Wandering across the snowy mountains of Tibet and Nepal in the 11th century, the yogi Milarepa cut a unique figure. His skin had turned green after years of subsisting only on nettle soup while meditating in solitude. Having mastered the yogic practice of tummo inner heat, he had taken to wearing nothing but a thin cotton loin-cloth summer and winter—earning him the nickname “repa” (literally “man who wears cotton”), which, when his family name was added to it, became “Milarepa.”
Not only was his appearance eccentric, but Milarepa’s songs were also startling: he challenged his listeners with teasing caricatures of their behavior, unveiled the ego-plays behind their thought-patterns, and inspired them with his wisdom and compassion. Shepherds, farmers, landowners, bandits, doctors, young and old, men and women—Milarepa shared the dharma with all of them. Patrons sought out this unconventional yogi as he meditated in natural retreats, asking for his teachings. Sometimes he walked into their homes, appeared at a country inn, a ceremony or a gathering, and burst into songs on the spot. One of the most enduring messages of the great Milarepa, both by personal example and in his songs, is to take all samsaric appearances as the path.
In “Songs of Happiness,” Milarepa sings these verses to Teacher Dre:
All sentient beings have Buddha nature
With an instruction pointing out great awareness
Wherever I stay looks like a castle
Whomever I meet is a deity
Whatever I do unfolds in the expanse of reality.
Taking all appearances as the path means that whatever presents itself is equally a teaching on emptiness so that, for Milarepa, the realms of samsara are like magical mansions. The manifold forms of the universe that arise are not separate from emptiness; they are indistinguishable from it. The notion that appearances are solid and permanent, and the notion that emptiness is nothingness or nihilism, are mere mental constructs.
This excerpt is taken from the introduction in Nicole Riggs' new book, Milarepa: Songs on the Spot.. Details on the book are available here.