The Kusāli Yogis
The book I am about to finish will deal with the convergence of Vinaya, Mahāmudrā, and tantric Yoga in the teachings of Jigten Sumgön. One chapter of the book shows how Jigten Sumgön envisions the ideal person in whom these three converge. It is the kusāli yogi who embodies this convergence.
We know from Jigten Sumgön’s biography by his nephew Sherab Jungné that Jigten Sumgön spent more than a decade in retreats of strict solitude. In his early years, he wandered from place to place, sometimes wearing nothing but rags, sleeping under the open sky. Eventually, he and his disciples became monastic, wore monastic robes, and ate food from the monasteryʼs kitchen. However, that does not mean they gave up the frugal lifestyle of earlier years. Even in the environment of the monastery, Jigten Sumgön continued to recommend wearing rags. He told the assembly:
Rags are sufficient as clothing. That includes discarded and also worn clothing. Discarded clothes are those others no longer want to wear and left behind. One collects these and cleans them. If in that way harmful influences were avoided, one can wear them. … Therefore, part of [the Buddhaʼs] teaching discourses is devoted to the merits of rags.
Jigten Sumgön talks here about the “twelve virtues of ascetic training.” These twelve virtues are the Buddha’s recommendations regarding frugality in the context of clothing, food, and places of residence. Although ascetic in style, they are not meant as a form of self-mortification. Instead, they are a way of life conducive to the practice of meditation.
In the vihāra of Phagmodrupa, where Jigten Sumgön spent almost three years, it was the rule that the disciples had to build their temporary hut within only a day. Phagmodrupa himself spent half of each month (during the waning moon) in retreat and taught the assembly during the afternoons of the other half while remaining in seclusion during the morning hours.
The shining examples of such a frugal lifestyle provided by the commentaries of the Single Intention mention Milarepa, Phagmodrupa, and Lama Zhang Tshalpa. Phagmodrupa praised Milarepa:
The mighty lord of yogis, Mila, ate unsalted nettle [soup], transformed into nectar. Cast off attachment! The supreme being will have whatever food he wishes; have no doubt!
Jigten Sumgön said:
The father, the dharma lord, the precious guru [Phagmodrupa], abandoned the attachment to meat and cheese, merely preferred a bit of curd, nourished himself only on vegetable soup, and, based on that, accomplished awakening.
As a further illustration of this lifestyle, Lama Zhang Tshalpa is mentioned. Planning for a retreat, he brought together such things as a bag of flour, hardened fat for soups, salt, and so forth. He was about to enter a suitable cave when suddenly, a thought of happiness about these favorable circumstances crossed his mind. He recognized that happiness as an attachment and immediately destroyed the retreat facility, scattered the flour, and went away to practice elsewhere.
Thus, this form of asceticism is not practiced like an exercise in penance but is a mental training: The practitioner has to watch out for attachment and aversion to pleasurable and disagreeable objects and circumstances. When Lama Zhang recognized the signs of such an attachment arising in his mind, he immediately counteracted it. That is what Jigten Sumgön meant when he said: “Expert skill is necessary concerning means of preventing the māra from entering [the mind], and if it has entered, to repel it.”
Ideally, a kusāli yogi is, according to Jigten Sumgön, ordained. The kusāli strives to become “a pure monk in the most perfect way,” takes up the twelve virtues of ascetic training, and “has few desires, remains frugal, and is an expert concerning the dharma.” In praise of such frugality, Jigten Sumgön says:
By maintaining a frugal and moderate [lifestyle] with clothing that merely sustains the body and alms that merely fill the stomach, one has a virtuous practice of frugality like the birds. Wherever they soar, they float on their wings—wherever one goes, one goes endowed with the alms bowl and dharma robes.
Elsewhere he provides a list of similar qualities. The kusāli yogi should
be easy to nourish, easy to satisfy, possess few desires, be frugal, parsimonious, sober, possess the virtues of ascetic training, be graceful, and be temperate.
Again in another instruction, he puts frugality, which he describes as wealth, into the context of mindfulness:
Mindfulness, alert awareness, attentiveness, and frugality are synonymous with wealth. Therefore, if you did not dwell earlier in these, the faults of desire will later arise. If you have been frugal earlier, qualities arise naturally.
In his teachings to the great assembly in Drikung, he contrasts the right and the wrong kind of frugality:
To be frugal with sense pleasures is the Buddha’s dharma; to be frugal with the dharma is māras dharma.
In several of his works, Jigten Sumgön identifies himself with the kusāli-yogi-monk, whom he differentiates from the scholar (paṇḍita). Quoting Gampopa, he states that such a kusāli
must be one who can carry a large load of suffering with great compassion, guide others with great wisdom, and does not even have a hair tip’s concern regarding his own life.
In another text, he relates what Phagmodrupa had told him about his teacher, Gampopa. He calls Gampopa a kusāli who was in possession of knowledge. What he learned from him was this:
All phenomena combined as samsara and nirvana are one’s mind, which is unestablished from the beginning, like the center of space.
Kusāli yogis do not analyze external objects. They see them as the mind’s natural display, that is, just mind. When phenomena are understood as the mind, they disappear into their origin, the mind. To realize the mind, one needs the guru’s instructions. One needs devotion to understand how to put the guru’s teachings into practice. To practice the instructions in solitude, one needs great effort. In solitude, defects and qualities will arise. Asking the guru about them, the guru will point out the causes for their arising and how the defects can be removed and qualities enhanced. Practicing accordingly, one will be a yogi or yogini who is free from defects and endowed with qualities. At that point, wisdom will arise from practice. The wisdom that arises from practice is such that hundred-thousands of learned panditas may ask questions, and not a single question will remain unanswered.
In the Instructions that are Like a Mighty King, Jigten Sumgön, once again, contrasts the kusāli yogi with the scholar pandita. The pandita treats words as essential, cutting off the false projections from the outside. The kusāli yogi treats meaning as essential, cutting off the false projections from the inside.
In the Three Words of the Lord, he says that in contrast to the pandita, the kusāli does not study and reflect many teachings. He meets with an excellent guru. He cultivates devotion and values just a single teaching and practices it. Through the power of the guru’s blessings and his own devotion, he realizes the innate mind, and all the appearances “arise like a book.” This is again due to the wisdom that arises from practice. In that way, the Kagyupas have “the system of the kusālis, who cut off false projections from inside.”
In the Three Words, he furthermore describes the kusāli as someone who realizes all phenomena of samsara and nirvana by practicing just one teaching. What kind of teaching is that? It has few words, a concise meaning, and is easy to practice. An example is the teaching of the Fivefold Path of Mahāmudrā. Practicing just that, three things arise. The first is the original state of reality. The body’s original state is that it is, from the very beginning, a male or female buddha. The mind’s original state is that the nature of the mind is, from the very beginning, the utterly pure dharmakāya buddha. The other two things that arise through the Fivefold Path are the method and the fruits.
In this way, the kusāli embodies frugality in many ways: He or she maintains a frugal and moderate lifestyle and practices the virtues of ascetic training. Thereby, a great wealth is obtained, namely mindfulness, alert awareness, and attentiveness. Kusālis carry the load of suffering with great compassion for the sake of other beings. They do not aim at great learnedness and need only a few teachings. As practitioners, however, they are insatiable.
Thank you. This is excellent. May i be able to put even the slightest taste of it into practice!
Dear Jan Thanks so much for these clear explanations. Wonderful post! Looking forward to your book. With my esteem Amy
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Im Drikung since nineties – its the first glimpse i got from Kyopas mindset of livelyhood and was what i hoped the most
– wish you longlife