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For fifty years, Tibet has been a largely silent world, one where no Tibetan speaks out openly. But in 2003 the Tibetan poet Woeser stepped forward from the shadows with Notes on Tibet, a set of uniquely frank essays on modern life which, though quickly suppressed, were followed by major works of poetry, reportage, history, and cyberjournalism. She found herself compelled to move from Lhasa to Beijing, where, under constant harassment by the authorities, she has continued, as if without fear, to produce work that is honest, lyrical, and daring.

Here are a couple of her poems:

“Remembering a Battered Buddha

Twenty days since I left Lhasa
But still I see that statue of the Buddha with its face bashed in.
It was on a street vendor’s stand in front of the Tromsikhang neighborhood office.
I noticed it from a distance.
I’d gone to Tromsikhang Market to buy droma,
But at the sight a sudden grief assailed me.
I drew closer—couldn’t help it—to this thing so crushed:
It seemed alive, leaning against a shelf in agony,
The face hammered, an arm hacked off, the whole figure chopped off at the waist.
Hurting so bad, leaning against a rack of the goods
That surrounded it: soy sauce, bean jam, salad dressing, and roll after roll of toilet paper,
All introduced into our life long ago from inland China.
Around its neck an ornament, once exquisite, inlaid with colored stones,
And at its chest a wondrous beast with lion head and body of man,
Stacked on a fragmentary chorten.
In what sacred shrine or pious home were these things once venerated?
Hurting so bad and leaning against the rack of merchandise,
It emanated the calm of still waters, but pain stabbed into my marrow:
As I looked on in grief, I sensed a story being played out
That had both a present and a past.
I was moved by the shadowy fate that had brought us together,
As if melted snow from the high peaks had filled my being.
Hugging his knees, the peddler made a pitch:
“Come on, buy it! Don’t the old buddha look grand?”
“When did it get beat up like this?” I asked.
“Cultural Revolution, obviously!” he glanced up, “Had to be the Cultural Revolution.”
“How much?” I wanted to buy it, to take it home,
But this peddler from Jiangxi wouldn’t budge from three thousand.
So with reluctance and regret, and many an afterthought,
I left that broken buddha streaming rays of pain.
I only took some pictures,
So when I miss it I can turn on my computer and have a look.
Friends say it may have been a brand-new buddha, wrecked thus
To fetch a higher price, and the link to the Cultural Revolution was a fiction.
Maybe so; but the hurt remains.
I wrote these lines to try to let it go.

May 14, 2007

“On the Road

On the road with edgy mind,
I’ll flee the chaos of this floating world,
Pick a place to settle,
Find choice words
To tell this passing turn of the Wheel.

On the road one meets by chance
Men and women of immense dignity;
One’s natural pride is humbled.
The ruins that overspread Tibet with shadows dark as night
Have a nobility not found in ordinary men.

Among those encounters:
One dear to me, long−lost,
Brilliant, uncompromising,
I, too, am pure and honest;
Mine, too, a sincere and gentle heart;
I wish as seasons change I could change with them.
No need for gifts to one another;
We are the gifts.

On the road, an elder of my people says:
“Golden flowers bloomed on golden mountain;
While golden flowers bloomed, he did not come;
And when he came, the flowers had died.
Silver flowers bloomed on silver mountain;
While silver flowers bloomed, he did not come;
And when he came, the flowers had died.”

On the road, walking alone.
An old book without a map,
A pen, not much to eat,
Ballads from a foreign land:
These will suffice. On the road,
I see a black horse
Who does not bow his head to graze but shakes his hooves,
Vexed that he can’t run free.
Yet also, deep in meditation caves among the vast mountains,
The hidden forms of men.
What sort of heart will honor and revere them?

On the road, a pious mudra’s not complex,
But it ill suits a tainted brow.
A string of special mantras is not hard,
But they’re jarring, from lips stained with lies.

On the road,
I clutch a flower not of this world,
Hurrying before it dies, searching in all directions,
That I may present it to an old man in a deep red robe.
A wish−fulfilling jewel,
A wisp of a smile:
These bind the generations tight.

May 1995

“The Past

This snow−clad mountain, melting, is not my snow mountain.
My snow mountains are the mountains of the past,
Far at the sky’s edge, holy and pure:
Many a lotus, eight petals opening,
Oh, many a lotus, eight petals opening.

This lotus, withering, cannot be my lotus.
My lotus is the lotus of the past,
Enfolding the snow mountains, lovely,
Many a prayer flag, five colors fluttering,
Oh, many prayer flags, five colors fluttering.

The past, the past… such a past!
A host of divinities sheltered our homeland
As a lama keeps watch over souls,
As a mastiff stands guard by the tent.
But the host of divinities is long gone, now,
The host of divinities is long gone.

September 2002
Yunnan, in sight of Mt. Khawa Karpo”

I can’t believe in this world, we still face these crises.

I can’t believe that we fight and kill like people

are pawns and don’t matter.

The stench of death lies over the land. The oppressed are hungry

and tired, and the oppressors fat and restless.

What is it all for?

What is any of it for?

An acre of another man’s land?

A barrel of oil, slick black blood

languidly fueling the heart

of this terrible machine?

It’s dark

The six-thirty train whistles in the distance
Rending the morning air painfully apart

Cocooned, safe, I rebel against the day
and the train
and the rain
pounding the

Weary, bleary, I make coffee
my caffeinated army
dragons and ogres and shaking
the sleep from my eyes
and the darkness
from the skies

as the train
and the rain


Protruding and unspeakable, pallid porcelain peninsulas
Rising domed and cherry-topped.
Gentle slopes fading in the smooth white ocean of flesh.
Some, hot and hungry, devour these sweet rounded handfuls of shame,
Oblivious to the spider web scars, a road map of mistakes made,
Battles won, innocence lost.
Twin confectionaries rebelling against the passing of time,
Sugar-sweet soufflés destined to deflate and disintegrate.
Disarming in their softness, arched peaks puncture my girlhood
Unmercifully and yet, so deliciously.

Follow. Breeze tumbled leaves rustle a name. Follow. Dried up years clank heavily against the iron gates. Always follow. Do as I say and not as I do and always follow. Another whispered word slithers silently by, skin cracked and dry from lack of use. When will it rain, grandmother? The old woman raises her unseeing eyes to the obsidian sky and cackles. The rocks flinch and the unspoken words hurry away. Too late, little girl, too late.

Dawn breaks like a thousand mirrors, but still no rain. The unused words lie weeping at her feet. She sits now, motionless among them. She used to know what they sounded like; words like love and I and happiness. But no one really spoke them anymore. they just nodded to one another, soundless passing of spirits.

Another day without rain.

Another song without words.

image © imapix

Do not try to become anything.
Do not make yourself into anything.
Do not be a meditator.
Do not become enlightened.
When you sit, let it be.
What you walk, let it be.
Grasp at nothing.
Resist nothing.

~ Ajhan Chah

The gulf grows wider, and I wonder whether it’s me or them. Sometimes I think it’s me and that nagging mantra of self-doubt. I wonder when I ceased being important. Somewhere between the last episode of House and calling for Chinese. Bare branches crisscross the window like long-healed scars and I close my eyes.

My thoughts, with lives of their own
Flash and flutter
Rise and fall
Come and go
So many butterflies outside my window

And I smile
and I slow
my thoughts
to rest.

Motionless, effortless, all quiet.

Silence; for a moment birdsong echoes. For a moment I’m caught in the simple beauty of the world, but then creeping doubt crawls into the vacant spaces whispering “am I good enough?” through gritted teeth.

I don’t know when I lost you all, I don’t know when I lost myself.