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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


Buddhist Thought by Paul Williams et al

Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition by Paul Williams et al.  Routledge 2000, 323 pages.

This is one of the better (I hesitate to say “best”) surveys of Buddhist intellectual history I’ve read.  As such I’d say it’s good for relative—i.e. not total—beginners.  The author, Paul Williams, is a British academic with many publications under his belt, but is perhaps best known for his Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, often used as a textbook in Buddhist studies.  (A second edition of the 1989 original is imminent.)  The writing, while intelligent and at times demanding, is not so academic as to be stultifying.  Williams even displays a bit of English wit now and then.

I always appreciate illuminating passages, no matter what the sort of book I’m reading happens to be.  I mean the sort that make you snatch out a pen and scribble something next to it, or underline a sentence or paragraph.  There are quite a few in this book, particularly, I’d say, in the first two chapters, which make up 40% of the book’s text proper.

Chapter one, entitled “The doctrinal position of the Buddha in context,” offers an excellent starting point.  Indeed, some things said here need to be remembered by everyone venturing into the world of Buddhism.  Consider the following from pages 2-3:

Buddhism is thus…concerned first and foremost with the mind, or, to be more precise, with mental transformation, for there are no experiences that are not in some sense reliant on the mind.  This mental transformation is almost invariably held to depend upon, and to brought about finally by, oneself for there can also be no transformation of one’s own mind without on some level one’s own active involvement or participation.

How different the history of the world would be if every religion and philosophy understood and acted upon this seemingly simple and self-evident truth!

This section discusses the historical background of Brahmanism and shramanism, smartly noting that any characterization of the Buddha as a “Hindu reformer” is anachronistic at best (8).  Williams points out that the story of the Buddha’s life demonstrates what is most important in his teachings.  For starters, unlike in Christianity, the message (Dharma/Dhamma) is preeminent over the messenger (the Buddha).  The Buddha was just a man who found Dharma; it is Dharma that really counts.  You can have Dharma without the Buddha, but you cannot have the Buddha without Dharma.  Williams’ discussion of elements in the Buddha’s hagiography and how it exemplifies and illuminates the Teaching is one of the most insightful and satisfying I’ve read on this subject.

The second chapter also considers “mainstream Buddhism” (i.e. non-Mahayana) and is entitled “A Buddha’s basic thought.”  Williams does a good job here, except a few stumbles (more on this below); in fact, his approach is unique in ways.  On 60ff he does a wonderful job debunking the notion the Buddha posited a Self outside the five aggregates:

On the basis of [the Buddha’s discussion of the aggregates] there are those who consider that all the Buddha has done here is to show what is not the Self.  I confess I cannot quite understand this.  If the Buddha considered that he had shown only what is not the Self, and the Buddha actually accepted a Self beyond his negations, a Self other than and behind the five aggregates, fitting the paradigmatic description for a Self, then he would surely have said so.  And we can be quite sure he would have said so very clearly indeed.  He does not (60).

This passage illustrates another aspect of Williams’ writing I find admirable—a sort of humble, commonsensical honesty that is rarely displayed in writing by scholars.  I think many would be sympathetic, for example, when he says (on page 68) “…it is not at all obvious in detail what the twelvefold formula for dependent origination actually means.”  And I liked it even better when he wrote “This twelvefold formula for dependent origination as it stands is strange” (71).  Rather than pretending scholarly omniscience and superiority in regards to the texts (I’m thinking of E.J. Thomas at his worst), Williams expresses understandable puzzlement as, no doubt, most people do when encountering the Buddha’s thought for the first (or even hundredth) time.

Chapter two is really a core piece of Buddhist writing in that it hits every significant point (the four truths, anatta, cosmology, nirvana, etc) and does so in an intelligible and intelligent fashion.  This is not an easy feat to pull off, as anyone who has read a good many dharma books can tell you.  In fact, I might even say that Williams goes about as far in his understanding as a scholar qua scholar can.  But while surveying so much and dealing with so many difficult concepts, he (perhaps inevitably) takes a few pratfalls.

I won’t go into detail about what I think he does wrong; a brief list and comments should be enough:

  • When referring to atta (“self”) he consistently capitalizes the S, inferring that the Buddha was discussing only the transpersonal Atman or True Self.  This is not the case; the Buddha was referring especially to the experience of a subjective controller, doer, or identity (sakkaya), the self of everyday experience.  The Self as an ontological construct follows upon this.
  • He fails to thresh out the distinction between “intention,” “desire” and “wanting” as these pertain to the liberated person (an arhat or Buddha) (44).  This may seem like nit-picking, but it is in fact an essential issue that spells the difference between insight and its lack.
  • He states (67) that Ananda was unenlightened at the time of the Buddha’s death—in fact Ananda was a sotapanna.
  • On 69 he perpetuates the thesis that the being reborn is “neither the same nor another” than the one who died.  This teaching comes from the Milindhapanha and has infected Buddhism everywhere ever since.  It is a view entirely at odds with the Suttas, falling into attavada.  This is perhaps Williams’ biggest stumble from a doctrinal point of view.  (The correct answer, when asked “who is reborn?” is to reject the question as meaningless on account of its presupposition of self in some form or another.)
  • He continues the old saw that dependent origination is “causality.”  Causality (as a descriptive concept) certainly applies to karma (“intentional action”) but it has nothing to do with paticcasamuppada.  I have discussed this at length in other reviews.  Part of the problem may arise from the 12-factor formulation, wherein the first ten elements are certainly structural as opposed to temporal, and then the last two are cause-effects.  Williams gets it right (I think) when he suggests the list may well be “a compilation from originally different sources” (71).  In other words, I suspect the 12-factored formula is a later intellectual (though still pre-scholastic) description of the original assertion: “When there is this, that is…” etc.
  • Description of satipatthana as the “sole way” (83).  This is a frequent mistranslation.  The word here is ekayana, meaning a course that goes one way or one direction.
  • His discussion of meditation (83ff) is palpably second-hand.  Once again I must lament the unnecessary divorce of scholarship from practice.

The rest of the book discusses Mahayana—its early formulation, development, key concepts and texts.  This area is Williams’ forte, and for the most part I think his discussions are quite good, though he does sometimes confusingly mix the names of schools, terms, and people together into a less than lucid jumble.  Neophytes are likely to get lost or frustrated at times; I did myself (though I was once again, quite viscerally, reminded why I so dislike Nagarjuna’s thought!).

A special note on the last chapter, written not by Paul Williams but Anthony Tribe.  This is an excellent introduction to and overview of tantric Buddhism, an area often inadequately covered in texts like this.  (E.J. Thomas’ survey not only neglected but maligned it.)  Tribe’s writing is clear and organized and he offers an invitation to everyone to better get to know this unique phase of Buddhist thought.  I confess that while I am not convinced that tantra has added substantively to Shakyamuni’s philosophical thinking, I am now totally in the camp that affirms it possesses a host of valuable and powerful practices/techniques that can facilitate one’s spiritual journey.  Lastly, the book has a lengthy bibliography tacked on at the end to enable further exploration of texts the authors drew upon during the course of their survey.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


The Buddhist Religion by Richard H. Robinson

The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction by Richard H. Rob inson, Dickenson Publishing Company, 1970, 136 pages.

This book is one of a popular series of books entitled “The Religious Life of Man” released during the sixties and seventies and edited by Frederick J. Streng.  A fifth edition, released in 2004 and revised by Willard Johnson and Thanissaro Bhikkhu, is also available in the more politically correctly named series “Religious Life in History.”

I would lay money on it anyone who took intro to religion courses during the seventies and eighties read at least one of these books.  I read four, the best being Thomas J. Hopkins’ dense but excellent survey entitled The Hindu Religious Tradition.  Robinson’s work is not as good as Hopkins’ but is still useful for a newcomer to Buddhism.  As is invariably the case with books of this sort, it is broad in sweep though shallow in terms of doctrine or practice.  Nonetheless, it does offer a few surprising moments of insight.

The first chapter, entitled “The Scene Today” (today of course being sometime in the late sixties when Robinson was writing; he died, tragically, in 1970 at the age of 44 from a gas explosion), takes the reader on a tour of the Buddhist world, starting, appropriately, in Bodh Gaya and heading thence to Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Tibet-in-India, Vietnam (where monks were still immolating themselves), to Japan and the West.  This tour is kind of a “blast from the past,” Buddhism as it was forty years ago, coping with war and communism and the interest generated in it by the hippie generation.  The book, clearly, is dated, but since history is its main concern, even its datedness is not without interest.

Chapter 2 is a whirlwind overview of the Buddha’s life and teaching.  Honestly, I always get a bit of a kick reading scholarly surveys of the Dhamma.  Such surveys are the inevitable starting points for anyone venturing into the Teaching, but written as they typically are by scholars who are paid to be “objective” and “historical” they inevitably reveal the limitations of even the most brilliant and learned minds if they’ve not had actual experience with practice.  Still, it is worth learning about the Buddha’s life milieu–namely, the sramana and ascetic culture of fifth century BC India–and Robinson covers this in addition to the basic elements of his biography.

