“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”?

Buddhism: Calm Peace or Violet Compassion?

In an excerpt from “The Life Story of Mahasiddha Virupa,” a chapter in His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s book Freeing the Heart and Mind, he describes the life story of Virupa, a master of the Buddhist text and practice. Virupa had a similar background to Siddhartha Gautama; he began as an upper class member of a royal family, but gave up his riches to become a monk and study at Nalanda University. He studied hard, excelled, and rose to the top. However, he never quite managed to achieve highly in meditation. He got frustrated and nearly gave up, but a goddess came to him in his sleep, instructing him how to reach enlightenment. Over time, “his realization was equal to that of a perfectly and fully enlightened Buddha (22).”

From there, he meditated constantly in his room, and other people claimed to see women, liquor, and oil lamps inside his room. Because of this, he decided to leave the university and he began to frequent bars and see prostitutes. The other monks decided to expel him from their community. After Virupa left the university, he set out on a journey and performed many miracles (similar to Jesus’s role in Christianity). He began by parting the waters of the Ganges to walk across it. Then, he escaped from heavy chains that people bound him with to drown him. He reversed the flow of the Ganges (causing a flood), he held back the sun (in order to drink up all the beer in a store without paying), he broke a shrine to Shiva to demonstrate his power, he mobilized a statue, and he destroyed a shrine run by heretics.

Through his actions, he gathered many followers and several people converted to Buddhism. However, he received warnings to stop wreaking havoc everywhere he went in the name of Buddhism. Despite these warnings, he challenged the Hindu god Shiva himself, and successfully gets him to follow his orders.

In another chapter of the book, “Training the Mind in Matchless Compassion: Pith Instructions of the Glorious Virupa,” His Holiness Sakya Trizin details meditative processes for how to feel compassion for everyone in the world. He tries to teach everyone how to embrace people that they hate by meditating and reflecting upon their enemies.

The two chapters struck me as an odd contrast to each other. In the first story, Virupa succeeds and gains power by obstructing people who challenge him with magic. Even when Virupa is warned to stop being so destructive, he carries out his original plans and receives positive reinforcement for his actions. The author clearly venerates Virupa and holds him in high esteem, regardless of what he left in ruins on his trajectory. This chapter seems to validate and accept the use of violence for the sake of Buddhism. However, the next chapter conveys quite an opposite message: it seems to be saying that if problems exist between two people, they should both just meditate and learn to accept the other person. A dichotomy exists between these forms of Buddhism: fierce propagation of Buddhism versus an introspective and individualistic search for inner compassion. Overall, I was surprised by the amount of brutality found in the reading. My question is: how accepted should violence be in the context of Buddhism? Is it appropriate for Buddhists to fight for their religion (as people have done in other religions) or does that go against the fundamental values of Buddhism?

Religion in Tibet

In Matthew Kapstein’s book “Religious Life and Thought, he spends a chapter focusing on traditions in Tibet. His main argument is that a proliferation of religions exists in such a small and scarcely populated area as Tibet. Each Tibetan has his or her own way of connecting to the spiritual world. To begin with, not only traditional Buddhism exists in the region. Muslims, Christians, and Jews inhabit Tibet, along Bön, a sect of Buddhism that pulls traditions from India, Iran and China (205).

A majority of Tibetans identify with Buddhism and/or Bön. Monastic life is extremely important there. Monasteries dot the Tibetan landscape, and the biggest ones hold hundreds or even thousands of monks (220). Though monks held a lot of importance, Kapstein brings up a lot of the same gender issues that Kim Gustchow mentioned in previous readings: “Nuns in most places suffered from economic privation,” and nunneries “seldom had resources to provide more than a rudimentary education” (219).

The monks in Tibet have enough resources to be able to specialize. For many, living in a monastery provides an opportunity to gain access to higher education; several monks pursue a variety of academic subjects in order to become a monk-scholar. Other monks around Lhasa become warrior monks, and they are known for their “rough manners, their penchant for gang violence, and, on occasion, homosexual aggression” (221). They act as policemen sometimes. Other monks immerse themselves fully in tantric practices, such as meditation and yoga. The highest point a monk could reach is the combination of both scholarship and tantric skill.

Laypeople participate in pilgrimages and festivals to celebrate their Buddhist roots. They spend time at religious shrines, and they also travel to holy places such as Mount Kailash. Everyone participates in festivals, but tantric rituals are reserved for only select, highly accomplished monks.

Tibetans also belong to the “nameless” or “popular” religion (205). They perform various rites for local gods and goddesses. These deities do not come from Buddhism, but they are accepted and incorporated into the religion in the same way that Christians accept the pagan winter festival as “Christmas” (206). The daily practices involve a lot of regulation of the relationship between the gods and humans; for example, if something goes wrong, Tibetans recite certain prayers to try to appease the gods and reset the balance of the world. Shamans perform exorcisms to rid areas of demons, as well. Divination is also a common practice among locals. Most of the local spirit worship involves keeping gods happy and getting rid of demons.

