Thursday, February 21, 2008

Storming Satan's Citadel? Huh?

In the comments to my last posting there was discussion about Europeans and Americans who died awful or tragic deaths in Tibetan territories. Among the names mentioned was that famous Hoosier Albert Leroy Shelton (1875-1922). He was perhaps the first North American to stay for any time in Tibet. I was a little surprised to hear his name in this context, since he was not an explorer. He was a missionary. I have to confess that, although by Middle School I was thoroughly addicted to travel writings in general, in more recent times I find them tiresome and irritating by turns. And I have always studiously avoided two large bodies of Tibet-related literature: mountain climbing and missionary accounts.

My distaste for these genres generally is due, I believe, to their strong tendency to ignore the places they are in as much as possible (even while taking into account what is especially useful or obstructive to them) in pursuit of a goal that makes sense mainly to themselves. I've much preferred, and I do think I'm right in doing this, to work on understanding the voices coming from Tibetan-language sources. Since I've mainly pursued knowledge of earlier centuries, the sources that are of most use to me are of necessity written, not oral.

It could go without saying that a Tibeto-logical thinker will take Tibet and its regular inhabitants as the mother lode of meaning. In general this ought to be true. However, 'frontier' (culture-contact) studies, diaspora studies, and postcolonial thinking, just to mention three things that spring to mind in this context, can and should complicate the picture. Forget about laboratory science for the moment. When it comes to cross-cultural studies or anthropology, it is very often the case that so-called 'objectivity' (of an observer external to the culture being described) serves to mask a subjectivity formed and informed by the presumptions and interests of the observer's native culture.

We won't be so presumptuous as to claim to sort all this out at this very moment, but in general I would recommend not postmodern post-structuralist thinking, but rather Tibetan 'Mind Training' or Lojong (
Blo-sbyong) teachings from 12th-century Tibet...* Lojong teachers did and do know perfectly well not only how to talk about 'self and other,' but also how to put their contemplations on self and other into action in everyday life (and, what is a different matter, making use of everyday events to understand themselves and others better).

(*I mentioned Dr. Thubten Jinpa's translation of the main collection of Lojong texts in an earlier blog. I cannot recommend it highly enough.)

But then again, I wouldn't demand that my dearly valued readers be generously open minded about Tibetan Buddhist culture only to demonstrate my own utter spite for European Catholic culture. I should perhaps offer a reminder that Catholic scholars, especially in France and Belgium, have produced some of the most interesting and sympathetic studies of Buddhism, perhaps starting already with Eugène Burnouf (1808-1852) until today. Tibeto-logician and Catholic are even now not mutually exclusive categories. Indeed, it seems in recent years that several Tibet-focused Buddhologists have discovered or recovered a faith in Catholic Christianity. Just to name a few who have made their profession of faith known in print: David Snellgrove (although he has now quit the Tibetan studies field to work on Khmer), Paul Williams (see his book listed below), and John Buescher (in a much-recommended article listed below).

But wait a minute, Where are we? Somewhere in Yunnan, Weren't we?

Even before opening this book about the life of
Maurice Tornay (1910-1949), you know exactly what to expect. No false advertising. The spoiler is right there staring you in the face in big letters on the front cover. We know from the first he's going to die for his faith, and are reminded of it directly or indirectly on almost every page. But the thing that especially catches my eye is the name in small green letters of the subtitle, "St. Bernard." Some may remember back in the late '50s and early '60s there was a kind of craze over the dogs by that name. Practically everyone I knew wanted to have one, although few could afford them or their upkeep. Their voracious appetites were as legendary as their heroism. The saint in question was Bernard of Menthon (996-1081). He founded, high on a mountain pass between Switzerland and Italy, what he named the Hospice of Mont Joux, dedicated to St. Nicholas. It was only long after his death, in 1149, that it was renamed after him, Hospice of St. Bernard. For the last three centuries, more or less, St. Bernard dogs have been assisting the St. Bernard monks in their task of assisting travelers in distress. In more recent decades, better roads, more accurate travel advisories and helicopter rescue teams have alleviated much of the work of both dogs and monks. In a way, I think it's a pity.

Young Maurice was born in a town on steep slopes not so very far from the world-renowned hospice. The slopes were so steep they say that every year they had to dig up the dirt from the bottom of the field and carry it up in boxes to the top. I don't know about you, but I could imagine how that story might have been true, and not just one of those stories they liked to tell flatlanders traveling through. He took novice vows under the St. Bernard Fathers when he was
nearly 21 years old, and spent six years in the abbey school in St. Maurice. A year and five months into his noviciate, they sent their first group of four monks to Tibet (for them this included what was actually Tibet as well as northwestern Yunnan, with its strong Tibetan cultural presence). Maurice insisted on being part of the next batch that left in February 1936. He badly wanted to do this, as he himself said, in order to achieve sanctity, and not, or not especially, because he felt the urge to convert pagans to Christianity.

Arriving in Yunnan on May 8, 1936, Maurice learned more than 7,000 Chinese characters in his first year. And he started studying Tibetan well before he departed for his assigned mission field of Yerkalo, across the Yunnan border in (since 1932) an autonomous Tibetan territory, which means it was not ruled from China as Yunnan was. Yerkalo* was a small but significant center for Christianity, established already in around 1865 by the French missionaries Biet and Desgodins.

(*Yerkalo has different names and spellings in the literature... Yakala, Yakalo, Tsakha, Tsakalo. Based on the Chinese name, Yenching or Yentsing. See Teichman's article. Prince Henry of Orleans, who stayed there for some time because of sickness — "fever and neuralgia" — spells it "Tseku.")

In just two years he completed his studies and took ordination as a priest, in Hanoi. From now on we should call him Father Tornay. Just one month after starting Tibetan, he was told he would have to give a sermon in the language. This was meant as a joke, but he took it very seriously, and supposedly did a fine job of it, using Chinese here and there when he didn't know the Tibetan word. In this part of Yunnan, Tibetan was a very important language, even if Chinese was the official one. There were also local speakers of languages here called Lutse and Lissu.* Since most of his students were Tibetan speakers, you might wonder why he studied Chinese and taught in Chinese. This is because his students, if successful, would have to continue their theological studies in Chinese-medium institutions. There were no Tibetan-medium theological schools to send them to.

(*Lissu is now usually spelled Lisu. They were a missionary success story, since today a large number of Lisu are Christians. See the Wiki entries for Lisu and for James O. Fraser. I'm not sure who the Lutse speakers were, but Prince Henry also mentions them. Any idea? I think Lutse is an older name for the Nu.)

This book emphasizes the lines of narration, and doesn't often plunge into theological questions. At one point we do get a glimpse of the St. Bernard Fathers' view about Tibetan Buddhism. It seems our author Robert Loup is speaking here:
"Tibetan lamaism is a particular form of Hindu Buddhism. Buddha is the creator god, source of all life, universal soul; he is surrounded by divinities who symbolize the virtues and powers of the Master. In the middle ages, the reformer Tsongkhapa enlarged the pantheon and perfected the liturgy by borrowing from the Nestorian Christian Church — which existed in western China in his time — the dualism of man inhabited by a divinity and certain external objects of worship. It is due to this borrowing that Catholic missionaries on entering a Lamaist temple cannot keep from being surprised and sadly touched by the resemblance — entirely exterior — of the ceremonies to the canonical office. These pagan monks, called to prayer three times a day by a lama blowing a sea shell, sit like tailors before their cups of tea and chant their sacred texts. There is a certain grandeur in it. And if the breath of the Holy Spirit passed over the country, suddenly transforming souls and the meaning of things, these ceremonies, some of the festivals, and many of the customs could be kept and used as a liturgy for the worship of the true God."

First read over carefully the part that tells how "Buddha is the creator god, source of all life," and "universal soul," which creates a totally false depiction of Buddhist Buddhology in any of its forms (yes, I knew you were going to bring it up, but that goes as well for the All-Making King of the well-known Dzogchen scripture; here too, the very idea of creationism is regarded as the most fundamentally deluded of all delusions; see Martin's article). Then see the irony in the statement that the resemblances in the ceremonies are "entirely exterior" when it is clear that the author has already demonstrated that he doesn't have the least clue about ideas interior to Tibetan Buddhism. The story that Tsongkhapa undertook a Nestorian-inspired reformation is a myth from beginning to end that became no truer for its regular repetition in writings by foreigners. But I don't want to squabble about these matters right now. I would just like to underline the Christian generosity expressed in the last line, which at least would allow Tibetans to keep some aspects of their traditional culture, even to employ them in divine worship. Not all missionaries were so generous to their adversaries.

The brief section characterizing "lamaism," as this book calls Tibetan Buddhism, is followed by a section entitled "Persecution," which does indeed present a frightful list of Catholic priests who were slain, in several cases we would have to say butchered. Among the members of the Paris Foreign Missions Society alone, there had been seven European martyrs between 1881 and 1940. Reading carefully, you realize that the majority were killed by bandits who probably just wanted to rob their rich caravan, caring little or nothing about religion. Still, in the logic of martyrdom, all are placed at the same height on the altar for our veneration.

When Father Tornay arrived at Yerkalo, which could boast a particle of the
True Cross, there were 320 Christians there. He didn't stay long, but went on a trip with Father Lovey to Batang, about 80 miles to the north-northeast. They had particular missionary objectives in mind, since it had been 10 years since a priest had visited what was once one of the main centers for evangelization. At that time it is very clear that the border between Tibetan and Chinese-ruled territories was set along the Upper Yangtse River (Tibetans call it the Drichu; 'Bri-chu). At the raft-crossing not far from Batang, there were military posts and customs houses facing each other across the river. Once they reached the Chinese side, the travelers noted with pleasure that the commander of the post was one of their own, a Christian from Szechwan (Sichuan). Thanks to Albert Shelton, Marion Duncan and others, they found not only Catholics at Batang, but also Protestants. This gave them the opportunity to hold an ecumenical service. Here in a footnote, one of the editors of the English edition, R.B. (Raphael Brown, pen name of a reference librarian at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.), relays this funny story (even if as seems likely the incident never happened, it would have to be made up in order to convey the truths it contains):

Christian missioners like to tell this story about themselves: A Chinese of the region, when asked what was the difference between the 'pastors' and the 'Fathers,' replied: "It's simple: the pastor has a wive, does not have a beard, and does not smoke; the Father does not have a wife, has a beard and smokes like a chimney." (p. 159)

Then begins the most puzzling and interesting part of the book, "The Economics of Lamaism." I don't pretend to understand it, so I won't summarize it for you, but it's surely important since it concerns the chain of events that led, perhaps inevitably (?), to Father Tornay's death. The section starts out rather startlingly with the words, "Persecution of Christianity finds its real source in hatred of the truth." The supreme confidence of these words takes a moment to sink in if it sinks in at all. The point being made is that there may be reasonings and rationales behind bad things that happen to Christians, but the real reason is because of the hatred people have for Christianity. But let's look a little bit into the confusing rationales offered by the author for the rationales offered by the Fathers for the rationales they believed the local lamas and officials (two separate parties in the disputes) had...

"Another difficulty. The Orient does not have the same ideas as we do. For a Tibetan, and especially a lama, to sell land is not to sell it but to rent it for a number of years, to lend it, just as in Roman times the lands of the nobles or of the State were let out in tenure. From the juridical point of view, the mission is therefore always in an uncertain situation. If the lamas want to take back the lands they "sold," the missioners may make a defense according to all their principles of justice and law, but they would only be fighting against clouds." (p. 161)

Given what I suspect, that the just-mentioned clouds might be an illusion based on smoke and mirrors (be assured that the Tibetan language contains very unambiguous terms for selling, renting and leasing*), if anything is clear in all this it is that there was a simple dispute about land tenure, regardless of the legalities of it, that gradually escalated with the involvement of the local authorities, both lay and clerical. With permission from his superiors, Father Tornay departed on a mission to the central Tibetan government in Lhasa. Although he went in disguise, he or a member of his small Christian caravan was spotted along the way. This attempt to bypass the local authorities by appealing to Lhasa could have succeeded. The Lhasa elite would have had larger and less local concerns that would likely involve not antagonizing European powers. The party, already reduced to four, was ambushed and Father Tornay with his servant Dossy (an affectionate nickname based on 'Dominic') were shot dead. Two others, named Joan Siao and Sandjrupt, escaped to tell the story. Father Savioz went to collect the bodies. Of course I've simplified a great deal.

(*"They [the Naxi indigenous chiefs of the Mekong Valley] were, with the Buddhist temples, the only landowners, at a time when land could not be sold, but only rented in exchange for taxes and corvée." Gros article, p. 4.)

At last we reach what for myself at least is the most troubling part. I would very much prefer to deny that the slayers of the Father were maroon-robed Tibetan Buddhist monks. But for this we have the testimony of Joan Siao and Sandjrupt. We cannot simply deny it on the wish that it weren't so. I suppose we could open an inquest at The Hague, but after all these years what would be the point exactly? And who today would bear the guilt and pay the price? (I do think there is evidence that the image of Buddhist monks leaping out of the forest with rifles is not the actual story; see the article by Goré listed below.)

I feel I may well be placing my 'objectivity' (or is that a subjectivity?) at risk in saying what I finally and anyway want to say. On May 16, 1993,
Father Maurice Tornay was beatified by Pope John Paul the Second. Of course to be beatified is not quite to be made into a 'universally accepted' Catholic saint. Still, it means that more young people will feel inspired to follow his example.

Now the world is day after day re-experiencing both the horror and banality of martyrdom. I think I'm not alone in being thoroughly sick of it, regardless of the motives. I would hope the present religious leaders will find out how to award sanctity
not to those who willingly offer up their lives to further the cause of The Church or whatever, but instead to the ones who resolve problems and bring reconciliation. Those who believe in and pursue inter-religious dialogue, or who bring warring parties together to hammer out solutions for example. Regardless of what the Vatican may or may not do, I think we, whatever we call ourselves, ought to do our best to find inspiration among people like the Tibetan Buddhists who, not without occasional failures among them of course, have worked especially hard to pursue the ways of peace.

"...the Redemption blossoms in blood. Let us have no doubt of it! Canon Tornay's sacrifice will raise up other missionary vocations, and at the hour set by God, the hard trails into forbidden Tibet, jealously guarded by cruel hired assassins of the lamas, will have to open up to the peaceful messengers of Christ...

" a result of this heroic death and the void it left in the missionary ranks, several young canons at once asked permission to go to Tibet and take his place."

Read those and these words and weep, "It seems to me that we need not theology of liberation but theology of martyrdom," Cardinal Ratzinger.

I think it's high time to break the vicious circles of the crusader mentality that brings on these repeat performances. We have to grow up and stop offering child sacrifices to our gods. And for gods' sake children, stop volunteering! Storming some citadel is not a big deal, not really, but giving up old habits? That takes some actual courage.

Another even more interesting book on Yunnan from my library. It's available online here for the asking.

Find out more and more:

Anonymous, Maurice Tornay, Martyr in Tibet (1910-1949), Oblata [Novitiate of the Oblates of the Society of St. Pius X], no. 5 (October 2007), pp. 2-3. Just press here.

John Bray, French Catholic Missions and the Politics of China and Tibet, 1846-1865, contained in: Helmut Krasser, et al., eds., Tibetan Studies, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 1997), vol. 1, pp. 83-95.

John B. Buescher, Everything Is on Fire: Tibetan Buddhism Inside Out, Books & Culture (A Christian Review) (January-February 2008). For the internet version, look here.
Eugène Burnouf (1801-1852), Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism, tr. by Katia Buffetrille & Donald S. Lopez, Jr., University of Chicago Press (Chicago 2010).  Now people who don't read French, or don't read it well enough, can marvel at the accomplishments of this great Orientalist. 

Henri Cordier and J.M. Lenhart, Tibet. Contained in: The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Company (New York 1912), vol. 14. Online version here. The very brief section on missions is extremely valuable. Where else can you learn that
The Capuchin Francesco Orazio della Penna (b. 1681; d. at Patan in Nepal, 1745) translated into Tibetan for the neophytes Cardinal Bellarmine's Christian Doctrine and Thurlot's Treasure of Christian Doctrine. He compiled with the assistance of his confrères the first Tibetan dictionary, containing 35,000 words in Tibetan characters with corresponding Italian translation. He also translated from Tibetan into Italian History of the life and works of Shakiatuba, the restorer of Lamaism, Three roads leading to perfection, On transmigration and prayer to God (Anal. Ord. Cap., VI, Rome, 1890, 349).
Fascinating, though, that Shakiatuba (Shākya-thub-pa, for Sanskrit Śākyamuni, 'Sage of the Śākya Clan'), a title of the historical Buddha, here becomes a restorer of Lamaism!

Auguste Desgodins (1826-1913), Dictionnaire thibétaine-latin-française par les missionnaires catholiques du Thibet (Hong Kong 1899), in 1087 pages. This Tibetan-Latin-French dictionary is a very important one in the history of Tibetan lexicography. For this dictionary, indispensible for anyone trying to translate Tibetan into Latin, as well as for his Tibetan grammar, I would say that of all the French Fathers of Yunnan, Desgodins is probably the most worthy of being admitted into the ranks of the Tibeto-logicians.

Lawrence Epstein, ed., Khams pa Histories: Visions of People, Place and Authority, Brill (Leiden 2002).

François Goré, Les Missions tibétaines. Available online here. This has a section on the martyrdom of Father Tornay. Also of interest is the discussion about Madame Alexandra David-Neel, who enjoyed the hospitality of the Fathers and responded to it by publishing mean things about them in her book. This says that Father Tornay was ambushed by five armed men in the pay of the lamas of Yentsing:
Le 11 août, Mr Tornay repassait le Choula, col frontière entre la Chine et le Tibet. Sur le versant oriental, à l'orée de la forêt, cinq hommes armés, à la solde des lamas de Yentsing, étaient embusqués, attendant le passage des voyageurs. Doci, l'un des domestiques de Mr Tornay, tomba le premier, et le missionnaire fut tué à son tour. Les deux autres domestiques, qui n'étaient sans doute pas spécialement visés, ne furent pas inquiétés et purent s'enfuir. Après le crime, les meurtriers dépouillèrent leurs victimes de tous leurs vêtements, s'emparèrent des quatre mulets et reprirent la route de Yentsing avec leur butin.
Stéphane Gros, Ritual and Politics: Missionary Encounters with Local Culture in Northwest Yunnan. This is the best thing I know about in English, that is, on the early history of the Catholic missionaries in northwestern Yunnan (beginning when Father Renou settled in the valley of Bonga near the Yunnan-Tibet border in 1854, the first 'Christians' were said to be slaves purchased from the powerful local landowner, orphans, or children bought from impoverished parents; the Christians of Bonga were expelled in 1865 and formed the core of the mission of Yerkalo, legally established only in 1887). Download the PDF here.

Adrien Launay, Histoire de la Mission du Thibet, Desclée, De Brouwer et Cie (Paris circa 1905), 2 vols. This is supposed to be the primary work on Catholic missionaries in the eastern borderlands of Tibet, although I've still never seen it. Some give 1902 or 1909 as its date of publication, and it seems to have been reprinted in recent years. Soon after the book came out M[artha] K. Genthe wrote a brief, unsympathetic review in Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, vol. 43, no. 7 (1911), pp. 538-9. What she says is worth quoting:
In spite of the admiration of the personal courage and devotion of those men, the unprejudiced reader finds in every chapter of the sad story the proof of their lack of judgment and knowledge concerning the people they wished to convert, and of their entire inability to appreciate the point of view of a race like the Tibetans. While it is certain that the difficulties which stood in their way would have been too great for anybody, there is no doubt either that with an equal lack of tact and wisdom in dealing with the people and its authorities, they would have failed likewise on less hostile territory.
Donald S. Lopez Jr., Is the Pope Catholic? Tricycle (Summer 1995), pp. 98-102. This is a review of Pope John Paul II's book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. It's about inter-religious so-called understanding and some of its most glaring failures.

Leo D. Lefebure, Cardinal Ratzinger's Comments on Buddhism, Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 18 (1998), pp. 221-223. In a published interview of 1997, the Cardinal, now Pope, characterized Buddhism as a sort of spiritual auto-eroticism (un autoérotisme spirituel). As a groundwork for dialogue, clearly a non-starter unless accompanied by a sincerely shamefaced apology.

Donald S. Lopez Jr., "The Name," Chapter One in Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, University of Chicago Press (Chicago 1998). Read this and understand why it is that we no longer call Tibetan Buddhism by the name "Lamaism," any more than we call Roman Catholic Christianity by the name Papistry (Papism, Popism, Popery, etc.). We cannot ever use these labels and hope to bypass their histories of polemical usage (of course, if you are writing inter-religious polemic, please use them at will! That way we will more easily recognize your writing for what it is. You will be doing us all a favor).

