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Reading #5: The Second Half of The Life of Milarepa - Katherine Cook [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Katherine Cook

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Reading #5: The Second Half of The Life of Milarepa [Feb. 10th, 2004|12:39 am]
Katherine Cook
Is The Life of Milarepa a story or a history?

Well, the somewhat cop-out answer is that it is both. In my mind, it certainly cannot be simply a history or else it would have been as dry and dull as Chinese Monks in India. Whereas Chinese Monks in India seemed to lie flat in two-dimensions, The Life of Milarepa was full of life and colour. It had the third dimension that Chinese Monks in India was missing. Perhaps, it wasn’t necessary for Chinese Monks in India to have a third dimension because it seemed to serve its purpose of relating history anyhow. However, it didn’t find it an enjoyable read.

I think in order to truly answer the question of what The Life of Milarepa actually is requires defining both a story and a history in my own terms.

What is a history? A history tells us what happened in the past in the most objective light possible. Perhaps, not all histories achieve the goal of objectivity, but I’m fairly certain that the writers of histories set out to give an objective account of events of the past. Histories remind me of newspapers and news programs. The intention of objectivity is there, but human bias is inevitable. Any news program likes to believe that it is objective but, with careful examination, one can very clearly see the underlying political leaning of the network.

Is Chinese Monks in India a history? I feel safe to say yes. Chinese Monks in India is a straightforward account of the pilgrimages of Chinese Buddhist Monks to Central Asia. Chinese Monks in India is satisfied with giving an account of the facts and that is all. Or is it? There is obvious bias on the part of the writer, I-Ching, which is obvious to any reader of the text. He is a Buddhist. Chinese Monks in India does relate the basic events in lives of many pilgrim monks, but it does this with an understated reverence towards the monks. The clearest example of this is when I-Ching talks about the bodhisattva who let himself drown in order that others could be saved from a sinking ship. The manner in which he writes this passage shows that he agrees with the monk’s actions.

Is The Life of Milarepa a history? Perhaps, it is. I think that it is important to understand that, most likely, for the members of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, it is believed to be a historical account of real person. Those outside the tradition might be inclined to question this. However, we could also go so far as to question whether the historical Buddha Sakyamuni actually lived. It is impossible to tell. Just as the events from Milarepa’s life seemed too exaggerated to be accurate, we could also say that the story of Sakyamuni as a prince also seems wildly exaggerated (to anyone’s who has read it). Putting the question of whether Milarepa actually lived aside, I think that subtle historical information about Tibet from the time that the text was written can be extracted from it. The Life of Milarepa is certainly useful in this way and whether it is fiction or non-fiction is irrelevant. The Life of Milarepa gives us details as to the layout of Tibet at the time, the practices of the people (such as magic), Tibet’s contact with India (in Naropa’s importance in the story), the place of women in Tibetan society, the ways in which the Tibetan people obtained food (agriculture and hunter-gatherer) and so on. Even if one does believe that The Life of Milarepa is pure fiction meant to enchant people into believing that (Kagyu) Buddhism can lead even the very defiled person to enlightenment in one lifetime, the socio-historical tidbits that it gives cannot be discarded.

What is a story? Unlike a history, a story can be fictional. Both a history and a story relate events but a story’s need not have actually happened. Considering that the truthfulness of The Life of Milarepa is a question mark, it certainly still is a story, if not a history. Saying that a story is a written work that entertains is a dangerous statement. For, the level to which something entertains is completely subjective. I certainly wouldn’t call a newspaper article on tax cuts a story but some people would find it entertaining or enjoyable to read.

Is Chinese Monks in India a story? I would say no. Although some of the vignettes on the Chinese monks were mildly interesting, it lacked characters with any depth. Some of the vignettes told the life stories of certain monks in a small paragraph. We weren’t given any time or enough non-superficial information to really know or understand the monks.

Is The Life of Milarepa a story? The Life of Milarepa is certainly more of a story than Chinese Monks in India. If a defining criterion for a story is that it have three-dimensional characters, than I would say that Life of Milarepa is certainly a story.

