Monastic Buddhism in the Medieval Period - Milarepa and the Yogins of Tibet

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Monastic Buddhism in the Medieval Period
Reform Movements: Tantric yogis and Forest monks
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Milarepa and the Yogins of Tibet


Then there is the Tibetan yogi (male or female), particularly characterized by the most famous yogi of all, Milarepa.
Milarepa never became a monk. His inspiration came directly out of the Buddhist tradition of the 84 Mahasiddhas of India. He was a young man who, to revenge harm done to his mother, at first turned to sorcery. It is said that through sorcery he succeeded in killing his mother's enemies. This success, however, led to a deep sense of remorse, which only Marpa, the translator, could remove by causing Milarepa to perform acts of severe penance.
After tremendous suffering and hardship, Milarepa was freed of his remorse. Marpa then instructed Milarepa in the secret practice of Çandali (see The Six Yogas of Naropa). This Tantric practice, inherited from the Siddhas of the ancient India, involved a number of spiritual exercises that work directly on the nerves and psychic energies of the body and mind. By raising Çandali to the fontanel, the yogi is rapidly absorbed into the trance of Samadhi. With the right instruction and guidance, this can be the so called "fast track" to Enlightenment. It is a way, however, not without certain psychophysical dangers, which must be carefully navigated.
Having received instruction in the Çandali practice, Milarepa then spent years as a yogi wandering from place to place in the Himalayan mountains, living in caves, while practicing meditation.
The lifestyle of the yogi and yogini, exemplified by Milarepa, has since then been copied by innumerable Tibetans for many generations. Young men or women, following a Lama, have again and again taken to mountains or out into nature, and there sought Enlightenment by full immersion into the spiritual life.
Milarepa's sole costume was a thin white cotton robe. Nevertheless he lived and traveled through some of the harshest terrain known to man, in the dead of winter. Only his supreme mastery of mind and body made it possible for him to survive under such conditions. In this regard, he was exceptional, and other yogis have taken somewhat easier routes.
Milarepa stands at the headwaters of the present Kagyu monastic tradition. He was not a monk himself, but his influence on Kagyu monastic life is tremendous. Once that monks and nuns realized that the Buddha originally intended for them to dedicate themselves to meditation, and a meditation tradition was revived in the monasteries, those who in earlier ages left monasticism so as to seek the experience of the Siddhas in the forest, now streamed back again to those monasteries where meditation was being practiced. Kagyu monasteries in Tibet became famous as centers were real Enlightenment could be won, as in the Buddha's age.