Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Signs of Shangri-la

Left Turn, Shangri-la
I spent too much time in Shangri-la, to tell the truth. Not that even a single day there could not have pushed some serious cynicism buttons. As it is, I’m left saddened and a little angry, emotions that should never happen in what is after all supposed to be such a perfect place. For now I’m going to limit myself to the signs that are there for everyone to see, even if I’m not sure everyone can read them. And yes, to answer that questioning look on your face, that goes for myself, too. Although my knowledge of Mandarin and Chinese characters was doubling every day I was there, I still have a very long way to go. So let’s forget the Chinese inscriptions temporarily and see if the Tibetan signs have something to tell.

Dream of Shambhala Inn.  Keep dreaming.
In my first example of a sign actually seen and photographed in Shangri-la, Tibetanists will immediately sense something deeply amiss. Whoever put the Tibetan letters on this sign had not the remotest idea how Tibetan letters work, or how they might go together to make meanings. As a result, we get this impossible word-trash that I will try to transcribe into Wylie transcription for you: sad bbe phyi rting bang mid bku be r.mar. Can a root-letter ba ever have a prescript ba? Can a root-letter ma ever have a prescript ra? No, these can never ever happen for any reason. I’ll be first to admit that this might have something to do with the Chinese characters on the sign (if you can, do tell us what you see there), but it has nothing to do with the English "Dream of Shambhala Inn" or with any meaningful Tibetan expression. 

Not every sign is so bad. Some are even in perfect Tibetan. In examples like the following, the Tibetan might be flawless even while the English version is what you ought to expect to get when you dump Chinese into Google Translate, as should clearly never be done.

Possession of exotic decoration sector lover
The Tibetan reads Gangs-ljongs Dga'-rogs-kyi Mdzes-rgyan. I would translate it as Snow Land's Lover-Beautifying Ornaments. I see nothing in the Tibetan that would provoke possession, exotic or sector.

The instant oldness gets old on you after a very short while.
It's a construct constantly under construction.

Key to the problem is that Shangri-la is always busy newly expanding its supposed “Old Town,” as this tourism-object is called also in Lijiang and Dali further south. And just like the use of Naxi characters in Lijiang, the use of Tibetan letters in Shangri-la sign-painting is a signifier that indicates where you are, in case you had doubts (thereby removing them, it would seem). ‘Look, you’re in Ethnic Vacation-land! You really are!’ it is saying, when all the while the vast majority of the shop- and inn-keepers are Han Chinese doing their daily best to entertain Han Chinese (they make up @90% of the tourists). If people take the bait, no need to push it. Cash cows should never be kicked.

The Tibetan added on to those Shangri-la signs is filled with a lot more silence[s] than its presence in them would suggest. For one thing: The real Old Town of Gyeltang (རྒྱལ་ཐང་ being the real Tibetan name of Shangri-la) isn't even in the Old Town. You can see what little remains of the earlier settlement in this overly busy photo I took from the side of Turtle Hill. Pay attention to the foreground, and not the distant rainbow, or you will get a totally wrong idea here. That rainbow is not (I repeat not!) the liberated array of purified kleshic energies let alone a divine promise to never again try to destroy the human race that it might elsewhere stand for, but the unadorned, clueless pig does indeed symbolize human befuddlement (moha) at what looks like, but is not, a fork in the road on your way down the hill to an Old Town that has hardly a thing in it more than a hundred years old. That sentence was too long, but I guess you can tell I’m getting carried away. So stop reading and look at the picture. Double-click on it to enlarge it if you want.

Take a left at the fork if you want to collide with an actual fragment the actual Old Town and
do not pass beyond the pig of ignorance.
That temple that gleams far too fiercely in the sun from the application of way too much gold paint? By now you may not be as surprised as I was to find out that the dazzling monument you see here (in the picture just below) is just an empty shell. It contains nothing. I had to go see the nothingness for myself by fighting my way through a barricade made of prayer flags. No, as sure as I was born, nothing goes on in it. It’s empty. This overly showy building is purely for show. Get the picture?

A sign that can be seen through
(into a scarcely passable street that puts a serious drag on the imposing surrealism)

A mirror for desires never fulfilled, and very likely not fillable, let alone refillable.
Seen on the way out of the airport in Shangri-la
(note the green exit sign indicating the direction of escape).

Do I recommend going there to see for yourself? No, absolutely not. Take my advice, save up your money and find a real destination. Better yet, enjoy a night at the movies. Otherwise you risk finding new and unintended meaning in Don Lopez’s by now famous book title.

§  §  §

Read these!

Definitely read this one essay by Ben Hillman, to start with, since today’s photo essay would be less likely to make more sense than it would otherwise. I know, I did just say what I said and I won’t take it back. Just go off right away to find Hillman’s “Shangri-la: Rebuilding a Myth.” It’s available online. Very entertaining as well as well written, I must add. And it tells truths you would hardly expect to be told. I recommend this illustrated version, or this one for printing. (But note that there is no verifiably early Tibetan spelling for Shangrila, none whatsoever.  “Zhang-ri-la” should not be made to exist.)

Evelyn Bingaman, “Are There Any Naxi Left in Lijiang? An Exploration of Naxi Ethnicity in the Era of Tourism,” paper presented at the 2012 Harvard East Asia Society Student Conference.  Available online.  

Claes Corlin, “A Tibetan Enclave in Yunnan: Land, Kinship and Inheritance in Gyethang," contained in:  Martin Brauen & Per Kvaerne, eds., Tibetan Studies Presented at the Seminar of Young Tibetologists, Zurich, June 26 - July 1, 1977, Völkerkundemuseum, Universität Zürich (Zurich 1978), pp. 75-89. The book has become such a rarity, it ought to be reprinted by some enterprising Indian book company, or at least put up on the internet as a PDF. Gyeltang is subject of yet another article by the same author.  I list this article here primarily as a proof, to those who might think otherwise, that there did exist real Tibetan life in Gyeltang decades before 2001 and its official rebranding as "Shangri-la." Note, too, that 2001 was three whole years after the publication of Don Lopez’s book Prisoners of Shangri-la, so it should come as no surprise to find nothing there about the place in northern Yunnan of which we speak.

