A unique Buddhist tradition, accessible in English for the first time—translations of forty-five Cambodian Dharma songs, with contextualizing essays and a link to audio of stunning vocal performances.
Until Nirvana’s Time is the first collection of traditional Cambodian Buddhist literature available in English, presenting original translations of forty-five poems. Introduced, translated, and contextualized by scholar and vocalist Trent Walker, the Dharma songs in this book reveal a distinctive Southeast Asian genre of devotion, mourning, and contemplation. Their soaring melodies have inspired Cambodians for generations, whether in daily prayers or all-night rituals.
Trained in oral and written lineages in Cambodia, Walker presents a carefully curated range of poems from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries that capture the transformative wisdom of the Khmer Buddhist tradition. Many of the poems, having been transcribed from old cassette tapes or fragile bark-paper manuscripts, are printed here for the first time. A link to recordings of selected songs in English and Khmer accompanies the book. These frank and compelling poems offer mirrors to our own lives—even as they challenge Buddhist conventions of how to die, how to grieve, and how to repay the ones we love.
About the Author
TRENT WALKER is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies and a Lecturer in Religious Studies at Stanford University. A scholar of Southeast Asian Buddhist chant, literature, and manuscripts, he has published widely on Khmer, Lao, Pali, Thai, and Vietnamese Buddhist texts and recitation practices. He has trained in Cambodian Buddhist chant since 2005 and is a regular speaker at temples, retreat centers, and universities.
“Until Nirvana’s Time reads like a potent incantation. Trent Walker’s lucid rendering of Buddhist songs from Cambodia is both authentic to the Khmer language and to the poetry of the chants invoked. The pieces selected are by turns insightful, spirited, melancholy, and comforting. Together, they speak to the all-too-brief human experience that is life. Nothing lasts, and yet we must strive to live honorably, for in that endeavor lies our rebirth, our transformation—so echo again and again the voices of the Cambodian sages who composed these verses. Walker’s artful translation is further enhanced by his rigorous scholarship on Buddhism and Cambodian literary traditions across the centuries. Given how much has been lost to war and genocide, the work is an invaluable contribution to the understanding of Khmer literature and the spiritual culture that shapes it. In short, this collection is a merited and meritorious reincarnation.”—Vaddey Ratner, New York Times bestselling author of In the Shadow of the Banyan and Music of the Ghosts
“In this heartfelt and brilliant series of beautiful translations, Trent Walker allows the creativity and profundity of pre-modern Cambodian poets to take center stage. He also provides readers with a detailed explanation of how these poems reveal fundamental qualities of Cambodian Buddhism—offering expert commentary on virtue, merit, and gratitude, as well as beliefs in the power of ghosts, deities, and protective ritual. It is erudite while remaining accessible. It is respectful of local ways of expression, while providing an astute outside perspective. It should become the model of discerning and ethical scholarship. There is simply no other book like this and it sparkles with insight gained over nearly twenty years of research. With this book, Walker emerges as the leader in a new generation of scholars of Southeast Asian Buddhism and literature.”—Justin McDaniel, author of Wayward Distractions: Ornament, Emotion, Zombies and the Study of Buddhism in Thailand
“Until Nirvana’s Time opens wide windows that look out across vivid landscapes of Khmer poetry. Trent Walker’s first-ever translations introduce us to the aesthetic and emotional tones of three to four centuries of Southeast Asian Buddhism. Unfolding new dimensions of the human spirit, Walker deftly expresses Khmer poetic and spiritual sentiments in a confident contemporary voice. His seamless transfer of striking metaphors and insights into rhythmic and sonorous sounds enriches our understanding of Cambodian Buddhism’s human dimensions. Walker translates these songs with tender passion, aiming to make ‘the beauty and relevance of Khmer poetry accessible to Buddhists everywhere.’ His palpable success makes Until Nirvana’s Time a major contribution to world poetry and Buddhist humanities. The volume is enhanced by short and informative essays and notes that supply just the right amount of background information to contextualize the poems. Rarely if ever have the voices of Cambodian or other Southeast Asian Buddhists been so eloquently and evocatively expressed. Accessible, a pleasure to read: this excursion into the spiritual and emotional countryside of premodern Cambodia stands to become a classic voice in the chorus of Asian poetry.”—Peter Skilling, author of Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras
“This collection holds a special place for newer generations of Cambodians to gain insight into our ancestors’ practices. By centering Buddhist poets from Cambodia, Trent Walker is honoring all the teachers who came before him. It is a work of beauty and utmost gratitude.”—Sokunthary Svay, author of Apsara in New York “A beautifully curated selection of songs, translated with simplicity and eloquence; lucid and touching introductions; and finally, following the song texts, a series of essays, notes, and commentaries graced by impeccable scholarship, artistic sensitivity, and love. Reading and sharing this book will bring great rewards.”—Linda Hess, author of Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in North India
“Until Nirvana’s Time represents an important contribution to Southeast Asian poetics in translation and shines a groundbreaking light on Cambodian verse and its intersections with Buddhism that was nearly lost during the conflicts of the twentieth century. Trent Walker's efforts at translation are thoughtful and compelling, providing both beginners and experts with an excellent look at the traditions of Khmer verse and a model for how we might translate and preserve other similar bodies of literature across Southeast Asia. A rewarding read that I look forward to returning to many times in the years ahead.”—Bryan Thao Worra, Creative Works Editor, Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement
“Trent Walker’s hauntingly beautiful Cambodian Dharma songs bring ancient wisdom to today's troubled world hungering for spiritual truth and guidance. At once disturbing and tender, Until Nirvana’s Time maps the universal human experience of grief and loss along Buddhist themes of impermanence, gratitude, and transformation. With spiritual urgency, the songs stir us from complacency, invite us to settle relationships, and seek peace in our hearts before death strikes. We owe a debt of gratitude to Walker and his teachers for this magnificent collection, which merits a place alongside the Therigatha in its contribution to Buddhist and world literature.”—Wendy Garling, author of The Woman Who Raised the Buddha: The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati “Until Nirvana’s Time makes available masterpieces of Cambodian Buddhist poetry filled with piercing renderings of the human condition, and wholehearted calls to the path of liberation. With this book, Trent Walker has opened a window to the emotional richness and the depth of human relationships that underlie Cambodian Buddhist culture and life.”—Gil Fronsdal, author of The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings “The Dharma song traditions of Southeast Asia are tender and powerful; they still and stir the heart, slowing word and breath, teaching through melody, rhyme, and rhythm. Until Nirvana’s Time invites those of us unfamiliar with these traditions into new and nourishing ways of engaging the beauty and depth of the Dharma. For years I have taught Trent Walker’s work in both dharma centers and academic courses, and I will surely draw on this landmark selection of his translations and commentaries in my future teaching.”—William Edelglass, Director of Studies, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies