issue 26 Winter/Spring 05
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Songs of Love, Poems of Sadness

The Erotic Verse of the Sixth Dalai Lama
Paul Williams
I.B. Tauris & Co 2004, $26.95/£14.95h/b

Everything Yearned For

Manhae's Poems of Love and Longing
Translator: Francisca Cho
Wisdom Publications 2005, $15.00/£11.50 h/b

Reading about love, writing about love, is as slippery as a red satin heart. Some would say Buddhist Love Poetry is a contradiction in terms. Didn't the Buddha himself leave his wife and son to practise as a patch-robed celibate monk? Doesn't Buddhism encourage the choice to seek fulfillment in renunciation? Both these collections of poems contradict this traditional, monastic emphasis, recounting two men's experience of love and longing: one at the age of 46 in Korea in the early 20th century and the other a 20-year-old Dalai Lama in 18th century Tibet.

Their poems are intense and poignant, honestly confronting the classic romantic difficulties of yearning, doubt and confusion, the pain of separation and rejection: all our familiar western archetypes. This is universal energy, life's longing for itself. Manhae calls it nim, a Korean word that means anything that is loved, 'everything yearned for'. Where he departs from common experience is the other part of his title - 'the silence of everything yearned for'. Manhae's image of silence conveys the emptiness, absence, at the heart of all material existence. Love takes him, and the reader, to a place of awareness that he understands is a dream within a dream; but one with a tang of relative truth about it - the extremes of bliss and despair, a paradigm of duality.

Manhae (1879-1944) was a Korean Buddhist monk and political activist at the time of Japanese colonial rule (1910-45), and the poems can be read as metaphors for patriotism, nim standing for his much loved country. Written as if in one sitting, in a loose narrative arc, the collection is signed and dated '8th month, 29th day, 1925', the 15th anniversary of the Japanese annexation of Korea, as well as his own birthday.

Another interpretation of the poems is as an expression of religious devotion; nim functioning in a similar way as Rumi's Beloved or Tagore's Divine Lover. Tagore was a major influence and inspiration for Manhae and at least one poem in this collection is addressed to him. It was from him Manhae adopted the technique of the long, conversational line, allowing him to break free of classical Korean and Chinese forms.

The poems are often expressed as koans, reflecting the paradox of love as presence/love as absence; sometimes framed as straightforward questions:

'Whose poetry is the glow that adorns the setting sun,
with its jadelike hands caressing the
endless sky
and its lotuslike heels that cross
over the boundless ocean?
... Whose faint lamp is my heart, burning for reason unknown
through the night?'
('I Don't Know')

We overhear the poet talking to himself, failing to answer his own questions, as he lists the many perfections of his beloved. The translator, Francisca Cho, suggests there were rumours she might have been a nun from a nearby temple. Manhae did in fact marry in 1933, after the law upholding monastic celibacy was repealed in 1926. Whatever the biographical circumstances, Manhae prefers to keep this love in the dark.

'There is one last secret.
This secret is like a soundless echo and
cannot be expressed.'

This collection was written only three years after a three-year spell in prison for his part in the March First Independence Movement and some of that tension colours the emotional tone of the poems. He mistakes the moon for his lover, his nim, and in its light admits his own fear and shame.

Whatever nim might be a mask for, there are no masks in the 6th Dalai Lama's verse. He addresses a variety of young women, aristocratic coquettes, beer girls in the market place and courtesans in the brothel. None of them bring him any lasting joy. His story is colourful and tragic.

When the fifth Dalai Lama died, the political situation was so unstable the Regent decided to keep his death secret. The traditional search for the new incarnation occurred but when Tsangyang Gyatso and his family were found they were confined under what was essentially house arrest, in extreme conditions, until the Regent deemed it safe to install him in his rightful place. The governors responsible for his ill-treatment were executed but the relationship between Tsangyang Gyatso and the Regent was always strained. The translator, Paul Williams, traces these years as an influence on the Dalai Lama's later predilection for women and drinking, gambling and archery. He refused to take full ordination, preferring to be free to pursue his pleasures. The 5th Dalai Lama had been an impressive statesman as well as a superior religious practitioner and, despite pressure to follow his example, Tsangyang Gyatso had other ideas:

'Mighty serpent-demon -
He's behind. But who cares!
The sweet apple's in front.
Yes, I think I shall pluck.'

One lover in particular rejects him and he suffers greatly. Again Williams ascribes this to the effects of his early hardships. Despite or because of his past, the 6th Dalai Lama seems a very human figure - honest about his appetites and open about his helplessness, knowing what he should do but choosing to act otherwise.

When a new Mongol Khan returned to claim dominion over Tibet, the 6th Dalai Lama was captured and taken to China. On the way he fell ill and died, just 23 years old. These are a young man's poems - spirited, funny, abandoned and sometimes beautiful:

'A love met in passing,
Girl with the fragrant limbs;
Like finding rare turquoise -
And throwing it away.'

They appear in the Tibetan followed by the English translation, which is faithful to the four-line trochaic trimeter (three stressed/unstressed feet). There is a haiku-like quality to these dense, vivid fragments, conveying much in their short space.

Both Manhae and Tsangyang Gyatso are very much alone, centre stage, in their poems. Their lovers are shadowy figures, versions of the idealised feminine, mirror and muse. The contemporary poet John Burnside has written: 'A naïve reader always assumes a love poem is necessarily addressed to a person (openly, or in secret). Yet this is rarely the case, even when the poet says it is: it is love that the poem loves, not the seeming object of that love...' Over 300 years, and nearly 100 years ago respectively, there were intimations of this: writing poems about love as just another way of dreaming about love, yearning for something that will always be better in 'the poet's imagination', which, according to Manhae at least, is where love's secret lives.

Linda France