Sunday, March 18, 2007

Transmigration and Occupation

Just about everything I know about Kor Nirupa is found in the Blue Annals (written in the last part of the 15th century, it was translated by George Roerich and Gendun Choepel in the 20th). It is a fascinating story that connects rather directly with the subject of an earlier web-log on 'The Transmigration.' And it leads off in an unexpected direction, although I probably shouldn't be warning you of this ahead of time.

He was born in the Water Tiger year of 1062 as son number five. The year of his birth was considered very inauspicious for matters related to relatives. So his father did a magic ritual (to be exact, a 'to' [
lto, gto] ritual, which is very likely natively Tibetan and non-Buddhist in origin) to turn away misfortune and sent him away to study with a monk. As he left home his sister tossed dust after him, a clear gesture of exorcism and, of course, ostracism. At Lhasa, he took novice ordination, and gained the nickname Korchungwa, which means 'Small Kor' since Kor was his paternal clan. There he found two students of Atisha, who had died in Tibet in 1054. One was named Vairocana, and the other was a Newar by the name of Anutapagupta. He studied Sanskrit grammar with Anutapagupta for a year. Promising him three ounces of gold as a payment, he went to Penyul ('Phan-yul), where a widow of a translator gave him an Indian book. At age 10 (or, as we would say, 9), he got a job at a gold mine watching out for thieves. Meanwhile a thief stole his own things, so he did a magical rite that was successful. A lot of gold was discovered, so he could fulfill his promise to the Newar. Returning to his home area at age 11, he did funerary rites for his father who had died meanwhile. He dug up a piece of turquoise that his sister had hidden away and took it back with him to central Tibet, where he exchanged it for 13 ounces of gold, a bolt of silk and some musk. Only 13, he set off with two companions to Nepal.

In Nepal a man invited them to his house, saying he was the richest person in the entire valley kingdom. When they got there all they saw was a plain brick house with nothing inside but some shards of pottery, a stone slab with holes in it, a goat horn and a wooden spade. This man told them about a teacher in India who was able to shoot arrows straight through people without harming them. He took them and left them at the edge of the cemetery surrounded by jackals where this teacher lived. Named Dazhuchän, he immediately sent Korchung off to pick flowers to be used in his initiation. From Dazhuchän he studied Sanskrit grammar, while the Vajra Vehicle teachings he received from his servant and (later on it would seem) wife, the woman Kumudara. The ritual implements needed for his final empowerment were not at hand, so he went to Nepal to get them, meeting his two companions there. They also wished to request the empowerment.

At age 19, Korchung returned to Tibet in search of suitably large offerings for his Vajra Master. After collecting 13 (there's that number again, although Tibetans didn't think it was unlucky) ounces of gold, he went back to the Indian cemetery and at last received the highest empowerments.

Now we should break off the story, since the author of the
Blue Annals also does so. It isn't said explicitly (in the process of reading we are left guessing), but we have to understand that Dazhuchän was in fact none other than Karopa. Karopa was a teacher of the Great Sealing, which he received from his own teacher Maitripa. Karopa had very many students, but one in particular named Nirupa had attained all the mystical powers called siddhi. Nirupa was already an old man of 74 when Karopa recommended that he go to Tibet to help people there. So he went to a mysterious place of 'Stone Water,' which perhaps ought to be a place in Tibet, we just don't know. It's said that whenever creatures touched that Stone Water they turned to stone, but Nirupa wasn't harmed by it and could reach the island in the center that was inhabited by Dakinis. After hosting him in a feast, they made this prophecy:

"You must go to Nepal. There you will find a fine young Tibetan kid, a monk with spiritual insight. Now the right time has come, so do the
drongjug and then go to Tibet. We will accompany you and make sure you do not meet with obstacles."

At the time Korchung was staying in the house his patron Bhahu near the Swayambhu Stupa, just outside of Kathmandu. Korchung died and Nirupa performed
drongjug on his body. Nirupa's old body was cremated before he left for Tibet. At first he lived like a beggar. One day while begging in Lhasa a voice came toward him from a sand plot pronouncing the Sanskrit name of the previous inhabitant of his body, "Prajñakirti! Prajñakirti!" It was Kumudara who had come with Karopa to Tibet, not just to pay a visit, but because they knew that someone was planning to kill Nirupa and they wanted to prevent this from happening. Nirupa accompanied his teachers back to the Nepal border dressed up like a pundit from the Copper Island. So when people saw him coming, they would say, "Hey, here comes that Indian from the Copper Island." (We don't know for sure what they meant by Copper Island. It could mean Ceylon, or it could mean a place on the east Indian coast, or even the Malay Peninsula...) Then he changed back into Tibetan costume and for the next 21 years taught his students, including 13 monks, the teachings of secret mantra. He performed empowerments and he did solo translations of Indian texts. He died at age 41 in 1102 CE.