I found myself especially intrigued by Robinson’s comments on the Enlightenment.  He writes:

What actually happened on the night of the Enlightenment?  The oldest account is stylized and exhibits typical mythic features.  It purports, though, to be autobiographical, and the claim may be substantially true.  First-person reporting of “peak experiences” was not a genre in pre-Buddhist Indian literature, and flourished only sporadically in later centuries.  Implicit in it is the affirmation that the particular experiences of a historical person are of outstanding value.  The dignity, economy, and sobriety of the account not only highlight the magnitude of Gautama’s claims, but strongly suggest a remarkable man behind the style, self-assured and self-aware, assertive but not bombastic.  If disciples put such words into the mouth of their master, then who put into their minds such an image of him? (pp. 18-19).

Robinson goes on to review the knowledges obtained by the Bodhisattva during the night of his enlightenment, concluding they are “two-thirds shamanism ethically transformed, and one-third philosophy,” and suggesting comparisons to the “mysterious light” seen by Eskimo shamans.  These are certainly the words of a professor of comparative religion, and as such give voice to the inherent humanness and universality of the Buddha’s experience while at the same time not actually understanding it.  Robinson offers a similar interpretation of the First Sermon, suggesting that the prominence the Buddha gave to suffering stems from

the essential component of the chief primitive rights of initiation into manhood.  The warrior brotherhood tests the initiant by ordeal to see whether he is worthy and to stimulate his martial powers.  The shaman guild initiates the neophyte with a ritual dismemberment and other austerities to solemnize  his change of status, but even more to effect a transformation of his personality and to endow him with powers.  Suffering kills the old self and induces “the second birth.”  The Buddhist way partakes of both martial and shamanic elements.  It is a state of prolonged initiation, lasting until nirvana is attained.  The Buddha rejected extreme physical mortification, but in its place he put mental mortification, the contemplation of universal suffering (p. 29).

I quote this passage at length as an illustration not of Robinson’s failure to “get” the Buddha’s teaching, but rather to indicate the fine line that any would-be scholar walks when assessing this teaching.  As they say, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  In this case, the hammer is traditional, “objective” scholarship, the point-of-view that disdains any point-of-view–for such would not be “objective”!  The nail, of course, is the Object of study, and in truth anything is just as worthy as anything else for study, be it neolithic pottery from Anatolia or the history of the sonnet in Elizabethan poetry.  In this case, however, it is the Dhamma that is being objectified, and the fact that the Buddha lived and died for this teaching, and in doing so affected millions of human beings in the most personal of ways, is something that is lost in its translation into an Object of academic interest.  Like the carved totem from some vanished tribe’s ritual, the Dhamma becomes, in the hands of the scholar, a mere curiosity.

The rest of the book is a quick overview of the Dhamma’s growth and decline in India and its spread to Tibet, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and into East Asia.  Hundreds of names and dozens of doctrines are taken up and dropped, so that for the beginner this may come off as a dizzy race through time and space.  This kind of survey almost always feels like this–who, after all, could possibly remember all those people and what they said?–but since one has to start somewhere this is as good a place as any.  For students who really want to get something out of the book, keeping a list of major schools and important personages would probably be the best way to make use of the material.  Then later one can go back and explore more in-depth items of interest.  Robinson’s bibliography, though dated, is still good, and can serve as a springboard to other, richer works.

My Amazon rating: 3 stars


The Life of Buddha as Legend and History by Edward J. Thomas

The Life of Buddha as Legend and History by Edward J. Thomas.  Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers 1992 (Second Indian edition 2003).  297 pages.

Edward J. Thomas (also published under E. J. Thomas) (1869-1958) was a Briton who lived as a scholar and librarian in India, where he pursued what were at the time cutting edge researches into the roots of Buddhist thought and history.  His other noted work in this field—still showing up in bibliographies on account of its lucidity and comprehensiveness—is The History of Buddhist Thought.  (A review of that one from yours truly is in the offing, sometime down the road.)  The present work—undeservedly—has unfortunately fallen into obscurity.  I am its first reviewer on Amazon, and at present it’s not even available through Amazon’s US site.  I recommend Amazon’s UK website or Pariyatti for a copy.  Anyway…on to my review.

