“In Mahamudra, there is an element of craziness, an element of unreasonability. You are not conned even by the artistic simplicity of nothingness.”
The great teacher Marpa, who lived in the eleventh century, was the first Tibetan holder of the Kagyü lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism. In his teaching style and his experience, Marpa represents a person accomplished in Mahamudra, a Vajrayana approach to meditation and meditative experience. All together, the earthiness of Marpa’s approach is very much connected with the ground or the earth, basic earth. Mahamudra means “the great symbol” or “the great sign.” Mudra, which means “symbol,” has two aspects. It represents the wisdom of shunyata, or emptiness, and it also refers to freeing oneself from the samsaric network. Maha means “great” or “grand” in Sanskrit. Great here has the implication of going as far as you can go, rather than comparing yourself to something smaller.
There are three stages of Mahamudra tantra: the ground, the path, and the fruition tantras. Our discussion here is associated with ground tantra, which is connected with developing awareness in which existing symbolism is important. Symbolism becomes a guideline in our day-to-day situation. Symbolism in this case is not representational, where a symbol stands for something else. Symbolism here is seeing the deep core of the phenomenal world as it is. It is seeing the heart of the phenomenal world as it is. This is not just connected with relating with people; it is also about relating to events and inanimate objects as well.
Mahamudra has both a destructive and a creative aspect. The destructive aspect of Mahamudra is cutting through the samsaric network. The creative aspect is developing shunyata wisdom. From the point of view of Mahamudra, perception and seeing symbolism in the phenomenal world involves both these processes.
To begin with, you cut the dualistic fabrications that develop. Then you see the emptiness of perception. We could say that the approach of cutting through is the masculine principle, and the approach of seeing emptiness is the feminine principle. Shunyata is open space, and the samsaric net is the obstruction, which creates a problem in seeing the spaciousness of shunyata.
There is a further approach to Mahamudra, particularly to the wisdom of emptiness. This is experiencing primordial wisdom, wisdom that is born together with ignorance. Whenever there is a dualistic split, wisdom is there already. Wisdom occurs together with confusion at the same time. So Mahamudra can only be perceived by what is called one taste. This one taste, or one flavor, is beyond two. Pain and pleasure are experienced and perceived as one flavor.
Flashes of Mahamudra are twofold: first there is a sharp blow, and then there is clarity. It’s very dramatic, in some sense. Each time you perceive something, the process of perception is to cut and then experience the clarity. This kind of awareness is not just smooth and tranquil awareness. The first perception of Mahamudra awareness is a sharp blow, and then there is an explosion into the nonexistence. Having cut through any fixation, you discover desolation of some kind, which is actually a discomforting situation. That is the first glimpse of shunyata in the Mahamudra experience.
Nonexistence in this case is quite different from the shunyata principle in the Mahayana path of the bodhisattva or the Zen style of experiencing shunyata. In the Zen tradition, or more generally the Mahayanists’ approach to shunyata, obstacles are removed rather than cut through. The obstacles are dissolved. It is more like a cleaning-up process than a tearing-out process.
This cleaning-up process is referred to in the Zen tradition as the experience of no-mind. This comes from the Yogacaran school of thought within Mahayana. Yogacarans look at the experience of shunyata as an experience arising out of luminous consciousness, which is brilliant and highly intelligent. But still it is mind and mind’s view of the nonconception of duality. It is a gentle blow. The Heart Sutra talks about no form, no feeling, no concept, no nothing. The approach is a gentle one, simply negating, rather than emphasizing the cutting through. The Mahayana tradition of shunyata is a very contemplative one, because you contemplate the nonexistence with no-mind.
When you reach the final experience of shikantaza in the Zen tradition, of transcending any techniques of working with the breath, you are tasting the core of both duality and non-duality, of no-mind. However, there is still allegiance toward emptiness. Up to a certain point, there is a euphoric experience of being absorbed into the nothingness. It’s very cool and precise. It’s simple but artistic. It is a work of art.
On the other hand, the Mahamudra experience has no room for a work of art. It is not an artistic measure of anything, and the work of art is not a reference point. A gentle work of art is too civilized from Mahamudra’s point of view. Rather, there is an element of craziness, an element of unreasonability. You are not conned even by the artistic simplicity of nothingness.
Marpa’s understanding of tantra was a very living experience, not an artistic or gentle one but a very abrupt and direct experience of Mahamudra. When he confronted situations in his life, Marpa simply plunged in. At one point, after having made two trips to India to study with his root teacher, Naropa, and other great teachers, Marpa returned home and was absorbed in the pleasure of teaching his students. He had set up an elaborate tantric mandala and shrine, and he was preparing to give empowerments to his students.
But the night before the empowerment was to begin, Marpa had a dream in which his own guru, Naropa, was calling to him. The next day he abruptly cancelled the ceremony and announced that he was going to India for a third time. He quickly gathered enough gold for the journey and prepared his baggage. His family was concerned because of his age and how difficult the journey would be for him, so they hid the gold and the luggage, hoping that he might stay behind if he couldn’t find his belongings.
When Marpa discovered what they had done, he was very angry and said that he was going to India whether he had his gold or not. And he left with nothing. So his family and students had to chase after him. They invited him back, saying that they would like to give him a farewell party and present him with more gold for his trip.
These little incidents played an extremely important part in Marpa’s life. The messages that he received had nothing to do with scholarship or the refined understanding that can come through linguistic studies or the study of epistemology. The messages were simple and direct truth, and his moves were very abrupt and definite.
After his third visit was completed, Marpa gave instructions to his seven children, and they all became great students, scholars, and yogis. His oldest son, Tarma Dode, was particularly brilliant, and it was Marpa’s wish that Tarma Dode become his successor. He was a very proud young man, a learned and accomplished person who was constantly competing with his father. If his father forgot the details of something during a talk, his son would whisper to him how to finish a quotation or would supply the philosophical details.
Once, while Marpa was in retreat with many of his chief disciples and his children, a neighboring scholar came with an invitation to attend a garden party of scholars, teachers, and dignitaries from all over the region. Marpa didn’t want to attend but Tarma Dode wanted to go and show off. He wanted to exercise his authority and create a good image for the Marpa family and the Kagyü lineage.
Marpa said, “Go if you must. But don’t engage in philosophical debate. Don’t stay too long. Come home early.” So Marpa let him go, with Milarepa (a great student of Marpa’s who would later become his dharma heir) as an escort. They went to the party, and Tarma Dode was unable to avoid the philosophical debate. He couldn’t play dumb. The discussions were wild and exciting, and Tarma Dode was extremely pleased by his abilities to expound fine points of philosophy and his knowledge of yogic teachings.
Finally, Milarepa reminded him that they should return early and convinced him to leave. As they were riding home, Tarma Dode’s horse startled a bird nesting in rushes along the pathway. The bird suddenly flew up, defending its chicks. The horse was startled and ran wild. As it ran, Tarma Dode fell off, with his foot caught in the stirrup. His head was crushed by boulders. The horse ran back to the stable at Marpa’s house with its half-dead passenger, and Tarma Dode died soon after. This was of course tragic and disheartening for Marpa, in spite of all his understanding of impermanence.
One of Marpa’s students mentioned that Marpa had told them that everything is illusion, that there is no substance in anything. “You used to tell us that there is no point in worrying about things. But now that this trouble has come, you seem really upset. How is this possible?” Marpa replied, “My son’s death is illusion, but it is wild illusion, super illusion. It is quite different from ordinary stupid illusions. It’s a great illusion.”
All of this is related to our discussion of the direct messages associated with Mahamudra. During Marpa’s third visit to India, Naropa had magically manifested in the sky a visual mandala of Hevajra, who was Marpa’s yidam, or personal deity. It was very beautiful and elaborate. Naropa asked Marpa, “To whom will you prostrate, to the magical mandala or to me?” Marpa thought the mandala was so unusual. It was miraculous to see it in living form. So he prostrated to the mandala, the guru’s creation, rather than to the guru himself.
Afterward, Naropa told him it was a mistake to prostrate to the mandala. Because Marpa didn’t have trust in human beings continuing the lineage, and because he was deceived by magic and the superhuman forms he saw, this would mean an interruption in his family lineage, although the lineage of teacher and disciple would continue. Marpa was very depressed when he realized what he had done, and thought that it was the product of accumulated karma. He had known better, but nevertheless he had prostrated to the illusion. He was more excited by magical creations than by Naropa himself.
Tarma Dode’s death was the delayed action that came out of this. In Marpa’s life, the direction and the messages came from a real understanding of Mahamudra symbolism. When you have this understanding, the situation creates the decisions for you, rather than you sitting down to think or plan anything.
Marpa’s activities and development are all examples of real surrendering. If there’s no real dedication or real surrendering to the lineage, then one cannot expect a true understanding of Mahamudra. You can’t expect to get the best of both worlds. If you don’t commit yourself to the process, you can’t expect to have a Mahamudra experience. In order to purchase a home, you have to give a down payment.
Mahamudra is fundamentally based on real commitment, genuine commitment. It is commitment that is not based on day-to-day temperament or ego-oriented projects or promises. It is based on the understanding that the journey and the discovery are all part of giving up hope and fear.
In Mahamudra, experiences come to you and they are workable. That is the attitude one must take, rather than expecting those experiences to constantly be confirming or pleasurable. Commitment has nothing to do with seeking pleasure or security. It is real commitment.
If we don’t have mutual commitment between guru and disciple throughout the lineage, then what we are going to get is half-baked bread, which can only produce a stomach upset and further sickness. The purity and energy of the teachings cannot survive if one of the holders of the lineage has a half-hearted commitment to the teaching. If the lineage is not transmitted properly or completely, there is a lot of destruction and chaos for the students.
Marpa’s example and approach to Mahamudra experience was based on complete commitment and basic sanity, in which he accepted his everyday life situations. At the same time, he was able to see those situations as the path. You might think this sounds like too big an undertaking, but it is extremely simple, if your patience permits. If you have real commitment, this means that you trust yourself and you trust that there is something true in the teachings. Commitment reflects how much you identify yourself with the teachings and with your own life.
Once you are committed, then you have no choice. This is true for both master and student. As far as the master is concerned, once the students commit themselves to the path, it is like they are passengers getting into an airplane. In the middle of the flight, the captain can’t kick out the passengers; he has to hang on to them. At the same time, the passengers might find it very claustrophobic. There is no chance to chicken out at all. At that point, it’s too late. Either you get on the airplane or you don’t. Once you’ve gotten on the plane, there’s no way out. You can’t even hijack the airplane.
Once a person is committed to the Kagyü lineage, that person becomes part of the lineage forever. It doesn’t matter whether you are a star, a chief, an ordinary dishwasher, or a clerk. It’s all the same thing.
As Marpa aged, his experience of continual Mahamudra messages became his natural home ground. He didn’t have to struggle to tune into anything. Things would just happen naturally, spontaneously. That comes when one reaches the level of an old dog—such occurrences are no longer new to you. You know how to tune into situations quite simply and easily. Marpa’s life example is applicable to us. Any one of us could work our way through situations very simply and directly, as he did.
Adapted from talk four of “The Life and Teachings of Marpa,” a seminar given by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche at Karme-Chöling meditation center, Barnet, Vermont, September, 1973.