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Ask a Dharma Librarian: Are there any good Buddhist biographies?



While I am not formally a librarian of any sort, over the last few years I've compiled a fairly substantial cache of information (general interest and academic literature both) about every aspect of the many various Buddhist traditions, and a decent amount of information about related topics such as other South and East Asian philosophical and religious traditions and histories. 

I'd like to take whatever questions you, the reader, may have about these topics. They can be broad questions (How does karma work? or According to tradition, what is it like being a Buddha?) or more specific ones (Who is Shinran?).

What I can offer is an attempt to connect you with useful resources to explore your question (and in some cases I may actually be able to provide those resources). I may also attempt to summarize answers I find therein - we'll see.

If you're interested, please send questions to dharmalibrarian [at] gmail [dot] com. I'll see what I'm able to respond to based on the volume. Look for my response in two weeks.

This week's question, from Gary: Are there any good books or resources that deal specifically with biographical information about various Buddhist masters such as Avalokitshvara, Je Tsongkhampa, etc.? I am curious to know how they practiced through difficulties and their human struggles. 

Thanks for the question Gary. As it happens, I just recently was reminded of an interesting website called the Treasury of Lives. It's a project of the Rubin Foundation, the same people behind the amazing Rubin Museum of Art here in New York City. The site is a pretty amazing who's who of Tibetan Buddhism.

Unfortunately, the entries are in the style of the traditional Tibetan Buddhist CV ("he received such-and-such teachings from so-and-so at such-and-such monastery"), so I don't think they are exactly what you have in mind. 

Avalokiteshvara has always been a sort of "celestial bodhisattva," so while I wouldn't be surprised if his "backstory" was floating around somewhere, I think it is safe to say it is somewhat obscure.

As far as Tibetans go, their spiritual biographies are known as namthar (rnam-thar), and you can actually buy quite a number of them. Surprisingly, I'm not sure I've ever seen a stand-alone one in English for Tsongkhapa, although you'll encounter shorter biographies of him all over the place. I'm more familiar with the figures of the Kagyu lineage, and you can buy namthars for just about everyone. They are full of difficulties and struggles, that's for sure. Milarepa in particular stands out in that regard, and a new edition of his famous biography just came out (and it's very cheap). 

If you're looking for something with more of a contemporary, confessional style, you may be interested in the first book by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living. Undoubtedly due to his comparative youth, he talks about his struggles with panic attacks with a directness that older generations of Tibetans generally avoid when discussing themselves. 

Hope that was helpful! Anyone else have any favorites to recommend?

P.S. - I would also recommend autobiographies by Chogyam Trungpa (Born in Tibet) and Chagdud Tulku (Lord of the Dance). Both are very interesting and relate a number of personal struggles (in the latter case, title notwithstanding, none involving Irish dancing).

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