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In a tribute to Pema Tseden, ‘Quietly Through a Tibetan Lens,’ filmmaker Tenzing Sonam throws light on his late colleague’s key skill that has baffled scholars and viewers alike—how Pema Tseden managed to navigate the “formidable bureaucratic challenges” faced by artists in Tibet without “compromising his artistic vision and creative integrity,” thereby successfully establishing the Tibetan cinema “in its natural habitat, rooted in the land and reflecting its historic continuum.” The untimely demise of Pema Tseden, who was also Yeshe’s advisory board member, is a personal and irreparable loss for us. We continue to be inspired by him as we bring the third annual issue of Yeshe: A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities.
The cover image of this issue from Losel Yauch’s Art Installation ‘Wind Horse,’ the most prevalent symbol on Tibetan prayer flags, is a reminder of Tibet’s ancient traditions and their continued relevance in the present. Made with willow branches and tapestry, the sculpture of the life-size body of the horse, in the words of Angelica Jopling, is Losel Yauch’s attempt to “recollect and reconstruct fragments of Tibetan culture that have been lost through systematic erasure.” In a similar spirit of retrieval, Kunsang Kyirong brings to us in her photo essay some of the earliest photos taken in Tibet that were kept in boxes “set aside to be thrown out by a college many years ago.” The neglected photos from Charles Bell’s Collection—from that of banal objects of household cooking supply in a kitchen to the photo of Dorje Pamo, the third highest ranking figure in the Gelug hierarchy—not only provide insights into Bell’s ethic principles as an ethnographer in Tibet and the issue of the photos’ ownership but also nuances of Tibetan society in the early twentieth century.
Going back to Tibetan history in the fourteenth century, we read for the first time in English Lama Dampa Sönam Gyeltsen’s open letter promoting vegetarianism, an invaluable resource to the scholars invested in Buddhist ideas about animal ethics and vegetarianism, in David Wojahn’s article with the letter’s translation and analysis. Isabelle Henrion’s article makes a pertinent observation and analysis regarding the exile Tibetans’ lack of engagement with the concept of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in the light of traditions of Tibetan performing arts that have been inscribed on UNESCO’s representative list of mankind’s ICH. Henrion opines that the implicit understanding of culture in UNESCO’s framework of ICH that “may feel remote to Tibetans as they relate to their own notion of ‘culture’ (rigne)” is one of the reasons for ICH’s remaining a “conceptual blind spot for Tibetans.” With the inclusion of Padma Rigzin’s article, which traces and analyzes the socio-economic changes in Ladakh and Ladakh’s various imaginaries to locate the broader context of the changing human and snow-leopard relationship, Yeshe has extended its scope to cover content pertaining to the Trans-Himalayan regions which are culturally Tibetan. We hope to receive more submissions by Tibetans from the Himalayan regions in our future issues.
Conferences in Tibet Studies have always played a conspicuous role in encouraging research and expanding the field. Two of the articles in this issue of Yeshe have directly resulted from scholars’ participation in a series of workshops on Tibetan women’s writings held in universities across the US and INALCO, Paris in the last year. Holly Gayley’s article “Intergenerational Trauma and The Oracular Voice in Tsering Yangzom Lama’s Debut Novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies” studies the author’s stance of “highlighting female religious authority in Tibet and centering Tibetan women’s experiences in exile” and complements it to “Dawa Lokyitsang’s ethnographic research on the contributions of women leaders to reconstituting Tibetan communities in exile.” Gayley’s article, alongside the interview of Tsering Yangzom Lama and Dawa Lokyitsang also published in this issue, places the two within the anti-colonial, postcolonial, and decolonial praxis. Erin Burke’s research paper on Tsering Yangkyi’s Flowers and Dreams (Metok dang Milam), a dark novel about four women who work as hostesses at a night club, examines the novel’s engagement with Buddhist concepts of selfhood and cyclic existence through the depiction of the difficult lives of women characters who, on the one hand, nominally “cite karmic causation for their troubles and reflect on their black and white deed” and, on the other hand, “consumed by the immediate demands of their daily lives . . . show no explicit signs of concern for religious commitment.”
Our review section introduces new books in the fields of Tibetan history, anthropology, and literature. Yewong Tenzin Dongchung commends Lan Wu’s Common Ground: Tibetan Buddhist Expansion and Qing China’s Inner Asia for its “impressive use of multi-lingual research” and highlights the book’s focus on “a new narrative on making a Buddhist space in Inner Asia . . . between the two governing centers. . . engendered by the production of a Tibetan Buddhist knowledge network.” Dismantling the perception of Tibet as “just a Sanskrit text repository,” Dan Martin’s recent book A History of Buddhism in India and Tibet: An Expanded Version of the Dharma’s Origins Made by the Learned Scholar Deyu, “represents a Tibetan witness for this history that foregrounds the distinctive perspectives of Tibetan historians and does so at a time when such presentations had not yet been standardized”—this according to the reviewer Michael Ium is this book’s particular value. An equally necessary work is Heidi Fjeld’s The Return of Polyandry: Kinship and Marriage in Central Tibet reviewed by Santiago Lazcano. Lazcano throws light on Fjeld’s analytical approach inspired by Lévi-Strauss’s concept of the house as a ‘moral person’ and shows the potential of seeing “Tibet as a ‘society of houses’ as a means to overcome the contradictions between the theoretically prevailing patrilineal ideology there and actual practice.” Also foregrounding Tibetan perspectives is Tsering Woeser’s new collection of poems Animaqing, Animaqing (Amnye Machen, Amnye Machen) reviewed by Kamila Hladíková for its leitmotif introduced in the foreword: “Domesticable animals are all alike [but] every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.” Hladíková reviews the poems for “circling around the question of whether Tibetans may be of the ‘undomesticable’ kind, resisting to be fully ‘domesticated’ for more than seven decades” and how Sinophone Tibetan author “tends to pay attention to decolonization of her language, using Tibetan terms and expressions wherever the concept requires it.” Also rejecting “the essentialization of the Tibetan experience into one coherent, digestible mass” is the essential Tibetan Reader Under the Blue Skies edited by Bhuchung D Sonam and reviewed by Jigme Wangchuk.
The plurality of Tibetan experiences is also evident in the aforementioned interview of Tsering Yangzom Lama and Dawa Lokyitsang by Holly Gayley as well as of the Tibetan filmmaker and documentarian Geleck Palsang. Geleck Palsang, known for The Buxa Lama and Fathima the Oracle, speaks to Tenzin Dickie about his influences, challenges, the responsibility of answering questions about Tibet and also about the strong bond and support among the small Tibetan film community. Patrick Dowd’s conversation with Lopön Pema Dorjé underscores the importance and practice of lung (the oral transmission of written Buddhist scriptures) vis-à-vis its verbal, written and digital mediations, and sums up with the emphasis on the “continuum of the sound (sgra‘i brgyud pa) …. imbued with all the aspirations, all the bodhicitta, all the energy and power of both the composer of the text, and all those who received the continuum of the text.”
Let us now turn to the creative-writing sections of the journal, which are the ‘exclusive spaces’ for Tibetan writers, facilitated by translators and editors.
Translated by Tsering Samdrup in English for Yeshe, ‘The Dream’ is a highly imaginative and linguistically intricate comedic performance from Amdo’s premier comedian Menlakyap (སྨན་བླ་སྐྱབས།). This is the second of Menlakyap’s comedies to be published in English translation, and an excellent example of the genre for the way it engages with questions of Tibetan history, language, tradition, and modernity in the context of State-sponsored media performance in the PRC.
The prose section, other than a tribute to Pema Tseden (our key piece in this issue of Yeshe), also includes Miranda Smith’s translation of excerpts from the first chapter of Kelsang Lhamo’s autobiographical book Dreaming at the Sage’s Abode: Biographical Sketches of Four Living Tibetan Nuns (written in a combination of poetry and prose). A translation of Go Sherab Gyamtso’s ‘The Final Photo of Gendun Chophel’ speaks volumes about the late monk-wanderer’s place in the hearts of Tibetans more than half a century after his death.
The modern poets in this issue of Yeshe demonstrate a comfortable embrace between tradition and modernity in terms of the languages, style, imagery, and settings of their poems. Sample, for instance, the religious and romantic sentiments in the line, “love is the sharp intensity of suffering/ Such lack of karmic fulfilment is our karmic fortune” in Kelsang Lhamo’s Tibetan poem, ‘To My Departed Beloved.’ Kalden Rangdröl Dhatsenpa’s poem ‘Bandit Enlightenment, or the Real Shangri-la’— “stand your ground/ take in the view/ if the void stares/ then so must you/ remember/ desire is suffering/ but hunger is/ deathly/ too!”— juxtaposes religious philosophy and realism without suggesting the negation of either of the two. Kalden Rangdröl Dhatsenpa also enriches the English language by seamlessly bringing to it Tibetan exclamatory words such as ‘e-ma-ho’, ‘Ki’, and ‘kikisoso lha gyalo’ in his poetry. From Trinley Kunkyab’s Tibetan-language poems, which take old-age Buddhist wisdom of samsara and dharmata to modern settings of bookshops and cafeterias, one can extract wisdom quotes: “Thoughts are the energy of awareness/ Freed from the efforts of acceptance and rejection/ in the expanse of the ultimate truth, they are one.”
Khenpo Konchok Molam’s poem ‘Characteristics of HH Drikung Kyabgon’ is an example of Tibetan encomium, written using traditional imagery, to his exemplary teacher who is supreme among those “who have never forsaken their bodhicitta training even for one moment.” The poem also brings to attention, through the praise of the teacher, the virtuosity of Tibetan scriptures and their practice: “In truth, the Kangyur, Tengyur and scriptural tradition is the real Buddha/ . . ./ You are the real Thonmi Sambhota who corrects contradictory grammatical points.” Alongside contemporary poets, we also have Drogön Chogyal Phagpa, one of the Five Sakya patriarchs and the first ruler of Tibet after the collapse of the Tibetan Empire. His animal poem extolls on the virtues of the Tibetan yak, an icon revered by Tibetans: “The earth is quivered by his striking hooves, / which are like amethyst rock.” It is not uncommon to see yak heads carved with Tibetan paternoster on the mani stones in Tibet.
Thanks to Lama Jabb, Athena Daya, Lhamo Kyab, Chime Lama, and Lowell Cook that English readers can appreciate poetry written in Tibetan language. In fact, Cook must be applauded for the challenging translation of Sangngak Tenzin Rinpoche’s two abecedarian poems from the thirty-lettered Tibetan language into twenty-six lettered English, using his creative intervention while retaining the original content and form. This becomes even more appropriate in case of the acrostic poem ‘The Heart Jewel of the Himalayas,’ for it addresses the very potential and power of Tibetan letters: “the unborn truth of the syllable A/ Take up the practice and cultivate the pith instruction of Atiyoga.”
Also reflecting on Tibetan religion, albeit from different and subjective angles, are the three stories in the fiction section. ‘The Wandering Singer,’ written by Tsering Woeser and translated by Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani, follows the steps of a woman who commits to a life of sacrifice, away from home and loved ones, so as to sing songs for the spiritual benefit of her fellow Tibetans. Written in the early 1990s, well before the banning of Woeser’s Notes on Tibet, ‘The Wandering Singer’ seems to foreshadow Woeser’s own exile from her beloved Lhasa and her unyielding commitment to write in the service of Tibetans. ‘There’s No’ written by Tsering Döndrup and translated by Choegyal Kyab narrates the brief encounter of a writer with a nomadic family and the apparent contradiction between the family’s pride on having gone on three pilgrimages to Lhasa, and the tragedies those trips brought by—poverty and a road accident that ended in the wife’s death and in serious injuries to the daughter. Another story narrated from the point of view of a writer, ‘The Fate of an Unknown Woman’ written by Kunchok Rabten and translated by Stanzin Lhaskyabs, offers an emotional narration about a Tibetan woman, who kidnapped by her Muslim husband and far away from home, still clings to Buddhism and her love for her Tibetan family. Told by an exiled Tibetan to another while traveling in India, the story of this Tibetan woman points to the sometimes difficult relationship between Buddhism and Islam in Tibetan-populated areas.
The diverse topics, themes, and genres of writing in Yeshe’s current issue, curated by our dedicated section editors, asseverates the necessity of this journal, the Journal of Tibetan Literature, Waxing Moon: Journal of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies, and other such Tibet-specific platforms for researchers and Tibetan writers to share their meritorious works, much of which otherwise gets understated trying to fit under thematic labels. As a community of mutual support, we have also been able to provide constructive feedback to each scholar, translator, and Tibetan writer published in this issue through the blind review of their submissions.
Putting together the third annual issue of Yeshe has brought our editorial team joy and meaning, and we hope this sentiment resonates with our reviewers, contributors, and readers, to whom we remain grateful and committed.
Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani and Shelly Bhoil
© 2021 Yeshe | A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities