An Introduction to the Life of Milarepa

A handout written by Venerable Ani Drubgyudma

What are Milarepa’s presuppositions (beliefs, premises) in the early stage of his spiritual journey? Why, and What was Milarepa buying into wholeheartedly in following a spiritual path?

  1. Belief in the supernatural and celestial realms of existence
  2. Belief and experience in esoteric Black Magic – spiritual practices that have the power to kill, manipulate weather, cause disease; power to manipulate others and environments, etc.
  3. Belief in, and communication with, celestial beings and celestial realms -that  unseen with the naked eye, energetic formless entities exist and that they are friends or foes of human beings
  4. Belief that he should obey his mother and follow her directives – go to the lama who can teach him the Black Arts and use this power to destroy those who stole their property and wealth
  5. A recognition that he had done a terrible deed in killing 35 people as well as their crops in order to avenge wrongdoings against his mother, sister and himself
  6. A deep feeling of remorse and guilt with great anxiety over his wrongdoings
  7. A deep depression and confusion with great anxiety
  8. A belief in karma and rebirth (that progressively understood the subtleties in untying the knots)
  9. A very deep understanding of karma and karmic retribution in light of his present life and future lives
  10. Belief in esoteric White Magic -Buddhist  spiritual practices have the power to transform negative karma, actions, of body, speech, and mind for benefit of self (later in his spiritual evolution he realized that the motivation for the benefit of all sentient beings is cultivation as a compassionate wisdom being that benefits all sentient beings towards liberation and happiness – his perspective changed from a personal liberation to a universal liberation)
  11. A recognition that spiritual teachers, gurus and lamas, have a certain mastery to assist people in transforming consciousness and karma through the exoteric and esoteric Buddhist teachings and that both must be understood and practiced
  12. Belief that the only way for his salvation from the deeds that he committed along with the emotional torment that he was experiencing was through finding a Guru that could assist him in following the Buddhist path that would present the way to  transform his consciousness and negative karma into white karma – thus saving himself from being thrown into to lower realms of existence, in his case, a salvation from being reborn into the hell realms of existence in future lives, as well as relief from the mental and emotional vexations in his present life

Quotes from the Introduction of the Life of Milarepa by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa

i.e., What is the bottom line? A glimpse into a few essentials in understanding the Buddhist Vajrayana spiritual tradition as transmitted through Milarepa?

“The fulfillment of a seeker’s higher aspirations is not so much dependent on accumulating knowledge as on overcoming mental obstacles and gaining insight into the truth in oneself. For this, the guidance of an experienced teacher is a practical necessity. The role of teacher in an esoteric path of self-transformation through meditation and action, such as Vajrayana, is even more important, because it is only after the initiatory empowerment and elucidating instructions and guidance have been given that the disciple can settle himself in the work.

“The ‘success’ of Dharma practice differs markedly from individual to individual. Each responds differently. Even the effectiveness of initiation depends on the presence or absence of appropriate conditions. Sometimes all the inner vision and power of the initiatory master is not enough, for as we say even a strong hook will not catch an object with no hollow ring attached to it. The opposite case is also possible, as illustrated at the end of Milarepa’s story. While he himself took a long time and much hazardous labor to reach a state of mind conducive to enlightenment, many of his own disciples achieved the glimpse of illumination instantly on hearing words of wisdom from him! ” (xii)

“The role of a spiritual master or teacher in the life of a seeker is to be a true friend.  Only when a master is himself free from inner delusions and is the source of transcendent wisdom can he or she perceive the hidden barriers and potentialities of individuals and respond according to the specific need of each person. Once the psychological obstacles in devotees are overcome through the lama’s skillful means, rapid illumination presents itself without the need for heroic effort.

“Yet the emphasis on the role of the teacher and the disciple’s devotion to him should not be allowed to reduce the pupil to a passive state of helplessness and absolute dependence. Like the doctrine itself, the teacher is a means and not an end. The meaning of the term ‘yong-dzin,’ a synonym for teacher, suggests that s/he is one who holds others from falling into an abyss of inner delusion and destructive karma…

“The term ‘teacher’ does not always mean a human being. Milarepa speaks of three types of lamas – first, and ‘external lama’ who shows the way through linguistic symbols; second, the ‘inner lama,’ one’s own power of understanding the teaching; and, third, the ‘inmost lama,’ one’s own inmost awareness. ..

“Milarepa looked upon Marpa as the true embodiment of Enlightenment and as the irreplaceable means for the development of his own supreme understanding through which Milarepa realized the ‘inmost lama’ in himself.” (xiv-xv)

“In general, the Vajrayana Buddhist training which Milarepa underwent seeks to respond to the varied psychological factors in different individuals and lead aspirants toward higher consciousness, the complete realization of human excellence and finally supreme illumination. It is thus a process of psychological transformation. In practical terms, the aim is to cultivate goodness consciously in thoughts, words, and deeds and to become a ‘jewel among humanity.’ [I, Ani, would say saint. This attitude understands that the aim to cultivate goodness consciously in thoughts, words and deeds and to become a ‘jewel among humanity’ must be the practitioner’s bottom-line in living life on planet earth.]

