How would you feel if your teacher burned your book collection? A new book by Sangharakshita highlights a challenging friendship between a Tibetan guru and his disciple.
A good dharma book is humbling. It is like a spiritual friend who isn’t afraid of cutting through our defenses in the service of positive change. Sangharakshita’s new book, exploring three songs of Milarepa, challenged me in this way. The material is compiled from edited transcripts of seminars Sangharakshita gave to members of the Triratna Buddhist Order (formerly the Western Buddhist Order) in the late 70’s, about Milarepa, his songs and the spiritual life. The songs chosen are about spiritual friendship and its challenges. We get to see Milarepa beginning a relationship with one of his close disciples, Rechungpa. We get to watch as they get in tune with each other.
Milarepa was a Tibetan yogi who lived 1052–1135 C.E. in medieval Tibet. The basic outline of Milarepa’s life is that he was cheated out of land by some relatives. He used black magic to create a storm that killed the thieves, and then, fearing that he would have a bad rebirth, he turned to the spiritual life in order to save himself. He went to Marpa for teachings. Marpa made him build, tear down and rebuild a tower, as a way to cleanse his karma. (You can go see the last tower Milarepa built, it still exists, the tower is situated in Lhodrak district, north of the Bhutanese border.) When Milarepa was ready and his karma was cleansed, Marpa told him to go and meditate in caves.
Legend has it that in Milarepa’s last teaching he flashed his calloused butt to a student to suggest how hard you need to meditate.
Milarepa is famous for his rigorous practice and his asceticism. He is said to have turned green from eating nettles, which formed the main component of his diet. One day the wind was so fierce that Milarepa passed out, and when he awakened his robe was gone. He liked to flout convention, and there are many stories of him being naked, or showing his body. Legend has it that in his last teaching he flashed his calloused butt to a student to suggest how hard you need to meditate. There is a spiritual intensity here that’s not for dilettantes. This is more of a spirituality of confrontation than of comfort, and Milarepa’s spiritual intensity and commitment, while it can seem inspiring, can also seem extreme and frightening.
The songs in The Yogi’s Joy are taken from The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, which is the written records of Milarepa’s songs: the spiritual poems that he would sing as a way of teaching people the Dharma. Apparently it’s not too hard to improvise songs in the Tibetan language because of its structure. Ordinary folk would often sing as they worked, and Sangharakshita met many Tibetans in Kalimpong in the 1950’s who would improvise songs. The Yogi’s Joy is good at setting the historical stage, and at translating Milarepa’s teachings into a modern context.
We know enough Dharma; doing it is the hard thing.
Milarepa’s relationship with his discipline Rechungpa is at the heart of this book. Rechungpa went off to India to get some teaching, and comes back haughty and puffed up. He no longer wants to hang out with his guru Milarepa in caves, and instead wants to find some sponsors to give him a good meal and lodging. But Milarepa gets Rechungpa to go out for water, and while he’s away on this errand, Milarepa burns his books. This would have been a challenging moment in a spiritual friendship, I imagine. There’s something emotionally challenging in being receptive to another person, because of the level of trust and vulnerability involved. It’s not easy to be open to a true spiritual friend.
As well as being a story about the friendship between Milarepa and Rechungpa, The Yogi’s Joy is the meeting between Milarepa and Sangharakshita — two people of great spiritual depth. Sangharakshita was born in England in 1925 and spent almost 20 years in the east practicing Buddhism. In 1967, in England, he founded a Buddhist order — the Triratna Buddhist Order — which has spread around the world. Sangharakshita says, “If any westerner practices even a hundredth part of what they have read, they are probably doing pretty well.” You could say this about reading Sangharakshita’s book. He has many intense spiritual teachings, which it would be easy to just keep reading past as we move on to the next one. But to connect with spiritual teachings, to let them percolate into the deepest part of us, requires lingering reflecting, and — most importantly — putting the teachings into practice in one’s life.
Sangharakshita goes so far as to suggest that the many Dharma books we read, often quickly and superficially, hinder our spiritual progress. My spiritual friends read very slowly while I have gobbled Dharma books over the past seven years, and I even read this book quickly when it first came out. Rereading it has been a sobering lesson on how little sticks when you rush. In another way it heartens me because there’s so much depth, I can return and return to the book and still find things I’ve not understood or forgotten. We know enough Dharma; doing it is the hard thing.