High Peaks Pure Earth presents a guest post by Lowell Cook* who has translated two poems by contemporary Amdo poets Sangdor and Kyabchen Dedrol and written a comprehensive introduction to their work.
Thank you to Lowell Cook for this submission!
Guest Post by Lowell Cook:
“Poetry by Sangdor and Kyabchen Dedrol”
There is currently a literary renaissance taking place in Eastern Tibet. Many young Tibetans have taken up the pen as a way to combat threats of decline and extinction that the modern era is leveraging against their language. Here, I would like to offer you a sampling of some of the better literature that is being produced inside Tibet largely unknown to most of the world. I have selected and translated two poems from two of today’s foremost writers. These two poets, Sangdor (Seng rdor) and Kyabchen Dedrol (Skyab chen bde grol), both hail from the region of Amdo, yet have distinctively different styles of writing.
Sangdor is known as one of the founders (if not the founder) of “new metrics” (bcad gsar). New metrics is a form of poetry in which traditional meters are blended with modern terminology, colloquial expressions, and current issues. Historically, Tibetan poetry has focused predominantly on religious themes or folk culture. However, with new metrics, Sangdor has breathed new life into the traditional forms by writing about riding escalators in shopping malls, the sexual habits of nomad girls, and Chinese weddings, for instance. Sangdor’s writing may look like it’s structured from the 15th century but it definitely sounds more like the streets of Xining.
We can see these features of new metrics below in Sangdor’s four finely crafted stanzas. The original is in a nine-syllable meter and, while I haven’t translated the meter into English, I do hope that much of the music of his poem remains. For Sangdor, poetry is an expression of his untamed nature and a means of self discovery. His technique is similar to traditional poetry in his use of metaphor between his poetry and captivating imagery. However, the flavor of the metaphor, the poetic voice, and the imagery he choses are all radically different than traditional Tibetan aesthetics.
Sangdor is a controversial figure in Tibetan society. He was recognized as a reincarnated master or tulku, but eventually renounced this position once he grew older. While it is somewhat common for ordinary monks to disrobe, it is extremely taboo for a reincarnated master to disrobe. To do so would potentially put an end to that lineage (and its investments) as well as suggests that those who recognized him were mistaken, thus questioning their spiritual prowess. Now he is furthered scandalized as having turned to “wrong views” given that some of his writings bear a critical lens against Buddhism. The theme of being an outcaste is a significant one amongst Sangdor’s writings and one he acknowledges below in his reference to “a monk/ Who walks with his head bent low among the crowds.”
Kyabchen Dedrol is not only a poet but also an author of short stories and novellas as well as the head of the popular online literary journal, Butter Lamp (Mchod me). He is known for being a founding member of the third generation of poets. The third generation is perhaps the most recent innovation in contemporary Tibetan poetry. Dondrup Gyal, who is largely understood to have ushered in contemporary forms of poetry in Tibet, constitutes the first generation of Tibetan poets. The generation influenced by Gyal is the second generation, mostly associated with the writings of Jangbu and Ju Kalzang. The third generation seeks to distance themselves from these past two generations and their prescriptions of poetry. To do so, third generation writers seek chaos and confusion in their attempt to shake up our conceptions of what poetry is. The third generation is bound by the philosophy that they have no philosophy.
The voices of the third generation can be distinctly heard in Kyabchen Dedrol’s poem. It does not follow a prescribed meter yet nevertheless finds its flow and music in free-verse. Images of darkness and light, references to opium and nightmares, and mind-bending examples of “a hand made out of sand” and “flowers arising out of steel” are all guaranteed to bring a twisted smile to his third generation audience.
I first found these two poems separately and read them several times before realizing that they shared an identical title—My Poetry. Despite their divergent writings styles, their subject matter is thus similar, namely a triumphant description of the virtues of one’s own poetry. This boastful show is reminiscent of the traditional “genre” of scholarly pride (mkhas pa’i nga rgyal) in which scholars would boast of their learning and knowledge. You might expect there to be a slight air of arrogance associated with this display of superiority, however, only a scholar among scholars who possesses learning and humility (the two qualities traditionally associated with master scholars) in legendary proportions would ever consider making such a statement. In the Anthology of Classical Literature (Legs rtsom snying bsdus) there is a section devoted to scholarly pride which features quotes from the Buddha Shakyamuni himself, the glorious Dharmakirti, the omniscient Longchen Rabjampa, the master scholar Sakya Pandita, Lord Tsongkhapa, and our favorite Gendun Chophel, among other Indian and Tibetan scholars. They all propound their virtues and wisdom in a way that does not leave the reader feeling that they are conceited but, instead, that convinced that they live up to their claims.
It is in this vein that Sangdor and Kyabchen Dedrol will now share with you how they view their own poetry. Please let us know how you found their poetry in the comments below.
By Kyabchen Dedrol
my poetry is the wick of a butter lamp about to go cold
the very core of a subatomic particle
it is the string of a guitar vibrating
the howl of a rabid dog dying of hypothermia
it is a horrifying dream and
time without end
my poetry is a hand made out of sand
a flower arising out of steel
it is a faint star
and it is a black sack that envelops a many trillion faint stars
my poetry is that single teardrop at the moment of parting
incinerating both hearts and lungs in a single instant it is that one last testament at the moment of death
it is that lengthy clamor
made as arms and legs flail under the spell of afflictive emotions
my poetry may be beyond the realm of perception where
poison and nectar, dzi and opium,
murder and non-conceptuality, glorious arrogance and such things are all individually distinguishable
forever befriending anyone and everyone
it is that subtle, subtle thread of light that extremely subtle thread of light.
My poetry is, at times, a horny bull
Who basically is sent out into the foothills of the Himalayas
To breed and multiply my offspring.
He munches on flower blossoms of passion and then,
Grunting under the moonlight, jabs his horns into the earth.
My poetry is, at times, a car
That basically gets driven around just to find out where I’m from.
After traversing the many highways and back roads of this world
Under blue skies and white clouds
I finally flash my brights and park it by my front door.
My poetry is, at times, a monk
Who walks with his head bent low among the crowds.
Vows and desires both weigh heavily around his neck.
He stands naked on many different street corners
Searching for the shadow of his sweet old father.
My poetry is, at times, a water born dzi stone.
It sits perfectly still among paintings of fish beneath the waves
And blazes with brilliant yellows, reds, and greens.
Later on a merchant retrieves it from the lake shore
And stringing it with a red cord, places it upon his altar.
Si khron zhing chen bod yig slob grwa, ed. Legs rtsom snying bsdus. Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2006, p.262-268.
Padma dbang rgyal and Bsod nams rgyal, ed. Bod kyi den grabs rtsom rig brtsams chos bdams bsgrigs. Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2016, p. 338.
Seng rdor. Tshon ma btang ba’i snyan ngag.
*Lowell Cook lives in Kathmandu where he translates Buddhist scripture and contemporary Tibetan literature.