Sunday, October 25, 2015

Padampa's Plant Community: P’i-kuo's Response

You may recall that in our latest blog there was a bit about the botanical identification of the mkhan-pa plant that grew where Padampa stayed when he first arrived in Tingri. We're still not 100% sure what it is exactly. We based ourselves on the first source at hand when we identified it with Tanacetum, but from now on we will definitely identify it as Artemisia (or Mugwort, although this word doesn’t sound so nice). What follows is a comment, now transformed into a guest blog, from the pen of P’i-kuo:

Sorry to interrupt with a more prosaic matter, but are you sure about the identification of mkhan pa as Tanacetum? I've googled around a bit and most of what I found seems to be pointing towards wormwood/mugwort (Artemisia).  
First there's Mia Molvray's Glossary of Tibetan Medicinal Plants (now available online), where mkhan pa appears as a name for several species of Artemisia (though not specifically vulgaris; this will become important later), while Tanacetum shows up under other Tibetan names. Three of Molvray's sources for the Artemisia identification are ultimately traceable to Northern (incl. Mongolian) contexts, which you would expect to overlook Tanacetum as it doesn't seem to grow there, but her fourth source is Tsewang Jigme Tsarong who was the director of the Tibetan Medical Centre in Dharamsala. 
More sources (including, recursively enough, Molvray above) are listed by Yumiko Ishihama 石濱裕美子 et al. here supporting the Artemisia theory; the species do include vulgaris. Their sources are given here, and the only one mentioning Tanacetum are the Tibetan Medical Paintings edited by Parfyonovich et al. 
Chinese sources also translate mkhan pa as 蒿 hāo or 艾 ài (as in Ai Weiwei) i.e. 'wormwood' or 'mugwort'. (This is from an article in Chinese Tibetology; 蒿 hāo is used to translate mkhan pa, one of the 'five nectars' (bdud rtsi) listed in the Cha lag bco brgyad.) 
Now a very common mugwort is Artemisia vulgaris, in Chinese 北艾 běiài ('Northern mugwort') and maybe also 白蒿 báihāo ('white wormwood'). It grows up to 2 m tall, and is edible, to some extent. 
(Admittedly Padampa wasn't eating the mkhan pa, but maybe he could pluck a leaf or two to season his droma spuds.) It would seem to grow in the roughly relevant geography, and indeed there is one var. xizangensis found in e.g. Qinghai and Western Sichuan, including over 2500 m above sea level. 
Tanacetum aka Ajania, on the other hand, while just as medicinal and arrestingly beautiful, seems rather less hospitable to hide in. The tallest species I found about stay around 70 cm. T. nubigenum or Ajania nubigena, in particular, which does grow in Tibet (Gyirong), is just 30 cm tall. 
And if I may abuse your comment section's hospitality even more egregiously by nitpicking on Latin gender agreement: it's Taraxacum officinale

I’ve changed my mind, P’i-kuo. I’m convinced. I’ve looked today for mkhan-pa in a lot of Tibetan-made materia medica reference books and they practically unanimously identify it with Artemisia. There is also a small literature on the Hidden Country of Mkhan-pa-lung, “Artemisia Valley” (see the listing below). I guess one of the best known usages of Artemisia is as a source of vegetable tinder for Chinese moxibustion. It’s definitely known as a medicinal and an aromatic, and has properties that may repel small biting insects at the same time it attracts moths and butterflies. I’m liking it more and more all the time, the more I look at it. How tall did you say it could get? Two meters?

I won’t try to speculate which variety of Artemisia is the one in question. Tibetan medicine generally recognizes four main ones:  white, lightish, black and red. One reference work identifies the black one as Artemisia vulgaris, but another says it’s the white one.

~  ~  ~

Olaf Czaja, “Tibetan Medical Plants and Their Healing Potentials,” contained in: Franz-Karl Ehrhard and Petra Maurer, eds., Nepalica-Tibetica:  Festgabe for Christoph Cüppers, International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (Lumbini 2013), vol. 1, pp. 89117. Particularly recommended to those who doubt the difficulties of identifying botanicals used in Tibetan medicine, difficulties exacerbated by the widespread practice of substituting locally available plants.

Hildegard Diemberger, “Beyul Khenbalung, the Hidden Valley of the Artemisia: On Himalayan Communities and Their Sacred Landscape,” contained in: A.W. Macdonald, ed., Mandalas and Landscape (New Delhi 1997), pp. 287-334. This author wrote a dissertation on the same subject. It's worth considering that the place usually identified as Khenpa Lung is in the general surroundings of Mount Everest, and so is Tingri, not that this makes them all that close, although I suppose we could speak of neighboring plant communities.

Hildegard Diemberger, “Lhakama (Lha-bka'-ma) and Khandroma (Mkha'-'gro-ma): The Sacred Ladies of Beyul Khenbalung (Sbas-yul Mkhan-pa-lung),” contained in:  E. Steinkellner, ed., Tibetan History and Language: Studies Dedicated to Uray Géza on His Seventieth Birthday, ARbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien Universität Wien (Vienna 1991), pp. 137-154.

Hildegard Diemberger, “Political and Religious Aspects of Mountain Cults in the Hidden Valley of Khenbalung: Tradition, Decline and Revitalisation,” contained in:  Anne-Marie Blondeau & Ernst Steinkellner, eds., Reflections of the Mountain: Essays on the History and Social Meaning of the Mountain Cult in Tibet and the Himalaya, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 1996), pp. 219-231.

Giacomella Orofino, “The Tibetan Myth of the Hidden Valley with Reference to the Visionary Geography of Nepal,” East and West, vol. 41, nos. 1-4 (1991), pp. 239-272.

J. Reinhard, “Khembalung: The Hidden Valley,” Kailash, vol. 6, no. 1 (1978), pp. 5-35.  Contains the Tibetan text སྦས་ཡུལ་ཁན་པ་ལུང་གི་གནས་ཡིག་མཐོང་བ་དོན་ལྡན་ -  Sbas-yul Khan-pa-lung-gi Gnas-yig Mthong-ba Don-ldan.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Padampa Diet Plan


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potentilla anserina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar Saba in its higher part

A desert flower along the way

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

Interesting readings somehow connected with what was said before

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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