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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


The Yoga Tradition by Georg Feuerstein

The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice by Georg Feuerstein.  Hohm Press 2008 (third edition), 510 pages.

Georg Feuerstein’s magnum opus is easily the richest outpouring of yogic knowledge and insight I have ever encountered between two covers.  It is an intimidating work.  Intimidating because of its length, its size (like a textbook), and the sheer mass of terminology, topics and texts it covers (and even translates–a few for the first time!).  At times I felt like I was swallowing a pill that just wouldn’t fit down my gullet–though I knew the pill was good for me, so I kept gulping until I got it down.

There is no easy way to review this book, so I’m going to simply flip open the contents and talk here and there about pieces that particularly intrigued, puzzled, offended or delighted me.  (Actually, very little offended me–I’m just being theatrical….)  The first chapter, “Building Blocks,” is perhaps not so aptly named.  It reads like something written for those who already have a bit of the yogic worldview under their belt and subscribe to its way of thinking.  For this reason I would recommend newcomers read Feuerstein’s other, more introductory books before this one.  I have already reviewed two–The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Path of Yoga.  I think the other thing that comes to light from reading these opening pages (this includes the introduction proper) is that Feuerstein is definitely a “believer,” and to an extent that is probably not kosher in scholarly circles, writes as one too.  There is of course nothing wrong with this, except people who want more “objective” texts may be put off by it. 

Feuerstein is without doubt one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet as regards the yoga tradition, but still I have to wonder about some of the ideas he ascribes to.  For example, his timeline of India in chapters 3 and 4 is certainly not orthodox as regards most contemporary reckonings of Indian history.  He grants an age to the Vedic civilization (4500-2500 BC) considerably in excess of ancient Egypt (3500-500 BC) and this based on pretty slim facts I think.  (It seems to me his enthusiasm sometimes get the better of him.)  That said, it should be admitted that early Indian history is a messy and muddled subject, with few (if any) points of certainty.  To give you an idea, the most important Indian of them all, the Buddha, was for a long time considered to have lived from 563-483 BC, but recently has been “relocated” to something more like 490-410.  Imagine scholars suddenly announcing that Pericles really lived a hundred years later and you get my drift.  So if Feuerstein is speculating, or even wrong in his speculations (and how will we ever know for sure?), he can at least be forgiven.

From chapter four on the text follows a pretty historically linear timeline.  The Vedas are discussed and then the Upanishads, with translations of several texts sprinkled throughout.  In every case the relation of the texts to yoga, its ideas and practices, is elaborated upon.  What is clear is that yoga has definitely progressed through stages of development, beginning with earlier “shamanic” practices focusing on tapas (austerities), magic and visions, and this eventually gave way to the more self-transcending orientation of the Upanishads and later texts.  Chapters six and seven generously treat of yoga’s place in the heterodox traditions of Jainism and Buddhism, though readers particularly interested in these fields should consult the extensive bibliography at the back of the book if they wish to follow further these lines of inquiry.  I, for one, was sad to learn that there is very little surviving of Jainism’s early textual corpus.  Though Mahavira, the religion’s founder, gets a bad rap in the early Buddhist texts, my suspicion has always been that he was certainly an extraordinary man, in some ways perhaps the equal of the Buddha.  I just wish we knew more about what he really taught.  (This is not to say I think he was the equal of the Buddha.  It’s pretty clear to me that while his attainment must indeed have been great, he was in no way comparable to Siddhartha as an intellectual or communicator.  Greatness of insight is not always accompanied by equal development of all other parts of the personality.  The Buddha was a rarity–perhaps unsurpassed–on account of his high development in so many aspects.  IMHO, of course…)

Chapter eight plunges back into Hindu yoga, specifically the Epics and, of course, the Bhagavad Gita.  (I have just finished up Feuerstein’s translation of this seminal text, and let me tell you, it is a doozy!)  Again, there are generous passages from important texts included here; you can certainly get a sense for what this kind of literature is like.  Chapters nine and ten exhaustively treat classical yoga (i.e. Patanjali’s), and even include a complete translation of the Yoga Sutras!  The historical and intellectual place of this little book within the edifice of yoga is made clear–it has proven more an inspiration to practice than to philosophy. 

The philosophy of yoga, or what began in the Upanishads, finds its consummation in the nondualist schools, which Feuerstein treats in the next four chapters.  Nondualism is, of course, the philosophical heart of Hinduism, though it is clearly overlaid with an exuberant wealth of gods and goddesses, rituals and esoterica.  These Feuerstein treats extensively, even delving into obscure little groups like the Aghoris (who still exist, btw!).  By chapter fifteen we’re getting into my favorite stuff–the yoga upanishads, wherein the subject of kundalini comes up.  Sikh yoga is briefly touched on, and then it’s full steam into tantra and hatha yoga.  The book ends in the late medieval/early modern period, looking at the extensive literature of hatha yoga.

I would certainly not recommend this as a first book on the subject.  That said, if someone has gotten their feet wet and finds they want to get the Big Picture, this then is the book I would recommend.  The immense service it provides is to give the reader a morsel, a taste, of so many of the exquisite delights of the yogic tradition that he (or she) may then meaningfully pursue further any of them as he pleases.  It is a book meant to lead on, to invite, to incite curiosity.  I hope it does this and more for you, and thereby leads you to greener, broader pastures of knowledge and awakening…

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Deeper Dimension of Yoga by Georg Feuerstein

The Deeper Dimension of Yoga: Theory and Practice by Georg Feuerstein.  Shambhala 2003.  415 pages. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It is a veritable treasure chest of information, insight, ideas and inspiration for practice, contemplation and just about everything having to do with yoga.  

Unlike the previous Feuerstein book I reviewed (The Path of Yoga), this is not an integrated text but rather a collection of essays and musings by the author.  Even if you didn’t know this, you would quickly suspect it since, while the sections of the book are arranged thematically (general orientation, ethics, practices, etc.), the “chapters” all have a self-contained feel to them.  There is also the sense that many were originally part of some larger unit and so when they end they sometimes do so rather abruptly.  You’re ploughing into the meat of some topic, turn the page, and–wham!–you’re on to the next “chapter.”  This can be a bit jolting, but not all the essays are like this–most have a fully rounded, finished feel to them–but it’s often enough that you start expecting/bracing for it.  Because the book consists of essays you will also get a fair bit of repetition which, for some people, may be annoying, but for others, who want to drum certain points/facts into their heads, may well be ideal.   As for a more in-depth review of the book’s contents, with a collection of essays, touching on highlights is the usual approach, and that’s what I’ll do here. 

Clearly Feuerstein has thought a lot about Yoga.  As noted, there is something of a”treasure chest” feel to the book; you never know what’s up next until you turn the page.  And while the vast majority of pieces aim at being informative, many are reflective as well, though only one can be truly called self-revealing.  That would be “Crossing the Boundary between Hinduism and Buddhism via Tantra-Yoga,” which describes Feuerstein’s “conversion” (if that’s the right word–probably not) from Hindu yoga to Buddhist yoga (ala Vajrayana).  Easily the best of the reflective pieces is #62, “Faith and Surrender: A New Look at the Eightfold Path,” a brilliant essay I would heartily recommend for multiple rereadings. 

As a scholar though Feuerstein excels at dispensing information.  He does this in breadth by touching on just about every conceivable application and type of yoga (I never even knew there was such a thing as buddhi-yoga!), and depth: for example, an eleven page essay on OM reveals this all-important seed mantra’s rich textual and cultural legacy.  A couple dozen regular volumes might be necessary to cover this much ground and there’s no way every topic can be considered in depth; for that you’ll have to seek other books.  But wait!  Dr. Feuerstein has most graciously already considered your predicament and provided an illuminating  overview entitled  “Introducing the Great Literary Heritage of Hindu Yoga”!  An excellent little piece unto itself, an annotated bibliography of books is appended to it, citing quality tomes on general yoga, the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Patanjali, the Epics, Gita, Tantrism and more.  All you incurable bibliophiles out there should do three prostrations in Georg’s direction.  (BTW, he lives in Canada.)

There’s very little one can complain about regarding this book.  Feuerstein is a writer of clarity and concision, thoughtfulness, depth and sensitivity–not to mention vast knowledge; the man may have read just about everything on the subject.   The only, ONLY gripe I might have is a slight tendency–which, frankly, coming from the pen of a scholar is rather ironic–toward a sort of textual fundamentalism.  For example, writing on the Mahabharata he repeatedly refers to the war the poem describes as the greatest ever fought on Indian soil and even speaks of “the godman” Krishna as a historical person.  This kind of thing comes up more than once–and invariably caused my face to screw up in an incredulous squint–so I have to assume Feuerstein actually believes these things.  Suffice to say, I would grant Krishna less historicity than Moses or Lao-tzu, and as for the battle, while I suspect the story has its roots in some historical event(s), I doubt its fidelity to facts in any way exceeds that of the Iliad or the romances of King Arthur.

That being said, buy the book!  You won’t regret it; Feuerstein’s writings will lead you on to richer yogic horizons!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

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