Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Padampa Diet Plan


Given the richness of detail in the literature contained in the Zhijé Collection, I have sometimes found myself inclined to mine it for topics that might be unexpected in your usual accounts of early Tibetan Buddhism, topics that include some modern-seeming sorts of concerns such as ethnicity, women's rights and potentials, ecology, portraiture, psychology and the like. That does not mean that I’m eager to judge (and likely condemn) the past from a modernist perspective, more that I find those modern ideas aren't so modern after all, that they were showing up already in an earlier time and another place (it may seem a subtle point, but not really).  And, this does not mean I am disinterested in the spirituality (if I may use that term — I think I may and in any case will). I’m very much interested in the practices, the meditations, and the techniques of spiritual guidance and mentoring. I’ve written about those, too, and not just here in Tibeto-logic.

At the same time I’ve had the idea to look into matters that are economic in nature, specifically problems of patronage as well as food and clothing. Today I plan to leave the clothing aside and restrict myself to a few words on the problem of eating and food supply — crop growing, procurement, storage, food preparation, meals, dietary ideas — for the community that formed at Tingri Langkhor, touching on the problem of patronage. I want to ask a lot of questions, but doubt any will be answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Oh, and housing, what about that? Were there buildings there in Padampa’s day? What were they made of?

Has anyone thought to ask if Tingri Langkhor had any gardens? I have to admit that this hadn’t occurred to me before, either, until just now. I’m not sure if there is even sufficient source material to look into the question. Still one wonders if all of their food needs were met by their patrons or not. That there were patrons is beyond doubt, including as we will see at least two who belonged to royal families. I think we may assume these royal bloods were wealthy by the standards of the day. I’m not at all surprised if patronage is not often directly discussed in the Zhijé Collection (ZC). This is in line with Phadampa’s own advice to his fellow meditators, to renounce all concerns about food. clothing and shelter. Then, according to him, as a byproduct of this full renunciation, all those incidental needs will be sufficiently met without purposefully attending to them. The quotes that follow are typical of his statements in that area (remember that tsampa is roasted barley flour, main staple of the Tibetan diet):

As a symbolic way of saying that, in the phase of ascetic practices, service provided by others is a detriment
— He pared down his food and clothing to the bare necessities and did not deliberately look for them.  (ZC II 143)

As a symbolic way of telling how it is suffering that pulls us by the nose down the path of comfort [Padampa said]

— “The person that didn’t do the work doesn’t get the pay. If the uncourageous Tibetans could only make themselves naked, bolts of silk, balls of wool and tsampa would rain down from the sky.” (II 147)

Of course, one way food might come to you, apart from generous donors of course, is by gathering uncultivated plants yourself. The Zhijé History (ca. 1210 CE) that is included in the Zhijé Collection (scribed in ca. 1245) has a passage about Padampa's first days in Tingri, when the group was in its initial stages of formation. I guess I ought to try and translate it, but in a quick and provisional way.*
(*Well, to speak truthfully it has its tricky points, and I take liberties to reword a little according to my own lights instead of striving for the academic word-for-word).

“He made a vow to perform for thirteen years the practices of the Great Hero Benefitting Others, as part of his propitiation of Zhingkyema. He was dwelling undetected by people in a thicket of khenpa making his meals of droma and khurmang.  There are sayings that when something is kept secret the talk of it gets louder, what is hidden appears in plain daylight, it is in the shadows that people gather together, where gold lies under the ground its light rises into the sky,  or when a nutritive element is absorbed within its effects are quickly manifested externally.
“In like manner people from all over Nyima Latö flocked around him and all the spiritually endowed Tibetans of the Four Horns gathered there. But while Dampa himself made a miraculous display here and there he did so without speaking a word of Dharma. It is even said that a few who were jealous of him appeared and called him an outsider Tîrthika, a non-Buddhist.
“In those days the first one to personally encounter him was Coro Nyönpa.  The Lama's blessings entered into him, so when he returned to his home in the pasturelands he went as a trulzhig. He was such a trulzhig they say he couldn't even recognize his own mother.*
(*I don't translate trulzhig here, because it's a little difficult. Rather like majnun in Sufism, it's for persons who have for all intents and purposes lost their minds, in the sense that they no longer respect social conventions and even lose contact with their surroundings. In this case, the person's name can be interpreted as 'man of Choro who has gone insane.' The Blue Annals [reference below] spells his name differently and adds the interesting information that his biography could then — in the 1940's — be found in the form of a manuscript in Tibet.)
“A little later he was seen by Logkya Ralpacan. The Lama's blessings awakened in him such a trance that he no longer needed food or clothing. And even though he had never learned the alphabet (ka-kha), he became one able to answer every conceivable question about Dharma.
“Still later, when Dro Da'ö encountered him, the blessings entered into him such that he became free of all the eight worldly dharmas, not knowing the difference between happiness and discontent, and not holding to the true existence of any of the qualities of apparent existence. 
“Later Sumpa Khutsab saw him, and both day and night a light shown around him that darkness could not obscure, something everyone found amazing.  And besides these, it is said that many other such trulzhigs appeared. 
“The first to build a building there was Lama Charchen. He, being a son of the ruler Tsedé, had come to subdue the land for the royal capital, so his arrival was an auspicious one. 
“The first one to receive at his hands substances of interdependence was Tsugmoza Gendunkyi, and after her there were a few more minor incidents of people receiving substances of interdependence, after which they would have many realizations of truth. 
“The first to offer food out of veneration was was the Lord Tripa. Because of him their needs for livelihood were met and nobody needed do farming (so-nam) or go out and seek food in other ways.  
“The first who received his precepts was Lama Charchung, but after him many ‘son disciples’ (u-chen, =dbu-chen) arrived.   
“While there were many son disciples there was no other with such accomplished understanding of the interdependent signs that epitomize the meaning transmission of the Perfection of Wisdom apart from the Bodhisattva Kunga...”*
(*Kunga was for many reasons Padampa's most prominent disciple, and it's interesting to note that he was himself a farmer before he came to join Padampa's community, becoming the Indian master's main interpreter. I recommend reading the English translation by Gendun Chöphel and George Roerich, of the same passage in the Blue Annals, pp. 912-913. I don't have time to go into arguments about the differences in understanding that you will find there, but I thought whoever bothers to look into this will find amusement by comparing. It's possible the one woman who is mentioned here was in fact a nun, as our earlier translators call her, not because there is any word there for 'nun' [there isn't], but because it was very uncommon for women in those days to have a name-in-religion such as hers unless they had been ordained. But at the same time the element "za" (or བཟའ་) added to her clan name suggests she was a married woman. So I leave her name as it is and make no judgements about her possible ordination status. Well, there is more to discuss in the passage, but for now I will leave it at this.)

This longish passage makes it explicit that the viability of this community of meditators relied, in the first place, on generous donations of building[s] and food by two persons of royal descent. But let’s look at what it was that Padampa was eating to begin with. First of all, I doubt he was making a soup or anything else out of the khenpa; he was just staying in a patch of it. Khenpa is the alpine tansy, or Tanacetum nubigenum. It’s known to be used in Tibetan medicine. Since it has woody stems, you might say it is bush-like, with lots of pleasant daisy-like flowers, which could provide not only a pleasing aroma but also shade and a shield from passing strangers. Not only that, I’m intrigued to discover just now that khenpa contains chemical components that have been tested for insect repelling properties, and this could be another plus for a meditator who doesn’t want to be bugged by anyone or anything. 

Secondly, droma (དྲོ་མ་ is better spelled གྲོ་མ་) does not mean “peas” regardless of what the Blue Annals translation says.  It is a tuber, the edible part growing underground. Peas grow above ground in pods in the unlikely case you need that information. They may resemble peas somewhat since the tubers tend to be small and roundish. Many Tibetans have a special fondness for them, especially since they can’t find them in other parts of the world. Or can they? Actually, I've seen it identified as Potentilla peduncularis, but also as Potentilla pacifica. I’ll send you off to a special discussion precisely on this wild food plant by the “mushroamer” Daniel Winkler. Just try looking here and then scroll past the astounding rhubarb plants until you almost reach the end of the page.  The eating of silverweed root, another name for it, is well known among the indigenous peoples of the northwest coastal area of North America. Tibetans of the Seattle and Vancouver area should take note.

Potentilla anserina

Thirdly, the easiest one, or at least the most ubiquitous, is the khurmang (ཁུར་མངས་). This is that most-cursed scourge of American lawn growers that suffers the constant depredations of angry Americans’ lawn mowers. I mean, of course, the ‘tooth of the lion,’ the dandelion, Taraxacum officinalis. As everyone I know is aware, the greens of the plant are quite good if picked in the spring before the flower buds start to form. Just to hear the word dandelion brings back fond memories of how as a child I used to pick their yellow flowers by the basketful because a neighbor, who was probably going to make wine from them, would pay me a few precious pennies.

So, to sum up a bit, we can say that Padampa started out his homeless meditation retreat by gathering and eating wild scavenged food, and later on as people gathered around him, the food, as well as the first shelter, was supplied by generous support from a couple of wealthy people who regarded him as their teacher. For the first phase, we are reminded of Milarepa’s years of meditation in solitude when he lived almost entirely from nettle soup, so much that many believe he needs to be depicted in paintings with green colored skin. I can tell you that I’ve been having nettles for months now (it helps with a couple of my minor medical complaints), and have detected not even the slightest change in my skin color, but of course I am not on a nettles-only diet.*
(*The very earliest separately titled account of Milarepa's life was written by his direct disciple Gampopa, and already there we can find these words [from Quintman, p. 192]: “The lama [Milarepa] had no provisions and used nettles for food, so he turned green. His cooking pot, bowl, and ladle also turned green." The Jesuit Desideri, the first European to take notice of Milarepa, although he forgot to give his name, said, "He wore no clothes to shield him from the bitter cold... He slept on the bare ground and his food was a handful of nettles, fresh or dried and boiled in water."  Quintman, p. 11.)

So anyway, a few years ago I was surprised to learn that the diets of early renunciates has already formed a significant topic for modern researchers in a very different area of the world. I’ve listed below some of the main studies — there are not so many of them — about the food-ways of Christian renunciates in the Judaean Desert, and particularly the ones known as ‘grazers’ (boskoi). Naturally, there is a lot more literature about their prayers and meditations, their views about theology, their saintly deeds and so on. Some desert fathers and mothers lived their whole lives as grazers, but many more renunciates would go off on solitary trips into the desert to live of the land for about a month each year during the Lent season. 

And what did grazers eat? In 5th-century Judaean Desert the main wild food the monks collected was manouthion (see Heiska, p. 47). It was apparently a kind of thistle called the tumble thistle. Only the young shoots were really edible, but they could be dried for later use (apparently in soup), and it is said they could eat the large stalks after the tough outer skin was removed. They also ate malwa (saltbush, or Atriplex halimus) and the better known caper (Capparis spinosa). Wild onions, garlic and a tuber they called melagria, that has been identified as asphodel (Asphodelus macrocarpus) are also mentioned. Pythagoras enjoyed it.

Why bother with comparison? Simple answer: It helps you imagine different questions to ask of your historical sources, questions that might never occur to you otherwise. The Tingrian Buddhists and the Syriac Christians didn’t eat the same things — perhaps the melagria, being a starchy sweet tuber, could be compared to the droma, the potherbs with the potherbs — the point is just that they ate the edible plants that were abundant enough in their own rather difficult environments. At the same time the renunciates in the Syrian desert, like the early Tingrians, very much relied on the largesse of kings. The complex of Mar Saba, the most impressive of them all, is still active as a monastery to some degree. I  had often dreamt about it and finally had the good fortune to visit it just last spring, so I can share a few of my photos, below. Outside the walled complex, you can observe very many caves close by in the Kidron Valley. These made perfect meditation caves with easily available water supplies, solitary dwellings that yet were sufficiently close to allow for weekly meetings in the chapels. 

We have clear ideas how it was funded in its early days. Cyril of Scythopolis tells how after Mar Sabas’ (439-532 CE) father had died in Alexandria Sabas’ mother, Sophia, traveled to the Great Laura bringing along the family inheritance. When she died she left all of that wealth to the monastery. Much later in his life, and after the contemplative communities were beginning to flourish, Sabas traveled all the way to Constantinople, over 700 miles away. He went there to see the Emperor Anastasius famous for his two eyes being of different colors who, at the end of their first meeting, gave him a thousand gold coins called solidi. This fabulous amount he took back with him in support of the desert monasteries. 

