Monthly Archives: June 2013

100,000 Prostrations, Limitless Freedom, Endless Clarity, Infinite Compassion and No-self

100,000 Prostrations, Limitless Freedom, Endless Clarity, Infinite Compassion, and No-self

Buddhism addresses the human condition in a most remarkable way, and it simply begins with the problems we experience as human beings. Buddha saw the disquieting miseries of human existence and found liberation within that very existence. He discovered a fundamental ignorance on our part that leads to a habitual misapprehension of the nature of reality. This ignorance underlies all our emotional and cognitive states, and this leads to what Buddhism calls “suffering.” The way out begins with a simple question. For Buddhism, as for all the great religious traditions, the human person is fundamentally a “question mark.” And the core question is: “Who am I?” The central experience of Buddhism, which comes from realizing that question in one’s depths, leads to a freedom that nothing can touch, leads to a clarity that nothing can obstruct, leads to a compassion that knows no bounds.

It would be a mistake, however, to idealize the Buddhism found in concrete cultural situations (that would hold true also for all the other great traditions). Conventional Buddhism has plenty of flaws and shortcomings so that superficial Western critics can have a field day if they wish. Every religious tradition finds a need to hide some stuff in a dark closet as it were; every tradition has its own murky history; and every tradition has plenty of false representations (the problem of “false prophets” is an acute one in the Bible!) Furthermore, conventional Buddhist piety has as many limitations as conventional Christian piety. Here is a quote from Thomas Merton about a kind of Christian religiosity whose counterpart can be found in a different language in Buddhism: Christian experience becomes “a sense of security in one’s own correctness: a feeling of confidence that one has been saved, a confidence which is based on the reflex awareness that one holds the correct view of the creation and purpose of the world and that one’s behavior is of a kind to be rewarded in the next life. Or, perhaps, since few can attain this level of self-assurance, then the Christian experience becomes one of anxious hope—a struggle with occasional doubt of the ‘right answers,’ a painful and constant effort to meet the severe demands of morality and law, and a somewhat desperate recourse to the sacraments, which are there to help the weak who must constantly fall and rise again.” (In a sense this is what the Pharisees stood for….)

Given all this negative stuff, it is easy to get discouraged or even to lose one’s way on the religious journey or leave it completely. However, we must always focus on that core experience, previously alluded to, within Buddhism and within Christianity and within Islam and within Hinduism—not to imply that each is the same– and it is this which makes each tradition, and each in its own way, a vehicle of something unspeakably profound, of something absolutely real in comparison to which all else seems unreal, of something that is worth pursuing with all one’s life, with all one’s heart and mind and body. We may get an inkling of the nature of this experience from the various texts of each tradition; we may even have some preliminary glimpse into our own heart and center and find an “invitation” to go “further and deeper”—to the Further Shore as the Upanishads put it—toward a total transformation of person and vision.

However what usually helps us most, both in understanding what the texts call us to and in making “visible” the significance of that core experience, are the living embodiments of each particular tradition’s deepest insights. The deeper the realization the better, but no matter how far that person has gotten on that journey, their life will reveal something of what lies at the core. That’s why spiritual friends are important, for no matter how seldom we see them they become as beacons for our own journey. When Merton met Chatral Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama, he really fell in love with Tibetan Buddhism and began to see clearly what that tradition was about—even though both men confessed readily that they had not reached the ultimate realization and were very much “on the way.” When Merton had only the texts, he was of course intrigued but also didn’t know what to make of all kinds of “weird stuff.”

Let us now turn to Tibetan Buddhism. The first striking thing about it is how elaborate and complex it seems to be. It is a “veritable technology” of consciousness and the mind. You undertake this enormous journey of analysis and there is this unpeeling of layer upon layer of wrong views of oneself and the world. And this is done in a very systematic and thorough way. Consider this: we have this sense of “I-ness,” a sense of identity rooted in our ego consciousness. So we have our sense of self: I am this; I am that, etc. So there is this I to which all reality “outside” is an “other.” Everyone and everything is then enclosed in that subject-object duality—and if you are a Christian you begin to include that Ultimate Reality which you call “God” within that same field of duality. That sense of “i-ness” is like a knot with many strands. We take that knot to be really truly who we are, our very self, and so the knot gets tighter and tighter. But what happens if that knot gets undone? Do we vanish? Who are we then?

Tibetan Buddhism, and all of Buddhism basically, says that at this point we discover the No-self. Sometimes different words are used—Lin Chi (Rinzai), the Chinese Zen Master, calls this No-self: the True Man of No Rank. The experience of No-self is an awakening into a whole new awareness of self. It is actually an aspect of that more comprehensive awakening into sunyata, Emptiness, or pure awareness, not an awareness of, but pure awareness. The “I” which you really are is so much greater, so much more awesome, so much more wonderful than that little constricted ego “I” whom you always thought you were and of which you are aware of moment by moment, day by day, sometimes painfully and anxiously for it always seems so fragile and vulnerable. But this No-self will not be an object of that kind of awareness and so it is called a No-self. This sense of self is not something that will be an object for your examination; it cannot be seen in some mirror when you look there; it will not be an object of any kind for your pursuit or manipulation; it is something totally different and transcending everything you ever thought. Thus it is as if your self is “not there” in the field of objects that your ordinary mind beholds—yet an awareness develops that is pure awareness and not an awareness of objects and this brings a radically new sense of self which is called No-self. Old Western critics of Buddhism looked at this terminology of No-self and sunyata, Emptiness, and proclaimed Buddhism pessimistic, negative and obliterating personal identity. Actually it is the very opposite of all this. It is a richness of identity beyond all compare, beyond all imagining. What is important to realize is that you do not lose your usual ego consciousness and your feeling of selfhood. It is just that your awareness of self now transcends in an unspeakable way all limitations of all dualisms and it is truly indestructible—so there is no need to be constantly “on guard” to defend it. Your “I-ness” is now one with the “I-ness” of the other person, with all other selfhood. And we need to emphasize that this No-self is awakened to in the very ground of your usual everyday mind and self. It is that “pearl of great price” and the treasure buried in the field of your own existential day to day life—not something exotic or totally different. What characterizes this No-self, then, is an unspeakable clarity, an unshakeable peace, and most importantly a boundless compassion.

Not too long ago I saw a series of taped lectures by the Dalai Lama. He based his teaching on two of the greatest of Indian Buddhists: Nagarjuna and Santideva. The Dalai Lama is of the Gelugpa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, and these folk are really into an extensive metaphysical analysis undergirding their various meditation practices. But it all leads to this incredible awakening into the No-self, and Nagarjuna is the thinker and articulator of the meaning and significance of this. And what this Emptiness unconceals as it were is the Great Compassion, karuna—so you have sunyata and karuna as the two pillars of this awakening, and Santideva was the greatest articulator of this Compassion. And by the way this has very little to do with “feelings” as we in the West tend to view compassion. Rather this is about an insight into the true nature of reality and responding in a true way. This then is wisdom, “prajna,” when we have that true awakening into the nature of reality, and this evokes from us a response of compassion, which as Santideva often pointed out, turns our most vaunted enemies, our most hated opponents, into someone very dear to us. We seek only their good because that is the nature of reality and our true identity. You would have to go to the very heart and peak of the New Testament to find anything even close to this!

Now one particular path that the Tibetan Buddhists have is something called Dzogchen or the “Great Perfection.” It is a very direct, deep and utterly simple penetration into that awakening, and at first glance it seems like a “shortcut,” but that is only a deceptive appearance. Actually it is quite an arduous and demanding path requiring enormous commitment. When Merton heard about this Dzogchen he became very interested in it. Here is an extensive quote from an essay by Judith Simmer-Brown about Merton’s interest in all this:

“Very quickly Merton became especially interested in the formless, advanced meditation traditions of Tibet, especially Dzogchen. Dzogchen…is sometimes associated with the culmination of the intricate nine-leveled path of the Nyingma ‘ancient ones’ school. But more accurately, it is based on the single simple point—the direct realization of the naturally abiding enlightenment within one’s own experience. This fundamental experience of limitless freedom, clarity, and openness is at the heart of who we are, and Dzogchen practice merely uncovers this experience. The practitioner ‘descends from above’ with the view—fruitional, lofty and very simple, summed up in one phrase—‘All things are emptiness.’ If we realize this, truly, in our moment-to-moment experience, that is all. It is said not to depend upon study, reflection, or virtuous conduct. Yet the conduct of Dzogchen ‘ascends from below’ with humility, building a foundation for uncovering and realizing this lofty view. The conduct includes foundational practices, meditation retreats, and the practice of discipline. The Dzogchen tradition has characteristic features. First, it relies on a personal, doubtless an intimate relationship with a qualified teacher, a master who has deep experience in this kind of meditation….Second, Dzogchen practice requires extended and profound resting of the mind in its empty nature, without concepts, words , or movement. It is important not to fabricate anything, and to rest in naturalness, letting awareness be completely naked. Then it is possible to experience the true nature of the mind. For this reason, Dzogchen places strong emphasis upon solitary retreat. “

When Merton talked to the Dalai Lama about Dzogchen, the latter advised him that this path is not easy and to get a good grounding in the thought of Nagarjuna, the Madhamayika, or the Middle Way, which expounds the meaning of Emptiness—and this has nothing to do with the usual negative connotations that this word has in the West. And now this from Harold Talbott, who guided Merton on a lot of his trip in India: “I like it that Merton said that his meditative practice was ‘walking in the woods.’ I am just convinced that the ‘naked,’ natural, utmost simple practice of Dzogchen on the true nature of the mind was his dish. And I think he was thrilled to discover the vast and complex treasury of forms and practices that confront the observer of the Tantric Tradition of Tibet was all an expression of an awakening that is in itself so utterly simple.”

And then there is this from Harold Talbott: “Dzogchen practice starts with an introduction to the nature of the mind from an enlightened Lama. Then you practice meditation to maintain, strengthen and extend that awareness. The introduction to the View of the absolute nature produces an abrupt empty openness, which afterwards registers as amazement, then a subtle vast luminous experienceless dwelling of the mind in emptiness. The Dzogchen introduction and the subsequent meditation practice are utmost simplicity, the freedom of the mind from concepts, habituations, thoughts, and emotions. But it cannot be entered into without a grounding into extensive devotional practice. Devotional practice is all. Even enlightened Lamas are perpetually leading others in devotional practice and thus conveying their blessing. “

Among the many initiatory and preliminary practices required before Dzogchen practice can properly begin is a series of 100,000 prostrations. I have seen on film Tibetans doing this, and it is a very moving image that forever stays in my mind. The beginning of that unraveling of that knot of the ego self begins by throwing the whole body into it. Do those prostrations a 100,000 times and your whole body begins to participate in the undoing of that knot. Now one may ask, to whom or to what are you prostrating? Afterall it is a gesture meant to show complete surrender to someone or something, one’s whole being. I remember even the Dalai Lama prostrating before the “throne” he sat on to give his formal teaching. In a sense you are bowing to that Reality which is that Total Awareness and in which you participate with your whole being. In a sense you are bowing to the Reality which you are.

Now imagine this situation: you are driving on a highway, perhaps a bit too slowly for the likes of some speedy drivers, and a road rage incident develops. A driver whizzes by you, swearing at you, giving you the finger, and perhaps he might cut you off in trying to cause you to have an accident. What you then do is mentally visualize yourself prostrating before him, seeking with your whole heart his well-being, seeking in the depths of your being his liberation from his own anger, thanking him for unconcealing even the slightest traces of anger in your own heart. This is what Santideva was all about, and this is what the Bodhisattva tradition is like. But, and this is important, this does not mean that the feeling of anger has no validity. Anger is a human emotion that has its place in certain situations, but from the viewpoint of The Awakening one then sees right through this anger the true situation and responds appropriately for the good of the person you are supposedly angry at. What superficial Western critics of Buddhism often misrepresented in Buddhism is this point—it is as if The Awakening made one numb to feelings, that feelings vanished, that one had this expressionless face, etc. And, alas, a number of American Buddhists seemed to fall for this kind of appearance and tried to emulate this incredible caricature that has absolutely nothing to do with the reality.

A 100,000 prostrations….let us begin…. We bow in gratefulness for the Reality we are, you and I and all else.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, wow!

Difference and Center

There is something very fascinating about the differences found in the various religious/mystical traditions of the world. Each and every tradition has built up a whole package of its own symbols, myths, rituals, doctrines, scriptures, practices, etc. I suppose one can develop quite an academic career in studying their differences(and similarities), and indeed this is a very interesting and helpful endeavor. However, and this is a big however, each tradition also has at its core, at its center, that which alone renders all that other stuff meaningful and properly used AND which no scholarly enterprise can touch: an experience of transcendent and absolute simplicity, an experience of Unspeakable Mystery, an Ultimate Reality beyond all language, beyond all concepts, beyond all symbols, and fundamentally transforming the whole person. No one, whether it be a learned scholar or an ordinary adherent of some given tradition, can speak with any authority about its real meaning without recourse to that central reality and its experience.

Speaking of differences consider the following: the Russian Orthodox and the Quakers. These are two “sub-traditions” as it were within the grand tradition of Christianity. Now even though both are under this one umbrella, in many ways they push difference to the extreme. A certain external look at them and you could hardly believe they are even the same religion. However, for both that central reality is named: the living Presence of the Risen Christ in the heart of the believer, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the immediacy of the Reality of God—all different ways of articulating that central reality. It is only from that standpoint that one can make the deeper kind of connections between these two “sub-traditions” and locate them on the map of Christianity in a true and deep way.

Consider now another pair: Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. Two very different manifestations of Buddhism arising from a core central experience of Buddha himself. And then even within Tibetan Buddhism and within Zen there are also several variants with all kinds of differences of serious significance. One can get lost among the differences if one loses sight of that utterly simple, unspeakable, central reality which is the foundation of all Buddhism. What each variant presents is another kind of journey to that realization. Tibetan Buddhism is noted for an incredible complexity of analysis of consciousness and the human mind. For some this is too intimidating as a spiritual path; for others, just what the doctor ordered! They have a veritable technology of elaborate analysis and meditational practices that gradually lead one to that fundamental experience. Now Zen appears to be utterly simple, stark, extremely direct, without any metaphysics—yet actually it does have quite a lot of writing around it, but in comparison to Tibetan Buddhism it is utterly without elaboration or system. Zen developed in China, so the story goes, when Indian Buddhism came with all its metaphysical and analytical baggage. The Chinese spirit and Taoism took care of that! It has been said that Zen had as its father, Buddhism, and as its mother, Taoism; and the Child resembles more the mother!

Now when we get to comparing the Great Traditions things get more dicey—like Christianity and Buddhism. Here we are less able to say that both aim at the same central reality. We should be humble about our claims. Only the one who has reached those peaks can speak with authority that the Christian “there” and the Buddhist “there” are really the same thing in different language, expressed in different symbols. Even to speak that way shows a great distance from that Absolute Reality of absolute simplicity. And speaking of “simplicity” does not mean that the path is easy, short, uncomplicated, without troubles, straight, etc. Quite the contrary, this is where we do find a lot of common ground between the various traditions—they all indicate a long, arduous, difficult path that needs an awful lot of determination, commitment, “one’s whole life, mind, body, heart.” Here we can do a lot of comparing and sharing! Let me point out a few examples.

When Merton visited the Tibetan Buddhists just a month or so before his death, he met and really hit it off with one of the lamas—Chatral Rinpoche. At the time Merton met him Chatral was about 55 years old—about the same age as Merton—and he was already considered one of the great living masters of Dzogchen (“Great Perfection”)—this is one of Tibetan Buddhism’s “prize jewels,” a very direct rigorous intense path to the Great Realization(the Dalai Lama warned Merton not to be fooled by its utter simplicity and that it would behoove him to get a good grounding in the Buddhist metaphysics of Madhayamika). What was really touching about this encounter is that both men acknowledged that they had not “reached” the Great Realization of each of their traditions, but both recognized in each other that they were “very close.” What is amazing about this is that Chatral had been at it for over 30 years and was a teacher and hermit of great renown among the Tibetan Buddhists.

Another example: I recently watched a taped lecture by the Dalai Lama. It was a series of talks he gave to American Tibetan Buddhists in New York a few years ago. Marvelous stuff and truly an amazing person. What I think startled a few people is that he very simply and humbly stated that he had not “reached” the ultimate experience, that he had no
“special powers,” that he had no “special realizations” of any kind. He was simply a person “on that journey.” In a sense this is what one would expect him to say, and anyone who did claim “special realization” should be held suspect. But in this case his manner was very simple and direct and if he wished to avoid saying anything about his state of awareness it was readily available to him.

And just to throw in somebody else from another tradition: Shaikh al-‘Alawi, the great 20th Century Sufi Master from North Africa, says somewhere that only one in 10,000 of those who come to him for instruction and guidance “reach the peak.” But, and this is important, he also underscores the goodness and rightness of that journey. So one of the first things to be liberated from in this process is the notion of “achievement”—as if you were going to “achieve” this realization. Yes, the journey is very long and hard, but it is also the only thing really worth doing with our lives. And where we start and where we end up might be in two radically different places. Never mind how far we get, or even if we get lost and then have to make our way back to the path….never mind, the journey is all that matters and to realize that is already in some measure to be at the Center. The Buddhists call it “enlightenment,” but I prefer —“awakening.”

Even if we cannot make any direct conceptual comparisons between the core realizations of these various and different spiritual traditions, nevertheless we can observe something about them indirectly as it were. As an analogy let us use the example of Black Holes in the universe. Scientists are fairly certain that there is a massive Black Hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. We can’t see anything because by its very nature a Black Hole prevents any information from flowing out. It’s gravitational field is so strong that not even a ray of light can escape its grasp. So all we see is an empty place there—thus the name, Black Hole. However, the space around it is severely affected and distorted by that same gravitational field. Thus scientists are able to calculate, from these effects, a lot about at least the external nature of the Black Hole.

So it is with that mysterious center that each tradition seeks out. In a sense our only conceptual knowledge pertains more to the “effects” and “consequences” of that core realization, or as one gets closer and closer to that realization its effects become more apparent. And here there is something somewhat surprising in store: these “effects” are very similar no matter which tradition we look at. And here I will use Buddhist language because it is so succinct to designate what I am speaking about: limitless freedom, endless clarity, infinite compassion, and No-self. More about this in the next posting.

Of course a Christianity of conventional piety and a Buddhism of conventional piety have very little chance of meeting and having a fruitful dialogue. Well, they can be “nice” to each other! True spiritual seekers in both traditions have a much better chance of having a dialogue in depth about their various differences, and more importantly about what it truly is they are seeking—not just some words/concepts. But, and this would be the big thing, what if a Milarepa met a Francis of Asissi? I will venture a guess—there would be a profound smile on each person’s face and a profound silence as they bowed toward each other. No words can enter that circle. So frustrating to a scholar!

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!

Milarepa, Etc

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!