“Freeing the Heart and Mind” — Strange Behavior

(Note: Although the title page on the E-Reserve PDF shows “Part 1: Introduction to the Buddhist Path,” this is a selection from “Part 2: Developing Compassion.” Also, there appear to be at least three different authors, editors, or compilers.)

This selection from His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s Freeing the Heart and Mind, which is focused on the development of compassion and the bodhisattva ideal, is broken into three sections. In the first section, entitled “The Life Story of Mahasiddha Virupa,” Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen provides a biographical account of Virupa, a mahasiddha of the Sakya lineage. Then, in “Training the Mind in Matchless Compassion,” we are presented with a meditation on compassion, originally delivered by Virupa himself. Finally, His Holiness the Forty-First Sakya Trizin, the current head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, explains the significance of Virupa’s meditation and guides us on how to properly perform it. This reading was rife with unfamiliar Buddhist concepts and terminology, and when necessary I consulted outside sources to get a better handle on the text.

In Virupa’s biography, we learn that he was a very unusual monk, both in his superb mastery of Buddhist doctrine and in his peculiar, and at times improper, behavior. Virupa, who was born between the seventh and eighth centuries CE, renounced the worldly pleasures of Indian royalty to join the monastic community. Though initially dissatisfied with his meditation practice, he eventually attained full enlightenment after encountering Vajra Nairatmya and other goddesses in a dream. The goddesses “bestowed upon him profound and complete initiation, empowering him into their mandala” (22). In Vajrayana, this empowerment is part of an initiation ritual in which the practitioner is instructed in tantric practice. As a mahasiddha, or tantric practitioner, Virupa gained liberation (moksha) and supernatural powers (siddhis) once he completed his instruction.

Once enlightened, Virupa continued to meditate in the monastery. Soon the other monks began noticing Virupa engaging in strange and inappropriate behavior, such as frequenting bars and brothels. They declared him to be improper and expelled him from the monastery; however they later forgave him once they recognized his power. Virupa began traveling around India, performing miraculous feats—e.g., reanimating dead insects, controlling the Ganges River, controlling the sun, destroying Vedic statues with his mind—and converting “heretical” yogis who were astonished and terrified by his powers. Eventually, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara appeared and advised him to stop using terror and violence to achieve compassionate ends—e.g., to stop the slaughter of animals. After using his powers one last time to “tame” the Hindu deity Shiva, Virupa heeds this advice. His legacy: “through his spiritual power, the lord of mahasiddhas Virupa spread the Buddha’s doctrine and tamed heretics” (31).

In the next two sections, we see Virupa’s “Matchless Compassion” meditation and His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s explanation of it. We are shown the importance of developing compassion and the Awakening Mind (bodhicitta). The Bodhisattva Ideal is fundamentally important to Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, and the path of the bodhisattva requires us to be motivated by a sense of compassion for all sentient beings. To do this, Mahayana and Tantric meditations help us cultivate compassion for all people, even our enemies. We are told that those people who harm us in this lifetime were friends and family in other lifetimes, a reminder that we must transcend the animosity we feel toward those who cause us harm, for the superficial and karmically-conditioned aspects of personality that cause people to harm others conceal the deeper common bond of personhood. His Holiness explains that the way to cultivate widespread compassion is by expanding our compassion, starting with those closest to us and gradually directing it toward larger and larger groups, until we are directing compassion toward all. Other techniques His Holiness offers include contemplating on the fact that those who cause us harm are not in control of their mind, and pitying them for the great torment they risk facing in the hell realms.

Virupa is an intriguing figure and his peculiar behavior raises interesting questions. After attaining enlightenment, we are told he was “equal to that of a perfectly and fully enlightened Buddha” (22). And in Monday’s reading we learned that a Buddhist “must turn from worldly activities to religion by taking refuge in the Three Precious Jewels [i.e., the Sangha, the Buddha, and the Dharma]” (Kapstein, 216). So why is Virupa engaging in behavior indicating attachment to worldly things (e.g., prostitution, intoxicants)? Virupa’s aggressive terrorizing of “heretics” was also a strange thing for a master of compassion to be engaged in, even if it was done in the name of ending suffering—e.g., of animals. Do we expect the enlightened to act differently?

As always, I am also interested in the symbolic or allegorical significance of these biographical stories. If we doubt, as most of us would, that Virupa literally held the sun in one place with his mind, what purpose does such a tale serve? Is it simply an exaggeration of the less dubious claim that Virupa had mastered spiritual meditation and had attained a level of control over his mental faculties that most others do not ever attain? Yet, tantric practice is believed by many to give the practitioner supernatural powers (siddhis), so presumably Tibetans do actually believe Virupa was capable of such miraculous feats. Where does myth diverge from reality?

Finally, it would be interesting to discuss the differences between monks and nuns with respect to tantric practice. Are nuns able to receive the same type of “empowerment”?

11 thoughts on ““Freeing the Heart and Mind” — Strange Behavior

  1. I have been struggling with the fact that in order to read some of these accounts, I have had to think of them as stories . But by thinking about them allegorically or symbolically, we are basically preventing ourselves from truly understanding this religion, and not giving it the legitimacy it deserves. We should not be focusing on finding out the true meaning behind everything, but just accepting them as they are.

    • While there may be sometime to be said for accepting them as they are, what we are doing in an academic class like this is trying to understand the religion and its practices, stories, teachings, and so on. So it is important to ask questions that get at the heart of what these stories mean, at least for the religion’s adherents. Now perhaps the answer is that, for a Buddhist, these stories are to be taken literally. But on the other hand, perhaps they are rather seen as conveying some non-literal truth, via symbolism or allegory. But we need to ask these questions if we are to have any hope of getting an answer.

      I think what you might be getting at is that by deconstructing religion we are taking something away from it, or that by approaching them academically we risk missing the larger point. But we have already committed ourselves to an academic approach, so we ought to do the best we can with that in mind.

  2. When reading this piece I couldn’t help but wonder about the fact that the monastery expelled Virupa from the monastery due to inappropriate behavior, but begged for his forgiveness only after he attained enlightenment. Does this sudden change in opinion of Virupa due to his enlightenment imply that one’s poor actions are less important than their spiritual attainment? Does spiritual enlightenment forgive one of all of their bad actions? I’m interested in the answer to these because I always believed that one’s spiritual enlightenment hinged on their actions, and were not separate concepts.

  3. When reading this excerpt I found it interesting that there is such a strong emphasis on compassion, even for ones enemies. I was slightly confused, however, when the text explains why you should feel compassion towards the enemy. What does the author mean when he states “One reason is that the enemy has been your mother not once or twice but many times”?

    • I think the idea is that, because people have most likely lived very many past lives, it is likely that this person who is harming you was your mother in a past life. We take on many relative roles and it just so happens that in this life one of us is harming the other.

  4. During this piece, I understood that one must forgive their enemy, but at what point is forgiving useless? Is there a certain line that gets crossed when one does not forgive their enemy? Is there, say, a scale to which levels of animosity are judged?

  5. I actually want to echo the question that Lizzie posed: does the dramatic change of opinion about Virupa mean that there is more importance placed on spiritual enlightenment? I found myself also wondering if in the Buddhist tradition, becoming enlightened immediately rights all wrongs a person may have committed in their life. Overall, I found the text pretty interesting, and as Araceli mentioned, I’m still getting used to reading these texts as stories rather than academic pieces. While it’s definitely taken some getting used to, I think that I am finally able to understand the various texts.

  6. I feel like most of the stories recorded must be exaggerated. It is hard to believe a man who is enlightened would visit brothels and bars. I could see him doing some of the deeds it is said he did, however, some seem too far fetched. I also find it intriguing about how the Buddhists have a “turn the other cheek” metaphor. I haven’t heard that ideal in anything besides Catholicism or Christianity.

  7. I think Lizzie and Araceli both touched on the two points that were bugging me the most. To accept these readings as stories does seem to me as not appreciating the religion for what it was because we take them and try to convert them into our “western” way of thinking. It is hard to relate them to a religion that is unfamiliar so we relate it to what is familiar. On the other point, the actual story was a bit confusing because it seemed as if the minute Virupa was enlightened, people actually started to accept him. It seemed very artificial the way it was all done because even though he didn’t change, the way everybody else treated him changed drastically which begs the question, is all they care about the title?

  8. Virupa’s beer story or river fare story seemed rather selfish to me, and unrelated to the Buddhist doctrine. Perhaps it was merely an anecdote to prove his yogic powers? Still, these stories were a petty display of magic that did not necessarily require enlightenment. I honestly found the disparity of violence and compassion more interesting than bothering, but these two stories just annoyed me a bit.

  9. I have noticed you don’t monetize your website, don’t waste your traffic, you
    can earn extra cash every month because you’ve got hi quality content.
    If you want to know how to make extra money, search for:
    Mrdalekjd methods for $$$

Leave a Reply