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Milarepa: A Warrior's Life
The yogi Milarepa lived in Tibet during the eleventh century. A famous religious figure in the development of Buddhism, Milarepa is also one of the greatest folk heroes of the Tibetan people. In modern times, his life story and beautiful songs have become well known throughout the world. We might regard
Milarepa's life as a mythical tale of a saint or a superhuman person, but there is another approach that we could take. During his own lifetime, Milarepa was considered to be such a highly developed person that many of his students felt that his achievement was far beyond their own abilities. Milarepa seemed to find his students' attitude both somewhat touching and amusing, and he would regard any modern deification in a similar manner. He always reminded his disciples that he came from a humble background and that he had achieved his understanding and realization of the dharma by a simple, straightforward process that was possible for any human being to follow—through the application of effort and devotion. He encouraged his disciples to do as he had done. For us, his life story is similarly an invitation to follow his example.
It is said that the path of dharma is good at the beginning, good in the middle,
and good at the end. Good in this instance does not mean "ideal" or free from obstacles and suffering. Goodness is the quality of genuineness that we discover as practitioners of meditation. At the beginner's level,
genuineness is applying wholehearted dedication and diligence to our practice.
When we start out, it is necessary to apply one hundred percent effort to working with our confusion and developing the foundation of discipline. That kind of energy never ceases, but taking the first step in that direction is extremely important. In the middle, goodness or genuineness
has to do with our relationship with our teacher, who is the embodiment of the genuineness
that we are striving for. At this stage, surrendering to the teacher is the most important step we can take. So genuineness
here takes the form of complete devotion.
At the end, genuineness
means that we have completely identified with the teachings, so much so that we can no longer speak of any separation. We have overcome any form of self-deception,
and we are completely ourselves. At this level, the quality of genuineness is relaxed and confident and extremely powerful, absolutely skilled in working with things as they are. The final attainment of genuineness is thus the embodiment of compassion, and it expresses itself as buddha activity. In
Milarepa's life story we see the complete unfolding of these three stages.
This kind of development can also be described as the birth, training, and fruition,
or attainment of the Warrior. It might seem odd to talk about Buddhist practitioners as "warriors," since buddhadharma is synonymous with
Yet in the Buddhist scriptures, many of the great teachers and the Buddha himself are frequently described as great warriors.
warrior, in this sense, is someone who is not afraid of himself or herself and who is also fully dedicated to wakefulness and to helping others. Not being afraid means being willing to acknowledge one's own confusion and suffering.
The warrior sees that the anger, hatred, lust, jealousy, and ignorance in the world are enemies of wakefulness and compassion. He or she also sees that false beliefs about oneself and clinging to those beliefs are what generate the endless cycle of passion, aggression, and ignorance—three poisons. So the illusion of ego is the Warrior's fundamental enemy.
The tools of the dharmic warrior are discipline and dedication and, most importantly, gentleness, which is the essence of nonaggression. By joining these attributes with meditation and devotion to the teacher, the warrior forges an invincible weapon of compassionate action. Along the path, one encounters many obstacles of self-deception. One is bound to make mistakes,
which are part of the learning process. The warrior must be willing to acknowledge his or her errors and to learn from them. What characterizes the warrior is the fearless energy to go forward, which he or she learns to join together with sanity and concern for the welfare of others.
Milarepa's life exemplifies the development and attainment of warriorship. His life began in very difficult circumstances. When Milarepa was only seven years old, his father died suddenly, and the family was left in the care of Mila's aunt and uncle. They were extremely cruel and scheming people, so much so that they treated the family as servants and stole the entire inheritance. Milarepa's mother had been known to her neighbors as a kind and generous woman, but when she found herself a servant in her own home, she could think of nothing but revenge. Her only thought for her son was that he might grow up to be a powerful person who could help her to reclaim the family's wealth and position.
As a loving and dedicated son, Milarepa felt that he should help his mother. As a first step, Milarepa left his village to study reading and writing. This was quite unusual for a person of his means, but he realized that without training he could do little. He proved to be a very good student, and his natural talent and energy thrived on his studies. He enjoyed this formal learning very much and might have continued his schooling, but his mother kept reminding him of their situation, and she urged him to apprentice himself to a teacher of black magic who could teach him spells to exact revenge on his aunt and uncle.
Milarepa joined a group of young men traveling in search of a tutor. He was quite curious about magic, as well as wanting to please his mother. He and his companions journeyed until they found a magician who was highly respected as a master of the black arts. When they arrived at the teacher's farm, each student made an offering and asked for instruction. While the others presented small gifts, Milarepa gave all of his possessions and offered his body, speech, and mind. The teacher accepted all of the travelers as his students. For the first year, he taught them only insignificant magic, such as little spells to make thunder and lightning. At the end of the year, the other students returned home, believing there was nothing further to learn. Milarepa remained, and for a second time, he requested that the magician teach him the black arts. The man was extremely impressed by his student's perseverance. He thought to himself,
"Here is a student who sincerely desires to learn." He decided to teach him everything he knew and even thought about sending Mila to study with another magician who knew even more powerful spells.
Milarepa progressed swiftly in his studies of magic. He learned to control the natural energies around him and could call on guardian deities to carry out his commands. When he became confident of his strength, he turned his thoughts to his village and to the plight of his mother and sister. Using magical incantations, he called up giant scorpions as well as the local deities and sent them to the home of his aunt and uncle. When the guardian deities returned, they carried with them the heads of thirty-five people who had been attending a wedding celebration in the house. The scorpions had uprooted the pillars of the house, causing the roof to collapse, killing everyone except
Mila's aunt and uncle.
At this point, Milarepa had developed quite a lot of skill in working with the phenomenal world. Of course, his approach was extremely misguided. He had learned to combat violence with violence, which has been a crude strategy for working with our problems for a very long time. Mila had not yet understood that his own aggression could only breed further destruction and misery. So,
although in some sense Milarepa had become accomplished and powerful, he had not yet learned how to actually help someone else. He had not yet discovered the greater power of the dharma or the truth of nonaggression, which transcends clinging to primitive beliefs about oneself or others. Without this clarity or insight of egolessness, his actions might bring some immediate relief or victory to his family, but ultimately they could only lead to further suffering. Ironically, the apparent source of Milarepa's suffering, his aunt and uncle, were left alive. Later in his life, they became important reminders of the futility of his aggression.
Milarepa knew that the villagers would be angry about what he had done and that the lives of his mother and sister would be endangered. So he used his magical powers again. This time, he conjured up a hailstorm that descended onto the fields in the village, destroying the crops and leaving huge gullies in the earth. The villagers realized that this was his work as well. Although they were still very angry, they were also afraid of Mila and left his family alone.
Mila had accomplished what he had set out to do, fulfilling his mother's desire for revenge, yet he didn't feel any satisfaction. In fact, he began to sense that there was something missing in his life, Milarepa's intent had been to master the arts of magic in order to avenge the wrongs done to his family. However,
the most valuable qualities he had mastered were actually his sincerity,
bravery, and resourcefulness. His belief in violence as a solution began to fall apart, but his sense of basic discipline remained. The degradation of his life and his own aggression began to dawn on him. He experienced great remorse for all the harm he had caused. Finally, it occurred to him that there might be another way to overcome evil and misery. His desire to discover such a path grew, and he began to think of finding a teacher who could show him this way.