Food foraging and royal support form parts of both stories, so to that degree, at least, the comparison is making sense. Now we ought to go on to compare their approaches to spiritual mentoring and the life of contemplation. That might make more sense. Meanwhile we may find ourselves in similar dilemmas. Should we be living off the land or relying on government grants? In the country or in the city? Which would better suit the life of contemplation? Does it have to matter? And finally, should I go on a diet? I think Padampa's diet plan would be no plan at all, just eat what comes to you, minimize your wants and trust that your needs will be met one way or another. I appreciate the optimism of it.

Mar Saba in its higher part

A desert flower along the way

Mar Saba from the opposite side of the Kidron Valley
(click to enlarge)

Interesting readings somehow connected with what was said before

Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, first published in 1962. Nowadays ecologically corrected children will hear with horror his account of actually picking wild plants, let alone eating them. But well, for the many who supposedly believe in natural foods these days what could be more natural? As a brother once told me, whoever said “Take only photographs, leave only footprints” was the kind of rich city slicker (his term) who sees the world outside town as nothing more than a weekend hike, not a place to live and make a living.

Nina Heiska, The Economy and Livelihoods of the Early Christian Monasteries in Palestine, Master of Arts Thesis, Institute for Cultural Studies, Archaeology at the University of Helsinki (November 2003).  Especially interesting is section 6.4, “Gathering of Wild Plants.”

Yizhar Hirschfeld, “Edible Wild Plants: The Secret Diet of Monks in the Judaean Desert,” Israel, Land and Nature, vol. 16 (1990), pp. 25-28.

Yizhar Hirschfeld, “Spirituality in the Desert: Judaean Wilderness Monasteries,” Biblical Archaeology Review, vol. 21, no. 5 (September 1995), pp. 28-37, 70.

Andrew Quintman, The Yogin & the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet's Great Saint Milarepa, Columbia University Press (New York 2014).

Norman A. Rubin, “Byzantine Monasteries at the Edge of the Desert,” Anistoriton: History News, vol. 8 (March 2004), especially the last section, “Living off the Land.”  Available online here.

R. Rubin, “The Melagria: On Anchorites and Edible Roots in Judaean Desert,” Liber Annuus, vol. 52 (2002).  You can see the abstract and first page here.

Cyril of Scythopolis (ca. 525-559 CE),  The Lives of the Monks of Palestine, tr. by R.M. Price, Cistercian Publications (Kalamazoo 1991).

Alice-Mary Talbot, “Byzantine Monastic Horticulture: The Textual Evidence,” contained in: Antony Littlewood, Henry Maguire & Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, eds., Byzantine Garden Culture, Dumbarton Oaks (Washington D.C. 2002), pp. 37-67.

Francis V. Tiso, Rainbow Body and Resurrection:  Spiritual Attainment, the Dissolution of the Material Body, and the Case of Khenpo A Cho, a forthcoming book (in 2016?). This book has a remarkable thesis linking Syriac Christian (or more particularly the Messalian 'Contemplationist' current of the same) ideas about the Resurrection Body with Dzogchen ideas about the Rainbow Body. In effect this would somewhat directly link one major strand of Tibetan spiritual practice with the society of ascetics that peopled the Judaean Desert. Worth looking into, I think, especially if you think the thesis is impossible to believe.

John Wortley, “ ‘Grazers’ (Boskoi) in the Judaean Desert,” contained in: Joseph Patrich, ed., The Sabaite Heritage in the Orthodox Church from the Fifth Century to the Present, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, Peeters (Louvain 2001), pp. 38-48.

See also this blog entry from CityDesert entitled “Boskoi, the Grazing Hermits.” I enjoyed reading this one about the Dendrites, who haven’t received much attention (much less than the Stylites) from us ground dwellers. CityDesert is written by an anonymous Orthodox priest: “The author of this blog is a Priest of an Oriental Orthodox Church who lives and works in a city that is a desert. He lives in The Hermitage of St Cedd in an inner suburb of a large city.” Let’s see, a city that is a desert...  He must mean Phoenix.

