Monday, October 30, 2017

Medicine in the Life of Atisha

Pieced fabric icon of Atisha surrounded by jewels,
from a private collection (HAR no. 9305)

Today I thought I would put on display an interesting passage that tells us what Atisha knew about the healing arts, and what impact he had on Tibetan medicine. I was alerted to its existence by a blog entitled “G.yu-thog Rnying-ma 'Khrungs Ma Myong Zer-mkhan-rnams-kyi Lan-du.” That title can be translated ‘In Response to Those Who Say the Elder Yutok Never Knew Birth.’ The title takes aim primarily at Tibetan-born skeptics about the existence of Yutok in the Tibetan imperial period.* Written by a contemporary person not previously known to me by the name of Tshangs-dbang-dge-'dun-bstan-pa, the essay is praiseworthy for making evidence-based arguments in a principled manner. My main point, if I have one today, is to say that one of his two prime pieces of evidence for casting doubt on the non-existence of the Old Tibetan Yuthok turns out not to support his case.
(*Imperial period means the period prior to the mid-9th century, stretching back to an indeterminate point in pre-history.)

Our immediate source is Helmut Eimer’s book entitled Rnam thar rgyas pa, Part 2. Only two brief bits of it are given in the just-mentioned blog as evidence to refute skeptics who have been saying that the Elder Yuthok never existed. Here we supply the complete passage in Wylie style transliteration (created on the basis of Eimer’s) with my translation. The numbers are the ones Eimer uses for his paragraphs:

gso ba rig pa la yang jo bo shin tu mkhas pa yin gsung / srog chags kyi gtso bo mi glang rta gsum la brten nas bcos thabs la dpag tu med pa yod de / de yang rgyal ba lhas mdzad pa'i sman yig dang / gang zag mis mdzad pa'i sman yig gnyis las /

It is said that the Jowo (Atisha) was also very learned in healing science. He had unlimited curing methods useful for the chief among living creatures: humans, cattle and horses. To say more on this, there are two types of medical documents: [1] those composed by Victors (Buddhas) and Gods and [2] those authored by human personages.

[Medical texts by Victors and Gods]
rgyal ba lhas mdzad pa'i sman yig la / rigs gsum mgon pos mdzad pa'i gso ba'i bstan bcos mang po dang / 'tsho byed kyis zhus pa zhes bya ba dang / sman dpyad gzhan la phan pa'i mdo dang / 'tsho ba zas kyi mdo dang / bde bar gshegs pas gsungs pa'i sman dpyad ma lus pa yang jo bos mkhyen /

Among the medical texts authored by Victors and Gods the Jowo was knowledgeable in many healing treatises authored by the Lords of the Three Families as well as Questions of Jīvaka, Sūtra on Benefitting Others with Medical Treatments, Sūtra on Healing Diet, and every one of the medical treatments that were taught by the Sugatas.*
(*“The Lords of the Three Families” means Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara and Vajrapāi. Jīvaka was the famous physician in the time of the historical Buddha. Sūtra on Healing Diet is one of a set of five medical texts attributed to Nāgārjuna, although not known to be extant. Nāgārjuna being a human author, his work appears misplaced here. The other texts I haven’t successfully identified in any other source.)

[Medical texts by human beings]
gang zag mis mdzad pa la drang srong legs thos kyis mdzad pa'i sman dpyad legs thos la sogs pa dang / slob dpon klu sgrub kyis mdzad pa'i yan lag bzhi pa dang / rta dbyangs kyis mdzad pa'i yan lag brgyad pa la sogs jo bos ma lus par mkhyen pa yin / ((gser 'od dam pa dang dus bzhi nad kyi gnyen po bya ba de la brten nas /))  (Mchan-note: jo bo nyid kyis kyang 'tsho ba'i snying po zhes bya ba mdzad.)

As far as those authored by human personages are concerned, the Jowo was knowledgeable in every text including the Suśrutasaṃhitā (?) and other works composed by Suśruta, the Caturaṅga (Four Limbs) written by Teacher Nāgārjuna, and the Aṣṭāṅga (Eight Limbs) by Aśvaghoṣa [i.e. by Vāgbhaṭa]. ((Relying on the Suvarṇaprabhāsottama and what is known as the Remedies for Illnesses of the Four Seasons...)) (Note: The Jowo himself composed a work called Heart of Healing.)*
(*The Caturaṅga could not be identified any further. One might guess that it has to do with the game of the same name, the one we know about under the name of Chess. Using the name of Aśvaghoṣa we may be sure that Vāgbhaṭa was intended. His work Eight Limbs was extremely influential in Tibet, translated by the Great Translator Rinchen Zangpo. The other texts, including the title attributed to Atisha, could not be identified any further despite my efforts.)

jo bo bod du byon nas thugs dgongs la nga'i gso ba rig pa 'di bod du nub 'gro las che sman tsho bod na med pas snyam pa la / rje btsun ma sgrol mas g.yu bya ne tso cig tu sprul nas byon nas /

After the Jowo came to Tibet he thought to himself, ‘My healing art is bound to decline since the healing herbs do not exist here in Tibet.’ As he was thinking this, the Reverend Tārā took the form of a turquoise bird, a parrot, and came to him.

sman rgya'i la sgo 'gags gyur kyang // khyod kyi gso ba don mi rmongs // snang ba sman du shar nas yod kyis zer skad bstan par bgyi'o // gshegs par zhu'o zer bas, de'i phyir byon pas bod kyi ri klung thams cad kyi sman ma lus par bstan pas / jo bo'i zhal nas / rgya'i sman re la bod na dod po re ci nas 'dug ste / slar la bod kyi sman nus pa che tsam 'dug / khyad par du dbul phongs rnams la phan par 'dug gsung /

She said, 

“Herbs, even when the passes to India are blocked,
will not disrupt your healing aims.
The phenomenal world arises as medicine, 
so make use of what is there.”

Inviting her to come with him, he went outside, and she showed him that all the mountains and valleys of Tibet were filled with every kind of herb. The Jowo would say, “For each Indian herb there is in Tibet somewhere a corresponding substitute, and at times the Tibetan herb can even be quite a bit more effective, and this is of particular benefit to the poor.”*
(*It’s interesting to note here that sometimes Tibetan herb manuals ['khrungs-dpe] are attributed to the authorship or inspiration of Tārā, including the one that has the title Sgrol-ma'i Sngo-'bum).

jo bo thang sman gyi sbyor ba kha bsos gcig sdeb bya ba / mkhas pa g.yu thog gi brgyud pas shes te nan tar sman dpyad la mkhas pa yin / 

There is one recipe for a herbal decoction of the Jowo called kha-bsos gcig-sdeb [Welfare United in One?] known to the lineage of Master Yutok, so his (Atisha’s) knowledge in herbal treatments is persisting.

khong gi sman yig nas kyang 'di ni jo bo rje nyid la / sgrol mas ne tsor sprul byas nas // bod la phan btags lung yang bstan // dbul phongs nad kyis nyen pa la // kha bsos gcig sdeb bkod pa yin // kho bos gso ba'i don ma rmongs // snang ba sman du shar ba 'di // rgya yi la sgo 'gags gyur kyang // kho bo'i nad gso 'gags mi srid ces bya ba yod gsung /

It also says in his own medical text,

This is what was prophesied to the Jowo himself
by Tārā in the form of a parrot
for the benefit of Tibet.
“As the remedy of illnesses of the poor
is this Welfare United in One composed.
I have not been disrupted in my healing aims
since all phenomena arose as medicines,
so even when the passes to India are blocked
my healing of the sick cannot be impeded.”

jo bos bsam yas su sman dpyad yan lag brgyad pa gsung ba'i dus su / brag rgyab kyi dwags po 'bum pa'i phas mnyan pas / nan tar sman dpyad la mkhas par gyur gsung / de ltar gso ba rig pa la yang jo bo shin tu mkhas gsung /  [continues with passage on Atisha's mastery of arts and crafts]

There was a time when the Jowo was teaching the Eight Limbs of Medical Treatment at Samye Monastery and the father of Dwags-po 'Bum-pa of Brag-rgyab heard it from him, so his mastery of medicinal treatments persisted, [he/it is] said. These things show how in healing sciences, also, the Jowo was very learned.*
(*I assume that Eight Limbs of Medical Treatment refers to the work of Vagbhata that was mentioned before in this passage, and not to the Rgyud Bzhi. The not-so-well-known long version of the Rgyud Bzhi's title is Bdud rtsi snying po yan lag brgyad pa gsang ba man ngag gi rgyud. The father of Dwags-po 'Bum-pa of Brag-rgyab could not be identified. Brag-rgyab just means "Back of the Rock," but as a proper place name it is best known as the name of a Kadampa Monastery, in Phan-yul north of the Lhasa area, that was built on top of a huge flat rock. Of course the monastery would not have existed in Atisha's time, but I suppose the place name could be older than the monastery.)

Okay then, the task of translation finished — for now such as it is — we may say that it contains no proof at all that Atisha himself knew about any Yutok. What we do know is that the author-compiler of the biography did. And just when did that author-compiler live? Now there is a bit of a problem, although it is mostly thought he lived into the 2nd half of the 12th century, and there is even a chance he or a redactor belonged to a still later century.  In any case, it could well be that he knew about the (so-called) ‘Junior’ Yutok's lineage and intended to refer to it precisely because it preserved a medical teaching of Atisha, thereby demonstrating how influential Atisha was. It does not support the idea that Atisha knew of an imperial period Yutok. Neither did he know of the Four Tantras, I’m quite sure of it since this medical scripture emerged into general knowledge only in the course of the 13th century. But before taking my leave for now, I would just like to emphasize that this kind of conclusion is not in any sense anti-traditional, it in fact follows a critical strain within Tibetan tradition. Or, to put it another way, there have been a number of traditions about the origins of Tibet’s medical scripture, the Four Tantras, and the idea that the one and only Yutok composed it in the late 12th century is one of them. And as far as I can see at this moment it is the correct tradition, the one that proves true.

§   §   §

Literary refs.:

Helmut Eimer, Rnam thar rgyas pa. Materialien zu einer Biographie des Atiśa (Dīpakaraśrīāna). 1. Teil: Einführung, Inhaltsverzeichnis, Namensglossar, Asiatische Forschungen Band 67, Otto Harrassowitz (Wiesbaden 1979), pp. 179-180.

Helmut Eimer, Rnam thar rgyas pa. Materialien zu einer Biographie des Atiśa (Dīpakaraśrīāna). 2. Teil: Textmaterialien, Asiatische Forschungen Band 67, Otto Harrassowitz (Wiesbaden 1979), pp. 62-64.

Helmut Eimer, “Hymns and Stanzas Praising Dīpakaraśrīāna,” contained in: Kameshwar Nath Mishra, ed., Glimpses of the Sanskrit Buddhist Literature (vol. 1), Samyak-vāk series no. IX, Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies (Sarnath 1997), pp. 9-32, at p. 16.

Yang Ga (G.yang-dga'), The Sources for the Writing of the Rgyud bzhi, Tibetan Medical Classic, doctoral dissertation, Harvard University (Cambridge 2010), especially p. 92 ff.. This work may be possible to obtain via the internet. Although time and again some prominent Tibetan writers of the past (Kongtrul, the 2nd Pawo Rinpoche, Samten G. Karmay and others) have doubted the existence of the Elder Yutok, it is this author who effectively revived the issue within the Tibetan intellectual community in the 21st century. Yang Ga shows clearly that the Four Tantras were made up of parts of several earlier medical texts available in Tibetan language, including the work of Vāgbhaṭa, as well as incorporating a few 'early drafts' written by Yutok in decades before 1200 CE (Yang Ga believes he died before 1188, although most give his dates as something like 1127-1203).

  • D. Martin, “An Early Tibetan History of Tibetan Medicine,” contained in: Mona Schrempf, ed., Soundings in Tibetan Medicine: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives, Brill (Leiden 2007), pp. 307-325, at pp. 317-318:  

“One of these other narratives, set in the eighth century, involves nine boys chosen from among the royal subjects of Khri-srong-lde-btsan for their intelligence, who were made to study medicine.[1]  This has clear analogies in the nine intelligent boys chosen, during the same time, to learn translations, a list called 'The Nine Great Translators.'  It is quite obvious that some of the figures in the list of nine doctors belonged to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and not to the eighth. Among them is one named Che-rje or Cher-rje Zhig-po, who I suggest is none other than our history writer Che-rje Zhang-ston Zhig-po, transferred, like some of the others very clearly were, back to the imperial period. Christopher Beckwith translates the following words, to the same effect, of the nineteenth-century leader Kong-sprul:
"... although they [the learned scholars] relate how the Nine Learned Tibetan Doctors appeared at the time of the religious kings, it is quite wrong, since they mostly appeared in the time of the later propagation of the [Buddhist] doctrine."[2]

