Poems from a Plague — a Tibetan Meditation

Viral Alarm

Tsering Woeser (ཚེ་རིང་འོད་ཟེར་, 1966-) is a Tibetan writer, activist, blogger, poet and essayist. Her cycle of poems — ‘Epidemic Three-line Poems’ 時疫三行詩 — written as the coronavirus epidemic engulfed China’s People’s Republic, is translated by Ian Boyden. It is introduced by way of a conversation between the poet and her translator.

The Conversation is followed by a translation of Woeser’s poems to which is appended the original Chinese text, which is followed by a transcription of the conversation, again in Chinese. Photographs and art work were provided by Woeser and Ian Boyden.


We are grateful to Tsering Woeser and Ian Boyden for allowing us to publish this important new work and include it in Viral AlarmChina Heritage Annual 2020. Our thanks also to Callum Smith for his contribution.

For other work by Ian Boyden published by China Heritage, see ‘A Forest of Names — the translation of one grief to another’ and ‘In The Consequences of Poetry’, a conversation between the translator and Ai Weiwei.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
18 April 2020


Viral Alarm
China Heritage Annual 2020

Further Reading:

A Poet Responds to the Pandemic 

For thirty years, the Tibetan writer and humanist Tsering Woeser has documented the relentless colonisation and devastation of her homeland and its culture by the Chinese party-state. She bears witness to this unfolding tragedy through essays, blogs, poems, social media posts and photography.

Woeser’s documenting of events in Tibetan China and her unwavering outspokenness have repeatedly placed her at loggerheads with the Beijing authorities. Despite relentless intimidation, she has continued to write and, today, she is not only the most prominent public intellectual in the People’s Republic involved in the discussion of Tibet, she is also one of the most respected and appreciated Tibetan voices worldwide.

While Woeser’s essays and blog posts have been widely translated into English, her poems have received less attention. My ongoing project to translate the poems she has written over the last decade is, in part, also aimed at helping both myself and others better appreciate Woeser as a poet, as well as to gain further insights into her inner motivation.

The 2019-2020 pandemic has added a new dimension to Tsering Woeser’s struggle. ‘Epidemic Three-line Poems’, published here, is an initial response to the stark new reality created by the coronavirus. Below, my conversation with Woeser offers an introduction to this cycle of poems and the conditions which inspired it.

By its very nature, literary translation tends to be a solitary pursuit, nonetheless, it is rarely accomplished alone. I am grateful to Andrew Quintman, Jennifer Boyden and Geremie Barmé for their help in crafting these translations. My profound thanks to Tsering Woeser, for her time, her collaborative enthusiasm and, in particular, for her trust in allowing me to translate her work.

Ian Boyden


Photograph courtesy of Tsering Woeser


Tsering Woeser

In Conversation with Ian Boyden

27 March 2020


Boyden: This cycle of forty poems offers a meditation on cause and effect. They allow us an insight into how you — as a writer, a Buddhist, a Tibetan in exile, and a political dissident — perceive and respond to the coronavirus pandemic, one that is unlike anything any of us have ever experienced. For my part, I feel as though I am walking around in a daze, and I know many others have a similar feeling of disjuncture. I think your interconnected series of poems can help us see through the darkness. Can you tell me how this work came into being?

Woeser: You’ll recall that the initial draft that I sent to you in early March consisted only of twenty-eight sections or verses. However, as the plague spread, my contemplation of things shifted increasingly inwards, towards my innermost heart. Poems began to flow from me until they took their present form. From the moment I started writing this cycle of poems, I felt that I was no longer alone; I knew everyone shared the same state of anxiety. Yet also, from the start, I had a strong sense that, to quote my poem, ‘No place exists that will not fall to the enemy / No epidemic exists that is not terrifying’. In fact, I felt that concurrent with this biological plague, another far more terrifying plague is at large. To put it another way, it is precisely because of this other plague that the present infectious disease has appeared and run riot.

The theme of cause and effect emerged as I started writing. Countless people are bewildered by the origin of what in Chinese is often called ‘Wuhan Pneumonia’ 武漢肺炎, or the coronavirus, which has now become a pandemic. But if you apply this single Buddhist phrase to the issue, you may have a clearer understanding of the situation:

‘If you wish to understand your conditions in this life, look at your actions in previous lives. If you wish to understand your conditions in future lives, look at your actions in this life.’

Or, to quote that well-known Chinese saying:

‘If you plant melons, you harvest melons. If you plant beans, you harvest beans.’

It was ideas such as these that, added to the epidemic itself, led me to create the present work.

Boyden: I recently read an essay written by Susan Sontag in 1978 titled ‘Disease as a Political Metaphor’. In it she says:

‘Any important disease, whose physical etiology is not understood, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance… . The disease itself becomes a metaphor.’

Thus, cancer becomes associated with the unregulated growth and metastasis of capitalism; tuberculosis is equated with the profligacy of wealth, and so forth. The first stanza of your poem reads, ‘No, there exists another plague far worse than this one.’ Are you thereby also using the very real, and devastating coronavirus epidemic also as a metaphor for an even more threatening political plague?

Woeser: This cycle of poems is not just a meditation on cause and effect. From the very first stanza, this work is also a political critique. In particular, it is a critique of that vast political plague, although I only hint at that in a veiled fashion because I am actually quite frightened. The political plague and the oppression that it has occasioned never eased up during the time that I was writing these poems; the advent of the coronavirus did not lead to a suspension of everyday politics; in fact, it has continued unabated. Over this period, I was repeatedly cautioned by the state security organs [not to speak out of turn] and a number of my friends, even those living quite far away, were threatened because of me. Under the conditions of totalitarianism such is our everyday reality.

The line ‘there exists another plague far worse than this one’ is the kernel of the work. So, yes, by ‘another plague’ I am referring to a political plague — tyrannical governance as well as the actual organs of repression and the thuggish sway in which it operates. Tyranny is akin to a virus. When I write of the ‘other plague’, I am talking about many things: destiny, the fate of humanity, as well as the dictator, regardless of which dictator.

Boyden: Throughout the poem there are many places where the subject or object remains intentionally ambiguous. For instance, when you quote the Sutra of the Fundamental Vows of the Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha [1], you write ‘Its waters seethe and boil….’ What does that ‘it’ refer to, and how is that particular subject transformed as the poem unfolds?

Woeser: In the original sutra, ‘it’ refers to the ocean. The passage is wonderfully descriptive. A young Brahmin girl is praying for her mother’s salvation:

‘After meditating for one day and one night, she suddenly finds herself at the shore of the ocean. Its waters boil, many evil creatures with iron bodies are flying over the ocean, rushing to the east and west. She sees men and women, by the hundreds of thousands, haunting the ocean, being fought over and devoured by the terrible beasts…. But the Brahmin girl, because she invokes the power of the Buddha, is naturally without fear.’

The ‘it’ in this particular poem within the larger cycle refers to the ocean of suffering and terror experienced by people today. ‘It’ is not just about the virus, it is also a metaphor for contemporary society, even the whole world in which we are living. This ‘it’ appears repeatedly throughout the cycle of poems and, depending on the context, ‘it’ has different meanings.

Ian: Hell on earth is certainly a recurrent theme in your work. I think, for example, of those lines from your earlier work ‘Revolutionary Fire’:

‘Each curling flame opens
into an interminable blank space,
another hellish lacuna in the pages of history.’

Woeser: The descriptions of hell in Buddhist sutras are very detailed, although people don’t usually think of them as being literal. To my mind, however, presently we are living in the six realms of samsara and circulating through the eighteen levels of hell. It is something that is happening right now. It is not a metaphor.

Boyden: Returning to the multiple meanings of the virus, a few weeks ago, Ai Weiwei made a similar distinction between the biological virus and the nature of a mental or political virus. He said:

‘Looking at it now, it appears that the epidemic in China is not a deadly plague, but a mental illness with no hope of reprieve.’ [Twitter, 12:03 AM, 8 February 2020]

Woeser: Yes, the state of mental illness provides an apt parallel. The mental illness of an individual, of a community, a whole regional, right up to a whole-of-society malady and even national psychosis. But here we are not talking about some recent infection, it has long ailed humanity.

Over time, China has repeatedly been infected by this ‘other plague’, one that has increased in intensity until it has become a chronic affliction. It may, in fact, prove to be incurable. As a Tibetan I have particularly strong feelings on this subject. I can find a resonance in the work of Sontag who, in her book AIDS and Its Metaphors [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989], wrote about ‘the connection of exotic origin with dreaded disease’ [see p.50]. I had a profound response to this line, and I wrote in the margin of the book:

‘Then, as an exotic country, how many times have epidemics been brought to Tibet? Epidemics always accompany colonisation. So, when SARS was spreading in Beijing, in Lhasa we began to prepare for a formidable enemy. This is something worthy of investigation: in recent history, how many times has Tibet been subject to new epidemics? When people compare communism to AIDS, of course colonised Tibet will inevitably be infected.’

Boyden: Thoughts are contagious, and ideas about power may well be the most contagious of all.

Woeser: Thought follows action, and as a result ‘misfortune spreads to the four seas’. Just as George Orwell obsessed in 1984, ‘In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.’ This is a plague.

Boyden: From another angle, I have come to see this virus as a ‘strange moon’, one that illuminates the integument of our society, be it good or bad. What has it illuminated for you?

Woeser: If we see the virus as a ‘strange moon’, then will we not also see a strange world? For in a world we think that we know so well, the moon also seems to be familiar. As a result isn’t it all too easily ignored? But regardless of whether it is strange or familiar, the clear cold moonlight illuminating the dark of night also illuminates life itself. Under that light we can readily perceive the impermanence of all things. This is a good thing. However, my Buddhist practice leads me to believe that our present incarnation is just a single lifetime, one of many lifetimes that are bound together. Appreciating this may allow people a measure of relief, something that will help them avoid being consumed by anxiety and fear.

Boyden: During the present outbreak the virus is not just illuminating our social structures, I think it might also prove to be a transformative force. In some ways, your poem is a meditation on the chain of causation. ‘Bodhisattvas fear causation, ordinary beings fear effects.’ Can we shift the causal nature of the virus so that it ends up benefiting humanity?

Woeser: What you say aligns perfectly with my original intention. Yes, the cold and clear moonlight also illuminates a much deeper relationship, that is to say the law of causation, or karma. I was recently reading some of the poems of His Holiness the Fifth Dalai Lama [Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso ངག་དབང་བློ་བཟང་རྒྱ་མཚོ་, 1617-1682] and a line in ‘Tender Shoots and Agreeable Words’, a poem written almost four hundred years ago, really struck me: ‘Those whose karmic propensity is awakened will dance!’ What I detect among those suffering from this epidemic, only those who are so awakened will be able to dance the dance of life. It can be such a beautiful dance.

Is it possible, however, to transfigure the causal nature of this virus so that it may actually benefit humanity? That’s a topic that will prove to be of concern to every person. In other words, it will entail everyone’s responsibility. But that will only happen if people do good out of respect for the consequences of their actions.

Boyden: In stanza three of the first section of this cycle of poems you mention wild grass. Of course, I thought of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, where each blade of grass is a symbol for the individual, the field of grass is human society itself, grass representing democracy. But you change course and say instead that ‘it’ (again, you never mention your actual subject) is like ‘garlic chives’. Can you elaborate on what you mean by garlic chives?

Woeser: The grass I’m thinking of has nothing to do with democracy, nor was I thinking about Whitman. Regardless of whether it is grass or garlic chives, what I am referring to here are those who are the most vulnerable, those who are harvested time and again again by scythes. Even though the wildfires burn endlessly, with the spring wind these vulnerable lives will be born once again [a reference to a famous Tang-dynasty poem by Bo Juyi 白居易]. However, the scythe hangs over the head of every blade of wild grass, over every stalk of garlic chives. It may cut a wild swathe through the field without a moment’s notice.

The expression ‘garlic chives’, 韭菜 jiǔcài, is a popular term on the Chinese Internet. Because garlic chives grow again after being harvested and can be cut down once more, the term is used to refer to the weak who are repeatedly exploited and unable to escape. The exploitation of the masses is referred to by employing the visual image of cutting garlic chives. Those that profit from this exploitation are equated with the sickle used to cut the garlic chives. Many people use this metaphor to describe themselves. Of course, we all know who is wielding the sickles.

Boyden: When this plague started, like many others I decided to reread Albert Camus. I found this observation from The Plague particularly relevant: ‘There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of humane respect. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is humane respect.’

Woeser: This plague, which originated in Wuhan, China, has now spread throughout the world. It’s having an impact on different political systems, be they totalitarian or democratic, as well as different ethnicities and cultures, along with different geographies and different climates, etc. Of course, each will cope with it in their own way, although the responses will be only comparatively different. The most fundamental difference will be clear depending on whether there is a basic respect for our humanity or not. It is an obvious point.

If there is no respect for humanity, the epidemic will continue to spread. Only by placing our hopes in humane respect can we stop this plague. How else can it be done? This plague has created a community of human destiny [a Communist Party formulation prompted by Xi Jinping that the poet turns on its head here].

Boyden: Indeed, this is not the ‘community of human destiny’ envisioned by Hu Jintao or Xi Jinping. Viral diplomacy! Only a poet could be so subversive!

Woeser: [laughs]

Boyden: Here we have just started our first week of official shelter-in-place. There are no airplanes flying over head and almost no cars. It is so quiet. I feel as though the natural world is heaving a great sigh of relief. At the same time, there is also a terrible sense of foreboding. What was it like for you in Beijing?

Woeser: After two months of quarantine that original sense of doom has still not dissipated. For now it appears as though the government in Beijing has scored a victory against the epidemic. At this moment, although it is the dead of night I can hear the cacophony of traffic outside just like before. The silence imposed by the epidemic has been broken. Once again people are out and about busy making money.

Boyden: Actually, tonight I feel very lonely. I’m unwilling to tell my friends that, in reality, I’ve been in a state of self-isolation now for over a decade, something that’s not all that different from being quarantined. I’m not a hermit as such, but rather just on a journey of self-discovery. It’s one that is both simple and complex. I could say that I’m a translator with a heart permanently in exile. You? What is your normal life like, despite the fact that you have been branded as ‘politically sensitive’?

Woeser: Mine is a constant state of self-isolation! A few days ago, Ai Weiwei and I were discussing this very topic. For us a life in quarantine is nothing new. We have no difficulty adapting because we have been living in a state of sequestration for many years. We have long lived with our political plague for we are writers who insist on being truthful, people who fight for the right to express ourselves freely, who have lost all too many personal freedoms. As a result society treats us like a kind of toxic virus. We live in isolation from others; this was a fundamental reality for me long before this. To put it in another way: I have lived in internal exile for many years, so, naturally, I don’t think that the imposition of this kind of quarantine is particularly hard to bear.

