Friday, November 23, 2012

Longing for the Deities by Sakyil Tseta: a translation

This is a poem by Sakyil Tseta, one of Tibet’s best young poets. I find that the lines of the original in Tibetan keep echoing in my mind.

Longing for the Deities
By Sakyil Tseta
Translation by Tenzin Dickyi and Dhondup Tashi Rekjong

These days a spring wind is rising under the clouded sky.
In these days when a spring wind is rising, the villagers with bothered and humble eyes are complaining about someone, cursing someone. At the intersection of the city and the street where there are no red mirrors searching with their eyes for the caged birds, the villagers push down their tears of suffering and wish to spit on someone with their laments.

In these days, in these days when a spring wind is rising under the clouded sky,
In every village of Rebkong, arrow bearing hunters multiply, on every street of Rebkong, red traps and black mirrors increase exponentially. The village people, their heads bowed down, are apprehensive of taking a breath. These days if you don’t take care, there are no dharma protectors who can save you.

In these days, in these days when a spring wind is rising under the clouded sky,
In these days when the people of Rebkong stay silently in their homes, where are the deities and dharma protectors that the people have placed in their hearts since the time of their ancestors? Are they disappointed that we can’t take refuge in them? Are they hungry that we can’t make incense offerings? Is this their answer?
Ah, my deities and dharma protectors. Ah.

In these days, in these days when a spring wind is rising under the clouded sky,
The people talk of caterpillar fungus in the day,
And count stars through the window at night.

In these days, in these days when a spring wind is rising under the clouded sky, shoots from the inner depths of the earth give vitality and confidence to someone’s young sun of hope. Now, once more the gorgeous peach blossoms bring to the people’s minds a certain compassionate and youthful face–that face from far far away is brought to mind, is brought to mind.

In these days of fear, in these days of terror,
I long for the deities clad in mourning felt,
I long for Shambala where the people have scattered their hopes. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Review of BUTTERFLY’S WINGS, Tenzing Rigdol’s 3rd Collection of Poetry

I was watching the recent Voice of America Kunleng discussion on contemporary Tibetan writing, with guests Tenzing Rigdol (artist, poet) and Dhondup Tashi Rekjong (editor, writer). There was talk about Rigdol’s recent book of poetry and talk about Bhuchung D Sonam’s recent book of criticism, and discussion on the urgent need for criticism and the huge gaping hole there, where our small community is concerned. Of his own book, Rigdol said, “If a book isn’t reviewed, it becomes an orphan.” So this is…not an adoption exactly. I am hardly a real reviewer. This is more like a care package.  

A Review of BUTTERFLY’S WINGS, Tenzing Rigdol’s 3rd Collection of Poetry
Originally Published on Phayul on August 20, 2012

Tenzing Rigdol follows in the tradition of the sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso, Tibet’s most beloved poet, with this slim volume of love poetry. By devoting an entire collection of poems to romantic love, he elevates this most secular of emotions and assigns it a sacredness usually offered only to the Dharma in our society.

One the whole, I found Butterfly’s Wings to be beautiful and powerful and inventive in some places and clumsy and clunky in others. An imperfect but exciting and noteworthy collection nonetheless, it makes me thrilled to continue to watch Tenzing Rigdol’s evolution as a poet.

The first thing you notice about Butterfly’s Wings is how beautifully it is produced. The cover art, a serene and lovely image of a young Tibetan couple enjoying a quiet moment of intimacy on a moonlit night, is by Tenzin Norbu, an artist from Dolpo. As a physical product of the collaboration between Rigdol, the publisher TibetWrites and the filmmaker Tenzin Tsetan Choklay who did the book design, this is a rebuke to the indifferent book covers churned out by most Tibetan publishers.

The best poems in the collection are the most restrained and the most simple.
One of my favorites is below:

Your body is calligraphy at work-
Smooth, round, blunt and abrupt.
Only my silence befits your adornment.
A single word is now a hindering crowd. (Pg 48)

I savored the beauty and power of the following lines:

I spend my life in an effort
To collect your dances,
Your whispers,
Your shadows and

For you are your own kingdom,
Wherein beggars like me draw out their hands for alms. (Pg 49)

How imaginative and evocative is that last line, a line for schoolboys to echo in their midnight letters: “For you are your own kingdom...”

The best moments in the book occur when the poet is most spare and direct, as when he asks:
What can a statue do
When his master loves him
With hammers and nails. (Pg 58)

And when he says:
I weigh less than
Your single stroke of a smile. (Pg 49)

But unfortunately this restraint and simplicity are not as present throughout the collection. Indeed, rather than restraint, I found an excess—an excess, mainly, of adjectives, particularly Latinate ones. Rigdol doesn’t trust his nouns to do any heavy lifting; where he has a noun, he must use an elaborate adjective.

For example:
Sozzled eyes
Glimmer in briny tears
Before the pungent smell
Of betrayal disguised. (Pg 68)

Why insist on telling us that the tears are “briny” and the smell “pungent”? Presumably, everyone expects tears to be salty and smells to be smelly. Not all nouns need ornamentation. Too many adjectives overload the poem, like too much make-up on a woman. In a poem, real estate is precious. As Rigdol himself tells us in his best poems, a single extra word is a hindering crowd, or simply, a crowd.

Contrast these two lines, both from the first poem in the collection:
Ample yet soft and modest,
Palpable yet fragile and volatile…

Between your eyelashes
I travel the distance between stars. (Pg 15)

How little is said in the first sentence and how much in the second!

I also thought some of the poems could have been refined further.

For example:

As I breathe in the aroma of your soul like a gardener
Without a word,
A cold breeze of purity awakens the rim of my forgotten
Through my dark nasal tunnel, streams the waves of your
And my throat collects them like a wineglass receiving the
Imprisoned wine. (Pg 79)

How lovely and apt that image of the throat as a wineglass receiving the captured wine is, but why the tonally off “dark nasal tunnel”? Like a wrong note, it jars my enjoyment of the poem. And dare I ask, how is the nose “forgotten” when it is breathing in the aroma? And don’t the line breaks, as they are, distort the shape of the poem rather than enhance it? A poem is a creature for the ear, of course, but my eye cannot help nosing in.

As with the wineglass image, at his best, Rigdol can create gorgeous lines with bright and sharp metaphors and similes: he says, “I lay shrunk like a frozen shrimp” (Pg 73) and likens love to “a wind-carried pollen looking for its soil-mate.” How inventive and unexpected and fun that “soil-mate” is.

And where the adjective does earn its place (“my decanted mind”!), there is music to be found.
When you lay unwrapped in bed like a strong argument
With your knees starting at your awakened breasts,
I collect my withered thoughts in surrender… (Pg 39)

Rigdol is a very well-known contemporary Tibetan artist whose Soil Project, the site specific installation for which he smuggled soil from Shigatse, Tibet and brought to Dharamsala, the capital of Tibet-in-exile, made international headlines. In some ways, we can see this book as a site specific artwork as well, with the site being the female body, specifically the body of the beloved.

If this book is the result of Tenzing Rigdol’s surrender, I think we can conclude that it was a fruitful surrender.