If you have any doubts the amazing genius of Gendun Chöpel was most responsible for the translation of the Blue Annals, even while the name on the title page is that of George Roerich, see Benjamin Bogen & Hubert Decleer, “Who Was "This Evil Friend" ("the Dog," "the Fool," "the Tyrant") in Gedün Chöphel's Sad Song?” Tibet Journal, vol. 22, no. 3 (Autumn 1997), pp. 67‑78.

Wonder what Padampa would think about soylent? For your budding millennials I recommend Vlad Chituc, “The Moral Bankruptcy of Silicon Valley Asceticism.”

I picked today’s frontispiece precisely because it depicts Padampa as unusually corpulent. The woodblocks were carved by extremely skilled carvers in the 1950's. The trouble is a lot of retracing has been done over parts of these Prajñåparamitå miniatures that did not come out clearly in the xylographic process. This retracing is very much in evidence in the crudely depicted toes, so I am not sure how much weight ought to be given to the evidence you see here. Perhaps none. It does depict Padampa more in the style of the Zhijé Tradition, with his hands held in that mysterious gesture we’ve talked about before.

§  §  §
“Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?  Behold the fowls of the air : for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?”
 — Matthew 6:25-26; Luke 12:22-24

Friday, July 31, 2015

Homicide, Forced Suicide, Vengeance and the Ghost

Andrea Mantegna's St. Sebastian, c. 1455-60

"It will have blood: they say blood will have blood.   
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak.
... ... ... I am in blood 
stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, 
returning were as tedious as go o'er."
Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 4.

I’ve been reading an interesting new master’s thesis. Wait a minute, does that sound like a normal sentence to you?  Well, anyway, it surely is an interesting work that put my mind to thinking after I finished shuddering. Think of it as Macbeth and St. Sebastian with more than a touch of Silence of the Lambs. If you are OK with that, you might be ready to read on.

The thesis, by Sara Conrad, is about the Sakya Bagmo (ས་སྐྱ་འབག་མོ་), often called “witches” in English —  the weird sisters of Macbeth? — since anyway some of the things they have done were quite ghoulish to say the least, and time after time they needed to be brought under control by the Sakya hierarchs. These women are actual flesh-and-blood women possessed by a kind of spirit (for this reason they are sometimes referred to as söndré - གསོན་འདྲེ་ or living ghosts). The real meaning of the name Bagmo is mask (with the mo just a regular feminine ending).

When reading this account of the origins of the Sakya Bagmo, I was struck by the recurrence of a theme (or complex if you prefer) in Tibetan culture, one that has its various manifestations in most or all of the different sects, not just in the Sakya. Without getting too structuralistic about it, let’s pare it down to the basic formula.

A, B and C are good friends of X.  At some point X gets in the way of his three (or four or more) friends’ plans for the future. A new plan is made to get him out of the way, a plot in which they all participate in some way. X is killed or, which is practically the same thing, cornered into an impossible position from which the only escape is suicide. The unjustly killed person cries out for revenge from the grave. The guilty parties, and their wider organization, engage in acts of propitiation, meant to turn X into a protector rather than an antagonist. Time and again, X requires reminding not to slip back into vengeance mode, which anyway X threatens to do with some regularity, just as the guilt of A, B, and C keeps flaring up from time to time, generation after generation. Is it the guilt or is it the ghost that gets propitiated? The rituals can’t tell and perhaps don’t even know the difference.

Of course this skeletal scenario was constructed by myself just this moment, and one thing you need to remember is that not every single facet of it has to be repeated in every instance of the story. The larger structural parallels are what I want to point out, not the architectural details.

Here is an account of how the Sakya Bagmo originated somewhere around the 16th century. The Rabjampa Sönam Özer (རབ་འབྱམས་པ་བསོད་ནམས་འོད་ཟེར་) was captured by a group of three political figures (sde-pa) named Lhakhangpa, Lhasa Dzongpa, and Kyetrangpa (their motives not clarified). They tied him to a pillar next to the long stairway of the Great Temple of Sakya. Then they shot arrows at his chest and killed him.

