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  • Death Poem
  • Translated by Andrew Schelling (bio)

kamale kamalotpattiḥ śrūyate na ca dṛśyatebāle tava mukhāmbhoje kathaṃ indīvaradvayaṃ

  • kamale. on a lotus

  • kamala-utpattiḥ. the emergence of a lotus

  • śrūyate. is heard

  • na. not

  • ca. and, however

  • dṛśyate. is seen

  • bāle. (voc.) young woman

  • tava. your

  • mukha-ambho-je. on the water-born face (several white lotuses are called ambhoja, water born)

  • kathaṃ. how

  • indīvara. small blue lotus or day lily

  • dvayam. two, a pair [End Page 46]

“A lotus born from a lotus”    heard of but not seen.Girl, on your waterborn-lotus-face    how are there two indigo lotuses?

Rāja Kumāradāsa, known for his allegiance to poetry, wrote a couplet, the first half of this stanza, on the wall of a courtesan’s quarters, and offered a reward to whoever could finish the poem; the opening phrase may have been a familiar maxim on the South Asian subcontinent. Underneath Kumāradāsa’s lines, his friend Kālidāsa provided the second couplet, completing the poem.

Not much of a poem by any standard. But the stakes were high, and Kālidāsa’s lines proved his undoing. Hungry for the king’s reward, the courtesan in whose quarters he wrote it poisoned Kālidāsa. She presented the verse as her own. Kumāradāsa, however, was undeceived. He recognized the hand of his friend and forced the truth from her. Then, stricken at the loss of his court poet and dearest friend, the king cast himself on Kālidāsa’s funeral pyre.

Evidence exists of a pan-Asian tradition of poetry contests in which the opening half of a poem is put up for public display. I’d be surprised if the practice doesn’t go back to archaic oral traditions. Certain Himalayan villages hold courtship events where girls and boys eagerly compete to outdo each other with improvised sexual riddle-poems. The Japanese practice of renga (linked verse), widespread from the sixteenth century on, is a type of high-culture poetry contest for literate people.

Probably the most celebrated poem-on-wall contest occurs in the Chinese Platform Sutra, a central Zen text. The Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen, challenged his disciples to write a gāthā (devotion verse) on the monastery wall, telling his students that whoever showed the profoundest insight would receive transmission and inherit the robe, bowl, and staff of the Dharma. Senior practice instructor Shen-Hsiu went to the wall and wrote

The body is a bodhi treethe mind is like a standing mirroralways try to keep it cleandon’t let it gather dust.

None of the other senior monks dared a verse of his own. The novice Hui Neng, the kitchen dishwasher and lowest of the monastery’s residents, heard talk of the verse and went at night to study it. Illiterate, he had to have a friend read it to him by torchlight. [End Page 47] Instantly recognizing its flawed insight, he recited another poem, which his companion wrote underneath:

The mind is the bodhi treethe body is the mirror’s standthe mirror itself is so cleandust has no place to land.

Translated by Red Pine

Jealousy factors into this story, as it did in Kālidāsa’s. Receiving transmission and the treasures of Buddhist insight from the monastery’s teacher, Hui Neng flees by night into the wilderness to escape the murderous envy that arises among the long-term disciples. One ruffian even chases him up a snow-covered mountain pass.

The underlying theme—poem-on-a-wall contest—may well be a worldwide folklore motif, an instance of “archaic internationalism,” as Gary Snyder calls it. In post-archaic times in India and China, winners were handsomely rewarded.

Ambho-ja is any of several large white or day lotuses; the Sanskrit means water born. The indīvara is the smaller blue lotus or blue water lily (Nymphaea stellata).

Curiously, the indīvara (blue lotus) of Kālidāsa’s poem, is also a Buddhist symbol. The national flower of both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, it is said to have...


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