Andrew Fischer, “Urban Faultlines in Shangri-La.”  Go here.

Ben Hillman, “Paradise under Construction: Minorities, Myths and Modernity in Northwest Yunnan."  Look here.  Notice this paragraph on p. 19:
“Another example of local state intervention in the representation of local Tibetan culture was the 2002 ordinance that required all hotels, restaurants and shops to ensure that their signs were in the Tibetan script as well as in Chinese. This resulted in some very tortured Tibetan language appearing on shop fronts. Much of the early Tibetan script was a hasty transliteration of Chinese that literate Tibetans were unable to read. Because Tibetan literacy skills were in short supply, some shops ended up with comical Tibetan names. One skin beauty treatment clinic misspelled the word for ‘beauty’ to tragically present itself as a ‘leprosy’ clinic.* Such stories serve as a reminder that the enforced use of the Tibetan script on the signs was directed at an external rather than a local Tibetan audience.”   (* My note:  Evidently they put on the sign མཛེ་ instead of མཛེས་.)
Mark Jenkins, “Searching for Shangri-la.”  Look here.

Åshild Kolås, Tourism and Tibetan Culture in Transition: A Place Called Shangrila, Routledge (London 2008). I plan to read this book when I can find an affordable used copy. Given the explosive growth of Yunnan's tourism development I suspect it will already be somewhat dated. Still, to judge from some sections I could read from the Google books version, it looks quite good. My order is in the mail.

Christine Kwon, “Reading the Signs: Language Policy and Change in Post-PRC Tibet,” Columbia East Asia Review, pp. 5-27. Available on internet. See this statement that rings very true on p. 14:
“The commercial role of Tibetan in tourism, as a textual signifier of the so-called “exotic” appeal of Tibetan culture, may be emphasized as a tool of advertising, a branded symbol whose graphs become images used to promote tourism both in China proper and abroad. This symbolization of the exoticness of the Tibetan language places it in a role benefiting non-Tibetans.”
Peter Schwieger, renowned Tibetologist of Bonn, wrote this intriguing title: “Dynamic of Shangri-La or Turning the Prayer Wheel for the Protection of the Multiethnic Society,” contained in: Jean-Luc Achard, ed., Études tibétaines en l'honneur d'Anne Chayet, Librairie Droz (Geneva 2010), pp. 269-278. Apparently bundles of Beijing development cash went into a giant Wheel full of millions of Mani Mantras. These Mani Mantras are for the invocation of the Bodhisattva Chenrezi whose earthly reflex is, as you know, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Perhaps Beijing officials are generating unimaginable oceans-worth of Buddhist merit for their patronage of this Wheel, thereby demonstrating their unswerving support for His Holiness, or just cynically using religious devotion for their own political purposes. It just depends on which way you spin it, huh...

Chris Taylor, “Shangri-la in Flames.” I forgot to mention the fire.

§  §  §

Addendum (October 3, 2016):

I just noticed this uncannily similar piece, dated May 13, 2016, at The Perfumed Skull page: “Signs of Sinicization: Katia Buffetrille on Road Signs and Cultural Erasure in Tibet.” Much recommended.

Half hidden behind Prayer Flags, this one quite correctly reads,
in translation,
"Western Style Fast Food," in the not-so likely event some Tibetans
were to slip into the Old Town for a quick bite

§ § §

One last question for the Tibeto-intelligentsia: Where in the world did the Tibetan name སེམས་ཀྱི་ཉི་ཟླ་ (Sem-gi Nyida, or ‘Sun-Moon of Mind’) come from? It's been sanctified by its appearance in Wikipedia, as I noticed just now, but isn't it an attempt to find a Tibetan way of squeezing some kind of meaningful sense out of the Chinese way of pronouncing Shangri-la, i.e. Xianggelila? Ch. Xianggelila > Tib. Semgi Nyida? I remember I saw this name in Tibetan script on signs along the way to Gyeltang, as well as here and there in Gyeltang town itself. I think Ben Hillman discussed this in his article "Paradise under Construction" (he did; look here), but I'm not sure if the problem is easily solved. If it is truly the case that the Chinese version of Hilton's made-up Tibetan-sounding name would be the basis of a newly made-up Tibetan name that could then be used to prove that the place is indeed Hilton's made-up place... but yeah, why not? At this point, I could believe practically anything if it were to follow such self-nullifying yet oddly self-justifying logic. Feeling stultified much?

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Magic Water?

“The water is taken from the Divine Spring of Qudanima summit, 5128 metres high by the northern slope of Himalaya. For the past 1200 years, the water is valued highly as sweet dew for all ills. With 17 trace elements required by human beings upon the test by the state, the water is an ideal health beverage and the purist magic water from the highest spring of the world.”

A couple of decades ago I was visiting Tibet on a tourist visa. Me and my partner lost each other in one of those huge temple buildings in Drepung Monastery. I admit it may have been my fault. I was getting a little bored — well, maybe bored is not quite the word — until I discovered in an upstairs chamber a glass display-case full of pages from scriptural texts produced with fantastic artistry. Some even resembled the famous nine-jewel Kanjur. Fascinated by what I was seeing, I lost track of time. It was only much later in the day I discovered that she had been adopted by a Tibetan family insisting she join them for a picnic.

So we were, in any case, unexpectedly separated. As the Indian literati have known throughout their history, there is no love more romantic, and therefore worth writing about, than love in separation. I decided to go down and wait at the main entrance, knowing she would appear there eventually. I sat awhile and had a soda at the entrance shop and chatted with the shopkeeper. It wasn't long before he revealed to me that he was in fact a monk. In Tibet in those days, at least, monks were allowed to fill such positions involving monetary exchange, but were not allowed to wear their robes while performing them. Even monks who study at the university  or at the traditional medical college have to go to classes in lay clothing. As always, when you get into a conversation of more than a few minutes with Tibetans in Tibet, it inevitably comes around to the subject of Tibetan unhappiness with the situation they find themselves in. 