The book was first published in 1927; the third edition (the one presently available) was revised through 1948.  As a work of scholarship it is definitely dated, and yet the extraordinarily wide range of its author’s knowledge is on display on every page.  At the time it was undoubtedly the best the field had to offer.  Moreover, it is—as far as I am aware—still the most complete scholarly attempt to fit together the facts of the Buddha’s life and ministry.  This in itself is an amazing (and depressing) fact, but also speaks volumes for the author’s ambitions.  Whatever faults the text may possess, they aren’t there for a lack of effort on Mr. Thomas’ part.

He begins the book before the Buddha’s birth, looking at the origins and ancestry of the Sakyan clan.  This is quite interesting material, for it sheds light on what kind of environment, both cultural and familial, the Bodhisatta grew up in.  Thomas draws on a wide range of materials from different canons (Pali, Mahayana and Tibetan) and non-canonical sources.  Moreover, he brings a steady, skeptical eye to his weighing of the evidence, and I think many of his judgments in regard to what are useful, believable data as opposed to later, more fanciful legends, are reasonable and on the mark.  For example, he notes that in the lists of Sakyan rulers before Sudodhana (the Buddha’s father), there are often names of the Bodhisatta himself inserted from the Jatakas, and that the lists differ considerably depending on which source you go to: the Pali, the Tibetan or the Mahavastu.  This is but one example of traditions being created after the fact, to fill the gaps of knowledge that, even if at one time the truth was really known, had been lost by the time of the text’s recension.  One of the most interesting revelations that Thomas uncovers was that the tradition is not even in agreement on the name of the Buddha’s wife.  You would think his biographers would have gotten at least that much straight, but in fact she is variously referred to—depending on which strand of texts and traditions you consult—as Bhaddakacca, Yasodhara, Subhaddaka, Rahulamatta (“Rahula’s mother”) or Bhadda Kaccana.  In other words, when looked at through the eyes of keen scholarship—eyes that Edward J. Thomas clearly possessed—the Buddha’s life story becomes decidedly messy, even if the very basic facts are agreed upon—i.e. birth, renunciation, enlightenment, teaching, death.

And herein lies the drawback of the book.  Thomas calls upon so many texts, and pursues so many different lines of inquiry, it can at times be hard to keep them all straight.  This is especially so in the beginning, when he looks at Sakyan origins and the Buddha’s birth stories, but things get easier after the enlightenment, when the author is forced to rely upon the obviously heavily revised, standard chronology of the Buddha’s career.  This is the only part of the book where things seem to move along breezily, and then suddenly we come to the Buddha’s last days.  Thomas looks beyond the Buddha’s passing, though, even venturing into the archaeological remains of the Teacher, and for people who find this material interesting I particularly recommend Charles Allen’s The Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion.  Allen, another Englishman in India, does a much better job than Thomas on this front.

For me the book’s interest pretty much ended there, though the author goes on to explore some of the basics of Buddhism as a religion.  The early search for “primitive Buddhism” is much in evidence here, as is the typical rationalist perspective that the Buddha simply “borrowed” or “took over” the beliefs in reincarnation and karma without question.  For me, this is where Thomas really stumbles, and I actually gasped out loud when I read the following (on page 199): “Although the [dependent arising] formula as such has only a historic interest, it has an importance in its being an early attempt to formulate a rational law of causation” (emphasis added).  Never mind the fact that the Buddha was quoted as saying “He who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma,” this authorial gaff clearly indicates the limits of the scholar’s view when it comes to the Buddha’s Teaching.  Inevitably, the most important ideas get rationalistically boiled down to mere historical curiosities, and the significance for it all to real human beings is completely lost.  Great scholar that he was, Thomas was plainly no seeker after enlightenment.

As a final note: the last chapter, entitled “Buddhism and Christianity,” where the oft-noted parallels between the life stories of Jesus and the Buddha are considered, is a throw away.  First, the comparisons add nothing to our understanding of the Buddha and Buddhism (or to Jesus and Christianity, for that matter).  Second, the comparisons are highly speculative, arbitrary, even forced, at best, and, third, they’re trite and trivial.  Together with the constant search for “primitive Buddhism,” this section perhaps most poignantly illustrates the datedness of the book.

These criticisms aside, I think the book is a worthwhile read.  In a way, it illustrates the attempt of the Western, scientific mind to come to grips with a truly alien way of thinking.  Failures and successes are revealed.  And, as noted, the effort has not been substantively duplicated since—where oh where is another such biography bringing intelligent, learned scrutiny to the life of this very important historical figure?  And please don’t mention Karen Armstrong!

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


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