issue 17 winter 01
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Songs of Spiritual Experience

Tibetan Buddhist Poems of Insight and Awakening

Selected and translated by Thupten Jinpa and Jas Elsner

Shambala, $25/£21 h/b


My concrete perceptions of a substantial world,

When its true mode of being is sought,

Seem unreal and evaporate into the void.

Behold the vivid magic of unprobed form!

From 'The Love Dance of Emptiness and Appearance'

Chone Lama Rinpoche (b. 1816)

In a time of war, when towers crumble and bombs fall, the poetry in this collection is deeply challenging. How to regard such events with the kind of philosophical insouciance expressed and apparently possessed by these poets? How to regard as illusory what is to one's perception so evidently and frighteningly real? Such abstractions are cold comfort, one might think.

But 'such abstractions' have sustained and illuminated Tibetan people over many centuries, and through times when they have been as hard pressed as anyone could be. The saving grace is the tender compassion for the human predicament which is every bit as much a part of insight. Hard to say - and no need to choose - whether in western culture it is music or poetry that gives more sublime expression to such tenderness, and both give solace in the face of suffering. But is Tibetan poetry capable of having the same effect? Or does it even have that intention?

This collection is prefaced by an introduction (which alone would make the book worth reading) to the development and nature of Tibetan poetics. As Thupten Jinpa explains, while the poets represented come from many periods, from medieval to modern, they all write 'experiential songs' of the kind familiar from the songs of Milarepa, rather than poetry in the more elaborate style that developed in Tibet under the influence of Sanskrit poetics. And they are really meant to be sung rather than read. Thupten Jinpa describes the effect of these expressions of spiritual insight: 'When Zemey Rinpoche used to give large public teachings of the Buddhist path, I remember that he would have the entire congregation sing some of the classic verses evoking impermanence and exhorting the individual to make human life meaningful. It is one of the most moving experiences to be in a large gathering of this sort and to see senior lamas and distinguished scholars weeping openly.'

I was quite sad to turn to the poems themselves and quickly realise that such a response would be impossible for me, schooled as I am in such a different culture. It is hard to imagine how such an effect could have been found in English translation, and the translators of this collection decided from the outset to aim instead to 'express the logic and thought process running through each poem, even at the expense of our aesthetic sensibilities'. It is hard to read as poetry writing that is peppered with so many abstractions: 'tangibility', 'contingent', 'diverse', 'interacting', 'experiential' - these from one page chosen at random. On the other hand, the metaphors are indeed, as the translators say, striking; sometimes graphically shocking, sometimes shockingly beautiful.

But while I cannot hope to be moved to tears by these poems as I am by Shakespeare, they have a valuable effect precisely because - rather than being alive with the resonances of what I already know - they offer an entirely different perspective. A musician friend of mine often quotes: 'Tibetan ritual music bypasses the aesthetic sense and goes straight to the nervous system.' Perhaps Tibetan poetry in some sense bypasses aesthetics, too, at least for a western reader, but (as represented in this excellent collection) it can jolt us into seeing things differently. In our troubled times, we could learn a lot from the robust and cheerful words of poets who are rooted in such a perspective. In 'Melodies of an Echo', Chone Lama Rinpoche says:

'Enemies and friends are constructs of the mind;

mind itself is constructed on experience and events;

there is nothing that is concrete and rooted,

for all are merely names and labels.'

When the same poet says 'Why be saddened by non-existent things?' the words seem imbued with sensitivity to human suffering, and thus allow the reader to learn the hard lesson that we must give up our particular way of seeing things. I am grateful to the translators for giving us this opportunity to see things differently.

Vidyadevi is an editor for Windhorse Publications