An Encounter with the "Terrible Saint of the Gobi"
By Simon Wickham-Smith
Simon Wickham-Smith (l) and Tsog Shagdarsuren (who worked with Simon on a number of translation projects before his death in 2006), standing in front of the bust of Danzanravjaa in Sainshand, Mongolia, 2006.
As a former Buddhist monk in the Tibetan Karma Kagyü tradition, it seems somehow fitting that my initial experience as a translator of Mongol literature should have been the work of the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) nineteenth century monk, pedagogue, nationalist, proto-feminist, herder, poet, womanizer, alcoholic, museologist, wandering musician and dramaturge the Noyon Hutagt Danzanravjaa, the so-called “Terrible Saint of the Gobi.” The vast sweep of his genius resulted not only in his death – most likely at the behest of the local Manchu rulers, and possibly too at the hand of his devoted wife – but also in an extensive corpus of some five hundred poems. Most of them survive in Mongol versions alone, but occasionally have Tibetan versions too, raising the question of which language Danzanravjaa initially wrote in. My money’s on Mongolian: unlike many of his contemporaries, he never went to Lhasa and was famously devoted to the language and literature of Mongolia.
Danzanravjaa is the first in a series of characters whose lives define the traces of Mongol Buddhism from the last century of the Manchu dynasty, via the period of Soviet repression of Buddhism, into what we might call the modern era. And while my research focuses on the country’s contemporary literary history, these traces even now exercise a definitive and broad influence on even the younger writers who have grown up in the wake of the introduction of democracy in 1990.
But this little essay is not about my research; it is about a feeling. I was living in Oxford when I first started to translate the works of "The Terrible Saint of the Gobi", trying by day to prevent rich foreigners from mangling the English language and then rushing home to the evening safety of the almost certainly fake biography of the 6th Dalai Lama and the poetry of Danzanravjaa. This mixture of Tibetan and Mongolian kept me firmly ensconced in another time and another place, but as I became familiar with Danzanravjaa’s style and interests and personal behavior (some might say his shortcomings), I became aware too of something ethereal, as though gliding there just over my shoulder somewhere out of view.
I moved to Leipzig, to work in the Central and East Asian department of the University of Leipzig with Per Sørensen, one of the world’s leading experts on early Tibetan history and the 6th Dalai Lama. I brought along Danzanravjaa as well and translated his poems whilst also preparing an edition of the Dalai Lama’s poems. Maybe poetry was addling my brain. That feeling was back again: someone was…not watching me, no. Rather, my head was occupied by someone, or something.
I should say here that I was never a very good monk. I am very bad with authority and very suspicious of worldviews and attitudes imposed from outside. I have never really been able to believe in divine figures, or divine grace, or even karma. I have to experience these things for them to have any benefit to me at all.
So this experience of someone being there with me as I worked on Danzanravjaa’s poetry was definitely disquieting, although not unpleasant. But it came and went – so it goes with all composite things – and my time in Leipzig too was cut short by the intersection of a linguistics conference intriguingly entitled “Rara and Rarissima” and a severe infection in my right hand (I have a fantasy that malfeasant scholars, working on the rarissima in South American languages, might have transported microscopic bloodsucking worms on their handouts).
Then I went to Mongolia.
G. Mend-Ooyo, Mongolia’s most influential poet and founder of the Mongolian Academy of Poetry and Culture, invited me to Ulaanbaatar, ostensibly so that my translation of Danzanravjaa’s poetry might be published, with funding from UNESCO, in 2006, to mark the 150th anniversary of the poet’s death. The book was published and I headed south to the Gobi Desert to exchange my translation for a new edition of the original (at least of the Cyrillic original from which I had worked) with Z.Altangerel.
Altangerel was the tahilch of Danzanravjaa. This word translates perhaps as a combination of “curator” and “memory keeper,” and it is Altangerel’s vocation – for clearly this is how he sees it – both to preserve Danzanravjaa’s memory through publications and the Danzanravjaa museum in Sainshand, and to excavate the Gobi for the boxes of the lama’s possessions. Altangerel’s grandfather Tüdev buried them there during the extensive anti-Buddhist purges of the late 1930s.
When I met with Altangerel, he gave me a long and fascinating tour of the museum, which includes some of Danzanravjaa’s manuscripts. I mentioned the strange feeling I had been having, that presence which had followed me from Oxford to Leipzig, and which, yes, I had felt in Ulaanbaatar as I prepared the final proofs of my translation for publication. And Altangerel said to me, "Za ta sahiustai shuu dee. Sure, you’ve got his sahius with you."
Altangerel meant that Danzanravjaa’s spirit, his genius if you like, was there with me. And it seemed almost as though he had been waiting for me to mention it, as though he already had noticed this presence, this essence, there with me, for Altangerel also had the sahius there with him. It was a very Mongolian moment: absolutely consequent and absolutely beautiful.
Shambhala Buddhists believe that Shambhala is a kind of paradise and such was Danzanravjaa’s conceptualization of his own Shambhala complex, near his monastery at Hamrin Hiid, an hour’s bumpy drive over the Gobi from Sainshand. His Shambhala, in fact, is a rectangular enclosure, defined by a wall of one hundred eight stūpas (suburgan in Mongolian), memorials in the shape of Indic reliquaries. He promised his students that he would return them to this place. I wandered off on my own, right into the center and, quite spontaneously, ten years after I had returned my monastic robes, maybe ten years after I had done any formal cross-legged meditation practice, I sat down in meditation.
You can guess what’s coming, right? There it was again, that feeling, but stronger, far, far stronger. There was nothing explicit, no voice speaking to me, but I somehow knew that all my work to translate these poems had been appreciated…by the one who had written them.
Sometimes when I’m in Mongolia, people tell me that they are amazed by the fact that I translated these poems. “They’re so…difficult…I don’t understand them,” someone told me once, “even in Mongolian.” Well, they’re clear enough to me, and I genuinely feel that I’ve had some assistance.
And now Mend-Ooyo and Altangerel want to reissue my translation and I have promised to look back over each text and correct all the mistakes which I have noticed over time, and there are quite a few. But the essence is there, the profound understanding of the natural world which I, as an urban Brit, could never hope to embody, the wisdom which comes from many decades of hermitage and spiritual practice. None of this is me, though I am very much a conduit. When I do my academic thing, it’s my interpretation, my analysis. It falls very short of a deep and complete grasp of the ideas, but my translation is helped by the sahius. I have no doubt about that.
Here is a poem. Danzanravjaa was an expert on horse training and horse management, and apparently he used to include equine advice in his religious teaching. This poem is an example of how he managed to combine a love of the Mongolian landscape and of horses, with more than a hint of romantic love, all the while talking about the experience of enlightenment, the whole shown as a distant journey on the horse of spiritual practice. This poem is called “Gentle.”
With gentle gentle steps,
my cream white horse with black eyes
keeps well away
from the mass of geldings.
That one, my bright one,
just standing amidst the crowd,
just standing there, alert,
his temperament so fine.
The nightingale on the glacial lake
sings in vain its strange songs.
Why does someone’s
son love too much?
What is this thing called love?
It is a lovely ancient benediction.
Let’s take the shortcut by the southern slope
and reach the distant land.
It’s a joy to go meet
the one you desire –
you’ll need the riches of the Dharma.
Let’s enter Abhidharma and enjoy eternity.
Simon Wickham-Smith will soon be developing some of the themes of his MA thesis into a PhD dissertation. His translation and commentary on the 6th Dalai Lama’s strange biography is moving towards fall publication, as part of Lexington Books’ Modern Tibetan Culture series (www.lexingtonbooks.com). Not-for-credit Mongolian and Tibetan Studies resumed at the UW in October.