Saturday, February 26, 2005

"O Bloody Times"

Montse Kunda Palden (1408-1475?)

Little is known to Westerners about the life of Kunda Palden except that he was a lineage holder in one of the Kagyu sects. His handwritten biography is considered an interesting document, according to E. Gene Smith, who found his literary style, "graceful and his verse demonstrates a mastery of the idiom of folk poetry." Smith includes the full translation of a song about the 1434 civil war among the tribes of Utang as an example of his "exquisite poetic style." (Smith 50)

* * *

In the Tiger year (1434) when I was twenty- seven.
The phag mo gry pa troubeld times erupted.
The levies of the armies of Dbu and Gtsang
In a large sense divided Dol and Gzhung in two.
The route of March for both the great Army
And the Gtsang Army came through Ba ri rsang.

All the houses and homesteads were put to the torch;
The farming settlements were turned into cattle enclosures.
All the subservient were slaughtered on the knife;
Ordinary folk were turned into beggars.

The powerful slew and were slain by the sword;
The weak perished upon the knife of hunger;
Villager was thrashing villager. At such a time,
Ties of father and son and brother and brother were of no consequence.

Back and forth raged bitter feuds and defil ing vendettas.
No wergeld was extracted for the slaughter of men;
No pursuit was organized to follow the looted property.
Time passed in looting, banditry, and murder.

Who cared whoever wandered and strayed?
The pasturage dried up, the fields be came drying
Whatever small fortune there had been in the sun
in the center
At that time was bleeding out.

When I think of the suffering experienced
By sentient creatures at that time,
Even now the memory of it almost makes me weep.

Translated by E. Gene Smith

Oh pitious spectacle, O Bloody Times
While Lion won the battle for their den
Poor harmless lambs abide the enmity
Weep wretched man; I'll aid the tear for tear
And let our hearts and eyes, like civil war,
Be blind with tears and break o'er charged with grief.

from Henry IV, Wm Shakespeare

Friday, February 18, 2005

A Context for Tibetan "Songs of Experience"

Part II--of my essay

A Context for Tibetan "Songs of Experience"

In his introductory essay to Beneath a Single Moon, Gary Snyder points out that a culture combining meditation and poetry found in Tibet and other Buddhist countries, is "as old and as common as grass" (Snyder 110). He further indicates a logical supposition that meditation looks inward in order to discover innate luminous mind, commonly referred to in the Buddhist tradition as, the nature of mind, while poetry is a shared experience of communitas in song, language and performance of unknown ancient origins.
Great poets inevitably tap into luminous mind which experiences in nature and society a sacred world enlivened with energy, articulated in the West by Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The world is charged with the grandeur of God/ It will flame out, like shinning from shook foil." The impulse toward the discovery of luminous mind which fosters a sacred outlook on the world is neither Eastern nor Western but rather a human one outside of cultural particulars. One thinks of Keats' "straining against particles of light." On the other hand, how language finds its utterance in poetic measure, whether formally or in open formed composition with a myriad of expressions, is both a matter of cultural and individual factors.
In classical Asian cultures, such a tripartite aesthetic view could be discussed in terms of the principles of Heaven (Luminous Mind), Earth (Sacred World) and Man (Self). Specifically in Tibetan culture, this triad is found in the three-fold logic of Dharmakaya (dharma body or primordial mind), Sambogakaya (enjoyment body or speech) and Nirmanakaya (form body or body). In a non-theistic culture like Tibet, Hopkins' statement above might very well read 'The world is charged by the grandeur of dharmakaya (space).' Indeed, The 18th /19th century Tibetan poet Shabkar does just that
in his poem "A Song by a Yogin in Solitude":
Oh, enter the four features
Of dharmakaya--the Reality Essence:
Empty as space, brilliant as sun,
Transparent as mirror, sharp as eyes.

Let us travel together
to the realm of the real itself
As the discourse of philosophers
Conducted by all -knowing scholars
In the debating courtyard,
Is a melodious tune to the ear,
So too, are songs of experience
Sung in solitude by yogis
Who have entered the Great Oneness--
Mahamudra and Dzogchen.

(Jinpa & Elsner 67)

