Translations of Prison Poems by Mangrawa Dukar Bum, Submitted by the Amdo Translation Collective

Mangrawa Dukar Bum with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in India, ca. 2000. (Photo credit: Amdo Translation Collective)

This is the second of two submissions of poems by Mangrawa Dukar Bum by the Amdo Translation Collective. Read the first submission “Poems Lamenting the Sudden Loss of the Tenth Panchen Lama”. Note the Tibetan language original poems were first published by the Tibet Times and have been republished with their permission. Thank you to the Amdo Translation Collective for this valuable work!

Translators’ Note: Mangrawa Dukar Bum composed these nine mgur (meditative song) poems about his experiences in Chinese prisons and public security detention centers in the 1990s. He first dictated them to a journalist when he escaped for the second time in 2000. He recently re-edited the poems, adding explanatory glosses after each, and re-published them in the Tibet Times in February 2022. Note that given increased surveillance and his high-profile status as a dissident in the 1990s, Mangrawa Dukar Bum composed his poems in the register of coded language familiar to Tibetans since the Maoist years, in which authors draw on a large repertoire of metaphors as a way to express politically sensitive ideas and sentiments while avoiding Chinese censors. See his explanatory glosses below each poem for help in decoding them. Please also note that some of these explanatory glosses contain graphic descriptions of torture.

Introduction to the Author
Mangrawa Dukar Bum was born in 1965 in Amdo Mangra in the lineage of the Thok ngak tshang family. He is the son of father Lhadruk and mother Lhundrup Ji. From the age of three or four he started learning Tibetan from his parents and from his uncle Ngawang Dadrak. In 1972, he started school in the village primary school and ended up graduating from the Tsholho (Hainan) Tibetan Teacher’s Training College in 1986. From 1987 to 1990, while working as a teacher, he attended and graduated from the Tshongon (Qinghai) Education University’s class in Tibetan Ancient Humanities. In September 1992, he was invited to attend the central Translation Bureau’s translation workshop, but on the way to the workshop from the Tibetan city of Ziling (Xining) to the Chinese city of Beijing, he instead escaped to India. In 1994, he returned to Tibet and was detained and interrogated by the Chinese government’s National Security Bureau over two year’s time. Finally, he was sentenced to five years in prison having been accused of living in Tibet while serving Dharamsala. At the end of 1999, surveillance was tightened again and in May 2000, he escaped to India once again right before he was to be detained for another round of interrogation. Both in and outside of Tibet, he has been writing about Tibetan culture and the political situation in Chinese and Tibetan. Now he lives in the United States.

Never Lost Faith in the Buddha Dharma, Never Betrayed Snowland Tibet
Some Prison Poems by Mangrawa Dukar Bum


Tenzin Gyamtso resides in the Dharmakaya
The essence of the six-syllables remains in my heart [1]
The blessings from powerful vows of compassion
bring me, Dukar Bum, to the realm of bliss

This verse was written when I was imprisoned by the Chinese for the second time, at the end of September 1995. One morning at dawn I was put in solitary confinement and I had a dream. In the dream, from the upper part of the cell door, Kundun, the Dalai Lama, dressed in thick maroon robes, looked at me and smiled. Then my mind was filled with joy, and as soon as I awoke, I suddenly thought of this verse. I told myself that my imprisonment is for the general cause of Tibet, and that this is also a great act following the practices of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. Thus as a Tibetan, mentally I have absolutely no fear or difficulties in my imprisonment. Instead, confidently and gloriously, I take it as an irrevocable responsibility. Relying on that belief, even in prison I can see the golden face of His Holiness, like practicing tantric guru yoga [2]. Thus, I always remember this verse when I pray for something or, when I invoke the Dalai Lama in prayer. Here, I wrote this verse as a mnemonic device.

[1] This refers to the widely chanted six syllable mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, often translated as “the Jewel in the Lotus”. The mantra is a core Buddhist practice among Tibetans and it is associated with Avalokitesvara (Tib. Chenrezig), the bodhisattva of compassion, of whom the Dalai Lama is recognized as an incarnation.

[2] Tantric guru yoga is the central meditation practice in Tibetan Buddhism of visualizing and then merging with one’s root Buddhist lama or teacher.


