Rev. Francis V. Tiso

1. A three day retreat.

Several years ago I was able to obtain a copy of the book, A Different Christianity: Early Christian Esotericism and Modern Thought by Robin Amis. I was surprised to see that it was published by the State University of New York Press, even though to that press goes the credit for many valuable publications on Hindu spirituality. No university press that I had ever heard of was open to publishing a frankly personal account of research in mystical, esoteric Christianity. If only this book were taught in every undergraduate religion course in the world - alongside the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, the Heart Sutra, and the Upanishads. A great deal of misunderstanding about the Christian religion might be cleared away, leaving some room for a serious reconsideration of what the West has always had, but assimilated rather badly.

In this retreat, we will work our way through some key teachings of the early Christian mystical tradition. My approach is not going to be that of an outsider looking in; I am a practitioner of this path, and have enhanced my understanding of this ancient wisdom by studying the religions of India, China, Central Asia and other parts of the world, as much as possible in the original languages, consulting living masters. But like you, I am looking for a dimension that I have not yet fully understood; we will be walking together in these days of reflection. For what we are looking for, we already have; what we desire has already been given to us as a gift. Our task, like a black box experiment, is to figure out how to tear off the ribbons and wrapping paper, how to open the box, how to move aside the fluff, and find the substance within. And then: how to appreciate and enjoy the gift. And then: perhaps most importantly, how to be grateful for what we discover inside.

Our journey will begin with silence, just learning to be silent and to listen deeply. The word "obey" comes from the Latin ob-audire, to listen deeply, thoroughly and well. To listen, one must be silent. To listen deeply, one's silence needs to be truly still, alert, and open. That will be our first task, and we will get some help from the earliest Buddhist teachings to do it. But the early Christians had their own term for this stillness and alertness: recollection.

Our next step is to look back at some of the imagery that came floating through our minds during our attempts at recollection. We may have been upset by some of the memories that we know are there, and which become somewhat fierce when we try to settle down. The more we notice them, the more their highly charged nature reveals itself. Instead of being afraid, this can become an exercise in facing up to the truth about ourselves. This is called: metanoia, the deep change of mind and heart that self-awareness impels. As we apply the power of stillness to the turbulence of the mind, we begin to notice some changes in the effect of the turbulence on our alertness. We will examine those changes to see how our emotional programs for pseudo-happiness are tied up with our ongoing states of mind.

Along the way, we may notice some habits of the heart that seem to flood us with joy and serenity. These call out to us, asking for some attention. Some causes of our joy may be a little fragile at this time in our lives; some may be burdened with a touch of cynicism or even despair. We are given a chance to give new life to our joy and new depth to our serenity.

Next, some things start to come together. Like a tree with deep roots and a sturdy trunk, we have been through a lot in life. The juices are still flowing, the sap still rising. As stillness, awareness, change-of-heart, joy and serenity become stronger, some of our negativity starts to shake loose. A bit of freedom peeks out from behind our beating hearts! This awareness of freedom is the key moment in which our branches can begin to stretch out widely to soak up the sunlight of this precious moment in the flow of time allotted us.

Next begins the ladder of the angels, as in the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis: we acquire a taste for that which is "different" in this "different Christianity": a new approach to love, so that it flows powerfully through us and out to others; its flow is steady and does not drain our vital life energy. Then there is a new way of seeing, knowing and appreciating the things that make up the mandala of our world: without freedom, it was hard to perceive the beauty in which we are immersed. Like a child learning to draw, we discover the pleasure of truly seeing the creation around us as a communion of the spirit, in all its delight and detail. Then comes the wordless communion with the mysterious One who guides us beyond all names and forms. It is an alertness nurtured in the dark, an intimacy that does not let go, a listening to the heartbeat of God. And finally, true, measureless, incomparable happiness, the life of the beatitudes, the joy that no sorrow can diminish, the happiness so true that even pain and loss find a place in it without conflict or neurosis.

We will make use of a number of exercises to move through these steps, which come from the teachings of Evagrius of Pontus, a late-fourth century spiritual master from Asia Minor who spent his final years in the desert hermitages of Egypt. My approach is to offer many ways by which to open up the inner gift. We often discover that the way that one finds difficult is indeed our best way "in"; so do not be troubled by what may seem difficult at first. I have seen people who could not visualize red or green, and who never dreamed, rediscover the power of the mind well past age 65. Try, and what works, appreciate! We will also use some of the prayers of the early church from the New Testament, from the Psalms, from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, from the early sources of Christian worship. May it touch your whole body-mind-heart with the light of grace, with the feeling of the closeness of the beating wings of the Spirit.

2. A spiritual research center.

There is nothing new about creating a safe place in which to explore inner space: for centuries, monasteries, sacred sites and retreat centers have come into being with that intention in almost all parts of the world. In recent years, many of us have become aware of how vulnerable each one of us is in the so-called modern world. The economy is a shambles. Governments have become a metaphor for distrust. Religions fail to live up to our best hopes and leave us feeling that we have been fleeced instead of fed. Every supposed social improvement brings with it side effects that are almost as unsettling as the problem that was to have been solved. The environment is still cruelly subjected to abusive farming and industrial practices. Laws that were meant to protect the vulnerable are twisted in the interpretation so that the victims become, strangely, the new criminals.

In a world where few things can be trusted, some of us have begun to look inside ourselves for the answers. The ancient practices of silence, recollection, meditation, yoga, herbal healing, massage, music, art and wordless prayer have endured the test of time, and even today are available to those who continue to seek answers to the great human questions: Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Does life have any meaning at all? Where is the world process going, and what is my place in it? What is the purpose of suffering and death? Why do people so glibly talk about love, when it seems so rare, and fleeting? Why is the mind so hard to tame? And how can it be tamed, if at all? These are some of the questions that the explorers of inner space have always asked, and which our generation would like to explore in depth. To do this, we need some skillfully designed methods.

I propose to set up a very simple program of spiritual training in a beautiful, tranquil place in southern Italy, where small groups and individuals can come for retreats as short as one day, or as long as six months. An extensive library of over 5000 volumes makes available all that can be said in words. A safe and peaceful environment allows the retreatant to explore the teachings making use of his or her own inner resources. Spiritual guidance is provided as needed or requested. Nearby, there are reliable experts in shiatsu, acupuncture, yoga, physiotherapy, and other therapeutic protocols for those who need them. A simple diet, respecting personal needs, is available in the great tradition of Mediterranean culinary arts. Come for a visit and walk with us in stillness and sacred awareness!

3. A Retreat With Milarepa


I have been working for a number of years on a book about Milarepa, a pivotal figure in the history of Tibetan Buddhism.


The life of Milarepa (?1050-1123?) continues to inspire Buddhist practitioners in the Himalayas to the present day. Thanks to several translations into Western languages, "Tibet’s Great Yogi" and tantric poet has become well-known to readers of English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and other modern languages. Less well known, however, is the actual history of this late fifteenth century biography and the accompanying collections of songs and narratives. Also, the handful of precious "oral teachings" of Milarepa that can be found in rare block print and manuscript sources have not drawn the scholarly attention they deserve. Francis Tiso presents an interpretation of the history and spirituality of the bKa’ brgyud lineage in relationship to the narratives and teachings attributed to Milarepa by studying some of the earliest versions of these materials. Tiso’s research was enhanced by fieldwork in Nepal, India, and Tibet over the past sixteen years. He investigated the history and meaning of these medieval texts by examining the way the several branches of the bKa’ brgyud Order continue to put them into practice in solitary retreat, public ritual, and iconography.

Biography of the author

Francis Tiso received the doctorate in Religion from Columbia University in 1989, based on his research on Buddhist sanctity in the life of Milarepa. He is a native of New York State and has lived in Italy, Nepal, and California where he taught and served as a parish priest. He was Associate Director for Interreligious Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC, 2004-2009.

Book marketing statement:

Liberation in One Lifetime

is the first scholarly foray into the history of one of the world’s spiritual classics, The Life of Milarepa, which was compiled from a rich reservoir of Tibetan tantric teachings in the bKa’ brgyud tradition.

Keywords for bookstore search:

Milarepa, bKa’ brgyud, Kagyu, tantra, Vajrayana, Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism, sacred biography.


The ongoing literary process that we observe in successive biographies of Milarepa discloses the dynamism at the heart of Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana. In the bKa’ brgyud pa, whose very name signifies the transmission of sacred word and precept (bka’), historical circumstances provoked and conditioned the singing of new tales, and new problems gave rise to new ‘answers’ that came in the form of hagiographical models. By means of an ongoing dialectic between oral and written narrative, the essential values embodied in Milarepa resurfaced in each generation of sacred transmission (brgyud) and stimulated reforms such as that of the mad yogins (smyon pa). The biographical tradition, studied alongside the songs and oral teachings, proves useful for tracing these historical dynamics in that the subject remains the same: Milarepa the poet, yogin, siddha, and saint.

The book is scholarly non-fiction.

Primary readers: adults; scholars of Buddhism; practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism.

Now that the book has been published, our thoughts move on to the idea of putting into practice the discoveries that we have made while doing research. The biography of Milarepa on its own is a great source of spiritual inspiration and instruction. In addition, we now have English translations of some of Milarepa's oral teachings, which clarify and support the accounts that we find in the Songs of Milarepa. Can we devise a sadhana, a spiritual practice, that will enable us to glimpse something of what Milarepa not only taught but realized? Borrowing from the biographies, songs and oral teachings, I have created a meditation exercise that can be carried out in the course of a three day retreat along with other teachings and spiritual guidance. Here is our sadhana:

A sadhana for Jetsun Milarepa:

1. Preliminary Practices: The nine respiratory cycles to purify the channels of the subtle body.

2. A Visualization, working with seed syllables and mantras, as well as colors related to the five elements for the purification of the five basic "elements" of which phenomena are constructed. Each element and its color is perceived first within one's body and then in the whole universe. The action of each element purifies that basic characteristic of phenomenal existence. The final line of the mantra recapitulates the purification of the entire universe, in its ultimately "void" or open nature. You rest in the state of purity, luminosity, simplicity and openness and observe this state.