These songs represent a method to enter into the reality essence of primordial mind or luminous mind, "the realm of the real," through the songs of experience composed spontaneously by those who have already tasted the fruit of their meditation experience in the non-dual states of Mahamudra or Dzogchen--"The Great Oneness." Shabkar also says that the songs of experience are as melodious to those solitary yogins as the discourse of debating is to the philosophers found in the monasteries. Traditionally, it is said that one goes to the monastery to "study" and to the
uninhabited mountain caves to "practice." The namgyur tradition arises from the latter.
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, a contemporary yogin of the Karma Kagyu school who spent twenty-five years in retreat, currently makes extensive use of Milarepa's songs of experience in order to introduce the view of luminous mind, at times referred to as "radiant clarity" in his teachings to advanced Western students of Tibetan Buddhism. Traditionally, such an understanding does not come from reading a book but must be found in relation to a lineage of those who have already achieved a comprehension of this lofty view through mediation practices introduced by master teachers to their disciples. Thus, these songs may serve a didactic function to transmit knowledge/experience as well as to imbue the author with the pleasure-toned experience of creative composition so familiar to all artists. In other words, such a poetic composition is only as pleasurable as it is authentic in expressing the view of luminous mind. Often, Shabkar ends his compositions with "When I finished this song, I felt great joy." "For a Tibetan", the 14th Dalai Lama explains, "these songs of experience are not merely eloquent verses, but more importantly, they have the power to evoke profound spiritual inspiration in the devout practitioner. Many of them were composed as spontaneous songs following a profound spiritual experience, so they carry the palpable sense of freshness and immediacy" (Jinpa & Elsner 21).
Among postmodern Western influences, Charles Olson's projective verse in spirit, if not actual form, is closest to the radical shift in consciousness found in the namgyur tradition of Tibetan poetry. Olson's understanding that open form poetry is a kinetically alive "compositional field" where movement of mind, exemplified by "One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception," coordinating with breath (Olson 387,388), remains deeply influential among contemporary Western Buddhist poets such as Anne Waldman, Armand Schwerner, George Quasha, and others. For it is precisely in the relationship between mind and breath that some meditation practices find their method.
Traditional cultures which have strong oral traditions already sustain this body-mind synchronization linguistically through chant, song, or incantation, and epic recitations in which the medium of breath is often employed to determine the length of a line or phrasing. But the main distinction, between a solely ritual unlettered society and a literate one like Tibet which employs a number of oral methods of composition, might be found in the development of the self as a mediator for experience rather than a collective anonymous voice/self ( as in the Gesar of Ling narratives). Such oral compositions in the context of namgyur do not fall in the Milman Parry/Alfred Lord model for oral narratives like those researched among Slavic epics with their handy storehouse of stock figurative phrasing and epithets to act as a mnemonic device in the spontaneous recitation of the oral epic. Rather, the songs of experience arise, as the 14th Dalai Lama noted above, in response to profound inner experiences, not mythic/historic compilations composed anonymously.
Nor does the 'meditation' poem in English with its intellectually driven philosophical premise approximate the 'meditation' poem found in Tibet, where formal meditation is historically and aesthetically part of the development of a self and a poetic tradition. On the other hand, in the West, there is a lineage of poetics which finds a common ground with Tibetan poetry, particularly with namgyur. The designation 'contemplative' may be better suited than 'meditative' which in the West generally refers to an intellectual tradition of metaphysical inquiry unrelated to the experience of formal meditation techniques for training the mind in awareness, such as Shabkar expresses above. Among American poets, consider this early poem by William Carlos Williams, which is an example of an Imagist poem relying on a series of snapshots:

To A Solitary Disciple
Rather notice, mon cher,
That the moon is
tilted above
the point of the steeple
than that its color
is shell pink.

Rather observe
That it is early morning
Than that the sky
Is smooth as turquoise.

Rather grasp
How the dark
Converging lines
Of the steeple
Meet the pinnacle--
Perceive how
Its little ornament
Tries to stop them--

See how it fails!
See how converging lines
Of the hexagonal spire
Escape upward--
Receding, dividing!
that guard and contain
the flower!

Observe how motionless
The eaten moon
Lies in the protecting

It is true:
in the light colors
of morning

Brown-stone and slate
Shine orange and dark blue.

But observe
the oppressive weight
of the squat edifice!
The jasmine lightness
Of the moon
(William Carlos Williams,104-105)

Here, Williams seems to give instructions in executing the poetics of Imagism following Pound's dictum "direct treatment of things." This poem, unbeknownst to the speaker, articulates a traditional Buddhist training in meditative clarity (vipasyana/clear seeing). Beginning with "notice," the poem offers specific directives
such as: observation, perception, seeing, observation yet again (looking with new eyes) and release into clarity. The release of the "moving image" follows only after exacting and descriptive images of the steeple break loose in the heightened imagery of the moon. It's as though Williams allows himself such an extravagance of language with a hint of metaphor only after rigorous adherence to an unfettered focus on details. One would think Williams was giving meditation instruction by telling us not to get distracted by the more abstract notion of colors (Pound) but hold to the bare essentials--mind observing an object in space. In this poem, he tells his disciple not to focus on the background colors but on the foreground in order to "paint that which is not named," or "to make it new" (Pound) through the sharp lens of naked awareness.
While, of course, Williams was neither a Buddhist nor a meditator, his instinct toward a contemplative ground as the base for his composition is not unlike many non-Western poet-meditators. The title of the poem--"To a Solitary Disciple" --is telling for its acknowledgment that this way of seeing and looking at the world is not common but borne out of solitude, if not socially, at least in the solitude of mind meeting object through the act of bare attention. I do not think it far fetched to suggest here that Williams' perceptions of an ordinary building in the morning light, through the act of his natural capacity for clear-seeing, infuse his perceived world with a sacred dimension, a radiant effervescence depicted in just those two words "jasmine lightness," as though one could smell the moon as it evaporates into the sky. It is this sacred world that Williams masterfully communicates through the release of the image. The equivalent 'release' in meditation would be a release into clarity or insight, a perfect basis for creating art.
Williams has other poems in this vein, most notably "Thursday" often quoted by Ginsberg in his classes at the Naropa Institute. It's a poem which again parallels the meditative experience of mindfulness, or shamatha (calm abiding) with its injunction to abandon fantasy for the reality of the present moment by aligning attention with the medium of breath.
I have had my dream-- like others--
And it has come to nothing, so that
I remain now carelessly
With feet planted on the ground
And look up at the sky--
Feeling my clothes about me,
The weight of my body in my shoes,
And the rim of the my hat, air passing in and out
At my nose--and decide to dream no more.

(William Carlos Williams 157)

When one compares Williams' "Thursday" with Shabkar's "Meditation at Tigress Fort," one discerns a common thread of resignation, rejecting not the world, but a modality of thinking that inhibits direct perception. These two poems differ from "To A Solitary Disciple" in that both speakers seek release into a quietude or stillness rather than focus on the movements of thoughts/perceptions.
Looking above, looking below;
Looking in all directions,
I saw the world and the beings in it --
All reliant on space.

I thought of fruition that is inherent and naturally present.
I experienced a state beyond accepting and rejecting--
Hope of results and fear of failure
I completely abandoned.

When I finished this song, I felt great joy.
(Ricard/Wilkinson 82)

Here, as in Williams, the final couplet indicates the joy of communicating what the mind perceives objectively. Shabkar's panoramic awareness, "Looking in all directions,/I saw a world and the beings in it/All reliant on space," is a moment of openness which precedes the greater experience "I experienced a state beyond accepting and rejecting." Williams sounds rather yogic himself, with his stance "I remain now carelessly/With feet firmly planted on the ground" as he locates himself in the present moment with a sense of abandonment. I would suggest that his word "carelessly" might be synonymous with Shabkar's "great joy," for it precedes the arc of the poem when he looks up at the sky and thereafter feels so present in his body. The main distinction between Williams' poem and Shabkar's can be found in the degree of openness. For Williams, it is a matter of entering into a momentary flash of open sky which catapults his speaker into the present moment, while on the other hand, Shabkar has already arrived there full-time.
In general, Western readers are more familiar with the minimalist quietism found among ancient Chinese and Japanese masterpieces of Mahayana Buddhism from the Chan or Zen traditions respectively. These poems are easily translated into other languages due to their Imagist predilection based on the linguistic ideograms of those cultures or, as Pound concluded, their exemplary models for phanopoeia. Their accessibility resonates among modern poets because of the visual associations found among images which form an aesthetic of clarity communicated through the very stillness. If the pond is still one can see what's inside; If the mind is still, then one can see what's there more clearly. In discussing the work of the Japanese ninth century poet, Tsurayuki, Jane Hirshfield asks how the image, "word's leaves (koto no ha)," a common Japanese phrase, likens poetical language with a procreant nature:

Primordial experience is nameless and without form; still, we find our way
into the life of expressive language by means of an inner attention to the outer world's voice, Images, metaphors, similes, and stories are sliding doors, places of opening through which subjective and objective may penetrate and become each other…Japanese poetry keeps close to this primary mode of conceptualization--it uses the power held in the seen, the heard, the tasted, to quicken, and instruct, and unfold.

(Hirshfield 83).

To expect a similar vein of Imagistic quietude in which the object of sense perception takes precedence over the observer in Tibetan literary aesthetics, does not take into account several key factors. In Tibetan culture, the historical confluence of Vajrayana Buddhism, with its radical Tantric methodologies, joining forces with an already evolved shamanic culture, led to an entirely different relationship to language. While the 'nature of mind' and a sacred outlook toward the myriad manifestations found in the phenomenal world are every culture's birthright--every individual's possibility to discover, Tibetan poetry discloses a unique relationship to self as an expression of its Tantric orientation and world view. In the Tibetan view, language is charged with an inherent energy as vowels and consonants carry within them the seed syllables of particular energies which, when vocalized, resonate with the subtle body. Again this is not necessarily a Tibetan 'invention' but an approach developed over millennia, in what the 14th Dalai Lama himself, calls an exact, "science of the mind." Language and mantra--the bija /seed syllables of energies, open a dimension in regard to the oral melos-song complex which through resonance is able to communicate experience in terms comprehensible to others, if not intellectually, at least somatically. The mantric mode alters the subtle body through the act of vocalizing and hearing for both self and others. This is particular to namgyur compositions, literally-- "experience (nam) songs (gyur)," which arise from a transcendent experience in order to express this experience on the spot through song.
Another key point worth considering in Tibetan namgyur literature is that the human body, while of little use in the Sutric traditions except as a vehicle to obtain liberation in the human realm, in Tantra becomes the actual vessel or means for enlightenment through potent methods utilizing all the senses without foresaking a worldly life. Instead of renunciation, the Tantric adept engages in transforming what is impure perception into pure perception according to the external circumstances of their lives. Paramount to this view and path is a rigorous lack of attachment to sense objects and a base of compassionate intention as the motive for the transformative mode found in Tantric practices. It is odd here, that in the context of a worldview which sees the self as an illusory dream--- a delusional misconception of a solid self-identity comprised of mental constituents like the apparent coherence of a whole image from a film strip made up of separate clips-- the impetus for expressions of self and identity are endless in Tibetan songs of experience. However, it is useful to consider who it is that is speaking. Allen Ginsberg touches on this question of self-identity in a class on Spiritual Poetics he taught at the Naropa Institute in 1974, later published in Loka where he explains clearly the relationship among breath, mind and self-identity:
So if we are talking poetics, and beginning with breath, the vowel road is connected then with the title of the course Spiritual Poetics. Mantric aspects are a lot more important than has been understood in western poetry--as pure breath, as exhalations of breath, as manifestation of breath, an animation, as expression in really the easiest most natural way of your own nature, which is by breathing, and making a sound while breathing. Just like the wind makes a sound in the leaves. No more presumptuous than the wind in the leaves. Of course, no more honorable either. But at any rate, not guilty. No more guilty than the wind in the leaves, So if you take that approach, that your singing or your chanting or your poetics is as neutral, impersonal, and objective as the wind though the black oak leaves, then you wouldn't have to be ashamed of expressing yourself, because it is not yourself, it's just the wind. Then you might take the trouble to fit it to whatever your subjective intellect is thinking about at the moment, and you might take the trouble to link that breath up with whatever is going on in your mind at the moment. But that can be done spontaneously as breathing, in the sense that the mind is always working--it's hard to stop, as those of you who have been meditating know.

