Meditating, my lama’s face
Does not shine in my mind.
Unbidden my lover’s face
Again and again appears.
Which meditator today cannot relate to this lilting lament? Who among us has not found unbidden images swimming across the evanescent screen of consciousness, regardless of our best efforts to focus on an object of meditation? And who cannot, therefore, identify with the naked, uncompromised humanity of this man, this poet, this iconoclastic lover—the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyamg Gyamtso?
Known as “the Ocean of Melodious Song,” the Sixth Dalai Lama is, after Milarepa, the most beloved poet of the Land of Snows. Tibetan myths and legends about him are legion, and it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction. The historical record tells us he was born in Mon, in southern Tibet, in 1683, a relative of the Dzogchen yogi and treasure-master Jigme Lingpa. Because the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama had been kept secret for a dozen years by the Regent of Tibet, the reincarnate Sixth Dalai Lama was not discovered, enthroned and trained as a novice until the age of twelve or thirteen, an unusually advanced age for tulkus to begin their specialized education. This fact may account, at least in part, for his rebellious nature.
Eventually the young Sixth refused to take full monastic ordination, renounced his novice vows, and adopted a lay tantric’s lifestyle. Hard as it may be to imagine, this Dalai Lama was slipping out a back door of the Potala Palace to take delight in alcohol, gambling and sex.
I sought my lover at twilight
Snow fell at daybreak.
Residing at the Potala
I am Rigdzin Tsangyand Gyatso
But in the back alleys of Shol-town
I am rake and stud.
Secret or not
Footprints have been left in the snow.
The Sixth was eventually exposed for his continuous nocturnal sojourns in Lhasa’s red light district. Certain doors of that district are still painted yellow in honor of his overnight domicile there. But there may be something else going on behind this playboy image. Let’s refer to the man himself, who writes:
Not one night without a lover have I slept.
Nor one drop of the precious bodhi-seed have I spent.
This is one of the most frank tantric revelations in the Sixth Dalai Lama’s poetry. Here he reports his yogic mastery in the vajrayana art of seminal retention, indicating that he might have seen himself using sex as a path to awakening. A miracle-story from the oral tradition gives us further evidence that the Ocean of Melodious Song was spending his nights not just on ordinary lovemaking, but on mastery of his vital life energies, prana, nadis, and bindu. It is recounted that, after being harangued by his aged monk-tutors about his nocturnal forays, in broad daylight the young Sixth Dalai Lama strode boldly upon the high parapets of the Potala Palace and urinated down into the courtyard. However, before the golden stream could splash upon the sunbaked cobblestones of the courtyard far below, through the most amazing feat of bodily mastery, he purportedly withdrew the entire stream of urine back into his urethra! After that, the legend goes, his mentors could not fault him for licentiousness, for his powers were obviously not on the same level as ordinary mortals.
Ultimately, the Sixth Dalai Lama’s iconoclastic ways ran askance of certain politically embroiled Tibetan leaders and their Mongol warlord cronies, who colluded to disappear him near the shores of Kokonor Lake in the northern steppes of Tibet. Yet rumor lives on that, after his officially reported death due to illness on November 14, 1706, at the age of twenty-four, Tsangyamg Gyamtsohe lived to a ripe old age as a shepherd and mountain yogi. Of all the Dalai Lamas, the Sixth remains the only one whose remains are not enshrined in the holy hall of tombs in the dark lower reaches of the Potala. His final death poem:
Yama, mirror of karma,
Ruler of the realm of death.
In this life things didn’t go right.
May they go better in the next.
In the introduction to The Turquoise Bee, a collection of sixty-seven four-line poems, comprising all the extant verses of the Sixth Dalai Lama, coauthor Rick Fields says: “What is true for us today, however, is that the Sixth Dalai Lama still lives another life. This is the life of his poems. We can hear him whispering sweet words in our ears, taking up his lute in taverns, drunk on chang and Dharma, musing on his strange fate, puncturing the pretensions of both worldly and spiritual braggarts, and, finally, singing an ecstatic vajrasong that joins bliss and emptiness.”
The poems of the Sixth Dalai Lama should be placed in the context of an esteemed literary lineage, that of the dohas, the beloved mystical genre of spontaneous vajrasongs (songs of enlightenment) coming down to us through the renowned “crazy wisdom” tradition of tantrayana teachings. This tradition goes back more than fifteen hundred years, to the songs of the eighty-four Buddhist Siddhas of India (mystics with legendary magic powers), such as Maitripa, who was expelled from Nalanda Monastery for consorting with women. He departed, crossing the river by riding on his meditation mat in a tantric embrace with his consort. Witnessing this scene, Maitripa’s monastic colleagues wondered if they had not been mistaken in their judgements of him. Virupa, another Siddha, plunged his magic dagger into a shadow on the bartop to stop the sun’s progress across the sky. Thus he thwarted a tavern keeper who was awaiting sunset in order to collect a bill for the barrels of wine Virupa had miraculously consumed. Dombhi Heruka rode wild tigers, wore poisonous snakes as garlands, and emerged unscorched from a bonfire. Other Siddhas were notorious for frequenting cemeteries and charnel grounds, living on offal, consorting with lepers and outcast women, adorning themselves with mud, ashes and poisonous snakes, drinking from skullbone chalices, and parading naked, wearing only bones as ornaments. While engaging in such bizarre behavior, the Siddhas inwardly practiced pure, nondualistic, nonconceptual awareness, and many claimed enlightenment as a result.
There are many wonderful books full of the inspired mystic poetry of the mahasiddhas and of those who followed in their poetic pathsteps. Keith Dowman’s collection of the songs and histories of the eighty-four Buddhist Siddhas, Masters of Mahamudra, is perhaps the finest introduction to this genre. Also recommended are Dowman’s book, The Divine Madman, the songs of the enlightened vagabond Drukpa Kunley, and, Skydancer: The Life and Songs of Yeshe Tsogyal, about a great eighth century Tibetan matriarch. In a similar vein, I suggest The Royal Song of Saraha and The Life and Teachings of Naropa, both translated by Herbert Guenther.
There are a number of books of the famous songmaster Milarepa’s poems, including Miraculous Journey, done by Turquoise Bee translator Brian Cutillo in collaboration with Lama Kunga Rinpoche, and the classics, One Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa and Drinking From the Mountain Stream. From the Nalanda Translation Committee’s sublime collection of Kagyu masters’ teachings comes The Rain of Wisdom and The Life of Marpa. Songs by the Seventh Dalai Lama have been collected and translated by Glenn Mullin in The Songs of Spiritual Change. Most recently published are The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and The Life and Songs of Shabkar translated by Matthieu Ricard, coming soon from SUNY Press.
Assuming a rightful place in this great literary tradition is the exquisite little Turquoise Bee. One could hardly ask for a more auspicious collaboration than this, a mingling of the creative imagination of American Buddhist cultural historian and poet Rick Fields, noted Tibetan scholar and Buddhist practitioner Brian Cutillo, and the Japanese-American Buddhist artist Mayumi Oda. The book itself is a lovely production, adorned by freehand sumi-e brush illustrations by Ms. Oda, and further embellished by Cutillo’s graceful calligraphies of several of the poems in the original Tibetan. The Turquoise Bee is not only a welcome addition to the vajra song book, but also a very fine example of the early flowering of American Buddhist art.
A flower withers in a month’s time.
But the turquoise bee doesn’t grieve.
At the ending of an affair
I will not grieve either.