Friday, July 27, 2012

"Namkha Jhida, Bird-chaser" by Dhondup Tashi Rekjong

I am posting a translation. I actually translated this a while ago, in May, for an informal Tibetan writers’ gathering that was hosted at Latse Library, but didn’t get to put it up before. The piece itself is an old piece about an episode in his childhood, by Dhondup Tashi Rekjong, but it’s hilarious and vividly written. Dhondup Tashi Rekjong is editor of Tibet Web Digest and Karkhung, a new site that translates pieces from English and Chinese into Tibetan. He is former editor of Khabdha, the most popular Tibetan language blog in exile.
NAMKHA JHIDA, BIRD-CHASER by Dhondup Tashi Rekjong
Namkha Jhida was my friend, my childhood friend. When I was young, every time I went home for my summer holidays, I would go bird-chasing with Namkha Jhida. It has now been more than ten years since I last saw Namkha Jhida but these childhood memories are still fresh in my mind. Namkha Jhida's real name is Namkha Tsering, and family and friends used to call him Namkha. The people in our village called him Namkha Jhida, Bird-chaser, because he loved chasing birds.
The village kids also loved chasing birds. During summer holidays I would go home to the village with my father, and most of my summer vacation would be spent chasing birds. I would spend all day with Namkha Jhida chasing after birds, and some days we wouldn't catch even a single bird. Sometimes running after the birds, we would leave footprints all over other people's fields. When the owners saw this, they would tell our parents, and we would get a beating from our parents. In those days, we would get a beating like that every one or two days.
If, we caught many baby birds in a day, we would divide the baby birds amongst ourselves. Namkha Jhida was always our leader. During our bird chasing expeditions, everyone listened to his orders. After we had caught the birds, he would pick the best baby bird. After that, we would take our picks. Carrying a baby bird in our hands, we would go back home. Before reaching home, we would hide the bird somewhere near the house, sometimes under a hedge bush. The next morning, usually the bird would be dead. I think now that when we were young, we earned a lot of bad karma.
One day, we went with Namkha Jhida to chase birds. Namkha Jhida carried a long rope in his hands. We came to a small cliff:  we knew that there was a bird’s nest up there. But we had never found it. That day, Namkha Jhida said, "Today we will empty this nest." We all agreed. But we couldn't decide on who was going to climb the cliff. We talked about it. But no one volunteered to climb the cliff. We all looked at Namkha Jhida. We all wanted him to climb the cliff. Finally, Namkha Jhida said he would climb the cliff.
We went to the top of the cliff. We tied the rope around Namkha Jhida's waist. There were six of us. Three of us held the end of the rope. Very slowly, we lowered Namkha Jhida down the face of the cliff. Two kids went to the bottom of the cliff. If Namkha Jhida were to fall, these two would catch him. Three of us held on tightly to the end of the rope. The two friends at the bottom of the cliff yelled out, "Lower the rope a bit more." So we slowly lowered a bit more rope. They said, "Lower the rope a little bit more, he is almost at the nest." Again, we let out some more rope from our hands. We yelled out, "Is that okay? Is he at the nest?" "Lower the rope a little more," they said. "Oh, I got it, I got it," Namkha Jhidha started yelling. All of a sudden, the rope slipped out from the hands of the kid at the end. Namkha Jihda's body began pulling at my friend and me.
The two of us screamed, "Namkha fell" and let the rope slip from our hands. Our friends at the bottom of the cliff cried out. We ran to the bottom. We were all very frightened. Namkha cried out, "Shit, shit, shit" while rubbing his butt. He said to my other friend, "You were the one who let go of the rope." My friend said, "No it wasn't me, it was him." We started quarreling about who had let go of the rope. Our quarrel grew. It grew and then turned into a fight.
Namkha Jhida became incensed and said, "Shit, why are you fighting? From tomorrow, don’t follow me anymore. No more baby birds for any of you. As your punishment for today, each of you has to catch and bring me two baby birds." We stopped our quarreling and fighting. Then, without any baby birds in our hands, we silently went back home.
Originally published on in March 2010.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Sunday, July 15th, saw the launch of my friend Bhuchung D Sonam’s new book Yak Horns: Notes on Contemporary Tibetan Writing, Music, Film & Politics at Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen in the center of McLeod Ganj. There was a reading also, and a few days before the launch, I got a call from Bhuchung and Tsundue inviting me to read, which I was tremendously joyful about. It was going to be BDS, Tsundue, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa and me—It was a luminous triangle and I didn’t really fit but BDS shoved me in, and I was excited and grateful.
The day of, I was on Facebook and saw a poster for the event—nicely designed with the beautiful book jacket and wait, what’s this—reading and discussion? Whaa? I called BDS and Tsundue in a consuming panic and they were both so casual and calm about it: “It’s a completely informal discussion, nothing to worry about, it’s just talking” and I was thinking, yeah nothing to worry about for you guys because you are constantly on stage and giving interviews and used to talking and thinking on cue but I have to know what I am thinking about beforehand because I don’t know what I am thinking until I am thinking it, privately, not publicly!
But the event, moderated by Dechen Pemba of High Peaks Pure Earth, actually went really well—the organization, seemingly on the fly, fell into place seamlessly (there was even a poppy seed cake to welcome Yak Horns into the world). The sound needed a bit of tweaking in the beginning, but that was eventually fixed. And there was a full house crowd, attesting to Bhuchung’s popularity in this town and possibly also the fact that there’s a ready population of the young and the restless in Dharamsala, supplemented by the seeking tourist, always on the lookout for a new gathering, a new restaurant, a new contact, a new angle, a new relationship.

Photo: Kunsang Kelden                                                                           Bhuchung D Sonam at far right
Bhuchung explained that he called the book Yak Horns because when he was growing up in Tibet (and what does that feel like, starting a sentence with those words-when I was growing up in Tibet…) parents gave their kids cut-off yak horns to suck on as “jibdo”, so a yak horn is something that is a very familiar and intimate reminder of home. He said he wrote this collection for two reasons: to provide the Tibetan voice which is often missing or muted, compared to the other non-Tibetan voices pronouncing judgement; and to have a bridge between the community at home and in the diaspora.
I have been picking at the book but haven’t yet had the time to really sit down with it, but it has got a gorgeous cover and just looks beautiful, and I was hooked with the opening piece “Exile is a Lonely Pen”, an essay on exile and writing.. The book is primarily a collection of criticism-- criticism being the one really important thing that’s been almost entirely lacking in our modern literature. Has anything been created until it’s been reviewed? So the talented Bhuchung D Sonam is doing Tibetans a great service, and as a friend as well as a fan, it’s great to see BDS the critic as well as BDS the writer get official between the covers.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


This was years and years and years ago. I am not sure where we were going-probably either Kathmandu to visit my mother’s relatives or to Varanasi for a Kalachakra teaching. I have a vivid memory of coming out of a station in Delhi and then all of us, my parents and brother and me, piling onto a horse cart with all our luggage, our bags and tea thermoses and even a rather large and unwieldy travelling kumbali (blanket). It was probably not my first time in a horse buggy, but for some reason that ride stayed with me—the startled eyes focused by blinkers, the clip clop of the horse’s shoes striking the curving paved road as we came out of an underpass, the whip lash across heaving shoulders even though the poor animal was straining with all his strength.
The horse buggies are nowhere to be seen now. These days the transportation of choice is the metro, a silent sparkling thing that puts the screeching boxcars of the New York subway to shame. The authorities are serious about keeping the metro safe, secure and spit-free; there are metal detectors, men with rifles and signs everywhere that anyone caught spitting has to pay a Rs. 200 fine. Although honestly, something I have long thought more noxious than spitting? Ball scratching. Where’s the fine for that? Here’s a sign I would like to see: No private scratching in public!
So anyway, Delhi. Delhi Delhi Delhi. I have passed through Delhi many times over the years, most recently two years ago, but I haven’t really ever seen Delhi. I do the obligatory trip to Connaught Place and Janpath and otherwise stay tucked away in the narrow gullys and stacked hotels in the Tibetan colony (kaloni!) of Majnukatilla on the outskirts of the city. If I go out at all, I am always anxious that my bag or my wallet is going to be lifted. Cities have a way of putting you on the defensive. Delhi, too large and sprawling and hot, always defeats me. But this time actually I managed to see a couple of other places that were new, to me at any rate.
First I hung out in a Khan Market café for a couple of hours with a friend from school. Called the Café Turtle, a coffee shop on top of a bookstore, the place could have been any coffee shop in Cambridge. Either Cambridge. The café was green and lime yellow, with small round marble-topped tables and photographs of Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gilliespie and B.B. King on the wall. Our hangout included lots of laptop time, a special bookstore purchase, haircuts and lunch. After this, before returning home, I thought I should go to India Gate because it was shamefully nearby and I had never yet been.
India Gate was kind of magnificent. It’s very tall, quite simple and quite imposing. Designed by British architect Edwin Lutyens, it is a memorial to India’s war dead. It’s always such a sad thing looking at memorials, essentially graves. I have never seen the Vietnam War Memorial in real life but even just looking at photos of that memorial brings a lump to my throat. Maya Lin knew what she was about. Lutyens had names of the fallen soldiers inscribed all over the massive marble facades of the Gate. Most of the names were too high up but from what I could read, I saw a lot of Singhs and Khans.
Here’s the inscription on the gate:
To the dead of the Indian armies who fell and are honored in France and Flanders Mesopotamia and Persia East Africa Gallipoli and elsewhere in the near and the far east and in sacred memory also of those whose names are here recorded and who fell in India on the North West Frontier and during the Third Afghan War
I thought of all of our dead, who never had a chance to be honored. Or even acknowledged.
Then I walked along the Rajpath from India Gate to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the President’s House, also designed by Lutyens. (Right before India’s independence.) The long straight road with a walkway of red earth and a green lawn on each side reminded me a lot of the mall in Washington (although not so much all the corn cobs and the ice cream sticks littering the grass).
The Rashtrapati Bhavan, when I got there (in what definitely felt longer than the 15 minutes that the ice cream vendor claimed), was still disappointingly far in the distance behind iron gates. I got a good look at its garden though, with two hedge carved elephants that I thought at first were misshapen camels or dinosaurs.
Between India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhavan, a small funny thing happened. As I didn’t have my camera with me, I let myself be corralled by one of the boys trying to sell tourists photos of them with their fingertips holding the top of India Gate. I want a photo of just the Gate, without me, I said. Rs. 30. Then I had to wait while the boy went off to print the photo from a printer conveniently located under a tree some 15 feet away. Who knows how the cables worked.
When the kid came back, he suggested that I go sit in the park with him. I guess it was an obligatory pick-up on his part as a) I was female b) I was a tourist and c) I was alone. Since there were swarms and swarms of people all around us, and he was as short as me and looked about 16, I humored him.
We walked to the park and sat down. I wanted to hear his story, but first things first.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“20,” he said. “How old are you?”
“28,” I said. “I am your older sister (didi).”

His eyes went wide and shifty. Then he pointed to the sun, hanging perfectly high in the sky, and said, “If you want to see Rashtrapati Bhavan, you better go before it gets too dark.”