Although Ginsberg is not necessarily referring to a 'realized' self, the basis for Tibetan songs of experience, he nevertheless makes an interesting point that the speaker, singer, poet need not be self-referential, for "it is not yourself, it's just the wind." Strains of this, of course, can be found throughout Western poetics beginning with the Romantics. What Ginsberg is interested in, with regard to Tibetan orally composed and spontaneous songs of experience, is how to duplicate the genre in a purely American fashion since there is already a lineage of Western poetics predisposed toward this mode of composition. He is less interested in the actual Tibetan compositions themselves which in translation may not appear spontaneous at all but even, awkward and didactic.
The work of Tibetan poets seems to fall more in the range of logopoeia or the dance of the intellect, equally reinforced by the musicality of its oral song-melos tradition (often forfeited in translation) followed by a variety of tropes in a world where phenomena are enlivened by means of the transformative remaking of the world where every person manifests in a sacred dimension as a dakini, the embodiment of wisdom or enlightened presence; the natural world in all its elemental energy of rocks, earth, water, is filled with drala and perceived as a pure realm; things are sealed with Mahamudra (the great seal) or as Trungpa/ Ginsberg cite "are symbols of themselves." This view is a huge leap from the quietude of what is generally recognized as the contemplative and meditative mode. In his poem "The Practice of the Essence of the Sublime Heart Jewel," Za Patrul summarizes this alternate reality (Thinley Norbu 27), "With calm, stillness-mind, cut moving thoughts,/With moving thoughts watch on the calm, stillness -mind,/There is no difference between stillness and movement,/so sustain fresh ordinary mind./Remaining in this sole experience, recite the six syllables (Om Mani Padma Hum)." Although prosaic in English, Za Patrul here presents a central paradox which "is" but "isn't" How can the mind be both still and moving at the same time?
The answer to this question has more to do with an historical viewpoint on the nature of mind found in the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism permeating Tibetan culture. In the Mahayana tradition of Zen Buddhism, the Buddha's second turning of the wheel teachings on emptiness (shunyata) gave rise to a poetics of quietude. On the other hand the songs of experience in the Tibetan tradition find, their origin in the Buddha's third turning of the wheel on emptiness and awareness--the starting point of Vajrayana Buddhism. While the Mahayana tradition speaks of innate Buddhanature, the Vajrayana tradition speaks of radiant clear mind or luminous mind. When such an understanding is realized through experience where both stillness as emptiness and thought as movement of mind are identical, a fresh perception can arise from this matrix of non-referential awareness. While to Westerners such mental subtleties may seem like intellectual acrobatics, to Buddhist practitioners-- the experience of a non -dual awareness is very precise and concrete experienctially. Analogous to this paradoxical stretch, Keats' "Negative Capability" has similarities in that the experience of "groundlessness" in lack of a conceptual certainty proves a fertile environment for the artistic process.

Allen Ginsberg's 108 Mind Writing Slogans

Allen began compiling these during the time I worked for him in NYC circa 1989-1994. They follow the traditional Buddhist tripartite logic of Ground, Path, & Fruition. A precursor to the "Mind Writing Slogans" can be found in his poem,
"Cosmopolitan Greetings."

These slogans introduce both a western contemplative persepctive on mind training for poets as well as Buddhist methods learned by the poet from various Tibetan masters he studied with. Gibnsberg's "Mind Writing Slogans" present an essentialized version of his poetic aesthetic.



"First Thought is Best in Art, Second in Other Matters."
— William Blake

I Background (Situation, Or Primary Perception)

1."First Thought, Best Thought" — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
2."Take a friendly attitude toward your thoughts." — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
3."The Mind must be loose." — John Adams
4."One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception." — Charles Olson, "Projective Verse"
5."My writing is a picture of the mind moving." — Philip Whalen
6.Surprise Mind — Allen Ginsberg
7."The old pond, a frog jumps in, Kerplunk!" — Basho
8."Magic is the total delight (appreciation) of chance." — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
9."Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes." –– Walt Whitman
10."...What quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature? ... Negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in
uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." — John Keats
11."Form is never more than an extension ofcontent. — Robert Creeley to Charles Olson
12."Form follows function." — Frank Lloyd Wright*
13.Ordinary Mind includes eternal perceptions. — A. G.
14."Nothing is better for being Eternal
Nor so white as the white that dies of a day." — Louis Zukofsky
15.Notice what you notice. — A. G.
16.Catch yourself thinking. — A. G.
17.Observe what’s vivid. — A. G.
18.Vividness is self-selecting. — A. G.
19."Spots of Time" — William Wordsworth
20.If we don’t show anyone we’re free to write anything. –– A. G.
21."My mind is open to itself." — Gelek Rinpoche
22."Each on his bed spoke to himself alone, making no sound." — Charles Reznikoff

II Path (Method, Or Recognition)

23."No ideas but in things." "... No ideas but in the Facts." — William Carlos Williams
24."Close to the nose." — W. C. Williams
25."Sight is where the eye hits." — Louis Zukofsky
26."Clamp the mind down on objects." — W C. Williams
27."Direct treatment of the thing ... (or object)." — Ezra Pound, 1912
28."Presentation, not reference." — Ezra Pound
29."Give me a for instance." — Vernacular
30."Show not tell." — Vernacular
31."The natural object is always the adequate symbol." — Ezra Pound
32."Things are symbols of themselves." — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
33."Labor well the minute particulars, take care of the little ones.
He who would do good for another must do it in minute particulars.
General Good is the plea of the Scoundrel Hypocrite and Flatterer
For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars." — William Blake
34."And being old she put a skin / on everything she said." — W. B. Yeats
35."Don’t think of words when you stop but to see the picture better." — Jack Kerouac
36."Details are the Life of Prose." — Jack Kerouac
37.Intense fragments of spoken idiom best. — A. G.
38."Economy of Words" — Ezra Pound
39."Tailoring" — Gregory Corso
40.Maximum information, minimum number of syllables. –– A. G.
41.Syntax condensed, sound is solid. — A. G.
42.Savor vowels, appreciate consonants. — A. G.
43."Compose in the sequence of musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome." — Ezra Pound
44."... awareness ... of the tone leading of the vowels." — Ezra Pound
45."... an attempt to approximate classical quantitative meters . . . — Ezra Pound
46."Lower limit speech, upper limit song" — Louis Zukofsky
47."Phanopoeia, Melopoeia, Logopoeia." — Ezra Pound
48."Sight. Sound & Intellect." — Louis Zukofsky
49."Only emotion objectified endures." — Louis Zukofsky

III Fruition (Result, Or Appreciation)

50.Spiritus = Breathing = Inspiration = Unobstructed Breath
51."Alone with the Alone" — Plotinus
52.Sunyata (Sanskrit) = Ku (Japanese) = Emptiness
53."What’s the sound of one hand clapping?" — Zen Koan
54."What’s the face you had before you were born?" — Zen Koan
55.Vipassana (Pali) = Clear Seeing
56."Stop the world" — Carlos Castafleda
57."The purpose of art is to stop time." — Bob Dylan
58."the unspeakable visions of the individual — J. K.
59."I am going to try speaking some reckless words, and I want you to try to listen recklessly." — Chuang Tzu (Tr. Burton Watson)
60."Candor" —Whitman
61."One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." — W. Shakespeare
62."Contact" — A Magazine, Nathaniel West & W. C. Williams, Eds.
63."God appears & God is Light
To those poor souls who dwell in Night.
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of Day." — W. Blake
64."Subject is known by what she sees." -A. G.
65.Others can measure their visions by what we see. –– A. G.
66.Candor ends paranoia. — A. G.
67."Willingness to be Fool." — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
68."Day & Night / you’re all right." — Gregory Corso
69.Tyger: "Humility is Beatness." — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche & A. G.
70.Lion: "Surprise Mind" — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche &A.G.
71.Garuda: "Crazy Wisdom Outrageousness" — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
72.Dragon: "Unborn Inscrutability" — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
73."To be men not destroyers" — Ezra Pound
74.Speech synchronizes mind & body — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
75."The Emperor unites Heaven & Earth" — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
76."Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" — Shelley
77."Make it new" — Ezra Pound
78."When the music changes, the walls of the city shake" — Plato
79."Every third thought shall be my grave — W Shakespeare, The Tempest
80."That in black ink my love may still shine bright." –– W. Shakespeare, Sonnets
81."Only emotion endures" — Ezra Pound
82."Well while I’m here I’ll
do the work —
and what’s the Work?
To ease the pain of living.
Everything else, drunken
dumbshow." — A. G.
83."... Kindness, sweetest of the small notes in the world’s ache, most modest & gentle of the elements entered man before history and became
his daily connection, let no man tell you otherwise." — Carl Rakosi
84."To diminish the mass of human and sentient sufferings." — Gelek Rinpoche

Naropa Institute, July 1992
New York, March 5, 1993
New York, June 27, 1993

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Why Tibetan Poetry?

The central question for me is why would anyone want to learn about Tibetan poetics. Does this ancient literary tradition have anyrhing to offer to western society?

Here's a fairly tedious academic paper on "What" is Tibetan poetry? Next blog will try t o make sense about the "Why"

Luminous Mind, Sacred Outlook, and Reflections of Self in the Tibetan Songs of Experi ence

Let us then travel together
to the realm of the real itself

Part I--Introductory Background

With the onset of the Tibe tan Diaspora in 1959, a vast collection of Tibetan literature became available to Western scholars for the f irst time. The translation projects emerging over the past 40 years into the present reveal a sophisticated culture of mind in startling contrast to the almost Neolithic material culture preserved for centuries in the hermetic environment of the Himalaya n region. Recent archaeology in the northernmost plateau of Tibet (Chang Tang reserve) suggest from carbon dating of lithic remains (25,000-23,000 years ago) that it is the oldest continuous occupied site of human habitation in an extreme environment. Th e implications of these and other studies now underway indicate that Tibetan civilization-- hitherto unknown except in popular imagination as a land of mystery-- contains a wealth of knowledge relevant to the modern world.
Although poetry, considered amo ng the five 'minor' topics of study takes the lowest priority in the current preservation of Tibetan culture, a number of key publications of poetical works have been translated into Western languages.

These include the collected works of the 11th centur y poet Milarepa (Chang), the 18th/ /early 19th century Shabkar (Ricard), and the love poems of the Sixth Dalai Lama from the17/18th centuri es (Chang & others). Other accomplished poets of the Karma Kagyu lineage have been collected in the only native ant hology, "The Rain of Wisdom," compiled in the 15th century.

Numerous poetical works await translation into Western languages including i nfluential treatises on the craft of poetic composition, such as the 7th century, Kavyadharsha (Mirror of Poetry) by Dan din and its commentaries first translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan in the13th century. Then, there are the works of poetry from early narrations known as drung( sprung ), verses from antiquity predating Buddhism and primarily celebrating the royal lineag es of the Tibetan kingdoms; the vast collections (28 volumes) of a later epic tradition, Gesar of Ling still undergoing translation; folk songs and indigenous poetry shaped by distinct regional dialects and customs, zhas (Gzhas) and Lu (Glu); ornate ver se known as nyandak (snyan ngag), developed in the monastic colleges; and finally the namgyur or "songs of experience" at the pinna cle of the Tibetan literary canon beginning with Milarepa in the 11th century. This list does not take into account the many liturgical texts of the Kanjur and Tangyur often composed in alternating segments of prose (tsek lhag) and poetry (tsek chad), no r other literary forms such as biographies known as namthar(gnam thar) which are often rendered in both prose and verse as well; novels, allegories, folk tales, proverbs and riddles.

Part II- Songs of Experience

In the Tibetan "namgyur" literature, th e experiences cited in these compositions express a transformation of self from dualistic modalities of thinking and perceiving to a non-dual awareness. The fantastic pantheon of 'deities' represented in Tibetan art are none other than mental and physica l templates of energy found within the individual, not projected onto outside entities (deities). The meditative deity, known as yidam, visualized in Tantric Buddhism, combined with a spoken or sung mantra associated with the particular yidam uses somatic resources, such as all the senses, as a means for transformation, which results in a radical remaking of the self. Transcending a limited identification with a self-constructed persona in the service of one's ego, the self in the Tantric context is not so much a "personality" but a continuity of awakened energy. The very word Tantra, means "continuity." It is this identity as an awakened mind which is the speaker in Tibetan songs of experience. In the Tibetan worldview, an awakened mind is not acquired, but discovered from within as one's own condition.

Among the many genres of Tibetan poetry, yogic songs of experience or namgy ur appeal to Westerners because of their spontaneous oral composition and highly developed experiential content which are closer to Western lyric sensibilities than other forms. This is not to say that other more elaborate Tibetan compositions do not app roximate the lyric intent for personal expression. In fact, they may very well surpass the yogic song of experience by dra wing on deliberate stylistic conceits and an extensive literary vocabulary outlined in the Kavya literature from the 13th century on wards.

Whether, in the end, "namgyur" can be relegated to categories of strictly religious verse as some Westerner scholars assert (Cabezan and Jackson 31) is a matter for further discussion, since there is a vast world of sacred literature which might be designated spiritual or visionary outside expressions of religious doctrine --such as Rumi, Kabir, Tan Shan, Blake, among others. Both conceptually and to some extent, stylistically, namgyur finds its roots among the earliest extant documents of the col lected sayings of the Buddha, the Tripitika, committed to written text (Pali) some three hundred year after his deat h, Across time and space for two millennia, Buddhist practitioners have expressed their aspiration and personal accomplishment for realiz ation in poetical form. In the Theraghata and Therigatha, songs of the elders, monks and nuns who were direct disci ples of the Buddha (6th century BC), these poems sound as fresh today as they were thousands of years ago. Even in translation one is able to discern a number of stylistic qualities such as tone, diction, mood, and figurative language. But of greater in terest, is the story they tell of each person's quest based on the Buddhist premise that through meditation liberation from suffering is pos sible in this life. Whether the expressions of princesses or courtesans, honorable housewives or abused wives, mer chants, Brahmanical scholars or outcasts, these poems leave a lasting impression. For one thing, the person is named. The following from th e nun's collection serves to illustrate both the spiritual and social liberation Buddhism afforded men and women:


Intoxicated by my own
Lovely skin,
My figure,
My gorgeous looks,
And famous too,
I dispised other women

Dressed to kill
At t he whorehouse door,
I was a hunter
And spread my snares for fools.

And when I stripped for them
I was the wo man of their dreams;
I laughed as I teased them.

Head shaved,
I, myself,
Sit at the tree's foot;
All t ies
I have cut men and gods
out of my life.

I have quenched the fires. ( Murcott 126)

It is likely that these songs were sung and used as teaching methods to inspire later practitioners. While it is not within the scope of this paper to discuss fully Indian poetics and Buddhist thought, nor their impact on Tibetan culture, these compositions help us to understand that the tradition of namgyur in the Tibetan tradition is connected to the Buddha's earliest teachings.

Part III. Tibetan Songs of Experience and their authors

Milarepa (1040-1123)

Milarepa's genius shines in his ability to synthesize the complex rhetoric of the Tantric view contained in the Vajra songs (gdor je Glu) or doha he learned from his teacher/guru, Marpa, brought back fro m India, with the simple folk songs indigenous to his native South Western Tibet. He also was undoubtedly familiar with the various epic narratives (drang) prevalent in 1lth century Tibet. The following example of a doha on the topic of bliss/emptiness b y the Indian siddha, Tilopa, the teacher of Marpa's own teacher, Naropa, was likely heard by Milarepa him self:

Like salt dissolved in water
is mind
in the mistress's embrace;

they taste the same
in that moment,
and they'll be the same forever

(Jackson 128)

The original language here is Apabhramas in a rhymed couplet, (jima lona viliijai paniechi tima gh arini lai citta/samsara jai takkane jai punu te sama nitta). The form of the doha seems to have undergone changes in the Tibetan which reappears as the 7 syllable quatrain favored by Milarepa and other masters of the genre, but the genre itself remained a s a form of paradoxically aphoristic and melodic expression composed spontaneously (bsam blo'I rangbzhin --literally, spontaneous nature of thought). The dohas preserved from the Mahasiddha literature of Indian Buddhism, later translated into Tibetan, are characterized by extreme states of paradox as a method to deconstruct conceptual thought in order to reveal the non-dual awareness of "suchness," th e unborn nature of reality (Dowman 9). In these poems, cripples walk, the blind see, elephants reside on thrones held up by bees. In other words, phenomena is not what we think it is. An example of such 'upside down language' (sanskrit: ulat (ta) bam) fam iliar to readers of Kabir or Medieval Indian poets (Shaw 116) can be seen in the following poem by La ksminkara, one of the female Indian Buddhist Tantric masters whose lineage continued into Tibet during the time of Milarepa.

L ay your head on a block of butter and chop.
Break the blade of the axe!
The wood cutter laughs,
The frog swallows the elephant.

It's amazing, Mekala,
Do not doubt!
If it confounds you, Avadhuti-pa,
Drop concepts now!

My teacher didn't tell me,
I didn't understand--
Flowers blossomed in the sky!

It's marvelous, Mekhala,
Have no doubt!
If you're incredulous--Avadhuti-pa
Drop your doubts!

A barren woman gives birth!
A chair dances!
Because cotton is expensive,
The naked weep!.

Amazing! An elephant sits on a throne held up by two bees!
Incredulous! The blind lead,
The mute speak!

Amazing! A mouse chases a cat!
An elephant flees from a drunken donkey!

It's marvelous, Mekhala,
Do not doubt!
If you're stunned Adadhuti-pa,
Drop your doubts!

Amazing! A hungry monkey eats rocks.
Wonderful! The experience of mind--
Who can express it?

(Shaw 117)

This type of composition was sung or recited within specific environments known to Milarepa such as Vajra feasts (ganachakra) , a Tantric rite in which adepts partake of alcohol and meat. This tradition is still enacted today according to the cycles of the full and new moons and special days designated as guru and dakini days in the lunar cycle. In ancient times, the Tantric feast was often held in charnel grounds, places, Keith Dowman suggests, that were "replete with all kinds of symbolic meaning. First, it is the death-bed of the ego…The Tantric yogin celebrates the cremation ground as an ideal place to meditate upon the precious human body, the transitor y nature of existence, upon death and karmic retribution, and upon emptiness itself" (Dowman 15).
Mi larepa's life biography (namthar-- literally, liberation biography) ) holds within it a paradigm for spiritual realization accessible to anyone. For Tibeta ns, he represents the possibility for realization in one lifetime, even for a great 'sinner' like Milarepa who murdered his uncle's family in retaliation for their disinheriting him upon his father's death. Many of his songs retell this story in detail, n either glossing over the immorality of his act nor justifying it. Thus, his songs do not exhibit an unrealistic or fabled account of an invented persona of perfection but an authentic self on a spiritual quest for redemption from a wretched life. This a uthentic self is in stark contrast to the heroic mode of the narrative tradition where beings are often enhanced with divine attributes and superhuman powers, such as in the Tibetan epic story of Gesar of Ling's birth:

So in order to conquer the twelve fo rtresses of Tibet
And the four demonic realms at the four borders
The deities have chosen a man from among the pure Ling
He will be able to fight against the bravest men,
He will be the support and strength of the chosen armies
And the three governors wi ll shine like the rising sun,
He will subjugate the immaterial beings that cause hindrances (b gegs),
He will subdue deities, cannibal demons and evil spirits,
He will be like a superhuman being.
He will be assisted by the Lha deities above,
Worshiped by t he nyen tutelary deity,
He will receive gifts from Tsugna the Lu
And will obtain a body endow ed with miraculous faculties:
May his birth be like an ornament for the pure Ling!
(Norbu 9)

Most of Milarepa's poems draw on the stunning landscape of Tibet for a
rich metaphoric language used to render the deeper meaning of his spiritual process. Mi larepa's treatment of nature departs significantly from Zen haiku treatments of nature, already discussed and so familiar to Westerners, where nature is perceived as a luminous presence permeated by shunyata/emptiness, greater than the individual observer/self.
Yoel Hoffman, in his groundbreaking work on Japanese death poems clarifies this distinction by suggesting that "Haiku shattered the self-reflecting mirror, leaving in the hands of a poet only the mirror that reflects nature" (Hoffman 20). To illus trate this point, he presents two poems. The first, a tanka written by court poet, Ki-no-Tsurayucki (870-945):
Winds passing
Through the shaded grove
Weigh down
M y robe with
The scent of blossoms
(Hoffman 20)

Some centuries later, the haiku poet, Fujiw ara-no-Yoshitsune (1169-1206) renders the same image, but striped of it's personal location in time and space: "My robe/grows heavy/with the scent of blossoms." (H offman 21). Other differences may lie in the actual structural basis of an idiomatic langua ge, such as Japanese or Chinese, which, as Pound suggested, lends itself to phanopoeia over and above the melopoeia and logopoeia orientations. The relative lack o f metaphor in Zen compositions suggests that the 'images' central to haiku serve to mirror the fruition experience of no-thought or satori in a communicable way about an experience which is, after all, beyond words. Linguistically, the sutras refer to th e limitations of language to express the ineffable as prajnapti, proverbally, the finger pointing to the moon, rather than the moon itself. Milarepa, on the other hand, dipicts nature as an extended metaphor for his own inner process. In many compositi ons, the natural environment becomes a metaphor for his body engaged in the practices of yoga he undertakes.

In the Tibetan poetical tradition, metaphors drawing on nature often link the actual process of arriving at one's spiritual destination to the so ng-- a road map, so to speak, of methods. One such example is "Mila's Song in the Rain," a relatively simple response to a kind benefactor who offered to provide a covering for Milarepa in a rainstorm. In this poem one can see how he develops his exten ded metaphor in a logical sequence which serves to encapsulate his spiritual path by means of identifying his worldly inadequacies with inclement weather. This is part of the song he sang to her:

I bow at the feet of the jewel crowning my head
Holy fu llfiller of all wants and needs.

