In This Article Tibetan Buddhist Verse Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • The Background to Tibetan Culture
  • “Early” Tibetan Poetic Traditions (650–950)
  • The Sanskrit Literary Background
  • Examples of Modern Poetry

Buddhism Tibetan Buddhist Verse Literature
by
Roger Jackson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0240

Introduction

There is no single Tibetan term that covers the full range of the English word “poetry,” but versified verbal expression that evinces the qualities of imagery (gzugs), vitality (srog), and ornamentation (rgyan) has been central to Tibetan culture since before the establishment of writing some 1400 years ago. The Tibetan plateau in the era of literacy came to be dominated by the aesthetic, ideological, and institutional power of Buddhism, which was imported, primarily from India, between the 7th and 14th centuries. As a result, much—though certainly not all—of what constitutes Tibetan literature is Buddhist literature (some of it Indian, in translation, most of it originally Tibetan), and a significant portion of the Buddhist literature, across a wide range of genres, is found in one or another of the verse-forms identified by Tibetan authors. These include “folk”-based song styles such as lu (glu) and yang (dbyangs); the bardic tradition of drung (sgrung); expressions of personal accomplishment such as “songs,” or gur (mgur) (which include “spiritual songs” [nyams mgur] and “view songs” [lta mgur]); and the ornate style known as nyengak (snyan ngag). These various types of verse are not completely compartmentalized. Indeed, over the centuries, popular and epic forms influenced the developing Buddhist literature, while Buddhist forms imported from India, such as dohā (= gur) and kāvya (= nyengak), reshaped the original Tibetan genres and pushed the literary tradition to new levels of sophistication and depths of personal expression. Although poetry anthologies sometimes were included in a master’s collected works, or sungbum (gsung ’bum), much of Tibetan Buddhist verse literature is found scattered in thousands of works by hundreds of authors—whether celebrated, obscure, or anonymous. Among the most notable sources of verse are, to name but a few, biographies and autobiographies, songs of praise and supplication, ritual texts, long-life prayers, instruction manuals, and philosophical treatises. In this article, we will proceed more or less chronologically. After the first four general sections, we will isolate early verse forms that, while showing little Buddhist influence, were foundational to all subsequent poetic development in Tibet. We then will identify key Indian sources, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, that helped shape Tibetan literary aesthetics. Returning to the plateau, we will trace developments from the Tibetan “Renaissance” (when Indian traditions were most influential) down to the 21st century. We will conclude with an examination of some of the permutations of “modern” Tibetan poetry, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist.

General Overviews

There is, as yet, no book-length overview of Tibetan Buddhist verse literature. Cabezón and Jackson 1996 remains the only work in a Western language to survey most of the important genres of Tibetan literature, and of the genres surveyed, several are “poetic” in the broad sense of the term. Surveys dedicated specifically to Tibetan “poetry” are found in concise form in Tulku Thondup and Kapstein 1996 and somewhat more extensively (though still briefly) in Jackson 1996. Kapstein 2003 also surveys Tibetan poetic literature from the beginnings to the early 21st century, though with a particular focus on Indian influences. Stein 1972 contains a significant section on Tibetan literary culture that includes analysis—and examples—of Tibetan Buddhist verse literature. Vekerdi 1952 focuses specifically on Tibetan prosody, making some sense of the welter of metrical schemes developed on the plateau over the centuries, while Beyer 1992, though focused on grammar, includes useful discussions of simile, metaphor, and metrics in Tibetan poetry. For those able to read Tibetan, the most important overview to date is that found in Don grub rgyal 1985.

  • Beyer, Stephen. The Classical Tibetan Language. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

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    This brilliant grammatical analysis of the classical Tibetan language not only includes many examples drawn from poetic literature but also concludes with an excellent discussion of the uses of simile, metaphor, and metrics in Tibetan verse, providing many examples.

  • Cabezón, José Ignacio, and Roger R. Jackson, eds. Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.

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    The first and still the only book-length overview of Tibetan literature available in a Western language, this volume is organized along the lines of native Tibetan literary genres, a number of which—including epics, ritual texts, spiritual songs, and long-life prayers—are versified.

  • Don grub rgyal. Bod kyi mgur glu byung ’phel gyi lo rgyus dang khyad chos bsdus par ston pa rig pa’i khye’u rnam par rtsen pa’i skyed tshal: mgur glu’i lo rgyus dang khyad chos. Lhasa, China: Mi rigs dpe khrun khang, 1985.

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    Although not yet translated from the Tibetan, this overview of the Tibetan “song” (gur) tradition is the most thorough and thought-provoking exploration of this key genre attempted so far in any language.

  • Jackson, Roger R. “‘Poetry’ in Tibet: Glu, mGur, sNyan ngag and ‘Songs of Experience.’” In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre. Edited by José Ignacio Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson, 368–392. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.

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    Although brief by most standards, this essay remains the most extensive overview in English of a range of Tibetan verse forms, with a greater emphasis on subject matter than on poetic forms.

  • Kapstein, Matthew T. “The Indian Literary Identity in Tibet.” In Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia. Edited by Sheldon I. Pollock, 747–802. Berkeley, and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.

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    Although focused on the ways in which Tibetans utilized themes and forms from Indian ornate verse (kāvya) over the course of their history, this article also provides useful information on other verse-forms, both Indian and Tibetan, with which kāvya must be compared, and serves, in its own way, as an introduction to Tibetan poetry.

  • Stein, Rolf A. Tibetan Civilization. Translated by John E. Stapleton Driver. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972.

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    This classic overview of Tibetan civilization includes a lengthy chapter (no. 5) that is dedicated to “arts and letters,” of which a significant portion (pp. 248–281) deals with poetic forms, providing many examples along the way.

  • Tulku Thondup, Rinpoche, and Matthew T. Kapstein. “Tibetan Poetry.” In The Princeton Handbook of Multicultural Poetries. Edited by Terry V. F. Brogan, 343–345. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

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    A brief but comprehensive encyclopedia-type article that gives a synoptic account of the various forms of poetry created by Tibetans in the course of their history.

  • Vekerdi, Jozséf. “Some Remarks on Tibetan Prosody.” Acta Orientalia: Academiae Scientarum Hungaricae 2.2–3 (1952): 221–233.

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    A specialized article that focuses on the various metrical schemes employed by Tibetan poets. It provides a learned entrée into the topic, but is best used in conjunction with Beyer 1992 (cited in this section).

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