The Tale of the Incomparable Prince

The Tale of the Incomparable Prince

by Mdo Mkhar Tshe Ring Dbang Rgyal, trans. by Beth Newman
HarperCollins, 1996; hardcover, 319 pages.

Beth Newman has undertaken the first English translation of the only known Tibetan novel, The Tale of the Incomparable Prince. Writing in the 1720s, the author attempted to combine social and political views with Buddhist teachings in an artistic fashion. He sought to provide a tale for his people without limiting it to the world of scholars who traditionally exchanged such stories among themselves.

The hero of the novel, Prince Kumaradvitiya, is an Eastern equivalent to King Arthur, a symbol of excellence in the arts of war, love, and leadership, who maintains the highest understanding and devotion to morality and universal love. The tale told here combines Eastern teachings such as the Bhagavad-Gita with a more typically Western-style tale such as those of Homer. It is an exciting story about princes and kings, heroes and villains, and, of course, love. It is also a deeply spiritual and philosophical piece that engages a reader's sense of morality.

Unlike its sermon-like predecessors in the Buddhist literary canon, the religious lessons in The Tale of the Incomparable Prince are relayed in a storytelling manner that makes the values and ideals of the tradition accessible to the modern reader.

The story tells of the birth and rebirth of Prince Kumaradvitiya. Prince Kumara is born as the first son and heir of King Suryamati (Wise Sun), the great king of the city Gem of the World. Kumara is born according to prophecy as a brilliant and powerful prince, who inherits wealth, knowledge, political and martial power, and the love of his people. His unimaginable abundance of earthly powers and privileges is displayed in his quest to obtain the magnificent Monahan as his queen. He is called upon to exercise political leadership and military prowess in leading his armies into battle against enemies.

Despite his wealth and success, his instinct is to lead his people according to dharma. Like the Buddha, Kumara understands that earthly riches and pleasures only trap people in samsara, misery. He must, however, first complete this journey towards enlightenment himself before he can return and lead his people and offer them salvation from samsara.

As a religious text, this novel is faithful to the Buddhist tradition, teaching that as karma repays us for drifting from dharma, we have the tendency to make more and more mistakes. This leads us into the never ending cycle of misery called samsara. Tshe ring dbang rgyal writes:

In that fiery place, the Death Lord draws lines
Upon our bodies according to our evil deeds.
Then sharp weapons saw us into that pattern.

The only escape from samsara is the quest to understand and come to terms with the transitory nature of life, which is a ceaseless system of births and rebirths. Our experiences are simply visions of this pool of life as it churns. Everything is impermanent except that everything is impermanent.

The novel mirrors the experiences of the Buddha, who also was born a rich prince, Siddhartha, who abandoned earthly riches for his quest of enlightenment.

Juan Mascaro, who translated the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada, wrote that "There are, however, two great branches of literature not found in Sanskrit. There is no history and there is no tragedy; there is no Herodotus or Thucydides; and there is no Aeschylus or Sophocles or Euripides" (in Juan Mascaro, trans., The Bhagavad Gita, Penguin, New York, 1962, 9-10). Tshe ring dbang rgyal's work proves Mascaro to be quite mistaken, for this is a magnificent piece of literature, filled with poetry, tragedy, and some history. We now have in English a single piece of literature that provides a compelling tale that includes a fictionalized history of ideas and events vital to Tibet and the Buddhist world.


Summer 1996