After some time I thought I should be closer to the entranceway to make sure of observing my partner's exit, so I excused myself from the friendly monk and his predictable dissatisfactions and sat down on a wooden railing that marked the edge of the parking lot. A whole Tibetan family — mom, dad and three young kids — came to sit down on the railing just a few feet away. I was sipping from a bottle of water I'd bought from the monk-in-disguise when the dad asked to see it. I passed it over, he looked at it with some curiosity and then passed it back, trying to stifle a chuckle. Then he asked me to read the label for him. I started reading the English and the man started laughing, but when I read the few words of Tibetan, Pögi Lhachu Chöten Nyima (བོད་ཀྱི་ལྷ་ཆུ་མཆོད་རྟེན་ཉི་མ་), his laughter accelerated until it got seriously hysterical with the whole family joining in the merriment.

All I could do was smile the kind of a cowed smile you smile when you have no real clue what the laughter is all about, although I suspected (as we tend to) that it was directed at me. Was my Tibetan pronunciation all that funny? That might seem likely. Now, with the wisdom that only comes with hindsight (a specialty of mine, I must admit), I believe it was laughter with a certain element of nervousness in it, or behind it. 

At the time I didn’t know that Chorten Nyima, a holy site close to Sikkim, was a place where people are advised to go and bathe. Its waters are capable, they say, of purifying that most heinous crime of incest. The water they would have bathed in was the water I was drinking. My partner never showed up, so I eventually got into a van destined for downtown Lhasa. I made a new friend with the young man collecting the fares. We outlive our traumas and we learn. We learn from our mistakes. We try to do better. We have to.

Go to this link (a very slow PRC link, I’m afraid even impossible to access, so you may have to do a search for “Tibetan mineral water hot in market”) that has the following photos:

The incest taboo is quite strong everywhere in the world with the possible exception of old Persia, where it was especially known to occur among royalty and to some degree recognized and even approved of (the experts have often wavered on this issue, but their recent publications seem to be swinging back in the direction of actual incest taking place). As if wired into the brain, humans seem to have always been aware that it is a danger genetically. There are cultures where first-cousin marriage is approved of, but in these cases, the genetic problems like congenital deafness, low IQ and the like are well known. By all accounts, Tibetans abhor incest, and cousin marriage is not approved of. Tibetans are shocked to hear about (relatively high, but declining over the last century) Chinese acceptance of cousin marriage, but then Chinese themselves find Tibet’s polyandrous unions quite unbelievable, especially the rarer form in which father and son share the same wife (Prince Peter's book, p. 465 ff.).

Read these:

Liu Hongqiao, “China’s Bottled Water Industry to Exploit Tibetan Plateau.” Find it here.

Katia Buffetrille, “Pèlerinage et inceste: le cas de mChod rten nyi ma,” contained in: Anne-Marie Blondeau, ed., Tibetan Mountain Deities, Their Cults and Representations, Proceedings of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Wien 1998), vol. 6, pp. 19-42.

Katia Buffetrille, “Pilgrimage and Incest: The Case of Mchod rten Nyi ma,” Bulletin of Tibetology (Spring 2004), pp. 5-38. You can access a PDF of it here or here.

Katia Buffetrille, Chapitre III. Tibet méridional. mChod rten nyi ma, contained in: Katia Buffetrille, Pélerins, lamas et visionnaires: Sources orales et écrites sur les pélerinages tibétains, Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, Universität Wien (Vienna 2000), pp. 201-225. 
This has Tibetan texts and French translations of two guidebooks to the holy place. One of them does explicitly mention sibling incest as a sin that appears in degenerate times, a sin that would normally result in rebirth in the lowest of hells, that can nevertheless be cleansed by the nectarous springs of Chorten Nyima:  སྙིགས་དུས་སྤུན་ཟླ་མི་སྲིང་འཇོལ་བའི་ལྟས་༔ དེ་དུས་ས་བཅུད་ཉམས་པའི་རླུང་གི་ཁ་ཤོར་ཏེ༔  རྡོ་རྗེ་དམྱལ་བར་འགྲོ་བར་གདོན་མི་ཟ༔
Alexandra David-Neel, in her famous book Magic and Mystery in Tibet, Dover (NY 1971), first published in French in 1929, describes (on pp. 64-68) her visit to Chorten Nyima, but without any reference to the pilgrimage practices that take place there. There is even a black-and-white photograph of the Gonpa.

Keith Dowman has something concise to say about the place, “There are also specific power place destinations that guarantee absolution for particular sins. Chorten Nyima, near the Sikkim border, for instance, is the destination of those who must expiate the sin of incest.”

Martin Boord, “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Hidden Land of Sikkim Proclaimed as a Treasure by Rig 'dzin Rgod kyi ldem 'phru can,” Bulletin of Tibetology, vol. 4, no. 1 (2003), pp. 31-53.  
At p. 32:  “...Chorten Nyima. This name also refers to a mountain range of 14 peaks, to the highest peak along the range, to the general area and to a particular monastery. Chorten Nyima is an extremely active pilgrimage centre, with up to 100 pilgrims or more arriving from Tibet per day, and there is a retreat hermitage for one dozen or so nuns to the west. The three cliff-top stûpas mentioned in the text are the pilgrims’ focal point, but of almost equal importance are the three sky-burial sites and the medicinal springs renowned for their eight attributes of pure water, which are now bottled and marketed in Tibet as ‘Chorten Nyima Mineral Water.’ ” And on p. 33: “Popular folklore cites Chorten Nyima as the destination for all those who need to be purified of the sin of incest.”
Jonathan A. Silk, Riven by Lust: Incest and Schism in Indian Buddhist Legend and Historiography, University of Hawai'i Press (Honolulu 2009).

H.R.H. Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark, A Study of Polyandry, Mouton & Co. (The Hague 1963).  See especially pp. 454-456 for the relevant discussion.  It appears that incestuous unions faced considerable disapproval from society in the Tibetan past, even if as far as I have been able to discover there were no legal sanctions against it. When Prince Peter was measuring Tibetan heads, as was a style in anthropology in his day, he interviewed a Nyingmapa Lama, abbot of a temple he calls Chöten Nyingma Gompa (giving the Tibetan as མཆོད་རྟེན་སྙིང་མ་དགོན་པ་). Although a little different from the spelling we are used to seeing, མཆོད་རྟེན་ཉི་མ་, he clearly does means Chorten Nyima, since he describes it as a monastery on a lake of the same name just beyond the northern boundary of Sikkim in Tibet. Let me quote it a bit:

“It appeared that he was the abbot of the monastery at Chöten Nyingma, and that the latter was a very special one in Tibet, because the waters of the lake had the property of being able to wash away the sin of incest. Anyone having had sexual relations with somebody within the prohibited degree of consanguinity could be purified of the pollution by making a pilgrimage to Chöten Nyingma Tso (lake) where, after having plunged in its waters, he or she would make an offering to the monastery. The abbot who I had met would, in exchange, deliver a certificate that the person was now absolved of all sin, and the petitioner could go home satisfied and appeased. It appeared that the principal source of revenue of this particular monastery came from this trade in certificates and that this was the reason for the prosperous appearance of the Incarnation whom I had just met.”