[1] See Taube (1981: 15-16), who bases himself on the Mkhas-pa'i Dga'-ston and on Rechung Rinpoche's book, but see also Sde-srid (1982: 174). 
[2] Beckwith (1979: 306). Centuries before Kong-sprul, Dpa'-bo (1986: 1525) expressed essentially the same idea, that these nine doctors were not in fact contemporary with the Dharma Kings, but emerged gradually in later history. Perhaps needless to tell for most contemporary historians of Tibet, Tibetan history writers of the past were often critical of their sources, and puzzled over how they ought to be read, much as we do in this paper. Their works therefore do not necessarily deserve to be lumped together and dumped into the polemical category 'historiography' any more or less than do the writings of modern Tibetologists.

An interesting side point — Much that is in the Atisha biography passage is obscure to us. Not only that, it doesn’t jibe with what we can find in medical histories about his medicine-related activities. The Desi’s medical history, as translated by Gavin Kilty, recipient of this year’s Santaraksita Award for a different book he translated, says this: 

“The master and sole protector Atiśa Dīpakara and Naktso Lotsāwa translated Daryakan Ambrosia Meat Preparations and compiled various medical instruction texts such as Net of Treatments for the Head.” 

For this, see p. 171 of Desi Sangyé Gyatso, Mirror of Beryl, Library of Tibetan Classics, Wisdom (Boston 2010).

A earlier medical history by Zur-mkhar-ba (ca. mid-16th century), in its chapter eight at page 263, has different information. The full reference to the published version is this:
Sman-pa-rnams-kyis Mi Shes-su Mi Rung-ba'i Shes-bya Spyi'i Khog-dbubs (Gang dag byang chub sems dpa'i spyod pa spyod par 'dod pa'i sman pa rnams kyis mi shes su mi rung ba'i phyi nang gzhan gsum gyis rnam bzhag shes bya spyi'i khog dbug pa gtan pa med pa'i mchod sbyin gyi sgo 'phar yangs po), Si-khron Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Chengdu 2001).

The passage reads:  mkhris rims dug thabs zhi bar byed pa dang / sha sbyor bdud rtsi dar ya kan gnyis jo bo rje dang nag tsho lo tsā bas bsgyur.  According to this, the Lord Jowo and his translator Nagtso translated two works, one that seems to be on toxicology (or on contagious bile disorders?) and the other qualified as a particular type of medicinal preparation, one that evidently was made using meat, called a dar-ya-kan. It's been known since  1980 that this Tibetan word is derived from theriac, thanks to Christopher I. Beckwith’s brief but important article on the subject, “Tibetan Treacle: A Note on Theriac in Tibet,” Tibet Society Bulletin, vol. 15 (June 1980), pp. 49-51. This may be difficult for you to find, and for this I must apologize. Beckwith points out, among other interesting things, the fact that a recipe for dar-ya-kan belonging to the Brang-ti school of Tibetan medicine, actually includes flesh of a snake, a blue snake to be more exact.

In the western parts of Eurasia, theriac types of preparations, often very complicated to make with their long lists of difficult-to-find ingredients, were usually intended to counteract poisons, could also famously include flesh of poisonous snakes, but were also used against pestilences, including plague. On these points, see Christiane Nockels Fabbri, “Treating Medieval Plague: The Wonderful Virtues of Theriac,” Early Science and Medicine, vol. 12, no. 3 (2007), pp. 247-283. 

Galen composed a whole treatise entirely devoted to theriac, or was it written by some Pseudo-Galen? For the Greek text and translation, try here.

Theriac Jar.  For the source, click here.

Afterword (October 30, 2017):

We all know well from experience that things often well up unexpectedly at the last minute. It most often happens to me when I’m putting up a blog. I was looking back at Chris’s articule (my ad hoc portmanteau for miniscule article) and decided to look up his reference to the dar-ya-kan text included in the medical compendium called Gser bre chen mo. So imagine my surprise when I found it bears nearly the exact title that Zur-mkhar-ba's medical history ascribed to Atisha:  Mkhris rims dug thams cad zhi bar byed pa'i bdud rtsi (on p. 235, line 3), (earlier on line 3) Dar ya kan gyi sbyar thabs and (at p. 240, line 2) Mkhris rims bcos thabs bdud rtsi dar ya kan gyi sbyor ba. I should go into this more, especially with Halloween fast approaching, but I don't have the stomach to list and identify all the ingredients. Anyway, the recipe with all its grossness really isn’t the most exciting thing here. That would be the little lineage at p. 240, which reads:  

