Feature: Teaching on How to Use Yogic Songs as Dharma Practice

At the Hermitage (Lama Shenpen’s home and retreat centre in North Wales) we have a booklet of Yogic Songs and at the end of each day we choose one of the songs to sing together and in this way keep our connection with the tradition of Yogic songs of realisation.

As we sing them again and again we find we are learning them by heart, almost effortlessly, and they are a wonderful expression of our shared experience and culture. The words are profound and inspiring and as soon as we hear the melody somehow their meaning comes to mind.

This happens as we hum them to ourselves during the day – even hearing each other humming them brings them to mind. When we go on Pilgrimages and want to bring the blessing into places we are visiting it is great to have songs we know by heart that we can sing without having to carry a whole lot of texts with us.  There is something joyful about communal singing from the heart especially when the words are so meaningful and full of blessing.

The songs in the song-book are mostly the ones that Khenpo Rinpoche (Lama Shenpen’s teacher) taught and got his students to translate and create melodies for on the spot.  He realised that to capture the depth and subtlety of the songs it would take a much longer process of refinement and he encouraged us to create new translations and melodies over the course of time, and from time to time I and some of my students have done that. I hope that will continue for years to come.

Because Rinpoche travelled so widely to Dharma centres all around the world singing these songs, when his students from all these different Sanghas get together, we have these songs in common and can sing them together and even dance to them.

This is an expression of our mandala connections (samaya) and is way of keeping them strong.  These days when we visit Rinpoche in Tekchokling (his nunnery in Kathmandu where he is cared for) we can sing and dance for him on the circular space in front of the Temple and he can watch us from his balcony.

He clearly enjoys this and I always feel it is a kind of Guru Yoga practice.  It is what dakas and dakinis do at Vajra feasts and Rinpoche tells us to always offer songs and dances at our feasts.  This is then like a celebration and also a skilful means for intensifying the power of the lineage to accomplish its compassionate activity for the sake of all beings and in particular this world of ours at this time and place.

Singing Vajra songs can be a very powerful way to practise Dharma on many different levels. Some quite experienced practitioners have told me that of all the various practices that they did when in three year retreat or that they had been introduced to over the years, the practice that has sustained them the most in the ups and downs in their lives, has been the singing of these yogic songs.  They come so easily to mind because of the melodies and the associations with them and the words bring the Dharma to mind in a sharp and powerful way.

When we come to die our Dharma friends can sing these songs for us and even if we cannot join in they create a Dharma atmosphere around us. So thank you all you masters of meditation, especially Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, who made this such a central element in his teaching.  May we follow in your footsteps for generations to come!

Milarepa the Tibetan yogin & saint famous for his yogic songs of realisation

Commentary on the yogic song: ‘Twelve Kinds of Yogic Joy’
Sung by Milarepa when concerned students inquired about his health.

Like a criminal gaining his freedom from a dungeon hole,
The yogi who gives up his native country knows bliss.

Like a spirited horse that’s freed of hobbling chains,
The yogi who slips from perceived and perceiver knows bliss.

Like a deer that has been wounded will lie low,
The yogi who lives on his own all alone knows bliss.

Like the king of birds that wings his way on high,
The yogi who gains command over view knows bliss.

Like the wild wind that’s roaming through the sky,
The yogi not blocked by any obstruction knows bliss.

Like a shepherd tending his flock of white-fleeced sheep,
The yogi tending his luminous/empty experience knows bliss.

Like the massive bulk of the central king of mountains,
The yogi unfazed by transition and change knows bliss.

Like the constant flow of a great and mighty river,
The unbroken-flow-of-experience-yogi knows bliss.

Like a human corpse as it lies in a cemetery,
The yogi who shuts all activity down knows bliss.

Like a stone that’s thrown into the deep blue sea,
The yogi who never turns back again knows bliss.

Like the sun that rises and lights up the whole sky,
The yogi who lights up everything knows bliss.

Like a palm tree when you strip it of its leaves,
The yogi not needing to be reborn knows bliss.

This melody on these twelve kinds of yogic happiness
Is a Dharma gift to all of you, may it answer your question well.

(Translated at Karma Tengjal Ling, Ludwigshorst, Germany, Summer, 1994)

Why is our native country compared to a dungeon that we should want to escape from?

Native country here means that cosy place we like to create around ourselves that keeps us safe and secure and which we cling on to as the most important thing in life. It could be our actual home, a particular relationship or relationships, a particular social group we closely identify with, things we like doing that we would feel bereft about if we had to give them up. For some people it is money for others their self-image. Whatever it is it is creating a prison for us.  One day it will all disappear like waking from a dream and you will realise that you had created a prison for yourself. There was nothing secure about it at all. Yogins who realise this are not attached to trying to create and maintain a cosy nest for themselves, so they feel happy and free like a prisoner escaping from prison. They no longer have to slave away doing endless meaningless tasks to serve their master, their ego. Now they are free to devote all their time to pursuing the Dharma.

