Reviews: Milarepa, He Started Like Us


By Andrew Quintman
Columbia University Press, 2013 336 pages, $105

What is it that makes a spiritual biography appealing? If the person is portrayed just like us mere mortals in every way, the story is hardly inspiring because it is simply too similar to our own lives. By contrast, most Tibetan biographies of great masters present stereotypes of individuals who are more or less perfect from birth. Often these masters are considered incarnations or emanations of previous masters or even buddhas, and their lives follow a set course: birth accompanied by miraculous events, mastery of extensive studies and practices at an early age, teaching and being in long retreats, and then passing away with more miracles. Rarely is there any mention of personal traits or everyday events, let alone of struggles, doubts, or inner conflicts. Unfortunately, such stories fail to inspire as well because they appear to be completely out of the reach of ordinary beings. What is inspiring is the process of developing from a regular person to a genuine example of spiritual progress and accomplishment. This is precisely what Milarepa’s life has to offer us, and it has no doubt contributed to this great yogin’s longstanding importance and popularity as a figure in Tibetan Buddhism.

Milarepa’s life story is famous for its timeless themes of evildoing and redemption, unwavering devotion to the guru, perseverance in the face of many hardships, and one-pointed dedication to the path. What’s more, his life exemplifies how an ordinary being can become a complete buddha in a single lifetime. In The Yogin & the Madman, author Andrew Quintman takes a careful look at how Milarepa’s life story was recorded and transmitted, including how its structures and functions transformed over time. To that end, he formulates three methodological goals: (1) to stop trying to distill fact from fiction; (2) to see the value of the different versions of Milarepa’s life as a way to understand religious, social, and literary history versus seeing them primarily as inert mines of data; and (3) to focus on the formal literary qualities of a textual corpus while paying close attention to its production, dissemination, reception, and intertextual relationships. In the process, Quintman brings a wealth of forgotten early biographical materials back to light and explains how a much later biographical work by Tsangnyön Heruka became the standard version that eclipsed all previous ones.

Excerpted from the Summer 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.

Karl Brunnhölzl is a senior teacher in Nalandabodhi and a translator with the Tsadra Foundation. He is the author of The Heart Attack Sutra and Mining for Wisdom within Delusion (Snow Lion).