The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa

A New Translation

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Tsangnyon Heruka
Christopher Stagg
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala Publications, Inc.
    , September
     840 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In 1962 Garma C.C. Chang published the first full translation in any modern language of the collection of Milarepa’s songs gathered by Tsangnyön Heruka, under the title The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa (Shambhala, [1962] 1999). The record of Milarepa’s songs is important for two reasons. First, Milarepa is widely respected by all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and not just by his own Kagyu lineage. His life story as well as his collected songs are widely read and well known. This work is therefore important for an understanding of the ideas and beliefs shared across the full range of Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Chang said that it had been read as a “biography of a saint, a guide book for devotions, a manual of Buddhist Yoga, a volume of songs and poems, and even a collection of Tibetan folk lore and fairy tales” (679).

It is also historically important in the development of the Western study of Tibetan Buddhism. Up to the time that Chang published his translation, and indeed well after, Tibetan Buddhism was held in disrespect by the majority of Western scholars. Being associated with the supposedly decadent practices of tantra, it held little appeal for scholars more interested in the heights of abstruse philosophy and aesthetics. Very few studied the Tibetan language, and since Tibet had long been closed to outsiders, reports that emerged were either lurid and disparaging, sometimes literally fantastical, and in other cases simply overburdened with wonder at the magic and mystery of the land. Although little was actually known, the limitations of knowledge did not prevent writers from repeating the stereotypes fostered by earlier authors.

The end of the 1950s saw the invasion of Tibet by the army of the People’s Republic of China and the consequent exodus of the Dalai Lama and many thousands of other Tibetans. Effectively, this was the first time that ready access to the Tibetan traditions of Buddhism became available. A new field of Tibetan Buddhist studies made initial steps toward the massively important area of study that it is today, and Chang’s translation of Milarepa’s text at the beginning of that new era of academic study and personal practice gave it the status of a classic in the decades to follow.

In his foreword to Christopher Stagg’s new translation, the Seventeenth Karmapa notes that in the sixty-five years since Chang’s translation a great deal of progress has been made in the academic study of Buddhist thought, allowing translations to be more precise and to draw on the familiarity of technical terms that have entered common parlance in English. Even with these advantages, the text is difficult to translate because, as Stagg explains in his introduction, it is written in a fifteenth century or earlier form of colloquial Tibetan unique to a particular region. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that “Tibetan does not have a standardized, interregional colloquial language….Understanding it is a challenge due to a combination of obscure regionalisms and age, at times akin to trying to read Chaucer’s Middle English writings without the aid of glossaries and footnotes benefitting from centuries of scholarship” (xlii). Despite these difficulties, Stagg’s translation is more accessible to contemporary readers than is Chang’s. The language sounds more “natural” to the contemporary ear.

Chang was certainly intent on presenting what he saw as one of the great religious classics to the modern world. Recognizing the abstruse nature of some of the yogic material in the text, he provided an explanatory appendix, including a summary of “The Central Teaching of Tibetan Tantrism.” But the limitations of Chang’s era are evident in the terminology and conceptual structures used in his appendix. In contrast, Stagg’s introduction locates the work much more explicitly in the Mahāmudrā lineage, rather than a generalized Tibetan tantric context. Stagg says that Milarepa employs a fourfold structure used by “all practitioners of the Mahamudra lineage….Milarepa teaches the ‘view’ of Mahamudra as the basis for practice, ‘meditation’ as the path of familiarizing with that view, ‘conduct’ as the activity one engages in outside of formal meditation that also functions as enhancement of the practice, and the ‘fruition’ as the result of Mahamudra meditation” (xxxvi).

Framing the collected songs in this fashion reflects the progress made by the field of Buddhist studies generally, and of Tibetan Buddhist studies in particular, over the last seven decades. While Chang’s translation will continue to be of some interest to specialists, it is only reasonable to expect that Stagg’s will now become the standard English version.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard K. Payne is Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tsangnyon Heruka (1452–1507), or the “Madman of Tsang,” so named for his eccentric behavior in yogic practice, compiled and arranged this most well-known collection of Milarepa’s songs four centuries after the death of the great yogin. Tsangnyon spent much of his life wandering in the same region as Milarepa and was considered by some to be his emanation.

Christopher Stagg serves as a translator and interpreter for the Nitartha Institute and Nalandabodhi, both under the direction of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.



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