Monday, March 30, 2015

Finding Phadampa in Bhutan

I wouldn’t recommend that anyone go to Bhutan without first factoring it into their annual budget. It’s pricey to go under a tourist visa, and difficult to get any other kind. I would have gone there 30 years ago if it weren’t for the expense. Now that my trip there is over (maybe now you understand why I’ve been silent here in recent weeks), I still think Bhutan is very much a Pure Land with no blemish getting in the way. That there was one disturbing incident didn’t change my thinking one whit, although it did take the GNH (Gross National Happiness) for that one day down a notch.

One night years ago as an undergraduate I had a dream I was flying in slow motion over Thimphu in a glass aeroplane, gazing down on the city in rapt awe. The first thing in the morning I went to a bookstore and bought a small picture book, one I could scarcely afford at the time, a book about Bhutan by Blanche Olschak that meanwhile got mislaid along the way. Maybe my brother has it.

In Bhutan I was fortunate enough to be able to meet several learned Khenpos (མཁན་པོ་), and to each of them I asked about Phadampa in Bhutan. The only thing they told me was that there is a holy practice cave (སྒྲུབ་ཕུག་) where he meditated together with Machik Labdrön (མ་གཅིག་ལབ་སྒྲོན་). Evenings, confined to some fairly remote resorts, I mostly spent reading a great new book about Bhutanese history by Karma Phuntsho. Believe me, there isn’t much nightlife, and not every room came equipped with a TV (but in case there was one, the BBS news report at 9 p.m. was the highlight of the evening).

Almost every Bhutan traveler (and every Bhutanese, needless to say) ascends the hill to reach the practice cave[s] of Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava. Temples were built around the caves, balanced on top of vertigo-inducing cliffs. It requires a whole day, whether you take the ponies part way up or not. The path is quite steep, but I’m here to tell you it is the downhill that kills your legs for days afterward.  

Eventually, after much heavy breathing at nearly 3,000 feet, you reach a small building said to mark the birthplace of Gendun Rinchen, author of the history we’ll mention again, and one of the most prominent Bhutanese scholars of the 20th century.

A little further up, at the top-point of the path (not far from the dip that at long last takes you over to the temples pictured in our frontispiece) is another sign inviting you to climb even higher to reach a side temple where Machik Labdron and Phadampa did their sâdhana practices. I’d been told by several people that this temple, built in front of the practice cave, was situated there, and had determined to go to it.

Roughly translated: “This is the pilgrims' way to the Machik Cave that may be reached in 10 minutes’ time. In the middle of it is a footprint of Machik and her temple. On the right it is the practice cave of Phadampa, while on the left it is the Skygoer’s Secret Cave.”

Unfortunately no photographs are ever permitted inside Bhutanese temples (but if there were no exceptions to this rule, then how can we explain the photographs we do find in some books?). That means I can’t show you the footprint of Machik Labdrön in the upper cave. I also can’t show you her central image in the temple below with a large Phadampa (holding kangling trumpet, and for this reason clearly in his Cutting form) on her left side. Here as elsewhere, you donate your 10 Ngultrum note, bump your head on or touch the base of the holy object, and then receive from the temple custodian a palmful of holy water to sip and wipe over the top of your head. I won’t belittle the faith that goes into these gestures, let alone the resulting blessings, just to say that there is nothing specific to Phadampa involved in it. It could be any saint or holy object, and the identical same things would happen. Also, I imagine Phadampa wouldn’t like it, not that he necessarily ought to have any say in the matter. 

I also felt moved to be in a place popularly connected with Phadampa and I warned our driver (who had climbed up with us, but wasn’t quite as out of breath as I was) that I wanted to try and prostrate. The area was quite small, my body is very long, so there was some reason for concern. In fact, going down for the second time I somehow bumped into a small table behind me holding a mandal set. Not quite the huge disaster it could have been, the world-representing offering called a mandal (not a mandala, mind you) was slightly shaken and half askew. On our way back down the mountainside the driver told me half seriously it would likely have consequences for world peace. My response was that the world had been on the edge of a great war for a whole year now, with none of the credit for it due to me (my usual method of avoiding taking responsibility, I suppose). The whole world should be praying for the peace of the whole world like never before. I’m deadly serious about that.

The temple built in front of a cave associated with Machik Labdrön and Phadampa. It is possible to glimpse it above the waterfall when you look back from the main temples of Taktshang. If you decide to go there, beware! There are no proper railings along the cliff face (only some flimsy wooden railings), and I would advise not looking down before you get past the cliffs.

In Karma Phuntso’s history (pp. 189-190), he gives brief accounts of the prominent Indian Buddhists said to have came to Bhutan in the past. The first is Phadampa and the second is Vanaratna. Vanaratna is associated with several sites in both Paro and Punakha areas. K.P.’s discussion of the two figures is inconclusive, he says their visits “are not found in any contemporary or early sources.” In the case of Phadampa, I can verify this. One searches in vain for Paro and Taktshang in the earliest available sources on Phadampa and the initial members of his lineages. There is a possibility that Phadampa intends Bhutan (which didn't technically exist in his time) when he mentions Mon, but this is far from certain since Mon could be applied to a number of peoples and their territories along the full east-to-west extent of the lands south of the high Himalayan plateau.* Phadampa mentions Mon when he talks about bears who crave honey so much they neglect their cubs.
(*See Karma Phuntso’s discussion at his pp. 2-3, and for the ethnic term as used by Phadampa, look here)

I even tried looking into Gendun Rinchen’s history of Bhutan, thinking since he was born in a place so close to the site of Padampa’s meditation cave, he would at least mention it. I did find a brief discussion of Zhijé at folio 30, but nothing there about a visit to Bhutan.*
(*I take this back, see below.)

That may sound like bad news for Phadampa lovers hoping to find his traces in Bhutan. But there is some very good news to tell as well. Phadampa has been quite a popular figure in Bhutan, and one sign of this is that a few extremely valuable collections connected with his earliest Zhijé teachings have been preserved there. Some of these have been made available recently by the British Library's Endangered Archives project, under which Karma Phuntsho himself supervised the filming work in Bhutanese monasteries in recent years. See this article about the project in the Bhutan Observer, and for photos, look here. You can check out the results for yourself (I hope) here. If you are a Tibetologist, you are bound to make some exciting discoveries by just looking around.

The most remarkable of all these treasures, to my mind, is the one with this title page:

I never had the least idea that a collection related to the Rma lineage — one of the three major lineages of the Middle Transmission of Zhijé — even existed. It appears to me that this collection (if not this particular manuscript of it) is just as old as the collection that comes from the early part of the “Later” transmission from Kunga. 

Yet another manuscript collection found there, although basically a further version of the Zhijé Collection (not quite identical in title content) tells me that there was a Later Zhijé transmission that descended through the famous Nyangral Nyima Özer (ཉང་རལ་ཉི་མ་འོད་ཟེར་). This is completely new news to me, and quite significant for understanding how the Zhijé and Nyingma schools crossed paths.

Before bidding adieu for today, I thought I would tell you one small story about a strange and dreadful thing that happened on the road in Bhutan. We were sailing down from the heights of the pass named Dochula, rounding one of the many many curves, when I saw something that filled me with horror. I shouted to everyone else in the car, “Look at that man!  His face is covered with blood!”

He was running wildly around a parked truck, so our vehicle slowed down a little. When we got along side him, he was flailing his arms and throwing a large rock at a group of 3 or 4  people between him and an ambulance.  I saw a rock (or was it a large clod of dirt?) whiz past the window on the left-hand side of our van. Seeing an ambulance was already there, and seeing that one man had a cellphone pressed against his ear, we just continued on our way. I commented to the driver that we would probably see something about it on the evening news.

I wasn’t wrong. In the evening BBS news at 9 they said he was an employee of the Dochula resort who had fallen over the very high retaining wall. When the ambulance arrived, he resisted the ambulance people and eventually escaped the ambulance and broke some of its windows. This report on the incident ended by saying that the person in question had “no history of mental disturbance.” In the airport two days later I saw a story about the incident in the Kuensel (the online version is here). Lesson? Not quite everything in the world’s happiest country (or 13th-happiest country) is absolutely perfect. Given the truth of this, I still wonder what kind of karmic causes may underlie the fact that we happened to be there to see the only negative newsworthy event in the world’s only Vajrayâna country during all the time we were there.



Michael Aris, Bhutan: The Early History of a Himalayan Kingdom, Vikas Publishing (Ghaziabad 1980).  See p. 198, where he speaks of miscellaneous or isolated figures that include Phadampa and Vanaratna:  “Even though there is no doubt about the visit of the latter, neither left any discernible effect apart from the places that are still associated with them.”

Blanche C. Olschak, Bhutan: Land of Hidden Treasures, photography by Ursula & Augusto Gansser, George Allen & Unwin Ltd (London 1971).

Karma Phuntsho, The History of Bhutan, Random House India (Noida 2013), in 663 pages. This is the first ever continuous narrative covering the entire span of Bhutan's history, although the most recent decades are covered in a brief survey only, ending with a lucid discussion on GNH and its critics.

Gendun Rinchen (དགེ་འདུན་རིན་ཆེན་), Dpal ldan 'brug pa'i gdul zhing lho phyogs nags mo'i ljongs kyi chos 'byung blo gsar rna ba'i rgyan (དཔལ་ལྡན་འབྲུག་པའི་གདུལ་ཞིང་ལྷོ་ཕྱོགས་ནགས་མོའི་ལྗོངས་ཀྱི་ཆོས་འབྱུང་བློ་གསར་རྣ་བའི་རྒྱན་), An Ornament for the Ears of New Intellects:  Origins of the Dharma in the Southern Forest Land, Field of Conversion for the Glorious Drukpa, a beautiful 192-folio woodblock print on traditional Bhutanese paper distributed by the Bhutan National Library, Thimphu.  I believe the woodblocks for this 1972 history were made in 1976.

On Taktshang, there is a fairly extensive entry in the Rangjung Yeshe Wiki (look here). Nothing is said there about Phadampa's visit beyond just saying that he visited. There is also an discussion by Sonam Kinga that you may find interesting (look here).

