For at least for the last century, Tibet has been chiefly known the West as a seat of spiritual mastery.
As social and political tensions and conflicts have accumulated throughout the world, Tibet has been
increasingly admired for the reputed accomplishments of its lamas and yogis. But this reputation has
had some disadvantages for its people: it has tended, according to the strange logic of the human
mind, to fuel presumptions amongst outsiders that Tibetans did not also; include figures who excelled
at secular arts and skills. In fact, there were many Tibetans, long before Chinese troops took; over
the country in 1950, who had distinguished themselves in such areas of expertise as medicine,
literature, art, commerce, photography, history, politics and international affairs.
Among the most prominent in the last four of these fields was the exceptionally capable and widely
admired Tsipon or Finance Minister, Wangchuk Deden Shakabpa. In 1948 he had led a famous
delegation sent by the Tibetan government to India, Great Britain, the United States and China to
seek international recognition for the country’s status. The delegation demonstrated considerable
diplomatic and strategic capability merely in gaining admittance to these countries, since they had
succeeded in doing so on Tibetan passports despite the energetic protests of the Chinese
government. Over two decades, later after the Dalai Lama and some 80,000 followers had fled to
India in 1959, he went on to produce the first comprehensive modern history of the nation, Tibet: A
Political History, published by Yale University Press in English in 1967, and a two—volume version
in Tibetan entitled, Bod kyi sri don rgyal rabs ("An Advanced Political History of Tibet"). These
works are still among the major texts to be consulted in any study of Tibet’s past.
Now, in a new location and in the English language, another Tibetan from the same family has shown
an enduring interest in the arts, in this case the art of poetry. Tsoltim Ngima Shakabpa, the youngest
son of the late Tsipon, first published a volume of his poems in 2002, when he was in his 59th year.
He had been seven years old when the People’s Liberation Army arrived in his hometown, Lhasa.
The uprising that led to the flight of the Dalai Lama to India had taken place when he was sixteen, if
we use the western method of counting age. By this time he had already gained considerable
proficiency in English language, having been sent, like many children (including some girls) of the
Tibetan elite from the 1940s onwards, to study in British-run schools in northern India. Later he was
to work for the Tibetan Governrnmentin- exile from its base in India, before moving to America and
becoming the first Tibetan to pursue a career in international banking as a senior executive in a major
His career as a writer emerged only after the onset of cancer in 1993, which was followed by a
stroke six years later that has since left him partially immobilized. He published a volume of poems in
the Catalan language called Records D’un Tibeta in 2002 and in English in 2003 under the title
Recollections of a Tibetan.
Two years later he produced an account of his own history Winds of Change - An Autobiography of
a Tibetan. In 2006 he published the collection of poems entitled, Odds and Ends. The present
volume is his fifth collection of poetry, and establishes him as a prolific writer with a distinct style and
He is not, however, the first Tibetan poet to write in English, though he is among the most productive
and wide - ranging. I here is a tradition of English - language poetry dating back to the late 1930s,
when the celebrated 20th century Tibetan intellectual, the radical monk - scholar Gendun Choephel,
wrote in number of poems in the style of the late nineteenth century romanticism. As Melvyn
Goldstein and others showed some 30 years ago, ordinary Tibetans were prolific users and creators
of verse famous well before the turn of the 20th century, and Lhasa was famous for the circulation of
street verses, quatrains of often impromptu wit that usually contained pointed political satire. For
centuries, Tibetan culture has been noted for the extensive use and importance of proverbs; the Bon
scholar Namkhai Norbu has shown that de’u or riddles were central to Tibetan culture in the era
before Buddhism was introduced some 1,400 years ago. But written poetry among Tibetans
remained largely the work of scholars until the exile to India in 1959. At that time a new, more
popular cohort emerged of Tibetan writers using the English language.
For the first generation of younger refugees, eductated in elite English - medium schools in India,
especially before the shift to a Hindi — based curriculum in 1975, it seemed natural that English
should serve as their lingua franca. Since then, their options may have narrowed further as the facility
to write in Tibetan becomes less common among the younger exiles.
From 1979 three editions of an English — language literary journal were produced by Tibetans in
India under the title Lotus Fields. It included work by K. Dhondup (the founder of the Tibetan
Communist Party in exile and an important writer), Tenzing Sonam (later to become a noted
documentary film director), the essayist and activist Lhasang Tsering, the government official thubten
Samphel, Gyalpo Tsering, and others. In the United States the renegade Tibetn lama Chogyam
Trungpa, working closely with Allen Ginsburg, published a book of his English - language poems in
1983. More recently, publications have emerged in India showcasing work by younger, lay writers
such as Buchung D. Sonam, Tenzin Tsundue, Thubten Chakrishar, Tsamchoe Dolma and others.
Since 2002 the work of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa has attracted increasing attention in the United
States. Bhuchung Sonam has edited an anthology of exile Tibetan verse (Muses in Exile, Paljor,
2004) containing work by 30 Tibetan poets writing in English, and has estimated that two to three
hundred Tibetans may have written or published English-language verse in India and elsewhere.
As Tsering Wangmo Dhompa noted in her essay "Nostalgia in Contemporary Tibetan Poetics" these
poems are largely about the experience of exile and of the loss that defines that condition."
We are entrusting a language different front our mother tongue to speak of the loss or the absence of
a country", Ms. Dhompa has written. The work of Tsoltim Shakabpa, the most senior of the current
groups of exile poets, exemplifies this predicament. His own views on this issue are presented in an
essay originally written for the Tibetan Bulletin but included in this volume, entitled "The Role of
English in Poetry by Tibetan”. There he suggests that the Tibetan writer should "First write down
what the heart feels in whatever language the writer feels most comfortable with and then use the
English language to interpret that feeling”.
Reflecting an openness that is relatively new to the exile community, he goes on to welcome the use
of Chinese as a language of expression by Tibetans writing in China. English is no longer the only
option for Tibetans aiming to reach a wider audience.
Tibetans now write in modes that reflect the places and societies in which they find themselves, and
Shakabpa’s own poems have been described (not apparently, unfavourably) by the Tibetan
journalist, T. N, Khortsa as "nostalgic yet very American".
In essence, however, they are characteristic of Tibetan exile poetry: they too focus on the loss of
nationhood, admiration for the Dalai Lama, animosity and pain concerning Cl1ina’s role in Tibet, and
fascination with the concepts of karma and impermanence. Above all, they share a privilege given to
the importance of emotional recollection. Shakabpa’s poems, however, have a very particular style
and energy, They are organized according to two principal devices, those of parallelism and
antithesis. Framed as sets of parallel clauses, they offer sharply opposing concepts: "The Dalai Lama
seeks Buddhism / The Chinese seek colonialism? In some cases the contrast is made sharper by the
use of radically contracted forms, where verbs, punctuations and other parts of speech arc omitted:
"China is / racially Han / historically ancient / politically communist / economically capitalist?
Punctuation is sparse or non-existent. The contrasts are paradoxical: an element of shock is
involved- Other surprises come with the content: some poems are discussions of terrorism, or
echoes American popular songs and speeches by President Kennedy; one is a series of mock
nursery rhymes about the fall of Saddam Hussein. All the pieces are marked by an energetic, didactic
force in which words are tools, consciously shifted or displaced to achieve sharpened, pedagogic
Thus we see reflected throughout this work the continuing sense of urgency that dominates the exile
experience. As the sense of loss accumulates, now approaching sixty years, concomitant anxieties
about long - term deprivation and uncertainty arise, always within the context and vocabulary of the
culture within which the exile writers currently find themselves. But those transnational echoes and
references, and the use of a foreign language, conceal permutations of a longer historical drive that is
central to these poems, for behind the work of Tsoltim Shakabpa and his peers resonate, in very
different, contemporary and deracinated terms, many of the vital concerns and fears that must have
preoccupied his father in the final delegation sent by Lhasa to the Indian, American, British and
Chinese capitals in 1948. The publication of these poems therefore represents both an innovation
and a continuity in the efforts of exile Tibetans to call for recognition of their identity and their
situation in a rapidly changing, globalised world.
Robert Barnett, PhD
Adjunct Professor and Director, Modern Tibetan Studies Program Associate Research Scholar in
International and Public Affairs Columbia University New York, NK U.S.A.
About the Author
Tsoltim Ngima Shakabpa was born in Lhasa. Tibet on September 7, 1943. he was educated in
Tibet, India and the United States. He worked for the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in India and was
a senior American international banker until he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in October
1993. He battled his way to good health through western medicine and meditation but was stuck
down again with a debilitating stroke in January 1999. Despite these setbacks, in 2002 Mr.
Shakabpa wrote a book of poems entitled, RECORDS D’UN TIBETA, which was published in the
Catalan language by the prestigious Spanish publishing firm, Pages Editors. In April 2002 he
received the EDITORS CHOICE AWARD for Outstanding Achievement in Poetry from the
International Library of Poetry. In June 2003, Mr. Shakabpa’s inspiring new book of poems entitled,
RECOLLECTIONS OF A TIBETAN, was published by the reputable United States publishing
firm, Publish America, Inc., and in early 2004 he was selected as ONE OF THE BEST POETS OF
2003. In addition, his long-awaited TIBETAN, was published in 2005 by Paljor Publications in New
Delhi. This book received spectacular reviews for its singularity and candor. And finally, his latest
collection of poems, ODDS AND ENDS, was published by Red Lead Press in the United States in
In March 2007, his old high school, the prestigious St. Joseph’s School, North Point, in
Darjeeling, West Bengal, India, awarded him the “first” MOST DISTINGUISHED NORTH
POINT ALUMNI AWARD for significant contribution to the world and to his community through
his profession in life.
Now Mr. Shakabpa has written this enthralling new collection of poems entitled, VOICE
OF TIBET, which knocks the wind out of Chinese colonialism and bursts open the door to the
truisms of life and death. This magnificent book should be an inspiration to all supporters of free
Tibet and to all those in search of mental and spiritual peace.
Mr. Tsoltim Ngima Shakabpa is the son of the eminent Tibetan scholar, historian and
statesman, TSEPON Wangchuk Deden Shakabpa, and is the Executive Director of his late father’s
memorial foundation, TSEPON WANGCHUK DEDEN SHAKABPA MEMORIAL
FOUNDATION. Like his famous father, he is a strong advocate for the independence of Tibet. His
poetries are marked with philosophical inspiration, romanticism, patriotism and a fighting spirit-all
expressed with a touch of American candor and Tibetan charm.
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