A note on words:  Modern English doesn’t seem to have a special word for the product of inbreeding, unlike the Hebrew Bible’s word mamzer, although even there mamzer doesn't always have that meaning; sometimes it just means the more generic bastard. Prince Peter discusses the problem a little, but as far as I think I know, the term for a child of incest is nal-gyi bu or just nal-bu, and occasionally na-le. But I've noticed some dictionaries shying away from that meaning, making it to be just the child of an illicit affair, a bastard, or even stranger still an orphan (a kind of confusion that ought to never happen!). With the spelling mnal-bu, I've even found it defined as specifically the child born to sibling parents. The mnal is certainly related to mnol, a word for the grave pollution that results from such unions. This kind of social pollution requires some serious purificatory rituals. If you were interested, I would point you in the direction of these ritual texts.


Passing through Beijing Airport not so long ago, I noticed a new product that looked like this:

If the abstract glacial imagery didn’t strike you immediately, here is another side of the same bottle:

I imagine, certainly mistakenly, that they intended the analogy with “Arab Spring.”  It was slightly salty and even a bit musty tasting, which could mean it really was mineral water after all. Still, I’d take the Evian over it any day. 

And to add it in for good measure, in the same airport shop I saw this do-it-yourself model kit for sale. 

 I’m sure you can recognize what it is meant to be.  If not, another clue:

You, too, could have a Potala to call your own.  Just stay away from that bastardly bathwater.

Postscript - September 10, 2016

It’s of interest to learn that the form of the Magic Water label changed over time. We might have been even more ill informed about its evolution if Elliot Sperling had not generously offered this alternative example from his personal collection. Here you see it, but notice that the words "Mchod-rten Nyi-ma" are found there in rather small cursive letters in yellow centered inside the green band at the top. The big letters are large, red Chinese ones, of course. This gives a hint to the marketing target.

Click twice to enlarge

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

The Harms of Firearms

From a Dunhuang mural of the temptation preceding Enlightenment

There is a lot of talk in recent years in the U.S., as there has to be, over the availability of firearms, their ubiquity in American homes.* I will say just to get it out of the way that not every Tibetan is opposed to weapons, as I know from experience. I even remember one highly respected elder Rinpoche telling me, in private, how much he “loves” guns (his word).** After a brief juvenile period playing with cap guns, then shooting stationary targets with BB-gun and shotgun, I have grown to personally dislike them, and choose not to own any. I think the world would be better off without arms and so much more so the arms trade. I wish other people could imagine a disarmed future as clearly as I do. Meanwhile, I choose to live my life free of the fear that guides those who live by the gun. I refuse to be intimidated by them. I won’t allow them to make me become one of them. I believe too much in the future of humanity to give in on this point.
(*Firearm deaths due to accident — including young children — and suicide, and not only murder [see this chart!] are unusually high in the U.S., and this is primarily due to their availability. Unfortunately all hopes of solution fall victim to the partisan polemic that largely defines presidential election politics in the U.S. these days [samples here]. This could lead us into yet another dreadfully dreary subject and I really don’t want to go there today.  **And of course there have been quite a few soldiers and hunters in the Tibetan past right up into the present. On that, too, I have no idea of denial.)

I wasn’t at all surprised to see a translation of an anti-firearms pamphlet from 19th century Tibet. After all, I’d seen it listed in a book about Tibetan art several years ago, so I knew it was supposed to exist, I just hadn’t seen it. I was surprised that somebody not only located this elusive text, but saw fit to put it into English.*
(*Go to page 513 in the bibliography at the end of Dkon-mchog-bstan-'dzin, Bzo gnas skra rtse'i chu thigs [“The Arts: A Drop of Liquid at the Tip of the (Brush) Hairs”], Krung go'i bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang [Beijing 1994], where you can find the words “Nyag-bla Padma-bdud-'dul-gyi Me mda' nyes dmigs.”)

The classical literature of Tibet knows of a pair of genres that kind of mirror each other, one of them called Benefits (ཕན་ཡོན་), and the other called Harm Focus or, to aim for more salubrious if unwieldy English, perhaps ‘Contemplating Deleterious Effects’ (ཉེས་དམིགས་)Benefits are usually about the good effects of the good and virtuous things you might want to do (or that you may need encouragement to do), while Harm Focus involves contemplations on the short and long-term ill effects of bad actions, bad habits. We’ve blogged about the Benefits before, about the benefits of prostration for example, but never about the Harm Focus. I believe the word Harm Focus goes back to the oldest layers of Tibetan Buddhism, where you are most likely to find it used for contemplations on the shortcomings of cyclic existence, or sangsara (in Tibetan terms, འཁོར་བའི་ཉེས་དམིགས་).*
(*The Tibetan word nyes-dmigs was used to translate the late Sanskrit and Pali Buddhist term ādīnava, defined in Edgerton's dictionary with the words "misery, evil, danger, mishap, wretchedness," in short, dangerousness or disastrousness... Look here, and here, too. The disaster that is... [fill-in-the-blank].  The downside?)

Illustration found in the works of Karma-bag-yod (1876-1942 CE)

The translated text (link below) dates to the 19th century, but I’m not very sure when firearms were first introduced. I think Toni Huber of Berlin discussed this problem somewhere, I just don’t recall where at the moment. I think the 17th century is more or less the right time frame for the introduction of the musket, perhaps going back into the 16th. The word for firearms has an older history. To clarify slightly: In the Tibetan canon, we do find examples of the term me'i mda', but perhaps even more often we find me-mda', this being the usual word for firearms in recent centuries. Me'i mda' translates word-for-word as arrow of fire, and me-mda', I suppose literally means fire-arrow. I suggest that even in the Kanjur and Tanjur examples of me-mda' the meaning of flaming arrow is close to what was intended.

