Saturday, October 21, 2017

Ten Things Most Dear

Ten Things Most Dear: An Advisory Song

If there were no such lamas and instructors,
attended upon for the longterm yet this time around
acting under the influence of hate and lust, it would be enough for us.
To attend on a virtuous friend with all the right qualifications is most dear.

However great the efforts we put into learning, if there were no such studies
of dry technical terms that keep the attainment of full knowledge at a distance
it would be enough for us.  Learning and reflecting on the profound precepts
that express the quintessence of the tantra texts are most dear.

However much the meditating, if there were no pushing and striving
for the kind with turnoffs and diversions, poor in experiences and realization,
it would be enough for us.  Practical engagement without letting go to waste
the precepts passed down within a lineage is most dear.

Even if it happens in groups of two or three, if there were no exchange
of idle chatter when people gather in their homes imitating one another
it would be enough for us.  Staying on in a secure place
with a few Dharma-minded companions is most dear.

When they have a couple of marks and signs of no account, if they were not
making a big deal of them as if they were seeing dharmas as they truly are
it would be enough for us.  As with the louse and the finger,
confidence and cheerfulness at the moment of death is most dear.

If there were none who were the best of Buddhists in happy times
but turn ordinary as soon as misfortunes come to them
it would be enough for us.  The equanimity that bears all things,
both good and bad, is most dear.

If there were no followers of the kind who in the thick of the battle
are running for Dharma, but helpless and without a clue
when it comes to following it, it would be enough for us.
A supporter doing as instructed out of faith is most dear.

If there were no people with certain religious qualities who
out of their fear of death, strive for liberation for themselves alone
it would be enough for us.  Leading a life of love for each and every
animate being as if for an only child is most dear.

If there were no people laying out plans in hopes of permanence
at the same time claiming to believe in impermanence
it would be enough for us.  A reversal of attachments that sees
the true nature of things as compounded is most dear.

If there were no people with "good interests in mind"
who beguile the minds of others with their wealth and devious posturings
it would be enough for us.  Benefitting others by first taming
one's own mind and then employing the Four Gatherings is most dear.

— These words of advice were for the monk and meditator Sherab Pelden.

Translator's notes:  I choose the translation "most dear" for gces-pa because it helps to carry the meanings of rarity, exceptionality and endearment or even cuteness.  Each of the ten verses shares the same parallel structure and rhythm, although in the interest of easy intelligibility I decided not to preserve this fully in the English. In the final verse, the Four Gatherings (four ways of gathering disciples) means [1] giving them what is needed, [2] speaking to them kindly, [3] not opposing their worldly aims, [4] acting for the benefit of the aspirant.  I admit that the louse metaphor doesn't make much sense to me, but I imagine that the louse is most lively just on the point when it is going to be picked out and crushed. A thirty-year-old translation emerged from my recovered archive and seeing it had many mistakes I did my best to improve it, thinking it is applicable to things that are happening these days in our world. The Tibetan text, too, has been emended to make it better, putting in a few missing vowel signs, correcting confusions between nga (ང་) and da (ད་), reading yong-gtam (ཡོང་གཏམ་) as long-gtam (ལོང་གཏམ་)  and the like.་As of yet I have been unable to find out more about Sherab Pelden, the person to whom these verses were directed. You can find an entry on the author here at Wikipedia.

Source:  'Brug-chen IV Padma-dkar-po, Gsung-'bum, vol. 20, pp. 367-368.  TBRC work RID code no. W10736.












ཞེས་པ་འདི་དགེ་སློང་བསམ་གཏན་པ་ཤེས་རབ་དཔལ་ལྡན་ལ་གདམས་པའོ།། །།

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Translator Trip-Ups 2 - Spelling

The first blog in the series, about script oddities, is here.

In this blog we’ll look at some odd spellings. For the most part these are not exactly misspellings, more like unexpected spellings that anyway occur with some regularity in a particular time or context. That means someone, at least, thought them acceptable. Thinking about pre- and post- Samuel Johnson English, you may wonder when and how any kind of spelling standards may have taken effect among Tibetan writers. For those concerned, there have been a lot of dag-yig, or correct letters texts meant to help them. 

The truth is Tibetan literary culture was and remained for most of his history a scribal culture, despite the eventually increasing popularity of woodblock printing technology. That means even works written by good spellers might get copied by bad spellers, or even worse, copyists who regarded themselves as good spellers. At some point a body comes to accept things like the absence of the final -s when it ought to be there, and its presence when it shouldn't, and this despite any number of treatises written by Tibetan savants precisely on that subject. It isn't a popular thing to be a good speller, so I hesitate to say just how good I was at it at a very young age, and proud of it, too. Even before I started primary school, I knew how to spell a number of short words thanks to my parents and my older brothers. So I'll dedicate this blog to them.

Our first example is difficult to recognize, indeed quite odd and one that puzzled me in the past:

This 'byal turns out to be an uncommon spelling for one of the most common verbs. I‘ve seen it in quite a range of works, mainly early compositions, mostly pre-Mongol period (roughly pre-mid-13th century).

In this example you see above, taken from the Zhijé History that appears in the Zhijé Collection (more on it in a minute!), Padampa Sangye encounters one of his disciples, a woman, during his travels in Tibet. There are many examples of this 'byal spelling, and despite its oddness there is really no doubt about it. And in the ZC it is the normal spelling (I haven’t noted the normally regarded as ‘normal’ spelling mjal at all). I’ve observed this in other early texts, including manuscripts of Zhang G.yu-brag-pa’s 12th-century works. However, doing the million-page search at TBRC I only come up with 13 “hits,” and only a few of these turn out to be valid examples on closer inspection.* Despite this, we can say that in particular texts this highly unusual spelling is the usual one. 
(*There are reasons for this. After years of efforts OCR can now work, and it has become a great tool for Tibet research, but it only works well with publications produced with 21st-century computer fonts. [What computers produce they can be taught to read?]  That means not only that works existing only in manuscript are entirely excluded, it also means that modern editors, being bound to dictate their own ideas of what right spelling is, have very likely eliminated all the interesting ones.)

Here you may be able to make out that there is or was a title there on the title page of the Zhijé Collection as filmed by the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project. I’ve mentioned this collection a lot in earlier blogs, so I assume you know of it.

The Zhijé Collection, inscribed some time around 1245, is my main source of the unusual spellings that we will look at. Here you can see how the title is given in the published version. I point out parts that require correction:

Assuming my corrections are good, and I think that would be a good assumption, we can translate it as “Among the Zhijé Teachings at the Heart of the Holy Dharma, this is the Later Transmission [Collection Known as] The Exceptionally Profound. This is the copy that belongs to the small residence in Tingri Langkor.” Later Transmission simply means that it belongs to the most recent of Padampa’s three periods of teaching in Tibet, the time he spent in Tingri up until his death. If you think there is something pejorative about labeling it as later, would you prefer to call it the Latest Transmission? I for one won’t mind.

Wolfenden, in his old article “Significance of Early Tibetan Word Forms,” comments how a glossary of Amdo dialects very often replaces various prescript consonants, and most often the ‘g’ and ‘d’ prescripts that are replaced with the superscript ‘r’ are pronounced as such (a commonly encountered example of this is rtsang-po in place of gtsang-po. Knowing that a shift of this kind happens is a very important key to understanding the text. Still, I’m not sure if we ought to conclude that the ‘s’ in the Padampa text was actually pronounced. It seems not, since it isn’t systematically applied, only some of the time. I also doubt it was a deliberate effort to make the text less readable, I’m just not sure enough to remark on it.

In general, linguistically speaking, odd spellings sometimes prove interesting for finding out obsolete historical pronunciations, or for identifying dialectical differences. In some 21st-century performances of Shakespeare’s plays actors have favored reconstructions of the “original pronunciation.” Three things that have proven especially useful are rhymes, spellings and puns. I really can’t say if our text’s odd spellings may of interest for reconstructing early pronunciations or not, just saying it’s conceivable.

I’ve given some relatively clear examples, chosen because I believe they look quite convincing in context. Still, I think if you opened the volumes of the Zhije Collection with no clue that this alternative spelling system was in place you would find it quite bewildering and difficult to decipher. Just as I did when I first looked at it 35 years ago. Let me tell you: Recognizing this odd spelling tendency of the text is key to beginning to understand it. Knowing it, you can move ahead to deal with its other difficulties, like the odd vocabulary items we’ll go into in an upcoming blog.

PS: I can't resist adding something about a general tendency to switch between the root letter ch- and two root letter clusters, khy-  and  phy-:

ཆ་  = ཁྱ་ =  ཕྱ་*

(*So, if you see a syllables such as  འཆལ་, it could stand in place of  འཁྱལ་, which could stand in place of འཕྱལ་ and so on. This spelling alternation is not something special to the Zhijé Collection, or to the earlier period, but seems to continue even today.)

Regardless of how different they look on the page, all three are pronounced exactly the same, so there is good reason for the spelling confusion. What this means in practical terms is, if you want to find a word in the dictionary that has one of these three in it, and you're not finding it, you may need to try looking under the other spelling.

Let us know about other odd spellings you’ve encountered in the comments section below. Meanwhile, spell well, or at least well enough.


  • A note on texts: If you are the type of person to be intrigued by the abuse of the final -s rules, just go to TBRC and search for the term sa-mtha' (ས་མཐའ་). This will result in a list of texts on the subject. You can try doing the same with dag-yig (དག་ཡིག་), but be warned that in modern usage it has come to mean dictionary in the modern sense. Well, dictionaries are, or used to be before spellchecking, the main force for standardizing spellings, not that spellcheckers don’t have problems of their own, or that they are all that great authorities on rightly spelling as we well know. If you haven’t turned off the autocorrect you have only yourself to blame.
  • Stuart Norris Wolfenden, “Significance of Early Tibetan Word Forms,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1928), pp. 896-899.
  • On the Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare:  Shakespeare was himself an unusual speller, although I’m not sure we ought to accept that as your excuse. If you want to know more about “original pronunciation” (like mu-si-see-yun for myuzishun) go to the video link just given. Or for more fun try this video.
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