Given the different ways to practice Buddhism, and the hundreds of different gods found in different regions of Tibet, each Tibetan has a unique way of observing his or her own beliefs. I found it incredible that so many deities, spirits, and monsters could all be accepted under the same religion as “Buddhism” with no problems. Because Buddhism seems so individualistic in Tibet, how malleable can the boundaries of Buddhism be before someone’s practices no longer conform to the religion? How does one balance worshipping both the larger gods within Buddhism and the smaller divinities specific to local areas?

Religion in Tibet: A Peculiar Display of Integration

Chapter 7 of Kapstein’s “The Tibetans” provides a general overview of religion in the Tibetan region, including traditions besides Buddhism such as the Bön religion or the autochthonous beliefs. The text encompasses information regarding traditions and rituals that originate before Buddhism, a brief explanation of Tibetan Buddhism, and monasticism and its role.

The introduction to the chapter begins with mention of the “nameless religion” prevalent in Tibet that centers on cults of local divinities and spirits (205). Interestingly, the tradition still remains integrated into Buddhism and Bön, accepted as it is. Household traditions of offering juniper incense to the gods of the local environment, curative practices of medicine, or even exorcistic rituals of evils such as the ‘gossip-girl’ are all examples of this tradition (212). The acknowledgement of Divination (astrological, augural, systemized understanding) is accepted both by Bönpo and Buddhists, as seen in examples of pronouncements delivered through possessed medium for essential Buddhist events such as the transfer of power to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition shows great interest in death, and perform rituals for the ‘bardo’ (intermediate state between life and death) especially to secure favorable rebirths for the departed, and to prevent the sprits from haunting the living (214).

Primarily, Tibetan Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, which means that adherents must not simply seek for personal nirvana, but cultivate compassion for all living beings (216). The idea of rebirth takes an important role in Tibetan Buddhism, and gaining merit is especially emphasized. The Bön religion is said to be similar in its general outlines. This doctrine acts as the fundamental basis of Tibetan religion heavily affecting lay life as it does monastic life.

Kapstein then goes on to explain monasticism and its role in society. The monastery functioned as a concentration of cultural resources such as education or the arts, while also serving as an absorbent of surplus labor (219). Monastic life was not limited to religious practice, but also regularly involved in commerce or administration. Literacy, and the study of philosophy (emphasizing on the art of debate) were almost exclusive to the monastics. Through debate, monastics could develop their understanding of Buddhist philosophy and doctrine, at times even earning titles such as geshe or khenpo (depending on the order) (224). Apart from scholarly religious study, tantrism and yoga plays a significant role in Tibetan Buddhists. Being a complex system that requires initiation from a guru, extensive meditation and practice (yoga), tantrism is a way to attain enlightenment in one lifetime. Scholar-monks and tantric yogins while distinct are both highly valued in Tibetan culture.

The chapter continues with an explanation of the major orders of Tibetan Buddhism and ends with the importance of pilgrimage and cycles of celebration in Tibetan culture. Despite the fact that this was a chapter from a book, it surprisingly didn’t require too much context. The information was not too difficult and displayed very interesting parts of Tibetan religious life that I hadn’t known of. The integration of tradition into the later ‘foreign’ religions (Buddhism, Bön) mesmerized me and portrayed the uniqueness of Tibetan religious life. However, one part that bothered me was the lack of organization within the chapter. When reading the introduction and the first sub-chapter, I felt excited to learn more about the integration of tradition into Buddhism, and its influence in culture. However, going into the second sub-chapter and beyond, the text started to skip around introducing different concepts, which felt less unique and comprehensive of Tibetan religion. Monasticism through debate and tantrism made me concentrate again, but then the sub-chapter regarding the major orders seemed to lose the color of the chapter. Personally, to me the chapter also ended without a comprehensive conclusion.

So, naturally I wanted to ask the class whether they approved of the organization of this text. Regarding content, reading the text I wondered if the integration of local traditions to the introduced unified religion was in fact a common pattern all over the world. The text briefly mentioned Christmas as a pagan tradition. It felt as if I could have been treating Tibet as an excessively special culture, without knowing about cultures more familiar to us that share similar examples of integration. I also wanted to know more about the Bön religion, since Kapstein used examples from the Bön religion only to prove similarities to Buddhism or integration of the “nameless religion”, and did not provide an overview of the Bön religion. For instance, I knew of the existence of Bön but had never known that it was originally foreign like Buddhism (205). Finally, how pilgrimage to sacred places happens in the modern world of Chinese occupation was also a sad curiosity that came to mind.

Difficult Transitions

In the three articles “Kumaris: The Temporary Child-Goddesses of Nepal” by Jesse Pesta, “Meet Nepal’s Living Goddesses” by Isabella Tree, and “The Very Strange Life of Nepal’s Child Goddess” by Julie McCarthy, the authors explore the difficult transitions kumaris face once they hit puberty and have to return to a normal life.

