Monastic Buddhism in the Medieval Period - Reform Movements: Tantric yogis and Forest monks

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Monastic Buddhism in the Medieval Period
Reform Movements: Tantric yogis and Forest monks
The Vydyadhara in India, Myanmar and Tibet
Milarepa and the Yogins of Tibet
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Reform Movements: Tantric yogis and Forest monks

The ideal of the Enlightened One did not disappear, even though the culture hero of the age was epitomized by the great Pandit.
Whenever the meditation tradition dies out amongst a Buddhist population, certain individuals eventually come forth to revive it. This has happened over and over in Buddhism.
However, a return to meditation was not always possible within monasteries, were the contemplative tradition was superseded by rigid adherence to rules and rituals. Quite apart from encouraging scholastic pursuits, monasteries in the Medieval Period focused on keeping the vows and the routine of living a pure life as a monk, with the consequence that actual meditation practice was put on the back burner. Since this resulted in no one attaining interior spiritual experience, the word went out that saints (aryas) were a phenomena of the past. As the Medieval Period deepened, monastic life continued to become more and more stagnant.
Around 700 A.D. numbers of monks started "dropping out" of the monasteries, and to a very large degree, dropping out of society altogether. Often adopting low caste employment as a means of support, these monastically trained and often very learned "drop outs", took to the life of Yogis and Yoginis in pursuit of inner wisdom. These mystics were frequently referred to as Siddhas or adepts, practitioners of Tantric Buddhism, and they were noted for performing saintly miracles.

Besides the meditation manuals expounding Yogaçara doctrine, the secret lore of the Siddhas was encapsulated in a number of unique mystical scriptures known as the Tantras. The story goes that the first of these secret treatises to appear in the world were brought to this planet by non terrestrial beings.
The historical transmission is very briefly related as follows: The esoteric teachings, the Secret Tantra, originally came from the primordial Buddha Mind itself and reached the human world in three successive levels of transmission or stages, each a step down from the former. These are known as the mind transmission of the Buddhas, the symbolic transmission of the extra terrestrial Vydyadharas, and the oral transmission of the (human) sages.

The intermediary in this transmission of information occurred in the communication of wisdom through non verbal symbol bits, passed—so it was said—from celestial Insight Holders (Vydyadhara) to Bodhisattva masters on the physical plane, whose minds had become fully ripened to receive the truth. The Insight Holders indicate the knowledge through symbols, and the ascended masters comprehend the perfect meaning and translate it into conceptual thought. It was the latter who then expressed it in human language.
It is said that the Tantra was brought to this world through two channels of symbolic transmission: first, transmission to a further level of extra terrestrial Insight Holders, and secondly, transmission through extra terrestrial Insight Holders to certain terrestrial (human) Insight Holders.
In the old Tibetan text, the sPyi-mDo dGongs-'Dus, it is said:

"On the summit of Mount Dragshul Chan, to the Bodhisattva friend in human form, the sacred essence of the Knowledge, as revealed under the directive of the Vajra Holder, was transmitted from the solar systems (çakravala) of the Shining-ones."

The Bodhisattva friend mentioned in this account was a great master of our world named Vimalakirti, who is said to have received what are called the "sixty-four fundamental Tantras" from four extra terrestrial beings, the Deva Dragden Chogkyong, the Naga Jogpa, the Yaksha Karda Dong, and the Raksha Lodro Thubten. (It is interesting to speculate from the fact that the word Tantra means "thread", that what is being said here is that Vimalakirti, the human sage, received from four non-human beings an awakening of the 64 threads of selectively encoded data that lie locked in the human gene bank. There are exactly 64 DNA cordons in the genetic repository of the human body, just as there are 64 squares in the game of chess, 64 symbolic bits that, when triggered, release the full compliment of human knowledge into consciousness. The four beings are in one sense earlier archetypes for the four lineage streams that Tilopa incorporated into his oral transmission, now known as the Kagyu.) This legendary transmission is said to mark the historical origin of the Tantric tradition, the origin of the "Golden Rosary of Knowledge" that, when later translated into human thought and written down, was intended to reveal the way whereby men and women can awaken their full potential as evolving creatures on this planet, in what (in the ancient Buddhist scriptures) is called our Saha solar system, or Saha çakravala.
The written Tantra texts as we possess them are frequently incomplete, and it is said that they are but the fragmentary redactions of earlier root texts (mula tantra) now lost. These transmitted redactions are the sacred treatises that taught the science of the first Buddhist (and Hindu) Siddhas and great yogis of the past.
There is a well known group of Siddhas, both male and female, who because of the lengthy commentaries on the Tantras, the practical meditation manuals, the spiritual poetry, and the other religious writings that they authored, are remembered in history as the 84 Mahasiddhas, the 84 Great Adepts. While some of these adepts were monks and retained their monastic vows, we find that many did not. This was because of the fact, explained above, that during the late Medieval Period monastic life had actually become contrary to the path of Enlightenment. The 84 Great Adepts were the founders of various lineages of spiritual practice.
An example of the Mahasiddhas may well be demonstrated by the life of the Nepalese Siddha Maitripa. (5) Born near Kapilavastu, in southern Nepal, Maitripa received a thorough Brahmin education up to the age of eighteen. He then joined Vikramasila monastery and came under the influence of the Mahapandita ("great scholar") Naropa, from whom he studied the logic systems of Dignaga and Dharmakirti, the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nagarjuna, and then, for two years, the epistemological hermeneutics of the Prajnaparamitra Sutra. He then met Ratnakarasanti, from whom he began to gain an understanding of Yogaçara mental theory. Finally, at the age of 21, he received the Bhikshu ordination according to the Sammitiya Order and was given the name Bhikshu Maitrigupta. He was unmatched in his erudition.
Naropa was one of the greatest scholars in India at that time. However, one day, while he was resting beneath the outspread branches of a tree, reading a particularly profound philosophical text, an old lady who was a yogini came up to him. She asked him if he could understand the words of the text that he was reading and he said yes, he could. At this she showed great happiness. But when he also answered in the affirmative to the question as to whether he understood the meaning of the text, she showed great distress. In this way she shocked Naropa into the realization that all his vaunted knowledge was simply intellectual; he did not have an experiential, mystical comprehension of the Buddha's path. He was like someone who knew everything about the makeup, molecular structure and dietary aspects of ice cream, but had never actually tasted ice cream, and therefore had no actual experience of what ice cream really was. In this sense, his knowledge of Dharma was purely speculative and intellectual. He had no actual experience of the Enlightened state. He merely possessed book knowledge.
"Who does know the meaning?" he asked. The old yogini told Naropa to seek out her brother, the homeless yogi Tilopa. This resulted in Naropa abandoning his life of scholarship altogether, in search of experiential Truth. Naropa became a disciple of Tilopa.
Naropa's discipleship under Tilopa would have occurred sometime after the period when Maitrigupta was studying at Vikramasila, since during that period Naropa was obviously still very much a professor at that University. Perhaps it was Naropa's example of leaving the university and monastic life that influenced Maitrigupta.
At any rate, at the age of twenty eight, Maitrigupta underwent a distinct revulsion for scholastic learning, very similar to that ascribed to Naropa. The historian Pema Karpo reports that a young girl of sixteen years and great beauty appeared to Maitrigupta. "Do not stay here," she reportedly said. "In the East, in the temple of Khasarpana, there is Avalokitesvara. Go and receive teaching from him." She then disappeared. (6)
Maitrigupta traveled in stages to Khasarpana. There he remained for one year, praying assiduously, but nevertheless not finding the master that he sought. Again in a dream he received a message, this time by a white male figure, who told him to travel to south India, to Sri Parvata, a site famous as a place of worship to Avalokitesvara.
The journey to Sri Parvata was not an easy one, however while there, he learned about the Mahasiddha Savari. Maitrigupta traveled from place to place, trying to locate the Savari. For a while he settled at Vaktapad, where he recited Tara's mantra a hundred thousand times. After that he became convinced that he should pursue his search in the Manda Range of the eastern Vindhya Hills. This involved a fifteen day trek to the Vikrama Peak. On the twelfth day he reached the limits of his endurance and collapsed. Despondent over his failure, and now at the age of thirty, he felt like committing suicide. Just at that critical moment, the Guru Savari appeared. (7)
Savari means one who belongs to the Sabara tribe, an untouchable people even lower than the Dombis and Çandalas, who lived by hunting wild game in the Vindhya forest. Savaripa was a famous yogi of that tribe, a disciple of Saraha, who lived with two women consorts. When Maitrigupta first came across the Guru, he found him sitting on the ground, while his two consorts were picking lice from his hair. Maitrigupta, still an orthodox Bhikshu and from a high Brahmin caste, was momentarily shaken in his faith by this scene.
Maitrigupta's first thought was to return to his monastery. Then he considered, "If I go back now, I would lose face in front of all the monks and scholars there. Maybe I should have killed myself after all." Savari, seeing the perplexity on Matrigupta's face, asked him what was wrong.
"I have deserted my life of scholarship, forgotten all the doctrines, and now, finding nothing, contemplate suicide," Maitrigupta answered.
Savari, using the Madhyamaka philosophical language that Maitrigupta knew so well, then said, "Tell me: Where does one find this 'forgetting of all doctrines,' when in the first place all is non-originated? Where does one find this 'forgetting all doctrines,' when in the first place all is non-ceasing? If the entire threefold Universe has always been liberated from the beginning, as your philosophy says, then right now your innate Buddha nature must be present, however much it might seem obscured by ignorance."
At these words, sudden realization dawned on Maitrigupta. The actions and appearance of the Guru he then saw as a sign pointing out the non-originated Nature of all things. He therefore gained unequivocal faith in Savari, whom he recognized as a real embodiment of the compassionate Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in person.
After that Maitrigupta received secret Tantric Empowerment from Savari, and was given the name Advayapada, the one who abides (pada) beyond duality (dvaya). He then went and meditated in the forest as a yogi for twelve years.
Although his proper tantric name was Advayapada, he is perhaps better known in Kagyu history as Maitripa, one of the teachers of the Tibetan sage Marpa of Lhodrak.
It is said that by virtue of instruction, meditation and subsequent advice, there gradually developed in Advayapada an intuitive comprehension of Reality just as it is. He received a full experiential understanding of the knowledge of all the 64 Tantras. Thus he became a human Vydyadhara.
Having completed the path and come to know the intrinsic nature of mind, Advayapada's initial impulse was to continue to live in the forest for the rest of his life. The Mahasiddha Savari, however, pointed his finger at his disciple and admonished him, "What do you expect to accomplish without helping others? You have a fine intellect and education, therefore go and teach people the reality of the way that things are." In this manner Savari disposed of his pupil's illusions and sent him forth to pursue a career of writing and teaching.
The Mahasiddha Advayapada (Maitripa) returned to Bihar, middle India, were he proceeded to instruct large numbers of disciples. He is said to have composed some famous philosophic works at Sri Parvata and elsewhere. He became a leading exponent of Mahamudra, and under the name Maitripa is the author of a fundamental Mahamudra treatise of the Kagyu Linage.

Material was somewhat younger than the great Naropa, and began to earn considerable fame just as the latter came to the end of his life. In the eastern portion of India he founded a hermitage near the Mountain of Fire Cremation Ground, and he dwelt there, teaching disciples and writing treatises on yoga. He acquired four leading disciples, seven middling disciples, and ten minor disciples. The four leading disciples were named Sahajavajra, Rama, Sunyatasamadhi, and Vajrapani.
When his time came to die, he said to the latter, "Vajrapani, go and gather all the disciples." It is said that he then made extensive Offerings and gave his last Meditation Instructions. He passed away at the age of seventy five.
One characteristic of the historical 84 Mahasiddhas is that they are equally recognized by Buddhists and by Hindus. Apparently they were so universal in thought and practice, that they became recognized saints in both religious traditions.