Tibetan Poetry Analysis

Historical Background

Tibetans refer to their country as the “Land of Snows,” and this name accurately conveys the remoteness, mystery, and beauty of the land that contains the world’s highest mountain, Everest (or “Goddess Mother of the Snows” in Tibetan). Tibet continues to be, even in the twenty-first century, nearly geographically and politically isolated. Tibet, an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, covers an area of approximately 500,000 square miles. By contrast, historical Tibet—the region over which the cultural, religious, and frequently political influence of Tibet extended—encompassed roughly double that area and included all the highland plateaus between the Himalayan mountain range in the south and the Altyn Tagh and Kunlun ranges in the north.

The Tibetan Empire was established prior to the seventh century c.e., and recorded Tibetan history begins with the reign of Srong-brtsan sgam-po, who ruled Tibet from 620 to 649. Through its military campaigns, Tibet came into contact with a number of civilizations which had an immediate and profound influence on Tibetan culture. The religions and cultures of Iran, Gilgit, Kashmir, Turfan, Khotan, China, and, perhaps most important, the Buddhist kingdoms of northern India, all had an impact on the development of Tibetan civilization.

Tibetans attribute the invention of their alphabet to Thonmi Sambhota, a minister of Srong-brtsan sgam-po. The king first sent a group of Tibetans to India to study Indian alphabets to develop an alphabet suited to the Tibetan language, but this group met with failure. Srong-brtsan sgam-po then sent Thonmi to India. Thonmi’s success is attested by the epithet “Sam-bho-ta” (“Excellent Tibetan”), given him by his Indian teachers, and by the attribution to his authorship of eight books, only two of which are extant, on the subject of Tibetan...

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Religion and Tibetan literature

Although Tibet enjoys a rich tradition of folk literature, the bulk of Tibetan literature is religious, representing the country’s two major religions, Buddhism and Bonpo, the latter a pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion incorporating some elements of indigenous folk beliefs as well as influences from the religions of other countries, such as Iran. A significant amount of Buddhist literature consists of translations from the Indian Buddhist canon. The Tibetan bKa’-’gyur (also known as Kanjur), which is considered to contain the actual teachings of the Buddha, consists of 108 volumes, while the bsTan-’gyur (also known as Tanjur), which contains the orthodox textual exegesis of the bKa’-’gyur, contains 225 volumes.

The indigenous religious literature of Tibet is immeasurably vast and rich, including works which deal not only with religion and philosophy but also with history, medicine, science, grammar, astrology, divination, and the techniques of crafts, such as painting and the casting of bronze images. The collected works (gsung-’bum) of many important Tibetan religious figures are, in fact, encyclopedic in their contents and contain, in addition to learned discourses on the topics mentioned, a wealth of information in the form of correspondence and private biographical writings.

Tibetan literature abounds with a variety of minor religious genres that parallel those of medieval Europe, such as the hagiography, the pilgrimage guide, the exemplum, and the mystical visionary account. The ’das-log genre, which deals specifically with visionary accounts of the journey to the underworld, is particularly rich in its correspondences, not only to similar visionary literature in the writings of medieval Christian saints but also to similar themes in many epic and folk traditions throughout the world.

The influence of earlier literary and oral traditions is often evident in Tibetan literature, particularly in the hagiographic literature. In addition to containing motifs and themes which clearly derive from a folk tradition, such works sometimes alternate passages of prose and verse, in which religious teachings are presented in the form of didactic poetry. The Hundred-Thousand Songs of the Tibetan poet and saint Milarepa (1040-1123) is the best-known example of such a work.

The provenance of many early Tibetan religious works, particularly those of the Buddhist rNying-ma (old ones) school and many works in the Bonpo tradition, is obscure. An entire genre called gTer-ma (“treasure”) is purported to be the work of various historical (and sometimes mythical) religious personages and to have been unearthed by later religious masters called gTer-bston (“revealers of treasure”). The Bar-do thos-sgrol (book that grants liberation in the place between death and rebirth merely by its hearing, commonly called The Tibetan Book of the Dead in Western translations) is such a work and is attributed to the eighth century Indian Tantric master Padmasambhava, who is venerated as one of the two major founders of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is...

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Pre-Buddhist folk literature

Both the Tibetan Buddhists and the Bonpo distinguish the period preceding the Tibetan imperial period as the time in which the mi-chos (religion of humans) flourished, in contrast to the later period in which Buddhism and Bonpo, which share the common label of lha-chos (divine religion), came to Tibet. The literature of this period consisted mainly of two genres: the lde’u, or riddle and the sgrung (sometimes called sgrung-gtam), a narrative legend or fable.

These early works dealt chiefly with creation legends and traditional codes of behavior. The lde’u are essentially proverbs that carry a moral message, while the sgrung are tales composed by storytellers and based on the earliest myths and legends of the Tibetan people. The language of these works is frequently complex, and the abundance of often obscure metaphors increases the difficulty of understanding such texts. Nevertheless, these texts are of great interest, since they represent an archaic body of writings which obviously had a basis in an oral tradition.

Some of the most striking examples of such literature are found in the ancient literary fragments unearthed at Dunhuang, an oasis city in the western part of the Chinese province of Gansu. Here, an ancient library was sealed up in the early part of the eleventh century, escaping discovery until the early part of the twentieth century. A collection of approximately...

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The Ge-sar epic

The Ge-sar epic is the most importantepic cycle in Inner Asia, and versions of it are found in all the major areas of Tibet and Mongolia, as well as in areas occupied by various Turkic tribes and in areas bordering the Himalayas, such as Sikkim and Hunza. The epic alternates brief prose passages with longer poetic sections, which are sung by an epic bard in a variety of melodies; each melody implies a particular mood or tone and is selected by the bard to suit each poetic passage. The first written version of the Ge-sar epic dates from approximately the fifteenth century, but the earlier existence of the epic cycle is attested by references in eleventh century texts, and it is certain that portions of the epic existed in the oral literature of Inner Asia for centuries before that date.

Ge-sar’s name derives from the Byzantine word for emperor, kaisar, a cognate of the Latin caesar and the German Kaiser, and early texts connect his name with the place-name Phrom (Rome, meaning, in this context, Byzantium). Despite this unexplained connection with Byzantium, the hero of the Tibetan epic is identified as the ruler of a land called Gling, a kingdom which once existed in an area of Tibet that later became part of the provinces of Kham and Amdo. It has been pointed out by Rolf A. Stein in Tibetan Civilization (1972), however, that the term Gling is to be considered an abbreviation for the phrase ’dzam-bu-gling, a Tibetan term referring to the world continent of Jambudvipa; thus, the epithet Gling...

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Tibetan folk poetry

Several distinct genres of folk poetry and songs exist in Tibet and are still performed at special times of the year, such as at the time of planting or harvesting crops, at the celebration of the new year, and at marriages and other special occasions. Popular songs and poems are generally termed glu or glu-bzhas and are distinguished from poems found in religious writings, which are most often called mgur or dbyangs.

Gral-glu (row songs) are chanted by groups of singers arranged in rows; their texts consist maintly of sayings whose recitation brings good luck, and they are therefore most frequently sung at weddings or at new year’s festivals. Chang-glu (beer...

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Poetry in indigenous Buddhist literature

When Tibetan Buddhists engaged in an organized and meticulous campaign of translating the corpus of Indian Buddhist literature, the sophisticated metrical patterns of Indian literature became the models for Tibetan Buddhist poetry; the Tantric songs, called doha, of Indian Buddhist mystic poets such as Kanha and Saraha also exerted an influence on Tibetan poetry. The dactyl, which had been the dominant meter in the early Tibetan poetry of the Dunhuang documents, was supplanted by the trochee, which became the dominant form not only in most religious poetry but also in many varieties of secular songs.

Poems containing maxims and proverbs, which have been found in the earliest Tibetan documents excavated at...

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The sixth Dalai Lama

“The Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama” (Tsangyang Gyatso; 1683-1706), translated in 1930 in the Academia Sinica Monograph, are a collection of four-line poems that resemble the most common form of the Tibetan folk poem, the gtang-thung bzhad (“short song”). This collection contains approximately sixty songs, written in a deceptively simple language. The Sixth Dalai Lama was reputed to be a libertine who frequently left the cloister of his palace, the Potala, in disguise to visit a variety of lovers in Lhasa and to enjoy the local taverns. Such behavior was contrary to the vows of all Buddhist monks, and the Dalai Lama’s reputation became the pretext for an invasion of Lhasa by the Khoshot Mongols, who...

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Modern secular poetry

In addition to the gtang-thung bzhad, which is the most frequent model for secular poetry, a poetic form favored by educated Tibetans in the past several centuries is the ka-bzhas. This poetic form derives its name from the letter ka, the first letter of the Tibetan alphabet, and uses the thirty consonants of the Tibetan alphabet as the initial letters, in alphabetical order, of a thirty-line poem. The ka-bzhas is often employed in love poems and is also used as an elegant form for correspondence.

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Writers in exile

During the early years, most of the Tibetan exiles producing literary works were monastic scholars, and if they wrote poetry, it was incorporated in religious texts. The generations that followed were unlikely to know the Tibetan language, for whether they lived in India, in the United States, or elsewhere, they used English in daily life. However, in the 1980’s, after the Chinese government relaxed its policy on border crossings, young Tibetans began to arrive in India. Among them were a few who were both fluent in their native language and passionate about literature. In 1990, four of them founded the magazine Ljang gzhon (young shoots), whose purpose was to publish literary works written in Tibetan. Other similar...

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Bosson, James E. A Treasury of Aphoristic Jewels: The Subhasitaratnanidhi of Sa Skya Pandita in Tibetan and Mongolian. London: Routledge Curzon, 1997. A collection of 457 quatrains, divided into three sections, Tibetan texts, Mongolian texts, and translations. Excellent introduction, notes, glossary, and bibliography.

Cabezon, Jose I., and Roger R. Jackson. Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion, 1995. Survey of poetry, novels, biographies, histories, and other writings that span thirteen hundred years.

Coleman, Graham, ed., with Thupten Jinpa. The Tibetan Book of the Dead....

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