The ripened kernels of truth hung low
The ripened kernels of lies instantly dissolved
When the chaotic time came to harvest the fruit of truth
The truth’s essence wrecked my appetite

The ripened kernels of lies hung low
The ripened kernels of the truth instantly dissolved
When the chaotic time came to harvest the fruit of lies
The lies’ essence lifted me up

In our shared existence created by karma
this nutritious pill of truth and falsehood
when devoured by our good and bad karma
will be pure food for the ones who uphold the truth

These three verses are about the first time I was imprisoned at the beginning of May, 1994 in Amdo Ziling (Xining). The National Security Bureau (Ch. Anquanju, hereafter NSB) personnel who interrogated me included the vice-head of the NSB of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the head of the NSB of Dechen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP), the head of the NSB of Karze TAP, the head of the NSB of Shigatse prefecture, a Chinese head of the Tshongon (Qinghai) province NSB, as well as a Tibetan guy from Grotshang surnamed Li, a Tibetan guy named Chos Dar who had dual appointments in the Tshongon NSB and Malho (Huangnan) TAP NSB, a Tibetan who had dual appointments in the Tsholho (Hainan) TAP NSB and PSB, and a Chinese head of the central NSB Foreign Relations Department, along with his assistant. Further, there was a middle-aged woman who was fluent in both Chinese and English from an unknown department of the central NSB. Altogether, there were eleven NSB personnel investigating me over five days, sometimes in regular conversation, sometimes as an interrogation, sometimes with violent methods, and sometimes acting nicely.

They wanted to know about how I escaped to India, why did I go, was I part of some group for the Tibet cause, and what did I do when I was in India. They wanted to know whatever I saw, heard or felt about my time in India and about the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE), did I have any relationships with the TGIE, why did I come back, was I sent by the TGIE, etc. So they interrogated me using multiple methods. In particular, four people, the two guys who came from the central NSB, the Chinese head of the Tshongon NSB and the Tibetan head of the Shigatse prefecture NSB, interrogated me brutally, accusing me of participating in a secret group for the Tibet cause before I went to India. They accused me of going to India to build connections with the TGIE, so that my goal in returning was to be a spy for the TGIE. They suspected that I had duties and a purpose, and thus interrogated me very strictly. That middle-aged woman from an unknown department was there to check my level of English language knowledge.

In the course of our conversations during this interrogation, they talked to me about the international situation and said that China is preserving Tibetan culture and creating Tibetans’ happiness. To this, I responded with my own thoughts. I insisted that, “after China came to Tibet, they destroyed Tibetan language, writing, culture, customs, religion and cultural festivals. Take holidays for instance. Tibet has its own long history and traditions that are aligned with local calendars, such as New Year festivities, and the Tibetan Buddhist prayer festival, Sakadawa (15th of the 4th month), the sixth month circumambulation of Buddhist texts, the ninth month return of the Buddha (to Tusita), as well as the long history of the sixth month summer picnic. All of those were eliminated and replaced by so-called festivals celebrating Communist views, which have only 30-40 years of history, like the May 1st National Patriotic Labor Day, the June 1st Children’s Day, the July 1st Communist Party Founding day, the August 1st Military Day, and the October 1st National Day. All of these had not even an iota of familiarity among Tibetan people, but we have to observe these five holidays.” That is how my views opposed theirs.

On the fourth day of my interrogation, they brought eight young Chinese soldiers, split into two groups. In the morning they interrogated me, and from afternoon on, my hands and feet were cuffed and chained and they beat me and shocked me non-stop. At night, I was put into a triangular iron box through which they ran electricity and I suffered terrifying torture. The next morning they interrogated me again, saying, “your thoughts haven’t changed in the slightest!” And they sent in the other four soldiers, pushed my body against the door and electrocuted me until I fainted. After I came to, the soldiers tried to make me get up, but my body could not do it and I collapsed in front of the central NSB leader, my head aimed toward him, and I told him, “just shoot and kill me.” And the Tibetan official from the TAR NSB ran up to me and said, “Son, don’t do that! stand up, stand up!” At the same time, he was holding me up by the shoulders and he made me stand up. Then, a Chinese leader said, “make him wear the iron helmet” [3] . The Tibetan leader of the TAR NSB then pulled that Chinese guy to the side, and not long after they returned and stopped the torture. They never put an iron helmet on me.

These three verses suddenly came to my mind during those five days of brutal torture. In the first verse I tell myself that if I struggle for the Tibet cause under these conditions, I will lose my appetite and will have no way to survive. In the second verse, I also see that if I throw aside the Tibet cause and follow Chinese lies then I will be lifted up and be able to survive. But in the process of determining the truth of the Tibet cause within this China-Tibet struggle, my choice is to seek the truth of the Tibet cause to the very end. Also, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama once advised the international community, “the Tibet cause is an iron pill. China greedily swallowed it, so one day China will have to vomit up the iron pill of truth and resolve the issue of Tibet. If not, the pill will have to come out from below (be defecated out) and they will still have to resolve it. There’s no other option”. Similarly, the All-Seeing Panchen Rinpoche once said, “You can speak Chinese, you can eat Chinese food, you can also wear Chinese clothes. However, you are Tibetan, how are going to change your flesh, blood and bones?” I hold the meaning of this advice, which is well-known to all Tibetans, close to my heart. So I said to myself, even if Chinese torture brings me to the point of death, I will stand firm. This is expressed in the third verse. When I said it will be food for those who uphold the truth, I was encouraging myself. It is my vow to sacrifice my own life to fight for the truth to the very end.

[3] It is unclear what this could refer to. Dukar Bum told us that he heard later that jailors use this tool to disable a prisoner mentally, and then they use that as an excuse to detain the prisoner in a mental asylum.


If you don’t unravel every single knot,
you won’t grasp the two ends of truth
so all three kinds of truth and lies
how can they form the four points of the square?

Thus all the great people of this world
seeking perfect mental vision
took prison as a retreat for the noble
and didn’t they follow one after another to enter it?

These two verses came to my mind in September 1995, when I was arrested and imprisoned for the second time. In general, whatever work you do in the world, you always have to analyze its effects thoroughly. In particular, as for the righteous struggle for Tibet, I told myself, you are Tibetan. So to understand the truth of Tibet across time, as well as the necessities and goals of religion, politics and culture present and future, you need to see the truth by recognizing the genuine reasons beyond the superficial ones. This is the first verse.

The meaning of the second verse is that those great people who sacrificed their own lives for the Tibet struggle, and who suffered torture in prison, who are suffering and will suffer such torture, without fear or despair entered into not a prison, but a retreat for the noble. And they have followed each other there continously, one after another. So I ask myself, “why don’t I follow them?” and I can happily participate in the struggle.

The Tibet struggle is not just about reviving the Tibetan nation-state. It is also about restoring Tibetan religion and culture and related customs, which benefit the international community. If this is the case, then this is different from just reviving Tibet as a nation-state. And to encourage myself, I practice the vision taught by both His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the All-Seeing Panchen Lama to make Tibet into a center and source for peace and happiness.


Gendun Chophel is like Karl Marx
Tenzin Gyamtso [4] is at the same level as Mahatma Gandhi
Nelson Mandela and Drime Kunden [5] are similar
For many years they upheld the truth even in prison

Physically and intellectually
the significance of our burdens is different
but for upholding the truth here
each prisoner is braver the next

The bodily stake can’t bind the mental horse
and its hoofprints that run everywhere
this galloping for the Tibet struggle
will never cease until it is won

These three verses came to my mind in 1994 the first time I was imprisoned. The first verse is saying that my own imprisonment is not alone. There have been so many great people who struggled for truth in different times and places and in different ways but they were all striving to uphold the truth. The second verse is about this recognition. In this world, those who have struggled for the truth in the past, especially those who have struggled for the Tibet cause, all of them have had different plans and duties. But here, all those imprisoned for the Tibetan cause are each braver than the next. The third verse is saying that no matter how brutal the methods the Chinese use to imprison Tibetans, they won’t be able to stop the desire of the people struggling for the Tibet cause. As long as the struggle for Tibet has not been won, this fight for the truth will never cease. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama put it, “you can not cover up a fire with paper”. I encourage myself with his words.

[4] His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Here, Dukar Bum is equating the Dalai Lama’s advocacy for non-violent resistance to that of Gandhi’s advocacy.

[5] Prince Drime Kunden is the famous protagonist from the great Tibetan opera Drime Kunden, which extols the virtues of selfless giving. Drime is a clan prince who steals a gem from his father the king and gives it to a poor man. His father punishes him and exiles him in a remote area for years. On the way to exile with his wife and children, he leaves them with poor families to help them. On the way back, he helps a blind man by giving him his eyes. Eventually, the beneficiaries of his giving reveal themselves to be deities who were testing him, and his wife, children and sight are restored to him.


Now the yoke of brutal Chinese laws
once again plows white and black fields
but despite them sharpening the iron plow
no harm will come to the rich soil of the fields

yet on the journeys of this cosmopolitan traveler [6]
trying to analyze vast realities
even if I do not achieve much
do not despair my secret friend

These two verses came to me not very long after my second imprisonment. They are a vow of assent, a mental feeling that arose when my extremely beloved friend who closely shares my views came to see me in prison in September 1995. This was the feeling that I am Tibetan and thus I will adhere to the teachings and thoughts of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. In particular, this is my vow of assent, which I practice with all my heart, to the instructions of the All-Seeing Panchen Rinpoche: “I pledge that during my lifetime I will not bring the slightest trace of harm to the generations of hardworking and courageous Tibetan people”.

[6] This line glosses the title of the famous modern Buddhist iconoclast and cosmopolitan intellectual Gendun Chophel’s magnum opus, his detailed account of his travels across South Asia in the 1930s, now available in English translation as Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler (Thupten Jinpa and Lopez 2014).