'di'i rgyud pa ni 'gron bu zad pa'i gtsug lag khang dang / jo bo thugs rje chen pos / rje btsun 'phags ma sgrol ma [note: 'jig[s] pa brgyad skyobs] la rgyud / de nas jo bo rje [note: thugs rje chen po'i sprul pa] lha cig la gnang / des rims par rgyud te / g.yu thog rgyal 'bum la dngos grub du babs pa la / da lta kho bo brang ti bdag gi lag len bgyis shing ...  

I won’t give a laboriously footnoted translation of this, just to say that the dar-ya-kan recipe with various types of flesh including black snake and blue snake flesh was supposed to be granted to Atisha by Târâ herself, was then passed on from generation to generation until it fell as a siddhi to one named G.yu-thog Rgyal-'bum, and is now being put into practice by myself, Brang-ti.

I haven't identified the Yuthok family member named Rgyal-'bum yet. I imagine Bill McGrath may have more to say about all this since he completed a dissertation earlier this year exactly on the Brang-ti medical tradition. Usually this particular Brang-ti Dpal-ldan-rgyal-mtshan is placed in the 13th century, so we'd seem to be in early days, but McGrath puts him in the 14th, and says the Gser bre was redacted late in the 14th. Anyway, a medical teaching attributed to Atisha fell to a member of the Yuthok lineage after all.

Oh my, just when I thought I was done and could turn in for the night, I see that just minutes ago a new blog on the Yuthok controversy popped up at Khabdha blog (press here) entitled Rje-yi Bla-sman G.yu-thog-pa ni Dus-rabs Bcu-bdun-pa'i Yar-sngon gyi Yig-cha-rnams-nas Rnyed Thub-pa zhig Yin  — my rough translation, “The Yuthok who Served as Royal Physician can Indeed be Found in Texts Prior to the 17th Century,” its author being one 'Ju Bstan-skyong. I will grant the author the point that the Rgya Bod Yig-tshang of 1434 CE does indeed place the "Nine Physicians" in imperial times. But this is precisely the point that the 2nd Pawo Rinpoche, in his history written between 1545 and 1564, as well as Kongtrul about a century before our times, regarded as a mistaken move based in confusion.* All these nine doctors, every last one of them including Yuthok, lived in the 11th-13th centuries, and not in imperial times. So I’m not sure if any extremely significant historical problem has been solved by moving the date of origins of the idea of the imperial period Yuthok back by one century. To judge from the names of the foreign physicians supplied in the 1434 history, it appears likely that the 17th-century author of the Elder Yuthok’s biography used it as a source or inspiration. So the blog makes a real contribution that may help puzzle out the bigger picture that would show how the Elder Yuthok of imperial times was brought into existence in the 16th and 15th centuries. Now please excuse me, I need to give my feverish thinking a rest.
(*Besides these important intellectual and spiritual figures of the Tibetan past, the blog by Tshangs-dbang-dge-'dun-bstan-pa mentions as doubters of the imperial period Yuthok’s existence the Fifth Dalai Lama, his regent Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho, as well as a Karma Kagyü writer 'Be-lo Tshe-dbang-kun-khyab [b. 1718]. Actually, 'Be-lo's passage rejecting of the existence of an Elder Yuthok is quoted in another Khabdha blog that I had until now overlooked:   
Thub-bstan-phun-tshogs, G.yu-thog Rnying-ma'i Skor-gyi Dris-lan 'Khrul-'joms Dgu-sbyor, to try to translate, “Answers to Questions about the Elder Yutok: A Nine-Ingredient Medicine for Vanquishing Error,” posted at Khabdha blog on October 28, 2017. 
It has a very interesting discussion of the issue, bringing forward sources not previously known to me, and is much recommended. I hadn’t been previously aware that 'Be-lo had ever written a history of medicine, and to the best of my knowledge it has never been published, although it should be.)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Translator Trip-Ups 3 - Words

We’ve covered our choice specimens of script and spelling oddities already, so now it’s time to move on to actual vocabulary items that are somehow odd, inexplicable, hard to define or liable to confuse us poor translators working with Tibetan texts. You know, words that cause us to stumble or get stumped. Have fun with them, and please do write in the comments if anything comes to mind that is somehow related to any of it.

Our first example is the word zho-sha. It was used in the sense of fee or payment in 12th-century works of Zhang Yudrakpa (Zhang G.yu-brag-pa) and Jigten Gönpo (’Jig-rten-mgon-po). In sense of mental or athletic strength, we find it in the Zhijé Collection. In Old Tibetan contexts Hugh Richardson rendered it as sustenance, considering it to be a combination of the words for meat and yoghurt, both believed to be quite strengthening and nutritious foods. It’s been understood to mean revenues from agricultural estates (which after all were paid ‘in kind’). And it is also a word used until now in the names of a class of medicinal plants, apparently used for strengthening various internal organs.  Dorji Wangchuk, like Goldstein’s modern dictionary, agrees it is an obsolete term even if we see it preserved in the plant names. Search of OTDO site yields 14 results, not a lot, but still a respectable number. 

The first example you see above contains one of Padampa’s favorite expressions, “It’s a dog!” which could be translated nicely, in my belief, as “That’s a load of crap!” — “In athletic events, when there is indecision the strength of the athlete amounts to just so much crap!” In the second example, sri means a kind of constriction or diminishment** — “Don’t constrict [the flow of] dynamism in your mental continuum.”
(*The literal translation dog doesn't work for anyone belonging to the dog-loving cultures of our times, where dogs are petted rather than despised and avoided.)(**It can also be the name of a vampire-like spirit mostly studied in Paris these days.) 

Meanings of tha-rams found in dictionaries and glossaries:

[1] bad thing. [2] filling. [3] binding rope. [4] an herb, perhaps a type of “fleaseed husk” or the Sat Isabgol used in India for both diarrhea and constipation (don’t ask me how, but it does work both ways), a sub-type of the herb called ram-pa that grows in fallow soil (tha-ba). [5] the breadth of a plain (but this last meaning is limited to Schmidt’s Tibetan-German dictionary).

The spelling that lacks the final ‘s’ is more likely to refer to the herb (meaning no. 4 above), but one finds so many counter examples, it makes no sense to make a rule. The new Munich Tibetan-German dictionary (Wörterbuch der tibetischen Schriftsprache) does have an interesting meaning of a sealing, or closure.

In Darma language, a language I’m especially interested in because of its demonstrable historical relationship to Zhangzhung, one finds tarum with meaning of ‘key.’ I think this is acting according to what the Tibeto-Burmanists call “genital flop-flop.” Similarly, one may discover that words for bow and arrow often get crossed when you cross from one Tibeto-Burman language to another. Examples of usages of tha-rams in post-Mongol-era Tibetan become extremely few and unexpected and therefore odd, although I have noticed it in a book title from the  sixteenth century where the meaning lock is very clear. What can I say? Deliberate archaisms do happen. Did you get it? Tha-rams had the meaning of lock in early Tibetan.

Quick examples from Zhijé Collection:

1. Stag-zil: probably a type of snail.
2. Ba-ded: several good examples, but no idea about meaning.
3. Be-phum: meaning unknown.

4. Ste[s]-dbang: force or strength?
5. ’Or-che-ba: great kindness (said to be regional dialect, it’s found in both the Zhijé Collection and the works of Jigten Gönpo).
6. Me-mar: = mar-me. The switched order of the syllables is awesomely odd.
7. Sa-rde: one dictionary gives meaning as persistence, but I’m not sure what it means (three good examples of usage).

8. Pad-pa, a leech (srin-bu pad-pa).
9. Pe-ta, woodworm, but also a type of tree (this last probably a mistake for be-ta, coconut palm).
10. Ka-’ji: a kind of touchstone used for testing gold.

This word is interesting because you can trace some of its evolution. The Old Tibetan term stangs-dbyal in particular means a union or balance between the male and female principles, and each syllable is also used individually.  See an odd old blog for more:  Couples Constantly Facing Off.

Where Modern Tibetan has gtan-zhal, Old Tibetan has stangs-dbyal.  How do we get from one to the other? The Old Tibetan word is found in Dunhuang documents (Old Tibetan Annals entry for year 710 CE), in the Samye bell inscription, and in early Bon works. Bon works are the only ones to preserve the archaic form over the centuries until today. The Old Tibetan form is in the Guhyagarbha Tantra, which is interesting in itself, but otherwise nowhere to be found in all of the Kanjur and Tanjur.