E-ho shuddhe shuddhe

(element Space; indigo blue)

Yam-ho shuddhe shuddhe

(element Wind or Air; tree leaf green)

Bam-ho shuddhe shuddhe

(element Water; the white of a rushing cascade)

Ram-ho shuddhe shuddhe

(Fire; the red of an intense conflagration)

Lam-ho shuddhe shuddhe

(Earth; a rich golden ochre)

E yam bam ram lam shuddhe shuddhanaye; swaha!


3. Reading: In the Cave of Ramding.

Homage to the Guru!

For a while, the venerable Milarepa sojourned in the Sky Cave at Ramding with Raschungpa, Drigom Repa and several other disciples. One day, Raschungpa and Drigom Repa were debating the philosophical views and meditation instructions of Naropa and Maitripa. Milarepa interrupted them, saying: "Listen to my song, both of you, after which you may resume your discussion."

What a source of Wonder, the happiness beyond composite things. The Gracious Guru abides upon my head; thus Realizations continuously arise in my mindstream.

You two masters of meditation who analyze and pass judgment; as long as you fail to recognize within yourselves the roots of confusion, You will only make a lot of moise based on pride. Do you know that only cutting off doubts from within does one attain a View without limitations? This is the precious jewel arising from the scriptures and the commentaries.

Do you not know that authentic meditation experience arises when one dissolves discursive thought in the Dharmakaya? This is the precious jewel arising from immersion in one's own Experience.

Is it not said that 'the experience of a single flavor' arises when the senses purify themselves? This is the precious jewel of direct perception in the present moment.

Do you not know that to experience bliss within openness gives life to the words of Oral Transmission? This is the precious jewel arising from the Four Tantric Initiations.

Do you not know that the gradual approach covers all the paths and stages; always perceiving Openness with greater Clarity. This is the precious jewel of union with Signs of realization along the Path.

Do you not know that attaining Buddhahood in a single lifetime, consists of exhausting the flux of one's own mental contructs? This is the precious jewel manifesting the Four Bodies of a Buddha.

Do you not know that the one who conveys oral instructions and sacred teachings is truly the Guru holding a lineage? This is the precious jewel of Compassion [arising from Realization].

Do you not know that the true Disciple is the one with awakened faith and compassion? This is the precious jewel that arises with devotion [to the Guru].

With Right View, the constructs of the mind are cut;

With Meditation, one advances in disciplined Practice;

With Right Action, one arrives at the goal, so that the Four Bodies manifest.

One should attain all this at once!"

Thus he sang, and their confusion evaporated.


4. In silence: Practice shamatha (calm abiding meditation, focusing on the sensation of breathing)


5. A Milarepa song for Raschungpa:

Jetsun Milarepa continued with this song for Raschungpa. He said: "This is what you need to do if you truly wish to give yourself to Dharma practice:"

Listen again, my wise and intelligent son! If you really want to practice, Be convinced that the Guru is the Buddha of the Past, Present and Future, having attained the Dharmakaya with all the virtuous qualities. Are you convinced of this, Raschungpa? His oral instructions, the precious remedy for all the Five Poisons, are truly divine nectar. Are you convinced of this, Raschungpa? Every deed in the life of the Guru Becomes a manifestation of his enlightened activity, expression of the body of Appearance. Are you convinced of this, Raschungpa? Memories and doubts come and go in the mind, but since they lack any foundation, they have no real existence. Are you convinced of this, Raschungpa? The emotions, powerfu waves on the ocean of poison, Can be calmed, like a bowstring burnt to ashes. Are you convinced of this, Raschungpa? Even the sensual pleasure of the gods is as changeable as the weather and the seasons. For all beings, samsara provides no true happiness. Are you convinced of this, Raschungpa? All composite things are as fleeting as lightning in the summer sky; Like a flowing brook, like wafting fragrances of incense; In life, there is not a moment to lose. Are you convinced of this, Raschungpa?We ourselves, as all others too, will surely come to our end. Nothing escapes death, so for as long as there is death, continue to practice [meditation]. Are you convinced of this, Raschungpa?


In this way, Milarepa gave instruction to his heart-disciples.

6. In silence: practice vipasyana (on the basis of the state of calm attained by shamatha, bring to your awareness the mental aspects of sense data, consciousness itself, the roots of thinking processes, such as judgments and attachments, and impulses.)

7. A song of Milarepa on non-duality entitled "I am of the nettle clan."

When Milarepa went to meditate at the Red Rock Linga Cave, he only had nettles to eat. At that time, he purified the illusory body in the day time and at night he practiced clear light meditation. At that time, no matter what occured in his practice of austerities, he kept to a diet of nettles. Even his body took on the green color of nettles....

Then a few women practitioners from Gung Thang heard that the son of Shes Rad rGyal Tshan of rTsa Village, called "Happy Report" had achieved spiritual attainment. They offered him a three years' supply of barley. The ladies said to him, with faith: "We wanted to see for ourselves what Mila, the son of Shes Rab rGyal Tshan is doing." Mila replied: "Yes, I am he; because I ate a lot of nettles, my color has changed to green." They reverently bowed to him and offered him some of the articles they had brought. They asked him if he would no longer eat nettles, wanting to offer him other provisions [for his retreat]. Lord Mila Happy Report sang this song in reply:

I bow down to the Lord Gurus; I, Mila, am of the nettle clan, And nettles belong to Mila's clan; Nettles and Mila cannot be distinguished! You, too, Lady Patrons, are of the clan of faith; Faith, too, is of the ladies' clan; Faith and patronesses cannot be distinguished! Mind, too, is of the clan of luminosity; Light belongs to the clan of Mind; Light and Mind, these two things cannot be distinguished.

Thus he sang, and then he gave a discourse on the nature of duality to the ladies, and they felt much remorse for their former conduct. They offered him many useful things.

8. Silence. Building on your experience of shamatha and vipasyana, try to unite or blend your awareness with whatever is perceived either with the senses or within the mind. Do this gently, without making a firm boundary between "within" and "exterior".

9. The enlightenment of Milarepa:


These are the things that Saint Milarepa did while pursuing the practice of asceticism, steadying the inner currents in the psychosomatic channels, and immense virtue arose.

Once he went towards Snye nam;

A patron arranged or his provisions;

But not abiding with him, he afterwards went

Into the La phyis snow mountains;

I bow down to the Saint meditating in the snow ranges. (18)

This is the explication:

Then when the Saint-Victor Milarepa had heard that his Guru Marpa Lho Brag pa had died, he abandoned his practice to go to Lho Brag. He went to Tsar ma of Snye nam. A patroness named rNgog dor mo met him and became full of faith toward him. She approached him and paid him homage, asking: "Are you the Saint-Victor Milarepa?" The patrons supplicated him to remain there. They offered to bring him provisions. The Saint, taking only nine handfuls of grain, went off toward La Phyis. That morning, clouds began to gather at the place. For eighteen days it snowed without interruption.

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Mountains and valleys were completely covered with the snow. No one could travel. In that great snowfall, not even the animals could go outside. The patrons could not bring him provisions for seven months. All the people of Snye nam said that he, the perfect yogin had been killed by the snow. Both male and female patrons wept sorrowfully.

During that time, he thought to himself: "I myself am alive; no one can get here because the road is cut off. If I go out, I might die. It seems that I am to die here in La phyis. Perhaps I should perform the ejection of consciousness ('pho ba)." A woman dressed in leaves came along and said: "Do not perform the ejection of consciousness. Please eat samādhi! Day and night, do nothing but the meditations of Generation and Completion (skyed rdzogs); we, the Dharma master Dākinīs will bless you. You are not in danger of death. We are taking care of you!" Therefore, he let go of his worries and did not perform the ejection of consciousness. Day and night he meditated in a state of contemplative absorption (samādhi). He recounted: "Now and then, there was a sensation of cold; of snow blindness; of deafness in my ear, etc. Many states of difficulty arose. At times, I was free of these difficulties. A feeling of lightness occurred, at times without apparent cause. I was stirred by the rush of inner energies and was stunned. Little by little, the clear light dawned and increased." In those seven months, in short, hardly having food enough to fill the end of a spoon, meditating in a state of samādhi, taking his contemplation as food, his body was not overcome by death. Innumerable evident signs of virtue also came from within. At that time, immortality

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was achieved, the siddhi of Life-Immortal (tshe'i dngos grub bgyi ba). At that time in his practice, though sentient beings are impermanent, he manifested the opposite quality. This apparent body is not dominated by death when this siddhi is accomplished. He thus had the siddhi of never needing food. The great mass of sentient beings does not understand the accumulation of such merit. Whether with food or without food, because he had achieved this siddhi, he was without any hunger (kres pa). Unerringly, the Supreme Accomplishment is thus achieved.

Exclusively showing forth the doctrine for his disciples, he achieved the Dharmakaya, which is described as not changing; unmovable; fully accomplished. In short, he entirely attained both ordinary and supreme Accomplishments.

These things the Saint did when he went to the La phyis snow mountains, obtaining Accomplishment (siddhi) through the practice of austerities.


10. Practice vipasyana and visualize the central channel as thin as a cane of grass, translucent, carrying the vital force of your breath from your body to the heart cakra.

11. Invocation of the 84 Mahasiddhas:

Again, upon a certain occasion several patrons and patroness of Brin performed a ganacakra (tshogs kyi 'khor lo). At that ganacakra, the Saint said: "I am going to invite the eighty four Siddhas while you yourselves prepare the ganacakra and so forth." They asked him," "How much is needed?" He replied: "I am only teasing--this is sufficient." He then spoke the mantra:

Gu ru samaya hum//

at the same time, snapping his fingers and

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making a cracking sound. Then, in a little while, accompanied by a noise, the assembly of the eighty-four Siddhas came to the ganacakra, the Great Brahman Saraha and the rest! Then, [the participants] invited them to the ganacakra. After a little while there was a glow and a sound and the clamor of musical sound; the eighty four Great Siddhas--every one of them-- went away in silence. Then, at that time, in that place, understanding arose in several people. It also occurred that several were able to fly in the sky. So it was on that occasion. They were all blessed: the disciples, the patrons, and the patronesses. It happened that realization arose in many [of them.] Innumerable omens of a marvelous kind occurred.

12. Silent repetition of the mantra: gu ru samaya hung!


13. The Bodhisattva Vow to benefit all sentient beings (in ways favorable to their eventual enlightenment):


These things the Saint did, bestowing profound Dharma and initiatic power (dbang) on all of them, the faithful disciples, patrons, and patronesses. At that time he blessed them and immeasurable signs and wonders appeared.

Then the Saint, Mila the yogin,

Not abiding in that place, [went to]

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Southern gTsang and the Three Provinces of Western Tibet,

And to the North of gTsang;

I bow down to his wanderings amount the mountain solitudes. (25)

This is the explication:

Then, the Saint-Victor Mid la ras pa, at that time did not remain in any one place, but went wandering among the mountain solitudes without any direction. It was his intention (dgongs pa) to establish the doctrine of the practice lineage (bsgrub brgyud). In particular, whoever heard the name of the Saint, Mid la, was released from cyclic existence and became perfected in all virtues, it is said. So he thought: "Because my name and fame have spread in all directions, I am to wander like a vagabond in the mountain solitudes."

First, he went to the upper part of the Three Provinces of Western Tibet. He also went to the three Snow-Mountain Lakes. Of snow mountains, the king is Ti se; of lakes, the king is Ma pham; of mountains, the king is rTse rGya, and so forth. So he went to all of them. He established the teachings of the practice lineage; there his experience and understanding increased. He accomplished immeasurable good for many of the sentient beings of those places.


Then he went down the road to Pu rangs (West Tibet), and bLo bo Gung thang, to many places thereabouts. He established the doctrine of the practice lineage while dwelling there for a short time. He accomplished immeasurable benefits for sentient beings. Then he went down to La stod in the south, to Lho byang, and to Ding ri, and to Bong Shong, to Shri ri, to Khrom, and so on, dwelling amid the holy places in the mountain solitudes of southern La stod. He established the doctrine of the practice lineage and accomplished immeasurable good for sentient beings. Then he went in the direction of G’yas ru byang, and the to rGyal thang and to Shel lug and Glu rgyal gling po, mChog dkar gyi brag, and so on. Having also dwelt towards G’yas ru byang, he established the doctrine of the practice lineage.

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He accomplished immeasurable good for sentient beings in these places. First dwelling in Brag of the "Eighty" of rGyal thang, his understanding and realization increased more and more. When hawks flew up into the sky, he followed! The Saint also flew from the Rock of the Eighty in rGyal Thang. He left to go to Shel lcag ma; flying from Shel lcag he went to the Rock of the Eighty, manifesting innumerable wonders and he established the doctrine of the practice lineage. Then he dwelt in gLu rgyal gling po. A Nāga of gLing po offered things delightful to the body, chiefly a Mudra (tantric consort). Mila engaged in practice with her to benefit and increase the arising of the clear light of wisdom of the Four Blisses. He only ate crushed nettles as food.

On one occasion, the lady patrons of 'Gur klu rgyal prepared an offering. At that place also he established the doctrine of the practice-lineage, accomplishing the good of innumerable sentient beings.

Then he dwelt in the mountain solitudes of Bar tshigs and mChog dKar brag, and gTso bo stag gu. He instructed Lady Ko ne, and others for a long time. There too he established the doctrine of the practice lineage, accomplishing the good of innumerable sentient beings. Then he went to Cung gi yul po che la and Jo ro, and 'Bring ‘tshams, and sTag tshang, and so forth, where he established the doctrine of the practice lineage and accomplished the good of innumerable sentient beings.


He went wandering aimlessly in the mountain solitudes there and elsewhere; he did not remain in one place: there is no spot of ground which his feet did not travel. In these places he also performed austerities and established the doctrine of the practice lineage; his realization and understanding increased and he benefited innumerable sentient beings.

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He also possessed the effective means for benefiting beings. In this way, the Saint dwelt in Zal mo (a district of Khams) in the land of Tibet, in this throne world beneath the umbrella of the sun. No one was greater than he in establishing the doctrine of meditation (sgrub tshugs). Even now, there is no one like him. No one else could equal his (1) understanding and realization; (2) miracles; (3) meditative concentration (zad par); (4) his supremacy over Mārā; (5) supreme knowledge (abhijñā); (6) manifestation of forms and (7) transformation of circumstances; (8) meditation attainment; (9) virtues, and so forth. No one was better than the Saint. No one has since arisen to be his equal. He accomplished benefits, some of which can be seen, others which cannot, for innumerable sentient beings. He could ripen and liberate them, especially incarnate beings with the body of a Buddha, such as was Lord Dwags po, sGampopa.

He obtained the unobstructed virtue of obtaining power over both mind and interior energies (rlung), like that of Ras chung rdo rje grags pa; he possessed faith and devotion like that of 'Bri sgom g’yang legs; he obtained the power of bliss and heat (bde drod) like Ras pa Zhi ba skyong; he was strong and patient in austerities and meditation like Rong chung pa ras pa; in benefiting sentient beings through perceiving wisdom and so on, he was like Lung skam ras pa, like sNi zhangs ras pa, like Se Ban ston chung, and other inner disciples like Patroness Legs se, Yoginī lCam me, or like Yoginī sGon me, and so forth. Thus there were many disciples accomplishing the immense benefit of sentient beings, their realization, perceiving wisdom directly having arisen in mind. Those who could do so increased their ability to help other beings. In this way, the Saint realized the voidness of the Five Heaps of the Five Poisons. (skandhas). The demon of narrow views (chung po'i bdud) was conquered; all the desirable things were recognized as illusory, like dreams; the demonic worldly deities were defeated.


13. A Song of Milarepa about his impending death:

In the presence of a circle of his disciples, the Saint was giving an initiation (dbang can lags mod). The disciples said: "For the benefit of others, take pity and do not die." The Saint said: "Formerly, the Blessed One, the Mighty Sage also died; he displayed the manner of passing away from suffering. From that, there arose causes that became more beneficial for sentient beings. In the same way, the Gurus of the bKa' brgyud also display the manner of passing away from misery, thus bringing about a greater good for the benefit of sentient beings. Just as I can accomplish the good of sentient beings by not passing away from misery, and have up until now done so, I am also able to accomplish the good of beings by passing away from sorrow." Thus he displayed the manner of dying to the misery of this world in an exoteric way, so it is said. "For the people, I am to appear in different aspects when I die." Then he sang this song:

I am the yogin Milarepa.

Having conquered the frost of Demon Yama,

I go to the further destiny;

At that time of death, many things will be seen;

For some, a heap, essentially an apparitional form (like a stūpa) will arise;

They will worship and make offerings to the Form of the corpse they clean;

For some, the apparition dies not (for Mind dies not)

Having become a rainbow body.

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It departs this realm (dhātu);

Thus, both appearances seem true!

At that time, dwelling in the hermitage of Chu dbar, there were twelve yogins and yoginīs before him: 'Bri sgom g’yang legs, Yoginī lCam me, and the rest. Their appearance was like the Six Lords of Light. Free of illness and other obstacles, they abode making [spiritual progress.



14. Silence: Practice the boundless meditation of Mahamudra, which unites shamatha and vipasyana.


15. Dedication of the merit of practice for the benefit of all sentient beings:

O Vajra-Hearted Master, possessing:

Self arisen and all pervading Great Bliss,

Perfect Happiness and

Knowledge of the Dance of Openness within all phenomena,

And Perfect Union, so as to transform every appearance of distinctions;

To the ubiquitous Lord Buddha Laughing Vajra, I bow down in homage.

Every syllable of his teachings reveals

The Ultimate Meaning of the Sutras and Tantras;

He articulates the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha

Such that a lengthy analytic study is unnecessary:

All one needs to do is to put them into Practice!

In completing the Two Accumulations - of Merit and of Wisdom-

One attains wondrous results through the accomplishment of meritorious deeds.

But even more marvellous is merely seeing his form and hearing his words,

Whereby the walls of conditioned existence inevitably crumble;

Realizing liberation in one body, in one lifetime

By hearing and remembering each of his Vajra teachings,

One becomes the manifestation of his power to liberate beings

So that the doors are flung wide open to the way of perfect confidence!




In brief, the Saint Victor Milarepa came forth from the narrow passage of asceticism and austerity, for disciples essentially both capable and not capable, showing how one naturally possesses the happiness of full realization; he established the doctrine of the practice lineage, accomplishing the aims of innumerable sentient beings and disciples; having set out to liberate all ripened sentient beings from contact, memory, hearing, and sight. By contemplation, he completely passed beyond sorrow. This is the meaning!

These deeds of the Saint Victor Milarepa, have been combined by rGyal Thang pa bde chen rdo rje into a thoroughly wonderful, sublime biography, which expresses the faith clearly. It is now complete.

Beautiful! Corrected! Auspicious!


[For the Chief of Yogins, Gino Sansone, who made a worthy request to the American Dharma Bum Francis Karma Yon Tan Gyatso.]






Attaining the rainbow body.

The research I did ten years ago on a case of the "rainbow body" in Eastern Tibet has provoked curiosity, enthusiasm and even hostility.  Thanks to the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California, a considerable amount of information on this research has been circulting on the web.  Here are some of my personal reflections on this experience:

First of all, the original idea of Br. David Steindl-Rast, my principal spiritual teacher for the past 40 years, was to investigate the phenomenon in Tibet in order to enhance our understanding of what Christians call the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the body at the end of historical time.  At the present time, this concern remains important to me because it enables us to find new language to describe something about the human destiny that is not easily expressed in the categories of modern thought.  However, far more important is the spiritual path of practice that corresponds to both the body of the resurrection and the rainbow body.  In other words, I am much more interested in attaining the state that these verbal expressions represent, than in trying to compare and contrast the phenomena in question.  This is probably why some people get angry with what I have to say!

Secondly, the question of whether this "really" happens or not pushes us into a kind of endless debate about what is real and how the real (if there IS anything real) is perceived by sense organs and a brain that are themselves subject to the same doubts that arise in any deep reflection on "what is reality".  Suffice it to say that the evidence collected in Eastern Tibet and northern India in 2000-2003 should convince a reasonable person that something out of the ordinary happened to the body of Khenpo A-chos of Kanze Gompa in the week after his death in the summer of 1998.  What that was and how it occurred remain to be explored.

Thirdly, there are some technical matters to be resolved within the several Tibetan contemplative traditions about the definition of what constitutes the attainment of the "rainbow body".  This discussion lies outside our competence, although it is certainly of interest to research and should be taken up by those whose linguistic ability enables them to enter the conversation intelligently.

And finally, how does one do it?  The traditions of Buddhist and Bonpo Vajrayana that claim to attain the rainbow body all point in the direction of a complete realization of the "natural state" of the mind, which gradually, irreversibly and thoroughly transforms the matter and energy of the human person into their component atomic particles (we might say:  subatomic particles and photons).  In other words, the states of consciousness that are attained through various forms of meditation over long periods of time, under the guidance of a master, in favorable circumstances not only change the way a person thinks and perceives the world, they also change the psychosomatic structure of the human body that performs these yogas and meditations.  The progression is from coarse to subtle:  first one works with the material body through yoga postures and movements; from there one proceeds to work with sonic energy through chanting mantras;  then one proceeds to work with the more subtle energy of the body including hormonal secretions and acupuncture meridians; then one works with the breath and harmonizes breathing and mental fluctuations; then one works with the mind's ability to visualize objects and colors in ways that alter perception and awareness; then one proceeds with increasingly subtle mental states of contemplative absorption (samadhi). Eventually, integrating these practices with the rest of one's daily life activities, one notices signs of change in the way one makes choices, in dreams, and in the way one relates to others.  The idea is to remain flexible, dynamic and open, rather than fixated on one or another mental state or sensation.  For this reason, one continues to practice on a number of levels, and the tradition requires a certain grounding in compassionate, or altruistic motivation: this is all done in order to benefit other beings and to diminish neurotic forms of ego-clinging.  Khenpo A-chos was especially noted for his compassion and his ability to persuade in gentle ways; this is the legacy he left to his disciples.

When I visited his Dharma brother, Lama A-chos, I encountered a real tough guy who was not putting up with any philosophical nonsense: he was interested in practice and realization.  I remarked at the time:   Finally we are meeting someone who makes sense!  And in fact, about 3 weeks after our meeting, I had a remarkable experience that arose out of my own anger and ego-clinging.  I felt this anger transform spontaneously and for more than six weeks I remained in a state of non-dual openness.  I take this experience to be a confirmation of the degree of spiritual attainment of this dear friend of the late Khenpo, that is to say, in him I actually met a man who was capable of imparting to a complete stranger something of his own habitual spiritual state.

This fact alone makes it worthwhile for at least some of us to give it a try.



Back in the '60s at Cornell University, practically everything important was planned and debated over coffee in a place called "The Commons" in Anabel Taylor Hall, down the corridor from the ecumenical chaplaincy offices (where one went to exult or weep, depending on the circumstances).  A regular at the Commons was a burly guy with a huge black beard named Rich who repaired stereo systems for a living.  Rich was interested in esoteric matters of all kinds- he said he used to exorcize the demons from his shop after "negative" clients had done their business with him.  Among his fascinations were the translations of E. W. Evans-Wentz and the writings of Paul Brunton.  After I had plowed through Brunton at his suggestion, I went on to explore Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Life of Milarepa.  I was captivated by the story of Milarepa, a pathetic figure who had lost his father in childhood, endured exploitation at the hands of his relatives, and, at the urging of his desperate mother, went on to learn sorcery to avenge the humiliations visited upon his mother and sister.  In performing the ritual magic rites of destruction, Milarepa connected with his own spiritual nature, and its latent power.  Troubled by dreams of avenging demons, however, he began to realize that these secret powers came at a very high price:  karmic retribution beyond the grave.  With this destiny clearly in mind, Milarepa sought not only repentance, but some way to cancel his negative deeds from the karmic record.  His search led him to Marpa the Translator, a severe master who had been to India three times to gather tantric teachings from the great Pandit Naropa.  Marpa was, on the surface, a larger than life character, and anything but sweet.  However, he had attained not only magical powers, but perfect and complete liberation, and his every deed was a manifestation of enlightenment.  According to the text translated by Evans-Wentz and his collaborators, Marpa had Milarepa undergo a brutal program of penitential moral reform, chiefly by buiding a nine-storey tower to crown the residence of Marpa and his family.  Throughout the building program, Marpa berated Milarepa for his defects and resolutely refused to admit the disciple to tantric initiation rituals.  Finally, in desperation, and with the connivance of Marpa's wife Dagmema,  Milarepa deceptively sought teachings from one of Marpa's disciples.  Even this scheme had little positive effect, but once the truth was revealed to Marpa, all was forgiven and Milarepa was admitted into the inner circle of disciples.  After making a three year retreat under Marpa's direction, Milarepa's attainment was such that Marpa could declare him to be the future lineage holder who would plant the victory banner of Marpa's Dharma throughout Tibet. 

