“Some have arranged two masks,
When sporting the black one, they walk in great humility
While wearing the white one, they walk dragging their whips behind.”
–Excerpt from “Strange World” poem by Chen Metak
“An artist, if s/he’s unselfish and passionate, is always a living protest. Just to open his mouth is to protest: against conformism, against what is official, public, or national, what everyone else feels comfortable with, so the moment he opens his mouth, an artist is engaged, because opening his mouth is always scandalous.”—Pier Paolo Pasolini
“Translation is a powerful tool. It is a bridge that connects languages and cultures. In the case of Tibet, translation from and into English allows the Tibetan literature to be widely available to readers around the world,” – Bhuchung D. Sonam
Music? Contemporary Tibetan music, Can You Hear me? གོ་གྱིན་འདུག་གས། by rappers G Tashi and K Kush, We Are in Exile by Tibetan JJI Exile Brothers, Love Letters by Ketty Lesler, There is a Light that Never Goes Out by The Smiths, To the One I Love by REM, for the fiery protest Firestarter by the Prodigy, and for the root guru/heart, Pagan Poetry by Bjork.
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 22nd November 2022.
KEEPING THE FLAMES ALIVE: A TIBETAN EXILE EVENT REMEMBERING A TIBETAN POET
Chen Metak (Fire-Spark): Tibetan poet from Amdo (1970- 2022)
The Tibet Writes event commemorated Chen Metag (whose pen name literally means ‘fire-spark from Chentsa’) was a prominent poet from Amdo who passed away in Xining in September 2022 at the age of 52. He was born Sonam Tenpa in Chentsa in 1970. Metak was called by Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan writer, poet and activist who compered the event, an important intellectual and artistic figure within Tibet itself, under what he termed foreign occupation and colonisation. For more on that see below.
The Tibetan literary website, High Peaks Pure Earth reported in 2018 that:
“Six of Chen Metak’s poems were translated by Bhuchung D. Sonam and published in the recent volume “Burning the Sun’s Braids”. A short introduction to Chen Metak can be found in the book in which Chen Metak says that the relationship between writing and society is one of “blood and flesh, sword and arrow, father and son”.
Many poems can be found in Tibetan on Chen Metak’s blog here. One can read a review of “Burning the Sun’s Braids” by Tenzin Dickie on Tibetan Review here.”
This was then followed by their publication of new translations of eight poems by Metak and a report that when he passed away, there were many posts on Tibetan social media in tribute to him and that the poems were first published in Tibetan on the China TibetNet website in 2017 and translated into English by Bhuchung D. Sonam.”
Also, the RFA recently aired a short episode about the influence of Metak in Tibet (in Tibetan only) here.
Bhuchung D. Sonam – Tibetan exile poet, translator and publisher
One of the main speakers at the event was the poet, writer and translator, Bhuchung D Sonam, the co-founder of the Tibet Writes project, an imprint of Blackneck Books, based in the Tibetan exile ‘capital’, Dharamsala, India.
In a recent interview about winning the Ostana Prize for Writing and Translation award this year[i], Bhuchung explained that migration among other factors has made it difficult for Tibetans to preserve one’s own mother tongue, resulting in “loss of access to rich corpus of literature available in Tibetan language. This is why he considers translating such of texts into English as important to Tibetans in particular, in that he believes in the richness of unique experiences faced by Tibetans as much as he does in the task of preservation in exile,
“Acquiring a foreign tongue is an added value but it cannot be compared to the loss of one’s mother tongue. But at the same time, accepting the reality, we must engage in the act of translation and writing in whatever language we are gifted with so that our collective narrative expands.”
The use of translation, he said, is also vital in focusing on writers from inside Tibet, and “consequently sheds lights on their plight”.
“Translation is a powerful tool. It is a bridge that connects languages and cultures. In the case of Tibet, translation from and into English allows the Tibetan literature to be widely available to readers around the world.”
Bhuchung read one of Metak’s poems at the event, see video here (apologies for the poor sound quality, I was recording on my mobile).
Tibet activist and poet, Tenzin Tsundue and other guest speakers
The event was compered by Tenzin Tsundue, also a poet, writer and activist, wearing his signature-piece red bandana, who explained in both Tibetan and English, the question of the importance of art, poetry and music for humanity, but in particular for the Tibetan people who were being colonised under ‘foreign occupation.’ See videos here:
There were four other main speakers at the event (see photo below) who read poems from the book Burning the Sun Braids: Gen Gyal lo, Tashi Tsering, Bhuchung Sonam and female poet, Tenzin Choying from Amdo, Tibet. See video clip of her reading here.
2) THE POWER AND IMPORTANCE OF POETRY FOR LOVE, PROTEST AND SPIRITUAL AWAKENING
Muses in exile: Tibetan poetry – past and present
There are several pre-1959 well-known poets in the Tibetan Buddhist canon, such as the yogi Milarepa’s songs of awakening, including this one on the horror and evils of eating murdered animals, the 6th Dalai Lama’s scandalous love poetry, Drugpa Kunley and Gendun ChopheI.
Muses in Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry , translated and published by Bhuchung D. Sonam (Blackneck Books) in 2010, outlines the motivation and background to an increasing interest by Tibetans in writing in both Tibetan and English. Mentioning the class elite of Tibetans who had English public school educations but who did not leave behind any great literary output:
“The rich Tibetan Buddhist philosophical heritage, which once remained within the confines of our monasteries, began to permeate the outside world. Tibet is now universally synonymous with concepts like Compassion and the Middle Path. However, this global awakening of interest in Buddhist studies has somewhat overshadowed our unique secular creative heritage in dance, opera, music, folklore and poetry, which remains scantily explored. Tibetan writing in English, which is a very recent flowering, is a small part of this secular culture….Since the late seventies we have seen the publication of several poetry books in English by Tibetans.
Yet post-fifties exile Tibetans were not the first to express themselves in English. Prior to the mass exodus of Tibetans to India after 959, a few highly privileged sons and daughters of Lhasa aristocrats, powerful chieftains and rich businessmen received modern educations in Christian boarding schools in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, and in the 1920’s four boys were sent to an English public school by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. But neither the aristocratic heirs, nor the four schoolboys educated at Rugby, left behind any literary output worth mentioning. They largely disappeared into history, faceless and nameless.”
Citing Gendun Chophel as “probably the first-ever Tibetan to write poems in English”:
“In 1927, when Tibet was enjoying her hard-won return to full independence, a monk from Rebkong in north-eastern province of Amdo arrived in Lhasa — full of vigour and bubbling with ideas. He was a rebel to the core. Desiring to broaden his knowledge, he later travelled to India where he roamed the streets of Calcutta and Varanasi and became what he called a “stray monk”. Some biographers say that he mastered the English language in six months.”
For more on Chophel and the role of poetry in political protest and change, see below.
Dhondup Gyel – The Waterfall of Youth
After Chophel, another well-known Tibetan poet was Dhondup Gyal (1953–1985) is considered the first modern Tibetan poet breaking through traditional Tibetan formalist elements and is widely regarded in Tibet as the founder of Modern Tibetan Poetry. An accomplished scholar, writer, poet and patriot, he committed suicide in 1985 when he was only 32.
Gyel not only wrote poetry but alsomany short stories. One short story “Trulku” was criticized for its portrayal of a charlatan lama who goes onto have relationship with two women, this caused a furore in the conservative Tibetan community in Tibet. A compilation of his short stories and poetry was published Amnye Machen, his works are also available in translated form. Dhondup Gyal, is the first Tibetan poet to have written his poems in free verse in Waterfall of Youth (Lang tsho’i rbab chu), influencing a generation in Tibet, including Namlo Yak.
Female Voices – Sera Khandro, Jamyang Khyi, Tsering Woeser and more
The lack of published (and translated) female voices in the pre- and post-1959 canon is glaringly obvious, but recently the songs and voices of Tibetan women are coming more to the fore, with new translations of the songs of some of Milarepa’s female students, such as Rechungma, whose life and songs I wrote about here. And of more contemporary yoginis, such as Sera Khandro and Tare Lhamo, whose verses of Praise to Yeshe Tsogyel I translated and wrote about here.
In terms of contemporary Tibetan female poets and writers dealing with current issues, such as gender equality, the work of Tibetan poet and feminist Jamyang Khyi, is noteworthy, as is that of Tsering Woeser, Her first poetry collection, Tibet Above, was published in 1999 by the Tibetan People’s Publishing House of Qinghai Province. There is also the book A Thousand White Stones, by writer Kunzang Dolma, whom I interviewed in 2013 in Tibetan Feminist Kunsang Dolma Challenging the Myth of Shangri-La |
More recently, there is the work of poet, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, one of the few Tibetan exile poets to gain international recognition and publication. Efforts are underway to make Tibetan female voices more widely known and translated, as can be read about here.
Poetry and its connection to protest/activism and the thin line the writer walks between enemy and friend
It is clear that poetry has often been used as a form of song, protest and tool to awaken spiritual mind-states. Chogyam Trungpa, a famous (and often controversial) Tibetan Buddhist teacher who also wrote poetry remarked that:
“I think that a poet’s mind functions entirely differently, that in some sense you could say that poets are haunted by their poetry, not their poetry but the concept of poetry. Each time when you look at the world in a different way — when you take an airplane, when you travel in a train, when you meet cab drivers, when you shop in a grocery — whatever you do, something flashes back to you. There is a kind of fundamental humor and fundamental craziness which constantly gives you lots of material and clarity at the same time.”
Reading some of Chen Meytag’s poems in English translation, it seems he was an activist and used his words to protest injustice, censorship and the cowardice and cruelty of humans (in subtle ways), just as George Orwell protested about dictatorial, fascist governments using the metaphor of an Animal Farm. A satirical novel where the animals finally get their freedom back from the human farm owners, only to then be taken over by the intelligent pigs, due to the negative mental states of jealousy, greed, competitiveness and selfishness, present in all beings.
Writers and poets who are seeking to make more serious, political points often walk a thin line between ‘enemy’ and ‘friend’ of the communities and culture they write about. Something it is easy to find oneself on the wrong side of (as I have experienced several times myself). However, to be a writer being brave without concern for popularity is essential to produce authentic art and writing.
Gedun Chopel – a compatriot or enemy? A misogynist or sexual libertarian?
This thin line can also be seen in relation to Gendun Chophel, not just in terms of his writing and conduct, but also views of women (as I have written about here).
“Was he an exile compatriot? Politically he wasn’t. But socially he was. He neither found his rightful place in the hierarchical monastic system, nor did his sharp, inquisitive mind and articulate mouth conform to the submissive and rigid social structure in yesterday’s Tibet – especially in the eyes of Lhasa officials. Authority always seems to silence creative voices, since creativity means change and change means danger to those in power. Constricted by such a social climate, and in search of fresh knowledge, he left Tibet. During his self—imposed exile he missed his native land and longingly wrote:
“Rebkong, I left thee and my heart behind
My boyhood dusty plays in jar Tibet.
Karma, that restless stallion made of wind,
In tossing me: where will it land me yet?”
I left thee and my heart behind’ aptly foreshadows our plight today in exile. Perhaps, through his prismatic vision, he saw that his fellow countrymen would one day wander in an alien land. In his own self-imposed exile Gendun Choephel experienced the same estrangement as we do today.”
In a recent publication of Chophel’s poems, In the Forest of Faded Wisdom, translated by scholar, Donald J Lopez, it states that:
“Whatever their views on his political or philosophical opinions, most educated Tibetans agree that Gendun Chopel was a superb poet, perhaps their greatest of the twentieth century. He was deeply learned in both Sanskrit and Tibetan literature, had mastered a full range of Tibetan poetic forms, and could with equal effectiveness express religious piety, philosophical subtlety, or emotions such as joy, wonderment, outrage, loneliness, bitterness, and despondency. In preparing In the Forest of Faded Wisdom, the prolific scholar and author Donald Lopez has brought together virtually every poem by Gendun Chopel known to exist, apart from poems he translated from Sanskrit and most of his manual of erotics…
Gendun Chopel never collected his own verse, which is found scattered in a multitude of sources, many of them undated, so a chronological presentation of the poems is nearly impossible. Lopez therefore arranges them in six thematic sections: “Teachings of a Master Without Disciples,” “Laments of an Unknown Sage,” “The Ways of the World,” “Songs of the Tibetan Kings,” “Precepts on Passion,” and “English Compositions.” These titles convey the range of topics Gendun Chopel addressed in his poetry, which include traditional Buddhist sutra and tantra teachings, his long-standing sense of persecution and isolation, the vanity and ignorance of people everywhere (whether lay or monastic, Tibetan, Indian, or Western), the greatness of Tibet in its early era, and the joys and snares of sexual love.”
Chophel also expresses faith in the luminous nature of the mind, the compassion of buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the importance of virtue, and he feels that in the end,
“True, divine dharma, solace of this sadness,
At least once, is certain to come to mind.”
Tibetan Buddhist poetry by 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje
In terms of a contemporary spiritual teacher and Tibetan Buddhist master who is a poet and writer as well, we can turn to the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje who has been composing texts and poems since early childhood. Many of these have been translated into various languages and collected into volumes and publications.
In 2010, for example, the Karmapa wrote and directed a play based on the life story of Milarepa which was performed at the Kagyu Monlam and watched by thousands of students from around the world. Later, he wrote a play on the life of the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi. On a previous trip to the United States the Gyalwang Karmapa attended a poetry jam at Princeton University to experience a day like a college student.
In 2014, the Karmapa spoke about the profundity and depth of emotion in Milarepa’s songs, saying:
“Milarepa’s poetry is not a poetry of philosophy. It is not a poetry of words of ideas. Rather, it is a poetry of the transmission of meaning. As such, it impacts us and inspires us to this day.”
More recently, the Karmapa attended a poetry reading at Latse Library, an American library devoted to modern Tibetan studies. It was said to be the second such event to take place in North America, although the practice is now better established in other Tibetan communities.
“Among the eight poets reading their verse was Jangbu, a poet living in France who pioneered the use of free verse in Tibetan. With His Holiness the Karmapa listening attentively to the poets’ oral renditions of their verse, a succession of regional accents, themes and poetic styles provided a demonstration of the tremendous diversity and vibrancy of Tibet’s poetic culture. Several poems originally composed and read in English gave an added glimpse of the extension of Tibetan ways of being into new local contexts.
At the conclusion of the event, the hosts printed one of His Holiness the Karmapa’s poems and handed it to him with a sincere request that he read it. After commenting that although he hardly merited the name “poet,” (they had made it hard to deny that he had written something along the lines of poetry), His Holiness read one of his own poems, composed in free verse: Anniversary Poem, which he wrote in honour of the 900th anniversary of the birth of the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa.”
This year (2022) the 17th Karmapa released The Thousand-Petalled Flower of Faith (Deypai Metog) which has not been translated into English and a beautiful praise for the parinirvana of the 3rd Karmapa, which I translated and wrote about here.
3) “STOKED WITH LOVE” – NEW TRIBUTE POEM
“If something burns your soul with purpose and desire, it’s your duty to be reduced to ashes by it. Any other form of existence will be yet another dull book in the library of life.” – Charles Bukowski
So, returning to the blazing fire at this small, discreet poetry commemoration, what struck me most of all was the fiery passion and energy with which these writers and poets, and the people who came to see them, despite being a very small audience and without much sponsorship or funding, maintained their burning passion for art, poetry, literature, creativity and the preservation of Tibetan language, culture and writing bringing it into the 21st Century. It reminded me of a quote by the great French existential philosopher, Albert Camus in his novel, The Plague:
“I’ve had enough of people who die for ideas. I don’t believe in heroism, I know that it’s easy and I’ve found out that it’s deadly. What interests me, is living or dying for what one loves.”
The Tibetan poet’s name Meytak (Fire-spark) and the fire blazing outside with a huge wooden log in it was poetry in motion. The solid fuel of the fire, so to speak. Bringing to the mind the tragic and yet courageous, self-immolations of Tibetans in Tibet and exile, and the brave, beautiful mind of Tibetan protest singers, writers and poets, I spontaneously wrote this poetic verse in tribute:
Poem composed in one day by Adele Tomlin, on 22nd November 2022. Dedicated to the brave-heart Tibetan poets in Tibet and exile. May the light in their hearts never be extinguished and may they experience freedom and happiness in the snowy lands of Tibet. Music allusions? Blackbird by the Beatles and Dance Me to the End of Love by Leonard Cohen.
Tibetan poet Chen Metak and his influence in Tibetan society (Tibetan language only) – YouTube
Chen Meytak’s Blog (Tibetan language)
Three Poems by Chen Meytak in High Peaks, Pure Earth
"Burning the Sun's Braids: New Poetry from Tibet" Translated by Bhuchung D. Sonam
Tibetan writer and poet wins Ostana Prize for writing and translation
Poems of a Renegade Monk – Lions Roar
Muses in Exile – An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry | Exotic India Art
Poetry Chaikhana | Tibetan Poets and Poetry (poetry-chaikhana.com)
The Presence of the Dalai Lama’s Absence: A Conversation with Tibetan Poet Tsering Woeser (2019)
Tsering Wangmo Dhompa on Poets.org
Amplifying Tibetan women’s voices: A survey of contemporary literary works – Asia Dialogue (theasiadialogue.com)
STAINLESS IN THE WOMB AND THE MOON: NEW CONCISE LIBERATION-STORY AND ARTWORK OF 3RD KARMAPA (by the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa)
At Special IBC Event, Karmapa Teaches On Milarepa’s Songs of Awakening | Karmapa – The Official Website of the 17th Karmapa (kagyuoffice.org)
Poetry: “Tales from the Yoni Stone” (2nd edition, 2021)
JE MILAREPA’S SONG ON THE SUFFERING OF ANIMALS AND THE EVIL ‘CUSTOM’ OF MEAT-EATING
PLAYFUL PRACTITIONERS OR MINDLESS MISOGYNISTS? THE “ARTS OF LOVE” OR ‘ARTS OF “A**HOLERY’? The question of sexist double standards, silent women and two Tibetan Buddhist male ‘heroes’, Gendun Chophel and Drugpa Kunley
[i] The distinguished Ostana prize in the category of ‘Writings in Mother Tongue’ is given to those dedicated to preserving their mother tongues and artistic expression in music, literature or cinema.