Of course, if we identify him with the consciousness entity that entered his body, he would have been about 94 years old, but the sources don't ever say this. His Great Sealing teachings continued for many generations, although not much is known about this lineage. He was apparently the first of several interesting figures to introduce the Great Sealing to Tibet. In Great Sealing, various methods are used to introduce students directly to the actual nature of their own minds, and by doing so, show the nature of all phenomena. In general it is a teaching only for the most mature in spiritual terms. Other Great Sealing teachers that were his contemporaries or came to Tibet soon after him were the south Indian Padampa Sanggyé, the Newar Asu, and the Indian Vajrapani (called Chagna, or Phyag-na, in Tibetan). It is rather odd that we find literary works associated with all these other figures (they mostly learned Tibetan so well they were able to teach without the help of a Tibetan translator), but not a single text associated with Nirupa. Well, there is something after all, but it's a rather short song preserved in a late-13th-century history composed by Khepa Deu (Mkhas-pa Lde'u). Here it is in translation. I'll put the Tibetan text (in transliteration and in real Tibetan script) immediately after for those who are eager to read it in the original language:

THE SEVEN QUALITIES, by Tulku Niru[pa].

Like a spring of precious gold bursting out upon the ground,
all the learned Indians come to Tibet.

Like camphor-water bursting out from the midst of glaciers,
their listeners are sharp-thinking and skilled in Holy Dharma.

Like the white lions living at the edges of the glaciers,
the leaders too are great in consultation and counsel.

Like the fierce Troublemaker spirits staying on the glacial heights,
the Bandé and Bönpo are great in magical powers and miracles.

Like the wild yaks and horses living in the south and north,
the young men are courageous and reliable like champions.

Like Rhododendrons growing on the sides of the mountains,
the women are fine figured, refined (or wise) and amazing.

Because it is a projected manifestation of Chenrezi,
Tibet is more beautiful than other countries.

And here is the Tibetan:

sa la rin chen gser gyi khron brdol bas //
rgya gar mkhas pa thams cad bod du byon //
gangs kyi klong nas ga bur chu brdol bas //
nyan pa po rnams blo rno dam chos mkhas //
gangs kyi 'dab mar seng ge dkar gnas pas //
gtso bo rnams kyang gros dang mdun ma che //
gangs ri'i mthong na gnod sbyin gnyan chags pas //
ban bon rnams ni mthu dang rdzu 'phrul che //
lho dang byang na 'brong dang rta gnas pas //
shar po rnams ni dpa' brtan gyad dang 'dra //
ri mtha' rnams la stag ma'i sman gnas pas //
bud med rnams ni dbyibs legs mdzangs shing 'phrul //
spyan ras gzigs kyi sprul pa yin pa'i phyir //
rgyal khams gzhan las bod ni snying rje che // zhes so //

I'm afraid you might have read too fast, and perhaps due to the clunkiness of the translation (I'm sorry, I did my best to make a culturally meaningful one) it didn't make much sense. So let me reiterate. There are seven couplets covering seven things that make Tibet special. They are: 1) The Indian teachers who came to Tibet. 2) Their Tibetan students. 3) Tibet's leaders. 4) Tibet's religious leaders and magicians. 5) Tibet's athletic young men. 6) Tibetan women. 7) Tibet's landscape.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, there are three sets of pairs covering the India/Tibet, the secular/religious and male/female divides, culminating in the land of Tibet itself. Oddly as this may seem, resident foreigners are placed at the head of the list, and the greatness of Tibetan people would seem to stem primarily from the Buddhist culture brought from India. But the song does not neglect to mention Bönpos, who believe their tradition is much more ancient and specific to Tibet (Bandé just means the usual Tibetan Buddhist, by way of contrast). There is more to ponder along these lines.

Pay attention, too, to the things used for comparison. In the first pair we find gold coming up from beneath the ground contrasted with fresh glacial water coming from on high. (Think mineral resources, and irrigation for agriculture.) In the second pair we have two types of beings living in the highlands: the legendary but lonely Snow Lion with its turquoise mane and the temperamental mountain spirits here called by a Tibetan word, nödjin, that corresponds to Sanskrit yaksha. In the third pair: the fauna and flora of Tibet.

However this song might be understood — and I have tried my best to guide understanding without dictating my own — it is difficult to read it as anything less than a patriotic song. I would say it has the ring of a national anthem even if there is no indication that it served that purpose in any official way. As a song of national identity, with more than a hint of the superiority complexes that go along with national identities, it is all the more bewildering and amazing (by turns) when we consider Nirupa's own identity problems. Why is this the only discrete set of words by (or even translated by) him that has come down to us? He was rejected by his entire family, already a major identity problem even without delving into psychoanalytical implications. His father and sister surface one time each later on in his life story, his mother not at all. As a young man he learned a foreign language and traveled abroad. He then lived in Tibet as an Indian occupying a Tibetan body, and he part of the time dressed as an Indian, part of the time as a Tibetan. And he was an advocate of the Great Sealing, in which all those 'self' identity strategies get their covers blown away in a quite radical way. I have to confess that I am only beginning to think about the implications of all this. And will go on thinking.

But let's also think a little about the last line, where the very landscape of Tibet is said to be a miraculous manifestation of the compassion of Chenrezi (that's Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit). The connection between the mountain landscape and the Bodhisattva is particularly clear in a song found in Zhuchen's historical preface to the Dergé Tanjur (the collection of Indian treatises in Tibetan translation as woodblock printed in the city of Dergé in eastern Tibet). Here it is very explicitly called a song. Bodhgaya is the place in Bihar where the Buddha sat down and attained Enlightenment. Pugyel Böd is a special name for Tibet that hearkens back to the period of imperial power (7th through mid-9th centuries). A chörten is both a reliquary for the Buddha's (or other saint's) body and the most important symbol of the Buddha's mind. Here is a bit of this long song:

To the north of Bodhgaya
is the land called Pugyel Böd.
Its high mountains are the pillars of the sky.
Its valley lakes are mandala circles of turquoise.

Its white glaciers are like chörtens made of crystal.
Its yellow meadows like heaps of gold,
are filled with the incense of sweet-smelling herbs,
streaked with golden flowers of gold, and in summer flowers of turquoise.

Oh lord of the glacier mountains Chenrezi,
this land is a field for your compassion
and standing in this field we are the objects of your compassion.
Oh lord of the glacier mountains …

And this song is nothing unusual. The
Mani Kambum is a huge collection of stories about the origins of the Tibetan people together with ritual practices for developing compassion. It is supposed to come from the time of Songtsen Gampo who ruled in the first half of the 7th century, although it surfaced in the 11th. We could also point to the highly literary Clear Mirror of Royal Genealogy of the 14th century. I ought to translate for you Sakya Pandita's Praise to the Land of Tibet written in or close to the year 1200 CE, if I only had more faith in my ability to turn his highly ornate poetry into readable English. In short, Nirupa's patriotic poem doesn't stand alone. And I for one refuse to resort to the trick of saying it can't really involve nationalism with all the necessary characteristics (evidently worked out somewhere in 18th-century Europe), and it therefore has to be called proto-nationalism. I just call it nationalism.

The Dalai Lama is also believed by Buddhist Tibetans to be a miraculous manifestation of Chenrezi. Even modernizing Tibetans who may not accept the Buddhist ideas in their entirety see Him as Tibet's only hope; and this includes Marxists and party members so long as no one important is watching them. Give them a photo of His Holiness (which is against the law these days in Tibet) and they will reverently place it on the tops of their heads. Indeed, there is no other national symbol that is even remotely this capable of uniting Tibetan hearts.

Every year on March 10, His Holiness makes a statement to the Tibetan people, in which He generally expresses the very pragmatic position that He will not fall back on historical discussions about the past, but is thinking about the future happiness of all the Tibetan people. In recent years He has increasingly said that Tibetans should, disregarding history, find some way to appreciate the benefits of being part of China. The hope is that things will work out in favor of Tibetan survival if they could only be given a degree of self-governance in matters of culture, language, religion and education. (And please don't be misled for a moment by the word 'autonomous' in 'Tibet Autonomous Region.' Like the autonomous okrugs in the former Soviet Union, this 'autonomous' denotes a nearly complete lack of local autonomy with all significant decisions made by the faraway central authorities.) In this year's speech — which, even given the considerable difference of populations, might be compared with the State of the Union Address by the U.S. president — He emphasized the threat to Tibetan cultural survival posed by the massive Chinese immigration made yet more possible, if not inevitable, by the recently opened railway to Lhasa.

And of course every year, in days following on the heels of March 10th, some PRC representative puts out a response for the media. Let's have a look at what Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang had to say this year, as Zee News reported from Beijing on March 13th:

"We hope the Dalai Lama can face up to history and make right judgement according to the times and review his basic political propositions so as to make right actions so as to do more things that are conducive to the Tibetan people in his life," Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang said. Gang was responding to comments made by the Dalai Lama on Saturday on the occasion of the 48th anniversary of the Tibetan "uprising" against Chinese rule, where he criticised the railway line to Tibet. "The Dalai Lama [has] been on exile abroad, engaging in activities undermining the unity of the motherland," he said on the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

This is a typical response, not in its relative mildness, but in the sense that it assumes that His Holiness means exactly the opposite of what He actually says. Talk about bad faith! Since the Dalai Lama always says He's not going to talk about history, they demand that He "face up to history," which indeed was never His approach. His Holiness asks for the minimum amount of cultural autonomy that would allow Tibetan survival into the future and the PRC government comes back accusing Him of what is, evidently, supposed to be a cardinal sin: advocating separatism, or advocating "disguised independence."

I won't pretend that what I as a historian of Tibet have to say will make any difference in the maddeningly ongoing impasse in Sino-Tibetan relations. Historians are accustomed to being ignored, since what they say is often inconvenient. I would just like to start by focusing on the word 'motherland' and then take the route His Holiness does not take, and look at history. Nowhere in all of Tibetan-composed historical sources before the 1950's have I ever encountered the term 'motherland' (
ma-yul is the Tibetan that appears in official PRC publications since the 1950's). What you do find, but then rarely, is the word 'fatherland' (pha-yul) and when this term does occur it means Tibet (there are instances of it in what may be the oldest Tibetan historical work known as the Bazhed [Sba-bzhed]). Never in all of these historical sources do you find any word at all that brings Chinese and the Tibetans under a single ethnonym or as part of a single state entity. China is called Gyanag (Rgya-nag), while Tibet is called Bö (Bod). Chinese used to be called Gyanagpa, but nowadays Gyami (Rgya-mi) has become standard. Tibetans are called Bödpa. It really is as simple as that.

Of course it is interesting and worthy of note that even though Gyanag was the ordinary word for 'China' for so many centuries, sometime in the 1960's it was, in the PRC only, officially replaced in Tibetan-language publications with Megyal (Mes-rgyal, 'ancestral country'), a neologism intended to find a name that could be made to include Tibet within China. Of course this official attempt at logo-therapy had little if any effect on the way Tibetans still speak among themselves about China and Chinese. It has had an effect on public speaking and on modern writings in Tibetan emanating from the PRC. (For more on this, see the Tsering Shakya history, pp. 296-7.)

There is a lot of discussion in traditional Tibetan sources about the reasons for the Tibetan words for India and China. The name for India is Gyagar (Rgya-gar), which seems to mean 'white expanse' (*Rgya-dkar) while Gyanag means 'black expanse.' There are a lot of opinions, but I believe the most likely one is just that most Indians wear white clothes, while the color of traditional Chinese clothes was predominantly black (white being reserved for funerals). If we look back again at the late 13th-century history by Khepa Deu already mentioned, it has an interesting list of "Thirty Topics," a kind of ethnographic checklist of the countries surrounding Tibet. It would be quite complicated to do a thorough study of each of the items included, and this is not the place for it, so I will just mention a few relevant things about it. The basic geographic scheme of the 'Four Great Kings" was already in place centuries before Khepa Deu, as we may know from a pre-11th-century Dunhuang document (studied by Macdonald). To follow Khepa Deu, who names a still-unidentified earlier history as his source, the four kingdoms are: [1] The kingdom of India in the south, with its king the King of Buddhism, [2] The kingdom of China in the east with its King of Tsuglag (Astro-sciences), [3] Tazig in the west with its King of Property, and [4] Gesar in the north with its King of Warfare. Skipping over all the topics in between (clothing, food, armor, weapons, ornaments, language, origins, etc.) we come to the posture each of these countries takes towards Tibet. The kingdom of India is coiled up like a snake, China is sneaky like the wolf toward the sheep, Tazig is scouting like the gulping hawk, while Gesar is eager as the axe for the tree.

A few decades ago PRC sources would commonly say 'Tibet has always been a part of China,' or what is not quite so baldly propagandistic, that it has been part of China since the Tang Dynasty, when more than one Tibetan Emperor received brides from the Chinese imperial family. A certain amount of noise has been made recently about Hong Kong Professor Ge Jianxiong's article showing that Tibet was not part of China during the Tang Dynasty. The proverbial 'too little too late,' I am thinking he will not get into any trouble over this from the powers-that-be in the PRC. One reason is because Hong Kongers are still allowed a degree of latitude on such matters, but mostly because they have long ago retreated from making this kind of statement. For an English translation of a part of Prof. Ge's article, see

On this and other points of Sino-Tibetan historical relations, I would like to quote at length from a letter to the editor of
The New York Times by one of the world's top Tibetologists, Matthew Kapstein, published on February 19, 1994:

""Pan Xinliang, managing director of China Travel Service, writes (letter, Feb. 5) that Tibet "became part of China during the Tang Dynasty between A.D. 618 and 907." This is incorrect. Neither the two versions of the official Tang Dynasty history, the "Tangshu," nor available Tibetan histories, nor such surviving documents as the A.D. 821-822 Chinese-Tibetan bilingual treaty refer to relations between the two countries except in terms of mutually recognized independence. Far from becoming part of China, Tibet even invaded the Tang capital, now Xian, in 763. Not even in China do responsible historians repeat this error any longer. The most extensive and up-to-date history of Tibet published under Chinese auspices so far, a three-volume 1989 work from the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, refers to the Tang period China-Tibet connection as "a relation of friendship and equality." Further, it is generally agreed that China had no authority in Tibet during the Song Dynasty (10th to 13th centuries) and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), or between 1912 and 1951. That leaves the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368) and the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), during most of whose rule, all parties concur, Tibet at least nominally acknowledged the authority of China's rulers.""

The words "nominally acknowledged the authority" were of course chosen with care and ought to be read with equal care. If Chinese ownership of Tibet could be asserted on the basis of the Mongol Empire, then this would also prove that Baghdad and Budapest were, and therefore ought to be, under Chinese ownership. Matters may be different during the Qing Dynasty, but here again it was an ethnically non-Chinese ruling dynasty. Although Manchu interests were asserted rather aggressively within Tibet in the early decades of the 18th century, by the beginning of 19th the Manchus, while they might have had the will, lacked the economic and military clout to force Tibetan compliance. The Ambans who resided in Tibet during these times had influence, no doubt, rather like diplomats of foreign powers may influence any country, but they had no part in the ruling or legislative structures. At best they could recommend. Even during the Qianlong Emperor's reign, sometimes considered the height of Manchu interest in Tibet, we see that 'golden edicts' which, one might think, ought to have carried the force of law (like one commanding that Tibetans follow Chinese burial practices), appear to have gone unnoticed in Lhasa by everyone except the Ambans.

His Holiness will probably go on to leave history out of the discussion even as Beijing will continue insisting on its Sinocentric, political-revisionist, propagandistic versions of the history of Sino-Tibetan relations. And most of the rest of us will continue knowing one thing that we have known all along, which is that the troops of the People's Liberation Army were the ones responsible for Tibet becoming part of China. This happened five decades ago. The occupation continues. Coercion in matters of religion, language, culture and conscience continues. And the threat of population transference is as great as ever. Some call it cultural genocide, and with reason. Just look at what has happened to Manchuria and Inner Mongolia since the collapse of the Willow Palisades. It really is high time to face up to history.

Further reading:

For the unexpurgated story of Korchung & Kor Nirupa read, George Roerich & Gendun Choepel, trs., The Blue Annals, Motilal Banarsidass (Delhi 1949/1976), pp. 849-55. Parts of this story are retold in Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, Princeton University Press (Princeton 1994), pp. 97-99.

On the 'to' rituals like the one performed by Korchung's father, see Lin Shen-Yu, Tibetan Magic for Daily Life: Mi pham's Texts on Gto-Rituals, Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie, vol. 15 (2005), pp. 107-125.

For the history by Khepa Deu, see Mkhas-pa Lde'u, Rgya Bod-kyi Chos-'byung Rgyas-pa, Bod-ljongs Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Lhasa 1987). This history was composed in the years following 1261.

The source of Zhuchen's song is: Zhu-chen Tshul-khrims-rin-chen (1697—1774), Sde-dge'i Bstan-'gyur-gyi Dkar-chag, Trayang & Jamyang Samten (Delhi 1974), vol. 2, p. 12. This is a modern reprinting of a woodblock print that was made in Derge in eastern Tibet.

For an English translation of The Clear Mirror of Royal Genealogy, see Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen, The Clear Mirror: A Traditional Account of Tibet's Golden Age, tr. by McComas Taylor and Lama Choedak Yuthok, Snow Lion Publications (Ithaca 1996), and notice especially pp. 144-5, where we find echoes of both an earlier Dunhuang document and the later song of Zhuchen, except that here the verses in praise of Tibet are placed in the mouth of the Chinese Emperor, who is about to send his daughter off to marry Songtsen Gampo.

On PRC attempts to change the Tibetan words for China and Chinese, see Tsering Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows, Columbia University Press (New York 1999).

For a study of the Tibetan Dunhuang document with its geography of the four kingdoms surrounding Tibet, see Ariane Macdonald, Note sur la diffusion de la "Theorie des quatres fils du ciel" au Tibet, Journal Asiatique, vol. 250 (1962), pp. 531-48.

For an English translation of a part of Fudan University history professor Ge Jianxiong's (b. 1945) article on Sino-Tibetan relations, see this link.

Elliot Sperling, The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics, East-West Center (Washington 2004). This may also be available for internet download.

On the train, see the commentary by Woeser at the Himal website.

''The Swayambhu'' The Hilltop Of The Self-existent Lord - video powered by Metacafe

Friday, March 09, 2007

Who Was That White Lama?

"Who, in India, has not heard of the Banda-Chan Ramboutchi, the Houtouktou of the capital of Higher Thibet? His brotherhood of Khe-lan was famous throughout the land; and one of the most famous 'brothers' was a Peh-ling (an Englishman) who had arrived one day during the early part of this century, from the West, a thorough Buddhist, and after a month's preparation was admitted among the Khe-lans. He spoke every language, including the Thibetan, and knew every art and science, says the tradition. His sanctity and the phenomena produced by him caused him to be proclaimed a shaberon after a residence of but a few years. His memory lives to the present day among the Thibetans, but his real name is a secret with the shaberons alone."

— H.P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled.

Sometimes it looks as if the 'Tibetan' (?) words used in Madame Blavatsky's works were first pronounced in a northeastern dialect, transcribed in Mongolian, then Russian, and finally spelled according French ideas about phonetics. Banda-Chan Ramboutchi is of course the Panchen Lama (Ramboutchi being Rinpoche). Peh-ling (phyi-gling, 'outer continent') is a normal word for 'foreigners' of the less familiar kind. I was especially curious what 'shaberon' means (from the appearance, it ought to be Mongolian, like 'Houtouktou,' more often spelled Huthugtu or Hutuktu, most certainly is). An official Theosophical Society webpage gives the following explanation:

"Shaberon zhabs dpad blon (shab-pe-lon) (Tibetan) [from zhabs dpad lotus feet cf Sanskrit padmapada a title of respect + blon, blon po officer, minister] Exalted officer; often the head of a Tibetan monastery. The Shaberons are mentioned as occasionally possessing wonderful powers, but are not necessarily tulkus of the Buddha (as the Dalai Lama and Tashi Lama are generally believed to be)..."

The Shabpé (Zhabs-pad... this, not Zhabs-dpad, is the correct spelling) is a common official title meaning a member of the Kashag (Bka'-shag), although it literally means 'lotus feet.' I haven't any idea that it is ever combined with Lonpo (Blon-po), which means 'minister' (of state). I think this Tibetanizing understanding is a forced one, and therefore unconvincing. Both Zhabpé and Lonpo are terms for secular political functionaries, not persons of any particular spiritual standing, most certainly not the head of a monastery (the common word for 'abbot' is Khenpo — Mkhan-po).

Theosophical webpage, apparently independent of the first, gives this explanation, which seems more likely, although I cannot understand what reasons they have for thinking it is a Tibetan word:

"Shaberon (Tib.). The Mongolian Shaberon or Khubilgan (or Khubilkhans) are the reincarnations of Buddha, according to the Lamaists; great Saints and Avatars, so to say."

And I was unable for the life of me to figure out what the name of that mysterious brotherhood, Khe-lan (or Khe-lang), ought to be in Tibetan. We are led to believe that their existence would have been a secret to almost all Tibetans. Another passage in Blavatsky's Modern Panarion offers some more helpful (?) clues about them:

"But the two are even more closely related to a third and far more mysterious community of religionists, of which nothing or next to nothing is known by outsiders: we mean that fraternity of Tibetan Lamaists, known as the Brotherhood of Khe-lang, who mix but little with the rest. Even Csoma de Körös, who passed several years with the Lamas, learned hardly more of the religion of these Chakravartins (wheel-turners) than what they chose to let him know of their exoteric rites, and of the Khe-langs he learned positively nothing."

Lucky for science, I had the presence of mind to consult with my friend Vladus. He solved the problems of Shaberon and Khe-lang with ease. According to what he told me, Khe-lang must be Khas-len (or its past form Khas-blangs). It just means someone who makes (or has made) a promise or vow. Of course its mysterious nature remains, since Tibetology doesn't know about any group with this name. Shaberon has to be Zhabs-drung (pronounced in Central Tibetan something like Shabdrung). Vladus sent me a quotation from a famous book by the Russian Mongolianist Pozdneev, Sketches of the Life of Buddhist Monasteries and Clergy in Mongolia. (This book was translated into English and published by the Mongolia Society in Bloomington, Indiana, although I don't have it on hand.) On page 249 of the original 1887 Russian edition, it says:

"What concerns the young hubilgans [= Tib. sprul-sku] they do not bear any titles in their first, second and even third reincarnation; moreover, they are rarely even called the "hubilgans", but more often they are known by the name 'shabron' which really means 'a young hubilgan'."
Of course, there may be some other philological problems to be worked out (the confusion of -n and -ng endings always occurs when Tibetan words move northward into Mongolia, and from there into Russia), but what this says is that, at least in the areas north-northeast of the Tibetan plateau in recent centuries, there is an idea that reincarnate Lamas in their 2nd and 3rd rebirths ought to have a lesser title, and that title is Zhabs-drung (a word literally meaning 'in front of the [honorific] feet,' that, in its origins, denotes a subordinate status). (The Shabdrung Incarnate of Bhutan is probably the best known by this name, but mentioning him only seems to complicate matters unnecessarily... especially since the current Bhutanese Shabdrung is the 10th incarnation. Bhutan is a long way from Mongolia.)

But perhaps the biggest puzzle of all, Who might that very knowledgeable Buddhist Englishman, who came to Shigatsé in the early part of the 19th century, have been? I haven't the slightest idea. By now you may be getting the idea that this blog is meant to expose my lack of knowledge much more than my knowledge, and there may be something to that. But I'm hoping that some of you will feel inclined to help me out with some of these puzzles by posting your comments. It really is not difficult, although you may have to type in some weirdly shaped letters and wait for a day or two until it appears in the blog. Unless you are selling something or trying to be offensive without any reason, you can be sure your comments will be posted. No need to reveal your identity if you don't want to.

Years ago, in the '70's, I was studying Tibetan with a Tibet-born Lama in North America. His identity doesn't matter much, and I'd rather not expose it at the moment. Most of us probably think of filing things away in folders as a very basic clerical skill. (Secretaries in old Tibet would fold and refold the documents until they became stick-shaped and then hang them from the ceiling with strings...) After the Lama had lost some irreplaceable documents, I rather unmeekly suggested to him that he make use of the filing cabinet he already had by getting some file folders to put in it. I explained that he could write in the tabs of the folders something, in any language he might prefer, that would say what was inside, and so forth and so on. He did get some folders, but I believe he never actually used them. I only tell this story because in the middle of my filing lecture he started making fun of me for collecting all kinds of useless papers, but then he added, with only a slight air of regret, "I once had a lot of papers about the White Lama, but I just threw them all away." I of course wanted to know whom he meant by "White Lama," but he didn't want to go into the matter any further and I just let it drop. Now I wonder, Who was that White Lama?

It probably doesn't help us in our quest, but it is curious to see that there was an English Jew named Maurice Vidal Portman who founded in 1882 an order called "Grand Lamaistic Order of Light." The group also had a Latin name, "Fratres Lucis." However, they seemed to be largely inspired by Qabala and Masonry, while their altar was devoted to Mahadeva (Sanskrit for 'Great God,' it's surely an epithet of Shiva, hardly a favorite among Tibetan Buddhists). Everything I know about this "Lamaistic" group is what I read in in volume 1, pp. 543-4, of a curious book by Lady Queenborough (
Edith Starr Miller) entitled Occult Theocrasy, "published posthumously for private circulation only," printed in France for I.S. Susenberg (New York City 1931 or 1933?). Aside from the name there would seem to be no connection to Tibet whatsoever. We would no doubt be barking up the wrong tree in pursuit of the real White Lama here, in England, after all. According to the book their headquarters is "still" at Bradford, Yorkshire.

Being a White Lama isn't quite as special as it once was. There are now many westerners (and yes, Malaysians, Australians, Lebanese, etc.) willing and eager to dress up as Lamas. You can find plenty of evidence for this phenomenon in internet Dharma sites;
here for example (I ought to emphasize that my providing this link is not an endorsement). In recent years the shops in Kathmandu have helped matters greatly by making extremely colorful brocade Lama hats available at affordable prices for anyone who walks through the door. If you need a hat to mark yourself as a supreme head of this or that hierarchy, the terms are simple: cash and carry. With or without the traditional authority, wearing one of these hats will certainly lend a sense of authority among the good people back home in Wichita. But let's leave this line of thought and try to think back to simpler times.

I hardly read comic books as a child, but not because of not wanting to. It happened that a few times I had the chance to borrow some from a neighbor kid. I didn't know there was a comic book series entitled "White Lama."

But I believe these comic books were composed during the eighties, so they didn't exist yet. It's true, there was a Green Lama comic book from way back in 1944:

Once I was wasting time tossing through a big university library when I came across something I thought quite remarkable, perhaps the answer to my big question. An old periodical called Open Court, vol. 26 (February 1912) had an article by Paul Carus entitled "A Buddhist Prelate of California," and it included something by one S[wami] Mazziniananda entitled "Order of the Buddhist High Mass, with Music." I once had a photocopy of this, but seem to have lost it. Perhaps I'm not all that great at filing away useless things after all. If I remember correctly, Mazziniananda is here referred to as White Lama.

Amazingly little seems to be known about this fascinating character Swami Mazziniananda. Even his name is an interesting problem. In 1930, The San Francisco Chronicle had a piece on him which said:

"E. Leodi Ahmed Mazziniananda, bishop of the American Buddhist Church of Dharma, with headquarters at 1245 Market St. in San Francisco, is 104 years old and expects to live many more years. The bishop was educated by the Dalai Lama in Tibet and claims that people there sometimes live 150 years. He has smoked for 87 years and thinks Prohibition is foolish."

What's not to like about him?

Staying in Oakland California, he was billed as PASTOR, REV. SRI BISHOP MAZZINIANANDA MAHA THEKO, M.A., M.D., PH.D., D.SCI. LIT. Count them, four religious titles at the beginning (plus the Maha Theko at the end making a total of 5 religious titles) and five academic titles at the end. What's not to trust about this guy? He evidently gave periodic lectures on spiritual astronomy. The following appeared in the Oakland Tribune in around 1930:

"Bishop Sri Mazziniananda, oldest Buddhist priest in the world, graduate of Oxford and Asiatic and European universities with high honors, for years a student of occult science and a self-styled protégé of the reputed mystics of the Himalaya monasteries in Tibet, came forward today with the remarkable assertion that he has made four visits to the red planet which tonight and tomorrow will be closest to earth it will come in many decades."

