Gyalwang Karmapa’s Teaching on The Life of Milarepa

December 26, 2009Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgayareport by Jo Gibson, photos taken by Karma Lekcho, Karma Norbu, Pema Orser Dorje

Gyalwang Karmapa arrived at 9.00am and, after a mandala offering and the reading of the list of sponsors during the tea break, His Holiness recommenced his transmission of the Life of Milarepa at the beginning of Chapter 8, entitled “Retreats”.

Briefly, this chapter provides an overview of Milarepa’s retreats, practices and those who were influenced by him.  The  chapter lists the places where he  conducted his retreats.  It praises his great spiritual achievement and the benefit he showered on all sentient beings through his teachings, and it encourages people to follow his example.

His disciple, Rechungpa, adds  further details concerning Milarepa’s interactions during those retreats with three distinct groups of followers: the malevolent non-human beings whom he conquered, the dedicated disciples whom he guided to liberation, and the lay followers whom he taught.  It describes how and where he met his spiritual sons, disciples and lay followers.  Milarepa  had many disciples, male and female, including  Rechung, his biographer, whom  he met for the first time in Gungthang,  Gampopa who became his spiritual successor and one of the main lineage masters in Milarepa's tradition, and female disciples such as Rechungma, Paldarbum, Sahle Aui and Tseringma.

Rechung lists Milarepa’s practices during that time, his communication with dakinis, and his conquering of the Maras.  In summary: 

“Innumerable people received teachings, both known and unknown, during the period in which the Master set inmotion the Wheel of Law. Guided by the Master, the most highly developed disciples achieved Enlightenment. The less developed disciples were brought to a stage of awakening and shown the path to  liberation . The least developed he set on the path to Bodhichitta. Through a diligent application of the Bodhisattvas’ precepts, they were brought to a firm level of awareness. Even in the very least developed ones he sowed the seed of virtue and assured them of attaining the peace of the higher realms in their lives.

With compassion limitless as the sky, the Master protected innumerable beings from the misery of samsara and of the lower realms by bringing the light of the Buddha’s teaching.”
(page 152 The Life of Milarepa trans. Lobsang Lhalungpa,  )

Gyalwang Karmapa continued reading into Chapter 9, entitled “Nirvana”.  This is the final chapter of the text and tells the story of the malicious  Geshe Tsakpuhwa, a rich and influential lama, who was envious of Milarepa.  His enmity towards Milarepa grew after Milarepa embarrassed him in front of his benefactors by refusing to return his prostration. Geshe Tsakpuhwa retaliated by asking Milarepa  to explain a text of Buddhist logic, knowing full well that Milarepa would not have studied it. However, Milarepa turned the tables on him. Consequently, Geshe Tsakpuhwa plotted to poison him.

Using the story of Geshe Tsakpuhwa as his starting point, His Holiness investigated what it means to abandon the Dharma.  He explained that Geshe Tsakpuhwa was a Kadampa geshe. These were usually exemplary  and well-qualified lamas, but Geshe Tsakpuwha’s downfall came about because of his pride. It was true that he had some learning, but he became arrogant, and gave up the Dharma. Because of his arrogance he looked down on others and was unable to recognise  Milarepa’s qualities. When Milarepa shamed him in the presence of his sponsors, he felt there was no alternative but to kill him, and so began to plot how he could poison him.

Gyalwang  Karmapa warned of the dangers of holding partisan and sectarian views such as “I belong to this lineage” or  “I follow this lama” which deny the value and validity of other teachers or schools. He suggested that this was a form of abandoning the Dharma, and, as such, counts as worse than the five heinous deeds: killing your mother, killing your father, killing an Arhat, harming a Buddha, causing schism in the sangha. Abandoning the Dharma is defined as denying something was Dharma when it was, maintaining something was Dharma when it wasn’t, and, likewise, claiming that a genuine dharma practitioner was not practising Dharma, and vice versa. If one did any of these, one had abandoned the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

Abandoning the Dharma is described as “cutting the root of all virtuous actions”. The consequence is “all positive things are finished”. The person may still perform positive deeds, according to some, but it would be very difficult for them to attain enlightenment, His Holiness explained. In contrast, so long as they did not abandon the Dharma, even the negative karma of someone who had committed hundreds of thousands of negative deeds could be purified.
His Holiness gave further examples of giving up the Dharma, such as people who allege that the Mahayana tradition is not true Buddhism, that the Vajrayana tradition comes from Hinduism, or that the tantras are not true Dharma.  If you deeply criticise or make this type of allegation, he warned, you have given up the Dharma. In Tibet there were many sects, and  old and new tantras, but all of the methods taught were relevant teachings for the two accumulations.  Some may not suit certain people, but this was not a sound reason for those people to denigrate them.  In differentiating between what was Dharma and what was not Dharma, the significant factor was whether a teaching was of benefit . It  also had to be  appropriate to the capacity of that person. If the teaching was unsuitable, for example, teaching emptiness to someone who was not prepared, It could cause harm, confusion and misconceptions.  Mistaken logic might lead someone then to say about certain teachings “Oh, this is bad” or “This is good”. In that case, there was the danger of committing the fault of abandoning the Dharma. Indeed, the Chakrasamvara Tantra warned  that  if you were unable to understand profound teachings, you should not criticise them. It was important to understand that it was not always possible for the intellect to take the measure of the profound Dharma.

Gyalwang Karmapa transferred his focus to non-Buddhist religions. To criticise a non-Buddhist religion, he warned, could be similar to breaking samaya. The non- virtuous actions include harsh speech; if you were to say harsh words about other religions or other schools, it was possible you would break the root samaya of tantra.

Then there was the issue of disputes between Buddhist schools. These had arisen early in the history of Buddhism, leading to the establishment of 18 separate schools. Buddha himself had predicted that Buddhist schools would fight amongst each other, but such arguments and disputes, His Holiness warned were destroying Buddhism. It was essential that the Buddhist sangha live in harmony, he emphasised.  In places where the sangha argued and fought, the positive energy of the place was destroyed, positive spirits lost their power, and negative energy became very strong, adversely affecting all the sentient beings in that environment. Such a place required an enlightened being to turn the Wheel of Dharma three times in order to restore harmony.

If the Vinaya holders are in harmony, the sangha  is worthy of worship. Unlike Buddha and Dharma, the Sangha can actually accept offerings, but they need to maintain pure conduct, and practise the three trainings. In Ancient India, it is said, the sangha kept pure ethical discipline, and laypeople attained enlightenment by making offerings to them. In Tibet, however, that was not the case. Gyalwang Karmapa told a story of Buddha Shakyamuni and Buddha Amitabha, when they were still bodhisattvas. At that time both were  bhikkus  (fully ordained monks).

Buddha Amitabha was  Bhikku Right Livelihood and it was his practice to adjust his teaching according to the capacity of the student. Buddha Shakyamuni , on the other hand, was Bhikku  Dharma, who insisted on teaching only the most definitive meaning.  As a consequence of his rigidity, only a few of  his students attained realisation, many failed to understand, and  some even took a wrong path, yet, in spite of this,  he accused Bhikku Right Livelihood of not teaching correctly. When Bhikku Dharma died, he suffered the consequences. He spent aeons in the hell realms, then for many aeons he could not remember bodhicitta. He was born as an animal. Then he was born dumb for sixty aeons. When he finally attained the precious human rebirth he was born in a degenerate age.  Eventually, he was born as Shakyamuni.  Meanwhile, Bhikku Right Livelihood had attained enlightenment a long time before!

We need to  be wary of criticising other schools out of ignorance,  commented Gyalwang Karmapa. Often our arrogance leads us to make mistaken judgements of what is good and what is bad. Such biased crticism can send us to the hell realms. We have the opportunity to practice the Dharma. We should not waste that opportunity by committing non-virtuous actions,  by  becoming partisan and criticising others. His Holiness illustrated the point. It takes four people to carry a heavy copper pot; if one person tries to carry it alone, they will drop it. He advised everyone to study all Buddhist traditions and then they will have a comprehensive view of the Dharma. In order to become enlightened, we must obtain omniscience. If we are not open to studying everything, how can we ever attain omniscience, he asked. It is said that there is nothing that a bodhisattva  does not  study  because they have to be able to help everybody. The reason for  becoming a  buddha  is in order to be of benefit to  all sentient beings  as vast as space.  If you do not have this motivation, you become an Arhat.  Even understanding emptiness can be done through different approaches. 

Gyalwang Karmapa concluded this part of the teaching by referring to a sutra called Getting rid of the negative deeds of abandoning the Dharma.   

“Buddha said you have to read this sutra first, then  you can teach,” he explained.

The teaching session closed with a meditation on Akhshobhya, who has the power to purify all negativities. 

First  acknowledge your non-virtuous actions,  and then  visualise  Akhshobhya above the crown of your head. He is wearing a black and gold crown, and,like Vajrasattva, he holds a  vajra in his right  hand and a bell in his left.

Make strong and sincere prayers for purification.

A stream of water flows from his heart centre, and this stream enters your body through the aperture on the crown of your head, purifying your body and mind.


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