“From the outset, one works to free oneself from all superstitious complexes of superiority or inferiority based on sex, race, color, or creed. A deeper sense of one entire human family and universal fellowship has to be developed as the foundation for a right attitude to human relationships. Only then is the seeker led toward a process of spiritualization. In order to discover ones non-deceptive, or real, identity, each individual is encouraged to free oneself from the solid and strong influence of ones conditioning. This psychological reorientation, which is the basic aim of all true culture, embraces the totality of factors and forces that go to make up an individual’s whole stream of being and ones attitude toward life. The inner illusions are so subtle that they are often imperceptible. Without this preparatory development of a sound and sane basic attitude toward the goals of living, the whole spiritual endeavor is susceptible to egoistic self-love, as distinguished from a practical concern for one’s permanent freedom. For even where consciousness has achieved an exalted level, its need must be further developed into an effective instrument for the process of universal emancipation of all human beings.

“The essence of Mahayana Buddhism can be seen in one single term, ‘Bodhichitta,’ which we have generally translated as ‘Enlightened Mind.’ This is at once an enlightening attitude and a state of awareness, each of which is both a means to the goal and the goal itself. Here the attitude implies action, a non-egoistic view which one brings to bear upon both ones inner practice and outer life. Through this attitude the discipline of meditation combines inseparably with the practice of outer magnanimity, thus leading to the achievement of enlightened awareness. It is through such an awareness that one may perceive things as they really are and as they appear in non-conflicting diversity, while  remaining continuously open to manifest the warmth of compassion. Yet such innate purity simply cannot be perceived or realized without first detecting the causes of illusions and defilement in the human psyche. Thus the process of transformation of consciousness takes the form of purification traditionally spoken of as the elimination of illusions and accumulation of virtues.

“The training of Milarepa may serve as a worthy illustration of some aspects of this Buddhist education, centering around the way of discovering for one’s self the unknown secret of truth. As in any great human endeavor, no real achievement is possible until one meets the challenges the training throws before oneself with openness, humility and determination. An acute awareness must repeatedly be brought to bear on reappraisal of what really is the foundation of lasting happiness for oneself and also for others. In working toward an aim such as this, one is bound to awaken to one’s own inadequacies, thereby bringing life’s challenges into focus.

It was the stark realization of his own inadequacies that brought Milarepa to Lama Marpa. After completing the heart-melting ordeals which Marpa imposed on him, Milarepa soon encountered another series of ordeals, namely, the rigors of training. He began the training by accepting the Triple Refuge as fundamental in the path of liberation: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha…

The true meaning of going to the Triple Refuge for protection can be realized only if the seeker is meaningfully committed, not so much to formal acts of veneration as to a relentless striving toward realizing within his own nature the qualities represented by the Triple Refuge. Buddha said ‘O mendicant monks, you alone are the Refuge unto yourselves. Who else can be such a Refuge?’

In fact, a person is one’s own refuge or protector as soon as one wakes up from life’s illusions and finds a way to discover what is called the Buddha nature in oneself. This is the most original nature of human awareness or consciousness, which is indistinguishable from the essence of enlightenment…But the sense of self, of ego or I, is not the same thing as consciousness; it is a form that consciousness takes under certain conditions which in a human being are connected with the senses and the complex organization of forces and substances that make up the human body.

“In meditation a person seeks to establish a relationship between the sense of self and consciousness, which is its root and foundation. Discovery of the Buddha nature is the beginning and the end of the work of meditation. Between the beginning and the end, however, there lie many levels. The relations between consciousness, thought, emotion, and the stupendous complexity and potentiality of the human body in all its functions is a subject about which a great deal must be understood before a person can be accurately guided along the path of self-transformation….The tremendous simplicity of Milarepa’s path of meditation and enlightened attitude has its full counterpart in the vast complexity of what in Buddhist tradition is called ‘relative reality’ – meaning the world of appearances within appearances, even the most superficial of which requires an exceptionally clear mind to see rightly.

“The reader of The Life must therefore resist the tendency to associate the word ‘meditation’ with some physical posture or attitude of mind known to oneself. To think of meditation as the struggle to be aware of oneself is more to the point, but even that can take one only so far in grasping the nature of the discipline that Milarepa created….what Milarepa means by ‘meditation’ is a movement within oneself that is both more accessible and far more subtle and comprehensive than is usually imagined. In fact, it cannot be imagined…

“In the Life of Milarepa we are actually witness to the creation of a spiritual world, an approach to the whole of life. Everything in The Life has a meaning from this point of view. But what that meaning is often lies between the lines…And what is the basic teaching in Milarepa’s conversations with hi sister Peta about sex, marriage and shame? That the only real happiness and self-respect possible for man lies in the purification that results from awareness. As simple and elusive as meditation is, so too is the encompassing vision through which one may enter every aspect of life as a seeker. Certainly, the warmth of feeling that the text engenders in the reader should be sufficient to counter any suggestion that asceticism and self-denial are being held as rigid ideals. Another kind of discipline is communicated, in which the pure energy of all life situations can be collected without violence, blind faith or unnecessary enthusiasm.

“Meditation, considered as the foundation act of spiritual effort in the Vajrayana tradition as transmitted by Milarepa, may also be considered in terms of the possible development within a human being of a link between the Buddha-nature and the ordinary deluded mind. The great idea behind this notion of a relationship between the highest and the lowest in human nature, which (we are told) only the greatest masters have realized, is expressed in the Vajrayana as the essential identity of nirvana and samsara: nirvana is the understanding of samsara!” ( xv-xix)

[Ani Drubgyudma: This realization when stabilized, in light of living experiential as a human being, is someone who is indeed a Master of Interdependence who dances easily on the razor’s edge of Totality.

When practicing the advanced practices one is stabilizing neither attachment to, or rejection of, the Eight Worldly Winds of ordinary human beings – joy and sorrow, praise and blame, gain and loss, fame and defamation.

It is as Milarepa said, “What is the fruit of our great practice. The absence of fear and expectation.”]