Christopher Stagg’s translation of “The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa”, edited by Tsangnyön Heruka

Milrepa

There are various translations of the Life of Milarepa available, but since Garma C Chang issued his translation of the Hundred Thousand Songs in 1962, there has been a gap of more than fifty years, and Tibetan Buddhist scholarship has made a great deal of progress over that time, which makes 2017 an ideal year for a new translation of this work.

When this large, handsomely-produced volume arrived, I took one look at its size (over 800 pages) and thought for a moment that there really must be a hundred thousand songs in it, although upon sober reflection I realized if there were that many, they must be very short ones. Of course, it turns out that the title really means something like Collected Works, and there are not even one thousand poems in this book.

The Jetsun (Lord) Milarepa (c 1052-1135) is one of the best-known and most beloved figures of Tibetan Buddhism, indeed of any kind of Buddhism, as he seems to have earned a universal reverence from the many different traditions which has carried his fame into the present day. However, until Chang’s translation, which deserves credit for bringing Milarepa to the West, Tibetan Buddhism in general was somewhat neglected by scholars, partly because of its language, and also, perhaps, because it was often associated with the doctrine of tantra, itself misunderstood by the West in terms of its esoteric doctrines and a perceived emphasis on sexual practices as a means of attaining spirituality.

The translator, Christopher Stagg, makes it clear in his introduction that the work here has nothing to do with tantric teachings, and may be situated firmly in the Kagyu (oral transmission) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which has at its centre the doctrine of Mahamudra. Mahamudra translates as “great seal” or “great symbol”, founded on four things: view, meditation, conduct and fruition, which Stagg explains as the basis for practice, the path of familiarizing with that view, the activities one engages in both inside and outside meditation, and the results.

This is what Stagg terms Milarepa’s “template” throughout his book, and cites the final song of Chapter 39 to sum it up in the sage’s own words:

 

The view is wisdom, which is empty,
The meditation is luminosity free of fixation.
The conduct is the continual stream of non-attachment,
The fruition is nakedness free of stains.

 

This forms the spiritual base from which Milarepa launches the dharma or teachings, which he communicates through his poems, often termed “songs of realization”.

 

The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa: A New Translation, Tsangnyön Heruka (ed), Christopher Stagg (trans) (Shambhala, September 2017)
The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa: A New Translation, Tsangnyön Heruka (ed), Christopher Stagg (trans) (Shambhala, September 2017)

Milarepa, whose name means “cotton-clad” was a traveling teacher who shared his spiritual experience with people through his poems or songs. There was little about him that was extraordinary; indeed, as he tells us himself, he had done some rather reprehensible things in his youth, but through sheer persistence and genuine faith he managed eventually to overcome all obstacles placed in the way of his enlightenment.

His 15-century editor, Tsangnyön Heruka (1452-1507), relates the life of Milarepa in prose intertwined with Milarepa’s poetry, thus making the songs a secondary part of the sage’s life; one might say that he wanted to emphasise what Milarepa did as much as what he said and taught.

Milarepa has encounters with students or disciples, including Gampopa, described by Milarepa as someone “who shines upon beings like the sun”, and who would go on to write the classic Jewel Ornament of Liberation, as well as ordinary people, but he also has to contend with supernatural forces such as the five Tseringma sisters or the Rakshasha Demoness of Lingpa Rock. He seeks the spiritual guidance of Marpa the Translator, who becomes his principal guru, and through him he really begins his journey towards enlightenment. Heruka was also a wandering teacher whose journeys took him as far as Nepal, and whose eccentric and sometimes violent behaviour earned him the nickname of “Blood-Drinking King”, but he, like Milarepa, eventually settled down and found enlightenment in his own teaching and writing.

 

Christopher Stagg’s translation is masterful: he makes Milarepa communicate directly in accessible language, and I regret that I don’t have the linguistic skills to comment further on it.

He is dealing, he tells us, with a text that proved very difficult to translate, because Tibetan “does not have a standard, interregional colloquial language,” which makes it hard to convey colloquial writing in English, but the obstacles, as far as I can tell, have been more than just surmounted. Stagg consulted native Tibetan speakers, and his translation was done under the guidance of Ponlop Rinpoche, abbot of Dzogchen Monastery and a distinguished scholar of Tibetan Buddhism.

Given the massive amount of material and the professed problems with rendering Milarepa’s work into accessible English, Stagg has done a wonderful job of allowing Milarepa to speak to us who are so far removed from his world. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but reflect on the incredible distance between my comfortable, warm living-room and Milarepa trudging from village to village, often in inclement weather, and never sure of what kind of a reception he would get. At one point, for example, an old lady throws kitchen-utensils (there is humor in the book, too) at him before changing her attitude when he recites a poem to her, and a sixteen-year old girl initially refuses him food, but later, after a dream in which his identity is revealed to her, becomes one of his most devoted followers.

His words still resonate with us, however far in time and place we are removed from his reality. There is, from time to time, some apparent oddness in the diction, such as “he went out begging for alms in the practice of equal taste”—what exactly does that mean? However, these do not detract in any significant way from the importance of Stagg’s achievement with this magnificent and monumental translation, and are most likely there for a good reason.

Stagg should also be commended for adding four useful appendices to the book, comprising a summary of Heruka’s biography of Milarepa, Tibetan equivalents for place and personal names, a Tibetan-English glossary and even a list of the material Stagg translated with the help of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, a Buddhist scholar who has had a great deal of experience teaching in the West. There is also a glossary of key terms and a bibliography. Milarepa has come to life in this book, and it’s to be hoped will now receive a wider than before appreciation from Western readers; indeed, as His Holiness The Forty-First Sakya Trizin (leader of the Sakya school of Buddhism) says on the back cover of the book, “I pray that this work may help lead countless beings to liberation.”


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.