Photo: Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser (left) and translator Ian Boyden
For the last thirty years, the Tibetan writer and humanist Tsering Woeser has documented the relentless colonization and destruction of her homeland and its culture by the Chinese. She bears witness to this unfolding tragedy through essays, blogs, poems, social media posts, and photographs. Her documentation of events and her outspoken positions have put her in direct opposition to the Chinese government, thus placing her in a position of extreme danger. Despite years of intimidation, Woeser has continued to write, and today, not only is she the most prominent public intellectual in China discussing Tibet, she is one of the most followed and respected Tibetan voices in the world. While her essays and blog posts have been widely translated into English, her poems have received far less attention. Part of my ongoing project of translating her poems of the last decade is to also understand who Woeser is as a poet and to begin to understand what impels her to poetry. This is one of the first conversations with Woeser, and certainly the most in-depth, about a single poem to have appeared in English. This conversation unfolded over roughly six weeks while I translated the poem “Absent, or Not Absent,” which she wrote in the summer of 2017 for the Dalai Lama on the occasion of his eighty-second birthday.
As a Tibetan born at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Woeser has experienced the full brunt of Chinese imperialism. Her poems of the last decade are driven by an intense sense of urgency, outrage, and grief. Woeser, a devout Buddhist and follower of the Dalai Lama, reveals that her internal world is occupied with aspects of religious experience that not only go to the very core of her identity as a Tibetan but also to a set of spiritual practices by which she understands and knows her own changing self. When one’s country is invaded, the entire fabric of reality is disrupted, and this includes aspects of the internal self. The very act of naming things which are missing becomes an act of resistance, rebellion, and subversion. The Dalai Lama’s physical absence from Tibet is not only symbolic or political, it is also a psychological and spiritual violence of untold proportions because it has affected the hearts of every Tibetan. This poem, “Absent, or Not Absent,” meditates on the resilience of the self as a form of defiance in the face of this scale of violence experienced by Tibetans.
One characteristic of Woeser’s poetry that deserves attention is the way she engages and employs symbols. Woeser has a remarkable eye for details in her environment that have the capacity to invoke larger cultural, social, religious, and/or political realities. She makes these details the overt subjects of her poems, and as she discusses their place in Tibetan culture, she simultaneously documents their transformations, often their deterioration, destruction, and subversion by an alien culture. As the poignancy grows, these singular details begin to serve as focal points for alluding to more pervasive changes in her world. For instance, in the first section of “Absent, or Not Absent,” we are presented with a dharma throne, which is the name given to a seat where lamas sit to lecture on Buddhist teaching. We then learn this particular dharma throne was made specifically for the Dalai Lama, and that it was once covered each day with flowers offered by his followers. We then learn that this seat stood empty when the Dalai Lama was forced into exile, and what’s more, that it was destroyed by the Chinese about a decade after they invaded and began to actively colonize Tibet. Where it used to exist, the Chinese erected a monument to the communist “liberation” of Lhasa. Thus, the dharma throne becomes a microcosm of sorts—what happens to this throne in the poem becomes a way of commenting on what has happened to Tibet, the Tibetan people, and their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, as well as the practice of Tibetan Buddhism under the forces of Chinese imperialism, and the ubiquitous devastation wrought by Chinese colonialism. There are elements of our physical world which serve as direct reminders of what is missing. This poem is a meditation on a set of elements that speak to absence.
Woeser’s poems, perhaps difficult for readers unfamiliar with contemporary Tibet, are well worth the effort. At a time when Tibet is largely ignored by the international community, Woeser vividly conveys what it is like to experience the destruction of her culture, whose breakage and erasure is devised specifically to be revised and replaced by the occupiers. Woeser’s poems are not abstract meditations: they are of this world, which is our shared world. The violence she documents is real violence. The grief and heartache are real grief and real heartache. Her words are a call to conscience.
—Ian Boyden, May 8, 2019
Ian: I’ve wanted to translate this poem for a while, but have been feeling a little intimidated by its complexity and length. Let’s start with the title “Empty, or Not Empty.”* I immediately think of a Buddhist Hamlet’s variation on: “To be, or not to be?” And if I replace Denmark with Tibet as the background, the effect is remarkable. I see you, maybe your entire generation, maybe the Dalai Lama himself as Hamlet. Hamlet’s future, his love, all facets of his life have all been stolen by the treachery of King Claudius. The treachery of China. The parallels are startling.
Woeser: Empty, or not empty. To be, or not to be. I feel that in my life, and the lives of many Tibetans like me (and I am afraid it is not only Tibetans), we all face this question, this terrible dilemma. Of course, if you apply the principles of the Dharma, emptiness is superficial, and non-emptiness is profound. And then if you think about it more deeply, non-emptiness is superficial, and emptiness is profound. But this way of thinking is very esoteric, and it is only suitable for those who have made great achievements through meditation.
Ian: So, the “Empty” of this title does not refer to the Buddhist concept of śūnyatā?
Woeser: No. I am not referring to śūnyatā; I am talking about a specific set of elements of this world being empty, or not empty, or something being absent, or not absent. For people like me who choose to live in this world, we are more concerned with those aspects of reality and history which are absent, or not absent, whether something exists or does not exist. To be, or not to be? Hamlet can certainly be read as a metaphor for Tibet. But I think The Tempest also provides a fitting metaphor.
The Dalai Lama's dharma-throne—the Potala Palace. The photographer and date of this photograph are unknown. It was likely taken sometime between 1900–1940. Part of the Shuktilingka can be seen in the lower righthand corner of the photograph, and the throne itself used to sit in this park more or less directly in front of the Potala Palace. Photo courtesy of Woeser.
Ian: With that let’s turn to the first section of the poem, “The Empty Dharma Throne: Shukti.” What is a dharma throne? What is the significance of this particular one?
Woeser: A dharma throne is a seat where lamas sit to teach the Dharma. These thrones are found in many monasteries all over Tibet. Sometimes they are located outside the monastery like this one. In the case of this poem, the throne was not ornate like the gold throne of the Norbulinka. As far as I know, this one was made of simple stone. Dharma thrones are very important objects. And, the throne in the Shuktilingka would have been one of the most important of all because it was the dharma throne of the Dalai Lama, a figure who unifies the political and the religious. After the exile of His Holiness, it became an “empty dharma throne.”
Ian: Do you have a photograph of the stone dharma throne that used to sit in the Shuktilingka before it was destroyed?
Woeser: I have looked for a photo for years but without luck. It may be that such a photo does not exist. I have photographs of the dharma throne in the Norbulingka and the dharmathrone in the Potala Palace, but not a single photograph of this throne.
Ian: Is your description of this dharma throne based on historical writings, or was this knowledge transmitted to you by word of mouth?
Woeser: My description is based on descriptions that older people, who saw the throne when they were young, have related to me.
Ian: When was this one built?
Woeser: No one knows when this dharma throne was established. The word lingka in Shuktilingka means a forested park. If you look at old photos, you will see that the Potala Palace was surrounded by a natural environment of open meadows, ponds, and trees. The reason the section of forest in front of the Potala Palace was called the Shuktilingka was because it held the dharma throne, which in Tibetan is called shukti. So this park was named after the throne. My suspicion is that it was established during the time of the fifth Dalai Lama (Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, 1617–82). He brought together both religious and political authority to establish the Tibetan government known as the Ganden Phodrang (in 1642). And he was the first Dalai Lama to start living in the Potala Palace. So, I think that the shukti (dharma throne) of the Shuktilingka may have been built in the mid-seventeenth century. But this is only my guess.
Ian: I often wonder how we can forget about monumental things like this dharma throne, or even an entire civilization. This happens again and again throughout history. A poem like this that remembers something which has disappeared becomes very special because it holds memory in a way that is not easily erased. It resists this form of monumental forgetting.
