Culture & Conversation

An Unconventional Buddhist Poetics

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.

  • 3 Responses to “An Unconventional Buddhist Poetics”

    1. Mark Abley

      I’m grateful to Brian Campbell for introducing me to this book. But unfortunately, his references to the Dalai Lama are profoundly misleading. In the mid-1940s, when Gendun Chopel was imprisoned, Tibet suffered much internal turmoil, corruption and a brief civil war. The Dalai Lama was a child at the time, and he made no political decisions. So to speak of “the government of the young Dalai Lama” makes about as much sense than it would to call Gordon Brown’s regime “the government of the old Queen Elizabeth.” Even in 1950, when the Dalai Lama assumed power, he was still a young teenager. There are many accounts of this in print that would have told Brian Campbell what “online searches” do not, notably John Avedon’s magisterial book “In Exile From the Land of Snows.”

    2. Brian Campbell

      Thank you very much, Mark, for filling us in on these valuable facts, and my apologies for the misleading impression about the Dalai Lama I may have made.

      Actually, the second paragraph of the review was lifted directly from the book’s blurb. The version I submitted to the Rover makes that clear, starting with, “The book’s blurb tells us that born in 1903…etc.” These words were edited out: I guess they don’t make a crisp read, but they did serve a purpose. The effect of this edit – which I didn’t notice until you pointed it out — is that the footnote, in which I try to indicate the questionable nature of that phrase about the Dalai Lama, does not make clear that I am reacting to a text that is not mine.

      Chalk all this up to constraints of time, and of the strict 500-word format favoured by the Rover. I simply couldn’t find a way to sum up the bio more concisely than the editors of the Gendun Chopel book did, without impinging on my main focus, which was to review the poetry itself. If there is any fault with the book, it is that is that nowhere in its pages is that misleading impression corrected.

      Thanks also for making us aware of John Avedon’s book, and for reminding us that “online searches” are not always up to snuff.

    3. Brian Campbell

      The final part of the comment above I revise as follows:

      Chalk all this up to constraints of time, and of the strict 500-word format favoured by the Rover. I used the bio from the blurb because it was concise. It left me free to devote more space to the poetry.

      One fault with the book is that nowhere in its pages is that misleading impression about the Dalai Lama corrected. I should also not have used the word “regime” in my footnote, which, being pejorative, had the effect of worsening the impression I was trying to correct.

      Thanks also for making us aware of John Avedon’s book.

      Editing, editing!


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