I remember the very first essay that I tried to write. I was in the sixth or seventh grade and my English teacher had told my class, Write an essay. He said the word essay in English. That was our vacation assignment over the ten day summer break.
My home was a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in Dharamsala where my father was Principal. Living in a monastic compound surrounded by fields ringed by lesser Himalayan mountains in the distance, there was nothing for me to do but bother my brother, disturb the nuns by skating outside their dorms, and take long walks in the fields. Mostly I was bored out of my mind. Still I wasnt going anywhere near my assignment until the last day of summer break. Soon enough though, it was the last day of summer break. I had to write an essay.
But what was an essay? My teacher hadnt bothered to explain it properly. So I went to my older brother, like I still do when Im at a loss. He said, Its a piece of writing. It can be about anything. Anything. Well then. I started writing. One day, I wrote, I saw a fairy. I was not a mature middle schooler. I kept on writing. My brother leaned over, stifled a smile with all the wisdom of his fifteen years, and said, One more thing about the essay. It has to be true.
A piece of writing that has to be true. Thats still as good a description of an essay as any.
To speak as Tibetans, to write as Tibetans, is to continually recreate the Tibetan nation.
Why does the essay have to be true? Why does it matter if the writing is true? Because the truth has power. We recognize the truth when we hear it. It speaks to us.
In the early Buddhist stories, there is something called an act of truth. Satyakriyaa declaration of truth, something like ritual speech, which when spoken is like a wish that enacts itself, or a prayer which realizes itself. Its a declaration of truth, a declaration which by the act of speaking changesperformsfulfillsan outcome.
This act of truth is illustrated in the Jataka stories, the genre of stories telling of the Buddhas previous lives. One story tells of a woman listening to a dharma teaching who gets so drawn in that she totally neglects her child. As a result of this neglect, the child gets bitten by a poisonous snake. The poison spreads rapidly throughout the boys bodyhes in imminent danger of dying.
When the distraught parents ask a monk for help, the monk says that only an act of truth can save the childs life. The father starts. He says, By the truth that I have never seen a monk that I did not think was a scoundrel, may this boy live. The poison leaves the boys legs. Then the mother says, By the truth that I have never loved my husband, may this boy live. The poison withdraws further, up to the boys waistthe lower part of his body is now free of poison. Finally the monk says, By the truth that I have never believed a word of the dharma but found it utter nonsense, may this boy live. The poison leaves the boy entirely. The truth works. The truth heals. The truth wreaks miracles.
This is a higher order of truth. It doesnt just describe reality, it creates reality.
Another story tells of a woman who was seduced by a king. Her young son wants to meet his father. But at court, the king refuses to acknowledge the child. So the woman throws the child into the air and makes this declaration to the king, By the truth that you are the father of my child, may he remain in mid-air; but if not, let him fall to the ground and die. The child remains in the air, and the king, compelled by the power of the truth he cannot deny, embraces the child as his.
The story of a child at court with its parentage in question reminds us of course of another king, another child. In the court of King Solomon, the question was, who is the mother? Who is the father is a generally trickier question. In that story, King Solomons justice draws out the truth. In this one, its truth that draws out justice.
One lesson I can draw from the act of truth then, the Satyakriya, is that in order to have justice, we must have truth.
The monk in the first story and the boy in the second are said to be the historical Buddha in his previous lives. Hes entirely implicated in the act of truthhe performs the act of truth and the act of truth is performed upon him, which is to say, he is both catalyst for and catalyzed by the Satyakriya.
How is this connected to writing?
An essay is an act of truth. The essayist is both catalyst for and catalyzed by the essay. The essayas act of truthchanges not just the writer but also the reader. The essay, the personal essay, is a piece of deeply reflective writing and any true reflectionwhen we express it, when we see it, when we recognize itchanges us.
This brings us to the Tibetan essay. How did the Tibetan essay begin? Who was the first Tibetan essayist? It is worthwhile to try to trace this. Literature is communal culture, accretion as much as innovation. The future is history, as much as anything else.
