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.


  1. Fascinating, RP. Thanks for posting it. You might also be interested in this.

  2. HI Steve--I stumbled upon your comment here probably a couple of years later. Thanks for oyur link. I've read your essay about early Naropa curriculum and intorduction to meditation. I consulted many transcripts from teachings at Naropa looking for some indication as to what is a doha? What are the formal elements of Tibetan poetry that might have interested Ginsberg et el. In conclusion, I think it was more about the person, Milarepa , awakening enlightened speech as fruit of meditation.

    Nice to hear form you again--J