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Potala

 

Its ramparts guard an esoteric faith

so rarefied that few dispute its truth

once they traverse the hinterlands of myth

that gird the loftiest doctrine found on Earth:

we are not here merely to suffer death

but wend as pilgrims up a karmic path.

 

When rumor of the Buddha's Eightfold Path

drew travelers from the realms of Christian faith,

Tibetans glimpsed the shades of war and death

haunting these eager seekers after truth.

How heavily such strangers trod the Earth;

how lustily they muddled truth and myth.

 

Already in the West a worldly myth

seduced many a seeker off his path.

The prospect of an Eden wrought on Earth

justified extremities of faith

as despots daily redefined the truth

and troops pursued dissenters to the death.

 

Their banners dyed with the red star of death,

China's armies marched the Marxist myth

into the keep of undefended truth.

No League of Nations barred aggression's path:

by now the West so doubted its old faith,

it kowtowed to the tyrants of this Earth.

 

Tibetan exiles scattered round the Earth,

repeating tales of infamy and death

yet steadfast in their own pacific faith.

Like bodhisattvas acting out a myth,

they sprinkled mandalas along their path

through countries numb to transcendental truth.

 

Their solace is an unacknowledged truth:

the cruelest rulers subjugating Earth

pass in the dark like pilgrims on a path,

a penitential round of birth and death

where suffering turns history to a myth

and myth restores a long-forsaken faith.

 

To learn the truth, we need not yearn for death

or spurn our Earth, but choose instead of myth

the steepest path, the least assuming faith.

 

Alan Sullivan

 

 

Notes for students:

This poem is a sestina, with last words of the first

   six lines repeated, in different sequence, at the

   line-ends of the subsequent stanzas.
Potala = a fortress which once housed the

   Dalai Lamas in Lhasa, Tibet
karmic = pertaining to karma, the Buddhist principle

   of actions and consequences
Eightfold Path = principles for leading a Buddhist life
bodhisattvas = beings who forsake nirvana

   (enlightenment) in order to assist others
mandalas = geometric or pictorial designs, usually

   enclosed in circles, representing the universe and

   used in meditation

 

First printed in The Hudson Review.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

Background by
Charmyn


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