Milarepa

From longing to belonging

tara-brachThe great Tibetan yogi Milarepa spent many years living in isolation in a mountain cave. As part of his spiritual practice, he began to see the contents of his mind as visible projections. His inner demons of lust, passion, and aversion would appear before him as gorgeous seductive women and terrifying wrathful monsters. In face of these temptations and horrors, rather than being overwhelmed, Milarepa would sing out, “It is wonderful you came today, you should come again tomorrow … from time to time we should converse.”

Through his years of intensive training, Milarepa learns that suffering only comes from being seduced by the demons or from trying to fight them. To discover freedom in their presence, he has to experience them directly and wakefully, as they are.

In one story, Milarepa’s cave becomes filled with demons. Facing the most persistent, domineering demon in the crowd, Milarepa makes a brilliant move—he puts his head into the demon’s mouth. In that moment of full surrender, all the demons vanish. All that remains is the brilliant light of pure awareness. As Pema Chodron puts it: “When the resistance is gone, the demons are gone.”

This story of Milarepa came to mind during a retreat I was on many years ago, when I was in full resistance to what is often called a “Vipassana Romance,” or, a romantic illusion or fantasy about a person that fills the mind with desires. In my eyes, these desires were like demons consuming my spiritual life, ruining my meditation retreat.

When I finally recognized the battle I was in, it occurred to me that perhaps my Vipassana Romance was not the enemy of my meditation practice after all, but a natural experience that could serve my awakening. What would it be like to greet the demon of desire, to “converse” with it as Milarepa had?

Over the next few days, each time I realized I’d been lost in one of my flights of romantic illusion, I would note it as “erotic fantasy,” and pay close attention to the sensations in my body and the emotions that were arising. No longer avoiding my immediate experience, I would find myself filled with waves of excitement, sexual arousal, fear. Now, instead of resisting these feelings as demons, I just practiced accepting them and, with some curiosity, exploring them further.

The pressing ache in my chest opened into a deep grief—grief for all the lost moments of love, moments I’d missed because I’d been too preoccupied or busy to stop and open to them. I moved back and forth between erotic passion and this profound grieving about how separate I felt from what I really longed for. When the sensations of craving or sorrow became particularly intense, I tended to become lost again, thinking about what was missing in my life, fantasizing about ways I might fulfill my longing for love.

While I didn’t judge the fantasies as “bad,” I could see how they prevented me from being in touch with my actual experience. They kept me from tender presence—the gateway to what I most deeply longed for.

Although I became less immersed in my stories, I could see I was still holding on, trying to control the charged energies moving through me. My habitual reins—tightening my body, entertaining a running commentary on what I was doing—stopped me from letting go into the intensity and hugeness of wanting.

Late one evening, as I sat meditating alone in my room, my attention moved deeper and deeper into longing until I felt as if I might explode with it’s heart-breaking urgency. Yet at the same time I knew that was exactly what I wanted—I wanted to die into longing, into communion, into love itself. At that moment I could finally let my longing be all that it was. I even invited it—“Go ahead, please. Be as full as you are.”

I was putting my head in the mouth of the demon. I was saying “Yes,” surrendering wakefully into the wilderness of sensations, surrendering into the very embrace I was longing for. Like a child finally held close in her mother’s arms, I relaxed so fully that all boundaries of body and mind dissolved.

In an instant, I felt as if my body and mind were expanding out boundlessly in all directions—a flowing, changing stream of vibration, pulsing, tingling. Nothing separated “me” from this stream. Letting go entirely into rapture, I felt as open as the universe, wildly alive and as radiant as the sun. Nothing was solid in this dazzling celebration of life energy. I knew then that this was the fullness of loving what I love.

This love is what we all long for. When we bring Radical Acceptance to the enormity of desire, allowing it to be as it is, neither resisting it nor grasping after it, the light of our awareness dissolves the wanting self into its source. We find that we are naturally and entirely in love. Nothing is apart or excluded from this living awareness.