Boyden: To whom are you addressing this poem?

Woeser: I wrote this poem for this moment. The moment of this plague. This plague is nothing less than a world war, a plague of invasion, slaughter, occupation, and colonisation. As a person caught up in this, as someone who bears witness, for me to fail to record it all in my own way would be a form of unforgivable betrayal. This time I have ended up recording this event with 120 lines of poetry. It’s not that long, but also not too short. My apologies for creating such a burden for the translator!

Boyden: Can we talk about the final stanza? First, I want to talk about Taneda Santōka’s haiku poem, translated into Chinese by Gao Haiyang. I wanted to find an English translation of it, but failed to do so. That turned out okay since I located the original Japanese and by doing so I realised that my interpretation of it is quite different from Gao who tells us that the poet is praying in a loud voice. But the original actually says, ‘Voice rises into the wind’ [風の中聲はりあげて]. Taneda doesn’t specify whose voice. It is likely his own, but it could be the voice of another, or that of the reader. The voice becomes one with the wind. There is a beautiful Buddhist ecology here that involves prayer and the dissipation of the chanting voice.

Woeser: I encountered Taneda’s haiku during the outbreak of the epidemic. I learned that he was a mendicant monk who travelled by foot, a monk who wandered through the clouds. His haiku is suffused with the ‘voice of the dharma’, and its language is beautiful. I read about how he felt walking with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Walking on the road. Walking in the wind. Walking and praying. To him prayer is as routine as chatting. I love the feeling of the wind. I think the wind that blows from snow-shrouded Everest is a true wind without impurities, it carries the smell of my homeland, Tibet. When I stood in that wind and chanted ‘I take refuge in the Bodhisattva Who Perceives the World’s Cries [南無觀音菩薩], I experienced a profound sense of consolation. As a result, I was not so anxious, not so fearful of the political plague.

I like the resonances of the original Japanese haiku even more. The way this voice floats in the wind, how this voice attaches to the wind, how it leaves its traces on the wind. This voice is a prayer in all languages be it Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, English, or whatever. According to Buddhist tradition, we revere ‘The Three Refuges’: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, or the community of Buddhist monks.

Boyden: We have talked about this cycle of poems as a political critique and the virus as a metaphor. But they are also a prayer. You quote many texts — sutras, mantras, chants, as well as poems by Buddhist monks — but ultimately you are the one who is praying. In the final line, you ask for all the wandering souls to be released from the bardo, or the state of existence between two incarnations or lives. Can you talk about this? The bardo is a special place in Tibetan Buddhism, and I suspect in this poem it also acts as a metaphor.

Woeser: The meanings of ‘bardo’ are deep and varied. In Buddhist conceptions there are six kinds of bardo, and not all of them have to do with the state after death. I think that everyone who is struggling with the plague are in a kind of bardo, one that we need to free ourselves from. But in my poem I also call the thousands of departed souls who died as a result of the plague ‘wanderers’. They didn’t want to die; surely they still long for the realm of the living and so they linger in the murky limbo of the bardo. It is a harrowing and sorrowful state. As I wrote the last verse I prayed to Guanyin so that her great mercy and compassion might help these lost wanderers. I pray, as a Buddhist, for all of those lost souls and for their rebirth. As I am still in the realm of the living it is something I felt that I could do, and so I have.


  • [1] The Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva Pūrvapraṇidhāna Sūtra, क्षितिगर्भ बोधिसत्त्व पूर्वप्रणिधान सूत्र, Ch. 地藏菩薩本願經 describes Kṣitigarbha, a Bodhisattva who took a vow not to enter nirvana until all the souls have been liberated from the various Buddhist hells. Among other things, this sutra addresses questions related to karmic retribution.


A Note on the Translator:

Ian Boyden’s work investigates the relationship between the self and the environment, in particular how art and writing can shape human ecology. His work reflects his abiding interest in material relevance and place-based thought, as well as an awareness of East Asian thought and aesthetics. He studied for many years in China and Japan, and holds degrees in art history from both Wesleyan University and Yale University. He is the 2019 recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship focussed on Woeser’s poetry. His new book, A Forest of Names, will be published by Wesleyan University Press. A selection of that material can be seen here.

Epidemic Three-line Poems


Woeser 唯色

translated by Ian Boyden

Part One

No place exists that will not fall to the enemy
No epidemic exists that is not terrifying
No, there exists another plague far worse than this one

‘The good and bad dying indiscriminately’ [1]
Anguished cries everywhere,
we swallow the salt of our overflowing tears

Like wild grasses, no, like garlic chives [2]
cut by the curved blades of one plague and another
with unparalleled swiftness, without sound, without rest

Some are saving others’ lives
Some pray to their own gods
Some people continue doing evil, greater evil

East, west, south, north — the epidemic, tumultuous and unpredictable
My heart fills with worry, only the paper-white narcissus
brought with the embrace of a beautiful woman still stand [3]

It’s New Year’s Eve, we put on face masks and drive around the capital
we pass by Xinhua Gate flanked with red walls [4]
I cannot breathe

I hadn’t read the Vajra Armor Mantra before [5]
Now, I’m on my ninth day of reading it 108 times a day
My reading more and more fluent, my heart more and more reliant on it

I face this dharmapāla standing on a black pig
I notice the black pig’s nine heads look like a nine-headed bird [6]
Flames spew from its eyes, its mouth opens wide

Bodhisattvas respect causation, ordinary beings respect effects [7]
However, there is nothing this enormous animal farm respects
This lunar new year there is no need to set off fireworks [8]

You gradually see how ‘its waters seethe and boil, all kinds of evil
Men and women… fought over and consumed by this evil
… its forms so diverse, you dare not look at it for long.’ [9]


Part Two

For the moment, it appears not to loathe Tibetans
not to loathe Uyghurs
But to be Wuhanese has become a label to avoid at all costs

An infected fugitive
boarded a train in Wuhan and headed straight to Lhasa
he will be remembered by the name ‘Zhang Moumou’ [10]

Surrounded on all sides by the enemy
it is absurd to describe Tibet as a pure land
in the final analysis ‘the whole country is red’ [11]

The official declaration of zero new infections is suspicious
A political Shangri-La does not exist
but repeating something one hundred times will cover the truth

The monasteries are closed, the palaces are closed
the taverns are closed, the restaurants are closed…
even the sweet teahouses where the locals go every day are closed

I heard all the tsampa was looted [12]
If even in Lhasa, the self-sustaining tsampa was looted over and over,
is there any metaphor more sorrowful than this?

Suddenly, the space in front of the Jokhang is empty
Has there been any time in history that has extinguished in such silence
‘… people have not the slightest fortune or ethics they can trust’ [13]

I don’t mean to be angry with anyone, but how could Dawu [14]
a city so remote, a city lacking medical treatment and medicine,
become a center of the pandemic? This cannot be explained by karma alone

Suddenly snowflakes swirl, allowing window-held me
to glimpse at great distance a girl who suffers from sleepwalking
being led home by her father through the snow-bound streets of Dawu

This year, Losar seems to be later than in other years [15]
And having survived the pandemic, with a pinch of tsampa
we expel the virus from the human world. [16]


Part Three

Doors closed for ten days, on a rare day of good weather we head to the countryside
everywhere is deserted, the intersections blocked by men and women
wearing red armbands: ‘Go back from whence you came!’

The paper-whites that grew taller and taller, so lush and fragrant
they’d already become a satire against the present reality
suddenly collapse, as if overcome by fear

The cats those people dropped from great heights
The dogs those people buried alive
The bats, the monkeys, the pangolins served at the dinner table

A Chinese scholar finds a record of a Taoist God of Five Pestilences [17]
My family, while counting days of the Tibetan calendar
finds a prophesy of a plague in the year of the Iron Rat

They actually cannot stop even in these times,
They extend their black hands toward my old friends and new acquaintances:
‘The way you talk about the plague is inappropriate.’

Preventing speech is more important than preventing the plague
In no uncertain terms, they told me I was not to speak of the following:
the Dalai Lama, Hong Kong, the pandemic, and the country of the giant infants [18]

What kind of vicious circle is this?
Infected with a virus, they scramble over each other to obey the virus
and then infect their fellow citizens, misfortune spreading to the four seas

We are all brought under control under one roof
We have lost our voice and our tears
our lives trapped in chaos

It’s like the surface of a scab has fallen off
exposing a scar that cannot heal, and this
is the essence of all plagues, which no medicine can cure

People, no, all living things — how long have you suffered
each in your respective way? How long have you survived
these so-called outbreaks? How much time is left?


Part Four

Previous plagues that crossed the oceans
were colonial reinforcements to annihilate indigenous peoples
the Maya, who were almost wiped out, called smallpox the Great Fire

Without immunity and caught off guard
It spreads throughout the world with the speed of a prairie fire
A limitless war, murderous and galloping

‘Look, there are more and more predators
Congratulations, gluttons, on your good appetites’ [19]
Congratulations, for what you’ve chosen from the menu

If we say this plague is a metaphor of something bigger
perhaps the lives of all people have been firmly captured
and how will it ever be willing to let them go?

Please don’t fabricate an illusion out of lies
concealing previous disasters and this current one
concealing the slaughter of countless innocent people

A poison arrow has been shot into the karma-carrying body,
a target in the wilderness, howling wind,
the arrow pierces the bullseye, no one can hide

An insatiable, winged insect
plummets into a cup of wine offered to the dharmapālas
and, in its effort to escape, obtains permission for reincarnation

The pennant streaming across the walls of Shelkar Chöde [20]
painted as though the wind were blowing it in waves
Is that the pure wind from snow-shrouded Everest?

‘A boil with a human face, a terrible grievance from ancient times
erased with one scoop of clear spring water, take pity on yourself as you would on others’ [21]
I sincerely love the ancient Chinese word ‘repentance’ [22]

When I read this haiku I started to cry:
‘In the wind, I loudly pray: Namo Guanshiyin Pusa’[23]
Please release the souls, lost, packed into the bardo … [24]

February-March 2020, Beijing


Photograph courtesy of Tsering Woeser



These notes incorporate material both by the poet and the translator. Woeser’s original notes are marked (W) and those of Ian Boyden (I). Co-authored material is indicated by (W/I).

[1] This is passage from The History of the Peloponnesian War (trans. Rex Warner) attributed to the Athenian historian Thucydides, who described in vivid detail the Plague of Athens in 430 BCE. This plague is thought to have been an outbreak of smallpox that originated in Ethiopia spreading to Greece via Egypt and Libya. It ultimately killed around a quarter of the population of Athens. See also Donald R. Hopkins, The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History (University of Chicago Press, 2002). (W/I)

[2] ‘Garlic chives’ 韭菜, a popular Internet term, refers to the masses of people who have been repeatedly exploited by those in power. Garlic chives can be harvested repeatedly and always sprout again after having been cut back. (W/I) [Ed.: for more on ‘garlic chives’, see Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, ‘Viral Alarm — When Fury Overcomes Fear’, China Heritage, 24 February 2020]

[3] Prior to the Lunar New Year, a Tibetan friend brought me a bunch of paper-white narcissus bulbs. During the epidemic, they grew and flowered exuberantly. They became a source of considerable comfort. (W)

[4] Xinhua Gate located on Chang’an Avenue in Beijing is the main, south-facing entrance of Zhongnanhai, the Lake Palaces, which have been the headquarters of the central government and the Communist Party since 1949. The gate is flanked by two vermillion walls inscribed with slogans that read ‘Long live the Great Chinese Communist Party’ and ‘Long live ever-victorious Mao Zedong Thought’. (W/I)

[5] The Vajra Armor Mantra is also known as The Dorje Gotrab Mantra. Dorje Gotrab རྡོ་རྗེ་ཁོ་ཁྲབ་ is a dharmapāla, or ‘dharma protector’, and his mantra, when recited, is thought to cure various illnesses. According to tradition, the mantra was written by the sage Padmasambhava and revealed by Tertön Dorje Lingpa (1346–1405). Dorje Gotrab is usually depicted as a fierce warrior wielding an instrument of the dharma while standing on a nine-faced iron pig. (W/I)

[6] A famous proverb says that ‘In the sky there is a nine-headed bird, on the ground there’s a fellow from Hubei’. It is used as a metaphor to describe the shrewdness of people from Hubei province. (W)

[7] ‘Bodhisattvas respect causation, ordinary beings respect effects’ 菩薩畏因,眾生畏果. This is often-repeated phrase exhorts people to think about the chain of cause and effect and to concentrate on eliminating the causes of suffering rather than focusing on suffering itself. In this stanza, Woeser plays on the meanings of 畏 wèi. Wèi can mean ‘fear’, but it also akin to ‘treat with awe’ or ‘respect’, ‘be attentive or alert to’, or, indeed, ‘to be cautious about’. Woeser then locates this ambiguous term in the context of the machinations of the Chinese party-state by invoking the image of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The rulers lack a sense of wèi. Thus the line could also be read as meaning: ‘Bodhisattvas are attentive to causation, ordinary beings fear consequences, however, there is nothing this enormous animal farm respects.’ (I)

[8] The Lunar New Year in 2020, or Spring Festival, was on the 25th of January. Known as ‘Spring Festival Migration’ 春運 it is the busiest travel season in the Chinese calendar. Due to the health crisis, the country was effectively shut down to halt the spread of the coronavirus. (W/I)

[9] This is a quotation from the opening chapter of Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva Pūrvapraṇidhāna Sūtra which is titled ‘Spiritual Penetrations in the Palace of the Trayastrimsha Heaven’. Kṣitigarbha is celebrated for a great many things, one of which is his skill at freeing souls from hell (see also the note at the end of the conversation above). (W/I)

[10] Zhang Moumou 張某某, literally ‘Someone called Zhang’ is a term used to indicate a person infected with the ‘Wuhan Influenza’. Here Zhang Moumou is akin to the American term ‘John Doe’. This unknown individual left Wuhan before it was sealed off and travelled to Lhasa. The following day, 25 January 2020, he was hospitalised. After he was discharged on 13 February he left Lhasa. To date, officially, this Zhang is the only confirmed case of coronavirus in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. (W)

[11] This is an expression coined by Mao Zedong that became famous during the Cultural Revolution when, in 1968, it was printed on a postage stamp which included a map of the People’s Republic that did not include the ‘rogue province’ of Taiwan. (I)

