(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”?