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  • Prolegomena to a Comparative Reading of The Major Life of St. Francis and The Life of Milarepa
  • Massimo A. Rondolino

Different religious traditions in different cultures have recorded and transmitted the lives of individuals recognized as “perfected.” The particular doctrinal framework within which each of such figures is identified as “perfected” is certainly specific to the religious tradition that tells their life stories. Similarly, the social processes by which these religious life writings are written, received, and circulated are appropriate to the historical and geographical contexts of their composition. Yet, narrative parallels can be detected across traditions, and the question arises whether these apparent similarities in the creation of such religious life stories across cultures, space, and time reflect actually similar doctrinal and political agendas. Could there be an underlying hagiographic process common to all these literary traditions, regardless of their compositional contexts? In other words, is the writing of spiritual lives a phenomenon that is contextual to a specific religious tradition, or is it rather a particular human response to given social and historical circumstances?

I want to offer here a preliminary assessment of a study in comparative hagiology. To this end, I focus on two specific narrative traditions that pertain to two distinct religious, historical, and geographical contexts: the hagiographic writings on the medieval Christian St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) and the namthars on the Tibetan Buddhist Milarepa (Mi la ras pa; ca. 1052–1135). In particular, here I make some considerations on a comparative reading of the “standard versions” of their life stories: The Major Life of St. Francis (Legenda Maior Sancti Francisci) by Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1221–1274), and The Life of Milarepa (Mi la ras pa’i rnam thar) by Tsangnyön Heruka, the “madman” of Tsang (gTsang smyon Heruka; 1452–1507).1

The composition and reception of religious life writings is famously characteristic of early and medieval Christianity, with its complex and extensively studied production of hagiographic texts. Similarly, the compilation and distribution of life narratives in a religious context also plays a crucial role in the historical and cultural development of Tibetan Buddhism, with its extensive production of namthars (rnam thar, literally “great liberation” and, therefore, “stories of great liberation”). Within these large narrative traditions, St. Francis of Assisi and Milarepa eminently stand [End Page 163] out, both within and outside their respective cultural contexts, as two among the most renowned spiritual figures in Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism, respectively.2 Furthermore, both figures and their related narrative traditions have been the object of scholarly studies for nearly a century.3

Indeed, the spirituality embodied by St. Francis and Milarepa has been already the focus of attempted comparisons that have essentially and consistently focused on a direct assimilation of their respective extreme asceticism and teachings of poverty and renunciation, by drawing extensively on the literary accounts of their lives.4 Yet, it is important to note that the lives of these two exceptional individuals are also almost exclusively known through the dominating perspective of a single author’s works. In fact, although one of the best-known texts on St. Francis is the anonymous Little Flowers of St. Francis (Fioretti di San Francesco, late fourteenth century), the saint’s life and deeds are primarily known through their rendering by Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, general minister of the Franciscan order. Similarly, the acts and teachings of Milarepa as they are familiar to Tibetan (and Western) audiences result primarily from the work of the wandering yogin Tsangnyön Heruka.

Reflecting on the apparent parallelisms between the lives and teachings of St. Francis and Milarepa, though, I wonder whether such similarities may not extend beyond the spirituality that the saint and the repa embody. In particular, I am curious as to whether the analogies between the two figures that have been already outlined by several scholars may not actually arise from similarities in the sources’ underlying compositional dynamics and, in particular, in the authors’ approaches to the interpretation and retelling of these individuals’ lives as embodiments of a particular form of spirituality. In fact, if religious life writings are a form of communication that can be found in communities that belong to different traditions, times...