Lindsay Brown & Bradley Mayhew, Lonely Planet Bhutan (March 2014), p. 88:  “After visiting the Tiger's Nest and reascending to the previous viewpoint, it is possible to take a signed side trail uphill for 15 minutes to the Machig-phu Lhakhang, where Bhutanese pilgrims come to pray for children. Head to the cave behind the chapel and select the image of the Tibetan saint Machig Labdron on the right (for a baby girl), or the penis print on the cave wall to the left (for a boy). The main statues inside the chapel are of Machig and her husband Padampa Sangye.”  

I have to say I think they got the right and left sides switched around, I never saw anything like a penis print, not that I was looking for one, and Padampa was never the husband of Machig  (their supposed relationship has been way overrated). It may be that prospective parents do go there for the promise of children, I haven't the slightest idea about that.

§ § §


Wait just one minute.  I did find (with the help of a footnote in Aris’s book, p. 323) the passage in Gendun Rinchen's history book that tells of Phadampa’s — and Machik’s — visits to Taktsang or Tiger's Nest, at fol. 83 verso:

དེ་ལས་རབ་བྱུང་གཉིས་པའི་སྐོར་འདི་ནང་རྒྱ་གར་གྲུབ་ཆེན་དམ་པ་སངས་རྒྱས་ཀྱང་ལྗོངས་འདིའི་ཡུལ་གྲུ་མཐའ་དག་ཞབས་ཀྱིས་བཅགས་ཏེ་འགྲོ་དོན་མཛད་ནས། སྤ་གྲོ་སྟག་ཚང་དུ་བཞུགས་གདན་ཕབ་སྟེ་སྒྲུབ་ཁང་མཛད་ཤུལ་རྡོ་ལ་ཞབས་རྗེས་དང་སྒྲུབ་ཆུ་ཡ་མཚན་ཅན་བཏོན་པར་མཛད་པས། དེར་ད་ལྟའང་ཕ་དམ་པ་ཞེས་མིང་ཐོགས། ཡང་སྤ་གྲོ་སྐྱེར་ཆུའི་བྱང་ངོས་རི་འདབས་སུ་སྒྲུབ་ཁང་མཛད་པས་དམ་ཁང་ཞེས་མིང་ཆགས་ཀྱང་། དེང་སང་སྒྲ་འཕྱུག་སྟེ་དག་ཀོ་དགོན་པ་ཟེར། དེ་བཞིན་མ་གཅིག་ལབ་ཀྱི་སྒྲོན་མ་ཡང་སྟག་ཚང་དུ་བྱོན་ནས་ཞབས་རྗེས་དང་སྒྲུབ་ཆུ་བཏོན་པར་མཛད་པས། དེར་ད་ལྟའང་མ་གཅིག་ཕུག་ཅེས་ཡོངས་སུ་གྲགས། དེ་བཞིན་སྟག་ཚང་ཡང་རྩེ་བྲག་ཏུ་བྱོན་དུས་མཁའ་འགྲོ་མ་འབུམ་འདུས་ཏེ་ཚོགས་ཀྱི་འདུ་བར་སྤྱོད་པས། དེར་འབུམ་བྲག་ཅེས་ཐོགས་ཤིང་ནང་དུ་མཁའ་འགྲོ་འབུམ་གྱི་ཞབས་རྗེས་ཀྱང་ཡོད་པར་བཤད། གཞན་ཡང་ཧད་ཕྱོགས་འབྱུང་གནས་བྲག་ཏུའང་མ་གཅིག་སྒྲབ་གནས་མཛད་དེ་བཞུགས་པར་གྲགས།

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Reading at a Slow Pace

Take it easy, partners, and slowly move your hand away from the holster. This is not supposed to be anything like a critical book review. I gave up doing those a long time ago. I just had the idea to report on some of the high points in my recent reading experience. If I don’t have time to cover all the books I’ve planned to, I’ll just save them for another time. It is also not an advertisement to help anybody sell books. If you have the money, and can’t be bothered with visiting your local library, it’s entirely your fault if you buy them, not mine. 

I didn’t choose these books because I think you will necessarily like them. I don’t know exactly who you are and what your interests might be. I do assume you must be interested in things Tibetan, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation right here right now. I will just talk about newly acquired publications that I’ve enjoyed the most or found especially useful, thinking that if you are somehow like me, you'll enjoy and make good use of them too. You and I both know that no book is perfect, they all have their +'s and -'s, so forgive me if I only say good things about books that I anyway consider to be excellent.

I gave a lot of thought to the question which recent book in Tibetan and Buddhist studies might be regarded as the most beautiful (in terms of book presentation a well as content). I’ll exclude a few books from consideration just because I’ve mentioned them already in some earlier blog. In this category are Michael Henss' huge 2-volume boxed set on the artistic monuments of Central Tibet, as well as Jan Westerhoff's Twelve Examples of Illusion.  Are you ready for it? Today's award in the category of most beautiful Tibetan and/or Buddhist studies book goes to...

Cyrus Stearns, Song of the Road:  The Poetic Travel Journal of Tsarchen Losal Gyatso, bilingual Tibetan (in Tibetan script) and English on facing pages, published by Wisdom Publications & Tsadra Foundation, Somerville, 2012.

