Tibetan Poetry on Wutai Shan
JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5719, pp. 215-242.
© 2011 by Kurtis R. Schaeffer, IATS, and THL
Abstract: This article surveys Tibetan poetry about Five-Peaked Mountain (Wutai shan) and then focuses on a short period of intense literary activity from the 1760s to 1830 and the figures from AmdoA mdo responsible for it – Changja Rölpé DorjéLcang skya rol pa’i rdo rje, the third Tukwan Lozang Chökyi NyimaThu’u bkwan blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma, Sumpa Khenpo Yeshé PeljorSum pa mkhan po ye shes dpal ’byor, Aja Yongdzin Yangchen Gawé LodröA kya yongs ’dzin dbyangs can dga’ ba’i blo gros, and others – as well as the relationships between them. Particular attention is given to ChangjaLcang skya’s Song to Five-Peaked Mountain (Nechok Riwo Tsengar Jelkapkyi Netö dang Drelwé Gur Jampel Gyepé ChötrinGnas mchog ri bo rtse lngar mjal skabs kyi gnas bstod dang ’brel ba’i mgur ’jam dpal dgyes pa’i mchod sprin) and the symbolism of the natural landscape that it employs.
Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries authors from the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism composed numerous poems on Five-Peaked Mountain (Wutai shan).1 It is likely that little of the imagery, myth, and narrative elements employed in this poetry will be new to those familiar with the rich lore of Five-Peaked Mountain currently extant in several languages. Nevertheless, poetry is the preeminent form of Tibetan literary expression regarding Five-Peaked Mountain, so it seems a good idea to survey this literature, both as a contribution to our increasingly vivid picture of Tibetan Buddhist activity around the site, as well as toward an eventual comparative literary history of Five-Peaked Mountain.
Let me refer briefly to the list of poets I have compiled to date, and then offer more detailed comments on several examples from this corpus. What follows is simply a preliminary list amounting only to twenty-two poets. All of this work is currently extant, save two poems. I have no doubt that a thorough and systematic search will yield many more Tibetan poems on Five-Peaked Mountain. In chronological order the poets are:
1257. Chögyel Pakpa Lodrö GyeltsenChos rgyal ’phags pa blo gros rgyal mtshan (1235-1280). Composed Garland of Jewels: Praise to Mañjuśrī at Five-Peaked Mountain (Jamyangla Riwo Tsengar Töpa Norbü Trengwa’Jam dbyangs la ri bo rtse lngar bstod pa nor bu’i phreng ba), in approximately one hundred verses.2
1352. Orgyen LingpaO rgyan gling pa (b. 1323). Verses on the origins of astrology at Five-Peaked Mountain in Chapter thirty-five of the Chronicle of Padmasambhava (Pema KatangPadma bka’ thang).3
Mid-15th century. Rongtön Sheja KünrikRong ston shes bya kun rig (1367-1449). Composed Praise of Five-Peaked Mountain (Riwotse Ngala Töpa Püljung DrayangRi bo rtse lnga la bstod pa phul byung sgra dbyangs) at Nalendra Monastery.4
Central Period of Poetic Activity (circa 1760-1830):
1767 or before. Lama Tsé Ngapa Penden DrakpaBla ma rtse lnga pa dpal ldan grags pa (eighteenth c.?). A guidebook (karchakdkar chag) in verse composed before 1767, extracts cited in Yeshé PendenYe shes dpal ldan’s guidebook.5
1767. Changja Rölpé DorjéLcang skya rol pa’i rdo rje (1717-1786). GurMgur/netögnas bstod composed in 1767 at Five-Peaked Mountain, included in his biography (composed in 1792-1794).6 Born in AmdoA mdo.
1772. Sumpa Khenpo Yeshé PeljorSum pa mkhan po ye shes dpal ’byor (1704-1788). Born in AmdoA mdo. GurMgur in his autobiography (composed in 1776), composed in 1772 at Five-Peaked Mountain.7 Born in AmdoA mdo.
1784. TukwanThu’u bkwan III Lozang Chökyi NyimaBlo bzang chos kyi nyi ma (1737-1802; Tuken III Lozang Chökyi Nyima in Standard Tibetan pronunciation). GurMgur in biography (composed in 1803), composed in 1784 at KharngönMkhar sngon. Born in AmdoA mdo.8
1785. Gyelwang Khen Drakpa GyeltsenRgyal dbang mkhan grags pa rgyal mtshan (1762-1835/1837). NetöGnas bstod composed in 1785 at Labrang Monastery (Labrangbla brang). Born in AmdoA mdo, Twenty-third Abbot of Labrang Monastery.9
1799. Aja Yongdzin Yangchen Gawé LodröA kya yongs ’dzin dbyangs can dga’ ba’i blo gros (1740-1847; Akya Yongdzin Yangchen Gawé Lodrö in Standard Tibetan pronunciation). GurMgur/netögnas bstod composed in 1799 at Five-Peaked Mountain.10 Born in AmdoA mdo.
18th century. Alaksha Tutop NyimaA lag sha mthu stobs nyi ma (eighteenth c.). This poem (netö söldepgnas bstod gsol ’debs) is not available.11
1813. Yeshé DöndrupYe shes don grub (nineteenth c.) and Alaksha Ngawang TendarA lag sha ngag dbang bstan dar (1759-1831). Sixteen verses on a temple history and survey (LogyüLo rgyus, KortséBskor tshad). Composed in 1813.12
1831 or before. Dznyana ShrimenDznyā na shrī man (Yeshé PendenYe shes dpal ldan, also known as YepenYe dpal). Twenty-three “transitional” verses (barkap tsikchébar skabs tshigs bcad) concluding the seven chapters of his guidebook, composed no later than 1831.13
1831 or before. Sangda DorjéGsang bdag rdo rje (nineteenth c.). Verses of homage and offering (chakchöphyag mchod) appended to Yeshé PendenYe shes dpal ldan’s guidebook, composed before 1831.14
Mid-18th century. Kangyurwa Lozang TsültrimBka’ ’gyur ba blo bzang tshul khrims (fl. seventeenth/ eighteenth c.). A Praise to Five-Peaked Mountain (Riwo Tsengé NetöRi bo rtse lnga’i gnas bstod).15
Renewed Period of Activity
1898. Jamyang Zhepa’Jam dbyangs bzhad pa IV Kelsang Tupten WangchukSkal bzang thub bstan dbang phyug (1856-1916). Two aspirational prayers (mönlamsmon lam) in biography composed in 1916 by his student Jikmé Trinlé Gyatso’Jigs med ’phrin las rgya mtsho (1866-1948).16
1908. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tupten GyatsoThub bstan rgya mtsho (1876-1933). Poem in fifty-eight verses composed in 1908 at Five-Peaked Mountain.17
1925. The Ninth Panchen Lama, Tupten Chökyi NyimaThub bstan chos kyi nyi ma (1883-1937). A prayer to Mañjuśrī.18
Late Nineteenth-Early Twentieth c. Lobsang TamdrinBlo bzang rta mgrin (1867-1937). Composed Praise to the Supreme Pure Land Five-Peaked Mountain (Dakpé Zhingchok Riwo Tsengé Netö Jamyang Chöpé MetokDag pa’i zhing mchog ri bo rtse lnga’i gnas bstod ’jam dbyangs mchod pa’i me tog) while visiting the site.19
1950s. Dobi Geshé Sherap GyatsoRdo sbis dge bshes shes rab rgya mtsho (1884-1968). Poem on the shrines of Five-Peaked Mountain in sixteen verses.20
1985. Troru TsenamKhro ru tshe rnam (1928-2005). Composed the Story of the Supreme Place Five-Peaked Mountain (Nechok Riwo Tsengé Tokpa JöpaGnas mchog ri bo rtse lnga’i rtogs pa brjod pa) while visiting the site.21
2007. Ngawang TendarNgag dbang bstan dar (1971-). Verses following sections of his guide to Five-Peaked Mountain.22
A few remarks about the writers in this list can be made at the outset. First of all, it is apparent that there is a relatively short florescence of intense literary activity, stretching from perhaps the 1760s to 1830 – about a seventy-year period – in which most of the Tibetan poetry on Five-Peaked Mountain was composed. This corresponds well to the latter part of the period of major activity sketched out by Gray Tuttle in his present essay. To be sure, the thirteenth-century priest of the Mongol court, Chögyel PakpaChos rgyal ’phags pa, looms large over all Qing-period Tibetan Buddhist poets on Five-Peaked Mountain, for he wrote the single longest Tibetan poem to the site in one hundred verses. Pakpa’Phags pa remained in the memory of Qing-period writers, who in some cases even make explicit mention of his poetry on Five-Peaked Mountain. The limited period in which the majority of these works were composed is naturally related to the second point, namely that almost all the writers in this central period were born in AmdoA mdo, and almost all knew each other personally. TukwanThu’u bkwan III Lozang Chökyi NyimaBlo bzang chos kyi nyi ma was a student of both Changja Rölpé DorjéLcang skya rol pa’i rdo rje and Sumpa KhenpoSum pa mkhan po. Aja YongdzinA kya yongs ’dzin was a student of TukwanThu’u bkwan. Drakpa GyeltsenGrags pa rgyal mtshan was a disciple of TukwanThu’u bkwan’s biographer Gungtang Tenpé DrönméGung thang bstan pa’i sgron me. And Alaksha Tutop NyimaA lag sha mthu stobs nyi ma was a teacher of Alaksha Ngawang TendarA lag sha ngag dbang bstan dar. This was, in short, a close-knit intellectual community in which writers were likely quite aware of each other’s work.
There are no fewer than six types of Tibetan poetry represented here, namely eight-syllable songs (gurmgur), place-praises (netögnas stod), petitions (söldepgsol ’debs), aspirational prayers (mönlamsmon lam), “transitional” verses (barkap tsikchébar skabs tshigs bcad), and finally guidebooks (karchakdkar chag) composed in verse rather than prose or mixed prose and verse. In some instances it might be considered needlessly artificial to extract the poetry as an object of inquiry from the text in which it is embedded. The two nineteenth-century place guides are cases in point, for within the overall structure of these works the poetry serves to recapitulate the preceding prose chapters. Yet there is something intriguing about the presence of poetry in these two works in particular that gives good cause to make the distinction. The authors of both (Yeshé PendenYe shes dpal ldan and Yeshé DöndrupYe shes don grub) claim that their proficiency in [page 220] Tibetan-language writing is poor. The principle author of the 1813 guide to the Mañjuśrī Temple, the Tumed Mongol Yeshé DöndrupYe shes don grub, even goes so far as to enlist the help of a well-known Tibetan Buddhist grammarian, Alaksha Ngawang TendarA lag sha ngag dbang bstan dar, to help edit and polish the work. In both cases the poetry closing each chapter exhibits a knowledge of Indo-Tibetan poetics (Yeshé DöndrupYe shes don grub’s work contains sixteen verses, three introductory, seven concluding, and two each for the first four of its five chapters). This begs the question of language proficiency – how well did Tibetan Buddhist authors whose native tongue was not Tibetan know classical Tibetan? – and calls for a systematic study of language use among multi-lingual Tibetan Buddhists of the period. It also leads one to wonder if the well-crafted poetry included in Yeshé DöndrupYe shes don grub’s guide may be the work of his editor, Ngawang TendarNgag dbang bstan dar. Even if poetry is included within prose guidebooks, could it have been occasionally left to writers deemed more qualified to compose such verse?
At any rate, let me skip over the first two Qing figures on the list for the moment – Penden DrakpaDpal ldan grags pa and ChangjaLcang skya – and briefly introduce the other authors from the central period. Sumpa Khenpo Yeshé PeljorSum pa mkhan po ye shes dpal ’byor was an Oirad born in AmdoA mdo, educated at Drepung’Bras spungs Monastery in LhasaLha sa, and active in and around AmdoA mdo for the better part of his life – especially during his two terms as abbot of the imperially sponsored GönlungDgon lung Monastery. A consummate scholar and beautiful (if occasionally caustic) writer, he composed a massive autobiography in 1776, throughout which he interspersed many poems. In recounting the second of three trips to Five-Peaked Mountain in 1772, he described his impressions of the site in a brief seven-verse poem. The final verse fairly well sums up his enthusiasm for the site:
Who has fortune enough to come to this place,
No different than wisdom’s body itself,
Has searched for aeons with eyes, ears, and mind:
Is this not the heart of seizing hold of life?23
I will return to this verse and its emphasis on the senses via a similar line from the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s poetry toward the end of the essay.
Tukwan Lozang Chökyi NyimaThu’u bkwan blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma, our next author, visited Five-Peaked Mountain several times during the latter half of the eighteenth century, traveling there first in his thirties to visit his master, Changja Rölpé DorjéLcang skya rol pa’i rdo rje. In the rich biography of TukwanThu’u bkwan composed in 1803 at Labrang Monastery by his student Gungtang Könchok Tenpé DrönméGung thang dkon mchog bstan pa’i sgron me (1762-1823), we find TukwanThu’u bkwan working in the year 1784 at the Inner Mongolian Buddhist center of KharngönMkhar sngon, or in Mongolian Khöke-Khota (Tibetan transliteration: Huho Haotéhu’u ho ha’o the), yet all the while longing to be with his master, ChangjaLcang skya, back among Mañjuśrī’s [page 221] mountains. TukwanThu’u bkwan is driven by this longing to compose a poem, a short piece that journeys line by line from his own location to Five-Peaked Mountain to his master’s hermitage in a few verses. Here are the first lines of a poem that goes on to recount the glories of his master, and lament that TukwanThu’u bkwan cannot be at his feet at this very moment:
Right now, from KharngönMkhar sngon
To the southeast of here,
Is the place where Celestial Mañjuśrī appeared,
Cool and Clear Five-Peaked Mountain,
Foretold by the King of the Śākyas,
An exalted and wondrous place.
In a shrine on slopes of its central peak,
By the name of bodhisattva House,
Some two-hundred miles southeast of here,
Where once Master Buddhapalita
Revealed the Spell of the Victory Crown,
In a place known as Diamond Cave,
This beggar’s all-knowing teacher,
Called Rölpé DorjéRol pa’i rdo rje resides.24
Two years later TukwanThu’u bkwan’s master would die. ChangjaLcang skya was entombed at the Five-Peaked Mountain, the place that had, for TukwanThu’u bkwan, become intimately bound up with his identity as a Buddhist master even before his remains became a permanent fixture in the cultural landscape. After this time ChangjaLcang skya was to figure in most poetry about the site.
In the autumn of 1799, more than a decade after ChangjaLcang skya had passed away, the well-known linguist and grammarian Aja Yongdzin Yangchen Gawé LodröA kya yongs ’dzin dbyangs can dga’ ba’i blo gros visited Five-Peaked Mountain. To mark the occasion he composed a poem in twenty-nine verses. Like ChangjaLcang skya some thirty-two years before him, Aja YongdzinA kya yongs ’dzin styled his piece as a song that integrates a place-praise. In fact, he even gave his own poem the same title as ChangjaLcang skya’s earlier work, the Cloud of Offerings to Delight Mañjuśrī (Jampel Gyepé Chötrin’Jam dpal dgyes pa’i mchod sprin). Many of the motifs found in ChangjaLcang skya’s work are present in AjaA kya’s poem, and the meter is the same Tibetan song form, the eight-syllable gurmgur. What distinguishes the latter work is that, after creating a rich vision of Mañjuśrī teaching amidst many spectacles in the first third of the work, it goes on to address Mañjuśrī personally, pleading to him for blessings. ChangjaLcang skya does not ask for such blessings, though his song certainly counsels others to do so, and it appears that AjaA kya heard him.
Perhaps the most famous poem to Five-Peaked Mountain is that composed by ChangjaLcang skya himself in 1767, a work entitled Cloud of Offerings to Please Mañjuśrī: A Song Coupled to a Place-Praise for Five-Peaked Mountain (Nechok Riwo Tsengar Jelkapkyi Netö dang Drelwé Gur Jampel Gyepé ChötrinGnas mchog ri bo rtse lngar mjal skabs kyi gnas bstod dang ’brel ba’i mgur ’jam dpal dgyes pa’i mchod sprin). Of Monguor descent and raised in Beijing from the age of eight, Rölpé DorjéRol pa’i rdo rje grew up in the multi-cultural world of the Qing empire to become a well-known hierarch within the GelukpaDge lugs pa School of Tibetan Buddhism and state preceptor to the Qianlong emperor. The biography of Changja Rölpé DorjéLcang skya rol pa’i rdo rje composed by his student Tukwan Chökyi NyimaThu’u bkwan chos kyi nyi ma between 1792 and 1794 has attracted significant attention among scholars of Qing imperial culture in recent decades thanks to its rich portrayal of Tibetan Buddhism’s place in court life, and it also stands among the principle achievements of Tibetan-language biographical writing. Between 1767 and his death in 1786, Rölpé DorjéRol pa’i rdo rje routinely spent the summer months in retreat at Five-Peaked Mountain.
ChangjaLcang skya’s Song was included by Tukwan Chökyi NyimaThu’u bkwan chos kyi nyi ma in his lavish biography of ChangjaLcang skya composed between 1792 and 1794, and it was also printed as a companion to ChangjaLcang skya’s own unfinished guide to Five-Peaked Mountain. According to its colophon, ChangjaLcang skya composed this poem at the request of his assistant during a six-month-long retreat, so it appears that the occasion for writing was rather intimate. The Song to Five-Peaked Mountain was a literary gift from master to disciple. Yet we might also suspect that ChangjaLcang skya had a broader ideal audience in mind, for he makes a general exhortation to potential patrons and pilgrims at large in the closing verses. The poem is composed of fifty quatrains of eight-syllable verse in a meter peculiar to the gurmgur form (a four-foot form in which catalexis occurs in the first foot, followed by two trochees and a dactyl). There is no indigenous criticism of this song that I know of, but we can fairly easily break down the fifty verses into an outline of topics, and note briefly some of its features. ChangjaLcang skya begins the song with a prayer to Mañjuśrī (verse 1), and a brief statement that Five-Peaked Mountain has been claimed by Mañjuśrī as his abode (verses 2-3). This is followed by the longest section of the poem, a sequence of fourteen verses dedicated to the natural features of Five-Peaked Mountain (verses 4-17) and their soteriological significance. Next ChangjaLcang skya recounts in quick succession the tales of old masters associated with the site (verses 18-22), and moves on to construct a Buddhist lineage stretching from the Buddha through Nagarjuna to TsongkhapaTsong kha pa, all of whom have given teachings at Five-Peaked Mountain – at least in a visionary setting (verses 26-34)! He then moves from this list of enlightened persons associated with the site to emphasize that the site itself is in fact always populated by such figures who, like Mañjuśrī himself, may appear in any guise (verses 35-38). ChangjaLcang skya thereby collapses the historical narrative of the preceding verses into an eternal present in which visitors may always encounter past masters in the landscape of Five-Peaked Mountain. These verses read:
To faithful disciples who keep the holy vow,
These may appear at times just like a sage,[page 223]
Or boys, or men, or women in different times,
Or Chinese monks wearing robes of brown, 
As a destitute beggar wandering about,
As birds or as deer or whatever one thinks,
As medicine, flowers, plants or a forest,
As living or inanimate things they pretend. 
There may be those, however, who harbor doubts about the veracity of these, but ChangjaLcang skya has no patience for them in this song:
With backward views clogged up with karmic stink,
Sophist logicians possessing but fickle minds,
Intoxicated with conceited hubris,
Do not recognize them, but it’s obvious. 25
The song is the perfect form with which to critique philosophers who may wish to explain the visions of the faithful away, for the song has long been a vehicle to condemn scholasticism and institutionalism in favor of yogins, hermits, and pilgrims. One can easily imagine Tibet’s most famous bard, MilarepaMi la ras pa, uttering these verses himself, some six hundred years before ChangjaLcang skya took up retreat at Five-Peaked Mountain. ChangjaLcang skya employs the song to uphold the legitimacy of visions against over-analysis, despite the fact that he is elsewhere also the author of doxographic literature as technical as any Tibetan logician’s work.
The latter sections of the poem include autobiographical remarks and personal petition (verses 39-43), an exhortation to others to visit Five-Peaked Mountain (verses 44-47), an endorsement of the site’s efficacy (verses 48-49), and finally a dedication of merit (verse 50). Yet the heart of ChangjaLcang skya’s song of praise is certainly the passage of fourteen verses extolling the natural and supernatural wonders of Five-Peaked Mountain. In these verses ChangjaLcang skya deems particular features of the landscape – conceived in natural, cultural, and supernatural terms – to be “signs” (dabrda), indicating certain soteriological benefits sure to be accrued by those who visit the site:
Rising high a hundred-fold above,
The maṇḍala of lands around its base,
A sign leading on to untainted freedom,
Those who wander throughout their lives. 
A mountain of five lovely jeweled peaks,
Blazing with splendor that chases the midnight sky[page 224]
A sign that the work of five wisdoms
Is protecting beings without end. 
On turquoise meadows and on glittering fields,
Are wild flowers, one hundred different hues,
A sign that virtue, goodness deep and certain,
Will give birth to joy in each thinking person. 
A host of six-legged bumblebees perform
A song, a dance. They sound and soar right here.
Unanalyzed, they offer a chance for joy,
Displaying a wondrous vision of causation. 
Of rivers with eight-fold virtues there are many,
Flowing and cascading, sounding sweet,
A sign that love and mercy, joy and calm,
Protect all living beings, mothers every one. 
The forests that are roused by cooling winds,
With rustling, shaking, blue and green hued leaves,
A sign that calls out to the great way,
The fortunate who awake to their nature. 
Clusters of sweet hundred-flavored fruits,
Ripened well and heavy bow the trees
A sign that the glorious fruit of liberation,
Is filled with blissful joy of contemplation. 
Flocks of sweet-voiced, finely feathered birds,
Fly everywhere, melodies like sitars playing:
A sign that those observing the Four Truths,
Are given assurance with momentous advice. 
Oblong eyed and handsome deer in herds,
Traverse the peaks and valleys so relaxed,
A sign the joyous path to full nirvana,
Is rich with every kind of joyous thought. 
Jeweled cliffs a many-storied mansion high,
Possess the splendor of many a sparkling light,
A sign that the Buddha bodies’ higher plain,
Is flourishing with virtuous qualities without end. 
Herbs that cure a hundred wicked ills,
Letting off a satisfying scent:
A sign of that billows of skill and wisdom
Solve the plight of life and liberty. 
Above the sky is filled with massive clouds,
At once displaying infinite designs,
A sign that Defender Lion-Speech,
Displays, plays out his three-fold mystery magic. 
In this place the holy things of Buddha and his sons,
Measure beyond number in a marvelous array,
Chapels and stūpas, ten thousand and more,
Arranged for the faithful, merit-filled field. 
These all possess a feast of wondrous lights,
That sparkle amongst each other back and forth,
For many a fortunate being whose karma is pure,
They bring one hundred splendid visions to mind. 26
Taken as a whole, these fourteen verses present a vivid collection of flora, fauna, terrestrial, and celestial imagery of the sort even nature poets such as Wordsworth (writing at the same time) might find engaging. The mountain foot is liberation; its peak is wisdom. Flowers are virtue, bees embody the doctrine of causation. Rivers flow with love, breezes call, and birds teach. Fruit is contemplative, deer trot along the Buddhist path, and the clouds are a celestial magic show:
Note Citation for Page
Kurtis R. Schaeffer, “Tibetan Poetry on Wutai Shan,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5719 (accessed ).
Note Citation for Whole Article
Kurtis R. Schaeffer, “Tibetan Poetry on Wutai Shan,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 215-242, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5719 (accessed ).
Schaeffer, Kurtis R. “Tibetan Poetry on Wutai Shan.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 215-242. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5719 (accessed ).