ISSN 2768-4261 (Online)
Tenzing Rigdol remembers feeling helpless upon seeing numerous Buddhas, the literal and figurative bhikshus (beggars) that lay next to high-rise buildings and hotels in Delhi as the merciless sky was about to break apart. The despondency he saw in the streets, whether in Delhi, Shanghai, or New York manifested on his canvas, titled ‘Alone, Exhausted and Asleep’—the cover image of Yeshe’s second issue that also resonates with how most of us feel after what we have recently gone through. Tenzing Rigdol, for being an exceptionally brilliant artist whose life and work demonstrate, in the words of Laurence Kaptain (Dean of the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Arts & Media), “the essential linkages that illuminate the pathways of both courage and consciousness,” was awarded an Honorary Doctorate degree on 3 May 2022 by the University of Colorado. And we at Yeshe: A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities are celebrating it by also looking at Dr. Tenzing Rigdol’s inspiring journey as an artist in an interview by Dr. Sarah Magnatta.
The interview section also brings to us the trajectory of Pema Bhum’s life as a scholar and writer. The richness and complexity of Tibetan literature and its influences that he discusses with Tenzin Dickie are amply exemplified across sections of this issue of Yeshe. Yeshe Vodsal Atsok’s article illustrates the degree of pressure the Tibetan language faces in China and resonates with Pema Bhum’s own reflection about language — “These days, while more Tibetans can read and write in their language, a foreign language lives in your home. Our second language is our livelihood, it’s the background, it’s the environment.”
In environments of language and cultural appropriation, there is often the emergence of new literary and artistic expressions, which in turn become battlefields between tradition and modernity, entailing both loss and gain. Timothy Thurston’s article that examines the remediation of the exploits of the Tibetan trickster Uncle Tonpa from oral Tibetan literature in new media during the Maoist period and the 1980s reveals this trickster’s continued relevance for both governmental and vernacular attempts to influence the ongoing negotiations of Tibetan regional and ethnic identities in China. The question of the conflicting narratives of identity also surfaces in Gokul KS’s article, which besides surveying the history of Tibet on screen and the existing academic literature in this field also highlights the transformed cinematic representations of Tibetan identity since the entry of Tibetan filmmakers on the scene in the1990s. Caught between the modern-day fashion choice of hair coloring and the traditional hair norms imposed on women, Chen Metak’s poem ‘The Gemotsang Daughter-in-Law Got Her Hair Dyed Blonde’ is critically examined by Françoise Robin in her article, foregrounding the seemingly invisible but powerful symbol of subordination. Matilda Perks brings to readers for the first time ChögyamTrungpa’s concrete poetry with its seamlessly blend of Tibetan and Western literary elements. The recurrent theme of the article section also surfaces in Clemence Henry’s review of Pema Tseden’s Balloon as a film that underscores the intricacies of the filmmaker’s vision of a Tibet that oscillates between tradition and modernity.
Coming to the most recent works in the field, the year 2022 has been significant for the publication of We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, the first novel in English by a Tibetan woman Tsering Lama. Kalsang Yangzom, Yeshe’s new review editor, praises Tsering Lama’s novel as–“an exceptional addition to the growing cache of Tibetan Anglophone writing” with “Lama’s deft hand spinning” of the Tibetan exile story. Not only published by the mainstream press, Tsering Lama’s novel has also been already listed among the best reads of the year. In the review section, we also bring focus on women in Buddhist society through Priyanka Chakraborty’s review of Alice Collett’s I Hear Her Words: An Introduction to Women in Buddhism, a book that highlights the necessity of recognizing the important roles women have played in Buddhism’s dissemination and promotion across time and history. Interestingly, Elisabeth A. Benard’s The Sakya Jetsunmas, reviewed by Nicole Willock, provides a different outlook on female practitioners of the Sakya Khon family in Tibet and how they were supported in their religious pursuit. Complimenting reviews of Collett and Benard’s respective works on women in Tibetan Buddhism, Christopher Bell’s The Dalai Lama and the Nechung Oracle is reviewed by Brenton Sullivan for its research on the rise of the Nechung god cult in conjunction with the Fifth Dalai Lama and its contribution towards the Tibetan government’s national consolidation.
Considering the growing field of Tibetan literature, art, and humanities and the concomitant increase in the activity of translations of Tibetan works, we have introduced a performance section in Yeshe’s 2022 issue, under the editorial expertise of Dr. Timothy Thurston. The debut feature of this section is an annotated translation with an introduction of four arias of the horse race episode of the Epic of King Gesar of Ling by Amalia Rubin. The performance section aims to include transcripts of oral performances, song lyrics, scripts, dialogs with playwrights or tradition-bearers, and lectures on topics related to oral traditions and other performance forms.
In the art section, Ben Paljor Chatag reflects on a recent photo exhibition titled Transforming Minds: Kyabje Gelek Rimpoche and Friends, Photographs by Allen Ginsberg 1989-1997 at Tibet House New York, highlighting its premise, curatorial development including hurdles during the pandemic and impact. While Ben Paljor Chatag finds photos of his grandfather and their friends who sought to transform themselves and the world more relevant in the increasingly polarized world, Lekey Leidecker and PC try to make sense of displacement in “Weaving the Invisible” through a collaborative creative response to random visuals shared among friends and on Instagram. The visuals trigger in them a range of emotions and thoughts including that of appropriation, belonging, survival, art, and writing.
Echoes of the poetry embedded in the art and article sections, the concrete poetry of Chögyam Trungpa and the poetic collaborative response to art visuals by Leidecker and PC, resonate also in this year’s poetry section. Woeser’s poem, “The Old Key is My Talisman…” talks about an ancient and mysterious key that guards the gates of Shambhala, the Tibetan Utopia or Shangri-La, a key that in spite of its glorious past has now seen its powers eroded and its followers “sunk into the depths.” In Chimay’s “At the Ends of the Twisted Black Steel Ennead” we witness the poet steel herself against “fate’s misunderstanding[s]” as she struggles with solitude, arriving finally upon a dusty, sand-swept desert. In Milarepa’s “Six Illusions, Metaphors of Experience,” translated by Michele Martin, the master probes the mind of his student, “Have you opened the treasury of mind itself, Rechungpa?” When all else fades away, Milarepa resounds, “sublime Dharma comes to mind.” “Self-portrait” and “Portrait” by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa effortlessly carry us from Boudha to Europe and from the author’s childhood to the present day. Oscillating between memory and musing, these poems gently touch upon the shared beliefs and experiences of Tibetans in the diaspora. A blank space may divide or unite Khando Langri’s “Pola, in his later years” and “Mola, in her early years,” which the poet ingeniously leaves open for the reader to decide. Both columns act as a window into their cherished objects and actions, rendering a rough sketch of their lives. Activating space once more, “Medicine mantra for the road” establishes om as the universal tone, and introduces pain, dust, and the “frayed edges of place” before the poem unravels. Spiritual and secular life blend together in Nakdo’s poems of meditative concentration and dreadlocks. The rich imagery of menacing vultures precedes the calm of awareness turned into emptiness, “like water and rain.” A photograph of the poet’s hair accompanies his poem, “I’ll Adorn My Dreadlocks with Turquoise” wherein he avows that he is just a “regular guy” whose dreadlocks don’t symbolize anything at all. Yet later reveals that they are one with the elements and “bound to every passion of humankind.” It is with deep sadness that we share Chan Bhang’s poem, “Death” posthumously. A ruptured ship that has capsized rouses exclamations of woe from the passengers who cannot seem to move forward. Yet, searching through the darkness, they spot hope in the distance, shouting: look! Is that boat over there not yellow? The poem “Blue Mask” by Droklou Dröldo places us within “the crowding of disputes and masks” as it observes the movements of people afraid and bewildered by the viral epidemic.
While in Droklou Dröldo’s relatable poem we feel the uneasiness of an environment filled with unfamiliar people during the pandemic, in Lobsang Gyatso’s short story “Backyard Rocker” the same people are seen desperate to break their long lockdowns and choose to party instead of getting their concert tickets refunded. The Tibetan protagonist in Virginia is unwilling to talk over the phone but ends up singing in lieu of his friend Mick and breaks free into a song about his homeland- “Phayul Ki Tsa Ngonpo Ngonpo.” In Dawa Tsering’s story set in Dharamshala, the cultural capital of Tibetans in diaspora, Gen Tashi who worked as former Special Frontier Force personnel laments a Tibetan civil servant’s utopian ideas of the Middle Path and the dwindling presence of Tibetans in a candlelight vigil, for “who loves the cold and dreaded winter” of Tibet! Navigating through the complexity of busy and workaholic life, the unnamed protagonist in Lhashamgyal’s story, translated by Rongwo Lugyal, makes us realize how a mindful observation of an ordinary morning can bring unprecedented beauty and joy.
This issue of Yeshe also carries a brief prose piece by Lhashamgyal—“My Son and the Sunshine in Shigatse.” Lhashamgyal offers a poignant and poetic commentary on family, place, Tibetan language, and belonging as he travels from Beijing to visit his son in Shigatse. Jamyang Tenzin’s “It Doesn’t Dissipate It Transforms” is an experimental and thoughtful essay in which he recounts a relationship, a breakup, and a recentering of the self through a combination of raw immediacy and experimental narrative shifts. In “Three Photographs and the Days of My Youth,” the celebrated author and filmmaker Pema Tseden gives readers a glimpse into his past as he casts his eye back on three photographs from his younger days.
While Tenzing Rigdol’s ‘Alone, Exhausted and Asleep’ evokes a sense of vulnerability and helplessness, also present in some of the poems dealing with exile and with the isolation caused by two years of pandemic, Leidecker and PC’s collaborative piece end with an exhortation to survive, in spite of all odds: “You are something bigger than yourself everyday so I’m begging you – stay alive […] It is perfect to just keep living.”
Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani and Shelly Bhoil
© 2021 Yeshe | A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities