Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Drinking the Mountain Stream - Introduction

Songs of Tibet’s Beloved Saint, Milarepa

The Buddhist System of Liberation

To define precisely a basic system of Buddhist practice is an impossibility because of the great number of schools and styles both in India and Tibet. However, it is possible to form a general picture of the Buddhist system of the Great Vehicle as explained by Milarepa in many of his songs and stories. Taking into account that his explanation and emphasis varied according to his audience, we can reconstruct a brief “stages of the path” text wherein the basic elements of the Smaller, Great, and Tantric Vehicles are placed into perspective in a consistent, effective system. This shows that even at this early stage in Tibet there was a tendency to integrate the three vehicles and diverse schools of Indian Buddhism into a unified system. The following excerpts are from “Mila’s First Meditation” and “Rechungpa’s Mahāmudrā Pride,” both from the large collection Stories and Songs from the Oral Tradition of Jetsün Milarepa, from which all the material in this book is drawn.

The first step is to understand the leisure and opportunity for liberation provided by well-endowed human life:

This fragile body of flesh and blood endowed with a subjective consciousness results from the twelvefold chain of dependent origination—ignorance and so on. It is the great ship of leisure and opportunity for those endowed with merit and the urge for liberation. However, for the evil-natured who use it to pile up sin upon sin it is a guide leading them to lower states. It stands on the boundary between development and degeneration. I have understood in the nick of time this critical situation, which can lead to lasting good or lasting ill.

Mila explains the general condition of samsara, or cyclic, mundane existence, in this way:

Living beings of the six realms (the life-forms of samsaric existence), afflicted with ignorance and attached to illusory appearances, have been bewildered throughout beginningless samsara. They take what is selfless to be a self—what is egoless to be an ego—and thus are adrift on the ocean of samsaric misery through compulsive attachment to the imprints of evil action.

Every action, every experience, has left its traces imprinted on our minds in the form of “seeds” for the recurrence of such experiences. The primary imprinting is that of ignorance, which engenders the mistaken world view of the existence of egos in persons and identities in things just as they appear to the ordinary individual. In the wake of this mistaken gut feeling about the nature of our experience the afflictive emotions of attraction, aversion, and so on are brought into play.

Now to explain the inner workings of this: beings wander in samsara due to the action of the twelve causal links of dependent origination. First, ignorance—that is, “not knowing,” “not understanding,” “not realizing” (the actual condition of the objects and events of our experience)—provides the condition for the synthetic operation (of the elements of samsaric existence). This process continues up to the inevitable miseries of recurrent birth, sickness, aging, and death.

This chain of dependent origination is the process by which beings are born repeatedly into the samsaric condition with its six life-states: hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, gods, and anti-gods. The state and condition of their births and lives is determined by their re-actions (karma) to experiences in previous lives.

The majority of beings take lower rebirth (as hell beings, hungry ghosts, or animals) through the force of bad action. Such lower states are miserable, and even lives in the (three) higher states have a nature of misery.
The way to correct this sequence is to understand at the beginning the difficulty of obtaining the leisure and opportunity (of well-endowed human life)—that such leisure and opportunity found only once in a hundred births is impermanent and that the time of death is uncertain. You must reflect on the fact that there’s no telling where you’ll be reborn after dying, and since we are inexorably impelled by the force of action, you must consider the cause-effect relationship of action.

So according to Mila, the first step is to have a thorough understanding of the samsaric condition and its causes, to meditate on misery, death, and impermanence to quicken the initial impulse for freedom into a powerful drive for liberation, and to understand that our present human existence is the best possible opportunity for overthrowing the oppression of ignorance and achieving such liberation.

Motivated by these understandings one then enters the door of actual Buddhist practice:

For protection from lower births Caused by the force of evil deeds,
Lama and the Triple Gem are the sole refuge.

In all Buddhist schools the beginner takes refuge in the Triple Gem consisting of the Buddha, who is able to guide others through his own freedom from samsara (saṁsāra), the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (the community of practitioners). This refuge doesn’t involve a denial of worldly pursuits but places them in perspective with regard to these effective guides to liberation. Since the Triple Gem cannot at first be a living presence to us, the lama (guru) is their living representative. Thus in Tibet the lama is placed first in importance even to the buddhas, for it is through him that we’ll eventually meet the buddhas. Mila calls this understanding of commitment to a lama “the first key of great importance.”

After this it’s necessary to rely on a basis constituted by whichever of the vows for personal liberation are appropriate (to oneself), with an urge for liberation from samsara compelled by reflection on death, impermanence, the cause-effect relationship of action, and the difficulty of finding the leisure and opportunity (of human life again).

The commitment to personal liberation (prāṭimokśa) refers to the vows of the Small Vehicle, which serve as guidelines for behavior conducive to nirvana, one’s own liberation from misery. Hence the name “Small Vehicle”— one that can carry just oneself. It’s necessary to expand this motivation further. The Great Vehicle encompasses all sentient beings in its scope, for in fact, all life is inextricably bound together, and the struggle for enlightenment must be pursued for the sake of everyone. Mila explains this as follows:

I understand that such orientation toward one’s own peace and happiness constitutes the Small Vehicle, and that the Great Vehicle involves dedication of all one’s activities for the welfare of others with the love and compassion of the mind aimed at enlightenment by the desire to liberate all beings from samsara.

This emphasis on the mind aimed at enlightenment (bodhicitta) distinguishes the Great Vehicle from the Small Vehicle. It is the sine qua non of Great Vehicle practice, for the penetrating wisdom by which we will eventually see the true void condition of all things must be balanced by the love and compassion of the mind-for-enlightenment in order to yield the perfect, nonexclusive freedom from samsara known as enlightenment. Even in the Tantric Vehicle, which is a refinement in method but basically the same in philosophy as the Great Vehicle, the mind-for-enlightenment is a necessary prerequisite for practice. The Sanskrit term for this, bodhicitta, can be defined as the condition of mind wherein all actions are performed spontaneously for the benefit of all. It is almost an instinctive drive for one’s own freedom so that one may have the ability to guide others. On the other hand, bodhicitta is not itself directly productive of liberation, for unless tempered by wisdom it will only bind the practitioner more tightly to samsara.

Persons traveling a path involving generation of this mind-for-enlightenment through tantric or nontantric methods are called bodhisattvas, or “enlightenment warriors.” (Sanskrit sattva means “living being,” but has the secondary meaning of heroic or courageous, and is rendered thus in the Tibetan.) Mila sums it up in this way:

Having conceived of samsara as a prison, understand that all beings lost in it are none other than our own parents who have given us birth throughout beginningless time. With love and compassion for those lost in samsara, generate the mind aimed at supreme enlightenment for the sake of their liberation.

Then ride the great waves of practices aimed at enlightenment: the three basic path-practices, the four social means, and the six transcendences, thus compiling the two stores and purifying the two obscurations.

This passage summarizes the main practices of the Great Vehicle. The three basic practices comprise morality as behavioral practice, and concentration and wisdom as mental practices. The four social means—giving, relevant communication, assisting the development of others, and serving as an example for their inspiration—are practices oriented primarily toward the welfare of others. The six transcendences—giving, moral behavior, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom—are practiced primarily for one’s own development, although of course in the Great Vehicle there is no exclusive self-interest.

These practices have a double effect. First, they increase the two stores of personal power—the store of merit based on ethical behavior and proper performance of ritual, and the store of gnosis based on examination of the samsaric condition and its correction, from the first intellectual gleanings up to transcendent, supramundane wisdom beyond the range of words and thoughts. Secondly, they reduce the two obscurations—the obscuration of afflictive mental states, which blocks realization of nirvana, and the objective obscuration, which masks the reality of things, thus blocking the omniscience of perfect buddhahood.

Mila explains how the six transcendences, particularly those of concentration and wisdom, must be coordinated in a systematic practice of the path:

Giving, moral behavior, and patience are the means of compiling the store of merit. Concentration and wisdom are the means of compiling the store of gnosis. Effort furthers all of them. The highest gnosis is the very mind of buddha. Those wishing to obtain it should apply themselves to these various methods.

Special attention is given to the development of concentration and wisdom. Basic meditation may be divided into that of focusing, or quieting the mind, through one-pointed concentration and the analytic process of generating wisdom through transcendent insight. This quieting, known in Sanskrit as śamatha, is so called because by one-pointed concentration the activity of the mind is stilled. As certain mental functions are altered, the mind assumes different, meta-stable modes of operation. These eight “different modes” are termed absorption levels (dhyāna) and are similar in both Buddhist and Hindu mental cosmology. They are entirely samsaric, though of a much more refined nature than ordinary consciousness, and are the range of the traditional yogi’s meditation. By practicing these states, all yogis receive their powers and bliss.

Because of the mental pleasure and supernormal powers they confer, the absorption levels can be construed as a path to liberation, which they are not. They are rather the solid bases from which the transcendent mental leap to direct confrontation of voidness through wisdom can occur. Since they are more developed and tranquil than ordinary mental operation, they are like the glass chimney of an oil lamp, steadying the tiny flame of wisdom against the winds of afflictive mental functionings.

Wisdom is developed by the practice of insight, a process of examination and analysis of our perceptions, a pressing of the intellect to the limits of its range until the flash of direct experience of reality occurs. This is the experience of the egolessness of persons and the voidness, or lack of identities, in things. It is the only meditational state capable of clearing the traces of experience that give rise to afflictive mental states and illusions about reality. Thus the practice of insight exceeds the practice of quieting, which can merely suppress the active forms of afflictive mental states.

The yogi must travel five paths to enlightenment. The process of compiling the two stores of merit and gnosis is the accumulation path, and the meditational application of these two stores to direct perception of voidness is the application path. The direct perception of voidness itself is the path of seeing, and the development and repeated application of such direct perception to clear the compulsive action of the imprintings of experience is termed the “meditation path.” The final elimination of all traces of the two obscurations is the final path, or path beyond practice, equivalent to buddhahood. Mila sums it up:

In brief, the basis is faith, the assistor is effort, the antidote is the acquisition (of virtue) and expiation (of sin), the direct cause is the integration of wisdom with method (the active aspect of the mind-for-enlightenment), and the subsidiary cause is the practice of the accumulation and application paths. When the path of seeing is thereby attained, that is the direct experience of the wisdom of insight.

With attainment of the path of seeing, the bodhisattva-warrior stands on the first of ten bodhisattva stages, and after traversing them one by one attains the eleventh stage, the stage of enlightenment.

Milarepa’s Personal Style



As mentioned before, and as the stories will show, Milarepa was an unusual, almost eccentric, personality. His revelations of the nature of illusion and reality and of the keys to effective practice were always penetrating and to the point. The stories attest to the severity of the hardships he endured and the extreme to which he pushed himself in practice. This excerpt from the “Six Secret Songs” is a good example. It’s a version of Milarepa’s “ultimate precept,” this time given to Rechungpa:

While staying in the miracle cave (of Ti Se mountain) Jetsün Milarepa said to Rechungpa, “You’ve obtained the precepts of the Ḍakiṇīs’ Ear-Whispered Tantras to complete the transmission of my instructional lineage. Now you must practice them to achieve results in this lifetime.”

Rechungpa asked him, “Please sing me a song expressing the key for obtaining the supreme siddhi (enlightenment) in this lifetime.”

Jetsün replied, “My ultimate precept is this,” and he turned around, exposing his buttocks, which were prominently covered with lumps of hard callus from long periods of sitting meditation. Seeing this, Rechungpa was overwhelmed with immense admiration and respect for the austerities in practice endured by his lama. Tears welled up in his eyes and he thought with conviction, “I, too, must practice like this.”


How to cite this document:
© Brian Cutillo and Lama Kunga Thartse Rinpoche, Drinking the Mountain Stream (Wisdom Publications, 1995)

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