stream. Copyright © 1996 by Lama Rimpoche and Brian Cutillo. Published by Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA. www.wisdompubs.org