Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa translated by Garma C.C. Chang

The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa translated by Garma C. C. Chang.  Shambhala Publications 1992.  730 pages.

Anyone who knows anything about Tibetan Buddhism has heard the name Milarepa (literally “Mila the Cotton Clad”).  He is Tibet’s Dante, Socrates and Shankara, all rolled into one.  Reading this book you cannot help get the sense he was also one of the most remarkable people to ever walk the earth and I just have to wonder: Why have I never managed to meet someone like this?  My karma, I guess.  But then, it’s also my karma to read and appreciate what has been recorded of him.

I would advise readers tackle first his autobiography, of which there are several translations.  (I will shortly be reviewing Lobsang P. Lhalunpa’s translation, done in 1977 and only the second in English since Evans-Wentz’s in 1928.)  This is critical, because without that background many things referred to in this book won’t make sense.  If the biography gives you the structure or bones of Milarepa’s life, this book fills it out with flesh.

True to the title, much of the book is in verse.  This may bother some people, and if you’re one of those who can’t bear reading verse then perhaps you should pass.  However, this is not poetry in the ordinary sense.  It is, rather, an example of “singing dharma,” of Buddhist teachings via song.  (Sadly, of course, the melodies Milarepa set his verse to are lost.  I suspect they were popular and well known tunes of the day.)  I can only say I wish I’d been there to see Milarepa sing his songs and teach his patrons, antagonists, and disciples.  Apparently he had a lovely singing voice (it is described as “deep” in one verse), and he composed his teaching-songs extemporaneously.  This in itself is a remarkable talent, and even if we didn’t consider his accomplishments as a yogi, it indicates an extremely gifted, quick and sharp-witted person.

What also stands out is the extraordinary range and depth of Milarepa’s meditative accomplishments.  He seems to have practiced and mastered most of the contemplative systems in Tibet at the time.  The book is replete with descriptions and references to these systems, so there is a fair bit of technical language; the fact that they are related via song and verse in no way means the contents are “dumbed down.”  As a result, while I am very familiar with Mahayana and Theravadan Buddhism but somewhat new to the Vajrayana, I was sometimes at a loss.  So, one should be familiar not only with the general worldview of Tibetan Buddhism, but specifically with tantrism and the terms of subtle physiology.  While the translator has provided a great many explanatory footnotes of various terms, a general education in the Vajrayana is really prerequisite.

Now to the contents specifically.  Milarepa’s songs are interspersed amid a welter of biographical incidents that while seemingly random do in fact follow a roughly chronological order.  (It seems a lot of them occurred later in his life as Milarepa is always referring to himself as an “old man.”)  There are stories about how demons were subdued, how disciples were met and converted, how various antagonists confront Milarepa and then are disarmed, enchanted or just plain bowled over by his spiritual and magical acumen.  (Scholars come in for a hard whacking!)  The verses themselves have a variety of functions, chiefly instructive and inspirational.  They also serve to boast of Milarepa’s accomplishments—not, I should note, for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, but for letting people know why he does what he does, what they can achieve through practice, and to exhort those who seem intent on remaining mired in their particular habits of thinking.  I feel that the book is at its best in this regard.  Some might take it as a meditation instruction manual, but there is clearly a lot of explanatory material missing, so I’m doubtful just how far one would get trying to practice as Milarepa describes.  If you educated yourself in Tibetan Buddhism and language, got a lama, and then went at it in the original language, the book might indeed be very helpful as a “how-to” manual.  But without all that I think inspiration and exhortation are its best uses.

All of which makes me wonder: Why hasn’t someone with the noted credentials done an in depth study of Milarepa’s life and habits and really tried to figure out what exactly his practices were?  It seems like an obvious task for a motivated scholar-practitioner.  Using the Songs and the Life, existing tradition and the rich folklore connected with Milarepa, someone ought to create a scholarly biography that could, I think, go even further in inspiring and instructing us.  I would love to see such a book.  Please, someone, do this!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

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