By 1941, Gendun Chophel, often called Tibets first modernist, had finished his long nonfiction tract, his masterpiece, Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler. But its a historical tract, an academic tract. He wrote essays for the Melong, the Tibet Mirror newspaper, but these were academic or argumentative essays, laying out a case, for instance, about how and why the world was round and not flat. He did not write what we would call personal essays.
Then, there is Dhondup Gyal, who many consider to be the first Tibetan essayist, and who is certainly the watershed figure in the brief history of contemporary Tibetan literature. His poem The Waterfall of Youth, and his essay The Narrow Footpath are both pioneering works. But again, The Narrow Footpath is not a personal essay as such.
Both these men inspired a generation of readers and writers; they are the foundational figures of modern Tibetan literature. But regarding the birth of the literary essay, the personal essay, I think it is possible that that parentage may belong to neither Gendun Chopel nor Dhondup Gyal but to Tsewang Yishey Pemba. A practicing Western-trained doctor (the first one naturally), Tsewang Pemba wrote what may be the very first modern personal essays by a Tibetan, in certain of the chapters in his autobiography Young Days in Tibet (1957).
Exile is the essential Tibetan condition todayon and off the plateau.
The key thing to note about Dr. Tsewang Pemba? He wrote in English, not Tibetan. The other thing to note is that by the time Tsewang Pemba was writing his personal essays on Tibet, the country had been invaded and occupied by China. Like many of his compatriots, Tsewang Pemba was on the outside, in exile. And he was writing to tell his story to witness and to recover. Which is to say that one of the first modern Tibetan personal essaysperhaps the very first modern Tibetan personal essay indeedwas a literary exercise in recovering the lost land.
This is fitting, because the essay has a long affinity with exile, with distance, with loss. The essay interrogates the interior landscapeperhaps because the familiar exterior one has been lost. Montaigne, who perfected the essay form in the sixteenth century, and from whom we get the word essay from the French essaifor attemptscut himself off from society and went into a self-imposed exile at home for a decade, during which period he wrote a book of essays.
The Tibetan word for the essay, whether personal and literary or argumentative and intellectual, is tsom. Tsom is both noun and verb. It can mean an essay and a composition. It can also mean to compose, to create, and of course, it can mean to lie, to make up. So, to write, to create, to compose, to lieall of which is to say, to tell the truth by lying. We know this is what art can dotell the truth by lying.
One of the very earliest pieces of writing from Tibet is the Old Tibetan Chronicle from the eighth century. The Chronicle tells of the old Tibetan empire, the Yarlung Pugyel dynasty, and King Songtsen Gampothe Tibetan Arthur and Ashokawho unified the Tibetan plateau into Tibet. This is the story, from the Old Tibetan Chronicle, of the marriage of Songtsens younger sister, the Princess Semarkar.
Princess Semarkar was sent to neighboring Shangshung not simply as a bride but to rule alongside the Shangshung King. Sometime after the wedding, Semarkar sent a message back to Songtsen in a song, a poem innocent in its verses, to the messenger. It was a coded message.
Their political marriage had failed. The message to Songtsen said that Semarkars husband, the Shangshung king, was not to be trusted. He had avoided consummating his marriage with her, presumably because he did not want a Pugyel heir to the Shangshung kingdom. Semarkar also sent her brother a sewn headpiece with thirty turquoises, a sign for him to go to war.
In 644, Songtsen Gampo led an invasion with his army, conquered Shangshung and established his Tibetan empire. Was he acting on intelligence provided by Semarkar? I like to think so.
I grew up hearing Songtsens name and had no idea that he had a younger sister called Semarkar, or that she was key to his project of empire-building. I love this story because it tells us that one of the earliest pieces of Tibetan writing, one of the earliest and most important communiqus, was a coded message. And a woman wrote it.
Tibetans inside Tibet still write in code. Writings from Tibet still need to be deciphered and interpreted. Because there is so much they cant say, so little that can be saidtruth-telling is not a safe pastime in authoritarian regimeswe need to pay close attention to subtext. Meanwhile in exile, sometimes it can feel as if we say too much; we are always trying to shout, trying to underscore our exile, our occupation. If Tibetan writing from the inside can often feel like code, the writing from the outside can sometimes feel like caricature. They have to conceal, and we have to perform. This is the cross around our necks, for those of us writing in this time.
The best modern Tibetan writing, of course, threads the needleconceals and performs in just the right way. The modern Tibetan essays collected here, through text and subtext, perform the act of truth.
To speak as Tibetans, to write as Tibetans, is to continually recreate the Tibetan nation.
Gendun Chophel finished his masterwork Grains of Gold: Tales of the Cosmopolitan Traveler by 1941in the Indian subcontinent, by the waybut it was only published in the 1990s. Interrupted by invasion and occupation, it lay hidden like a buried treasure for decades. (Its English translation, by Thupten Jinpa and Donald S. Lopez Jr., was published in 2014.) Tsewang Pembas Young Days in Tibet and Idols on the Path were published, in England, in 1957 and 1966 respectively. His countrymen, in Tibet and in exile, were unaware that such a book even existed.
We are writing, in the bardo, in the in-between transitory period between our old life and the new, toward the future.
Nor indeed could they have read it, even if they had been aware of it. It was a casualty of exile. It was only fifty years later when White Crane, Lend Me Your Wings: A Tibetan Tale of Love and War was published posthumously in 2017 that Tibetan readers, and writers, came to know his work. Modern Tibetan literature, written in the in-between, in the bardo, is a literature of interrupted continuities, much like modern Tibetan people. As Tsering Wangmo Dhompa writes, “The people of my childhood having lost everything were continually beginning.”
Theres a genre of traditional Tibetan literature called the terma literature. These are Buddhist texts that Tibetans understand to be buried or hidden a millennia ago and revealed hundreds of years later when conditions were more ripe for the Dharma to flourish. If this type of traditional Tibetan literature is concealed in time, a certain type of contemporary Tibetan literature today is concealed in placetexts that are meant to be read and comprehended not hundreds of years later but thousands of miles away.
Lhashamgyals The Man Who Can Never Go Home resonates with Tibetan exiles in a way that the Chinese Communist Party censors cant understand. Its also a reminder that its not just Tibetans in exile who live in exile; not just Lhashamgyal and Woeser in Beijing and the thousands of Tibetans in Chengdu and other Chinese cities, but also the millions of Tibetans who live on their ancestral homeland, exiled from the Tibetan nation. Exile is the essential Tibetan condition todayon and off the plateau.
In many ways I have left my Tibetan refugee settlement in north India. In other ways, I can never leave it. Psychologists use the term ambiguous loss to define a loss for which it is extremely difficult to find closure. This is often a traumatic loss, such as when a parent or a child goes missing in action. In such cases, they have found that the way to finally find some form of closure is to arrive at a place of magical thinking, where the lost person is both gone forever and yet always with you.
For Tibetans, Tibet is our ambiguous loss, our open wound which refuses to close. This is why the twin strands of occupation and exile form the DNA of modern Tibetan literature. Our occupation grows long, as we turn from a single source exile to a multi-strand diaspora. In our writing, we dig deep, deepening the wound but at the same time airing it out. Witnessing, voicing, reclaiming, imagining, creating.
Here is why I think of modern Tibetan literature, a de-territorialized literature that is obsessed with place, with territory, as pre-postcolonial. We are writing, in the bardo, in the in-between transitory period between our old life and the new, toward the future.
I think of these essays as transcribing not just the Tibetan past, not just the Tibetan present, but the Tibetan future.
Excerpted from The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays, edited by Tenzin Dickie. Copyright 2023. Available from Penguin India.