Notes on the Performance and Programmatics of Mgur

13 July, 2019 | International Association of Tibetan Studies Conference, Paris

Delivered at the panel Mgur: Songs of Realization in Tibetan Culture.

Folios of the Bka’ brgyud mgur mtsho manuscript in Bemji Choje Nagtshang, Bhutan. Courtesy of the Endangered Archives Project, Dr. Karma Phuntsho

The past half century has witnessed a florescence of research on the poetic form of songs of realization (mgur), primarily through the identification and translation of a widening circle of major literary sources. Contemporary scholarship has addressed the genre of mgur from a multiplicity of perspectives: the history and classification of mgurand its relationship to other Tibetan verse forms; the formal analysis of content and structure of individual mgur and mgur collections; and the aesthetic interpretation of mgurstyle and artistry; and these are in addition to more traditional forms of Buddhist doctrinal commentary. And indeed, here we are today—most in this room have contributed.

Tibetan authors, and their interlocutors, often describe the poetic form of mgur normatively,as a medium for illustrating the process of contemplative practice and illuminating states of transcendent awakening. Although often translated as “songs of realization,” the designation mgur never signified a monolithic category. Songs individually and in the collective were shaped by the religious, social, and literary contexts in which they were composed and transmitted. It’s not surprising to find, therefore, that they served a variety purposes, of which expressing contemplative realization is but one.

I’m becoming increasingly interested in the kinds of work that mgurand mgurcollections do beyond their value as religious instruction or expressions of awakening. I have likewise been looking for sources that explicitly present descriptions of how mgur should be composed, transmitted, and performed, as well as texts that address these issues implicitly, allowing such information to slip out between the lines.

Here I foreground some performative and programmatic aspects of mgur in a preliminary way. By programmatics I mean primarily the ways that mgur and mgur collections can serve the broader religious, social, and even political purposes of institution building and lineage coherence. But I’d also like to suggest that mgur can serve what we might think of as an aesthetics of devotion involving audial, visual, and memorial engagement. To that end, I’ll briefly present five sources that reflect self-conscious approaches to the mgur tradition, to the composition and performance of mgur, and to the functions of mgur outside the roles of Buddhist teaching and transmission and beyond the written page:

  • Klong chen pa’s (1308–1364) Catalogue of Vajra Songs (Rdo rje glu’i dkar chag)
  • Karma Chags med’s (1613–1678) Distinguishing Dohā and Vajra Songs (Do ha rdo rje’i glu’i rnam par dbye pa)
  • Gtsang smyon Heruka’s (1452–1507) Catalogue of Mgur (Mgur gyi dkar chags)
  • the Eighth Karma pa Mi bskyod rdo rje’s (1507–1554) How to Practice Mgur(Mgur gyi sgrub tshul) and Comforting the Minds of the Fortunate (Skal bzang yid kyi ngal so)
  • a remarkable illuminated manuscript edition of the Ocean of Kagyu Mgur (Bka’ brgyud mgur mtsho) from Bhutan that deftly combines individual mgur with melody and vocalization instructions (dbyangs yig) and a series of color illustrations meant to evoke the work’s broader historical, cultural, environmental, and performative landscapes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *