On Books & Literature: An Interview with Khenpo Tsondru Sangpo

Entering Khenpo Tsondru Sangpo's room, you will see few possessions apart from two imposing bookshelves that have very little in the way of empty space. It goes without saying that a book is rarely far from Khenpo's hands. Here he shares some of his knowledge and experience with Tibetan literature.

What are you reading these days?

I'm currently teaching Daṇḍin's Kāvyādarśa, so I'm mostly engaged in reading poetry. I'm reading a commentary by the 17th-century scholar Bö Khepa, along with Mipham Rinpoche's commentary and a work called The Melodious Laughter of Brahma's Son. I'm not reading much of the other books on poetics; however these days I am reading a bit of the Bodhicaryāvatāra.

Why is poetry taught to monastics?

It's the duty of a monk to uphold the Buddhist teachings by means of both exegesis and personal practice. Giving oral instructions, debating, and composing texts are the most important ways of upholding the Buddhist teaching in terms of their exegesis. Knowledge and proficiency in poetry is helpful in each of these activities—it provides you with the skills to speak in an organized and interesting manner, it helps you discover new ideas and modes of thinking when debating, and most of all it opens the door to eloquent and effective writing. So if a monk is to take up exegesis as his practice, knowledge of poetry is essential.

In Tibet, all writers were poets in some capacity, but who stands out as particularly eloquent?

Generally speaking, Sakya Paṇḍita’s work is very famous. Bö Khepa, the Fourth Khamtrul Rinpoche, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, and Mipham Rinpoche are also considered to be some of the best poets. More recently, the author of The Melodious Laughter of Brahma's Son, Setshang Losang Palden, is also quite a good poet who was writing around the time of the big upheavals in Tibet. Also Tseden Shabdrung, Dungkar Losang Tinlay, and Dorje Gyalpo are other excellent poets from this time.

Apart from religion, what other topics do Tibetan poets engage with?

Most Tibetans use the forms and devices demonstrated in the Kāvyādarśa to construct their poems. So the poems are most often very closely related to these prescribed forms. It's all very classical; it's not like modern poetry. As for some of the more unique types of poems, Mipham Rinpoche has written using poetic forms in which, for example, one single verse can express ten different meanings. Bö Khepa wrote very close to the original style and spirit of the Kāvyādarśa. The Great Fifth is known for his very sharp use of words.

Poetry and religious texts are certainly the most common forms of Tibetan literature. What other forms are well known?

There are also quite a few dramas. In particular, the Mahāsiddha Thangtong Gyalpo was instrumental in popularizing this genre. In the process of constructing a multitude of iron bridges across Tibet, he also composed a series of eight different dramatic operas. After that, the genre really started to flourish. Sakya Paṇḍita is also known for his work on drama. Later, Mipham Rinpoche wrote a drama involving the story of the legendary King Gesar. The eight operas of Thangton Gyalpo spread across all of Tibet, while the stories of Gesar were most popular in Kham, especially Riwoche.

If we look at the other contemporary literatures of South Asia, we can see the heavy influence of modern forms such as short stories and realist novels. Why has this yet to take off in modern Tibetan literature?

There just aren’t very many readers of Tibetan literature. There is also little in the way of publishing houses or channels for distribution. So Tibetans have not developed these forms of national literature that reflect modern influence.

What is your favorite philosophical text?

I tend to enjoy all of the philosophical genres equally, but these days I'm particularly interested in Madhyamaka. I used to be more drawn to books on logic, but my tastes are changing! 

Every generation of the monastic sangha produces its own written works to help pass on the teachings to the next generation. What types of works are the current generation producing? What works will prove most beneficial?

Previously, polemical works that demonstrated the weakness in other’s ideas and established one's own viewpoint as supreme were the most popular style of texts in Tibet. Polemical works are quite good, but I feel they are less appropriate for the current environment. For example, now it's better to simply present with clarity the unique points of a philosophical viewpoint rather than engage in extensive refutations of other systems or thinkers. These days a lot of books come out that are transcriptions of the teachings of great masters such as the Dalai Lama. In these we also don't see him engaging much in polemics, and he is really the one everybody looks to as an example.

In contemporary Tibet, there are a few writers still engaged in the polemical style. The well-known Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö and the now deceased Khenpo Jigme Phuntshok have focused their writing on introducing with clarity the basics of Buddha-dharma, discussing ways of improving our organization as a religious community, and explaining the most effective ways of using the dharma to bring about transformation in our minds. For example, there is Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö’s book Explanation of Past and Future Lives, or his collection of advice for monastic institutions called Timely Rain. These are the kinds of works that will have a big impact these days. [Smiling] Perhaps most of what is to be said about philosophy has already been written! 

- Interview by Ryan Conlon