BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Nettle tea, anyone?

As regular readers of this space no doubt will tell you, I am a big fan of ordering my books through ... while I realize this is unpopular in some circles (I certainly appreciate the experience of brick-and-mortar book stores, but on-line ordering is how I get most of my reading). One of the attractions of buying through Amazon (and B&N) is the reasonably low $25 threshold for free shipping, and one of the "sports" involved in this is seeing just how close to $25 one can get ... which is where Dover Thrift Editions come in so handy!

I picked up Songs of Milarepa (no author/translator is noted, aside from "H.C." in the preface) in order to make a $23-something order into a $25-something order, being a perfect example of how one of these books can both save me some money, and add to my education. Now, as long-time readers know, I've read, studied, and experienced (I've taken five Vajrayana initiations) a good deal of Tibetan Buddhism, so came to this book as a "filling in the gaps". While I was certainly familiar with Milarepa, I could not recall specifically delving into his writings, except in context of the teachings in general.

This is where I first encountered some difficulties here (and was interested in finding out who had done the translation and occasional commentary) ... I've read a lot of Tibetan material (in translation, of course), and am used to a certain "tone". Now, this book is a republication of a 1958 book, and the direct knowledge of Tibetan culture was somewhat rare at that time (not non-existent, but hardly what it's been in the past decades), so there may be a reason for this not "sounding right" ... in fact, the preface here starts out trying to make Milarepa "the St. Francis of Tibet", saying "there is the same lyricism, the same tender sympathy, the same earthiness, ... all nature was friend as well as chapbook", which (to my recall) is to try to push the Buddhist imagery of Milarepa into a wholly ill-fitting box, as his actual teachings are of non-attachment and the transitory nature of this existence!

Milarepa (his name comes from his personal name Mila, and "Repa", an honorific for "cotton clad", or a yogi who has mastered the Tummo exercises of "inner heat" and is thereby able to survive in snowy mountains with just a cotton robe) was a youth who had achieved a certain notoriety as a "black magician" before seeing the error of his ways, and becoming a student of Marpa, in the lineage of Naropa. Marpa was a very demanding task master, and Milarepa fled his yoke, only to return after some time with another teacher. Eventually Milarepa became the classic image of the hermit monk, subsisting on nettles in a high-mountain cave, although he did have students, including Gampopa who went on to found the Kagyu school.

Not knowing who translated this collection, I can't really speak to "where they were coming from", but it seems to me that this was done by a person who, while competent to read Tibetan, really didn't have an appreciation for the religion, and so was constantly trying to make Milarepa a "St. Francis". Frankly, there are parts here which almost sound like "boast" lyrics, which seems totally contrary to the spiritual focus of non-attachment, and all through the focus is often on the acts of individuals, rather than the inter-relations of levels of being and manifestation.

One very useful thing here, however, is the 15-point glossary in the back of the book, which gives concise thumbnails of assorted "doctrine points" from Tibetan Buddhism, from the classic "triple refuge" to the "ten virtues" and "the six doctrines of Naropa" ... a very handy "cheat sheet" to have if one is reading through Tibetan texts!

Obviously, had this book cost a lot, these concerns would make it less than attractive, however, the cover price of Songs of Milarepa is a paltry $2.00 ... and at that, one can appreciate it for what it is, and gladly take its Glossary in the bargain. Again, this is an ideal book to "keep in reserve" for when you need to nudge up an order into that "over $25" free-shipping promised land. I assume that this (being still in print, and all) would be available from your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, but I doubt they'd be particularly enthusiastic about special ordering it in at that price point!

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Tags: book review

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