The Life of Gampopa
Jampa Mackenzie Stewart
Snow Lion: Ithaca, New York, 1995.
192 pp., $12.95 (paper).
The publication of The Life of Gampopa completes the English-language biographies of the five foundational figures of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Taken together, these biographies constitute a remarkable narrative, describing the relationships between teacher and disciple in a lineage that began almost a thousand years ago. Jampa Stewart has drawn from multiple sources to fashion his biography. He worked closely with senior lineage holders and Lobsang Lhulungpa, the translator whoseLife of Milarepa set the standard for these translations. The result is an accessible, elegant work.
The book as a whole goes beyond mere biography, providing as well an introduction to the history of the Kagyu lineage and its Mahamudra (Great Seal) teachings. Unlike The Life of Milarepa, which reads almost like a novel, The Life of Gampopa is more formal, almost liturgical, in style. Nevertheless, Stewart has brought such care to the task of translation that the vitality of Gampopa’s story is not lost in religious convention or antique phrasing.
Gampopa (1079 -1153 C.E.) was a great scholar and tantric practitioner at an early age. A physician by profession, he entered a happy marriage and fathered two children. Tragically, his wife and children died in an epidemic, after which he became a monk. Later, he began to dream of a “green” yogi (legend has it that Milarepa became green from eating only nettles). When they met, Milarepa’s first instruction to Gampopa was to drink a cup of chang (Tibetan beer). Gampopa hesitated—as a monk he was forbidden to drink alcohol—but Milarepa admonished him: “Don’t think so much. Just drink it.” Gampopa drained the cup and was embraced as a son by Milarepa.
As Milarepa’s foremost disciple, Gampopa marked the transition from the independent yogis of early Tibetan Buddhism to the monastic tradition that exists to this day. He accomplished this by bringing the Kadampa (oral instruction) monastic system together with the Kagyu teachings. Gampopa also advanced the radical Mahamudra view that all mental activity, regardless of content, has an enlightened basis, an idea familiar to many in the West through the works of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, whose teachings on “basic sanity” comprise a modern interpretation of this view. Moreover, the dialectic between organization-building and this most radical approach to experience underlies much of Gampopa’s teaching, including the most famous incident in his career.
When Gampopa had gathered thousands of students together to practice under monastic discipline, three yogis of Kham defied the rules by conducting a tantric feast involving alcohol and dancing. For this, they were expelled from the retreat by the disciplinary monk. When Gampopa realized what had happened, he sang a song intended to call them back, for he had foreseen that these were his true disciples. The song has a touching chorus: “Sons, don’t go any further down, come back up!” To which the three yogis added a chorus of their own: “We are climbing the steps of the higher realms, going up and up. We are stamping down the lower realms, going up and up. Sho mo! What a joyful, good experience.” And, indeed, as Gampopa had foreseen, one of these yogis became the first Karmapa, thus beginning the tradition of reincarnate lamas that today virtually defines the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
This story shows, among other things, that the dharma lives most vividly in relationships. Moreover, it is possible to see all of these early Tibetan biographies, at their core, as narratives of healing. The Indian master Tilopa teaches the intellectual Naropa the wisdom of his body. Naropa harasses the untamable Tibetan pilgrim Marpa so that the teaching lives within him, even when all his texts seem lost. Marpa rehabilitates, through a series of brutal physical tasks, the murderous sorcerer Milarepa. And Milarepa combines gentleness and confrontation as he helps Gampopa let go of his self-consciousness and conceit. In all of these stories, working through one’s neurosis and getting enlightened become inseparable. Jampa Stewart has made an invaluable contribution to the most recent chapter in this fascinating record of early Tibetan Buddhism.
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