High Peaks Pure Earth presents the English translation of a poem titled “The Lama Tsongkhapa Who Missed his Mother atop Ganden Mountain” written by Tibetan female poet from Amdo, Chime.
The poem was first published on WeChat on November 21, 2019 for the 600th anniversary of Tsongkhapa’s parinirvana and has also been recorded and posted as an audio file. Thank you to translator Lowell Cook for this translation and be sure to scroll down to the end to read his explanatory notes.
“The Lama Tsongkhapa Who Missed his Mother atop Ganden Mountain”
Written by: Chime
Recited by: Kalzang Drolma
The first time, when I visited Ganden monastery on Mount Drokri,
Through a self-controlled synchronicity,
I went first to your meditation cave
And thought of you guru who could not meet your mother.
The twilights of the solstices and the anguish of thinking of you each morning
Silenced even the songs of the cuckoo flocks amidst the thickets.
Your mother, Shingza Acho,
Might be wondering, “Are you hungry, my son?”
“You must be cold, my son?” “Are you weary, my son?”
Mother Shingza Acho
Surely thinks of you whenever she eats something tasty.
Surely misses you if she glimpses some nice clothing.
Surely thinks of you when she sees others your age.
And surely misses you all the more when she glances at the toys and baby-clothes from your childhood.
Surely she strokes and rubs them.
Surely she hugs them to her chest.
Surely she looks at day after day.
Sensing you right beside her, she surely loves and cherishes them.
Tears for you, welling up, surely flow from her eyes.
Mother Shingza Acho,
Her desire to meet you, is surely binding itself into her bones.
Her desire to meet you, surely points her path of life and death toward you.
Each night passing in tears, surely, she welcomes each morning with a sigh.
Within a mother’s entire life-long prayer
There is only room enough for you, her son. Surely.
Surely she has dreams in which she meets you.
Surely she believes it might still be possible to meet you.
Yet as she’s chased by her age, she thinks how she wasn’t able to meet you, her son
Surely her head rests against its pillow.
Surely her hindsight is cast on you
And surely, just like that, Mother Shingza Acho’s life is stitched.
If all mothers under the sky shared the same joys and sorrows
Then I’ve also come, bearing a mother’s anguish, to visit you.
Carry in my hands the suffering of being neither fully alive nor dead,
I offer it to you.
The suffering of a mother missing her son,
I offer to you, in place of mother Shingza Acho.
Notes by Translator Lowell Cook:
Chime is one of the foremost female authors in Tibet. She is originally from Rebkong, Amdo where she has been working as a teacher since 1987. Starting from the late nineties, she has written poetry prolifically and amassed a number of literary awards and titles.
Her poem “The Lama Tsongkhapa Who Missed his Mother atop Ganden Mountain” was shared on social media for the 600th anniversary of Tsongkhapa’s parinirvana. What first captured my fascination about this poem was that it is neither solely a Buddhist devotional poem nor an exclusively secular one. Too often classical Tibetan literature is confined within the realm of the metaphysical, whereas contemporary Tibetan literature seeks to negate it’s Buddhist literary heritage, often a bit too forcibly. That this poem is able to take as its subject a Buddhist master, yet approach it in a manner entirely human is rather remarkable.
Indeed, mothers might be the theme most common to both Buddhism and Tibetan culture at large. While Buddhism teaches us that all sentient beings have been our mothers in past lives as a method for generating compassion, the Tibetan worldview is filled with reference to the kindness of one’s parents as can be gleamed in countless folk songs, proverbs, and the lived experiences of Tibetans across the plateau. Chime appeals to both of these senses as she asks Tsongkhapa if he ever missed his mother when he left for Central Tibet at the age of sixteen, never to return home. Chime grapples with the tensions between religion and society when she questions if Tsongkhapa ever considered his own mother’s pain as worked for all “mother sentient beings.” For a Tibetan woman to interrogate the, perhaps, most-influential monk in Tibetan history, and for a poem about Tsongkhapa to focus its narrative on his mother about whom nothing is known is, historically speaking, something absolutely radical.
I had to translate this piece for the same reason I find any poem necessary to translate. It spoke to me personally and touched me emotionally. This poem is written in free-verse, a form that has been in use by Tibetans only since 1983 (though some will dispute this). The poem’s musicality and rhythm come from a majority of the lines ending in yod nges. This I chose to translate with the word “surely” as it felt more organic than other synonyms, rung in tone with the rest of the poem, and betrays a little doubt while assuring certainty. The word “surely” is important not only in terms of the flow of the poem, but also in that everything Chime writes about Tsongkhapa’s mother, Shingza Acho, is pure conjecture. This word thus empowers Chime to imagine Mother Shingza Acho as she wishes and reenvision her free from any accusations of perverting sacred history.
Chime’s poem-offering to Tsongkhapa is bittersweet. It comes from a place of devotion while on pilgrimage, but it also infused with the agony of a mother’s longing and carries with it an air of contestation. It is an unparalleled offering made on behalf of Tsongkhapa’s old mother and of mothers everywhere. It is an offering made on behalf of all mother sentient beings whose suffering knows no end.
— Lowell Cook