Yel-’phyo is an even rarer oddity with a close-to-same meaning, noticed only in Nyingma tantras.

For thig-le nyag-cigI like to use the translation ‘integral drop.’ The sûtra quoted by Phag-mo-gru-pa must be a translation of the Nairātmyapariprcchā Sûtra older than the one found in Derge (Tôh. 173).* 
(*Another place to find it is in Matthew Kapstein’s “The Commentaries of the Four Clever Men,” East and West, vol. 59, nos. 1-4 (2009), pp. 107-130, at pp. 109, 111.)

That the form bhai is simply translated without comment as ‘meditation’ in Liberation through Seeing with Naked Awareness, is a good example of how true oddities are routinely glossed over in our translations. They simply disappear from view. This is unfortunate. I would think somehow the reader ought to be better informed than that.

By the way, the anti-Nyingma polemic writer Drigung Pendzin was not, as commonly presumed, a Drigung Kagyüpa. His known teachers and associates were Sakyapas.

Bon example of bhom: Above is an example ultimately drawn from Bon texts of the Aural Transmission from Zhangzhung, a Dzogchen cycle. Bhom for ‘meditation’ is listed among a number of spelling/word anomalies by the modern editor of the volume. Some of the other examples given there are also interesting.

’Big-toI have no idea what this means. The closest term I could come up with (and it isn't actually close) is sdig-to, a word for evildoer. (??) The English version of Chetsang Rinpoche’s history (Meghan Howard et al. tr.), p. 283, translates ’big-to as commanders of a hundred troops (meaning a centurion?). If this is correct where did it come from? I consulted a number of experts on this, and they all said it made no sense to them. I had the idea, which I offer without conviction, that ’big-to could mean a record or list (to, =tho) that is kept by means of piercings of perforations (’big) in wood or paper. 

Note as of possible relevance that there is a Tibetan word to-dog, a borrowing from Chinese, used for a military commander of one sort or another. This word appears quite a few times in Old Tibetan documents from Dunhuang.

The Thub-bstan-bsam-’grub dictionary, p. 513, gives ’bog-do (also spelled ’bog-to, ’bog-tho, and ’bogs-do) as a synonym of ’bog-chen, a special hat worn by Tibetan officials of the past. ’Bog-do is said to be a borrowing from Mongolian, so it doesn’t seem that it would have been in use before the Mongol advent in the early 13th century. However, there are earlier Khotanese and probably ultimately Turkic usages of this term before that time. On this last point, see F.W. Thomas, “Bogdo,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (April 1937), pp. 309-313. We would have to have a good reason to emend 'big-to to 'bog-to, but hats don’t seem to make sense in the context anyway. If you get the sense we are clutching at straws... Hell, we need to clutch at something.

Here is the present form of my translation of this passage, in order to supply a context for it. Perhaps it will help us guess what it means? We’ll just leave it for now.

The word ya-lad may be described as archaic, or pre-1300 more or less. My vocabulary entry as of now reads as follows. I quote it as is, with the bibliographical abbreviations and all:

[1] equipment, armor, helmet, sword (soldier’s equipment in general). OT = go cha spyi. = [skabs thob kyis] rmog. Bla 285.4, 516.6. go cha. rmog. ral gri. Btsan-lha. go cha. Dbus-pa no. 025. Lcang-skya. Namdak. Skt. kavaca (probably source of borrowing for Tib. go cha). Mvy. 6072 (in Skt. it seems to mean armor or coat of mail, primarily as chest protection). Rolf Stein’s Tibetica Antiqua 154. Two occurrences of this word located on OTDO. [2] sgo’i yar them. Btsan-lha. I only know of one architectural usage of the term, in the Sba-bzhed: pho brang gi ya lad la bod kyi btsan po’i lham btags nas / de’i ’og na phar ’khor dang bcas pa ’dzul nas / nga’i rgyal khams ni btsan po khyod kyi zhabs ’og du ’dzul zhing bcwa (dpya) dang skyes lo thang du ’bul zer te. Here it clearly means the upper part of the door or gateway (lintel or architrave). Btsan-lha gives the same example, but says it is from the Bka’-chems Ka-khol-ma. [3] a high number. Skt. ela. Mvy. 7759. Skt. elu. Mvy. 7888. 
 So which is it, helmet, coat of mail, lintel or a high number? Get confused much?
Note: Btsan-lha makes note of a late usage in the Mi-dbang Rtogs-brjod, although here it is used as a conscious archaism. Since the first syllable is also a part of the alphabet, it makes it useful for alphabetic verse, and this explains why it can show up in later texts even though otherwise obsolete.

Here are some examples of beginnings that look like endings, creating an interesting type of possible confusion due to Tibetan’s syllable-by-syllable writing system (to be sure, the language is not monosyllabic although the writing system is). These are likely to appear quite odd to language learners in their first several years, and very well may cause them to stumble, so I think I can include them in the category of word oddities. 

gyi ling - ge ling & ger ling & kyi ling are possible spellings. It can be found in Dunhuang texts. While it means a superior type of horse, it may derive from Chinese word for the kilin/qi-lin, a kind of supernatural hybrid animal sometimes described as a unicorn or a dragon horse.

gyi na - mean, vulgar, coarse, ordinary (especially odd because it looks like two endings, one after the other).

gyi na ba - the ordinary, the quotidian.

gyi na ya - An odd combination of gyi na and na ya, two words with similar meaning (such a word combination does not seem possible in theory, which is exactly what makes it odd. Don’t you agree?).

gyis - It may look like an instrumental case ending, but actually it can be the imperative of bgyid. It means, “Do!”

na so - meaning age, particularly age in the sense of a stage in the human life rather than a precise year. I failed to find early examples of usage, although it does occur in the Mkhas-pa Lde’u (post-1261), so I conclude that it is a Mongol period borrowing from Mongolian. The modern Mongolian for age, I learned, is nas, and the final ‘o’ may reflect some kind of ending in Mongolian.

na ya - tedium, banality (? with similar meaning to gyi na).

nas - with meaning of barley. Nas-lung, ‘Barley Valley’

It certainly is disconcerting to see the plural marker coming after the genitive ending, but a TBRC search came up with only 142 examples of “kyi rnams,” so it is NOT common, and most examples are from works of Padma-dkar-po or canonical texts such as the Avatamsaka. (I feel sorry for the grad student who will volunteer to do it for the 84000 project, since it has quite a few archaic terms and what I call “Sina-cisms” buried in it, as it was translated from Chinese and never entirely revised to accord with the new standards.) I think, even though the syntax is odd, it can be understood, in the two examples given above, as meaning “those things pertaining to [dharmas or the community].” In effect it doesn’t make a great deal of difference in meaning. The temporary puzzlement we can deal with.

Am I the only one thinking it looks like a comb?
Thinking aloud,  I wonder to myself if it might come from an abbreviated way of writing the first syllable of gzer-mo (or zer-mo), meaning weasel or porcupine or mongoose or the like. But the weasel given that it feeds mainly on small birds and mammals seems the more likely candidate.

But is zre the only example of that impossible “zr” combination? The “zr” doesn’t occur even once in the three-volume dictionary. This alone would indicate its extreme oddness. But we do find it in a particular place name in the Old Tibetan Annals, in about 8 different annual entries ranging from 665 through 696 CE.

Zrid, or Zred, is a place name that occurs in Old Tibetan Annals nos. 665, 666, and 674. Note also Zrid-mda’ in Old Tibetan Annals nos. 681, 696 (mda' means the lower part of the valley; no, it does not mean arrow, not here). It is probably an old way of spelling the place names Sred or Srid. See the comments of Guntram Hazod in Dotson, Old Tibetan Annals, p. 215. I guess we’ve established once and for all that impossible things do happen. Sometimes more than once.

As my final example, I thought I ought to go into the confusions provoked by what would seem to be a simple Tibetan syllable for anyone to interpret. The syllable I refer to is gsang, as for instance in the Tibetan word for tantric teachings, gsang-sngags, which syllable-by-syllable means secret mantra. Let’s say 98 percent of the time gsang actually does mean secret, but that doesn’t mean we can just let the other two percent slide blithely past us. There are two contexts where one ought to be particularly aware it can have quite different meanings. And those dictionaries you’ve been using won’t help you here. Wait just one minute, I’m starting to realize nobody has  ever actually read this far into the blog. In effect I’m just talking to myself, so I’ll say my goodbyes for today with a word of warning, a word of warning to the wise to be wary. And to expect the impossible. To find ways to deal with it. To stay calm in situations of adversity. To persevere against all odds. You get the idea.

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