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.
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