Woeser: This is the case with this throne, its existence has been largely forgotten. The person who first showed me the exact site where the dharma throne stood was a man who lives in Lhasa. He was born in the mid-1940s and knew about how the throne and the entire Shuktilingka were “disappeared” by the “liberators” after His Holiness left Lhasa. He and I went to the square. There were tourists standing around, and the army was there holding the Chinese flag and carrying guns. He brought me to the exact position where the throne had been. And he could not help crying, he covered his eyes with his hands.
Ian: Did he tell you what year it was destroyed?
Woeser: The Shuktilingka was destroyed in 1965. In the blink of an eye, the park and its wetlands were drained and filled, then covered with concrete to become what was then known as the People’s Cultural Palace Square (人民文化宫广场). This square was subsequently renovated in 1999 and renamed as Potala Square. In 2002, it became the site of the Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, a 120-foot-high structure commemorating the PLA liberation of Tibet in 1951. And in 2005, it was once again renovated to its current state.
Ian: I am interested in the poem’s detailing of the grass and flowers growing from the throne. Do you think these were wild plants, or would they have been intentionally planted in the cracks between the stones?
Woeser: Based on other stone dharma thrones I have seen in other monasteries, I think it was likely naturally growing grass. In the old photos there was grass growing all around the Potala Palace. The area where the dharma throne used to be is all paved over now, but the meadow of the Dzongyab Lukhang behind the Potala Palace is still there and it is full of dandelions and the like. My guess is what is there today is similar to the meadow that used to be in front of the palace. But it is not like the throne itself was covered in grass. The other stone dharma thrones have grass growing around the base and in some of the cracks between stones. But not on the top of the seat itself.
Ian: In your vision of this throne, the grass growing from the empty throne seems to carry a hidden meaning, perhaps some statement regarding the human condition, how the heart responds to absence. I’m thinking of Whitman’s first poem in Song of Myself, when he writes, “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air.” Throughout that book the grass symbolizes hope; there is a democratic aspect to grass with each blade a symbol of the individual within the larger whole. I think Whitman saw something akin to reincarnation in the grass, the grass growing on the grave, its roots turning the remains of the dead back into life again.
Woeser: I should reread Whitman. That verse is so beautiful, visionary. But the actual reality is so grim—I’m talking about the reality of the grass that grew from the empty dharma throne of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In fact, this dharma throne no longer exists. The grass that grew there was pulled out, any grass that remained was sealed under concrete and stone tiles. This is the character of the modern Chinese imperial seal. Any surviving grass was smothered to death underneath it all. The intruders changed the geography. This is the most common thing imperialists do—they first target the geography. They spare no effort in destroying and changing the original geography. The grass has all disappeared. If one or two blades were to escape and begin to grow up through a crack in the cement, they will soon be trampled to death by the imperialists.
The reality is too cruel.
Ian: The act of vanquishing a culture often involves colonizers sterilizing the environment. So much of human history is a history of scorched earth. In the United States, those who colonized this continent slaughtered bison en masse, cut down most of the ancient forests . . . . Genocide is accompanied by a parallel ecocide.
And in this context of ecocide, you open the second section of the poem, “The Empty Room,” by honoring the photograph you have of the Dalai Lama with bouquets of flowers.
Woeser: Before we talk of flowers and photographs, let me tell you about another dharma throne that has its roots in resistance. There is a dharma throne in the Norbulinka that is known as the Golden Dharma Throne, and it is made of gold. But the fact of it being made out of gold is not what is remarkable here. Instead, its birth was a form of rallying cry. In 1957, the Chushi Gangdruk, an important Tibetan resistance force against the Chinese Communists, issued a call to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s twenty-third birthday. They asked the Tibetan people to make offerings of gold and other precious gems so that they could build a golden dharma throne. The dharma throne was completed in less than a month, and it symbolizes the unity and piety of the Tibetan people.
I think you can say the flowers I offer to the photograph of His Holiness are a symbol of resistance. They are also a symbol of piety. They also symbolize beauty and nature.
