Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Tibetan Novel


The Tale of the Incomparable Prince by Tshe ring dbang rgyal, translated and introduced by Beth Newman. The Library of Tibet. HarperCollins, 1996.

Newman explains that she has chosen to translate personal names into their Sanskrit equivalents in preference to the Tibetan forms. A glance at the Tibetan form of the title – gZhon nu zla med kyi gtam rgyud -- is probably enough to convince many Westerners of the propriety of her choice, though since most readers will be unfamiliar with the meaning of the Sanskrit names, she has thereby lost that semantic element. For place names she has adopted a different strategy, translating them into English. The work of translation was originally her Ph.D. dissertation, a notable example of the value of supporting advanced research in the humanities. Her introductory essay is short and accessible.



This unique work, the only pre-twentieth century Tibetan novel, [1] was written by Tshe ring dbang rgyal, an eighteenth century aristocrat who also composed a number of other literary and scholarly works [2] while at the same time taking a leading political role, including service as prime minister. Far from the utopian serenity of Hilton’s Shangri-La, the author’s period was marked by considerable internal conflict as well as assaults from China, Bhutan, and Mongolian tribes.

The courtly society in which the author moved followed Indian models for literature. In form the work is thus clearly within the courtly Indian style kāvya as defined in the most authoritative guide to Sanskrit literary theory, Daṇḍin’s Kāvyādarśa (Mirror of Poetry), composed circa 700 C.E. [3] As in comparable texts in China and Europe this manual regards rhetoric as the basis for literariness. Tshe ring dbang rgyal explicitly declares his intention to follow “the tenets of dramatic composition.” (318) Apart from employing standard rhetorical figures (of which Daṇḍin lists thirty-six) the writer of “epic drama” (mahākāvya, in Tibetan snyan ngag chen po) should also include treatment of each of the aims of life (or puruṣārthas): dharma (righteousness), artha (prosperity), kāma (pleasure) and mokṣa (liberation). Tshe ring dbang rgyal details his attention to each of these areas in his epilogue.

As the narrative alternates prose and verse passages (like the European prosimetrum), it belongs to the genre campū. In content it could be labeled an avadāna, a marvelous bodhisattva tale, as the hero ultimately attains bodhisattva status. The specifics of the story line clearly owe a great deal to the Ramayana and to stories of the life of the Buddha as well as to Jataka tales.

Though Newman calls the narrative a novel, Tsering Shakya uses Northrup Frye’s categories to characterize it as a romance instead. [4] His essay points out that the characters and scenes are highly idealized and conventionalized and that the author makes little attempt at verisimilitude. This can constitute an impediment for the non-specialist Western. The prince, as the title states, is “incomparable.” His every attribute is so superlative, his capital so grand, and Manohari so beautiful that the reader encounters rhetorically elaborate and highly repetitive descriptions at every turn. Though eighteenth century Tibetan aristocrats regularly exchanged aureate show pieces (rather in the manner of Elizabethan courtiers writing sonnets) as an entertainment, it is unlikely that modern readers will find the same charm in a translation.

The same conventions can also impede the reader’s reception of the story’s themes. The disquisitions on virtuous rule (for instance, the passages beginning on pages 189 and 237) are mild and acceptable, though they offer little of substance beyond general advice, encouraging honesty, temperance, and mindfulness of Buddhist teachings. However, in the turns of the story, it seems, deceit is perfectly acceptable for those identified with the side of virtue. Bhavakumara tries his best to trick Manohari and then frames Chetadasa in spite of the repeated appearance of sententiae to the effect that the noble always speak and act straightforwardly. The scene in which he mocks and tortures Chetadasa, putting him eventually to death (112), can hardly be read at all, much less with sympathy, by moderns.

Even the major Buddhist themes are presented with some ambivalence. For instance, the wise minister Viradhiman, very like Krishna addressing Arjuna in the Bhavagad Gita, counsels unconstrained violence in warfare as adherence to individual dharma saying “whether peaceful or violent” “each of us should engrave our duty in his heart.” (136) Though even this passage advises detachment (“It is unsuitable to have any faith in this world”), it is scarcely consistent with the standards later enunciated by the teachings of the ascetic Dharmeshvara (216 and 306) or the bodhisattva vow of Kumaradvitiya (235).

A lengthy and lyrical passage rhapsodically describes the sexual love of the hero and heroine (175 ff.), and yet Kumaradvitiya later (204-5) insists that even the finest love can only be a source of error. King Suyamati is a vivid example of self-deception enabled by lust as is Lavanya Kamal. Ultimately the prince describes, in a bravura passage using terms reminiscent of medieval European celibates, how the once beautiful woman’s flesh will die and become an object of revulsion. (251)

To Newman, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism both from her scholarship and from consulting living masters, the story is meant to illustrate that “staying active in the world is compatible with Buddhist virtue,” (xiii) yet its conclusion clearly privileges the extreme withdrawal of the ascetic as the only way to conquer death. (243) In fact the prince becomes a bodhisattva, filled with an unconquerable elation not by wholly avoiding samsara, but rather by first fully entering into its shimmering and deceptive play, then mastering desire, only to finally thread a path “between the extremes of nihilism and absolutism.” (275) Surely the narrative provides, not prudential advice on a well-regulated life as a lay person, but rather points toward the ultimate abolition of duality, solving (or perhaps sidestepping) the issue of whether dependent and compounded phenomena, are, in fact, real. From that perspective there is no monk or layperson, male or female, enlightened or ignorant, existent or non-existent.

Though differing in virtually every other way, The Tale of the Incomparable Prince reminded me of Wu Cheng-en’s wonderful Journey to the West, another excellent tale so entertaining that the reader may proceed on the route to enlightenment without ever noticing the slightest change. And indeed, there is no change. How could there be? And yet there is.



1. In 1938 Mipam: The Lama of Five Wisdoms was published with a Western audience in mind. The putative author was Lama Yongden, the adopted son of Alexandra David Neel who is generally considered to be the actual author. A novella Yeshe lhamo and Blacksmith topgyelIn by Dorjé Gyelpo (1959) was touted by the Chinese as was Turquoise by Langdun Banjor (1985). Several other works have appeared more recently.

2. His other extant books include an autobiography, a “praise composition,” a biography of Mid dbang Pho lha nas bSod nams stob rgyas, a Tibetan-Sanskrit lexicon, and a book on Tibetan grammar. He is sometimes styled Dokhar Tsering Wanggyel.

3. In Tibet the Indian tradition was naturalized by the 12th century scholar Chöjé Sakya Paṇḍita Künga Gyeltsen (Kun dga' rgyal mtshan). For the Sa skya writers the spread of Buddhism was the primary goal and aesthetic effects were for them, as for Augustine, means to that end.

4. Tsering Shakya, “The Development of Modern Tibetan Literature in the People’s Republic of China in the 1980s” in Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change, ed. Lauran R. Hartley, Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani, p. 70.

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