I realized that the “one I love” was everywhere, including within me. When we don’t fixate on a single, limited object of love, we discover that the wanting self dissolves into the awareness that is love loving itself.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

The Buddha taught that by being aware of desire, we free ourselves from identifying with it. With Radical Acceptance, we begin to shed the layers of shame and aversion we have built around our “deficient, wanting self.” We see through the stories we have created—stories about a self who is a victim of desire, about a self who is fighting desire, about a self who tumbles into unhealthy desires, about a self who has to have something more, something different from what is right here, right now. Radical Acceptance dissolves the glue that binds us as a small self and frees us to live from the vibrant fullness of our being.

Longing, felt fully, carries us to belonging. The more times we traverse this path—feeling the loneliness or craving, and inhabiting its immensity—the more the longing for love becomes a gateway into love itself. Our longings don’t disappear, nor does the need for others. But by opening into the well of desire—again and again—we come to trust the boundless love that is its source.

Adapted from Radical Acceptance (2003)

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“The Yogi’s Joy,” by Sangharakshita

"The Yogi's Joy," by SangharakshitaHow 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.

Title: The Yogi’s Joy: Songs of Milarepa
Author: Sangharakshita
Publisher: Windhorse Publications
ISBN: 1-899-57966-4
Available from: Windhorse Publications (UK), and Amazon.com.

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.

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Dazzling treasures of the heart

RatnasambhavaKarunachitta introduces us to Ratnasambhava, the Buddha of abundance, and issues a challenge: Dare we discover the extent of our inner riches?

When I was a child I kept going back to certain fairy stories. There was King Midas’s quest for riches. He was so delighted at the beauty of trees and flowers when his touch transformed them into gold but horrified when those he loved became solid gold statues.

Then there was Aladdin with the lamp that could grant all wishes. I used to wonder what I would wish for, especially when in some stories people were granted three wishes but could only think of stupid things that changed nothing.

I had a glimpse of understanding that you needed to have a certain wisdom and selflessness for a wish to have a positive effect.

As I write this the January sales are on. Outside my window people are flocking to buy items at half price, or two for the price of one. This consumerism is contagious. I find myself thinking: “If only I had… if only I won £10,000 … if only things were different.”

 What makes one feel poor is alienation from humanity. Ratnasambhava transforms the pride that separates us from one another  

The quest for riches has now come to mean something different to me. Many years after I first mused on those fairy stories, I was sitting in meditation when I was suddenly dazzled by a shining yellow Buddha figure standing with a horse. One arm was placed lovingly around the horse’s neck, the other held out the jeweled bridle to me. He was waiting patiently for me and I could see that I was expected to mount the horse and ride off with him. But I was afraid. Blinded by the light, I could not see who it was. Yet such boldness suddenly came over me that when he asked: “Are you coming with me?” I found myself replying, “Yes!”

That night my mind was so full of yellow light that I couldn’t sleep. I had the feeling I’d said yes to something far beyond what I was even remotely capable of imagining. Who was he? After discussing my experience with a friend, I came to recognize this figure as the archetypal Buddha Ratnasambhava from the traditional Buddhist “Mandala of the Five Jinas.” Each Jina or Buddha becomes a gateway to Enlightenment. Ratnasambhava is the southern gateway. He comes from the Glorious Southern Realm, where:

Currents of pure fragrance fill the great rivers
Beautiful diamonds form their banks.
Rings of jewelled dust are spread on the ground;
The various ornaments are all rare and fine.
Jewel stairways arrayed in rows,
beautifully adorned.
Balustrades surrounding, all extremely fine,
Flower decorations with stores of pearls
And various garlands draped all around.
(The Flower Ornament Sutra)

Ratnasambhava’s body is yellow in color — sunflower yellow, dandelion yellow, canary yellow, lemon yellow, luscious cadmium yellow hue, the color of sunlight. Wearing sparkling jewelled robes with a seven-stranded jeweled necklace, and illuminated by sunlight, he is beautiful to behold. He sits on a golden-yellow lotus throne upheld by four energetic horses with flowing manes and tails.

He symbolizes richness and generosity. In his left palm he holds a wish-fulfilling jewel, and his right hand is outstretched in the gesture of supreme generosity. His name means Jewel-Born One. The color yellow represents the earth element and the earth brings forth the wealth and richness of harvest crops, forests and flowers, as well as those “harvests” beneath the earth of gold, silver, rubies, emeralds and crystals. Shantideva evokes this in The Bodhicaryavatara: “As many flowers and fruits and species of healing as exist in the world, and as many jewels exist, and waters clear and refreshing.”

  Ratnasambhava is associated with midday, when the sun is at its brightest. Midday has the brightest light and the deepest shadows.  

As a practitioner of yoga, being in touch with the earth means being centered in my body, and fully experiencing physical sensations. This encourages me to relax, appreciate and enjoy my body, and to be wholly aware of body, feelings and thoughts. I come to know myself more deeply and this inspires confidence and fearlessness. It also means becoming more aware of my physical environment — especially by spending time in nature. This kind of appreciation brings a joyful, playful element to life, and a feeling of potency.

The four golden horses that hold up Ratnasambhava’s throne gallop across the wide expanse of sky with free, wild energy. But they have come together to support the lotus throne. This represents to me the focus, purpose and integration of meditation.

The horse symbolizes the transformation of the energies of the mind. This is the gift of focused vitality. As the Tibetan poet Milarepa sang:

The horse of the mind, moving like the wind, doth prance about.
What lasso must be used to catch this horse
And to what post it be tied when caught?
What food is it to be given when hungry?
And what drink is it to be given when thirsty?
In what enclosure is it to be kept when cold?
To catch the horse, use, as the lasso, Singleness of Purpose.
It must be tied, when caught, to the Post of Meditation:
It must be fed, when hungry, with the Guru’s Teachings;
It must be given to drink, when thirsty.
of the Stream of Consciousness;
It must be kept, when cold, in the enclosure of the voidness.

“The horse of the mind” can also be transformed through receptivity to the interconnectedness of all things, and this brings a sense of abundance. What makes one feel poor is alienation from humanity. Ratnasambhava transforms the pride that separates us from one another, and makes us judge others and ourselves in an unhelpful way. I find myself asking whether others are “better” or “worse” than me. And there is a preoccupation with the great ME the at center of my universe. Ratnasambhava connects me with others. Self-centredness is converted into love, and ultimately into compassion for all that lives.

  Ratnasambhava is associated with midday, when the sun is at its brightest. So Ratnasambhava symbolizes both the heights and the depths of experience, and understands the importance of both. Midday has the brightest light and the deepest shadows.  

This manifests spontaneously as generosity. Ratnasambhava’s great generosity is based on egolessness, the basis of his solidarity with all beings. He is said to possess the Wisdom of Equality, and this is symbolized by Mamaki, who is Ratnasambhava’s consort. Her name means “she who makes everything her own.” Mamaki looks on all things as identical with herself, because she knows the inner unity of Shunyata or emptiness which lies at the heart of all beings.

She delights in and appreciates everyone and everything. I see her as a dazzling yellow, bejeweled dakini. When I feel impoverished, I call her up and her dance brings back the feeling of inner abundance. If you call on Mamaki you may need sunglasses! Working from strength is like bringing jewels into the sunlight where everyone can see them. You have to be fearless to be generous. Auguste Renoir wrote of Algeria: “The magic of the sun transmutes the palm trees into gold, the water seems full of diamonds and men become kings of the East.”

The Wisdom of Equality is the great leveler. Possessing it, one has a kindly and impartial heart, one sees all people with equanimity. This wisdom is based on the insight that all phenomena are equal, because they are all empty. As the Heart Sutra says, “Form is only emptiness, emptiness only form.” All things and all thoughts are in a process of continual arising and passing away. Seeing this leads us to compassion. Shantideva in his compassion says:

May I be an imperishable treasure for needy beings.
May I stand in their presence
in order to do what is beneficial in every way …
I would be for all creatures a magic jewel,
an inexhaustible jar, a powerful spell,
a universal remedy, a wishing tree,
and a cow of plenty.

This attitude is what Ratnasambhava, with his wish-fulfilling jewel, represents. Am I wise enough to use my wishes generously? Dare I take Ratnasambhava’s challenge to dig down to the treasure trove of the mind — however small it seems to be? Dare I mount wild horses and gallop into the sky?

Ratnasambhava overflows with love. To take up his challenge I have to believe in who I am and feel the sun of the glorious southern realm shining openly in my heart. Sunny Ratnasambhava is able to give continually because he is rich and abundant in spiritual wealth. But if I gaze long enough into his wish-fulfilling jewel, then I, too, can feel more abundant. I must learn to let go of expectations and leap into the unknown.

Ratnasambhava is associated with midday, when the sun is at its brightest. So Ratnasambhava symbolizes both the heights and the depths of experience, and understands the importance of both. Midday has the brightest light and the deepest shadows. It means living from the heights of inspiration, while also being earthed. Ratnasambhava is rich enough to embrace it all.

He is the Buddha of beauty and aesthetic appreciation and the protector of those engaged in the Arts. Out of our spiritual practice surprising images and unknown colors can arise. According to Jung, “Color is the mother of the subconscious.”

Colors are enhanced in bright sunlight until they dazzle you in the midday sun. The more I engage my emotions in my painting and respond to color, the more I can enter this abundant realm. Ratnasambhava helps me to contact and sustain my spiritual vision and to bring it out into the sunlight where I can share it with everyone. Accepting his gifts enriches the world

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Milarepa: “When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick.”

Milarepa said, “When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.”

Milarepa (1052-1135) was a great Tibetan Yogi who lived an austere life on the bare hillsides of the Himalayas, eking out an existence on donations and the few plants — principally nettles — that grow in that harsh environment. His name means “The Cotton-Clad One,” and he generally wore just a thin sheet, using the heat generated by meditation practices to keep the fierce Tibetan cold at bay.

Despite his remote living situation he attracted many disciples and visitors, and although he belonged to no school he is particularly venerated by the Tibetan Kagyus, who trace their lineage back through him.

Milarepa was a master of Mahamudra, a meditation approach that emphasizes the innate purity of the mind. In his inimitable and playful style, Milarepa compares the unawakened self to a dog running after a stick that has been thrown. When it comes to chasing sticks, many dogs have more enthusiasm than sense: I remember, for example, a friend’s dogs repeatedly charging into a Scottish loch to “fetch” the stones that I was throwing into the depths. Often our own minds are scarcely less silly than those dogs. Anyone who has sat in meditation has observed this and knows exactly what Milarepa is talking about: the mind goes chasing after any and every thought that passes through it, and often doesn’t much mind whether it suffers in so doing. So much for humans being smarter than dogs.

There are many possible alternatives to chasing the sticks of thought like a hapless hound. We can start chasing them and then bring the mind back to a point of focus, rather like calling a dog to heel. We can learn sit still and to watch the sticks fly past without reacting to them. We can even learn to examine the sticks and recognize their impermanence and the fact that they are not intrinsic to the mind. All of these techniques are useful, and even necessary. But Milarepa goes several steps beyond.

Milarepa suggests that we turn, like a lion, and look directly at the mind itself. What can we expect to find? First, we can expect to see thoughts arising and passing away, liberating themselves without us having to exert any effort to rid the mind of them. Second, we can see the space of awareness within which these thoughts arise. That awareness is pure, and unstained by the thoughts that pass through it. That awareness is your Buddha nature, your own potential enlightenment.

All thoughts arise in this stainless awareness and dissolve within it. To see the nature of those thoughts clearly, Milarepa tells us elsewhere, is to see that there never was any arising or passing away: that all thoughts are empty of self-existence and lacking in essence. Thoughts, he tells us are illusory. It’s only our delusion that makes us think of them as real, and so, over and over, we go plunging into the lake to retrieve the unretreievable.

Although we tend to think or spiritual awakening as lying at the end of a long and arduous task, it’s right here, right now, just waiting for us to stop chasing sticks and instead, lion-like, to turn and look deeply into our own mind, and its thought, and to see their nature.

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