The Hermit-Milarepa

The Hermit is the most outstanding Arcanum of the Tarot—yea, it bespeaks the very nature of the hermetic-spirit. It is the ideal of spiritual-awakening and the advice is quite simple—look inward. The image of a tortoise that withdraws into its shell is brought to mind here, for just so must the eremitical hermit withdraw from outside influences and take refuge in the stillpoint within. By turning inward and reassessing the situation from the Noble-Contemplative vantage-point, one realigns with the Noble Light of Truth. Perhaps the greatest Buddhist illustration of this Eremitic Principle is the great Milarepa, the charismatic Tibetan hermit-poet. A general outline of his life and significance is in order:

The most famous and beloved of Tibetan YOGINs. Although he is associated most closely with the BKA’ BRGYUD sect of Tibetan Buddhism, he is revered throughout the Tibetan cultural domain for his perseverance through hardship, his ultimate attainment of buddhahood in one lifetime, and for his beautiful songs. The most famous account of his life (the MI LA RAS PA’I RNAM THAR, or “The Life of Milarepa”) and collection of spiritual songs (MI LA’I MGUR ’BUM, or “The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa”) are extremely popular throughout the Tibetan world. The themes associated with his life story— purification of past misdeeds, faith and devotion to the GURU, ardor in meditation and yogic practice, and the possibility of attaining buddhahood despite the sins of his youth— have inspired developments in Buddhist teaching and practice in Tibet. Mi la was his clan name; ras pa is derived from the single cotton robe (ras) worn by Tibetan anchorites, an attire Milarepa retained for most of his life. The name is therefore an appellation, “The Cotton-clad Mi la.” Although his dates are the subject of debate, biographies agree that Mi la ras pa was born to a wealthy family in the Gung thang region of southwestern Tibet. He was given the name Thos pa dga’, literally “Delightful to Hear.” At an early age, after the death of his father, the family estate and inheritance were taken away by Mi la ras pa’s paternal aunt and uncle, leaving Mi la ras pa, his mother, and his sister to suffer poverty and disgrace. At the urging of his mother, Mi las ras pa studied sorcery and black magic in order to seek revenge. He was successful in his studies, causing a roof to collapse during a wedding party hosted by his relatives, with many killed. Eventually feeling remorse and recognizing the karmic consequences of his deeds, he sought salvation through the practice of Buddhism. After brief studies with several masters, he met MAR PA CHOS KYI BLO GROS, who would become his root guru. Mar pa was esteemed for having traveled to India, where he received valuable tantric instructions. However, Mar pa initially refused to teach Mi la ras pa, subjecting him to all forms of verbal and physical abuse. He made him undergo various ordeals, including constructing single-handedly several immense stone towers (including the final tower built for Mar pa’s son called SRAS MKHAR DGU THOG, or the “nine-storied son’s tower”). When Mi la ras pa was at the point of despair and about to abandon all hope of receiving the teachings, Mar pa then revealed that the trials were a means of purifying the negative KARMAN of his black magic that would have prevented him from successfully practicing the instructions. Mar pa bestowed numerous tantric initiations and instructions, especially those of MAHĀMUDRĀ and the practice of GTUM MO, or “inner heat,” together with the command to persevere against all hardship while meditating in solitary caves and mountain retreats. He was given the initiation name Bzhad pa rdo rje (Shepa Dorje). Mi la ras pa spent the rest of his life practicing meditation in seclusion and teaching small groups of yogin disciples through poetry and songs of realization. He had little interest in philosophical discourse and no tolerance for intellectual pretension; indeed, several of his songs are rather sarcastically directed against the conceits of monastic scholars and logicians. He was active across southern Tibet, and dozens of locations associated with the saint have become important pilgrimage sites and retreat centers; their number increased in the centuries following his death. Foremost among these are the hermitages at LA PHYI, BRAG DKAR RTA SO, CHU DBAR, BRIN, and KAILĀSA. Bhutanese tradition asserts that he traveled as far as the STAG TSHANG sanctuary in western Bhutan. Foremost among Milarepa’s disciples were SGAM PO PA BSOD NAMS RIN CHEN and RAS CHUNG PA RDO RJE GRAGS. According to his biography, Mi la ras pa was poisoned by a jealous monk. Although he had already achieved buddhahood and was unharmed by the poison, he allowed himself to die. His life story ends with his final instructions to his disciples, the account of his miraculous cremation, and of how he left no relics despite the pleas of his followers…

The account of Milarepa’s life profoundly affected the development of sacred biography in Tibet, a prominent genre in Tibetan Buddhist culture, and has influenced the way in which Tibet’s Buddhism and culture have been understood in the West.

(Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.  Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

His hermetic life is chiefly what interests us, and the accounts of his dwelling in a mountain cave subsisting only on nettles—so much so that his body turned green after digesting such a meager substance, is inspiring. Most austere indeed, yet it was this period that marked the beginning of his “Hundred Thousand Songs”—one such example and exegesis can be found in our series from the Hermit’s Den.

The way of the world is illusion:
I strive after true reality.
To be moved by earthly possessions is illusion:
I endeavour to rise above duality.
To be the world’s servant is illusion:
I wander in the mountains alone.
Wealth and possessions are illusion:
I renounce for the sake of the faith any I may have.
External things are illusion:
I contemplate the mind.
Distinctive thought is illusion:
I follow after sapience.
Conditional truth is illusion:
I dispose the absolute truth.
The printed book is illusion:
I meditate upon the counsels of the ear-whispered tradition.
Philosophical argument is illusion:
I study at length that which is unfeigned.
Both birth and death are illusion:
I contemplate the deathless truth.
Ordinary knowledge is illusion:
I exercise myself in wisdom.
The delight of mental thought is illusion:
I dwell in the state of reality.

Illusion is the way of the world
Only the Dharmadhātu is Real
To be moved by mundane possessions is to be held in bondage
There is neither High nor Low, thus transcend all dualities
To serve the things of the world is to remain an indentured servant
Solitude is the best course
True wealth is to be free from all POSSESSED-sions
Renouncing all of them assures faithful abidance in the Buddhadharma
The outer-external show is a one-way ticket to perdition
Contemplate Mind Only and be free even from the illusion of freedom
All discriminatory associations will drive you mad
Wisdom ain’t always pretty but it won’t steer you wrong
Conditioned realities are lies of the devil
Absolute Necessity is the way of the Unborn
Words come and go
The whispered inner-ear tradition (Dhammasota) remains forever
Philosophies only produce more and more arguments
Instead, study That which is uncontrived and the Lone Truth
Samsara harbors an endless array of tears
Deathlessness is pure Nirvana
Worldly knowledge is a deceitful companion
Delighting in cognition is to remain a fool
Simply rest in the stateless state of the Dharmadhātu.

Milarepa’s ability to sustain his existence in that frigid mountain cave was due mainly to his siddhic ability to generate tummo, or “vital heat,” a Tantric discipline by which he was able to keep his body quite warm despite the biting cold. He rejoiced in his effort:

The falling snow enclosed my house of meditation.
Dakinis [i.e. goddesses] gave me food and sustenance.
The water of Snow Mountain was the purest draught.
All was done without effort.
There is no need to farm where there is no demand for food.
My store is full without preparation or hoarding.
By observing my own mind, all things are seen;
By sitting in a solitary place, the royal throne is reached.

It needs to be stressed that he was never in favor of general monastic life, for his teachings extended to and inspired innumerable lay disciples, including women. Our text from MOTT reinforces this charisma based on the Arcanum of the Hermit:

Truth to tell, it is the “contemplatives” who bear consciously and voluntarily the bulk of the responsibility for the spiritual route of the boat and for the spiritual well-being both of its crew and its passengers. Contemplative”, for these orders, signifies spiritual endeavour and spiritual responsibility, whilst “contemplative” in the sense of choosing the pole of contemplation at the expense of the pole of will within the human being means that one prefers the enjoyment of contemplation to the effort of will and action (spiritual or outward) that the latter entails. In fact, one can meet a fair number of people who enjoy the contemplative life. They are almost never from religious orders or orders of so-called contemplatives, but above all are lay-amateurs who are so on their own authority.

The life of Milarepa the Hermit embodies the very quintessence of the eremitical-hermit life. Yea, it bespeaks the nature of spiritual-contentment.

A yogi, I roam the mountains.
Like a great Mandala, my body is full of bliss.
Cleansed of desires and pride, I feel well and happy.
With longing for diversions extinguished, I feel joy in solitude.
Since I have renounced all things, I am happy in a desolate land.
Since I have cut all ties with kin, getting and saving are not worries.
Happy and joyous do I live … without plans or schemes.
I want neither fame nor glory.
Wherever I stay, whatever I wear or eat,
I feel truly content.

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