The characters in The Life of Milarepa whom the reader really gets to know are Milarepa, Marpa, Marpa’s wife, Zessay, Milarepa’s sister, Milarepa’s mother and Retchung. We don’t simply read about the actions of these characters but we are able to understand their motivations.

Zessay is a kindhearted girl who has great love and compassion for Milarepa and she does what she can to make his life as an ascetic more comfortable (however, ironic this is). In fact, Zessay’s compassion unexpectedly leads Milarepa to a spiritual awakening.

Milarepa’s mother is a woman made cold and hard by circumstance. Her bitterness overtakes her so that she uses Milarepa as her tool of vengeance against their enemies.

Marpa is the lama who treats Milarepa harshly for Milarepa’s own good. He is wise and mysterious and his machinations seem cruel to those of us who aren’t enlightened as he is. He is the lama that Milarepa feels overwhelming respect for and gratitude to. We see this as almost every single song sung by Milarepa first venerates Marpa.

Marpa’s wife is a woman who is the antithesis of her husband. She also feels great compassion but does not have the wisdom to use it in a beneficial way to Milarepa, as Marpa does. She becomes like a second mother to Milarepa.

Milarepa’s sister is a girl who loves her brother dearly but is limited by a closed mind. She does not understand her brother’s asceticism and so is unable to accept that his asceticism brings him joy (instead of misery). She is unable to see beyond her own samsaric views.

Retchung is Milarepa great student. Milarepa calls him a live lion among the hundred masks of Milarepa’s other followers (p.180). Unlike Milarepa’s other disciples, Retchung truly understands Milarepa’s words and is always full of humility.

Finally, Milarepa is the story. Milarepa is the Cinderella of Tibetan Buddhism. He finds himself a great sinner at a very young age. However, his conscience is very disturbed by the violence that his mother forced him to do. Milarepa commits himself to Buddhism and he spends most of his life meditating in solitude. While most see his asceticism as misery, Milarepa sees it as joy. Beyond samsara, Milarepa walks the path that most never get to walk. Understanding his privilege, Milarepa feels great compassion for all sentient beings and takes himself to the brink of self-destruction to attain liberation, for them.

From: lydiaporter
2004-02-10 12:27 pm (UTC)

Story v. History - Is this really a dichotomy?

I don’t know if I like the dichotomy you present here between history and story (although the problem was in the original question, so it’s not your fault). I think that history is a story. By story, I mean an account of an event or series of events either true or fictitious (dictionary.com). So a history, as an account of an event or series of events, is by definition a story.

History (note the root of the word = “story”) is differentiated from “story” because it purports to be true. So a story is a narrative of events either true or false, while history is a subsection of story – it describes only those narratives that are true.

I think that in the case of Milarepa, which as a narrative of events is by definition a story, it is much more useful to specify the particular type of story. So history could be a type of story, but as we have decided Milarepa is not a history (at least not in the normal sense), we should identify what other type of story Milarepa could be characterized as.

I would propose myth as an option here. Myths are defined as “A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society (as per dictionary.com).” I think that Milarepa fits quite nicely into this category. As such, we can see Milarepa as a hero of the Tibetan imagination (possibly based on a real person, but this is impossible to verify and thus irrelevant) who embodies the spiritual and religious ideals of Tibetan society.
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From: hwatts
2004-02-10 05:30 pm (UTC)


The back of the book says that "The Life of Milarepa" is a "folktale". That leads me to believe that the story cannot be a true history. That being said, I agree with you that his life seems to exaggerated to be accurate, and also agree when you say that perhaps that's irrelevant. There are still aspects of the story that may be considered historical.
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[User Picture]From: marybell_lem
2004-02-11 08:06 am (UTC)

the truth in the fiction

"Putting the question of whether Milarepa actually lived aside, I think that subtle historical information about Tibet from the time that the text was written can be extracted from it. The Life of Milarepa is certainly useful in this way and whether it is fiction or non-fiction is irrelevant." Good point. If we are looking for historical information we can certainly find a lot of little tidbits. Fiction is not devoid of truth by definition. Your exploration of story and history was very interesting, as were the comments it provoked. I like how you called Milarepa the Cinderella of Tibetan Buddhism - nice literary metaphor. ^_^
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