Poems from a Plague — a Tibetan Meditation

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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.

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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

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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

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Photograph courtesy of Tsering Woeser

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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.

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  • [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.

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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

時疫三行詩

Woeser 唯色

translated by Ian Boyden

Part One

1.
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

2.
‘The good and bad dying indiscriminately’ [1]
Anguished cries everywhere,
we swallow the salt of our overflowing tears

3.
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

4.
Some are saving others’ lives
Some pray to their own gods
Some people continue doing evil, greater evil

5.
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]

6.
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

7.
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

8.
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

9.
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]

10.
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]

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Part Two

1.
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

2.
An infected fugitive
boarded a train in Wuhan and headed straight to Lhasa
he will be remembered by the name ‘Zhang Moumou’ [10]

3.
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]

4.
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

5.
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

6.
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?

7.
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]

8.
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

9.
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

10.
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]

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Part Three

1.
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!’

2.
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

3.
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

4.
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

5.
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.’

6.
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]

7.
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

8.
We are all brought under control under one roof
We have lost our voice and our tears
our lives trapped in chaos

9.
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

10.
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

1.
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

2.
Without immunity and caught off guard
It spreads throughout the world with the speed of a prairie fire
A limitless war, murderous and galloping

3.
‘Look, there are more and more predators
Congratulations, gluttons, on your good appetites’ [19]
Congratulations, for what you’ve chosen from the menu

4.
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?

5.
Please don’t fabricate an illusion out of lies
concealing previous disasters and this current one
concealing the slaughter of countless innocent people

6.
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

7.
An insatiable, winged insect
plummets into a cup of wine offered to the dharmapālas
and, in its effort to escape, obtains permission for reincarnation

8.
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?

9.
‘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]

10.
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

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Photograph courtesy of Tsering Woeser

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Notes:

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’:

時疫三行詩

唯色

第一章

1、
沒有一個地方不淪陷
沒有一種瘟疫不可怖
不,更有他疫遠甚於此疫

2、
「好人和壞人
都在毫無差別地死去」[1]
遍地哀嚎與飲泣

3、
就像野草,不,就像韭菜[2]
被不止一種瘟疫的大鐮刀割去
既飛快無比,又無聲無息

4、
有些人用命救命
有些人祈求各自的神祗
有些人繼續作惡,更大的惡

5、
東西南北,疫情洶洶又不可莫測
憂心忡忡,唯有美人抱來的
水仙兀自盛開[3]

6、
除夕夜,戴上口罩駕車游帝都
經過紅牆圍繞的新華門[4]
我喘不過氣來

7、
之前沒念過金剛鎧甲心咒[5]
此刻念完第九天的每天108遍
越來越流利,越來越依賴

8、
向那站在黑豬身上的護法神祈禱
卻留意到,黑豬的九個腦袋像九頭鳥[6]
眼裡噴出烈焰,大嘴齊齊張開

9、
菩薩畏因,眾生畏果
然而這偌大的動物莊園卻無所畏懼
這個農歷新年[7]也就不必燃放煙花爆竹了

10、
漸漸看見:「其水湧沸,多諸惡獸……
男子女人……被諸惡獸爭取食噉
……其形萬類,不敢久視」 [8]

第二章

1、
現如今,貌似既不憎厭藏人
也不憎厭維吾爾人
而是武漢人成了避之不及的標籤

2、
一個染疫的逃命者
從武漢搭上列車徑直奔向拉薩
他將以張某某[9]留名於世

3、
在四面楚歌的現實中
卻把西藏說成淨土是荒謬的
畢竟「全國山河一片紅」……

4、
疫情為零的官宣是可疑的
政治上的香格里拉是不存在的
但重復一百遍就覆蓋了真相

5、
寺院關了,宮殿關了
客棧關了,飯館關了……連本地人
不可一日不去的甜茶館也關了

6、
聽說糌粑一搶而空,在拉薩
若連作為自我的糌粑都一搶而空
還有比這更悲哀的隱喻嗎?