Congratulations Cyrus — and of course everybody else who had a hand in it — for producing such a handsome and different book. The translation is splendid. Thank you so much for allowing us the pleasure of reading back and forth between the Tibetan and English, so we can be amazed at just how well you’ve managed the transition from one to the other. As a translator (or so I think) myself, I’m certain other translators will find reasons for jealousy, or a gnawing sense of inferiority, or both.

It’s a travel account, and as such it’s amusing to read it in light of all those early western travelogues (some of whom, like Giuseppe Tucci, visited many of the same places), noticing the differences and similarities. This one, written in the early 16th century, is not about a destination but about the life on the road and the encounters along the way. It isn’t very long, but it took me a whole day to read, since I found myself slowing down and reflecting here and there. There is a considerable amount of candor for a text of its age. There are occasional accounts of visions, but miracles and magic do not figure in any major way. It is not a hagiography. It isn’t all about the author, still you get much insight into his personality. You start liking him. You feel sorry about his sore legs. And there are truly amusing bits. One is the vignette on p. 76 of a grouchy old Kagyüpa he met who wore one of those 'bear wall' (དོམ་ར་) sun vizers we once blogged about, but also wore another item even more seldomly mentioned, something called 'concealment wood' (སྒྲིབ་ཤིང་) a kind of wand of invisibility said to be quite rare yet discoverable in the nests of crows. I know I’ve only encountered this item once before.* Anyway, there is something here for just about everyone. Spiritual seekers, meditators, poets, historians, ethnographers, philologists, explorers and wannabe Napoleons will find their special brands of entertainment here. There are route maps, and black-&-white photos of many of the places Tsarchen visited. Some of the things he saw are now gone or in ruins, like the giant Maitreya of Tropu (ཁྲོ་ཕུ་) and the many-door Jonang Chorten.
(*No, I don’t mean the item itself, but the name for it.) 
Well, there are several other new books I was going to talk about, but they can wait. I have places to go and people to see. Don’t we all? And I doubt I’ll have much time to read in the coming month. Now that mailing prices for books have shot sky high, I recommend going on strike to protest. Ask your library if they can do the buying. If reading Tibetan-language books is one of your high priorities, think about sending a donation to TBRC. You know who they are. They are having a funding drive right now, so I advise you to calculate your book buying budget for the spring and send it to them instead. It will be money well given, and you can imagine much merit toward easy traveling in the future.  (And if you are the type that likes expressing outrageously high hopes, as Buddhists particularly tend to do, aspiring altruistic bodhisattvas such as yourself will bear in mind that a donation to them makes the inspiration available not to you alone, but to all other Tibetan-reading beings in the triple chiliocosmic universe.)

§   §   §

Here is your counterintuitive (or is that oxymoronic?) homework assignment for today:
Google "contemplative reading."
And if you do look for Song of the Road at Amazon, check out the review by "Inner Exile." It is so much better than anything else I've seen written about Cyrus's book.

I’ve found that if you locate a book in Googlebooks, they supply a “Find in a library” button. Assuming you've allowed your computer to know your location in the world (and you very probably have), you should be able to know if the book is in a public collection near you by simply clicking on that button (OCLC's Worldcat can do it, too, supplying as they say access to “two billion items”). Then all you have to do is bike over to the library, get a library card and check out the book. Books are so much better companions than screens are. Books don’t have so many other distractions built into them. OK, it’s true, with an especially tedious book you might feel the urge to flip through the pages quickly, but this problem is many times compounded when reading off a clickable device. Just because something has flashed in front of your eyes doesn’t mean you’ve read it. And a good reading experience is always accompanied or followed by reflection and inspiration. Always. There is no way to speed it up.

If reading difficult Tibetan cursive manuscripts is something you would like to try, then you may like to know that the text that Cyrus translated, Tshar-chen Blo-gsal-rgya-mtsho — ཚར་ཆེན་བློ་གསལ་རྒྱ་མཚོ་  (1502‑1566),  Rang gi rtogs brjod lam glu dpyid kyi rgyal mo'i dga' ston — རང་གི་རྟོགས་བརྗོད་ལམ་གླུ་དཔྱིད་ཀྱི་རྒྱལ་མོའི་དགའ་སྟོན་, has been published in the form of a manuscript reproduction as Blo-gsal-rgya-mtsho, Rang gi rtogs par brjod pa lam glu dpyid kyi rgyal mo'i glu dbyangs (cursive ms. in 17 fols.), in the Dpal-brtsegs history set, vol. 58, pp. 401-432.  I think this 17-folio manuscript is the same one, albeit in a different publication, that Cyrus used, although I'm not completely sure of it (being a little concerned about the different forms the titles take).

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sheep Year Happy Losar!

Although a special blog for the holiday was in the works, this auspicious picture is offered in its place. Have a great new year with good health, plentiful energy, enough wealth, much contentment and hope for a brighter future for Tibetans and peace for the whole world.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Newsweek’s Photo Fact-Check Fail

This is not, we repeat, NOT, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Discovering a major news magazine’s huge mistake ought to be an opportunity for gloating. In this case none of that gloating would be mine, since the whole idea and the research involved here comes not from me but from R.K., who is now going to build a major reputation for his initials, since that’s all he wanted to put here. The problem is a photograph that has sometimes been used in stories about His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who yesterday enjoyed a Prayer Breakfast in Washington with The President of the United States of America Barack Obama, and had a long time before that received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, etc. etc. Honestly, I assume everybody in the known universe knows to whom it is that we refer.