Twenty five years after reading the Life of Milarepa, I found myself casting about for a doctoral dissertation topic in Buddhist Studies at Columbia University.  I knew that the biography I had read in 1970 was relatively late: from around 1500.  I also knew that there were older versions of the biography of Milarepa, but had only read a short account in the Blue Annals.  Wandering through the stacks of the Tibetan collection in the basement of the Lehman Library, I felt an actual tingle guiding my hand to a deep maroon volume entitled:  dkar brgyud gser 'phreng (A Golden Rosary of Kagyu Biographies).  The biography of Milarepa that I found in this volume was quite different in content and tone from the classic text by the Mad Yogin of Tsang (from 1500, 350 years after the death of Milarepa).  In the course of the '80s and '90's I gradually accumulated a collection of more than 25 Milarepa biographies, additional songs of Milarepa, and a precious set of Oral Teachings.  I also managed to obtain oral teachings and explanations from a spectrum of Tibetan masters in the lineage of Milarepa, enabling me to produce the book, Liberation in One Lifetime:  Biographies and Teachings of Milarepa in 2010.

My Milarepa research allowed me to find actual literary descriptions of the process of spiritual transformation.  Experiences of inner crisis and change, documented by those yogins who had made the long retreats typical of this lineage (and who had written biographies of Milarepa), helped me understand some of my own experiences in the Hermitage of Ss. Cosmas and Damian in Isernia, where I lived from 1987 to 1998.  My dialogues with Kagyu masters over the years confirmed the common ground we shared in exploring "inner space." 


Contemplation Does Not Mean:  "Thinking About"


Common expression:  He contemplated suicide.  He what?  He was thinking about killing himself.  Hmm.  Or:  We will contemplate the glory of God in eternity.  Does that mean we will be "thinking about" the glory of God when we get to heaven?  But don't we do enough of that already in this life?  Is heaven just more of the same...longing without fulfilment?

A medieval Carthusian hermit (as in the film:  Into Great Silence), Guigo, taught a four step program that blossoms in real contemplation:  Sacred Reading; Meditation; Affective Prayer; and Beyond-thinking Contemplation.  In other words, you approach a text in the Bible or some other sacred work of literature with an attitude of faith that says "I am here today; God is with me here; God has a word for me today; let me read and listen with my innermost depths".  Then you meditate on the meaning(s) of that text, that word, mindful that we are all "words" of God, a web of life and communication.  Then you begin to be moved to love, to creativity, to self-expression, to weep or to exult.  But at a certain point, you know that all this is just your small self letting off steam.  There is a gap, a pause; the flow of words and feelings stops, strangely, and everything drops off into silence.  Silence within.  Silence all around.  You forget where you are and all the categories drop away for a moment.  Something seems to happen, but you could not speak what that something is no matter how eloquent you might be.  Words and thoughts have no place here, because they are like the sandals of Moses, dead pieces of skin that must be taken off in order to touch the ground where the Living God is found.  This is contemplation, as far as words can speak of it.  It is pure grace, without the ordinary self and its tendrils of thinking.  No sweet sentiments.  No holy pictures.  No refined theology.  No lapidary quotations.  Nothing certain, nothing seen, nothing known.  Nothing usual at all, but rather a certain freshness and clarity. Perhaps.  Pure grace, more the invisible than the visible.  One returns to the usual, well-scrubbed and pounded pavements.  A certain perfume remains, reminds, redirects the choices and the habitual mechanisms.  Ever so slightly, you are not the same.  That difference, "you are not the same", is so convincing that you will return to that place over and over again, the way a lover returns to the beloved, but not quite that way at all, except to say that you want to give yourself completely to that which you glimpse in that place.  And what you know in that place knows you through and through.  In time, you sense that you are known and naked before that mysterious Presence at all times, and It pervades everything you perceive.  All the time there is a hidden wholenss, a wisdom of constant giving and receiving, offering and giving away, until freedom dawns.

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