7、
一下子,大昭寺前空空蕩蕩
歷史上曾有哪個時刻如這般寂滅?
「……人們沒有絲毫的福德可言。」[10]

8、
我無意遷怒於誰,但那遠在高原
又缺醫少藥的道孚[11]淪為重疫區
並不是因果就可以解釋的

9、
突然大雪紛飛,讓隔窗遠眺的我
瞥見那個患過夢遊症的女孩
在大雪紛飛的道孚街頭被父親帶回家……

10、
今年的洛薩[12]似乎比往年遲來
也就可能幸免於疫,用糌粑捏一個病毒
用力地將它扔出人世間[13]

第三章

1、
閉門十日,趁難得的好天氣去往郊外
處處空寂,佩戴紅袖標的男女封住路口:
「哪兒來的回哪兒去!」

2、
越長越高的水仙過於繁茂、芬芳
已經成了對現實的諷刺
而它突然倒伏,就像出於恐懼

3、
那些被人從高空摔下的貓
那些被人活活埋在坑里的豬
那些端上餐桌的蝙蝠、猴子、穿山甲……

4、
中國學者找出道教封任的五位瘟神[14]
我的族人從圖伯特的天文歷算中
找出鐵鼠年有瘟疫的預言

5、
他們竟在此時也停不下來
將黑手伸向接近我的舊友新知:
「你們談論疫情的方式很不合適。」

6、
防口甚於防疫
他們乾脆給我划出言說的禁區:
達賴喇嘛、香港、疫情以及巨嬰國……

7、
這是一個怎樣的惡性循環?
被病毒感染,卻又爭相服下病毒
然後荼毒同胞,禍流四海

8、
我們被制伏在同一個屋頂下
失去了聲音和淚水
如同受困於離亂中的生命

9、
如同表面的痂殼脫落
暴露出無法愈合的傷痕,而這
才是所有瘟疫的本質且無藥可治

10、
人們,不,眾生以各自的方式
受煎熬,或熬過所謂的疫期得多久?
余剩多少時光?

第四章

1、
從前那些漂洋過海的瘟疫
是殖民者消滅原住民的援軍
幾乎滅絕的瑪雅人把天花叫做大火

2、
既然不設防就會猝不及防
於是在全世界的燎原之勢
就像某種超限戰,殺氣騰騰

3、
「看啊,掠食者愈來愈多,
恭喜饕餮者的好胃口,」[15]
恭喜你被選中!

4、
如果說這場瘟疫是更大的隱喻
所有人的餘生都可能被緊緊抓住
而他如何才肯放手?

5、
請不要以謊言製造的假象
取代之前的、此刻的每一個災難
取代無數的無辜者的倒斃

6、
就像是塗了毒液的利箭被射出
攜帶業力的身體如同荒野里的靶子
狂風呼嘯,箭中靶心,誰也躲不過

7、
一隻貪酒的飛蟲
落入了供給護法神的酒中
以竭力出逃的姿勢獲得了輪回的許可

8、
那畫在協格爾寺院牆上的長幡
畫成了被風吹拂得如同波浪翻卷
那風是從不遠的積雪的珠穆朗瑪吹來的嗎?

9、
「瘡如人面,宿憾何多,
清泉一掬即消磨,憫己復憐佗。」[16]
真心喜歡這古老的漢語的懺悔

10、
讀到這首俳句會落淚:
「風中放聲念,南無觀世音菩薩」[17]
請回向給擠滿中陰的徘徊者……

2020年2月至3月
於北京

***

注釋:

[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。

[2]「韭菜」是中國時下流行的網絡用語。據介紹,「多用於金融或經濟圈。源於韭菜可以反復收割的特性。而被反復壓榨的過程也被形象的描述為割韭菜,而進行壓榨獲利的一方則被稱為鐮刀。」

[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:

一位詩人回應瘟疫大流行:與唯色訪談

 

伊安:你寫的這四十首詩(集合為一首詩)是對因果的深刻沈思,使我們能夠洞悉你(作為作家,佛教徒,流亡的藏人,政治異見人士)如何感知和應對這場瘟疫的大流行。我們任何人都沒有經歷過這樣的疫情,我覺得自己迷路了,也知道很多人都有類似的感受,我覺得這樣的一首詩或許可以幫助我們在黑暗中看清楚這一點。你能告訴我這首詩是如何產生的嗎?

唯色:你知道我最初發給你的草稿只有二十八首,那是三月初。隨著這個瘟疫的蔓延,趨向內心的思考越來越深入,詩句也因此越來越湧出,而到最後成了現在這樣。一開始,肯定不止我一個人,相信誰都會被這看上去像是突如其來的瘟疫給驚嚇住。但也是從一開始我就有這樣的預感:「沒有一個地方不淪陷,沒有一種瘟疫不可怖」。事實上,我覺得伴隨著這個瘟疫而至的還有一種更可怕的瘟疫,或者說,這個世界正是因為有了這更為可怕的瘟疫,才會出現這場傳染病。因果關係從一開始就出現了!今天,無數的人在困惑這個名叫「武漢肺炎」或冠狀病毒的大流行,但用佛教的一句話來講就能明白:欲知前世因,今生受者是;欲知來世果,今生作者是。或者用更簡單的一句中國諺語來講就是:種瓜得瓜,種豆得豆。這首詩正是在我這樣的認知與感受中,被疫情醖釀著,產生了。

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:其實我的這首長詩不只是對因果的沈思,更是一首批判性質的詩歌。主要是對政治瘟疫的批判,但表達得比較隱晦,這是因為恐懼所致。事實上在這首詩的寫作過程中,政治瘟疫的壓迫並沒有停止,連暫停都沒有過,而是一直在進行中。我兩三次受到壓迫者的警告,我遠在好幾個不同地方的朋友因為我而被警察警告,這正是極權下的真相與現實。

「更有他疫甚於此疫」是這首詩的關鍵。這個「他疫」,是的,我指的正是政治瘟疫,包括暴政與暴力機器,以及暴民。暴政正是病毒本身。而「他」其實有多重意思:可以是命運,人類的命運。也影射了獨裁者,每一個獨裁者。

伊安:許多節在整首詩中,有主詞或受詞故意的含糊不清。例如,當你引用《地藏菩薩本願經》:「其水湧沸……」,「其」指的是什麼?該主題在你的詩歌中可能如何變化?這個「其」是病毒嗎?或是地獄?或是人間?

唯色:在經文中,「其」是海。其實這段經文對此有動人的描述。一位年輕的婆羅門女子為救贖業力深重的母親而祈禱:「經一日一夜,忽見自身到一海邊,其水湧沸,多諸惡獸,盡復鐵身,飛走海上,東西馳逐;見諸男子女人,百千萬數,出沒海中,被諸惡獸爭取食啖……時婆羅門女,以念佛力故,自然無懼。」

這個「其」在詩中也如同令人痛苦和恐怖的海洋,不只是病毒等等,而是我們所置身的當代社會或整個世界的隱喻,隨著詩句再現。

伊安:人間地獄當然是一個主題。我想起了你的詩《革命的火》里的這句:「透過熊熊火焰的縫隙,彷彿瞬間的空白」。

唯色:佛經中關於地獄的描述很細緻,但人們通常不會認為那就是現實。在我看來,我們正是生活在六道輪回之中,流轉於十八層地獄之間,甚至當下即發生。這可並不是比喻。

伊安:回到病毒的多重意義,幾個星期前艾未未也區分了天然病毒和精神病毒,在推特上寫:「現在看,中國流行的不是一場致命的瘟疫,而是萬劫不復的精神疾病。」

唯色:是的,精神疾病,非常準確的判斷。個體的精神疾病、社區的精神疾病、地區的精神疾病,乃至整個社會及國家。但不是才患上,而是源遠流長。

在一個漫長的歷史過程中被「他疫」感染,並且不斷地加深,乃至成為痼疾,甚至有可能是不治之症。我作為一個藏人,更有很深的感觸。我的意思是,正如桑塔格關於艾滋病及其隱喻那篇,其中寫到「異域來源與可怕疾病之間的聯繫」,我當時在閱讀時寫下這段話:「那麼,作為異域之國,帶給圖伯特的瘟疫又有多少呢?瘟疫伴隨著殖民化,所以當SARS在北京流行,拉薩竟也如臨大敵。應該做個調查,在圖伯特的近代歷史上,到底平添了多少過去從未有過的瘟疫?當有人把共產主義比喻成艾滋病時,被殖民化的圖伯特當然也不可避免地會淪為疫區。」

伊安:實際上,我們的思想可能是世界上最具傳染性的事物。關於權力的思想是最具有感染的力量之一。

唯色:思想伴隨著行動,以致於「禍流四海」。就像奧威爾在《1984》裡面的揭露:「到最後,黨可以宣佈,二加二等於五,你就不得不相信它。」這就是瘟疫。

伊安:或者換個方式,我開始看這種病毒就像是一個陌生月亮,照亮了我們社會的結構,無論好壞。它為你照亮了什麼?