But look carefully at the upper right hand corner of our frontispiece, that comes from a (presumably pre-11th century?) Dunhuang painting of the onslaught of delusionary powers (བདུད་) that Siddhartha experienced shortly before His Enlightenment. Examine its shape very carefully. It seems to have a cylinder attenuated at its middle, and what looks like a ramrod of some kind sticking into the right side, flames coming out of the left.

A curious side question:  If you look at the shape of the firearm aimed at the soon-to-be Enlightened One by the delusionary power in our frontispiece, you can see it has nearly the same shape of a thing you can see living beings doing their best to squeeze through in early western Tibetan depictions of the Wheel of Life (examples in Tabo and Pedongpo). This resemblance may or may not mean anything. I was just finding it bemusing. Anyway, all the armaments at the disposal of those delusionary spirits turn into flowers as soon as they try to enter the Buddha’s protective forcefield. Enlightenment means dispelling delusions, don’t you know.

Now go read that anti-firearms tract I mentioned before without delay:

I know that there are people who need to hunt for survival, and I’m not saying they should starve to death. But I’m not one of them, and I doubt you are, either. So most likely you don’t really need to think about gun ownership unless you are worried about your neighbors...  And what have you done to your neighbors that you are so afraid they might come after you?  

§   §   §

On the firearm-like item we mentioned as being depicted in some Wheels of Life, see, Helmut F. Neumann, “The Wheel of Life in the Twelfth Century Western Tibetan Cave of Pedongpo,” contained in: Deborah Klimburg-Salter & Eva Allinger, eds., Buddhist Art & Tibetan Patronage: Ninth to Fourteenth Centuries, Brill (Leiden 2002), pp. 75-84. I’ve been planning a blog on Wheels of Life, so for now just let me say that in some of the pre-Mongol period Chinese examples we can see the human (and animal) figures jumping through what look like bottomless barrels. For examples of those, see pages 29 & 32 in Stephen F. Teiser's book Reinventing the Wheel. And notice the reproduction of the Pedongpo example, dated to 12th century, at p. 219. I’m still not sure how to understand these artistic examples properly. Perhaps we are meant to imagine ourselves getting fired off or shot out into our sangsaric destinies? Or are we just getting endlessly scooped up and dumped out unceremoniously if monotonously by the mill wheel of our lives? What’s your best idea?

For an interesting study of Tibetan anti-tobacco smoking (and snorting) tracts of the Harm Focus genre, see Daniel Berounsky's “Demonic Tobacco in Tibet,” Mongolo-TibeticaPragensia ’13: Ethnolinguistics, Sociolinguistics, Religion & Culture [Charles University in Prague], vol. 6, no. 2 (2013), pp. 7-34. 

For some finely crafted examples of Tibetan firearms and associated items, see Donald J. LaRocca, Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City 2006), pp. 198-212. You might have a look at the online description of the Met exhibit 

Tibetans and Tibetanists alike may find amusement and gain knowledge by doing an internet search for "ཉེས་དམིགས་" (I recommend doing it with the quotemarks). You will see what sorts of subjects besides just tobacco and alcohol appear in the genre, which seems to be expanding in recent times to include marijuana (སྨ་ར་ཝ་སྣ་) and cannabis, for example.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

New Padampa Manuscripts

Note: What you will find in this blog is a lightly edited version of something with the title you see here. A few days ago it was delivered at the seminar of the International Association of Tibetan Studies in Bergen. The IATS is still the best possible place for anyone who wants to hang out with people of all backgrounds doing Tibetan studies with all their various academic approaches and find out what their friends and comrades are saying and doing nowadays. I apologize to everyone whose papers I missed: [1] There were a lot of time conflicts and [2] I had to pace myself. The spoken paper is here combined with the powerpoint slides. Hardly any bibliography has been supplied. Click on the slides and they ought to expand.

I suppose even in a group of Tibet-wallas like this  it may be that two or three people have not already learned that there is such a thing as the Middle Transmission of Zhijé. Please, no need to raise your hands. It is not your fault. The fact is, very little has been published in Tibetan, let alone translated. From some perspective, these words “very little” might tempt you to translate into ‘more than enough.’ Well, I hope to convince you otherwise some day.

Just let me say a few words to start with about the sources we have had access to until now on this subject. That way we can ensure that the appearance of the new sources we will introduce here will be greeted with just the right level of astonishment.

What does “Middle Transmission” mean? To begin with, the genuinely early expression is brgyud-pa bar-pa although we do find in some texts dating back about three centuries occasional use of bka'-babs bar-pa.

In the past, for several reasons the most significant available source was the Blue Annals in both its Tibetan- and English-language versions.

[Note: Could also mention the Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems of Thuken (Thu'u-bkwan).  There are about seven pages devoted to Zhijé in this work that has been recently translated in its entirety into English. Of these seven pages nearly three are devoted to the Middle Transmission.]

About the only other publication of much significance we had available in the past was a section contained in the anthology known as the Treasury of Esoteric Precepts (Gdams ngag mdzod). This selection of Zhijé texts has not yet been translated into another language, although I understand one is underway. Here we find a brief and presumably representative set of texts. However, for the Middle Transmission the subjects are limited to initiation rites and lineage prayers. Although chief editorship of the entire Treasury of Esoteric Precepts is credited to Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé (Kong-sprul Blo-gros-mtha'-yas) during the years 1871 through 1881 CE, in the case of the Zhijé works, he simply adopted a ready-made anthology done in 1706 by Lochen Dharmashri (Lo-chen Dharma-shrî) of Mindroling (Smin-grol-gling) Monastery. Although his dates are rather late, I think just because this Nyingmapa teacher showed an interested in Zhijé teachings, it points to something we might regard as unexpected or even unusual. Well, I hope I can say something more about the Nyingma connection and how the Bhutanese collections have steered my own mind more in favor of historical relations between these two schools of Tibetan Buddhism. At the same time, this Middle Transmission collection could help us explore a remarkable example of a historical connection between the Zhijé founder and a particular teaching that belongs to the Bon tradition. And we will also spare some words about the  (still) largely mysterious origins of the Cutting or Chö (Gcod) tradition.

Meanwhile, let’s say a few quick words about Padampa, the problem of his various names, and the main/major publications of his works so far.

Here we see the most famous image of this south Indian (now in the collection of the LACMA), along with the names he is most usually known by in more recent times, as well as the dates he is normally given. Although for reasons of the datings of the western Tibetan royal line (relying largely on the studies of Roberto Vitali), I believe his stay in Tingri may have to be shifted back in time by one twelve-year cycle (and Cyrus Stearns, on the basis of one Tibetan-language chronological study, has suggested the same).

It is most important to be aware that he had two ordination names, first his novice name Kamalaśrī and secondly his full ordination name KamalaśīlaThese two names are often found in colophons of Tanjur texts associated with him, and both of them have often caused confusion in the past until now. On account of the name Kamalaśrī, he is sometimes confused with the Indian informant of Rashid ad-Din (Hamadani) in mid-thirteenth-century Persia, which is of course chronologically impossible. As Kamalaśīla he is often presumed to be the Indian teacher by that name who visited the court of Emperor Trisongdetsen in the late eighth century, also a chronological impossibility unless we were to accept some Tibetan writers’ ideas that Padampa had an improbably long life. The other Indic names that you can see here we will not discuss because they occur only rarely, even if they, too, cause confusion.

Now for the very different names he received in Tibet. In the earliest texts, one of the most common ways to refer to him is Dampa Gyagar (Dam-pa Rgya-gar), but even more often simply Dampa. Other names, especially the ones that emphasize his blackness, seem to get used more and more frequently in the course of the 12th century (especially among Kagyü writers starting around the mid-12th century). His followers regarded his blackness as one among a number of his qualities that made him remarkable and special... and worthy of respect. I should emphasize, particularly for those who may find the statement surprising: Racial prejudice in the American tradition did not exist in Tingri in those days. At the same time, clearly, Padampa consciously played with local Tingrians’ stereotypes about the atsara, the gold-greedy sadhus who sometimes wandered through. He often uses atsara as his way to refer to himself.

As for what is by far the best source (speaking as a historian) available for his stay in Tingri, it is the one published on the basis of a single manuscript long ago in Thimphu with an important English preface by Barbara Nimri Aziz. For convenience, I refer to this as the Zhijé Collection. I have also worked hard to reconstitute the scarcely legible title on the basis of evidence internal to the manuscript itself, as well as on the reading done by the cataloguer of the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project, who could directly inspect the original title page. Here is my translation of this reconstituted title:  “Among the Zhijé Teachings that Lay at the Heart of the Holy Dharma, This is the Text of the Later Oral Transmission Known as The Exceptionally Profound.”

One thing I hope will be noticed here is that according to both its title and its actual content, this text is nearly 100% devoted to the so-called “Later Transmission.” Even so, a different title has been sanctioned by the Library of Congress and is still in use by the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC), despite my continuing objections. The title you see in TBRC is this one:  Zhi byed snga bar phyi gsum gyi skor, “Cycle of Teachings of the Early, Middle and Later Schools of Zhijé.” There is even a mistake in the normal syntax of this title, since in every case we find in the Tibetan sources the word order “Early, Later and Middle constituting three,” and never “Early, Middle and Later” as we find here. I believe this added title was invented on the basis of the Zhijé section of the Blue Annals. Still, it does not correctly label the Zhijé Collection and it should be [must be] removed.

Anyway, I will spare you the details why, but I believe I have succeeded in dating the full Zhijé Collection manuscript, on the basis of its content primarily, to more-or-less 1246 CE, with the bulk of its content copied from a previously made golden manuscript made in 1207 CE that is not known to be extant in our times.

So now let me say something about Padampa's travels.  Many sources say Padampa traveled to Tibet five or seven times. I won’t enter into this problem now. It will be quite difficult to find our way through the confusion unless we can excavate Padampa's Indian passport with its entrance and exit stamps intact. For now I will keep it simple and follow the earliest sources, the ones from the first decades of the thirteenth century and before, in saying he stayed in Tibet for three periods. The Early Transmission does not correspond to his first sojourn. The Early Transmission occurred in India. In Padampa's first Tibet sojourn he travelled by the Northern Route (Byang-lam) where he encountered two Tibetans and gave them a few precepts. As we’ll mention later, in the case of one of them Padampa not only gave, but also received instruction. Anyway, the periods of his second and third sojourns do indeed coincide with the Middle and Late Transmissions. A three-year stay in China at Wutai Shan, followed by some years back in India, came between his first and second sojourns, although some place Wutai Shan just before the third.

His second sojourn of about ten years was in Central Tibet, including both Ü and Tsang.  This was the time of the Middle Transmission lineages that you can see in the middle of this slide, where I would like to draw your attention. I should emphasize, too, that what you see here as a neat outline of the three major and three minor transmissions is a retrospective understanding dating to around the end-of-twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century when there was an effort to search out and collect all the Zhijé lineages by three brothers of the Rog family (about them more soon). The early members of these lineages would not have known they belonged to a lineage with a name, or would be counted as part of a group called the Middle Transmission, let alone that they belonged inside the structure of an outline like this. 

So let’s leave this nicely made chart for a moment and look at what I believe is most likely the earliest discussion ever of what would one day become known as the Middle Transmission. Here “Dampa” is the common way of addressing Padampa and “Atsara,” as already noted, is a common way for Padampa to refer to himself. The person asking the question is a Tangut.

Menyag Dragsé (Me-nyag Grags-se) said, “Dampa, you are said to have spent a long period down there in Ü. How many lineage holding disciples were there?”  

Dampa replied. “The Atsara planted growing trees in the Four Horns, and the main one was planted in Ü. Kamgom Yeshé Gyeltsen (Skam-sgom Ye-shes-rgyal-mtshan) achieved revulsion from suffering, and then he could hold discussions with Maitreya. Magom Chöki Sherab (Rma-sgom Chos-kyi-shes-rab) mastered awareness so he could travel into the sky life. So Gendun Bar (So Dge-'dun-'bar) through his practice overcame the sense spheres, and could not be met face to face (reading gdong thug pa in place of gdong thub pa). Gyigom (Bgyi'-bsgom) and Drochungpa ('Bro-chung-pa) both were left silent and just put up with it (?). With Majo Chönema (Ma-jo Mchod-gnas-ma) I had nothing to do apart from a few pieces of heart advice. She is a wild woman. She was made to pair up with one Nyaggom Kholharempo (Snyags-sgom Kho-lha-rem-po). Gugom ('Gu-sgom) he mounted the horse of the Innate and travelled into the sky life. The Atsara had scarcely any lineage holders, although there were many who achieved an entry-level liberation (sgo-thar).”

There is a lot to discuss in this not-all-that-clear passage (I would appreciate your suggestions for improvement!). In all the four (or in its published form five) volumes of the Zhijé Collection, it is the only bit I could find that sheds light on the Middle Transmission (albeit without using the name) as a whole, and most remarkably is supplied as Padampa’s own words. The rare term sgo-thar at the end is one that I’ve attempted to translate as “entry-level liberation,” although I’m not sure what Padampa would have meant by it exactly. It’s possible it is sinitic in its origins, and this is a possibility I would like to explore more thoroughly some day. And of course, what may be the most interesting thing of all is Padampa’s statement that he had little to do with the “wild woman” Majo Chönema, whom everyone ought to know (despite some undeniably justifiable confusion) is none other than the one famous to all of us under her later name Machig Labdrön (Ma-gcig Lab-sgron). The name of her male companion is a very strange one, and I’m unable to identify what person lies behind it. That this is so is in itself an interesting issue for further thinking in the future.

So now my introduction is over and time is running out. I’d like to conclude with even more introductions, without yet promising anything like the closure that ought to come with conclusions.

In what remains of my allotted time, I’d like to talk about the sudden emergence of three remarkable manuscripts in Bhutan, and the illumination one of them in particular might (or might not) provide for a set of issues, primarily issues of sectarian emergence and inter-sectarian relations. I will ignore for today the Zhijé-Kagyü relationship, and the famous account of an encounter between Milarepa and Padampa that we find in the Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, interesting as this, too, might be.

Here you are seeing the outwardly visible title page of a pecha loose-leaf manuscript that is preserved in the Nyingma monastery called Drametse in far eastern Bhutan. It was made available as part of the British Library's Endangered Archives Project (EAP). As the team of Karma Phuntsho filmed it, it takes up 142 folios, so it is of a quite significant size. Although difficult to enumerate because of untitled, nested texts and so on, I would say there are thirteen distinct works of various authorship contained in it. I have nothing specific to say yet about the age of the physical manuscript, which appears old. I think it will be possible to make conclusions about the making of the anthology as a whole, as it was likely done by one Benchung Gar (Ban-chung ’Gar) who appears as author of two initiation texts, including the one at the end of the collection. I haven’t been able yet to come to definite conclusions about his identity or his date.

At the moment, the most impressive thing I can say about this manuscript is that it contains three previously unexpected and unknown histories of the Middle Transmission. The first two were authored by Rog Bande (Rog Bande Shes-rab-’od, 1166‑1244). He is best known to the world today as author of the text translated by José Cabezón, The Buddha’s Doctrine and the Nine Vehicles: Rog Bande Sherab’s Lamp of the Teachings, Oxford University Press (Oxford 2013). The third history listed here, on the Ma (Rma) lineage, was done by one Chüpa (Chus-pa) on the basis of a compilation by Khugom (Khu-bsgom). I believe this places the history in the vicinity of 1200 more or less.

Rog Bande's younger brother Rog Zhigpo authored the standard history of the Later Transmission that has been available in published form for several decades now. Although much ignored in our times, it was a primary source of material for the author of the Blue Annals. The title of the first you have seen already in the previous slide. Here I’ve listed all four of the so-far known Zhijé histories set down in the decades surrounding 1200 (for present purposes excluding biographies of single Zhijé teachers, which are also surfacing in recent years).

For the time that remains I would like to stress the importance of this as well as two other Zhijé manuscript collections filmed in Bhutan. My point (for today) is mainly that they are potentially important for knowledge of sectarian emergence and inter-lineage relations in Tibetan history. The three specific areas I would like to touch upon are: [1] Zhijé relations with the Nyingmapa, [2] the Zhijé connections with teachings of the Cutting School, and [3] the puzzling relationship between Padampa and the Bon religion of Tibet.

[1] Zhijé relations with the Nyingmapa. 

There are several points spread out over nearly a millennium of Zhijé history where Nyingma contacts may be shown. Among the most prominent revivers of Zhijé teachings in recent centuries was Lochen Dharmashri at the Nyingma monastery of Mindroling, as we've noted before. But even in the earliest days we can point to the sharing of some otherwise rather unique metaphors between the Nyingma teacher Zurchungpa and Padampa. Also, a few texts in the latest layers in the Zhijé Collection (meaning late in the 12th century) start making occasional use of Nyingma-style language like Auto-emergent Full Knowledge, Rangjung Yeshé (in the forms rang-byung ye-shes as well as rang-byung-gi ye-shes), and even a quote from one of the Nyingma tantras with Great Sky (Nam mkha' che) in its title, for examples (I haven’t yet traced which of those Nyingma tantras contains the quote).

And remember, too, the philosophical treatment of the Nine Vehicles according to Nyingma School by Rog Bande that José Cabezón translated. I should have been less surprised than I was to learn from yet another Zhijé manuscript from Drametse Monastery as well as another similar collection filmed at Tsakaling, a connection between the long-lived teacher of the Rog brothers by the name of Tenné (Rten-ne) and Nyangral Nyima Özer (Myang-ral Nyi-ma-’od-zer). Even if the two were clearly contemporaries, I’d never before heard that they had come into contact. 

Although I cannot go into the problem right now, it is possible that the collection found in these two different manuscripts, one from Tsakaling and one from Drametse (quite close, but not completely identical in their content) contain what could be a somewhat earlier compilation than the Zhijé Collection, which makes them remarkably important for future textual studies and editions.

Here you see the words near the end of the Tsakaling manuscript that tell us that cycle of teachings known as the Cholu was granted by Drubthob Ngödrup (that means Tenné) to Nyang Ralpacan, and that “it” [does this mean the original collection or this manuscript??] was scribed at Mawo Chok, the place where Nyangral resided, in fact in the Tamshul valley, quite close to eastern Bhutan.

To sum up, the Bhutanese manuscripts help cement the idea that Zhijé-Nyingma connections were relatively strong and early.

[2] Zhijé connections with teachings of the Cutting School.

Although perhaps the most interesting question, we can't go into it much right now. I have long puzzled over why it is that there is scarcely more than a hint of the Cutting teachings or Machik Labdrön to be found in the Zhijé Collection. It is as if they scarcely existed for members of the Later Transmission. Yet Cutting's origins have to be sought among the lineage initiators of the Middle Transmission and Padampa’s Second Sojourn. Therefore anything we can learn about the Middle Transmission will help us attempt to trace the origins of Cutting, and for this Drametse 041 is a crucial source. As far as the two other Bhutanese manuscripts are concerned, they contain a once nearly impossible to obtain and (until a few years ago) unpublished text on Cutting in the words of Padampa himself. Its title is Brul-tsho Drug-pa. This contains teachings given by Padampa to his disciple in the Yarlung Valley named Mara Serpo (Sma-ra Ser-po). Although that may seem to undercut claims that Machig originated the Cutting practice of body offering, this remains to be seen after close study.* 

*(I’m just saying: There is promise of future progress.) 
I should add: The circa 1210 history by Rog Zhigpo says Mara Serpo and Machik both received Cutting teachings directly from Padampa. Here are its exact words (ZC IV 346):
zangs ri'i ma cig lam sgron (ma gcig lab sgron) dang / yar lungs kyi stond pa sma ra se'o can (sma ra ser po can) la / shes rab kyi pha rol du phyind pa gcod kyi gdams pa gnang / 

[3] Relationship between Padampa and the Bon religion of Tibet.

It is well known from sources on both sides of the equation that there was indeed a connection between Padampa and a Bon teacher and terton named Trotsang Druglha (Khro-tshang 'Brug-lha). The teachings went both ways, so in a sense each was the teacher of the other, only on different subjects. The teachings Padampa received from Druglha were on divination. Padampa not only received this Bon tradition, he passed it on to one of his Middle Transmission disciples, Ma Chökyi Sherab (Rma Chos-kyi-shes-rab). Most of the texts in Drametse 041 are associated with the Ma lineage. We could add that a medical text associated with it has emerged recently, but so far we have been unable to find a Ma lineage pebble divination text. But at least we do have Bon divination texts associated with Druglha in which Padampa finds mention. Alexander Smith of Paris has been studying these, and you might have heard his paper on this subject yesterday. Bon sources on Druglha's life give him a long life of 121 years when he died in 1077, and this date is consistent with what we think we know about Padampa’s earlier visits to Tibet, so there doesn’t seem to be any chronological inconsistency in their meeting.

Some notes at the end:

A transmission lineage drawn from the Fifth Dalai Lama’s Gsan-yig, vol. 1, fol. 68r (demonstrating some historical continuity for the So lineage):
yang na pha dam pa nas /  dam pa so /  lkugs ring /  lde ston dge ba /  glo chen sangs rgyas /  gar thig pa bsod rgyal /  bla ma mgon po 'bum /  sa bzang 'phags pa man 'dra /  yang nye brgyud ni /  'jam dbyangs /  pha dam pa man 'dra / 
Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz, “Ma gcig Lab sgron ma:  The Life of a Tibetan Woman Mystic between Adaptation and Rebellion,” Tibet Journal, vol. 23, no. 2 (Summer 1998), pp. 1-32. This is the best and most serious discussion there is on the persons connecting Zhijé’s Middle Transmission with Cutting, although also worthy of admiration is Sarah Harding's paper at the 13th IATS seminar in Ulan Bator entitled “Did Machik Lapdrön Really Teach Chöd?” But it hasn’t been published yet, as likewise her freshly-delivered paper for the Bergen IATS, “Pha Dampa Sangye and the Alphabet Goddess.” But wait one minute, her Ulan Bator paper was published online, here.

Drametse Thorbu 105:  Section {THA} with the title: Dam pa'i gsung bzhugs s.ho / 'dzam gling mi'i skyes mchog gsung yin no.  fols. 1-3.   Colophon: rje dam pa rgya gar gyis bon po khra tshang 'brug la gnang pa'o // a ti /  This remarkable, if short, text newly indicates to us what kind of teachings Dampa Gyagar granted to Trotsang Druglha.

What would the term “north route” mean in the account of Padampa’s first sojourn? In general, we could understand it to mean various things to different writers. However, they would probably all agree that it is a route located in the northern parts of Tibet (and quite likely the Jangtang, or “Northern Plateau”) that leads to and from Ü (“Central Tibet”), whether it connects Ü to eastern, northeastern or western Tibetan areas. In Padampa’s case, it must mean a route over the northern highlands of western Tibet from Kashmir. I was a little surprised to find with an internet search a passage from Michael Sweet's fresh new translation of Desideri, pages 32-33: “...Freyre knew... that the road he was inquiring after was the well-known janglam (byang lam), the ‘northern route’ that was the customary trade route for Kashmiri merchants and others traveling between Leh and Lhasa.” This demonstrates an impressive terminological continuity. The two Tibetans he encountered were Khra-tshang ’Brug-bla and Zhang-gzhung Gling-ka-ba. The name of the latter tells us he identified with the region of Zhang-zhung, a place of greatest significance in Bon traditions.

On the Ma (Rma) family in general there has been an amazing contribution, although primarily centering on its importance for the earlier phases in the developing history-writing traditions of Bön, by Henk Blezer: “The Paradox of Bön Identity Discourse: Some Thoughts on the rMa Clan and on the Manner of bsGrags pa bon, ‘Eternal’ Bön, New Treasures, and New Bön,” contained in: Henk Blezer & Mark Teeuwen, eds., Challenging Paradigms: Buddhism and Nativism, Brill (Leiden 2013), pp. 123-159.

Follow me on Academia.edu