KATHMANDU, Nepal, 27 February 2017
The world was recently captivated by the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan. Being a fan of Dylan, I too found myself engrossed in this episode, which turned out to be a kinda very entertaining and bizzare “will he or won’t he” suspense thriller.
But behind my mind lurked a bitter feeling that the world has forsaken great Tibetan literature. With the Chinese Government’s destruction of Larung Gar, and its relentless and ferocious drive to stamp out the Tibetan language, now would have been an appropriate time for the Nobel Academy to give cognizance to Tibetan literature, and to attempt to protect it from the insidious machinations of the Chinese. No, it did not happen, and once again I hear Bob Dylan’s paean for the downtrodden in the iconic song ‘Blowing in the Wind’.
Richness of Tibetan literature
However I do not lose heart, but take pride in the fact that Tibetan literature, especially the classics, is rich with an astounding variety of literary creations which could easily eclipse the best of literature in any European language.
Tibetans consider writing literature as an ennobling task, and the introductory paragraph is always a homage. I would also like to follow this tradition and pay my homage and obeisance to the erudite members of the Nobel Committee who are almost but not as wise as my guru the Tibetan literature. There is a pun here, a play of words to put across and explain with clarity in a succinct and humorous manner, matters of serious and complex import.
Tibetans have a knack for puns and such is their ingenuity that they can use puns even in a staid subject like Grammar, and one of which I have utilized above. The popular Dechen Monlam also has a pun in its preface, wherein the great 17th-century Mahasiddha Karma Chagme declares that he has written the monlam with his own hand and is so beneficial that you should copy and keep it, and if not, borrow it. No Western author worth his salt would make such a plea.
One pun which I have not been able to figure out so far is why His Holiness Dudjom Lingpa, the great Dzogchen Master and a visionary accredited with volumes of revelations, should call himself “the lowly Dudjom Dorje”. Puns are used liberally in Tibetan literature and needless to say composing a good pun requires a lot of creativity.
Human emotions form the sine qua non of most Western classics. Great tales of Love create longing and bring tears to the eyes. Love however in Tibetan literature is treated through a different perspective, and without the lust involved. Love is not for a single person, but for all beings, living or non-living, and is known as compassion. Compassion is the sine qua non of all activities of a Tibetan, and even literary compositions are concluded with the author dedicating merits gained from it to others.
Western literary epics unwittingly glorify at length pride, prejudices, anger, violence, greed, etc., by giving extensive descriptions of incidents related to such emotions. Myriads of its readers are thereby influenced to adopt a wrong and harmful approach to life in this Samsara, and ultimately they only drown in its miseries and suffering. Tibetan literature also deals with such human emotions, but with respect and caution. Always the emphasis is on its negative aspects and how to control it so that it does not become a source of your suffering.
Tibetan literary works are also suspense thrillers. Not like the car chase, bank robbery type, but of a different kind. Once trapped in ‘its honey’ you are kept on the edge with terms of endearment maybe lasting a lifetime just wanting to a have a glimpse of its legendary figures like Guru Padmasambhava, Manjusri, Tara, Opame, etc., or of the promised land like Dewachen, Tushita etc. Some like Terton Karma Lingpa having extraordinary capacity of application of mind have been able to cross this barrier. He, in the 14th century CE, revealed the Terma Bardo Thodol, now commonly known as The Tibetan Book of The Dead. Many English versions of this Terma have been published, and all have become international best sellers.
Move out of the straitjacket of European stereotypes
Most Tibetan literature is read aloud, preferably in a group to a specific musical key. Some of the texts need a number of days to complete reading, and some need years of practice to read correctly. The words of the text and the musical accompaniments and keys are believed to have been relayed to the writer from the world beyond. These texts contain literary creations beyond any human imagination, and make you inclined to believe they are the handiwork of divine beings. Chod sessions are especially enthralling. It’s a musical extravaganza and the sound of voices, Damaru, Drilbu, and Kangling transfixes and transports you to a different realm of bliss and gives you a high which is believed to even cure chronic diseases.
Some folks from the West are privy to the charm and wisdom of Tibetan literature, and they are making unstinting efforts to translate many works to European languages. They have my admiration, and I consider them as modern day Manjusris carrying the sword that dispels ignorance and spreads the message of peaceful coexistence and compassion to a larger audience. But those engaged in this noble task are few. I understand thousands of classics remain to be translated.
As Bob Dylan would put it: “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. Tibetans say, the times they are a-degeneratin’, and we do see calamities of all shapes and sizes threatening the very existence of the human species. A quirk of fate, a premature obituary labelling him “merchant of death”, forced Alfred Nobel to realize that he was responsible for one such degeneration with his lifelong and successful involvement in the business of producing and selling armaments. To atone for this sin, he instituted the prestigious Nobel prize with the only precondition that it be given to works that benefit mankind.
To truly do justice to Nobel’s wish and greatness, the eminent jurists of the Nobel Academy have to increase the area of influence of Nobel’s aspirations and move out of the straitjacket of European stereotypes and venture into a linguistic world maybe alien to them. I am certain that they would hit the jackpot in Tibetan literature and find the final resting place for Alfred Nobel and his ideas of being a benefit to mankind.
To end, I would like to revert back to Tibetan literature and adopt the traditional Tibetan style of conclusion of a literary piece by saying “May the virtues accrued from this work benefit all beings”.
About the author
Laden Tshering Samdup is a retired businessman, living in Kathmandu. He has MA (Hons) in economics from Birla Institute of Technology and Science from Pilani, Rajasthan, India. He can be reached c/o Boudha Peace School, Phulbari, Kathmandu, Nepal.
More articles by Laden Tshering Samdup on Tibet Sun.