[12] Tsampa is a staple of the Tibetan diet. It is usually made by mixing roasted barley flour with butter tea to form a dough or thick porridge. Tsampa also has a political significance as it is used as a metonym for Tibetan unity, thus it is also associated with Tibetan autonomy and independence. (I)

[13] This is from a biography of Padmasambava called the The Pema Kathang པདྨ་བཀའ་ཐང་. It was written c.1352 by Tertön Orgyen Lingpa (ཨོ་རྒྱན་གླིང་པ་, b.1323). It contains a prophecy:

‘There will be those who do evil, but blame it on the evil of the times. The times will not have changed, it is simply that the human heart is sinister. In those times, people will have not the slightest fortune or ethics they can trust.’ (W/I)

[14] At the time of writing, Dawu རྟའུ་རྫོང་། in the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan, had seventy-four confirmed cases of Wuhan pneumonia. It was the most severely infected area in Tibet. I lived there as a child and I have been particularly concerned about the coronavirus outbreak there. (W)

[15] Losar ལོ་གསར་ is the Tibetan New Year. In previous years, it has fallen somewhere between 29 December and 16 January 16. In 2020, however, Losar was on 22 February. (W)

[16] The ‘expelling of evil spirits’ is a customary ritual during the Tibetan New Year in which tsampa or wheat flour dough is fashioned into a devil and an exorcism performed. (W)

[17] The five ‘plague messengers’ or gods are called Spring Plague, Summer Plague, Autumn Plague, Winter Plague and the Middle Plague. (W)

[18] In this line, ‘Hong Kong’ refers to the ongoing mass protests in 2019 sparked by the proposed legislation to allow for the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to the Mainland of the People’s Republic. The ‘country of the giant infants’ refers to contemporary China; ‘giant infants’ 巨嬰 is a metaphor for immature adults. (W) [Ed.: For more details on China as a ‘Giant Infant Country’, see: Lee Yee 李怡 & To Kit 陶傑, ‘China, The Man-Child of Asia’China Heritage, 26 September 2019]

[19] These lines are from my poem ‘Why Must All Things be Domesticated?’ (September 2018). Here the term for glutton is taotie 饕餮, a fierce creature depicted on many Shang and Zhou dynasty bronzes. (W/I)

[20] Shelkar Chöde Monastery is located in Dingri county, Western Tibet. It belongs to the Geluk-pa or ‘Yellow Hat’ School of Tibetan Buddhism. (W)

[21] From The Compassionate Waters Repentance Ritual by Master Wu Da (悟達國師, 811-883) of the Tang dynasty. The text contains a well-known story in which a painful boil with a human face reveals a chain of causation to a Buddhist priest. (W/I)

[22] ‘Repentance’ 懺悔 chànhuǐ, the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit pāpadeśanā and Tibetan sdig pa bshags pa is a term that frequently appears in Mahayana Buddhist texts. (I)

[23] This haiku is by the Japanese Soto Zen priest Taneda Santōka (種田山頭火, 1882-1940). It was translated into Chinese by Gao Haiyang and published in Remaining Slowly Cooked Rice: 300 Haiku by Taneda Santōka (Hunan Arts and Literature Press, 2019). In Woeser’s poem, I have translated the Chinese version of this poem so as to convey the sentiment that had particular touched Woeser. My interpretation of the original haiku, however, is somewhat different from Gao Haiyang’s Chinese version. The original haiku reads: 風の中聲はりあげて南無観音菩薩, that is, ‘Voice rises/ into the wind/ Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu.’ The act of prayer is implicit in the final line, ‘Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu’, which is a common Buddhist chant meaning ‘I bow to (hail or, take refuge in) the Bodhisattva Who Hears the Worlds’ Cries.’ But the first two lines present a subtle image. The word ‘voice’ 聲 koe — most possibly refers to the poet’s voice, although it could also be that of another person, or even that of the reader, one that rises in the form of a prayer or invocation uttered in the wind. It is a voice rising softly to meet the intensity of the wind. Here there is no sense that it is fighting the wind, or that the voice is strident. The ‘voice’ is simply rising up into the wind and becoming one with the wind. The strength of the wind depends on the reader’s imagination. Here, wind may be taken as a metaphor human existence, or, alternatively, it can simply just be the wind. My thanks to my friend Jocelyn for helping me think through the meaning of the Japanese original. (W/I) [Ed.: Kanzeon, or Guanshiyin 觀世音, is known as Chenrezig in Tibetan and Avalokiteśvara अवलोकितेश्वर in Sanskrit. The Dalai Lama is regarded as being the incarnation of Chenrezig, who is also the patron deity of Tibet.]

[24] In Tibetan Buddhism, there are many kinds of bardo བར་དོ་, one of which is the liminal space/time between lives known as chönyi bardo (chos nyid bar do), or ‘the bardo of suchness’, or unconditioned truth. When a person dies their spirit wanders in the chönyi bardo before being reborn. What happens in that bardo is subject to considerable debate, although it is generally agreed that during the soul’s sojourn there it experiences both great possibility and terrifying hallucinations. During the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic, when so many people are dying, it is easy to imagine the new wandering souls in chönyi bardo. Here Woeser is appealing for their quick rebirth. The concept of bardo can also be taken as a metaphor for any period during which normal life is disrupted. (I)

February–March 2020, Beijing

Art work by Tomoyo Ihaya. Courtesy of Tsering Woeser


The Chinese Text of ‘Epidemic Three-line Poems’:













……其形萬類,不敢久視」 [8]





































[1] 摘自美國學者唐納德·霍普金斯的《天國之花:瘟疫的文化史》(The Great Killer: Smallpox in History)一書,這句話是雅典歷史學家修西得底斯說的。


[3] 農歷新年前,一位同族友人給我送來一大捧水仙花,在疫情期間開得繁茂,令我深感慰藉。

[4] 新華門是紅牆環繞的中南海正門,位於北京長安街的中南海是中國最高權力機構所在地。

[5] 金剛鎧甲:རྡོ་རྗེའི་གོ་ཁྲབ Dorje Gotrab 是藏傳佛教密宗的護法神,其心咒被認為可遣除末法時代的各種病疫,其形象為忿怒蓮師持法器以威立姿站於九首九面鐵身豬上。

[6] 有句中國諺語:「天上九頭鳥,地上湖北佬」,比喻湖北人的精明。

[7] 今年的農歷新年即春節,公曆1月25日。

[8] 摘自《地藏菩薩本願經》(卷上):忉利天宮神通品第一。

[9] 張某某:一個武漢肺炎患者。名字不詳。於武漢因疫病封城前離開武漢,乘火車抵達拉薩,並於第二天(1月25日)住進西藏專治傳染病的醫院,被認為是西藏自治區「唯一確診新冠肺炎病例」,官方報道稱其「張某某」,並報道,經全院151名各族醫護人員的精心治療,於2月13日治癒出院並離開拉薩。之後至今西藏自治區的疫情在官方報道中為零。

[10] 摘自蓮花生大士傳記《貝瑪噶塘》(པདྨ་བཀའ་ཐང་།)。其中預言部分寫:「自己行惡卻指責時代惡,時代未曾改變只是人心險惡,那時的人們沒有絲毫福德可言。」

[11] 道孚即今四川省甘孜藏族自治州道孚縣,感染武漢肺炎的確診病例至74例,是全藏地疫情最嚴重的地區,我幼年在此地生活過,尤為關注。

[12] 洛薩:ལོ་གསར་,藏歷新年,從前一年的藏歷12月29日至來年的藏歷1月16日。今年的藏歷新年是從公曆2月22日開始。

[13] 藏歷新年的習俗之一,即「驅鬼」,要用糌粑或面團捏一個形狀來表示魔鬼,然後舉行驅除邪魔的儀式。

[14] 據記載五位瘟神或「五瘟使者」包括春瘟、夏瘟、秋瘟、冬瘟及中瘟,都各有名字。

[15] 這是我寫於2018年9月的詩《萬物何以會被馴化?》中的詩句。

[16] 摘自《慈悲水懺法卷》上。「佗」為「他」的異體字。

[17] 摘自日本詩人種田山頭火的俳句。

Chinese Text of the Conversation:





伊安:我剛讀完蘇珊·桑塔格(Susan Sontag)在1978年寫的一篇文章,「疾病是一種政治隱喻」。她寫道:「對任何重要的疾病,特別是如果其物理病因尚不明確,並且對於治療無效,往往充滿了含義 ……該疾病本身就成為一種隱喻。」比如癌症的異常且不受控制的增長,與資本主義的異常且不受控制的增長有關,結核病與浪費財富有關,等等。在你這首詩的第一節你寫:「不,更有他疫遠甚於此疫」。我不禁認為你把病毒流行當成比喻,指的是一場政治疫情,有這個含義嗎?



















唯色: 不,我想到的野草跟民主沒有關係。我也沒有想到惠特曼。無論野草還是韭菜,在我看來都是弱者,最弱的生命,被那把大鐮刀割了一遍又一遍。雖然野火燒不盡,春風吹又生,但是大鐮刀就懸在每根野草或韭菜的頭頂,會隨時瘋狂地割啊割。














伊安:我們已經把這首詩說成是政治批判了,把病毒當作比喻了,但這首詩也是祈禱。在整首詩中,你引用了許多佛教本文 (佛經,心咒,僧人傳記,僧人的詩歌),但最終是你自己的祈禱。在詩的最後一行中,你邀請中陰里漂泊的靈魂再生。在密宗里,中陰是一個很特別的狀態,我覺得也可能是這首詩的隱喻,你是否能談談?


Ian Boyden, 2020.iii.27

Ai Weiwei and Ian Boyden in Conversation: