Manoa 12.2 (2000) 180-182
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The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa
Literature & Culture
The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. Translated by Garma C. C. Chang. Boston: Shambhala, 1999. 730 pages, cloth $55.
Tibetan Buddhist poet and anchorite Milarepa is as beloved by common folk and artisans throughout the Himalayas as Saint Francis of Assisi is by southern Europeans. Like pious Francis, Milarepa practiced what he taught, voicing his eleventh-century religious joy by spontaneously composing sacred songs that still resonate in and for our time. And like the Italian mystic, Milarepa has been acknowledged as a saint, although, as this now classic rendering by Garma Chang of The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa suggests, his transcendent odes, canticles, litanies, and consecrations may remind today's readers of a modern example of the wandering bard: Walt Whitman.
Known in Tibetan as the Mila Grubum, the sixty-one stories comprising this epic biography unfold for our edification in the manner of a miracle play. Covering an exhaustive range of spiritual problems, solutions, and instruction, the stories were drawn from the life and travels of this yogic ragamuffin par excellence. Their original author--known to Tibetan scholars as the Insane Yogi--was a student of Gampopa, the chief disciple of Milarepa and himself the author of The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, another core Tibetan Buddhist text. As Chang informs us, the stories are organized into three streams: descriptions of Milarepa's extensive encounters with "malignant" spirits and demons; accounts of the master among his disciples; and assorted apocrypha, including advice to physicians, beer-drinking songs, evidence of spiritual accomplishment, heartfelt advice, and the like. A vast compendium of medieval Tibetan cultural lore, the Mila Grubum is as sumptuous a feast for Western readers as The Canterbury Tales; a holy book as well, it continues to serve as a fountain of wisdom in Tibetan Tantrist practice.
This edition arrives not unknown to readers of English. A previous edition was published forty years ago and still appears from time to time at antiquarian booksellers (and often at higher cost than this far more exquisite, new edition). Garma Chang wrote his peerless translation in the 1930s, during an eight-year tenure in Buddhist monasteries in the Kham region of inner Tibet. A scholar of China's Hua Yen Buddhist tradition, based upon the Avatamsaka Sutra, Master Chang is equally renowned for The Buddhist Teaching of Totality and was compiling--alas, at the time of his death--a dictionary of Buddhism for Western readers. Nonetheless, in fathoming the Mila Grubum's manifold obscure passages he left us with an encyclopedic [End Page 180] tour de force of primary Buddhist doctrine, terminology, psychology, and technical instruction.
Milarepa also comes to us with considerable advance notice. Henry Miller brought news of him to American readers in the 1940s, and later, in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, he wrote of the Tibetan sage in the same reverent breath as he did Lao-tzu, Socrates, Siddhartha Gautama the historical Buddha, and Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, Miller borrows from Milarepa in the epilogue to one of his own tomes: "It was written; and it had to be," he reminds. "Behold to where it has led." Ten years later, Allen Ginsberg--an ardent Buddhist practitioner in the Kagyu lineage originated by Milarepa and his guru, Marpa the Translator--also began patching in references to the wily Tibetan master, and he continued to do so for the next three decades.
Who, then, was this reclusive man, and what was the gift that enabled Milarepa to excite such uncommon interest during the past eight hundred years? As the stories of the Mila Grubum recount, Milarepa was a peasant who, devoted to the Buddha, sought teaching from Marpa, a farmer-yogi of ferocious temper. Initially rebuffed, Milarepa was subjected to performing herculean labors: building heavy stone houses, then demolishing them. Following a period of deep meditation in seclusion, he was finally embraced by Marpa and initiated into all the knowledge and miraculous powers that his master, a translator of Indian texts, could...