You did not achieve your heartfelt wish to see me
How can you curse this, saying this is due to the power of the ruler?
To fiercely uphold the power of the truth here,
How could there not be a wall between inside and out?

This verse came to me at the time of my second imprisonment. I could not meet the many people who worried about me. One really excellent friend among them had come to meet me but I was unable to see him, so through the jailer he was able to write me a short note. In it, he said that the power of the rulers kept us from meeting this time. But he said that next time, he would definitely see me after receiving permission. After seeing the note, I thought that whatever the Chinese do, their arbitrary decisions without checking the facts reveal their sole desire for tyranny, and the righteous struggle for Tibet is no different. Thus my close friend’s short note pointed out for me that when it comes to Tibet’s situation under the tyranny of the Chinese, on the broadest scale, they are cutting off Tibetans’ external relationships, and on a smaller scale, they are also cutting off Tibetans’ internal mutual relationships. This is a record of my reflections on that naked situation, the clear signs of the lack of peace and the severed mental and physical relationships of the Tibetan people.


From the speech of a child’s babble
may come the weighty words of the learned
but here the stories that talk of the truth
have aggravated countless people

This verse came to me in 1997, as a general observation on the situation inside Tibet. The Chinese people who live only for the sake of their own food and clothing, and a group of Tibetans who are stupid and childish have become tools of the Chinese state. They senselessly create the terrifying situation of Tibetans’ suffering, and amidst the Chinese government’s greedy talk of “developing Tibet”, their superficial activities, modes of display and speech may seem so real. But here, passionate advocates for the truthful struggle for Tibet, who have never foresaken the righteous stance of the Tibet cause, talk back to the venal Chinese Communist government and the breed of people who have become their tools. As long as there is a vanguard of activists willing to face fire with fire one after another, I myself cannot forsake this firm stance.


Knowing just the alphabet from start to finish
is not the work of a scholar but
to think carefully about such fields of analysis
I think is fine for someone like me

This verse came to me as a reflection on a situation I encountered in the 1990s. In 1997 I had composed an analytic essay examining Tibetan language textbooks for the elementary and middle schools of the five provinces and regions of Tibet. A central PSB official got his hands on it then, but later, in 1999 that article was published in the first issue of Tshongon Education Tibetan Language Journal. The main point of the essay, which I clearly stated, was that the Tibetan language textbooks used at that time by the elementary and middle schools of the five provinces and regions employed Tibetan speech and writing, but it was only as a tool to learn another nationality group’s culture [e.g., the Chinese] and they were not textbooks for learning about Tibetan culture itself. Thus, due to that point of mine, Chinese government PSB officials detained me secretly and spent many days torturing and interrogating me.


The stake of the body can’t bind the wild horse of the mind
and this state of moving everywhere
If you don’t strive to purify the three impure gates [7]
that movement will never cease

If you grasp the causes and conditions as the source of empty appearances
cause and effect meet each other in dependent arising
Empty appearances are the key to realizing ultimate illusion itself
this awareness of cause and effect is the very jewel of jewels

These two verses came to me the second time I was imprisoned at the end of September 1995 during the over three months in which my sentence had not been decided and I was held by myself in a single cell like a dark hole. This is about a few of my reflections on fundamental Buddhist principles during that long period, in which I contemplated Dharma teachings I had heard and considered, and especially those of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, on the perspective of dependent arising and doing no harm. As it is said, “those who realize this emptiness of all phenomena/ and their teachings of the law of karma and its consequences/ are even more amazing than amazing/ even more marvelous than marvelous.” [8]

As it is also said, “My perspective is even taller than the sky. My practice of karmic causality is even more fine-grained than barley flour.” [9] Together, these and others were the teachings that gave rise to my conviction as a result of my own reflections. In other words, I thought that for genuine practitioners of the Buddha Dharma, prison is in fact a retreat for the noble, and for those who can make their adversity serve their Buddhist practice, there is no better place than here.

[7] Body, speech and mind.
[8] From the བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་འགྲེལ, Nagarjuna’s Commentary on Bodhicitta (10th-11th centuries), verse 88
[9] Oft-cited proverb attributed to Padmasambhava.


The Amdo Translation Collective // མདོ་སྨད་ལོ་ཙྭ་མཐུན་ཚོགས།
The Amdo Translation Collective (ATC) is an international group of Tibet scholars who work collaboratively on translating texts and media from early Post-Mao and contemporary Amdo into English, in order to make them accessible to larger publics. Their translation philosophy is to preserve as much as possible of the content, tone and form of the Tibetan originals while crafting English language “siblings” that are accessible and poignant to readers who are not literate in Tibetan. In recent years, they have been focusing on translating texts related to the life and times of the tenth Panchen Lama, Lobsang Trinley Lhundrub Chokyi Gyaltsen (1938-1989).

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