Thursday, February 07, 2008

Happy New Year (This time it's for real!)

A Tibetan friend just sent me this very nice digital eCard for the Tibetan holiday known as Losar. Losar (lo-gsar or ལོ་གསར་ if you prefer) means Year New.* 

(I assume the eCard isn't under any copyright, but in any case its use in this blog is entirely non-commercial.)
(*unmarked adjectives come after their nouns, not before like in English. Where in English you say
white house, in Tibetan you say house white. Get used to it.)

Sending Losar greeting cards is a new custom, unknown to traditional Tibet. So Losar eCards are needless to say much newer still. The absence of cards and eCards was no great loss back then. Believe me, there was plenty to do with family and friends living close by.

Today's (technically last night's) new moon begins the Earth Mouse year. In 1027 CE Tibet had its first rabjung (
rab-byung or རབ་འབྱུང་) year. Well, the first year of the Jovian sixty-year cycle is called the rabjung year, a direct translation of Sanskrit prabhava. Tibetans use the name of the first year of the Jovian cycle for the entire set of sixty years as well. These Jovian cycles themselves are numbered. I would like to point out an interesting thing in the first line of the eCard. The first three syllables mean "Tibetan Royal Era year" followed by the number 2135,* then the four following syllables,་that mean "rabjung mountain moon," followed by a genitive ending, and the last four syllables of the first line, "earth mouse sky-year."
(*Tibetan numbers look a little different from Arabic and Indian forms of the numbers, but work in just the same way. It has become customary in recent times to give the Royal year. But let's try and be real for a moment. Traditional chronologies are by no means in agreement about when the first Emperor ruled Tibet. Modern historians see little use in giving an entirely dubious numeric value to this event.)

Now I can hear you saying, What the heck is this mountain moon about? Well, interesting that you ask, grasshopper. At least since the 10th century (if not as appears likely much earlier) when the Kalacakra ('Wheel of Time') Tantra made its debut in India, there has been a custom, mainly in works on calculation and chronology, to use words in place of numbers. I call them numeric code-words. Mountain means 7. Why? Because there are 7 circles of mountains in traditional Abhidharma cosmology. Moon means 1. That's because the earth only has one moon. (Clearly, the system was not invented on Jupiter.) Why were code-words used instead of numbers? I don't know. It was an Indian tradition that Tibetans kept on following.

But then that would seem to translate into the number '71', wouldn't it? Wrong! When you make use of numeric code-words, the numbers are always (and I mean always) read from right to left. Mountain moon means 17. And why 17? you're thinking.

Ah! We are now in the 17th rabjung. Let's see. Well, the first rabjung started with the rabjung year, or Earth Hare year, that corresponds to 1027.* A lot happened in that year. Naropa is said to have died in India. The Kadampa teacher Potowa was born... But most relevant for us right now is the fact that the Kalacakra tantra was for the very first time translated, together with its most important commentary named Vimalaprabha, from Sanskrit into Tibetan language.
(*Csoma de Kőrös, a Hungarian traveler-scholar who is sometimes called the first Tibetologist, thought the first year of the first rabjung had begun in the year 1026. That's why for a few generations after him Tibetan dates when 'translated' were off by one year. Of course, even today Tibetan dates, when translated, may well be a year off because people fail to take into account the only partial overlap between the 'years' of the two calendrical systems.)

Herein lies a mystery. The number 60 is very important in Kalacakra. Kalacakra time measurement includes not only 60-year cycles, but there are actually 60 hours in a day. Uh huh, right, that means Kalacakra hours were only 24 minutes long, just enough for the TV sitcom after subtracting the time taken up by commercials; but yes, due to the degeneration of time, by now that might be more like 15 minutes for the commercials.

