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