The Tantrik or esoteric schools of Buddhism were propagated from India into China as well, but there is a marked difference between the Chinese and Tibetan schools.
The Tantrism of China derives from Yogachara and its discipline is concerned with mantras, mudras, occult practices concerning the psychic centres of the body, and so on. But it had left India before the so-called Left-hand schools developed: in China (and the living Shingon sect in Japan today) there were no goddesses and no representation of high Buddhist concepts in sexual terms. Whereas in Tibet, with its background of shamanism and magic, the later introductions of Tantrism tended to degenerate towards Left-hand doctrines and practices.
A great reform by Tson-kha-pa in the fourteenth century still could not altogether stamp out a tendency to express the highest goal through the image of conjugation. The dominant sects of Lamaism derive from this reform; the Kargyutpa school represents an earlier attempt at reform which was only partially successful.
Schools proclaiming non-duality have to find means of resolving a certain knotty point. This is, that independent reality is not conceded to the world as at present experienced, and the spiritual teachings and practices are received by the disciple as part of his world-experience. Intellectuals tend to understand this as meaning that the practices are illusory; and that taking them as absolutely real is perpetuating the world-illusion. They therefore rely more and more on intellectual concept-forming, and denigrate devotional practices as “compromises with non-duality” (though happily, continuing to take household articles as practically real).
Emotional people pour their energy into the practices given, which become absolutely real (though they continue to pay lip-service to a remote ideal of non-duality). They tend to become wholly absorbed and to be satisfied with harmony within the currents of Maya.
Skilful teachers are necessary to keep the balance; disciples tend for a long time to swing wildly from one extreme to the other, each time with a faint feeling of having been “deceived”.
Tantrism (in Buddhism and outside it) was one attempt at a solution, intended for people who have predominance of rajas (power- and pleasure-desire) in their personality. The intense consciousness of the physical body is sublimated into repetition of mantras, into gestures and postures, into concentration on the chakras or psychic centres.
Experiences which come are to be realized as projections of the mind of the disciple, or, later on, as projections of the universal mind. They have to be resolved ultimately, but until they can be resolved, the disciple has to sacrifice the animal instincts and acquire samadhi through rigid control, while worshipping his guru and practising the mantra and the other exercises. The basis of the practices is worship of Maya, which is taken as the creative and destructive energy of the Lord, in Vedanta, and almost the same in Buddhism.
A danger of Tantrism is that the practices multiply and with them experiences, so that pupils may become lost in them. Then there can be a decline into Left-hand practices, as happened on a large scale in Tibet with the yab-yum conjugation concept, and (though on a very minor scale) even in China and Japan. It means that individuality is not finally transcended— though it may be momentarily lost or forgotten through meditation or other means.
In the biographical Songs of Milarepa we can see the essential role of a skilled teacher. Milarepa as a boy practised sorcery in order to revenge himself for an injury to his family. After succeeding in this, he repented and managed to get accepted as a disciple by Marpa, who treated him with extreme harshness and bewildered him with contradictory instructions. Three times Milarepa left him, but returned. He was later told that the hardships imposed on him had been penances for the wrongs he had done by his sorcery. His guru was a householder, but strictly enjoined Milarepa to five in solitude in the mountains.
Besides the instructions on Realization, he gave him numerous Tantrik exercises, among them practices by which he could keep warm in the snowy mountains while wearing only cotton. (He never quite lost a child-like pride in this accomplishment.) The guru then dismissed him to the snows.
After long meditations under most difficult conditions, at times with almost no food, his body was like a skeleton. As in the case of the Buddha, a woman appeared and gave him some good food. After eating it he began to recover, and flashes of inspiration appeared. He sometimes found he was flying, and had other extraordinary experiences. The numerous supernatural events in the Songs will be taken by sceptical Europeans as illusions, and by credulous Europeans as real to the last detail; the formal Buddhist view is that they are mostly illusions, but may in rare cases have the same reality as normal world-experience, and in any case are mostly of little help in spiritual progress. The main reason, as given repeatedly in the Songs, is that when a disciple has them, he nearly goes mad with excitement and personal pride, became he identifies himself with them and believes he has mastered Maya. But he can never master the whole of Maya.
He finally attained a full realization, and took pupils if they came to him. In the main he followed his guru’s command and remained in the mountains, though he occasionally visited villages.
The Songs are rather uneven in level; a number of them are probably composed by disciples or others to honour him. Such include contests with magicians in flying and other magical feats; Milarepa invariably wins, and celebrates his victories with a sort of artless boasting,—“I, the yogi of Tibet, with my strength, the strength of Milarepa . . . conquer the magicians . . .” and so on. This might be the elation (well known in all mystic schools) of a student who has had one unusual experience and feels that he has conquered all—when the ego swells with excitement; but perhaps they are by someone trying to imagine what it would be like to be a realized man.
Quite different are others of the Songs, and in them there is the genuine ring. When he was meditating in a cave, he felt his foot caught by a she-demon in the form of a red bitch. He sang of the sun and moon in heaven, praying that they be not eclipsed; of the snow-lioness, gallant and invincible, that she be not overwhelmed by storm; of the snow-tigress, that she be not caught in a trap; of the great vulture, queen of birds who never takes the life of others, that she be not caught in a net. The demon answers,
“The moon and the sun circle, and with ease give out beams of light;
Were they not dazzled by their own glowing rays
How could the eclipse affect them?
The snow-lioness, the queen of the beasts . . .
The hurricanes and storms would not have afflicted her
Had she not become too proud and arrogant.
. . . The mountain tigress . . . with pride she boasts of conquests with her claws;
Were she not flaunting her stripes and smiles,
The hunter’s trap would never catch her.
. . . The queen vulture, flies over the three mountains.
If she swooped not at prey,
How could the bird-net catch her?
You claim that you are being good, both for yourself and others,
With the flowering of the perfect Bodhi-heart, attentively you meditate.
Your ambition is in this very life to become Buddha.
Your hope is to save sentient beings in the Six Realms.
When you were engrossed in the practice of meditation,
The powerful force of your habitual-thoughts arose,
It stirred your self-mind and aroused discriminations.
If in your mind the discriminating thought “Enemy” had not arisen,
How could I, the she-demon, afflict you ? . . .
You have yet to pierce into the self-mind’s nature,
You have yet to penetrate to illusion’s root.”
Milarepa replies in a song:
“. . . You, a spectre, have sung good words;
They are like a rod of gold,
Which strikes into my very heart. . .”
This is the theme which is illustrated, sometimes with great beauty, in the best of the Songs.
“When you give service to your Guru,
Refrain from thinking, ‘I am the one who works,
He is the one who enjoys’.
. . . When the various experiences come to you in meditation,
Do not be proud and anxious to tell the people,
Else you will disturb the Goddesses and Mothers.
Meditate without distractions,
And you will find your way.
When you accompany your Guru,
Do not look for his merits or demerits,
Else you will find mountains of faults.
Only with faith and loyalty Will you find your way.”
Many times he gives profound hints on spiritual practice:
Easy it is to glimpse the Dharma-kaya,
But hard to stabilize its realization.
This is a theme which recurs again and again, connected with what the translator renders as “the Ensuing Samadhi”. Other Buddhist schools call it protection of the Samadhi — keeping alive the spirit of the realization, first attained in the formal meditation period, as a background to activity, instead of slamming the book as it were, like a schoolboy at the end of a lesson.
The instructions relative to elaborate processes for control of Prana, and worship of the Goddesses of Tibetan Buddhism, are special to the school. These complicated and painful practices are not for those pursuing other paths.
The life-cords are considered strung along the backbone, like the strings on a cello; there are bridges at certain places, and by manipulating them the timing is affected. The system of concepts penetrated Tibetan medicine, and some rare texts show the various nerve- currents in the body; each of the spinal vertebrae is distinguished, and it is probable that among the secret yogic instructions are practices depending on consciously discriminating each separate vertebra. It would take years—but they had years.
Milarepa is told that all these practices are subsidiary, though a part of his tradition. He passes beyond them and practices Liberation, not merely glory in Maya.
Liberation practice is called in his school Maha-mudra (Great Mudra— great gesture), and it is a practice of absolute transcendence.
Yet it is not the blank of sleep or Laya-dissolution of mind:
If one can practise the teaching of Maha-mudra,
And knows how to see nothing, something will be seen.
When your body is in right posture, and your mind deeply absorbed,
You may feel that thought and mind both disappear;
Yet this is but the surface experience of Dhyana (meditation). . . . One should further pray to the Three Precious Ones,
And penetrate to Reality by deep thinking and contemplation.
As in all the great systems, devotion and strong spirit of enquiry are essential, and not mere quietening of the mind. Sometimes the exchanges with his disciples have great charm, and the sort of practicality which is needed above all in the teacher-pupil relation. Rechung, the favourite disciple, accompanied the teacher to a village. The teacher returned, but Rechung stayed one night at each house in the village, at their earnest request. On return, he found the door shut against him. He thought that perhaps the teacher was angry because he had stayed so long, so he sang:
“. . . In the Maha-mudra there is no Acceptance or rejection. If there be,
It is not the Maha-mudra.”
He made other quotations in verse, to show the sameness of all things, meaning that whether he remained or returned with the teacher, it was all the same. The teacher sang in return over the top of the door:
Rechung, the quotations you have made are excellent.
If you understand them, you will find the Dharma there.
But if not, your remarks are babble and jabber.
Then he opened the door and said—“I see now that you still have great desires for worldly things. You should renounce them and meditate alone in the mountains.”
On another occasion this same disciple complained inwardly that in spite of great sacrifices he was still asked to renounce and renounce, and said: “Since after all I am on the path of Tantrism, may I not have some comfort and enjoyment to increase my devotion?” The teacher said: “If you really can advance your devotion by means of enjoyments and pleasures, you may use them, but not if they only increase your desires. And my guru told me to renounce everything and meditate in the mountains—that is our tradition.”
The disciple later found he could not help going to the world once again. The teacher gave permission but warned: “A red bitch will catch your foot.” Rechung formed an attachment to a Tibetan lady in the city. But his practice on liberation in the end brought him back, and the master rose from the dead to greet him. He always meditated on Milarepa as seated in the crown of his head, as Milarepa had meditated on Marpa, his own guru.
This was a review by Trevor Leggett of The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. Translated by Gasma Chang. (Two volumes. University Books)
This lavishly produced work, adequately translated, contains the songs (themselves set in a framework of stories) attributed to Mila-repa, or Mila the cotton-clad ascetic, who flourished in eleventh-century Tibet. He is one of the great lights of the Kargyutpa sect of Tibetan Lamaism, which is mainly Tantrik in its practices.