The Kalacakra itself lists Sanskrit names for each of the 60 years in the cycle. It does *not* name them for the animals and elements as Tibetans do. The truth is that Tibetans (just like their neighbors) most usually made use of the simpler 12-year animal cycle of years already in the middle of the 7th century or so. It might seem that they adjusted their customary 12-year cycle to conform with the Kalacakra by combining the 12 animals with the 5 elements. (But this would not be true. In fact, the earliest known use of a Jovian cycle or "sexagenary" date in Tibetan would be the Iron Ox year in the Sino-Tibetan Peace Treaty of 821-822 CE; see Uray's article for more about this.) The five elements were, perhaps surprising to some, not the five elements as known to the Greeks and Indians: earth, water, fire, air, ether. Instead, they used the five elements as known to China: fire, earth, iron, water, wood. When combined with the 12 animals, each element is repeated twice.

To illustrate this last point, the first year of the rabjung is the Fire Hare. The years that follow the Fire Hare are, in order: Earth Dragon, Earth Snake, Iron Horse, Iron Sheep, Water Monkey, Water Hen, Wood Dog, Wood Pig, Fire Mouse, Fire Ox, Earth Tiger, Earth Hare... You get the idea, I guess and hope. (You might have noticed that I've ignored the minor complication of the gender elements here.)

This year is 2008 CE, so 981 years have passed since 1027 CE. 981 divided by 60 equals 16.35, which puts us well into the 17th set of 60. In fact we are now entering into the 22nd year of the 17th rabjung, which started about this time of year in 1987 CE. The Sanskritic name of this year, according to the Kalacakra system, is Sarvadharin, which is Kun-'dzin when translated into Tibetan. It means Holder of All, which might be considered as an epithet of Shiva. Tibetans hardly ever make use of these Sanskritic year names, although they are sometimes encountered in the colophons of Tibetan books.

Now whether I've bored you to tears, or not, with all those numbers and calculations, I feel like I should say something about what I think Losar means to Tibetans. That's truly difficult, but why not give it a try... I'd say that if you know what Christmas means to most North Americans of Christian background, then you might start to understand just how important Losar is to Tibetans. Of course, the Tibetan observances are very much different. There is no Christmas tree with bulbs and tinsel, and wrapped gifts beneath. Still, the stacks of Kabtsé* on the altar along with the pot of freshly growing grass and the sheep's head made of porcelain mean every bit as much to the Tibetan soul as the Christmas tree to most Christians. Family. Togetherness. Warmth. Prosperity. Abundance. Food. Fun. All that and more.
A stack of Kabtse
(*Kabtsé is a kind of deep-fried bread, twisted into various pretzel-like shapes. The stacked-up plates, called derkha [sder-kha or སྡེར་ཁ་] are usually further decorated with colorful objects, especially hard candies, which adds to the 'Christmas tree' illusion. One of my favorite fried bread shapes is the bongui amchog (bong-bu'i a-mchog or བོང་བུའི་ཨ་མཆོག), a name that translates as 'donkey ears.' These make me think of Haman's ears, eaten during the Israeli (and Jewish) holiday of Purim. Well, differences aside, at least it is another kind of pastry 'ear' eaten during a particular festivity.
A Hamantashen

The object depicted in the eCard is called the Droso Chemar (gro so phye mar). It is a box (called a bo ['bo]) with a wooden divider in the center, and two wooden 'tags', one sticking up on each side. Both sides are filled to overflowing (perhaps overly clearly symbolizing or demonstrating abundance). If you visit a Tibetan friend on Losar, which I hope you will, you might be immediately invited to take from the box a pinch of chemar (phye mar), that means a slightly buttered flour (I think some people add sugar), which you toss in the air and shout Tashi Deleg! (bkra-shis bde-legs), a phrase you will probably hear a lot during the days of Losar, and not all that much in other parts of the year. You'll also almost certainly be offered a beaker or bowl of chang (chang), a bittersweet beer traditional to Tibet since the beginning of time, which when good, as it often is, has a slight lemony taste that lingers on your tongue. The beer vessel and your beaker will both be decorated with a generous dab of butter, which as you all know from experience is a symbol of wealth and nourishment, even if you like me should be doing your best to eliminate it from your diet. Don't be surprised if you discover big white splatches of chemar all over your clothing. It happens. This is a very good thing.

I don't want to speak too much about the gambling and drinking and partying that goes on, and on, starting on the second day of Losar. Or too much about other things both seriously meaningful and fun, like dressing up in your best new clothes, hanging up strings of multicolored Wind Horse flags (
rlung-rta), feasting on 'Nine Soup' dumplings with special gifts hidden inside (dgu-thug),* visiting temples, burning juniper incense (bsang) on the mountainside, and the like. Did I mention dancing? Yes, I guess I did.
(*The hidden objects are omens for what will happen to the person who happens to get them during the following year, although they may not be taken entirely seriously, but all in good fun. Here are the objects according to my understanding: The person getting a dumpling containing paper will be bookish and good in school (or a victim of theft?); wood means being like a poor man walking with a stick (or lucky enough to travel); a pebble means a lifespan as lasting as diamond; salt is cleverness and fame; wool is for disease (or new clothing?); and cayenne pepper for a temperamental personality or a 'sharp tongue.' Charcoal of course means you will have 'dark thoughts.' Onion means you will have body odor. I guess that last one might be a result of eating it. There have to be nine. Did I miss something? Yes, I guess I did.)

Oh well, all that was just therapy for myself, isolated as I am in a place in the world without any Tibetan community. Please do send a comment to let me know how you celebrated Losar this year, and don't neglect to tell me and everyone else what it means to you. Correct my misunderstandings. This is one subject about which truly every single Tibetan is the ultimate expert, your best Tibetologist. Losar is something so good that it just keeps on going for many people. Although surely an exception, I met one Tibetan man who was still partying non-stop into the month of May. I'm thinking this was, is and would be just way too much of a good thing.

Read more!

Last year Phayul news site had a very nice article about Losar by Phayul correspondent Phurbu Thinley (Phur-bu-phrin-las), which you can find here.

I think this is certainly one of the the best things there is on the subject on the entire internet. Highly recommended. But see also Tsepak Rigzin's (Tshe-dpag-rig-'dzin) article "Losar" posted at Tibettalk. Or if like me you prefer to read it in print, try Tsepak Rigzin, Festivals of Tibet, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (Dharamsala 1993), pp. 1-8. For an account of Losar observances with real photographs from pre-invasion Tibet, including an unforgettable shot of a rope-sliding demonstration about to take place with the Potala as the backdrop, see Hugh Richardson, Ceremonies of the Lhasa Year, Serindia (London 1993), pp. 11-22.

For more examples of numeric code-words derived from the Kalacakra, look here. And thanks to the strange ways inherent in synchronicity and interdependent origination, on Wednesday, February 06, 2008, PSz of Thor-bu blog made a list of Sanskrit numeric code-words (go here and scroll down past the mysterious ruins until you get to them).

If just for fun you would like to hear somebody's idea about what your Tibetan birth-year means for your personality, etc., look here.*
(*Beware! Tibetan prognostics are often anything but reassuring.)

Here is a lovely little essay about Tibetan astroscience* by one of it's leading 20th-century practitioners, Professor Jampa Gyaltsen Dagthon (1939-1997).

(*Tibetan rtsis, which is translated 'astroscience', 
actually means 'calculation' in general, and includes 
mathematics, astrology and astronomy, among other matters.)

Here is a useful chart of the Tibetan and CE correspondences covering 1027 through 2046.

Géza Uray, ‘The Earliest Evidence of the Use of the Chinese Sexagenary Cycle in Tibetan.’ Contained in: Louis Ligeti, ed., Tibetan and Buddhist Studies Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Alexander Csoma de Körös, Akadémiai Kiadó (Budapest), pp. 341-360.

There are quite a few technical writings on astroscience (besides the article by Uray you see here), and its sub-branch of chronology. I'll list them for you some other time. There's a lion in my library that requires my immediate attention. Now where did I leave those tweezers?


  1. Hello Squire,

    An early example of a lo gsar greeting card was the one sent by Theos Bernard on the 15th February 1938 from New York to Walter Y. Evans-Wentz, who acted as an external examiner of Bernard's PhD thesis (Columbia University) in the same year. In his reference for TB's work, by the way, EW warns that if the thesis was published it should be circulated privately plus a "warning concerning the physical, mental and psychic dangers inseparable from certain yogic practices [described in the book]."
    Unfortunately, it seems this warning came too late for Theos himself.


  2. Great blog. However, I looked everywhere on the page for a RSS feed address and can't seem to see one. Am I missing it somewhere or don't you have one?

    By the way, Theos Bernard was certainly an intriguing character. His unfortunate end might serve as a warning to those who would rush in where wise mean fear to tread. Does anyone know of a biographical treatment of this guy? You could write a whole book about those who went off the deep end about Tibet: Theodore Ilion might make another interesting case study.

  3. Thanks Don. I understand someone (P.H.?) is working on a biography of Theos Bernard (1908-1947). I'm not sure, but wasn't his mistake to travel together with Muslim guides just at a time when Hindus were slaughtering them? I recommend reading Salman Rushdie's (b. 1947) book Midnight's Children. 1947 was a dangerous time to be alive in those parts.

    You're right that Theodore Illion (aka Burang, 1889-1984) would be a great subject for a biography, especially since I don't know of any. Notice how long he lived! This may be proof that the Tibetan medicine he promoted really does work. I have to confess I haven't read a single one of his books, although I started his book on Tibetan medicine (Tibetan Art of Healing), but was greatly underwhelmed by his level of knowledge on the subject.

    I only have the vaguest of ideas what an RSS feed is supposed to do, but OK the short answer is, No, I don't have one. Should I?

    Thanks for writing, and thanks, too, for writing *your* wonderful Mongolia blog. If I could figure out how to do it without mangling my out-of-date template, I'd add it to my links.


  4. An RSS feed automatically informs readers when you have made a new post. I think it is safe to say the majority of blog readers now rely on RSS. Since you use blogspot as a host setting up RSS is simple. Just go to the Settings/Site Feed page of your blog and fill in the details. It shouldn't take more than a minute. An RSS feed icon will then appear on your blog home page after you republish.

    I distinctly remember reading somewhere that Theos Bernard was killed by Tibetans who took exception to his claim that he was an reincarnation of Padmasambhava. I am still trying to track down that source. In the meantime, I was somewhat surprised to see the Bernard’s uncle was Pierre Bernard, a New York socialite who went by the name of Oom the Omnipotent. The whole Bernard saga seems to be a strange confluence of Country Club Republicans and Tibetan Lamas. Paul Hackett’s biography of Bernard should at least be entertaining.

    Perhaps Theodore Illion’s most bizarre book was "Darkness Over Tibet,” in which he claimed to have uncovered a sinister Tibetan cult which engaged in mass hynopsis and cannibalism. He no doubt invented the whole scenario; in any case his books have been promoted by some equally suspect characters, including Laura Knight-Jadczyk

  5. Dear Don,

    Oh my, there's a lot here to answer to. I'll see what I can do about the RSS thing & will let you know one way or another. No promises.

    I don't right away think of any good primary source on the death of Theos Bernard. In truth, there were rumors that he was still alive long after he was very probably not. Stories get retold to make them more interesting (or to make a cultural or political point), or at least that is one of the things historians have to struggle with (history isn't always all that sensational or even 'interesting,' in case anyone hasn't noticed). Lack of clear evidence (no body, no autopsy) leads to rampant speculation... to "what must have really happened" thinking that is somehow self-serving.

    Try searching the archives of the New York Times, like I just did (although it's very frustrating not to be able to see the full stories without paying for them, so I hesitate to send you in that direction). Maybe this link will work:

    I imagine P.H. will be using the archival materials kept by Columbia University. I'm sure what he comes up will be both informative and entertaining.

    You can easily schmoogle "Pierre Bernard" and/or "Omnipotent Oom" and come up with more, a lot of it sensationalist, often frivolously so, as were the newspaper stories about him in 1910 (see this page, "Fear of Yoga" The article by Hugh B. Urban is especially recommended. I think you can download it for free.

    I'm so badly informed about Illion, I shouldn't open my mouth on the subject, really. However, I was interested to see, in the link you sent, that he was part of the history of the hollow earth / underground cities complex. There is a nice and brief section (which does mention Illion briefly on p. 179: "The German explorer Ilion claimed to have visited an underground city in Tibet ruled by black magicians, although he could provide no proof that he had even visited Tibet.") about "Subterranean Worlds" where Karen Mutton (in her book that I've mentioned before Lobsang Rampa: New Age Trailblazer) sketches the history of such narratives. But I think she could be faulted for not taking the idea further back into literary history. (To be fair, her design overall is to find the more proximate sources for Rampa's claims.) After all Edmond Halley (after whom the comet is named) in 1692 already speculated about vast illuminated spaces inside the earth where beings might very well live. (To understand Halley better we [I mean I] would have to be much more familiar with theories of the earth's interior during his times, and how he fits in or interacts with them... As so often, ideas that are at least speculatively 'scientific' in their day go on to take on a life of their own, a strain of 'rejected knowledges' as we might want to call them. At least I think that explains that Bulwer-Lytton novel of 1870 all the way up to Matrix Reloaded in our day.

    Imagine an alternative academy that would accept all the theses rejected by the 'establishment' solely on the strength of their rejection. I'd like to reassure everyone that the theses (PhD proposals etc.) rejected by the universities are always actually deservedly rejected, but How could anyone be sure of that? But I certainly would not want to make a habit of accepting everything they rejected.

    Sorry, but I'm going off on the Gnosticism tangent again. But sometimes it's just so clear that the rejected idea, even if it was truly once-and-for-all proven false, held a lot more imaginative possibilities. (More fun possibilities?) Molten cores can't be so easily peopled with strange and imaginative beings, although I guess the Matrix movies find their way around it...

    We'll think more about these things, and try and get beneath the surface, so to speak. Thanks for writing.


  6. Thanks for your reply. You touched upon the “Subterranean World” mythologem, the most notorious purveyor of which was probably Ferdinand Ossendowski. See the latter part of Ferdinand Ossendowski and I Meet the Tushegoun Lama for more details.

  7. Hey Don,

    The RSS "feeding" thing seems to be there now in the right side of the URL slot. Is that where it's supposed to be? Was I successful? Now maybe you could help me put links on my sidebar!


  8. Gratifying to see that a casual mentioning of Theos the Weird let to a number of interesting pieces of information.
    First of all, I as a long-standing opponent of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh wholeheartedly support the introduction of an RSS feed. Judging from the views expressed in their political agenda it seems many of their members have been suffering from malnutrition since long.

    Secondly, as the unknown circumstances of Theos' passing have been brought up, I have been thinking (this is a truely red herring) about all the Westerners who found a violent end in the region. It is an interesting question how incidents of this kind entered local Tibetan folklore. When Theos was murdered (?) this must have been quite a widely circulated news item, no? I can only provide two other examples, that of Dr. Albert Shelton, murdered in 1922 in Khams, who I think is remembered by the local Tibetans today. The other man was the French traveller J. L. Dutreil de Rhins, who was killed in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands in 1896. The circumstances of his murder entered local history, and were still told much later, e.g. by Dezhung Rinpoche (1906-1987, who was from the sGa pa district in Khams) to Hugh Richardson, presumably when the latter was a visiting professor in Seattle in the 1970s (?).

  9. Oh my, helpless as I am with such technical stuff, I somehow managed to dig into my template deeply enough to put up dozens of links on my sidebar this morning. Now I think I'd better go shave and get to work.

  10. THe RSS feed is working fine, thanks. One addendum to your own post: My own treatment of Csoma de Koros.

  11. We thank you for your RSS Feed. You are now being monitored by the Fourth Density Aghartian Consortium.

  12. Dear Anon.,

    I guess that means the Federal Data Access Centre, of Canada? I'll make a note of it on the Akashik Record.



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