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The Buddhist System of Liberation

TO DEFINE PRECISELY a basic system of Buddhist practice is an impossibility because of the great number of schools and styles both in India and Tibet. However, it is possible to form a general picture of the Buddhist system of the Great vehicle as explained by Milarepa in many of his songs and stories.

Taking into account that his explanation and emphasis varied according to his audience, we cannot reconstruct a brief "stages of the path" text wherein the basic elements of the Smaller, Great, and Tantric Vehicles are placed into perspectives in a consistent effective system.This shows that even at this early stage in Tibet there was a tendency to integrate the three vehicles and diverse schools of Indian Buddhism into a unified system.

The following excerpts are from "Mila's First Meditation" and "Rechungpa's Mahamudra Pride," both from the large collection Stories and songs from the Oral Tradition of Jetsum Milarepa, from which all material in these pages are drawn. The first step is to understand the leisure and opportunity for liberation provided by well-endowed human life:

The fragile body of flesh and blood endowed with a subjective consciousness results from the twelvefold chain of dependent origination-ignorance and so on. It is the great ship of leisure and opportunity for those endowed with merit and the urge for liberation. However, for the evil-natured who use it to pile up sin upon sin it is a guide leading them to lower states. It stands on the boundary between development and degeneration. I have understood in the nick of time this critical situation, which can lead to lasting good or lasting ill.

Mila explains the general condition of samsara, or cyclic, mundane existence, in this way:
Living beings of the six realms (the life-forms of samsaric existence). afflicted with ignorance and attracted to illusionary appearances, have been bewildered throughout beginningless samsara. They take what is selfless to be a self-what is egoless to be an ego-and thus are adrift on the ocean of samsaric misery through compulsive attachment to the imprints of evil action.

Every action, every experience, has left its traces imprinted on our minds in the forms of "seeds" for the recurrence of such experiences. The primary imprinting is that of ignorance, which engenders the mistaken world view of the existence of egos in persons and identities in things just as they appear to the ordinary individual. In the wake of this mistaken gut feeling about the nature of our experience the afflictive emotions of attraction, aversion, and so on are brought into play.

Now to explain the inner workings of this: beings wonder in samsara due to the action of the twelve causal links of dependent origination. First, ignorance-that is "not knowing," not understanding," not realizing" (the actual condition of the objects and events of our experience)- provides the condition for the synthetic operation ( of the elements of the samsaric existence). This process continues up to the inevitable miseries of recurrent birth, sickness, aging, and death.


This chain of dependent origination is the process by which beings are born repeatedly into the samsaric condition with its six life-states: Hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, gods, and anti-gods. The state and condition of their births and lives is determined by their re-actions (karma) to experience in previous lives. The majority of beings take lower rebirth (as hell beings, hungry ghosts, or animals) through the force of bad action. Such lower states are miserable, and even lives in the (three) higher states have a nature of misery.

The way to correct this sequence is to understand at the beginning the difficulty of obtaining the leisure and opportunity (of well-endowed human life)-that such leisure and opportunity found only once in a hundred births is impermanent and that the time of death is uncertain. You must reflect on the fact that there's no telling where you'll be reborn after dying, and since we are inexorably impelled by the force of action, you must consider the cause-effect relationship of action. So according to Mila, the first stepm is to have a thorough understanding of the samsaric condition and its causes, to meditate on misery, death, and impermanence to quicken the initial impulse for freedom into a powerful drive for liberation, and to understand that our present human existence is the best possible opportunity for overthrowing the oppression of ignorance and achieving such liberation.

Motivated by these understandings one then enters the door of actual Buddhist practice:
For protection from lower births, caused by the force of evil deeds, Lama and the Triple Gem are the sole refuge. In all Buddhist schools the beginner takes refuge in the Triple Gem consisting of the Buddha, who is able to guide others through his own freedom from samsara (samsara), the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (the community of practitioners). This refuge doesn't involve denial of worldly pursuits but places them in perspective with regard to these effective guides to liberation. Since the Triple Gem cannot at first be a living presence to us, the lama (guru) is their living representative.

Thus in Tibet the lama is placed first in importance even to the buddhas, for it is through him that we'll eventually meet the buddhas. Mila calls this understanding of commitment to a lama " the first key for great importance." After this it's necessary to rely on a basis constituted by whichever of the vows for personal liberation are appropriate (to oneself), with an urge for liberation from samsara compelled by reflection on death, impermanence, the cause-effect relationship of action, and the difficulty of finding the leisure and opportunity (of human life again).

The commitment to personal liberation (pratimoksa) refers to the vows of the Small Vehicle, which serve as guidelines for behaviour conductive to (nirvana), one's own liberation from misery. Hence the name "Small Vehicle" -one that can carry just oneself. It's necessary to expand this motivation further. The Great Vehicle encompasses all sentient beings in its scope, for in fact, all life is inextricably bound together, and the struggle for enlightenment must be pursued for the sake of everyone.

Mila explains this as follows: 

Reference: Drinking the Mountain Stream: Song's of Tibet's Beloved Saint: Milarepa

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