But alas! Unexpected even by himself, he seems to have passed into the beyond very soon after these stories were written. Time Magazine, December 21, 1931 carried his obituary:

"Died. Dr. Sri Leodi Ahmed Mazzini-ananda, 106, Bishop of the American Buddhist Church of Dharma, friend of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with whose spirit he tried to communicate in July 1930; in Oakland, Calif."

At first I thought he might have been an Armenian, but I changed my mind. I've been able to find out no more about him than what I've put here already. It's interesting to think about his name in its various forms. Ignoring the titles and abbreviations for the moment, and starting with the name in the obituary, we may see that it is a truly enviable combination of Gaelic, Arabic, Italian, and Sanskrit, and in that order. It seems quite likely that the "Mazzini" segment of his name was taken from Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), a well-known Italian political exile and for some time a member of the secretive society called the Carbonari. If you think it odd that the Sanskrit word for 'bliss' should be attached to the name of a political revolutionary (with doubled 'z's that don't exist, not even singly, in Sanskrit), you are not alone.

But just as the comic book hero is too recent to be the Lama's White Lama, Mazziniananda would seem to be too early, the more I think about it. I haven't heard that there was any society to carry on the venerable Swami's work there in California, so why would people be writing to the Lama about him decades after his death? Does anyone even know his original name or place of origins?

Who was that white lama? Now thanks to the power of the internet search engine, I believe I've found my answer to the puzzle. See
this link

But hell, I'm not sure even this is all that sure.

Read more:

Martin Brauen, Traumwelt Tibet. Westliche Trugbilder, Paul Haupt (Bern 2000), now available in English translation. Try doing a web search for it if you want.

Hugh Urban, The Omnipotent Oom: Tantra and Its Impact on Modern Western Esotericism, Esoterica: The Journal of Esoteric Studies, vol. 3 (2001), pp. 218-259. This is about Pierre Bernard, Theos Bernard's uncle. Available online HERE.

Theos Bernard (1908-1947) — You can find brief biographies here and here.
A Simplified Grammar of the Literary Tibetan Language, Tibetan Text Society (Santa Barbara 1946).
An American in Lhasa, Asia and the Americas Magazine (=Asia Magazine), vol. 39 (1939), pp. 139-147.

Heaven Lies Within Us (New York 1939) 326 pp.

I Became a Lama, Asia Magazine, vol. 39 (1939), pp. 206-11.

Land of a Thousand Buddhas: A Pilgrimage into the Heart of Tibet and the Sacred City of Lhasa, Rider (London 1940) 320 pp. 

The Peril of Tibet, Asia Magazine, vol. 39 (1939), pp. 500-4.

James Cooper, Theos Bernard: Fact & Fiction, Tibetan Review (Delhi), vol. 21, no. 4 (April 1986), pp. 11-15.

§  §  §

Added Note:  Since writing this blog, issues of The Open Court with articles on Mazziniananda have been archived on the internet.  Including "Order of the Buddhist High Mass (Pontifical): As Celebrated in the Great So Monastery of the Dalai Lama's Palace at Llhassa, Tibet, and at the Monasteries of Himis and Leh in Ladak, Tibet."   Try pressing HERE.

"Yes I have been in Llhassa. I was taken there in 1835 as a little child destined for the life work I craved from my cradle, that of the life of a monk in the service of Our Lord Buddha, as it was for this holy purpose I returned to the Earth plane, my previous work not being completed. I remained studying at the feet of the Holy One there, the late Dalai Lama, until 1853 — 18 long years in the seclusion of the Himalayas, and was received into the Holy Sangho in 1847 at the age of 20, and was made a priest. I continued my priestly duties till the early part of 1853 when in company with three other monks, two Russians and a Tibetan (since gone to the higher expression of life) I started for India preaching and spreading the Dharma."

Let me see.  He got to Lhasa in 1835.  That would have been two years before the death of the 10th Dalai Lama, and three years before the birth of the 11th.  1853 was two years before the death of the 11th Dalai Lama...

He says he was born in Isfahan, Persia, and his mother, a Benares-born Bengali, was living in England when he left Tibet the first time (he went there twice, for a total of about 30 years, he says).  I'm still trying to work out both the geography and the math, but it all seems rather plausible, doesn't it?  

Well, except him saying he's a "poor Jain monk."  Oh, and his Buddhist Mass as performed in Llhassa, includes some distinctively Japanese (Nam myoho renge kyo), Pali and Hindu elements (among the latter we can identify the Gayatri Mantra and verses from the Rig Veda), and no visible residue of 'Tibet' with the single exception of the Six Syllable Mantra.  The elements at the beginning:  the Refuge and Precepts and the Ye-dharma and  the Three Characteristics are genuinely Buddhist in origin.  Their translations are poor, sometimes completely off the mark, but the passages are real enough.  It's in the later parts where you find out that the ritual is addressed to God who is "the cause of the universe" and "Creator."  This will be fascinating news for Buddhists everywhere.

Some might enjoy puzzling their heads over this Buddhist Hymnal, also.
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