Ian: Having a photograph of the Dalai Lama is prohibited. When was this ban first put in place?
Woeser: The photograph of His Holiness has been banned at various points after his exile in 1959. There were not many photographs at that time. But by the Cultural Revolution his photograph was completely banned. But after the Cultural Revolution up until 1995, it became OK to have a shrine with a photograph of His Holiness. In 1995, because of the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the Chinese Communist Party once again banned photographs of His Holiness, a ban that continues to this day.
Ian: Has making it illegal to display or worship this photo changed your relationship to the photo?
Woeser: Yes. For me the photograph of His Holiness now has two meanings: one, it is an expression of my faith and belief in His Holiness; two, it has become an expression of resistance, resistance to violent power.
Detail of the dharma throne in the Gzim Chung, with Kashag banknotes left as an offering and as a symbol of Tibetan autonomy. Photograph by Woeser.
Ian: It is noteworthy how powerful things can become when they are outlawed. The greater the restrictions placed on something, the more powerful it becomes. Now that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not present to sit on these dharma thrones, the places where he used to sit and teach the dharma have a new form of power. Now that his photograph is banned, it too has taken on a new form of power. It is as if this state of absence makes the dharma more powerful. How would you describe the power of absence?
Woeser: Materialists are obsessed with everything in this life. They are obsessed with objects, they believe everything before their eyes is real. And when they are in power, when they have weapons, money, and technology, they believe they themselves are invincible. They like to say, “The people will prevail,” but what they are really saying is that they themselves will prevail. Therefore, they prohibit the dharma character of His Holiness from being shown in broad daylight, they prohibit the photographs of His Holiness from being shown in Buddhist temples and on the altars of his believers, they destroy or conceal the dharma thrones that belong to His Holiness. They believe that by doing this, they will make His Holiness disappear from Tibet. This is the arrogance of materialists in power. This is the arrogance of colonists.
However, the opposite is true. As you said, the more something is prohibited, the stronger it becomes. I wrote of a similar phenomenon regarding the Potala Palace in another poem:
Although it has been vacant for fifty-nine years,
It is still the body of the dharmakāya, the body of reality itself.
The bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara will come to fulfill our wishes,
My Sage will arrive as scheduled.
But you also said that the photograph “has taken on a new form of power.” I am not sure I understand that, I don’t know what a new form of power might be. I think it is really a form of existence, similar to the existence of the dharmakāya, it is spiritual, religious, and eternal. Because his photograph is forbidden, His Holiness is held in the mind and remembered more deeply.
Ian: At the end of “The Empty Room” you describe a sandalwood bench in an unnamed monastery on which there is a photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama . . .
Woeser: In recent years, in many places across Tibet, people print out life-sized photographs of the sage and place these images sitting on a dharma throne, on an altar, or even a regular bench like the one in this poem. They do this especially during the Kalachakra ceremony or on the birthday of His Holiness. It is an expression of how much they miss His Holiness, and it is also signifies that, even though the throne is empty, His Holiness is present.
Ian: This brings us to the third section of the poem, “The Empty City: Lhasa,” and your amazing description of your experience meditating at Lhamo Latso and receiving a vision of Avalokiteśvara. This bodhisattva, the most beloved of all bodhisattvas, has an extraordinary name. In Chinese, Avalokiteśvara is considered female and goes by the names Guanyin (觀音), Guanshiyin (觀世音), and Guanzizai (觀自在), meaning “Perceiver of Sounds,” “Perceiver of World Sound,” and “Perceiver of Self-existence” respectively. All three of these names embody the fundamental Buddhist orientation toward compassion for suffering: and one can easily expand the name to "One Who Perceives with Compassion the Suffering of Self-existence." In Tibetan, Avalokiteśvara is male and his name is Chenrézik. What is the meaning of this name in Tibetan?
Woeser: Karmapa discussed the meaning of this name in a lecture he gave at Bodhgaya several years ago:
The Tibetan name Chenrézik means "to use your eyes to perceive." What are the eyes referring to? They refer to compassion; compassion is like an eye. Who is the object of this perception? This would be all beings who wish to escape suffering and live in happiness. What is the method of observation? To perceive using the vast compassion of a bodhisattva. So, the full meaning of Chenrézik is "to perceive all sentient beings consistently with a compassionate eye." Therefore, this name should be interpreted as a form of ethical and moral character, and not as a signifier of a specific person.
Ian: Do you feel the ethical and moral character embodied by Chenrézik is your fate or destiny?
Woeser: My understanding of Chenrézik is quite simple and unadorned. It is based on traditional Tibetan Buddhist beliefs, and based on my traditional Tibetan cultural heritage. In Tibetan culture, Chenrézik has a long history flowing out from the distant past, and is related to the origins of the Tibetan people. In one of his incarnations, he came to Tibet as a monkey named Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa, and out of compassion and mercy, he married an ogress, and they gave birth to the first Tibetans. King Songtsen Gampo, who is said to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet, is considered an incarnation of Chenrézik. And each member of the lineage of the Dalai Lama is also regarded as an incarnation of Chenrézik.
Ian: The late American poet Sam Hamill regarded Guanyin as a revolutionary, saying that she showed us a way of nonviolent resistance. It seems that poets, who hold the ethical and moral character of Guanyin in their hearts, resist using words.
Woeser: I think Sam’s view of Guanyin as a revolutionary providing a way of nonviolent resistance is very accurate. It is also a precise form of awakening that occurs when someone born outside of Buddhism becomes inclined toward Guanyin. There is a form of distance there, something similar to that of a bystander. When I think of Guanyin, or Chenrézik, it is as if I am thinking of a loved one, a loved one whose favor and blessing is also a long and precious inheritance. This is how it feels to me.
Lhamo Latso is a sacred lake. It sits in a U-shaped valley, like the crown of a buddha. It is the soul lake of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When Wang Lixiong and I went there, we were all alone. We did not sit close to the lake. We were sitting on the slope overlooking the lake, a slope covered with stones and prayer flags.
Ian: In the photo you sent to me, you can see the valley was carved by a glacier. A glacier sat there for thousands of years, carving and compressing the earth. The lake, a mirror of blue sky amid all those jagged mountains, is a response to all of that pressure, maybe it’s even a reincarnation of that glacier. Now, I suddenly feel like this slope where you were sitting is a form of dharma throne. Maybe each stone can be understood as holding the potential of a dharma throne—even the stones the red-billed choughs were standing on.
Woeser: I don’t think the stones I sat on at the lake were a dharma throne. A dharma throne is sacred. I am vulgar, mortal, not qualified to sit on such a throne. I am traditional in this regard, and this tradition needs to be respected. This so-called dharma throne has spiritual and sacred meaning.
Red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax phrrhocorax). Photograph by Israel Didham.
Ian: I am interested in the birds that took part in this vision. The red-billed chough is a corvid, related to crows and ravens and jackdaws, that has captured the human imagination across its range. Its Latin name literally means “Fire Raven” in part because its beak is red, but also because it is known to steal burning materials like lit candles. In ancient Greece it was the sacred bird of Chronos, the embodiment of time. You state in your poem that in Tibet, they are emissaries of the dharmapalas, the guardians of Buddhist doctrine. Does this bird’s name have any special meaning in Tibetan?
Woeser: I still don’t know what the meaning of skyung ka is in Tibetan, however, it must be interesting. The Tibetan name may be like a key to unlock a hidden meaning, something related to a terma.
Ian: I hope we can discover this meaning. What if its meaning is the very sound of its own voice? Birds play such important role in our visions of the future. When these two red-billed choughs landed next to you, what did it mean to you?
Woeser: For me, understanding this vision has been a long and tortuous process. Why did I hear this single sentence, “The skyung ka is an emissary of the srung ma, not a bad omen.” This has profound meaning. This is because in Chinese culture, crows and ravens are associated with times of disaster, and their appearance is considered unlucky and a bad omen. As a person who has been brainwashed by Chinese culture, I have not liked crows and ravens for a long time, and have considered them unlucky birds. However, in Tibetan culture, corvids are not inauspicious birds, on the contrary, they are propitious birds who are said to bring auspicious omens. The red-billed chough is considered to be an emissary of the dharmapālas, the appearance of a red-billed chough is unusual and has a prophetic auspiciousness.
Ian: Wait. Buddhist vocabulary is so complex, and I am trying to track these terms across Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, and English. I just realized that Palden Lhamo, who is said to reside in Lhamo Latso, must be a dharmapāla. Is this correct? And if so, then these two choughs are her emissaries?
Woeser: Yes. Palden Lhamo is a mighty dharmapāla. And it is said that the chough is one of her emissaries. In the world of dharmapālas, these birds are minor dharmapālas. We are at Lhamo Latso, the lake of visions of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, observing a prophetic vision of the future. At the very moment that I saw the image of Chenrézik in the form of His Holiness rise from the middle of the lake, these two red-billed choughs flew to me. Of course, I realized this was unusual, and so I was very excited. After I returned to Lhasa, I consulted my Lama, Khenpo Rinpoche, who appears earlier in the poem, and he concurred, repeating what I had heard in my vision, “The skyung ka is a messenger of the srung ma, not a bad omen.”
Woeser standing on the slope overlooking the sacred lake Lhamo Latso. Photograph by Wang Lixiong.
Ian: I want to return to where we started. This poem meditates on the presence of the absence of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. And part of my mind keeps turning back to śūnyatā, the most fundamental concept of Buddhist philosophy. The title of the poem could be read “Śūnyatā, or Not Śūnyatā,” though I recognize you have stated emphatically that it is not to be read that way. Still, I have been wondering what the opposite of śūnyatā might be? Can it have an opposite? I wonder if Avalokiteśvara’s name might hold the answer. What if the opposite, or complement, might be “self-existence,” the zizai of Guanzizai.
Woeser: So-called śūnyatā in Buddhist philosophy refers to ultimate truth. The secular word “empty” has relative meaning, it is relative to “not empty,” and it describes things of this world. The secular world is a relative world, based entirely on matter. One equals one, two equals two. For instance, if a person’s body is here, then it is not empty (absent). And if a person’s body is not here, then it is empty (absent). The śūnyatā of Buddhist philosophy is pure emptiness, it is the essence of the Dharma. I don’t know if it has an opposite. Buddha nature or the fundamental nature of your own heart should be empty. Self-existence is a condition. Is there an opposite to śūnyatā? If there is an opposite, it would have to be the dharmakāya, the body of the dharma.
Ian: So magnificent. I suddenly see the sky-blue mirror of Lhamo Latso as a symbol of the dharmakāya and His Holiness emerging out of it as if coming out of cosmic dissolution. But he did not do this on his own. You and the vision are interdependent. This poem and the reader are interdependent. The throne is inseparable from the Dharma. We all form a matrix. I appreciate your distinction that self-existence is a condition. What we chose to do with this condition is who we are. I think one invitation of Chenrézik’s name is a question: how can you turn your heart into a dharma throne?
Woeser: I like this question: How to turn your heart into a throne? Who will come and sit in the heart-throne? I will think of my heart as an empty throne.
*The title of this poem presents an impossible challenge. In Chinese, the character 空 (pronounced kōng or kòng) has a multitude of meanings, including empty, absent, space, free time, sky, air. It is also the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word śūnyatā, one of the foundational concepts of Buddhism. When I first translated this poem, I chose to translate it as “empty” so as keep the resonance with śūnyatā,which is often translated as ‘emptiness,’ as well as to maintain the parity with the three section titles. This is why I refer to the poem by the title “Empty or Not Empty.” However, as I talked with Woeser, I began to understand that the primary meaning was absent, specifically the absence of the Dalai Lama from Tibet.↩