In the Newsweek story in today’s February 6, 2015 issue — Peter Popham’s “Relentless: The Dalai Lama's Heart of Steel” — the photo appears as above in our frontispiece, but labeled with the following caption:
“Young Dalai Lama at Usersky-Danzan temple in Mongolia in 1939, aged three. 
Since the present Dalai Lama — or, if you prefer, Jampel Ngawang Lozang Tendzin Gyatso, འཇམ་དཔལ་ངག་དབང་བློ་བཟང་བསྟན་འཛིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ་ — was born on July 7, 1935, and Tibetan ‘age’ is always calculated up one year, that would make the photo date from around 1937, right? Wrong.

To see just how wrong this is, have a look at the front page of this newspaper. Do not fail to make a note of the date you see there.

"The Great White Lama:
Notice His Cunning Little Toes"
published Monday, June 3, 1929
Our conclusion is very simple and indisputable. Since this photo was published in 1929 (and it seems it had already been published in England a year earlier*), it simply cannot be His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Newsweek must fix their error in dating it to 1939, ten years later. It is really beside the point if others made this or similar mistakes before them.** It might be interesting to trace the genealogy of this particular error in some detail someday, in some doctoral dissertation or whatever, but an error it most surely is.
(*This website [go there and search for the number "10215921"] says it took the photograph from The Illustrated London News of 22nd Dec 1928.)
(**Just do an “image search” on the internet, and you will find it has been used a number of times as if it were a photo of the His Holiness.  Of course there is yet another mistake in the Newsweek picture caption, since His Holiness as a child never set foot in Mongolia.) 
It has to be a photograph of someone else, and the question remains, Who? The newspaper story places it inside Tibet, but it is not always the case that the earliest version of the story is the truest therefore. If the photo was taken at a place called “Usersky-Dazan,” it would not have been in “Thibet,” but rather in Mongolia, Buriatia, or Kalmuckia somewhere.* So if you know or can find out anything at all about this little Lama with his dextrous toes, drop us a comment, let us reason together and seek out the truth even while we are sifting out the errors.
(*That Slavic genitive ending kind of gives it away, and the “Dazan” is a foreign and very likely Mongolian spelling for Tibetan Datsang, or གྲྭ་ཚང་  Mongolian always replaces the Tibetan final ‘ng’ sound with final ‘n’.  For a curious picture said to be from Usersky-dazan, have a look at this commercial site.  I also found in a newspaper archive a story published in the San Antonio Light for April 10, 1932, an article entitled “Why the Obscure Mongolian Baby Born at the Proper Minute is Worshipped as a God,” but seeing it involved filling out a long form and paying ten U.S. dollars, I decided to let it be.  I did manage to find a clue that this Dazan ought to be located 20 miles from the ever-moving and ever-growing town of Urga. Urga is regarded as the old name for Ulan Bator.)
Here is the larger version of the photo I promised you earlier on. Take a very close look at it. If you detect signs it could be a collage of two different photographs, you may not be entirely alone. You can see that somebody's bad touchup job turned the beautiful double-Vajra design on the hanging cloth into a kind of crude looking cross.

For this Getty image, look here.

Addendum (February 7, 2015):

I am happy to report that the identification problem is largely solved, and I can tell you, Newsweek is going to feel even sillier than expected with cake all over his face. Again, I don’t get any gloating rights.  All the credit goes elsewhere.  Well, yesterday, as I was putting up the blog I did have the presence of mind to send an email to someone I was sure would be able to answer a few Mongol-ological questions, about where the monastery might be, in particular. But I have to admit that Agata Bareja-Starzynska of Warsaw surprised me with her brief and directly to the point information. In yesterday's first email she identified the “Usersky-Dazan” monastery as Gusino-ozersky (or Gusino-ozerskii Datsan) in Buryatia. And already last night she told me that the boy in the photo was most probably the one playing a lama in the Pudovkin movie “A Storm over Asia.” And this morning, I received the following email sent late last night. Seeing this evidence throws a very different light on the identity of the toe-crossing child Lama. To put it mildly, it was not the  solution I was expecting, not at all.

Found it via Internet!
see a scene at 1:04:13 till 1:06
the Lama boy is there playing with his toes.

For myself, the scene started closer to 1:03. I recommend starting several minutes earlier, since there are scenes to be seen of Cham dancing that are quite impressive. I admit I have still never seen this movie (apart from this scene of course). I only now learned how to make “screen shots” on my Mac, so I’ll put some examples down below for the convenience of blog readers too lazy to watch movies.

Oh the movie! I forgot to say something about the movie. I found out that it’s a famous full-lengthed silent film, supposed to have been a landmark in cinematographic history when it was made in 1928. The director was Vsevolod Pudovkin, and the English-language version is called “Storm over Asia.” The original title means “The Heir to Genghis Khan.” If you want to know what it’s about, have a look for yourself. But before you go, just let me get in one last jibe, smear a bit of that cake around on Newsweek’s face. The photo Newsweek innocently believed to be an image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama took on an aura of reality in two distinct historical phases: [1] an early Soviet period movie and [2] a newspaper story concocted out of the same for the bemusement of English and American readers who would not have known any better. Or were the journalists themselves the ones who knew no better?

