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Culture, Society

In the Forest of Faded Wisdom: A Book Review

Source: Drugmo Lives

“…When this ink-stained body’s need for food and drink is finished

When this collection of bones- its thread of hope for gain and honor snapped- is scattered,

Then may the forms of these letters, a pile of much learning amassed through hardship,

Reveal the path of vast benefit in the presence of my unseen friends.”

(Poem 43, Lines 17-20)

In the Forest of Faded Wisdom is a complete compilation of Gendun Chopel’s poetry, edited and translated in English by Donald S. Lopez Jr. The original poems in Tibetan are presented alongside their translated versions in English and there is also a section that contains Gendun Chopel’s English compositions. The book is a great resource for those who want to read his work and/or have an interest in Tibetan literature and poetry. It begins with an introduction to Gendun Chopel’s life and works including a description of the types of Tibetan poetry, followed by the presentation of his poems that are divided into six distinct sections- Teachings of a Master without Disciples, Laments of the Unknown Sage, The Ways of the World, Songs of the Tibetan Kings, Precepts on Passion and English Compositions. Often with works like these the magic of poetry remains incomplete when meanings and connotations fade during their transition from one language to another. The devil seems to lie in the nuances of language particularly in poetry where much of the beauty is bound in structure, cultural context and words with their double-entendres. But here the English versions retain a distinct Tibetan characteristic and one is touched by the sensitivity of the translation and the effortless ease with which the author manages to transport you into the complex mind of Gendun Chopel.

As a reader you feel the presence of a highly critical and evolved being whose poetry comes from a deep sense of engagement with both the magnificent and common experiences of ordinary men and women. The poems in their distinct sections (mentioned earlier) are based on a wide range of themes that stretch from religion, technology, culture, scholarship, and history to death and sexuality. Of note are his stern criticisms of monastic scholarship and politics as well as a disdain for illogical beliefs and a candid advocacy for sexual freedom.

In some ways, the book traces Gendun Chopel’s own poetical journey. He begins in the tradition of devotional poetry (the section that may be the most challenging to read for those unfamiliar with Buddhist doctrines), but increasingly incorporates other themes from his journeys and experiences. The following lines from Poem 39 describes his intentions well  -“Not acting as a real cause of heaven or liberation, not serving as a gateway for gathering gold and silver, these points that abide in the in-between, Cast aside by everyone, these I have analyzed in detail” (Poem, 39). Such revelation show his awareness of the gaps in knowledge and the poetry takes a refreshing break from the traditional themes that mostly deal with divine subjects and epiphanies, written in an elevated style. While such devout expressions have their own place, they are seldom within the grasp of one’s everyday experiences.

An interesting part of the book is the final section, which presents the collection of Gendun Choephel’s original English compositions. The style is remarkably in line with classical British poems and for someone who declared that along with Sanskrit he learned “…the useless language of the foreigners” (Poem 64), he seemed to have gotten much enjoyment out of it. For in his English compositions, there is a childish innocence that seems to be at odds with the rest of his Tibetan work. Perhaps it was the strange experience of writing in a new language. Regardless, his English compositions attest to his curiosity and love for new learning. This characteristic also seemed to have pushed him out of an insular world view to recognize other ways of being and seeing. Testimonies to that are his later poems, which expresses a cultural maturity in which he says every society tends to believe in its own superiority but in the end these views are the result of one’s conditioning.

All in all Gendun Chopel’s poetry has a strong individuality and an original voice that separates him from the rest of the poets and writers of his time. His progressive outlook and his engagement in diverse subjects make him every inch the renaissance man of Tibetan literature and arguably the foremost poet of contemporary Tibet. His poetry combines both the omniscient voice of a Buddhist monk and the equally gripping voice of a layman fearless enough to lampoon the ills in his own society. But despite all the cynicism, his poetry shows a deep connection to the land and people of Tibet. The melancholic poems on homeland composed during his years in India will resonate to this day with the voices of Tibetan writers in exile. Kept alive by tales of unconventional behavior and lifestyle, Gendun Chopel continues to fascinate and live in the annals of popular imagination. In this compilation, Donald S. Lopez Jr. brings us closer to a more appreciative understanding of the poet often shrouded behind the cult of his own personality. The freshness of perspective and the depth of his poetry are his contribution to the Tibetan literary world- to read them is to bring us closer to the past and help make sense of the present.


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