Milarepa speaks to spirits
At this point, I’m just working on the songs of Milarepa. These songs are couched in stories, the events in the life of Milarepa. The basic story is that he had a rough childhood, had to work very hard for some cruel relatives, did some bad stuff to get revenge, and then sought redemption for his bad deeds (black magic, in his case). Soon enough, he’d found a teacher who put him through various trials. Milarepa did not give up. He persisted just to get dharma instruction. That’s worth keeping in mind- these days it’s impossibly easy to pick up a book on meditation, or read it for almost free online. So, two thing- there have been times when people sweated blood just to get basic instructions. There may be something of value to that (the ease of superficially absorbing the teachings versus what is really earned through hard work).
Once Milarepa finally convinced his teacher to instruct him, after many trials (and I’m not totally clear on this part, it may actually have been the teacher’s wife, Dagmema, who convinced the teacher, Marpa, to relent and teach the student). Then Milarepa basically spent the rest of his life in retreat, practicing, often in caves.
Looking briefly at the life of Milarepa, he has a few types of songs that come up again and again. Obviously, this work should just be taken literally. Milarepa speaks to his patrons and common people who admire him, and want to make offerings to him. Maybe this is something like how people revere some politicians, or political activists. So clearly the culture gap is at play here: reading about Milarepa you’re in medeival Tibet. Obviously there’s something to be learned, but the antiquity of it can be an obstacle.
But speaking to patrons and ordinary people is one kind of song. Speaking to his close students is another kind of song, similar to the former. Finally, we have interactions with spirits, ghosts, demons, and so forth. There’s a lot of that as well. Without knowing much about the life of Milarepa, it’s safe to say that interacts a lot with ordinary villagers, some rich patrons, students, and nonhuman beings. Usually the nonhuman beings threaten him, bother him, try to disrupt his meditation or cause problems for him. Often once he sings to them, or once they’ve sung back and forth to each other, he will convert the spirits, who will renounce their evil ways and become dharma practitioners in their own right.
Now there’s a lot going on right there, to be looked at. When Milarepa sings to someone or something, he’s singing to us, as we read it. That means you are the rich patron, or the ordinary farmer, being admonished to give up attachment to worldly life, or being given instruction. It means you’re the demon or ghost, a turbulent and neurotic being dead set on causing chaos for others (but also capable of turning it around). On the other hand, as you read the songs, you’re also Milarepa, which is something of a miracle. In spite of the fact that most Western yogis and/or dharma practitioners don’t do a lot of retreat time (even the months some people rack up in a lifetime, which is considerable and very beneficial and worthwhile are nothing compared to the decades or austere practice Milarepa accomplished). But, somehow, through language, you’re able to become in some sense this vastly accomplished ascetic yogi.
That’s an interesting point too- you hear often when Western teachers talk about the Buddhist path how it is NOT ascetic, how the Buddha turned away from asceticism and discovered a way to live a basic lifestyle and become awakened without torturing himself or putting his body through the mill. But somehow ascetics and yogis are part the Buddhist pantheon or path. The first thing I get from that is that Buddhism is really vast. There’s room for the beings who can meditate for fifty years in a cave, and there’s room for people who want to just bow to a shrine as they walk past on the way to work. Buddhism constantly implodes oversimplification.
In the following song, Milarepa is speaking to some spirits. I don’t see myself including the prose parts of the story for most of these. Just doing some of the songs will be enough of a challenge.
I take refuge in all the gurus
and pay homage.
By using mirages and illusions,
you demons create fantastic terrors.
You sorry beings, hungry ghosts,
you’ll never harm me.
Because your bad karma has fully ripened,
you’ve become demons in this life.
You’ll wander in space the entire time
with hideous minds and bodies.
Driven by fiery kleshas
your minds are filled with aggressive and vicious thoughts.
Both your deeds and your words are poisonous and destructive.
Take, for example,
when you screamed that you would kill me,
chop me up into pieces, cut me up!
I am a yogi free from thoughts,
knowing that there is no such thing as mind.
Walking valiantly as a lion,
being fearless and brave
my body merges with the body of the buddha.
My words are true like the words of the tathagata.
My mind is absorbed in the realm of the primordial buddhahood.
I clearly see that the six consciousnesses and the six sense objects
are empty by nature.
A yogi such as myself simply ignores
the abuse of spirits.
If the law of cause and effect is valid,
and you do things deserving of it,
the force of ripened karma will drive you
down the path of suffering, misery, and grief.
It is really distressing that you spirits don’t understand!
Now let me, Milarepa,
tell you- let me preach the dharma to you.
All sentient beings are my mothers and fathers.
To hurt those we should be grateful to
is truly senseless.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful
if you were to renounce your negative thoughts?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful
if you were to practice the ten virtues?
Remember this, ponder the meaning.
Exert yourselves and carefully consider it.
Note that Milarepa uses his own name a lot, and the name is mentioned quite a bit by others. It just shows up a lot. This might not be an accident. Note also that he is always telling students and spirits alike to remember and think about what he is saying. The latter could be expanded a lot, I think. Meditation is sometimes translated as “remembering.” Mindfulness as remembering.