Generally masters are masters and seekers are seekers. But not always, as Anam Thubten Rinpoche’s poems reveal—master and seeker can be one voice.
Anam Thubten is a lama from Golok and a Dharma teacher from everywhere. He just made history in the English world of Dzogchen, by publishing a collection of poems titled Big Sky (Wide River Press, 2016.)
In his preface, Rinpoche claims that sixteen poems do not a poet make. Maybe he’s wrong?
Garbage in, Garbage out — always an important consideration. In the case of Anam Rinpoche’s poetry, the input side of the equation cannot be established because most of it predates his present incarnation. As for the output, like all genuine wisdom, it cannot be assessed. So, in this case, I do propose that sixteen poems do a poet make!
In her foreword, Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel prepares the reader:
While it may be impossible to capture the man in words…I find Rinpoche to be a romantic, a product of the wild earthiness of his Golok ancestry and an appreciator of life all in one, but most essentially, Rinpoche is someone for whom the refinement, humility, and compassion of many years of Buddhist study and practice has come alive.
I am not in the least qualified to review a book of poetry nor, as Rinpoche’s student, would it be appropriate for me to do so. I am writing to praise and welcome this inimitable book into the world of nondual Dharma and Dzogchen for Westerners.
As soon as I opened Big Sky (5” x 8.5”), a beautiful white and blue cover and the romantic watercolor art of Tatjana Krizmanic invited me in, promising that the contents would work its magic on my overworked and over-examined mind.
Did I forget to say that Rinpoche wrote these poems in English? It’s not surprising since I remember my astonishment when Rinpoche was just learning English—his first author was Carl Jung!
Buddhist spiritual poetry has been around since the time of Lord Buddha, whose teachings were written down by disciples. In Tibet, the famous 11th century Milarepa was the first religious poet. Others followed such as Drukpa Kunley, Tsongkhapa, Longchenpa, the 6th Dalai Lama, Gendun Choepel and, in modern times, Dilgo Khyentse (untranslated) and Chogyam Trungpa, who wrote in both English and Tibetan.
Now in his fourth decade on this Earth, Rinpoche shares that he grew up appreciating the poetical literature of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and that his childhood poems were praised by his teachers. His characterization of Tibetan Buddhist texts as poetical literature stopped me in my tracks. As a student and translator, I’m aware of the usage of verse and poetical imagery to convey meaning and inspiration and as a mnemomic device, but have never considered these compositions as poetry...more like school textbooks. The Western notion of poetry as subjectivity and personalization is probably largely responsible for my incorrect judgement and loss.
Big Sky is a poetry book for the practitioner of any contemplative tradition. Anam Thubten's tone is warm and familiar as he recounts his encounters with the timeless freedom of direct awareness.
His lyricism immediately unfurls and offers the pleasure of entering his experience as he travels the globe almost weekly to inspire and teach. And now and again, his persona emerges with insights and sometimes, somber reflections. On page 1:
An ancient rockfish in water
Makes my life seem so finite
She quietly dispels my illusion of immortality
Don’t envy her longevity
Living too long can be a curse
Mother sea will hold my ashes with others.
Verses of direct teaching, reminiscent of the classics, are coupled with existential questions:
The spiritual path is long and winding
With countless delusions and illusions
And now and then a little insight.
Why is it so easy to descend instead of ascend?
To sleep instead of to wake?
To be bound instead of to be free?
To be frozen instead of to melt?
To whom should we complain,
“This is not a fair game!”?
Dancing with Nature’s Wrath, inspired by the devastating fire at Anam’s new retreat center, Sweetwater Sanctuary, is a favorite poem that attunes me with the power of nonconceptual awareness:
Is this good or bad?
Let’s try not to find an easy answer for everything.
Let’s stay with the not knowing.
Many found true freedom
by surrendering to the not knowing.
This is indeed an ancient secret that liberated
Thousands of hearts.
And, for a bone-chilling reminder of my biggest fear on the spiritual path, from Hymn to the Ineffable Canyon De Chelly:
All these wonders are the expressions of the ineffable.
The ineffable is hard to understand.
The skeptics beg for proof,
The agnostics are too chicken to surrender,
The religious ones only make love with
The Last Koan (also the last poem) offers a closure as an opening, drawing on Dzogchen’s intellectual tradition of all that is within the buddha nature:
You have never been born.
You are here all along.
You are here to see your own wonder.
You can rest from searching for eternity
Please join me in welcoming Big Sky and thanking Anam Rinpoche for his loving service to us in these dark times.
Your comments are most welcome and will be passed to Rinpoche. Thank you.