Our discussions on Virupa have focused largely on his life: noting its colorful elements; making sense of its moral ambiguity; evaluating whether, based on his actions, we can take any of his teachings seriously as truly Buddhist in the first place. (Incidentally, I’m not sure what “truly Buddhist” means and would like to problematize it as an assumption we’ve been making implicitly all semester). I think this has happened because as a class we have a healthy recognition of the fact that religious figures’ lives and teachings are not a dichotomy but deeply intertwined. I wish to maintain that recognition, but differently. Rather than using his life as a lens through which to look critically at his teachings, what if we start with his teachings and see how they were informed by his life? Specifically, an easy way to discredit Virupa is to accuse him of arrogance.
Other instructions for meditation dictate that one start meditating on those one loves most, followed by one’s enemies, eventually working one’s way out to the whole world (Trizin, 54). Virupa, by contrast, instructs students to start with their enemies. In fact, the bulk of his writings on these meditations concern enemies—why it is important to develop compassion toward them, how to develop it, and how compassion towards all other beings follows from this.
Specifically, when performing this meditation and contemplating one’s enemies, one recites “Poor them, who cause harm to me” (35). This pity looks an awful lot like condescension. Perhaps, though, one first needs a certain degree of arrogance, or what looks like arrogance, in order to reach an attitude of true compassion toward one’s enemies. A person who is completely humble, at least as we tend to understand humility, would think “My enemies deserve my pity because what they have done to me is excusable; harm done to me is not genuine harm and I must not think of them as enemies at all.” There is a short path from not counting one’s own suffering as real to not counting oneself as a real person, which results in its own kind of suffering as the self is trapped in self-pity, “poor me” rather than “poor them.” On the other hand, the implication of “Poor them, who cause harm to me” is “They have caused me genuine harm and I deserve better, but the fact that they have caused me harm makes them deserving of my pity.” This is far more challenging. It requires enemies in the first place—enemies whom one forgives, not abusers whom one excuses through self-negation. It requires self-assurance (or “arrogance”) to believe that one’s own pain is real. Real pain results in real karmic consequences for those who cause it, which in turn makes enemies deserving of compassion. Only through something resembling “arrogance” can one progress to “Poor them, for facing the karmic consequences of harming me.”
His Holiness Sakya Trizin. Freeing the Heart and Mind. Boston: Wisdom Publications.