Why is being freed from perceived and perceiver like a wild horse running free?

When we do not realise the non-duality of perceiver and perceived, we are limited in what we can do. We cannot really give rise to Bodhichitta because we believe that we do not have the power to save all beings.  We are like a horse with a tremendous spirit, hobbled by chains of a limited view of Universe and our own potential to help others.  When we realise that the whole world, the whole Universe is inseparable from the knowing of it, we begin to have faith that we are inseparable from all beings and can truly be one with them and help them remove their veils and realise their Buddha qualities.

Why is a yogin living in solitude like a wounded deer lying low?

When we realise the Noble Truth of suffering we realise that the only way out of suffering is to discover its cause within our own experience. We need to sit quietly and meditate on our experience in order to fully understand the cause of suffering and how to abandon it. This means looking inwards, into our own experience and stay quietly for a long time till we gain some confidence in the view.  Then we can return to the world to help others like a deer who has recovered its strength after having been wounded.

Why is a yogin who has mastered the view like the king of birds flying in the sky?

Mastering the view means to truly realise the meaning of Emptiness. Yogins with this view are no longer trapped in samsara. They have realised it is all like a dream and an illusion to such an extent that they can put their hands through rocks, transform themselves into fire and water and fly through the sky like Milarepa did. In a more metaphorical sense, once we have a good understanding of Emptiness we feel free of attachment and our spirits soar.

Why is the yogin cultivating the clarity-empty or luminous-empty nature of his experience like a shepherd tending his sheep?

When tending sheep although a lot of the time there is nothing much to do, still you have to stay alert and awake or they go wandering off or dangers start to creep up on you.  Having realised Emptiness, clarity or luminosity nature of mind, inseparable from that Emptiness is gradually revealed more and more. The yogin has to continually keep guard so that his mind doesn’t get taken over by wrong views or distractions. Other than that he just needs to stay relaxed and do nothing.

Why is a yogin like a mountain not affected by change?

When the yogin has become very accomplished he realised the equalness of everything. All experience is equally good to him and so it doesn’t matter to him if seemingly good things or seemingly bad things happen to him.  He is always cheerful and delighted whatever happens. He is completely stable like a mountain and not just any mountain. He is like the mountain at the centre of the world, the Axis Mundi.  This is a metaphor for how he is centred, grounded and lord of his own Universe.

Why is the accomplished yogin like a great and mighty river?

Although there is nothing that flows from one moment to the next, nevertheless there is ever-yielding space that never ends, never reaches any kind of limit.  Whatever the yogin experiences is fresh and new, has never been before and will never be again. It never arises and never ceases – yet the possibilities at any given moment are endless. This is the unbroken flow. It is not impermanent and changing – it is Totality that never gets more or less – it is always complete and perfect. This is sometimes described as spontaneous existent to contrast it with the kind of existence that we try to grasp on to in samsara that always ends in suffering. Spontaneous existence is Nirvana itself or the Buddha’s spontaneous activity for the benefit of all beings.

Why is the accomplished yogin’s ultimate way of being compared with a corpse?

Because his activity is spontaneous he has no need to think of strategies and make any plans. He no longer has to busily think of this and that. Instead it is as if he didn’t have a care in the world – just like a corpse.  His whole being is in a state of rest and accomplishes the welfare of beings perfectly and beings effortlessly.

Why is the yogin’s ultimate accomplishment compared to a stone dropped into the sea?

A stone dropping into the sea is of fixed destination. Its course is set and its only going in one direction.  It will not return again just as the yogin will not return again to take birth as an ordinary being trapped in samsara.

Why is the yogin compared to the rising sun that lights up everything?

The Enlightened yogin has reached Buddhahood and so pervades the whole of Reality beyond all the limitations of time and space.  The Buddha illuminates the whole world if only the world could see it. Nonetheless, every time a being becomes Enlightened it is as if they light up the whole world with the power of the Truth of the Dharma whether the world recognises it or not.

How is a yogin like a plantain tree?

A plantain tree looks like it has a trunk with leaves coming out of the top but actually the whole trunk is made up simply of the stalks of the leaves. If you take all the leaves away there is no trunk and no tree there at all. The yogin’s existence as a being in samsara has been completely stripped away so that when his body dies there is nothing there, no habits of mind and mental tendencies to cling to what is not real, and so there is no rebirth in samsara for him. So he is fearless of death and very, very happy!

Commentary by Lama Shenpen Hookham, written from her own ideas and inspiration from having sung the song many times.  May it inspire others too!

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