Tsering Woeser

The Entire Night
I Dreamt of Langchen-la



Evan Yorke Nepean
1936
Pitt Rivers Museum
2001.35.127.1





︎Sound recording of Woeser reading her poem “The Entire Night I Dreamt of Langchen-la”

Recorded December 21, 2020, Beijing
Duration: 9:08 minutes
Courtesy of Tsering Woeser




Notes
:

[1] Langchen (གླང་ཆེན་) is the Tibetan word for elephant. And when you add –la at the end, Langchen-la (གླང་ཆེན་ལགས་), it becomes a term of endearment. The -la means respect or love, something like Dearest Elephant. Over time, Langchen-la became the name for the specific elephants kept by the Dalai Lama.

[2] Bod pa (བོད་པ་) is the Tibetan word for Tibetan people.

[3] The seven treasures, or emblems of royalty, Gyal si na dün (རྒྱལ་སྲིད་སྣ་བདུན་): the precious jewel, the precious wheel, the precious queen, the precious minister, the precious horse, the precious elephant, and the precious general. They are understood to be seven aspects of the path to awakening. The precious elephant symbolizes mindfulness.

[4] Dzongyab Lukhang (རྫོང་རྒྱབ་ཀླུ་ཁང་།): Temple behind the Potala Palace. Known as the Dragon Pond in Chinese.

[5] Phodrang Potala (ཕོ་བྲང་པོ་ཏ་ལ་): The Tibetan name for the Potala Palace.

[6] The Tsekor is a prayer path worshipers walk when circumambulating the Potala Palace.

[7] The golden dome is a reference to the Jokhang Temple.

[8] Within the Tibetan Tradition, the bardo is an intermediary zone or period of existence where one goes after one dies and before one is reborn.

[9] The Kalachakra Mandala (དུས་ཀྱི་འཁོར་ལོ།) is the mandala of the Pure Land, the ideal realm of Buddhism. The pure land of the Kalachackra Mandala is purest land of all of the pure lands. Every year, His Holiness the Dalai Lama holds what is known as the Kalachakra Initiation Assembly in order to help all sentient beings reach the pure land.

[10] The six tusks represent the Six Perfections: charity (dāna-pāramitā), morality (śīla-pāramitā), patience (kṣānti-pāramitā), diligence (vīrya-pāramitā), meditation (dhyāna-pāramitā), and wisdom (prajñā-pāramitā).

[11] Thangka (ཐང་ཀ་): A form of Tibetan painting, usually of a Buddhist subject.

[12] Vyākaraṇa is a form of Vedic inquiry relating the study of language, in particular the explanation of metaphysical truth through words.

[13] Shari Monastery: Located in Chumarleb County, Kham, in the eastern part of Tibet (today it is Chumarleb County, Yushu Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province).

[14] This is the last sentence of a letter a friend, who works in public welfare in Tibet, wrote to me from the Shari Monastery on the morning I woke from this dream and wrote the first draft of this poem.

[15] In March 1959, tens of thousands of Tibetans in Lhasa rebelled against the CCP. His Holiness the Dalai Lama went into exile in India. The CCP imposed a military countermeasure named “Quell the Counterrevolutionary Rebellion,” and classified the rebellious Tibetans as “insurgents.”

[16] Tsampa (རྩམ་པ་): Tsampa is the staple food of Tibetans. It is made of highland barley that is ground and fried. In Tibetan culture, tsampa symbolizes national identity. If you ask “Would you like to eat tsampa?” it is like asking if they are Tibetan. In contrast, rice is a metaphor for Han Chinese.

[17] This quote is from the article “Once there was an elephant in Lhasa” written by the folklorist XXX in the 1990s. The article relates that this female elephant was gifted to the 14th Dalai Lama by the King of Nepal in 1947. The food given to the elephant by the Kashag government included tsampa, rice, and grass. Each month, 20 kilograms of oil were allocated for cleaning the elephant and to prevent dry skin.

[18] Dramyin (སྒྲ་སྙན་): Tibetan plucked stringed instrument; the name means pleasing sound.

[19] Thupka (ཐུག་པ་): Tibetan noodles.

[20] Shabhaley (ཤ་བག་ལེབ་): Tibetan meat dumplings.

[21] The photographer’s name is Chen Zonglie.

[22] White Elephant: In the past, the King of Siam would give white elephants to people who disgusted him. The recipients would often go bankrupt because of the expense of raising them. In modern times, “white elephant” has come to refer to objects, plans, commercial ventures that consume huge resources but are useless or worthless. Projects that are expensive but have no practical effect are described as “white elephant projects.”

[23] Interior: After 1959, “a newly coined term for Motherland, “mes rgyal’, came into common usage in the press and in official publications…. [T]hose students and cadres who went to study in China were said to have travelled to the “interior (rgyal nang).” Tsering Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (Penguin, 2000).



The entire night I dreamt of the elephant Langchen-la.1
I didn’t want to open my eyes, kept them closed
that this divine beast would not fade away as if it had never existed.
I immediately wrote down what I saw so as not to forget
this strange encounter linking me to the past as I fell back
into this reality of smog and dust.


I have to tell this dream to everyone.
Langchen-la is a Tibetan term of endearment for the elephant.
And this elephant in my dream came from a foreign land
somewhere beyond the Himalayas, walking the very path
that His Holiness would later walk into exile, its long trunk swinging
back and forth, its big ears like fans, its four, heavy limbs.
All along the road, Bod pa2 were awed
by this miraculous trace of a god, one of the seven treasures.3
They pressed their palms together,
overflowing with love, a spontaneous festival
celebrating this bodily manifestation of the elephant god.


Starting with the Eighth Dalai Lama, they let elephants
dwell in the Dzongyab Lukhang4 behind the Phodrang Potala,5
asking the attendants, the ones who spoke Nepali or Hindi,
to wrap Langchen-la’s head in a white cloth, to soothe it,
to dispel any longing for home, that it would feel safe and welcome.
Every day at noon, upon hearing the conch sound
from the highest terraces of the Phodrang Potala, Langchen-la
would slowly, slowly accompany worshipers
as they circled the Tsekor,6 it drank from a well along the way,
faced the radiant, golden dome7 and swung its trunk a few times,
as if in homage, as if bowing in worship.


And so this last elephant to be given to the Dalai Lama lived
until the 1950s, when the world unexpectedly turned for the worse.
Then, as if it knew beforehand, as if it were unwilling to follow
the old road once again, it refused to follow His Holiness
and the hundred thousand people who left their home in sadness.
At that time, when danger lurked everywhere,
it stepped into the bardo.8
But before it arrived at the Kalachakra Mandala,9
its body white as snow, its six tusks pure and clean10
as one might see painted in a thangka,11
Langchen-la, like a vyākaraṇa12 fallen from the sky,
turned into the written word.


When I awoke from this dream, I had this vision:
through early morning light, a snowflake
in the shape of the Eternal Wheel of Life
“settled lightly on a monk’s robes at Shari Monastery13 …” 14


***


They say there is a grain of dust at the center of every snowflake
that falls, pulled as if by an irresistible force, into the reality
of smog and dust…. And this one fell into the 1950s, when the world
unexpectedly turned for the worse.


It is unbearable to bear witness to the true plight of Langchen-la.
Its demise at the hands of the occupiers was not at all
like the ending of my dream, where it entered the Kalachakra Mandala.
My own delusion was far too immaculate.


At first, the elephant keeper was labeled an “insurgent”15
and imprisoned. No one came to attend to Langchen-la, no one
rubbed oil into her skin, no one any longer fed her balls of Tsampa.16
Her skin cracked open under the scorching sun, and sweat
and grease oozed from “a crosshatch of cuts.”
She swayed her long trunk, looking everywhere for food,
she wandered around Lhasa Middle School, knocking over
this and that. For a time, she was confined: her front leg
was tied to a thick stone pillar, “The high stone walls enclosed
the elephant’s house in unyielding death.”17
It is said Langchen-la died before the Cultural Revolution,
but how she died, no one knows. The elephant keeper
went to visit it in secret, only to see thick skin lying on the ground,
I know not where the bones and ivory ended up.


Later, the elephant’s house was demolished and converted
into a restaurant, but business was not good.
Perhaps the smell of Langchen-la’s body remained?
Then it became an amusement park, with replicas of airplanes
and horses, but there was no replica of Langchen-la.
Children’s laughter diluted the sadness, just as it diluted memory.
And most recently, it has become an open-air teahouse,
On sunny days with a fresh breeze, it fills with people
who have come to worship the Potala or walk the Tsekor.
A singer from the countryside plays the dramyin18
and begs for coins. I myself have been there so many times—
I drank sweet tea, ate thupka19, or shabhaley20
and knew none of this.



***


But, I have seen Langchen-la, just not at the Dzongyab Lukhang…
(and my grandmother told me how excited she was to see it as a child).
The travel diaries of several Westerners record many evocative details,
the last of which is the winter of 1959, when a huge thangka
was unfurled from the Phodrang Potala, and Lanchen-la
was dressed as white treasure elephant for the last time.
A PLA photographer21 snapped a shot of her
curling her long nose as though it were dancing.


The legend of Langchen-la is not over, it is like the erratic sequels
of a series on TV. What I mean is that just a few days ago,
I passed by the newly built Qushui Zoo. Sculptures of two elephants
stand by the door, one is black and the other is gold,
they appear to be a mother and child playing in the water.
And inside the zoo, there’s a real elephant from Kunming,
the city where it’s spring all year long.
Was it shipped here by car or train?
Of course, it did not come here on foot.


The Tibet Business Daily says its name is Nibo,
(what does Sun Boy mean?) and that he waits day and night
for them to send a female elephant, (will she be named Moon Girl?)
that they may live happily ever after. It also says
that its hometown is in faraway Myanmar. So maybe
this Burmese elephant is a relative of the Thai elephant?
I think of the allegory of the destructive conceit
in the gift of the white elephant.22
Beside me a boy, who had just visited the zoo, says with regret,
“I didn’t see the elephant. I heard it was sick,
and sent back to the interior23…”



—Woeser


May 17, 2017, Beijing
August 2, 2018, Lhasa
January 14, 2019, Beijing
May 4, 2019, Beijing


Translated by Ian Boyden, January 31, 2021