Watch a video of Tsering Woeser reciting her poem “Absent, or Not Absent” in the original Mandarin.
Dedicated to Gyalwa Rinpoche on his eighty-second birthday
1. The Empty Dharma Throne: Shukti
The Shuktilingka once stretched out
before the Potala Palace, lush and verdant.
Shukti means “dharma throne”;
and lingka means “park.”
It was filled with ancient trees whose branches twisted
counterclockwise like dragons
and mirrored in the ponds crossed by small bridges.
A little ways away stood a stele,
the Lhasa Zhöl Pillar,1 a tall, square column
recording imperial deeds from a thousand years ago.
The dharma throne in this park
must have been made with layers
of the flattest possible stone.
There would have been tufts of grass growing
from the crevices, and flowers would have bloomed,
and even more bouquets of flowers
would have been offered by visitors
who came each day from near and far,
the fragrance permeating every corner.
This vision, from my own imagination,
matches the memories of the older generation.
A few years ago, I was brought to this spot
by a son of old Lhasa royalty, a handsome man
with a shallow karmic reward.
He couldn’t bear the sight, covering his eyes,
he looked out through his trembling fingers
pointing through tears to where the throne had stood.
All vestiges of that park had been obliterated.
What had been a park was now a “public square,”2
filled with red lanterns, flagpoles, memorial monuments . . . .
And loudspeakers, large and small, blared
songs of propaganda. The melodies were old,
but the lyrics had been changed.
That honorable dharma throne, which existed before March 1959
—how did it disappear? What stories could it tell,
always vacant left waiting among the trees and flowers?
I have asked many people: Have you heard of the Shuktilingka?
A retired official from the local TV station burst
into tears. He asked, Can you understand
what it feels like to yearn for a memory?
Have you known the taste of heartbreak?
And he told me this memory from before the occupation:
In those years, His Holiness was a mischievous teenager.
People eager for a blessing would pass by
and could not help but raise their heads
and see the young Gyalwa Rinpoche3 sitting on the throne,
so young, his face like a smiling flower.
There is no way this man could forget the sight,
he wouldn’t forget over the course of his life.
I continue to ask in a low whisper:
Have you heard of the Shuktilingka?
I met a young man named Choenyi Jampel4
born in a farmer’s house
near the hometown of the great Songtsen Gampo.5
He had a great talent for painting,
able to depict a lost paradise he’d never seen.
Among his paintings, one stood out—one of the last
he completed just before his unfortunate death:
layers of emerald mountains, rolling
white clouds, a few houses that no longer survive,
and there, right in the center,
sat the completely empty dharma throne,
richly decorated, the heart’s dream waiting
like a balloon floating through desire.
2. The Empty Room: Gzim Chung
Five lilies bloom in the black of night.
At this late hour, one is finally able to witness
the most beautiful moments,
and so I want to make this offering:
lilies in a simple glass vase placed before a photograph.
There are some rooms, no, there are many rooms,
where even this photo is not allowed.
In this world there are those who are afraid
of a photograph. What kind of people are they?
Aren’t the intrepid materialists fearless?
The blooming lilies bring comfort.
In their dense fragrance,
I prostrate myself in prayer.
At least this room is no longer empty.
I have seen many empty rooms
in the Jokhang, in the Norbulinka, in the Potala Palace.
The honorific word for one of these rooms is Gzim Chung.6
One day, I encountered a monk I had known for many years.
He showed me a single key with a mark on it
attached to a large ring of keys.
Seeing we were alone,
we ducked our heads and entered a room
covered with yellow curtains.
The smell of incense was thick,
as though covering up another fragrance.
I did my best to identify it,
as if searching the past for a silhouette
of one who could not bear a heavy burden.
The silent monk pulled me back to reality,
and with his eyes indicated a wall
painted with images of bodhisattvas and other beings,
gouged by fierce bayonets.7
Before the empty dharma throne, a white khata
and a few complete Kashag banknotes,
steeped in meaning.8
A few days ago, I was sent a song
sung by two Amdo youths9 that goes:
“Under the sun, the child of yesterday frolics about.
He grinds the planets into pigment,
and with the pigment draws tomorrow—
he tosses all his problems to other people,
but the world is deaf and mute, it doesn’t make a sound . . .”
I think of a famous temple in northern Kham.
If you open the door unknown to others,
you will shed tears at everything you see:
a life-sized photograph of the sage sitting
on a beautifully carved sandalwood bench,
all kinds of offerings, each selected with care.
And inside that room, beneath the warm light of a crystal lamp,
a pair of golden slippers in front of a pure white bathtub.
3. The Empty City: Lhasa
Stand right here.
Each time I stand here in this city,
I am “surrounded by a strange fading landscape.”10
In my innermost heart,
there is a voice that refuses, that rebels:
If we are to achieve a reverse in course,
we must do it as soon as possible,
otherwise it will truly be too late.
I think of the deep autumn of that year.
Wait—no, it must have been early winter
when we carried a few strands of prayer flags,
a bag of powdered bsang,11 some fresh-ground barley,
a bottle of barley wine, and walked slowly along a ridge
four thousand meters high, our hearts beating faster and faster.
Before we left, the Rinpoche exhorted:
You must not talk, must not shout.
Sit down, pray that you may see the future.
To one side, the sunny slope,
where sunlight bestows a little warmth;
on the other, a slope in shade, covered in a shallow snow.
Lhamo Latso.12 This holy lake is the Buddha’s crown,
a pure mirror held by this U-shaped valley.
Filled with power, it’s so vivid it seems unreal.
Not a soul around its edges. Only me and my husband.
First, I offer the bsang and barley wine to Palden Lhamo.13
Then I tie prayer flags between the stones
to speak on our behalf.
We sit down, some distance from one another,
so as not to encroach on each other’s thoughts.
I focus my mind and gaze at the lake:
“Please grant me a vision of my fate.”
Suddenly two choughs appear.
One lands to my right, one to my left,
an un-choughlike cry and I turn my head:
black feathers, red beak and claws.
“The skyung ka14 is an emissary of the srung ma,15
not a bad omen,” I seem to hear someone say.
The choughs pace back and forth.
They caw occasionally while I continue to gaze.
Gradually, an image emerges from the lake,
his smile is familiar in its compassion:
a vivid miracle, outside the realm of words.
When the sky grew dark, we returned hand in hand
to that city which has been empty for decades.
Along the way, two deer ran lightly by
as though we were within the Kalachakra mandala.
Could it be so?
Like so many of my people who have returned—
my heart is not empty. It is filled with love and hope.
July 4–5, edited July 6, 2017, Beijing
“空，或者不空——献给嘉瓦仁波切82寿诞” © Tsering Woeser. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Ian Boyden. All rights reserved.
Translator’s note: What extraordinary karmic reward to share this life with Woeser, Eleanor Goodman, Andrew Quintman, Michael Richardson, and Jennifer Boyden, all of whom provided invaluable suggestions and insights, as well as copious amounts of delight as I translated this poem. My deepest thanks. And my gratitude as well to the National Endowment for the Arts for their support of the larger project from which this poem comes.
1. The Lhasa Zhol Pillar (ཞོལ་རྡོ་རིངས་ཕྱི་མ་) was erected in the late eighth century and describes deeds of the Tibetan Empire. It is also one of the oldest surviving examples of Tibetan script, a writing system attributed to Thonmi Sambhota, who was a minister to the founder of the Tibetan Empire Songtsen Gampo who is mentioned later in the poem (see note 6). ↩
2. The Shuktilinka was destroyed in 1965. The park and its wetlands were drained and filled, then covered with concrete, becoming 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 Potala Square. In 2002, it became the site of the monstrous Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, a thirty-seven-meter high structure commemorating the PLA liberation of Tibet in 1951. And in 2005, it was once again renovated to its current state.↩
3. Gyalwa Rinpoche is one of the honorific names of the Dalai Lama.↩
4. Choenyi Jampel was a very promising young artist in Lhasa. He was tragically killed in a car accident on March 29, 2011. He was only thirty years old.↩
5. Songtsen Gampo (སྲོང་བཙན་སྒམ་པོ) was an early seventh-century king. He is credited with founding the Tibetan Empire and introducing Buddhism to Tibet.↩
6. In the past, the Dalai Lama would stay at the Jokhang during the Buddhist ceremonies celebrating the New Year. He had a special room, which was known as Gzim Chung (གཟིམ་ཆུང་).↩
7. During the Cultural Revolution the Gzim Chung was occupied by Red Guards, members of the Opposition Party, and the People’s Liberation Army. During this time, the murals in this room were scratched by bayonets, and these scars exist to this day.↩
8. In 1911, the Tibetan government printed and distributed Kashag banknotes. They also minted gold, silver, and copper coins. Only an independent government can issue its own currency, so the presence of these banknotes is not simply nostalgic, they speak to a time when Tibet was independent.↩
9. The song is titled “Empty Room” and is sung by the Tibetan Patient Band (西藏病人乐队).↩
10. This is a line from the poem “For the Egyptian Coin Today, Arden, Thank You” by Raymond Carver, in No Heroics, Please: Uncollected Writings (Vintage Books, 1992).↩
11. Bsang (བསང་།) is a powder made of various aromatic plants and is used as an offering of purification.↩
12. Lhamo Latso (ལྷ་མོའི་བླ་མཚོ།) is the most sacred lake in Tibet. It is where visions are sought for the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and is presided over by the the Dalai Lama’s guardian goddess Palden Lhamo. It is located in Gyaca County, Lhokha Province, to the southeast of Lhasa.↩
13. Palden Lhamo (དཔལ་ལྡན་ལྷ་མོ།) is the primary dharmapāla, or goddess of protection, in the Tibetan Buddhist Pantheon and is the guardian god of Tibet, Lhasa, and the Dalai Lama.↩
14. Skyung ka (སྐྱུང་ཀ) is the Tibetan name for the red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), which is a species of corvid found across Tibet. Its dramatic red bill, loquacious vocalizations, and extreme intelligence have made it a powerful symbol in many cultures. Its Latin name means “fire raven” because it is said to be attracted to burning materials and to even fly off with lit candles in its mouth. ↩
15. Srung ma (སྲུང་མ། ) is the Tibeten word for dharmapālas, mighty deities who protect the Dharma. ↩
16. Chenrézik (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས།) is the Tibetan name for the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.↩