Screen shots from the movie

§   §   §

Another Addendum (February 8, 2015):

I was thinking there was still an area of mystery that ought to be explored if possible, namely, ‘Can anything more be known about the actual child who played the part of the infant Lama?’ Somebody told me he would be the best person to find out about anything that happened in Buryatia, so I wrote to Nikolay Tsyrempilov, who works at the Buryat State University in Ulan Ude. I was delighted by his fast response, and will, with his kind permission, pass on two passages from his emails, the first dated yesterday and the second dated today.

The first quote:
“As for your question, I have nothing new to add to what you already know. That’s absolutely true that Usersky Dazan is Gusinoozersky Datsan, the main Buddhist monastery of Buryatia until 1940s. Pudovkin made some important episodes of his movie at that monastery. I think that the boy was just a simple boy who was selected in the process of casting. I don’t believe that he was a real tulku. My opinion is based on the fact that in 1928 it was not safe for high foreign Lamas to stay in Buryatia. A year earlier the Soviet authorities launched repressions against the Lamas, and if you watch the movie carefully, you’ll see how anxious the lamas’ faces are. A couple of years before some Tibetan tulkus, e.g. Tangring Rinpoche, had stressful experiences  staying in Buryatia. In 1928 the situation was even worse. If you look at the boy you can see that his attire is not typical for small tulkus. They just put a piece of yellow (I believe it is yellow) cloth on him. Probably, that was the reason he was called the white lama.”
The second is in answer to a question I had about the throne, and not just the child seated on it.  I was thinking that the cloth that hangs down in front is a real throne cloth, featuring a large double-Vajra design, as we often see on Rinpoche thrones. But I was also thinking that the throne was far too low and close to the pavement to be a real Rinpoche throne.  So here is Prof. Tsyrempilov's response:
“As for the throne, I think it’s a fake. It looks like a real one, but I believe this one was hastily constructed specially for the movie. Yes, it seems rather too low. The boy is not an ethnic Russian, he is a typical Buryat.”

§   §   §

A wrinkle (Valentines Day, 2015):

If we were thinking there would be a smooth path to identifying the real young man in the photo and in the movie before the photo, a new and interesting wrinkle has come up along the way. I also wrote to Andrey Terentyev of St. Petersburg, author of some excellent books on Tibetan art and so on that I may blog about sometime soon. The surprising new news is that the temple in which the little lama was sitting was not in Buryatia as we had thought. I mean, it would be only natural to assume that he was filmed there, in the same place as all Cham dancing scenes that came before. But it now appears that this, like so many other things, is an illusion. Andrey says he immediately recognized the temple and its main image (or images) as the ones that were, in around the mid-1930's, at least, in the Buddhist temple that Agwan Dorjiev founded in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Just below is a photo from that time that he sent me. I could locate a similar photo in a published book that dates it to the early 1930's, so at least we are in the right general time frame here. The temple still stands in Petersburg, I once visited it myself, and I can tell you that the large main image that is there now is not the one you would have seen in the 1930's (the one that appears in our photos).  Andrey also sent a nice photo of the main image that you can see further down.

Interior of Dorjiev's Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg, early-to-mid 1930's

Compare what you see here to the first in the set of four screen-shots from the 1928 movie that I’ve posted above. Look closely and decide for yourself if what you see is the same place or not.

Main central images in the Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg, early-to-mid 1930's
I’m not one hundred percent, but I think that the smaller Buddha you see in front is the silver Gautama Buddha donated by the King of Siam especially for the consecration of the temple.* Its building began in 1909, with the permission of Czar Nicholas, and that story is a fascinating one we can’t go into right now. Needless to say, not everyone was in favor of its building, and Dorjiev reports in his memoirs that he received a number of death threats. Still, after the building was finished, the monks seem to have gotten on well with their neighbors.
(*Now, February 15, 2015, Andrey informs me that the Gautama was in fact copper, not silver, so my authority on this is  certainly misleading. Thanks to Andrey for fixing still more of my mistakes.)

An email communication, dated February 15, from Andrey:

Dear Dan,
It’s true about looting the temple and fixing main image afterwards. But that image was made of alabaster and later was changed by Dorjiev for a metal one which you see on our photos.
One friend of mine, who was the main Snelling’s informant didn’t speak good English, so I suspect that Snelling mixed info on Siamese Buddha with another story concerning the famous Sandalwood Buddha statue made during Buddha’s lifetime and kept in Russia since 1900.
The Siamese statue was made of copper or brass. It was kept in the Museum of History of Religions and Atheism where I worked for 13 years.a

I should add a few clarifications: The alabaster, being either white or lightish golden colored, was at least partly gilded over.  The 1916 photo is different from all the others, since the Buddha's curls appear white (probably because the alabaster was not gilded there), the eyes are quite glowingly white, and the throne backing is very different.  The sandalwood Buddha Andrey mentioned is something he knows about, since he wrote a book on exactly that subject:  

The Sandalwood Buddha of the King Udayana. St.-Petersburg: A.Terentyev, 2010
Parallel Russian and English text
ISBN 978-5-901941-25-6

