First kiss the arms and under the arms
Then slowly kiss the belly.
Becoming more intoxicated, kiss the thighs and vulva;
Draw the streams of the channels under the sea.
It’s hard to believe this was written by a Tibetan Buddhist monk and scholar; but clearly Gendun Chopel was not just any monk or scholar. This is one of 104 poems – the first comprehensive collection of his oeuvre in any language — translated in a sumptuous bilingual edition. A must-read for anyone interested in Tibetan and Buddhist culture, In the Forest of Faded Wisdom serves as a fitting introduction to a formidable writer and poet, and a most complex and fascinating man.
Born in 1903 as British troops were preparing to invade his homeland, Gendun Chopel was identified at an early age as the incarnation of a famous lama and became a Buddhist monk, excelling in the debating courtyards of the great monasteries of Tibet. At the age of 31, he gave up his monk’s vows and set off for India where he would wander, often alone and impoverished, for over a decade. Returning to Tibet, he was arrested by the government of the young Dalai Lama on trumped-up charges of treason, emerging from prison three years later a broken man. He died in 1951 as troops of the People’s Liberation Army marched into Lhasa.*
And yet through all this Chopel was prodigiously prolific, translating plays, epic poetry, and sutras from Pali and Sanskrit into Tibetan, as well as producing a number of lengthy tomes of his own. His early poetry expresses a pious and conventional Buddhism:
Compassionate power of the three jewels,
Reliable refuge that never deceives,
Calming all illusions of meaningless samsara
Bless our minds to turn to the dharma.
His later work turns world-weary and caustic. A harsh critic of hidebound convention, Chopel was nevertheless a master of the traditional forms of Tibetan poetry; although felicitously translated, we can assume that much of the music is lost. At times the reading gets rather dry, as the poet draws heavily upon the numberless typologies of the tradition, e.g. the “nine vehicles,” the “treasure of one hundred and seven indestructible precepts.” One can take out a Buddhist dictionary and parse the subtleties, or simply repose in the mastery of such crystalline intricacy. What raises his writing to sparse and even lovely lyricism is the effective use of sensual but generic imagery: mountains, temples, flowers, trees, sands, sky, moon, sun. And the occasional candid and touching confession:
In my youth, I did not take a delightful bride;
In old age, I did not amass the needed wealth.
That the life of this beggar ends with his pen,
This is what makes me so sad.
In the end, Chopel descended into lasciviousness and alcoholism – but did produce the extraordinary verses of Precepts on Passion. There is some debate as to whether he had become a “crazy saint” or had simply lost his way. Nearly all poets of the Buddhist way write of quietude and restraint. Chopel’s difficult path took a profound personal toll, but his work suggests a distinct possibility for a dynamic, intense, and varied Buddhist poetic.
* That Chopel was imprisoned, beaten and most of his work confiscated – and lost – under the regime of the young Dalai Lama is curious indeed. Online searches revealed scant information. According to his website, the Dalai Lama assumed political power over Tibet in 1950, around the time of Chopel’s release, while this website claims that the Lama is “one among many admirers who name Gendun Chopel as their intellectual predecessor.”
Brian Campbell’s second collection is Passenger Flight. It is reviewed here in the Rover.