(27 October, 2014 – Delhi) His Holiness the 17th Karmapa was chief speaker at an all-day symposium on the songs of awakening of Milarepa, Tibet’s most widely revered “yogin par excellence,” as he was described during the event. The day’s exploration of Milarepa’s poetic works was co-hosted by the International Buddhist Confederation and the Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters.
It served as an extension of IBC’s event on Milarepa earlier this year IBC’s event on Milarepa , at which His Holiness the Karmapa had delivered teachings on the life of Milarepa.
The Gyalwang Karmapa prefaced his discourse on the songs of Milarepa by chanting homages to Buddha Shakyamuni and to Milarepa himself. He noted that the organizers had requested that he discuss the poetic style of Milarepa’s songs of awakening, yet claimed that he himself was not sufficiently learned in the art of poetics to deliver such a discourse. However, as someone who had a long personal connection to the songs of Milarepa, the Gyalwang Karmapa said he could make some remarks regarding the aesthetic experience of reading the poetic works of the great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa. He then gave the following teaching on the emotional impact of Milarepa’s songs and the transmission of meaning that they impart:
“I have been studying the songs of Milarepa since a very early age, and have developed some familiarity with them. Therefore I can share some thoughts on the basis of the feeling that is inspired by the songs.
“One aspect of Milarepa’s life that stands out as particularly moving is the guru-disciple relationship between Marpa and Milarepa. Their relationship is striking for the great affection between them, yet at the same time it is also quite an intimidating relationship. As we all know, when Milarepa approached Lord Marpa, Marpa did not immediately grant him Dharma instructions, but rather put him through tremendous hardships, including having him build various structures.
“Milarepa’s fortitude and forbearance in the face of such obstacles inspire in us a sense of admiration and amazement. Yet what is even more admirable and amazing to me is how Milarepa dwelt in solitude in remote mountain caves following Marpa’s meditation instructions, without a single thought for food, clothing or fame, bent unwaveringly on accomplishing the path within a single lifetime.
“Although Milarepa had no material offerings to make to Marpa, he had his intense practice. He made his practice the most valuable offering and offered it to his guru as an expression of his devotion and heartfelt gratitude.
“In one of his songs, Milarepa describes how he dwelt in barren and uninhabited places, with no company but the wind and wild animals. With no one to talk to, as a human being with human emotions, at times he felt lonely and sad. Milarepa sang that the feeling of sadness was there to stay. He said, as the seasons pass by—spring, summer, autumn and winter—in this place with no sound but the howling of the wind and the call of wild animals, even with this feeling of loneliness and sadness, when I turn my mind to the presence of my omniscient master, inseparable from the Buddha, and unite my mind with him, there is also the experience of unceasing joy and bliss.
“This shows us where Milarepa drew the strength to endure his life of solitude in harsh environments. We can feel his unwavering devotion and faith in his guru Marpa, and the mental sustenance he gained from the experience of being united with the awakened mind of his guru.
“There is an account of his singing a song of awakening entitled ‘Six Ways of Recollecting the Kind Guru.’ At one point in his practice of austerities, Milarepa had the thought that perhaps his way of life had become too extreme. He did not have even the minimum provisions, and thought he must make a foray out from his cave to look at least for twigs to make a fire. He did not have proper clothes, but just enough cloth covering him for the sake of decency. The wind was blowing harshly and as he began collecting twigs, the bit of cloth he wore was carried off by the wind. As Milarepa bent to pick up the bit of cotton that served as his only garment, the bundle of twigs slipped from his hands. As he grasped at the twigs, he lost his grip on the cotton cloth. The thought arose in his mind: ‘Such is the futility of all samsaric phenomena.’
“He at first took this as an indication that he should return to ground himself more deeply in meditation. But then on second thought he felt he should first make an effort to collect more twigs. As he was doing so, a branch broke and knocked him to the ground. Since his body was weakened by his life of austerities, he fell unconscious. He lay unconscious for a few hours, and by the time he regained awareness, a cool breeze was touching him and the sun had begun to go down. It seems his guru was residing off in the direction of the sun and Milarepa awoke with the memory of his guru intensely present in his mind.
“In this song of awakening, Milarepa sang, ‘How wonderful it would be to meet Marpa right now.’ The feeling he expresses is that even now, if he were to meet Marpa and Marpa were to tell him to build another tower, he would be happy. Even though he was old and feeble, he would be delighted to construct another building on his command. Milarepa used to help Marpa’s consort Dagmema around the house, and he also expresses his yearning to be able to assist her with the household chores, weak though his body had become.
“We can see that these songs are not intellectual or philosophical discourses. Nor is this is a poetry of words. Rather it is an expression of the profound relationship and the unshakeable devotion and commitment that Milarepa felt.
“The power of his poetry is such that we ourselves can feel that Milarepa’s devotion is not something conditional, which one feels when the conditions are right but otherwise one does not have. It is not as if when things are difficult, one experiences it, but when things are going well one does not.
“In Milarepa’s case, happy or sad, sad or happy, under any and all circumstances, his experience of devotion and confidence in Marpa was unwavering. Milarepa’s mind could not be parted from his experience of devotion and faith. That devotion formed a part of the very fabric of his mind, so much so that even many centuries later, when we read the songs of Milarepa or listen to them today, not only does it bring before us the images of such times but it also evokes powerful emotions in us.
“Milarepa’s poetry is not a poetry of philosophy. It is not a poetry of words of ideas. Rather, it is a poetry of the transmission of meaning. As such, it impacts us and inspires us to this day.”