I noticed one detail that confirms or even clinches the fact that the scene of the little Rinpoche was shot in the St. Petersburg temple. I wish I had a copy of it to upload, but if you have the book at hand, turn to John Snelling's book Buddhism in Russia (Element 1993), photo no. 16 in the middle of the book. There you see a photo labelled "Danzan Norboyev, sixth incarnation of Ganzhirva-Gegen, on the high lama's throne in the Leningrad Temple." Now get out a magnifying glass and examine the fabric covering the backrest part of the throne (the part behind the back of the Lama).  Now look at the fabric covering the backrest in the scene from the 1928 movie.  The floral fabric pattern is the same. And Danzan Norboyev (1887-1935) would have arrived in St. Petersburg in around 1929, so the dates are close enough we can be fairly sure it is the same piece of cloth. A minor detail, I suppose, yet telling.

So, let’s see where we stand right now...  Far from being a photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the photo Newsweek published as being of Him was passed down from English & American newspapers of 1929 to 1932 that, without admitting doing so, took it from a Russian movie released in 1928. Now we know that the shots of the young reincarnate in that movie were actually taken in St. Petersburg, in a temple built for the use of the many Kalmucks and Buryats staying in St. Petersburg in those days. No reason why the child could not have been a Buryat as N.T. says he was, no reason at all. If I had a hammer handy I would want to pound on each letter as if it were a nail piercing the conscience of Newsweek, but I guess bold print will do well enough:  His Holiness was not in St. Petersburg in the 1920's, and the child filmed there was not Him, not Him at all.

§   §   §


P.S. (Not intending to let Newsweek off the hook, but...)

  • Of course, to His Holiness this kind of identity problem will bring no grief at all. 

  • It is difficult to predict precisely, and I wouldn’t ever for the life of me even seem to second-guess His Holiness, but I strongly suspect His reaction would look a lot like this:

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Marvelous Man-Lifting Kites (& Giants in Caves)

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Several years ago I joined a Yahoo discussion group devoted to the teachings of Tuesday Lobsang Rampa (1910‑1981). It was not just a whim, I was more than a little curious and thought it would be a learning experience for me. Once again, I heeded that irritating impulse of mine to dig into things a little further, or to do, in a word, research. These are people who have heard all the evidence that Rampa was himself a faker, yet go on insisting that his teachings are none the less true and very effective for them, regardless of all those misrepresentations they are couched in. I am a little perplexed when I see this, thinking that genuinely useful teachings ought to come from a genuine source. I could be wrong about this. People want to grow, that’s for sure, and usually it happens while they are preoccupied with other things. But they don’t have much patience or perseverence, and meanwhile they would really rather just be entertained. I guess we are all familiar with the Barnum effect, the dictum — not Barnum’s own — that a ‘sucker is born every minute’ so why not serve their needs? Excuse me, I’ll be right back. I just remembered I have a giant petrified hominid in my back yard begging for me to dig it up.

If Rampa told something not true about the man-lifting kites to make the story more entertaining, what’s to say he wouldn’t also add non-truths to his instructions on telepathy, astral traveling and so on? People are in some ways and at some times so trusting, so likely to get hooked in. How do you know when you’re real enough to be teaching other people in an honest way (I don’t mean specially religious or spiritual teaching, but any kind of teaching). I think about it and then go on to think some more, and in the end I just don’t know. If every person has to work out her or his own salvation anyway, then the search for the ‘perfect’ teacher could be a distraction. True no doubt, but what would that perfection look like if you found it? If there is no complete fraud, there is no completely genuine article, both are idealizing extremes that ought to be recognized as such.

“They shall have mysteries-- ay precious stuff For knaves to thrive by-- mysteries enough; Dark, tangled doctrines, dark as fraud can weave, Which simple votaries shall on trust receive, While craftier feign belief till they believe.”
— Thomas Moore (1779-1852),
The Veiled Prophet of Khorrasan 

What he says is true enough, but for all we know Moore could have been talking about psychoanalysis... Well, if the word had even been coined yet. The poster above Fox Mulder’s desk in the X-Files, if I remember right, reads “I want to believe.”* Indeed. What are we to believe? Just because something is unbelievable does it mean we have to make an all-out special effort to believe it? Amusing to consider the consequences of applying this axiom in a number of areas!
(*Imagine a man who everyday tries to walk out on a branch, reassuring himself by repeating to himself ‘The branch is strong.  The branch is very strong, very very strong...’ and each day his faith becomes stronger and stronger while he walks out further and further on the branch until one fine day the tree breaks a limb and so does he.)

Rampa was in reality a cranky old opinionated paranoiac, sour and sickly for most of his life, who didn’t mind telling people how he was against women’s rights (for example)  and how everybody — Tibetans, Tibetologists, the press, the governments — had been plotting against him all along...  Sound like somebody you know? And since he didn’t have all that many visitors up in cold Calgary, most of his socializing seems to have taken place through the postal system. 

Okay, more than enough of that sad contemplation, and on to something really interesting, those man-lifting kites!

The Rampa Kite Illustration

Can you make out the human figure standing there in the pilot’s seat? Is that ballast hanging at the ends of the wings?  Do you think they flapped?  Flight worthy you think?

But do notice this:  Man-lifting kites were employed by Chinese generals in warfare in quite early times, or at least the idea that they did is very firmly in place in the Chinese sources.

“Kung-shu* himself made an ascent riding on a wooden kite in order to spy on a city which he desired to capture.”

 ——Berthold Laufer, "The Pre-History of Aviation," Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago 1928), p. 23.
(*This Kung-shu was a contemporary of Confucius.)

And military uses of kites, even for lifting up humans for surveillance purposes, was well known to other nations well before Rampa’s time. Notice the date on the source that follows, six years before the birth of Cyril Hoskins.

Anonymous, Science, New Series vol. 20, no. 497 (July 8, 1904), p. 64:

“IT is stated in the London Times that the man-lifting kite, as invented by Mr. Cody, has during the last few days been subjected to further trials at Aldershot with the view of testing its feasibility and usefulness for observation purposes in war time. The main features claimed for the kite are, first, its extreme simplicity and the ease with which the various component parts required to work it can be transported from place to place; and, secondly, that it can be flown in heavy wind such as would render the use of the war balloon almost impossible. A number of Royal Engineers are now under instruction in the working of the kite in order that it may be thoroughly tested.”

It isn’t exactly the question here whether man-lifting kites were known in China or England at any particular time. The question is ‘Did Tibetans in the first half of the 20th century fly inside kites for recreational (or any other) purposes?’  The answer to that question is by all accounts of Tibetans themselves an unequivocal “No!”

•  •  •

For background on what follows, try looking at L. Fitzpatrick, "L. Rampa: Sacrophagus with Giants of the Past and Machinery in the Caves of Tibet."  Click here.  

The western idea that there was a kind of giant Golem or the like in the Bietala* has a bit of history behind it, going as far back as the 18th century. My position is that it emerged out of a misunderstanding of descriptions of what the tomb-chortens of the Dalai Lamas were built to contain (along with a confusion between container and contents). That Rampa continues this earlier western misconception fits into a larger pattern that extends to his teachings, including practical instructions for astral travel, presented as Tibetan when in fact they are entirely taken from western occultism (Proclus, Theosophy etc.).
(*i.e., Potala; as long ago as 1683 in a book by M.A. Mallet, De L'Asie, some thought they heard the Italian word bietola for ‘beet’, the red vegetable.  For the illustration, go here.)

Q: What was gold-covered, in fact?  A: The chortens.  But the mummies could also be gilded.

Q: What was giant in fact?  A: The chortens.

Q: What do the chortens contain?  A: Mummified bodily remains of the Dalai Lamas, mummified in cross-legged seating position, of ordinary human size or smaller.

Q: How ancient are the times we are talking about here?  A: The first in the series of tomb chortens built within the Potala was the one for the Fifth Dalai Lama after His death in 1682.

§  §  §


I noticed an interesting thing in a bibliography, something I haven’t seen yet, that may have a bearing on a future discussion of Rampa kites:  J.E. Nowers, “The Man Lifting Kite: A Forgotten Invention?” Royal Engineers Journal, vol. 109 (1995), p. 96.

If you are deeply into kites, man-lifting or not, you must read Laufer’s little book we mentioned above, but also this:  Joseph Needham, et al., Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4: Physics and Physical Technology; Part 2: Mechanical Engineering, University Press (Cambridge 1965), pp. 568-602.

If you need some introducing to Rampa, here is something short and to the point from Tricycle magazine: Lobsang Rampa: The Mystery of the Three-Eyed Lama by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

For Tibeto-logic blogs on the "Three Eyes," see this one and this one from way back in 2007, with some of the more essential Rampa bibliography not mentioned here today. Those old blogs occasioned quite animated and entertaining discussion, and informative, too.

There is, of course, a website devoted to Rampa's teachings, but at this very moment, it is "under construction."  Try looking here.  And yes, there is a Wiki page about him.

Ancient Indian Aircraft on Agenda of Major Science Conference.  Huh?

§  §  §

After a talk that was then published in 1961, the late Hugh Richardson fielded questions from the audience, including this one:

 Q: Is there any truth in the story of an operation to open the "third eye"? 
 A: None whatsoever. The book which describes it is an utter fraud. It was written by somebody who had never been out of England.

"Utter fraud?"

There are those fascinating figures from long ago who had the vision to believe the moon was a reachable goal.  Were they believed much?

A few like Wm. Blake thought it would be wanting far too much (as we tend to do).

Speedy Gonsalez? Far ahead of his time.
I want!  I want!

There are genuinely people (6% of the population of the U.S.) who believe humans have never set foot on the moon, viewing NASA as an utter fraud. But even if these people are as deeply deluded as I believe they are, isn’t it also the case that the moon landing was "staged" to appear in a particular light, to make a particular type of impression on we the earthlings? Do you think everything about it was utterly spontaneous and unrehearsed? I guess you get my general drift.

One of Cody's Man-lifting Kites

I’ll end by giving Rampa the final word. These are practically his final words, since they come from the end of his final book, written not long before his death. I want to underline the words true, absolutely true, but perhaps it isn’t necessary:

“These books, my books, are true, absolutely true, and if you think that this particular book smacks of science fiction you are wrong. The science in it could have been many times increased had the scientists been at all interested, but the fiction—there just isn't any, not even “artists' license.” ”