唯色:如果要把病毒看作是一個陌生的月亮,那我們是不是突然來到了一個陌生的世界?因為在我們熟悉的世界,月亮也是熟悉的,那麼是不是也就容易被忽視呢?好吧,如果是陌生的月亮,那可能很不同,那在黑夜中特別清晰的月亮散髮著清冷的月光,可以照亮生命本身,也就會真切地看見生命的無常。這倒是一件好事。與此同時,我的佛教信仰讓我知道生命並不是這一世的,而是累世的,認識到這一點,會讓人多少有些釋懷,而不至於陷入焦慮和恐懼。

伊安:但這不僅照亮了我們的社會結構,我認為該病毒可能是一種革命力量。這首詩在某種程度上是對因果關係的沈思:「菩薩畏因,眾生畏果」。我們可以改變病毒的因果關係,使其最終讓人道受益嗎?

唯色:你說得太契合我的本意了。是的,與此同時,那清冷的月光也照亮了一種更深刻的關係,我認為是因果律,即業力。正如我最近讀到近四百年前的五世尊者達賴喇嘛的一首詩歌,其中這句擊中了我:「那些因業力而覺醒的人會跳舞」!我彷彿看見,在遭受各種瘟疫的眾生當中,只有因此而覺醒的人,才會跳起生命的舞蹈,那是非常美好的舞蹈。

不過是否可以改變病毒的因果關係,從而受益於人道?我覺得這與每個人自己有關,或者說是每個人自己的責任。只有人人因為畏果而去行善積德,這個世界的災難才會少。

伊安:在第一章的第3節中,你提及野草,我當然想到了惠特曼的《草葉》,其中每片草葉都是個人的象徵,草地是人類社會本身,草是象徵民主。但你忽然話頭一轉,說它像韭菜。你能否詳細說明這是什麼意思?

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。

「韭菜」是中國時下流行的網絡用語。因為韭菜可以反復收割的特性,所以泛指所有被反復壓榨卻無力逃脫的弱者。而被反復壓榨的過程被形象地描述為「割韭菜」,那獲利的一方則被比喻為鐮刀。這個說法最初源於金融或經濟圈,但現在已經被相當多的人用來形容自己和他人。我們當然也知道那鐮刀比喻的是誰。

伊安:這場瘟疫開始後,我決定重讀加繆。我發現這種觀察特別有意義:「這一切裡面並不存在英雄主義。這只是對人道的尊重的問題。這個想法會讓人笑,抵抗瘟疫的唯一手段是對人道的尊重。」你對這個觀察有什麼想法?

唯色:這個發端於中國武漢的瘟疫現在遍及全球,不同的政治制度即極權社會與民主社會、不同的民族與文化、不同的地理與氣候等等,會表現出各種不同。這是通過比較而產生的不同,然而最根本的不同正是這個:是否對人道的尊重。這一點太明顯了,可謂有目共睹。

因為沒有對人道的尊重,才會造成這場瘟疫的蔓延。我們也只有寄望於對人道的尊重,才可能遏制住這場瘟疫。不然怎麼辦呢?這個瘟疫顯然已經造成了人類命運共同體。

伊安:在我們這裡,剛剛進入了官方隔離的第一個星期。沒有飛機,幾乎沒有汽車,好安靜。我覺得自然界正在呼吸。同時,有一種可怕的黑暗和某種預感:最黑暗的時刻還沒到來。那麼你在北京感覺如何?

唯色:我在經歷了兩個月的隔離之後,事實上,那種末日感並沒有消除,雖然現在北京看上去似乎取得了抗擊瘟疫的勝利。此刻已經是深夜,可是窗外樓下的大路上,車輛駛來駛去,發出很大的聲音,就像是因為瘟疫而死氣沈沈的這兩個月已經過去了,消失了,甚至可以被忘卻了,而人們又在為掙錢忙忙碌碌。

伊安:實際上,今晚我感到很孤獨。我不想告訴我的朋友,我已經以自我隔離的方式生活了十年多了,這與瘟疫的隔離沒有太大的不同……這不是作為隱士,而是一個試圖瞭解自我的人……又複雜,又簡單。有著一顆流亡之心的譯者。你呢?你怎麼會這樣敏感化地過生活?

唯色:自我隔離的方式!事實上前幾天,艾未未跟我和王力雄也討論過這個。我的意思是說目前的這種因為疫情而隔離的生活,對於我們其實並不陌生,也不存在難以適應的問題,因為我們早就被隔離多年了!在政治瘟疫的威脅下,我們作為寫作者卻因堅持真實的寫作,爭取言論自由的表達,而喪失人身自由的諸多權利。被當做某種病毒而與社會、與他人隔離的生活,在我已成了我的生活本身,或者說,多年來,我一直過著一種內心流亡的生活,所以我不太覺得目前的隔離會有多麼難熬。

伊安:你要寫這首詩給誰?這首詩的觀眾是誰?

唯色:我寫這首詩是為這個時刻:瘟疫時刻。這個不亞於世界大戰的瘟疫,不亞於侵略、屠戮、佔領、殖民的瘟疫。作為一個經歷者、一個見證者,如果不用自己的方式去記錄,那就是一種不可原諒的辜負。而我這次的記錄方式是寫下這首120行的詩歌。不算長,但也不短,辛苦譯者了!

伊安:我們談談最後一節。首先,我想談談中國譯者高海陽翻譯的種田山頭火的俳句。我試著尋找種田山頭火的俳句的英文翻譯,但找不到。不過這也很好,因為我找到了原始日語版本。我發現我的解釋與高的解釋大不相同。他的翻譯中,詩人正在大聲祈禱,但原文卻說:「聲音浮上著在風中:南無觀世音菩薩。」種田山頭火沒有指出是誰的聲音。很可能是他自己的聲音。但也可能是其他人的,也可能是讀者的。聲音隨風而來。這裡有一個美麗的佛教生態,伴隨著祈禱的風。

唯色:我是恰好在疫情期間讀到日本詩人種田山頭火的俳句的。你知道他是一位托鉢行腳僧人,也就是雲遊僧,他的俳句中對佛法的感受很深,而他的語言是很美的。我甚至讀出了他與諸佛菩薩一起行走的感覺。在路上走著。在風中走著。邊走邊聊,祈禱就像聊天一樣日常。我喜歡風的感覺,我覺得那風是從積雪的珠穆朗瑪吹來的,那是真正的純粹的風,帶著我的圖伯特故鄉的味道,當我在珠穆朗瑪的風中放聲念「南無觀世音菩薩」,會感到安慰和不那麼恐懼,包括對政治瘟疫的不那麼恐懼。

是的,我更喜歡日語版的那種感覺,聲音漂浮在風中,聲音附著在風中,聲音烙印在風中。而這個聲音是祈禱,日語的祈禱,漢語的祈禱,藏語的祈禱,英語的祈禱等等。以傳統禱詞的「三皈依」即皈依佛、皈依法、皈依僧來念出,即:皈依大慈大悲的觀世音菩薩。你知道,漢語的「南無」正是皈依的意思。

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?

唯色:中陰的意思很深。佛法對中陰的說明有六種,而不單單只是指人死後的一種狀態。我甚至認為我們——全世界面臨瘟疫的襲擊而掙扎的人——正處於一種中陰之中,而我們需要走出這種中陰。同時,我把死於這場瘟疫中的成千上萬的亡靈稱為「徘徊者」,是因為這些亡靈都是突然被瘟疫奪走生命的人,並不願意死亡,肯定留戀人間的一切,所以在中陰這個灰蒙蒙的空間里徘徊,非常地可憐而不幸。我因此寫下這最後的一行,是想祈求大慈大悲的觀世音菩薩幫助這些突然殞命的人。我是以一個佛教徒的方式,在這首詩的最後為亡靈祈禱、回向。而我作為一個活著的人,我能做到的,也僅僅是這樣了。

Ian Boyden, 2020.iii.27


Ai Weiwei and Ian Boyden in Conversation: