It is a bit strange that as I approach 100 blog postings my mind turns to Milarepa and the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I say “strange” because this is the one tradition I have generally shyedaway from, know least about, and it least attracts me. But I do greatly admire and respect what I do know of this tradition, and it is very clear that there is much to be learned from it. In any case, suddenly I found myself inspired to reflect on Tibetan Buddhism as I am nearing that “magical” 100. At one point in my life, when I was spiritually lost, the story of Milarepa helped me get back on the Way. So the next two postings will be in this area of the religious journey.
Now the figure of Milarepa (11th Century) is the most widely known and most beloved figure among Tibetan Buddhists, and he has come to represent an iconic ideal for almost all spiritual seekers. His popularity in the West was enhanced by a classic English translation(also one in French) of a classic biography in Tibetan from the 16th Century. For those who are interested in this tradition the details of his life are rather well-known and need no repeating here. For those not so familiar with his story, they can easily get an account even on the internet. The story itself is fascinating, but its meaning and significance are not so easy to grasp. There is a fascinating account of the biographical tradition concerning Milarepa by Fr. Francis Tiso, Liberation in One Lifetime. It is not an easy read because it is a technical and scholarly treatment of the various biographies of Milarepa. But it show some of the nuances needed to read such a “holy man’s biography.”
There are various barriers to understanding and appreciatingTibetan Buddhism (and Buddhism itself). First of all there is the seemingly strange and esoteric language of Tibetan Buddhism. Secondly, even in this age there are rampant caricatures on both sides—Christian and Buddhist—of each other. This makes it hard for understanding to develop. Christians have a long history of misrepresenting what Buddhism teaches and conventional Christian piety simply has not a clue about what to make of any of it. Buddhists, on the other hand, still have a tendency to take that conventional piety or even something more simple and banal and call it the essence of what Christianity teaches. In other words, there is a certain tendency to set up a “Christian straw-man” and then demolish it by showing how shallow it is. Very few Buddhists are aware of what Christian mysticism really says. Finally, a more subtle problem is the sometime idealization on both sides. Buddhism, the Christian Church(especially Catholicism), Tibetan Buddhism, even Tibet, all these have their “idealizers.” And this also hinders true understanding. Both sides have things they should be ashamed of, and it would be best to admit that at the start.
Everything said above applies also to our understanding and appreciation of Milarepa. The fact that he exemplifies the most profound and intense commitment to a spiritual path does not mean that we abandon a sober eye. From the Foreward to Fr. Tiso’sbook by Roberto Vitali: “…Mid la(Milarepa) represents the greatness of self-imposed marginality taking preeminence over the pomp of self-celebrated authoritarianism. Despite the major role played by monastic life, marginality and seclusion never died out in Tibet: they have remained a vibrant undercurrent which is still resilient despite the many modern changes. It may seem strange to mention marginality when Milarepa is the most celebrated Tibetan of all times. Because one needs to brush aside the stereotypes built over his life that led to his transformation into a symbol and reintegrate a fuller perspective, Tiso’s work shows Mid la under a different light from the idyllic picture painted by his biographergTsang smyon Heruka.”
This kind of statement points in several different directions, but what is important is that it indicates certain kind of tensions within the Tibetan tradition that are not unfamiliar to western spiritual seekers. One of these is between the fully, formally monastic seekers and the non-monastic seekers. Milarepa was never a monk in the formal sense, yet he is the epitome of spiritual seeking. His teacher Marpa was a married layman. It is almost a cliché among westerners that Tibet is a “monastic culture”—largely true and yet there is this other vein that does not fit smoothly into the picture about these intense “non-monastic” hermit types like Milarepa or family men like Marpa. The official hagiography tries to smooth it all out but it still cannot but help show the inner tensions between the “monastics” and “non-monastics”. Interestingly enough this raises the whole question of the value of such questions as: “who is a monk?” This bedeviled our Desert Fathers, and today’s official Catholic ecclesial tradition draws sharp boundaries around thesekind of identities—thereby undermining the spiritual energy needed for Ultimate Realization, if you will, in favor rather of being a member of this or that group.
Now for another quote, this time from Fr. Tiso:
“It is at the very heart of this time of distraction and transition that we encounter the life and work of the great ‘Mad Yogin of g Tsang,” g Tsang smyon Heruka. He was one of a number of tantric practitioners at the turn of the sixteenth century who had acquired the reputation of being smyon pa, ‘mad’ saints. Their madness consisted in unconventional behavior that set them apart from the monks and even from the married tantrics…in their hill town gompas and townhouse bahals. These yogins practiced with great freedom in the lonely and terrifying places beyond the margins of society. Their hermitages were caves, cemeteries, forests, remote parts of the mountains, all places reputed to be infested with dangerous categories of beings…. they were as strange in appearance as they were provocative in word and deed. In reality, they were anything but mad, since they attained and were recognized for a high degree of holiness . They also produced a considerable body of liturgical and hagiographical literature. The Mad Yogin was perhaps the prince of smyon pa authors. His immortal Life of Milarepa is a masterpiece not only of Tibetan, but also of world literature.”
Tibet in the late fifteenth century was characterized by a large number of problems, both political and religious. Attempts at reform were in the air but the resistance of the old monasteries was strong. There were several reform movements but the “mad yogis” were the spearhead of one reform movement and the life ofMilarepa was an important instrument in their efforts. Here is Fr.Tiso again:
“The reform movements in the religious sphere were inseparable from violent feudal warfare that characterized the period. The social disarray inspired a search for new models of religious reform. The impressive group of ‘mad yogins’ represented to many Tibetans what was most essential and authentic in Tibetan Buddhism: a return to the values, practices, and hallowed life-styles associated with the early Indian mahasiddhas and their first Tibetan disciples…. Only a movement imbued with the religious credibility of real holiness could hope to re-conquer the heart of Tibet. The Mad Yogins’ ‘allergy’ to celibate monasticism seemed poised for a counter attack on the dGelugs reform program.”
The chief symbol of this movement was Milarepa who had never been a monk, who founded no monastery, was more like a poet and a saint who quickly became a legend.
As mentioned before, the basic trajectory of Milarepa’s life should not be unfamiliar to anyone from almost any tradition. Milarepa as a young man starts out badly, very badly. Lobsang P. Lhalungpa, the great translator of Milarepa’s Life, tells us this: “The moral consequences of his crimes dawn on Milarepa with heart-splitting agony and a consuming fear of the karmic consequences he must face…. 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 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.”
And here we come to a very important point in spiritual seeking: Milarepa’s desire for “personal salvation” from the consequences of his evil deeds does not come up to the highest levels of Buddhist realization and his teacher Marpa saw that Milarepa was fully capable of that, perhaps “in one lifetime, in one body.” Again, from Lhalungpa: “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…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 Dharma until his inbred motive had been completely changed into the highest aspirations for emancipation on a universal scale according to the way of Boddhisattva… Marpa guided Mila’s journey of destiny along the course marked out by his karma…. 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…. 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… When the ordeals are over, his ‘great sins have been erased’ and his personal need has been mysteriously transformed and is felt now ‘for all sentient beings.’”
So Milarepa’s life becomes first of all a paradigm and an icon of spiritual seeking, but then it also becomes very useful for the propagation of various reform moments within Tibetan Buddhism.
Again, Fr. Tiso:
“The Mad Yogin made use of a great variety of written and oral sources to create a biography that reads like a novel. The impact of this work on the cultural life of Tibet has been comparable to an epic drama. It sets up the life of the homeless yogin as the highest ideal for those who seek to attain Buddhahood ‘in one body, in one lifetime.’ It elevates the mad yogin to the rank of a universal archetype or exemplar for the serious practitioner, and demotes the figure of the scholar monk from its position of primacy.”
Whatever one wants to say of the spiritual culture of Tibet before the Chinese brutalized Tibet, whatever one makes of the various “reform movements” within that tradition, it is important not to varnish the facts of that tradition or of any tradition. Tibet is a “mixed reality”; Tibetan Buddhism, especially as it came West and into the U.S. is definitely a “mixed reality.” But the figure ofMilarepa is an icon for all of us in whatever tradition we happen to be as long as we are true spiritual seekers. It stands as a beacon whether we are monks or lay people or whatever, beckoning us like the mantra from the Heart Sutra:
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!
Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, wow!