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Buddhadharma : Summer 2014
76 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY SUMMER 2014 Quintman begins by discussing the three earliest biographies of Milarepa, written by direct disciples: Gampopa, Ngendzong Repa, and Rechungpa. The life stories presented here are little more than character sketches and contain only brief references to Milarepa’s famous songs, saying nothing of their contents. One very human episode is found in Gampopa’s biography of his guru, which describes Milarepa at the beginning of his meditation career practicing with a but- ter lamp on his head. Having forgotten about the lamp, he opened his eyes, saw a brilliant light, and concluded that some special meditation qualities had arisen. Quite predictably, this episode is not pre- served in later versions. The only subse- quent biographer to mention Milarepa meditating with a butter lamp on his head is Tsangnyön, but he presents this as a sign of Milarepa’s determination to remain still without the lamp falling off. Next, Quintman discusses what he calls “the proto-Life/Songs,” six works by Kagyu masters that span several cen- turies. They present only skeletally brief biographies of Milarepa but include for the first time some collections of his songs. Quintman also examines two biographical compendia, which repre- sent mature versions of the proto-Life/ Songs, with structured and complex nar- ratives spanning the full arc of Milare- pa’s life, including elaborate descriptions of the events surrounding his death. These works—The Twelve Great Dis- ciples and The Black Treasury—were very popular in Tibet and contain much more extensive collections of Milarepa’s songs. The Black Treasury, edited by the Third Karmapa, represents the largest collection of biographical materials on Milarepa, as well as of his songs. Inter- estingly, the three earliest biographies and The Twelve Great Disciples charac- terize themselves not as public dharma teachings but as tantric instructions in the ear-whispered lineage, requiring empowerment and so on. Quintman presents Tsangnyön Heru- ka’s fifteenth-century version (translated by Quintman in The Life of Milarepa) as the innovative work of Tibet’s first mul- timedia biographer. He did not so much rewrite Milarepa’s life story as bring the preexisting vast biographical corpus to life; his version is largely based on the biographical compendia, though that is never mentioned. He accomplishes this through a more refined crafting of the narrative as well as by sometimes splic- ing and rearranging story fragments and songs to form new episodes, something that is also very common in the Indian doha tradition. From a Buddhist point of view, this can be seen as a skillful means used to illustrate the path to lib- eration through a seamless captivating account. Besides this general approach, Tsang- nyön introduced three significant inno- vations. For the first time, Milarepa’s life story and songs were published as two separate volumes, resulting in a more cohesive plot. Tsangyön struc- tured the biography in twelve chapters by following the traditional framework of the Buddha’s life in terms of his twelve deeds, though the correlations seem for the most part quite arbitrary. More importantly, he phrased chapters 1 through 11 in the first person, mak- ing it appear as if Milarepa himself were speaking. It was believed that Tsangyön not only had a vision of Milarepa telling him his life story, but that he was in fact Milarepa’s reincarnation and therefore had lived his life. This intimate relation- ship between Tsangnyön and Milarepa blurred the lines between biography and autobiography. As Quintman says, “What is unnatural about Tsangnyön’s biography is precisely that it appears so natural, so real. It seems so close to its subject, to the point of being its subject.” Thus, in a somewhat peculiar inversion of the preoccupation with genealogies, origins, and earliest sources (common in both Tibet and the West), Tsangnyön’s biography of Milarepa’s life superseded all previous ones and still, to this day, is believed to be the most accurate and authentic version of his life. It is worth noting that there is little consensus among the different biog- raphies, even with regard to the basic facts of Milarepa’s story. Some claim he was an emanation rather than born as an ordinary being. His mother is said to have died in his youth in some versions and not in others. In some accounts Milarepa avenged his mother through magic, while in a variation of this story she is said to have murdered relatives and brought down a hailstorm with a magic dagger sent to her by Milarepa. In other biographical accounts, Milarepa did not commit crimes and other evil deeds but rather dedicated himself solely to studying and practicing the Buddhist teachings. Furthermore, the details of the places he traveled to, the amount of time he spent with his teacher Marpa, the identity of his students, and even his songs are all disputed. Interestingly, prior to Tsangnyön’s biography, Milarepa was always por- trayed as an emanation of the Indian Dzogchen master Manjushrimitra, and thus as an already accomplished being manifesting as an ordinary person to demonstrate the path to awakening. Tsangnyön’s version was the first and only one to state that Milarepa was an ordinary person and to vehemently deny stories that he was ever an ema- nation. This accords with a famous story of Milarepa, who in response to a student’s request to reveal whose emanation or incarnation he is, says, “There is no greater misunderstanding of dharma than to see me as an emana- tion because you do not recognize the greatness of perfectly practicing the pure dharma.” In other words, regarding the guru as an incarnation or emanation is viewed as a serious impediment to one’s spiritual practice, for ultimately, progress on the path depends entirely on one’s own efforts. If achievements like those exemplified by Milarepa are considered attainable only by already realized beings, then they appear to be out of reach for common folk. In that vein, Tsangnyön successfully used and REVIEWS