“According to the oral historical tradition, when the Rabjampa was killed he said these prayers with great intention: ‘As I pass from this lifetime, may I be born as the empowered one of one third of the world.’  But due to the fact that his consciousness was vengeful and angry, he said, ‘as I pass from this lifetime, may I be born as devourer of one third of the world.’ ” (Conrad, p. 11)

By the power of his negative intentions (however justified by the unjustness of his death) he was born as the first Sakya Bagmo. Her name was Namkha Drölma (ནམ་མཁའ་སྒྲོལ་མ་). It fell upon a Sakya leader by the name of Drachen Tutob Wangchug to try and subdue her, but try as he did methods both peaceful and wrathful they were to no avail, so he took the next best step and married her, or as the text says, took her as a [f.] Seal (ཕྱག་རྒྱ་མ་). In any case, they were in cohabitation when she died. Then Drachen peeled off her skin, tanned it and made from it a mask. This he used in a ritual to coerce the spirit to become a protector of the Sakya school. This mask was kept in a special box and taken out once a year for ritual purposes.

Well, I did warn you about the parallels with Silence of the Lambs. Still... if you are still with me... What else does this story in general remind me of?  For one thing the account of Shugden. If you want to read more about it, the quickest and best way is to send you over to another blog by another blogger. You will find the link below under “Dreyfus,” so I’m not going to go into this much better known story right now.

Less well known is the account of a once-vengeful ghost turned protector spirit of the Bön school. Some will surely be surprised to learn that Bönpos turned a high incarnation of the Karma Kagyü school into a protector of their own school. How did that happen?

The Tibetan-language sources are widely scattered and are not especially clear. The one summary I know of is by Samten Karmay, who says that when the 10th Red Hat Karmapa died unexpectedly in Nepal during the Tibeto-Nepalese wars in 1792, the Tibetan government forbade recognition of his reincarnation.* Later on his ghost manifested as a spirit. Then the abbot of Menri Monastery named Sherab Gonggyel (1784-1835) made him into a protector of Bon religion, giving the spirit protector a name that is identical to the name of the First Red Hat Karmapa: Dragpa Gyaltsen (1283-1349). Although it is true that the Bön protector figure is the most recent one to develop, it is still a curiousity that his name Dragpa Gyaltsen is often prefaced with a set of epithets that mean Fierce, Forceful, and Great King. The second of these three, Forceful, translates Shugden (Shugs-ldan).*
(*More about the Tenth Red Hat Karmapa here.   **I located another source that adds a fourth epithet: Wealth God [Nor-lha].  YTKC, p. 932: drag po shugs ldan rgyal chen nor lha grags pa seng ge'i mchod bstod /  YTKC is a very lengthy catalog of Bon scriptures. Look here.)
Baumer (p. 170) says that the 10th Red Hat Karmapa’s death was what could be called a forced suicide: “[He] is supposed, for political reasons, to have incited the Nepalese Gurkhas to undertake their military campaign of 1788-1791 against Tibet.  [He], having failed, committed suicide, but was unable to release his soul from the earthly realm of existence and became a wandering evil spirit. The abbot of the Bön monastery of Menri, however, recognized that this tulku was originally the son of the demon king Khyapa and the daughter of Shenrab. He tamed him and forced him to become a protective deity of Bön.”

If there is a single historical figure behind all these guilt-tripping unjustified death cults, it would have to be this one:  Dranka Pelgi Yönten (བྲན་ཀ་དཔལ་གྱི་ཡོན་ཏན་), the first signatory of the Tibetan-Chinese peace treaty of 820-821 CE.

Dranka, a royal minister, was falsely accused of having an illicit affair with the royal consort Ngangtsulma (ངང་ཚུལ་མ་). This is likely to sound familiar if you’ve ever heard the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.  But his rivalry with one of his fellow ministers started already in their childhood days, according to a remarkable and lengthy story we don’t have time for at the moment. The false accusation has a deeper background, so it seems it cannot be so simply reduced to a religiously motivated argument between the pro- and anti-Buddhist forces. Perhaps that, too.

The Deyu history says that when the pregnant queen Ngangtsulma heard the news of the minister Dranka's murder she became physically ill, slashed open her own stomach with an obsidian knife and said, “If you want to know if the minister and I did or did not have an affair, have a look at this!” Everyone could see that inside her stomach was a child with a full set of conch-like teeth as well as eyebrows of turquoise color. These they knew to be unequivocal marks that the child was of royal blood. The king himself confessed his mistake and as part of his penance erected a sacred icon-volume of the Perfection of Wisdom scripture.* The ghost of Dranka went on to be credited with everything terrible that happened in the post-imperial period, including the civilian worker uprisings (ཁེང་ལོག), and the looting of the royal tombs. To follow Dranka’s curse, the end of the imperial line itself may be credited to him: “May the azure sky turn bluer, the tawny earth turn to red.  May the lords and civilians revolt and the royal line be cut off.”** 
(*This volume was called the Red Abridgement**Deyu history, p. 361.)
It may be that Dranka's death set the precedent for the others. I’ll just put that forward as a hypothesis that might gain or lose strength with further investigation and reflection.  The Dranka story may itself have precedents. Anyway, all of these stories regardless of their chronological coordinates can be traced back to the same unhealthy psycho-social complex.

I have to say that today’s blog doesn’t exactly portray Tibetan Buddhism in the best of lights or its finest of moments, much like our contemporary Shugden controversies. To judge from what I’ve seen on the internet, they seem to bring out the worst in people. If you are thinking that way you aren’t alone. I know a number of modern-day Tibetan Buddhists will agree: It would be just as well if these vicious cycles of guilt, vengefulness and propitiation could find resolution in a new way. 
My recommendation? (Not that anyone asked me...)

Confess, apologize and try to make amends for the incidents of cruel and unusual injustice that underly them, and admit that these cultural complexes are from beginning to end about political power and sectarian allegiance, not religion. I have no doubt Buddhism will fare better without these particular practices that keep raising up the ghosts of guilt. As we all know, guilt  is, along with martyrdom, one of the specialties of the three main monotheistic religions, and as far as I’m concerned they can keep their corner on the market. Buddhists ought to be aspiring to attain Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings without getting sidetracked.

§  §  §


Christoph Baumer, Tibet's Ancient Religion Bön, Orchid Press (Bangkok 2002).

Sara Marie Conrad, Oral Accounts of the Sa-skya 'bag-mo: Past and Present Voices of the Terrifying Witches of Sa-skya,  master’s thesis, Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Indiana University (Bloomington, June 2012). Look here and here.

Brandon Dotson, “At the Behest of the Mountain: Gods, Clans and Political Topography in Post-Imperial Tibet,” contained in: Cristina Sherrer-Schaub, ed., Old Tibetan Studies, Brill (Leiden 2012), pp. 159-204. This paper is much recommended for its close reading of the classic versions of the Dranka story.

Georges Dreyfus, “The Shuk-den Affair: History and Nature of a Quarrel,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol. 21, no. 2 (1998), pp. 227-270.  This page links to the more academic publications on the Shugden issues, with Dreyfus’ article at the top of the list, as it must be. I prefer not to supply links to all those other Shugden-connected sites, since they are so numerous and you can find them with ease. If I wanted to link to anything so dreadfully uninspiring I’d sooner link to Xinhua editorials, to tell the truth. Here is a recent statement on the Dalai Lama own webpage on the issues raised by the protesters that seem to pop up everywhere He goes these days.

Samten Karmay, The Arrow and the Spindle [vol. 1], Mandala Book Point (Kathmandu 1998). 

Mountain Phoenix, “The Spirit that I Called: Dorje Shugden and the Unresolved Political History of the Gelugpas” (September 15 2014). For being so well spoken, and for its even-headed and independently-arrived-at assessment of the situation, I place this essay in a class by itself.  For a related but earlier (October 4, 2008) essay by the same author, look here.

Roberto Vitali, “Sa-skya and the mNga'-ris skor gsum Legacy: The Case of Rin-chen-bzang-po's Flying Mask,” Lungta, vol. 14 (Spring 2001), pp. 5-44.  This is in a special issue of Lungta (a publication of Amnye Machen Institute, McLeod Ganj) entitled Aspects of Tibetan History, guest edited by Roberto Vitali.


Dranka we ought to emphasize was a very important political figure during the first two decades of the 9th century, and his name appears carved in stone more than once in old Tibetan inscriptions. His historical existence isn’t likely to be doubted by anyone.

Conrad names the one who subdued the Sakya Bagmo as Sgra-chen Mthu-stobs-dbang-phyug (སྒྲ་ཆེན་མཐུ་སྟོབས་དབང་ཕྱུག), born in the 10th rab-byung cycle, the Water Dragon Year (1592 CE).  Since he was the eldest brother of the much more famous A-myes-zhabs (ཨ་མྱེས་ཞབས་,1597-1659 or 1660), his identity is not in much doubt.  But the TBRC spells his name in the form 'Jam-dbyangs-mthu-stobs-dbang-phyug, འཇམ་དབྱངས་མཐུ་སྟོབས་དབང་ཕྱུག, giving him the dates 1588-1637. The specifier Sgra-chen (སྒྲ་ཆེན་) would suggest that he was a great grammarian, however another source known to me calls him Sgar-chen (སྒར་ཆེན་), connecting him to a 'great encampment.'*  Neither of these two epithets/specifiers is used in the brief entry in this biographical dictionary: Ko-zhul Grags-pa-'byung-gnas and Rgyal-ba-blo-bzang-mkhas-grub, Gangs-can Mkhas-grub Rim-byon Ming-mdzod, Kan-su'u Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Lanzhou 1992), pp. 638-639, and nothing is said about the Sakya Bagmo. It does say he was born in 1588, and here his name takes the longer form འཇམ་དབྱངས་མཐུ་སྟོབས་དབང་ཕྱུག་གྲགས་པ་རྒྱལ་མཚན.

(*This other source is Khetsun Sangpo's Biographical Dictionary of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, vol. 3, p. 790; I just double-checked it. It very certainly refers to the same person, since A-myes-zhabs is mentioned immediately after him.)
— — —
“Stones have been known to move and trees to speak.”
I imagine Shakespeare meant for us to find a mantic element in this mysterious phrase of his. The speech of tree and stone is found in Homer’s Odyssey, and in Plato's Phaedrus, and even long before these Greeks in an Ugaritic text. For the evidence, look at this essay fresh off the press: Alexander S.W. Forte, “Speech from Tree and Rock: Recovery of a Bronze Age Metaphor,” American Journal of Philology, vol. 136, no. 1 (Spring 2015), pp. 1-35. We are supposed to imagine some kind of ghostly imprecation, as if the blood were crying out from the ground, as if stones were ominously moving (crashing rocks = crashing thunder), or trees prophesying future vengeance. To quote pp. 30-31 on the phrase speech from tree and/or rock:
“In the Iliad, the phrase has connotations of persuasion in a context of courtship; in the Odyssey, it is generative and prophetic; and in the Theogony, it occurs in a transparently prophetic context within a larger work concerned with the creation of the universe. 
“Each Greek phrase is likely an idiomatic reflex of a phrase which is well-preserved and artfully represented in the Ugaritic text, in which lightning and thunder represent divine speech as a prophetic utterance and are representative of the mingling of heaven and earth.”
I know that Tibetan translations of two of Shakespeare's plays — Romeo and Juliette and Hamlet — have been available for over a decade now. I've been on the lookout for a translation of Macbeth, since someone once told me there was one, but so far no good luck with my luck. I just thought it would be fun to supply a Tibetan version of the quote at the front of the blog. For an entertaining thing about translating Shakespeare into Tibetan, go to Adam Pearcey's website, “More Shakespeare in Tibetan.” Tibetanists should pay good attention to the alternative verse translations in the comments section to that page!


Postscript:  The following comment was sent to me by email from Sara Conrad, the author of the master's thesis that got me started on this topic.  This is what she had to say about her difficulties researching the topic of the Sakya Bagmo (October 2, 2015):

"I had a lot of problems collecting interviews on this topic. No women would talk to me about the Bag mo, even though I interviewed a high ranking female member of the Sakya pa - she would not go on record. Since you brought up Silence of the Lambs, I will bring up Poltergeist - where they were afraid of talking about it because they were afraid it would come true or something would happen. I also felt (and this was said to me as well) that people did not want to talk about violence in Buddhism. The only interviewee really excited to talk about this topic was the Nyingma pa Rinpoche."