Robert Loup, Martyr in Tibet: The Heroic Life and Death of Fr. Maurice Tornay, St. Bernard Missionary to Tibet, David McKay (New York 1956). Translated from the original French by Charles Davenport, there are sections written especially for this English version that were not in the French. Since it is out of print, I had to mail away for it to Steven Temple Books in Toronto, Ontario (sorry, I got there first, so you'll need to shop for it somewhere else). My hard cover copy has a price of $3.75 on the inside dust jacket, and bears the ownership stamp of Butterfly Florist in Scarboro Ontario (it still seems to be in business...). The backside of the title page, in case you have your concerns, displays the Nihil obstat and the Imprimatur of the Censor Librorum and the Archbishop of New York.

Dan Martin, Creator God or Creator Figure? Lungta [an annual periodical published by the Amnye Machen Institute, McLeod Ganj, India], vol. 16 (Spring 2003), pp. 15-20. This is in a special issue edited by Roberto Vitali entitled "Cosmogony and the Origins."

Prince Henry of Orleans, From Yun-nan to British India, The Geographical Journal, vol. 7, no. 3 (March 1896), pp. 300-309. This includes a useful map on p. 303.

E.H. Parker, The Preaching of the Gospel in Tibet, China Review, vol. 18, pp. 279-284. Among the missionaries mentioned are those named Nicholas Krick, Julius Rabin and Lewis Bernard who attempted to get to Tibet in 1849. Krick made his third entry into Tibet together with Father Augustine Boury, but they were very soon murdered. In 1855, Father Bernard and Father August Desgodins attempted, but were turned back. Father Charles Renan, disguised as a Chinese trader, made it as far as Chamdo in 1849, but was turned back after being recognized as a European. Meanwhile, back in Canton, he was appointed "Prefect Apostolic for Tibet" and set off once more, joined by Father John Charles Fage and John Baptist Goutelle. In 1854, Father Renan went to Tsarong and purchased an uncultivated valley called Bonga and built a house, chapel and vineyard there. James Leo Thomine Desmazures, in 1857, was appointed "Bishop of Sinope and Vicar-Apostolic of Tibet." In 1863 a new Vicar Apostolic of Tibet was appointed: Joseph Chauveau. It is here, on p. 284, that Tibet is referred to as "this citadel of Satan."

Valrae Reynolds, The Journey to Tibet of Albert L. Shelton, 1904-1922, Lungta, vol. 11 (Winter 1998), pp. 20-24. This entire issue of Lungta is devoted to missionary studies (primarily Protestant and American missionaries). The author is a curator at The Newark Museum, which in my opinion has the most important collection of Tibetan arts (combining fine arts with ethnographic objects) in all of the Americas. The basis of this collection was formed already in 1911 with the exhibition of objects brought from Batang region by Shelton that were then acquired by the museum.

Valrae Reynolds & Amy Heller, Catalog of the Newark Museum Tibetan Collection, Vol. 1: Introduction, The Newark Museum (Newark 1983).

Eric Teichman, Journeys through Kam (Eastern Tibet), The Geographical Journal, vol. 59, no. 1 (January 1922), pp. 1-16. Some marvelous photographs are included on unnumbered pages, along with a very detailed map. The "Kam" of the title is nowadays spelled Kham (exact Tibetan spelling: Khams).

Paul Williams, The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism, T&T Clark (Edinburgh 2002). The author's credentials from the title page: "Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy. Head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, Co-director, Centre for Buddhist Studies, University of Bristol."

And now, for an astounding story about how Easter services were curtailed, for no apparent reason and certainly no good one, in the Catholic Church in Cizhong following the Tibetan uprising events of mid-March 2008, look here.

This book, by the "Russian Taoist doctor," which I got for a song in a used bookshop in Bonn, once belonged to a library. When you see how many people checked it out, I think you'll get the idea that it really is an outstanding reading experience. Don't take my word for it.

For the most amazing photographs of Christian Yunnan, by all means look here! here! Or better yet, go to this excellent page of the Joseph Rock blogspot.


John Angell James

SELF is the most subtle, the most stubborn, the most tenacious foe with which grace has to contend, in the soul of the believer. It lives, and works, and fights, when many other corruptions are mortified. Self is the last stronghold, the very citadel of Satan in the heart, which is reduced to the obedience of faith.

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?

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