Gracious woman blessed with offspring and wealth
Managing an abundant treasury of gifts,
Clothed in the woolen robe of merit--
Listen here, faithful lady.

If you don't know my name,
I'm Milarepa of Gungthang plain--
A beggar wandering by myself.
Moved by my suffering from cold wind and rain,
You offe red this help in true spirit of mercy.
Such good intentions are indeed a great wonder.

I've traveled the plains of six illusory realms
Where a rain of misery fell without pause
And the dark fog of delusion pressed close around me.

I lacked the broad hat of right view,
The raincoat of unfaltering faith,
And the warm dry cave of good refuge,

Swept by the river of desire and craving
Swollen by driving rains of bad action
I was borne to the horizon of the ocean of misery.
Buffeted on waves of three lower realms,
And battered on the rocks of unwholesome action.

One can only imagine the particular melody sung, the rhythm and subtle meanings conveyed through the figurative l anguage equating the imagery of various landscapes and weather with his internal spiritual development. While it is impossible to experience fully the rhythmic musicality of the composition in translation, the meaning is above all preserved in the use of his extended metaphor.

Such a composition is typical of Milarepa's response to people he meets on his journey through Tibet as a wandering mendicant. He often conveys sequentially the entire Buddhist path by means of figurative language in relation to a poetic strategy that is freshly suited to the particular person he encounters. In the last three stanzas quoted above, Milarepa, respectively covers connotative references to samsara (six illusory realms), wrong view (taking refuge in worldly matters), a nd karma (desire and craving) through his use of the extended metaphor.
"Mila's Song in the Rain" commences with homage to his teacher, Marpa, in an epithet of homage. Here, Marpa is the "jewel crowning my head," a reference indicating that Milarepa mai ntains the visualization of his guru atop his head in guru yoga to receive th e stream of the lineage blessings. Among other opening epithets, no two are alike. The following opening lines of other poems including their titles give examples of the vari ety of homage to Marpa :

Wishing gem whose mere memory's enough (Milarepa T ells His Story)

Glorious incarnation of universal ruler (Song of the Path Guides)
Best cure for the sickness of the three poisons
Excellent man of Lodrak

To my omniscient lam a I pray-- (Mila's Meeting with Dampa Sangye)
Grant me blessings

Precious p eerless savior of beings (from Six Vajra Songs)
Come dwell at the crown of our heads,
And guide us with unwavering attention
Let blessings of siddhis fall like rain

To the great translator Marpa, (Mila's Journey Inspired by a Dream)
Holy, precious, qua lified lama,
I constantly pray--
Protect me with your unwavering attention.

To my holy lama Vajradhara (Ibid)
Revered Lotsawa who revealed
The essence of birthless mahamudra,
I pray--grant me blessings.

The fact that Milarepa does not employ formulai c epithets and other mnenomic devices separates the composition of namgyur from other forms of oral poetry such as epic narratives. This is an important point because Milarepa him self probably established a repertoire of vocabulary which, more likely tha n not, was emulated by later practitioners of namgyur.
Milarepa's description of his lady benefactor in "Mila's Song in the Rain" conveys her equally devoid of formulaic attribut es. He presents her as compassionate toward others, a fact, he remarks, is a "wonder." We are given a descriptive picture of this unnamed woman--she wears wool, for instance, which would indicate that she is wealthy. The strategy of the entire compositio n is formed around her initial gesture of generosity to protect him from the rain. In the fourth stanza, Milarepa embarks on his spiritual biography where he states that he has traveled through the "plains" (six realms) where a "rain of misery" fell (sams ara) in ignorance depicted by the dark fog enveloping him. Rather than d eliver an esoteric message on the nature of mind, he uses a strategy to elicit further the woman's sympathy first over the miseries of confused existence. In the final stanza, Milare pa tells her why he doesn’t need her offer of protection:
Even on pe aks of white snow mountains
Amidst whirling snow and sleet
Driven by new year's wintry winds
This cotton robe burns like fire.

What Milarepa is referring to here in the final line, "T his cotton robe burns like fire" is the blaze of chandali (Tibetan: t ummo) or the yoga of generating inner heat. Milarepa was famous for this practice, hence his dharma name-- Mila repa
(cotton clad) which refers to his accomplishment in generating heat freeing him from the necessity for clothing to keep warm. This pract ice is one of the Six Yogas of Naropa , advanced practices, currently taught in an unbroken lineage form the time of Milarepa to the present The practice of Tummo has been studied by Harvard University recently under the direction of Herbert Benson and d iscussed in an article in the Harvard Gazette,
In 1985, the meditation team made a video of monks drying cold, wet sheets with body heat. They also documented monks spending a winter night on a rocky ledge 15,000 feet high in the Himalayas. The sleep-ou t took place in February on the night of the winter full moon when temperatures reached zero degrees F. Wearing only woolen or cotton shawls, the monks promptly fell asleep on the rocky ledge, They did not huddle together and the video shows no evidence o f shivering.

Unlike Vimala's song in which enlightenment is synonymous with extinguishing the flame of passion, here Milarepa is ablaze with it. What is remarkable here is that a sophisticated method expressed in figurative language can be discussed in such scientific terms today in an American college newspaper.

For an example of Milarepa's use of language in the original, the following poem,"Milarepa in Ragma," may serve to illust rate several poetic strategies as well the rhythm found in the original Tibetan but lacking in translation. Milarepa presents a detailed picture of the natural world free from tropes in a more objectively descriptive manner. Here, instead of using the natural world as an extended metaphor for his inner process, Milarepa describes the natural world as a pure