Tenzin Tsundue on poetry, homelessness, being stateless and the music of Tibet

In Dharamsala, India, in the Himalayas in Himachal-Pradesh, I am with a group of students who are doing service learning with Tibetan Buddhists and teaching poor Indian children in the amazing Gamru Charity School.

My friend Tenzin Tsundue spoke to us today of his life in exile from Tibet as a fighter and a poet. Everyone was very moved. He tells the story of his life as an activist and a poet in a fascinating way, different every time.

He got the idea of resisting very young and kept to it. He is a revolutionary for Tibet, not engaged in a family or a household. As a student, he found protests and marches endless and ineffective. With a vision of Tibet, he walked over the Himalayas avoiding the Indian security, into China for five days. He wanted to lead real Tibetan resistance. But the people he was going to meet had left. Hungry and thirsty, he kept on. He was arrested, held for 3 months, tortured and beaten. He told the Chinese he had just graduated from University in English lit – Shelley, Keats, E.E. Cummings (note the small i in the poem below). They laughed at him. But they finally figured out that he wasn’t a spy, that no one had sent him. They sent him back to India, where the Indian security held and mistreated him for another month, intimating he was a spy for China.

And he had not told his family he was going so they were mad at him, too.

He went away to another University, this time beginning to write poetry in a writing group. He also has kept to himself in the sense of being very critical even of his own thoughts, very self-reflective.

He found in Tibet that his language, that of a stateless exile, stood out like a Texan in New York. English, too, was not his first language. And yet there is some gift in his poetry, I suspect, from even a certain linguistic dispossession.

Tsundue met famous and wealthy writers (guess that happens more easily in India). And some, since he was a stateless Tibetan refugee, and homeless, put him up for a night. He wrote a poem called “A Proposal,” made 20 copies, and gave it, with his remarkable sense of humor, to some of these people. It struck me as having many echoes among people who are homeless here in America. And of course, it should echo among people currently housed, looking perhaps the other way, walking through their lives, as Plato, too, might suggest, asleep.

After a while, Tsundue asked each of his friends: “Did you read my proposal? What do you think? “ They said: “I thought it was just a poem.”

Tsundue’s poems are alive. They kept him alive under torture. He was bemused by how the Chinese saw him, how little they could accept the truth.

The words make the dream alive. They instill community, among Tibetans and all of us, even when that hope seems lost.

They are not for money; he lives a very simple life, simpler than a monk. They are real.

A Proposal

pull your ceiling half-way down

and you can create a mezzanine for me

your walls open into cupboards

is there an empty shelf for me?

let me grow in your garden

with your roses and prickly pears

i’ll sleep under your bed

and watch tv in the mirror

do you have an ear on your balcony

i am singing from your window

open your door

let me in

i am resting at your doorstep

call me when you are awake

Tsundue was a homeless refugee. This is a poem of what it would be like if humanity were awake, genuinely democratic and cooperative/socialist (Tsundue is a socialist), looking out for each other.


Tsundue spoke to us of his life as an activist and a poet. He talks about what poems mean – see my poem of this title here: http://democraticindividuality.com/2015/12/what-are-poems-for.html
The poetry he said involves inspiration; the activism energy and determination. The two, he rightly suggests, often conflict (he is proof that one can do both, but…).

Inspiration comes to him as a white moth fluttering at the window, while he is busy answering the door. Sometimes, the moth expires on the sill.


But were he not an activist I suspect, what burns in the poems for individual freedom and the integrity of Tibet would not be as bright…


I have now heard Tsundue speak on three occasions. Each time is different. He began this time with the point that he is named Tenzin, as some 70% of Tibetans are, for Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama. There is no place in his name. They are in exile, stateless, previous attachments gone, though the yearning to fight for independence from China equally strong. This is a beautiful, subtle, painful opening into the situation of statelessness.


Tsundue walked 5 days in Tibet. And he has seen the inside of a Chinese prison there, near the border and in Lhasa. But the vision burns brightly.