Gyalwang Karmapa’s Teaching on The Life of Milarepa

December 25, 2009Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgayareport by Michele Martin, photos taken by Karma Lekcho, Karma Norbu, Pema Orser Dorje

His Holiness arrives and goes directly into the main temple to offer his respects. Then as he came before his throne, he made three bows in the direction of the vajra throne where the Buddha became fully awakened. Sitting on his throne underneath the Bodhi tree, he received the bows of homage from the sangha members.  After the chanting of refuge and bodhicitta vows, a mandala offering, and request to teach, His Holiness recited his own prayers and began to read the life story of Milarepa. 

This part of Chapter Seven tells of the austerities Milarepa endured while staying in retreat in his mountain cave.  With nothing but nettles to eat, his skin turned to a waxen green, his eyes sunk into their sockets, and his body withered down to bones.  The hunters who came across him, and even his sister Peta, wondered if he were a ghost or a man. And yet he sang his Song of the Five Kinds of Happiness, which he described as:

        I am happy with this hard cushion beneath me.
        I am happy with this cotton cloth which covers me.
        I am happy with this meditation cord which holds my knees.
        I am happy with this phantom body, neither starved nor satiated.
        I am happy with my mind which has gained insight into reality.

When his sister asked him to go begging for food, Milarepa refused saying that the misery in the three lower realms were much worse than his, and he preferred to follow his master’s instruction to stay in solitary retreat.

After eating food that was offered to him, he had some trouble meditating, so he broke the seal of the scroll his master had given him and followed the instructions, working hard on special exercises for body, breath, and meditation. In practicing these instructions, joy and lucidity arose in him. After this powerful experience of illumination, he was able to display miracles, such as flying in the sky. To express his gratitude to his sister Peta and to his friend Zessay, who had brought him food and drink, he sang the song, “The Essence of Interdependence.”  First he first invokes his lama Marpa: “I prostrate myself at the feet of Marpa of the Southern Cliffs. / May he bless this mendicant so that he may fulfill his retreat in solitude.” Then he continues to speak of the interdependence of all phenomena.  One verse states:

        The compassion of a good lama
        And the disciple’s perseverance in meditation,
        These two interacting ensure the upholding of the Dharma.
        And the essence of this interaction comes in their solemn commitment.

Several hunters who roamed the mountains came to Milarepa’s cave. Some pitied him but one asked him for advice. Milarepa replied: “In your eyes I may seems exceedingly miserable.  You do not know that in the world, there is no one happier and more sensible than I. Since I live in the highest happiness you could conceive of, listen to this song of ‘The Yogi’s Galloping Horse.’”  In speaking of this steed, he sings in these two verses:

        Use a lasso of non-dual rope to catch it and tether it to the post of samadhi.
        When it's hungry, give it the food of the lama's instructions.
        When it's thirsty, lead it to drink at the stream of mindfulness.
        When it's freezing cold, bed it down in the stable of emptiness.

        I bridle and saddle it up with upaya and prajna.
        I tighten the girth so it won't work its way loose.
        I give it the halter of the life force prana.
        It’s the youth of awareness who rides this horse.

After being separated for years, Milarepa’s sister Peta finally found him. She spoke to him of a wealthy lama who wore rich silks and sat on a high throne.  When she begged Milarepa to practice that kind of Dharma, he refused and instead asked her to come with him and meditate in Lapchi. He sang a song to her about abandoning the “Eight Worldly Concerns” (praise and blame, gain and loss, fame and infamy, pleasure and pain).  In one verse, he explained to her:

        From the moment we are born, we do not know when we will die.
        I do not have time to put off my practice until later.
        I will exert myself to meditate without distraction.
        The instructions of my father lama benefit the mind.
        By meditating according to these instructions,
        I shall achieve liberation.
        That is why I go to the snows of Lapchi.

After listening to her brother teach for a while, Peta’s understanding of the Dharma deepened and her desire for worldly things decreased.

Milarepa’s vicious uncle had passed away and his cruel aunt, full of remorse, came to see him.  He sang her a song reminding her of all the terrible things she had done. Then weeping and imploring him, his aunt begged forgiveness, saying that she would kill herself if he did not receive her. Milarepa thought, “My aunt has not betrayed any sacred trust and because I am a devotee of the Dharma, I will receive her.”  He gave her teachings and later through her practice she became a yogini who achieved liberation.

The Seventh Chapter of Milarepa’s life story comes to a close with questions from his disciples. The essence of his responses is this: “ In those who wholeheartedly believe in karma and dread the suffering of the lower realms, a great longing for illumination will arise.  This will lead them to devote themselves to a lama, to meditation, and to maintaining a deeper insight.  It is possible for every ordinary man to persevere as I have done.”

This morning His Holiness finished reading the Seventh Chapter.  He then commented that Jetsun Milarepa is a most astonishing person. By comparison, it is difficult for anyone else even to be called a practitioner. How could someone else have such devotion to their guru and such great determination to practice?  Milarepa was living 5000 meters above the sea level in 20 degree below zero weather with hardly any clothing or food. For us is it quite inconceivable.

When great masters like Marpa give instruction, all the essence of the sutras and tantras, the great teachings of the buddha, are included in their key instructions. These are especially precious because the teacher clearly points out to us how to practice in a very personal way; the instructions are adapted to fit our individual needs.

When he was nearing death, a student asked Milarepa if he were an emanation of Vajradhara. He thought that Milarepa must be someone who had done a lot of practice during many previous lives.  But this student missed the point: the whole story of Milarepa shows how a great student should be, what qualities are needed to succeed in practice.  Milarepa responded to him that when you truly consider the problems of the samsara and its immense suffering, it is not astonishing to practice like this. He said that actually, his determination, courage, and devotion are not too much, but too little.  With a clear understanding of the nature of samsara, it is very easy and natural to have devotion. By practicing the Dharma as Milarepa did, we, too, could master the ability to create miracles, such as flying in the sky.

Milarepa continued to meditate in the mountains throughout his life. He wished to set an example for future practitioners, who would be inspired to practice in mountain caves as he did. So even after he became enlightened and achieved many special abilities, he kept on practicing in mountain caves.  Further, he dedicated the merit of his meditation so that all beings in the future would be free of any obstacles. Therefore, we should not just hear this life story of Milarepa with all of his advice, but we should contemplate it and put it into action, too. When a great teacher like Marpa and a great student like Milarepa come together, practice goes very well.  Reflecting on this, I would like to talk about the relationship between a teacher and disciple.  When he begins to sing, Milarepa beings by paying homage to his master Marpa.

Just ss Milarepa prostrated to Marpa, at the beginning of his writings, the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, paid homage to his master Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, the great yogi.  Usually authors of treatises prostrate to a Buddha or a bodhisattva, but Mikyo Dorje chose his teacher instead.  In The Ornament of Precious Liberation Lord Gampopa speaks of different kinds of teachers, such as an ordinary person, a spiritual friend, enlightened teachers, or those who manifest a sambhogakaya form. If we practice well, in the future, we will be able to relate to a sambhogakaya teacher or a Nirmanakaya Buddha.  At this moment in time, however, the only spiritual friend we can relate to is the ordinary friend.  How do we do this?  We relate to teachers from the different vehicles: the Sravakayana (Vehicle of the Hearers), the Bodhisattvayana (the Vehicle of the Bodhisattvas), the Vajrayana (the Vehicle of the Vajra), and the Sugatayana (the Vehicle of Those Thus Gone).  Today we have time to speak about the first two.

In the Sravakayana, the teacher needs to have a good character and follow the vinaya well. The ordained sangha holds the four root precepts and knows the rituals.  They are also very kind and have affection for their students, helping them both with the Dharma and also their needs in general. If students are sick, they help them to heal. Their teachings are related to the student’s state of mind, knowing when it is right time to give this or that teaching. The Buddha Shakyamuni did not give the advanced teachings of the definitive meaning to everyone right away. It is not helpful to give the ultimate truth all the time; it is not just our good intention that plays a role, but also the teaching has to be apt, useful, and beneficial to this person at their stage of practice.  So teachers of the Sravakayana carry the precepts and know the rituals; they are kind and understand how to teach what is appropriate to each student. 

In the Bodhisattvayana, we speak of the ten qualifications teachers should have, such as being peaceful and skilled in the three trainings of discipline, meditative concentration, and wisdom.  They are able to tame their minds through discipline; with meditation they instill peace within; and with wisdom, they completely eliminate the afflictions. Further, the teachers have to be more learned than the student, for we learn from teachers what we do not know.  Otherwise, the teachings are not so useful. Teachers must be learned and able to teach in different ways, explaining both the Sravakayana and the Bodhisattvayana. Further, in this vehicle teachers must be continually compassionate, working for the benefit of every single living being. They will not waver, no matter what difficulties they may face.

How do we relate to these two kinds of teachers?   We give our devotion and respect from the depths of our heart and mind.  We make offerings to help the lama and, most importantly, we practice what the lama teaches.  As Marpa said to Milarepa, “You do not have to make material offerings.  If you go into solitude and practice, that will make me happy.” This is the way we should please our teacher.

In these degenerate times, it is difficult to find a pure teacher; most have a mix of faults and qualities. In this case, we should examine to see what prevails: Does the teacher have more qualities or more faults? If qualities predominate, then this teacher is all right.  Even if a teacher is very qualified, we will still see some faults. What should we do then if a lama asks us to do something and we think it is not right?

We have to reflect on this situation. For example, if a Buddha comes before us and our mind is still deluded, we will not be able to see him as he is.  Nakpopa saw Vajrayogini as a lady leper and Asanga saw Maitreya as a dog.  Since at this stage of our practice we are not capable of seeing a Buddha, then actually, if a teacher is not completely enlightened, we can see them and they can teach us.  So here the fault is actually a positive thing.

If we are not able to see things as they actually are, then when a teacher from any of the vehicles tells us to do something, we have to reflect, “Is this something I can do?” “Is it good to do?”  This does not mean that we simply do not feel like doing it, but we have read in the sutras or tantras that this is not right, or it could be something beyond our capacity.  In these cases, we just tell the teacher that we cannot do it. There is nothing wrong with this. We merely refuse to do it. If we look at Milarepa’s life story, and read about what Marpa put Milarepa through, we might think Marpa was at fault, but Milarepa did not see it like this, and in end he become fully awakened.

What is the benefit of relating to a teacher? We can see this from looking at the many teachings on the gradual path (lam rim). Like the Ornament of Precious Liberation, these texts begin with instructions on how to relate to a teacher.  We must have a connection to a teacher, otherwise, we would not know what to do. The Buddha said that he can show the way, but that enlightenment is up to us. We need a teacher to show us what is positive and negative, what we should take up and what we should give up. Since first we have to know what to do, a teacher is indispensable; afterward, what happens is in our own hands. To attain full awakening, the teacher is most important.

For the meditation after the teachings, His Holiness asked us to visualize our root lama one cubit (the length from our middle finger to our elbow) above our heads in the form of the Buddha, and then to visualize in front of us (in the direction of the stupa itself), another Buddha.  From this Buddha in front come light rays, which are white, yellow, or whatever color we wished and the bless us.  The dedication was for all here and all living beings that they may complete the two accumulations of merit and wisdom and thereby attain the level of full awakening, and further that we may be able to offer them protection them until they achieve it.


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