In the three articles, the writers explain the practice of worshipping kumaris, child-goddesses that are the “living embodiment of Durga, the Hindu goddess of strength and protection” (Pesta 1). Hindu holy men choose these kumaris after considering the child’s zodiac, determining whether the child possesses the “’32 characteristics’ of physical perfection,” and conducting several other tests that would help determine which child is the living goddess (McCarthy 3). Once the kumari is selected, she holds her reign until she reaches puberty or loses any blood. Kumaris is rarely seen once she is chosen, living an isolated existence in which she is carried around because her feet cannot touch the ground.

Pesta’s article, “Kumaris: The Temporary Child-Goddesses of Nepal,” emphasizes the importance of the kumari tradition during the time of the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Nepal in April. While many of the buildings in central Kathmandu were badly damaged or destroyed, the local kumari’s home remained intact. Those faithful to the kumari tradition saw this as a sign of the her power; they believe that they survived the earthquake because of the “blessings of the goddess” (Pesta 4). The article (as do the other two articles) also discusses the need to educate kumaris during their reign so they are not as far behind in their education when they must join the real-world. Though some see the kumari tradition a violation of human rights, in a video interview attached to the article ex-kumari Chanira Bajracharya explains her belief that especially in a male-dominated country such as Nepal, “the kumari tradition gives an important message to the society that girls are to be respected” (Pesta).

McCarthy’s article, “The Very Strange Life of Nepal’s Child Goddess,” explores the experiences that Bajracharya had as a kumari in more detail. She recalls during her reign that she felt “a distinct physical sensation when the force was present in her” and during that time she “understood people’s ‘wishes and granted them'” (McCarthy 5). She explains that there was a supreme being that manifested her body and made decisions for her. Feelings of greatness are heightened by “the culture,” “the religion,” and “the state” which “subsidizes Kumaris with a small stipend in recognition of their service” (5). The article also reveals that the reasons a kumari must retire once they hit puberty is because it makes them more susceptible to the distractions of young men and as a child grows older, “she will be tempted to tell the secrets of the temple” (5). However, much of the information about the kumari (what she knows/does) is a mystery because she is a goddess and, if she were to share those things with the rest of the world, she would be nothing but a “common woman” (5).

Although Pesta and McCarthy’s articles were very informative, I found Tree’s article, “Meet Nepal’s Living Goddesses” the most interesting because it traces the experiences of a girl and her family as she goes through the steps to become a kumari. While I was reading it I felt that Tree was much more involved in the actual experience of the kumaris than Pesta and McCarthy, making the writing feel more genuine. In her article, Unika is in the process of becoming a kumari and her father expresses his concerns with the situation. Though being the parents of a child goddess is an honor, he was worried about the costs of having a kumari daughter. These costs include the price of “special clothes and make up” and creating a space of worship in the house with a throne in which the kumari can receive visitors. The family would have to perform daily worship rituals, the kumari would have to be carried everywhere, she would have to be put on a strict diet, and everything in the house would have to be kept “ritually pure” (Tree 2). In addition to all of this, she would not have a proper education and it would be difficult to find a man to marry her because “men are superstitious about marrying ex-kumaris” making it very difficult to assimilate to the real world once her reign is over.

I found these three readings incredibly interesting, but I think as a whole, a lot of the information was redundant. As I mentioned before, I found “Meet Nepal’s Living Goddesses” the most intriguing because of how involved Tree was in the process – she seemed to make a real personal connection with Unika and her family and watching Unika change into the kumari over time brought a fresh perspective. Though looking at ex-kumaris sheds a lot of light on some of the faults in the system, it was interesting to look at, in detail, how the kumari is chosen and the dilemmas that families face leading up to a daughter becoming a kumari.

The concept of the kumari giving the people of Kathmandu hope after such a devastating natural disaster made me wonder what the class thinks about the relationship (if there is any) between religion and optimism. Is somebody who believes in a higher power more likely to look optimistically toward the future?

The disconnect between the people declaring this tradition a violation of human rights and the people who follow the tradition/the women who have served as kumaris also brings me back to the question: whose responsibility is it to determine what religious practices are “okay” to practice?

I thought it was interesting that in the kumari tradition, they trust younger children with secrets more than older adolescents. Growing up, the younger children would never be informed of any secrets because they were thought to be more likely to slip, so it was a very new concept for me. Reading this section made me wonder how they ensure that the outgoing kumari won’t share the “secrets of the temple” as they grow older and less inclined to keep those secrets.

I also found it interesting how the kumari comes from a Buddhist family, but she is considered a reincarnation of Durga, a Hindu goddess. It made me wonder why Buddhist families are willing to put forth their daughters for this position. How does being a kumari affect ones religious beliefs?