Monday, October 25, 2010


I want to dedicate this blog to several and various persons and purposes. The first and maybe the main purpose is to lend a positive boost to some ways of understanding one particular practice universal to Tibetan Buddhism (Bon included). Today students and followers of Tibetan Buddhism can be found all over the world, although I understand in some places like Amman and Lagos this is a very recent development. For them and for us there is something both richly impressive and for some at least discomforting or problematic about the practice of prostration. Even as other religions do practice it (or the ‘partial prostrations’ known as kneeling and bowing [and perhaps even salutes?]), I imagine most beings with minds today associate it not with Tibetan Buddhism, but with Islam. And perhaps with good reason. Still, I would venture to suggest that there are only two religions in the world that would be likely to produce tracts on the merits or benefits of prostration. In traditions besides these two, the practice is of more rare occurrence or for other reasons is not very prominent — there, certainly, just not emphasized.

Today I’m not feeling supremely confident of my understanding of how prostration fits in either religion.* And really, I do not want to seem to tell anyone what they ought to be doing. Surely despite other differences, even differences that can sometimes seem profound, they both employ prostrations for what must have a lot to do with overcoming pride and developing humility. Purification of sin, too, is something you hear given as a motive in both. Both believe that this practice has to do with expressing and/or producing a devotional attitude toward something that goes way beyond the believer’s current limitations in time and/or space. I think no one in either religion denies a resemblance to acts of obeisance to earthly rulers. So for today I think we may just as well be content to focus upon the similarities and commonalities.

(*Buddhism a religion? Once an undergrad religion major, if that counts for anything, I say yes. It acts like one, so it is one. Buddhism a philosophy? Well, yes..., that too. But honestly, a cerebral philosophy — one that thinks mainly about finding more ideas to think about this way or that — has no business doing full-body devotional workouts like this. The Arabic word for prostration is sujud [pl.] or sajda. For Hindus and Buddhists the Sanskrit word is vandana. For Tibetan Buddhists, it is phyag ’tshal-ba, pronounced something like chagtse[l]wa.)
Both Tibetan Buddhism and Islam find prostration useful as a significant part of a larger program of religious practice. And it may not go without saying or repeating, but prostrations, at various levels of fullness, take place in quite a few religions, not least in significance being the Israelite temple cult of Jerusalem, right up to the end of the second temple period. Full prostrations were a minimal requirement for anyone entering or leaving the temple courtyard. In our Tibetan realm, ‘full prostration’ is a way of translating brkyangs-phyag (kyangchag), although the words in a somewhat more literal sense mean stretched-out prostration (I would prefer flat-out prostration, but I may be alone in that). By these standards, Muslims do not perform full prostrations, not that it matters much, this mild distinction in practice. Tibetan authors, as is usual for them, emphasize intent, and recognize prostrations of mind and speech, and not just of the body. I know there definitely are some budding fundamentalist Buddhists these days who insist full prostrations are the only way to go, but I would say in this they are not necessarily being as traditional as they might think they are.

But I’m not climbing up on my blog bully-pulpit today to advocate prostration as a practice for you or anyone. I have trouble imagining anybody was ever attracted to a religion after seeing prostrations, thinking thoughts like, ‘What a cool practice, how can I join this awesome religion?’ 

Well, I do remember once observing a greying Newar man dressed all in white, a follower of Tibetan-style Buddhism, in an upper room at the wellknown Golden Temple of Patan who performed his prostrations with such slow dignity and utterly concentrated attention to each movement like there was nothing else in the world... I guess what I am trying to say is that the concentrated devotion that might go with prostration could be contagious. Be careful with it. Islam, too, has it.

In the early 1980’s a rather old-looking and certainly much-used manuscript came into my hands. The front page of it appears above. I am certain that it is of Nepalese provenance. The outer wrapper is actually a scrap of that wonderful paper that is only made in Nepal. The words "Swayambhu Shop, Swayambhunath / Bhai / 75-80 years old" are written on it. There are also a lot of Nepali numbers scribbled about, indicating that Bhai, the shopkeeper presumably (it’s a common moniker in the Valley), had been using this scrap as a scratch-pad to figure sums. The manuscript itself is rather unusual in being in booklet form. The pages are long Tibetan pecha-style pages. There are glints of silver arsenic detectable here and there. I believe Tibetans used this to prevent insect damage, although there is slight evidence that insects started doing their work anyway. The long narrow sheets were all folded in the middle, and tied up with a single knotted string at the fold.  The front cover alone is floating freely, so we may know that the original bound signature contained exactly 25 sheets. In my catalog of the contents that you will find down below, I call each page a ‘folio’ (front sides are in fact indicated with ‘snake heads’ just as we are used to seeing in the usual kind of loose-leafed pecha).

The cover title contains a name of a ‘qualified guru’ Tsogdrug Rangdrol. This is an initiation name, one that has been held by several prominent individuals in Tibetan history. Yet before reading very far into the first text, which is autobiographical, we find evidence to show without any doubt that these brief texts are by Zhabkar Tsogdrug Rangdrol. On folio 2r, we find the name Tashi Ngawang (Bkra-shis-ngag-dbang), known to be one of Zhabkar’s several names. He was born in the area of Rebkong (our text has the spelling Res-rkangs) in Amdo. Rebkong is located south of the Blue Lake of Amdo. His father’s identity was unknown to anyone, apparently. Escaping an unwanted marriage arranged by his mother, he ran away to Mongolia to find his most important teacher in the form of a Mongolian king. This king, his guru, bestowed upon him the initiation name that means Six Heaps Self-Released. Later he traveled about to holy places, especially those frequented by contemplatives, including Tsari, Mt. Tisé, the Nepal valley, Lapchi and so on. The name Zhabkar literally means White Foot, but this is because he first became wellknown to the public when he stayed in the Dzuntrul (Rdzu-’phrul) Cave near Mt. Kailash, a cave where Milarepa had meditated also. This cave was not very far from a place where one or more of the footprints of the Buddha’s could be seen. Evidently the footprints were white, because they were called Zhabjé Karpo, White Footprints.

Zhabkar definitely left footprints behind in Nepal, where he worked to restore the Bodhnath Stupa somewhere around the years 1818-1821 (let me know if you know of a copy of the text recording his restoration efforts; it seems to be lost). His teachings are still very popular there today. He was not only a very charismatic public speaker who lent encouragement to popular Buddhist laypeople’s practices (more evidence for this lies ahead), he was and still is regarded as one of the leading teachers of Dzogchen in recent centuries. He is one of the finest among the finer Tibetan writers of fine literature. And he is somewhat peculiar in this sense: He was greatly inspired by Milarepa, which would seem to make him a Kagyupa. He was much inspired by the Mind Training teachings of the early Kadampas and the graded Path teachings of Tsongkhapa, which would seem to make him a Gelugpa. Yet his teachings were for the most part belonging to the Nyingmapas. I find this ability to cross sectarian boundaries with ease one of his most endearing traits. He was a strict vegetarian, completely opposed to smoking and drinking. And not just for himself. He advocated abstention for everyone. In this he is bound to be, and has in fact been, an inspiration for modern vegans and vegetarians.

If you need to know more about Zhabkar, there is only one place for most people to go, and that is the amazing book "The Life of Shabkar" (scroll down to the end to find the listing). Matthieu Ricard* is surely the main person responsible for this sterling translation (although other names are listed on the title page) and its associated research. He has also been very active tracking down the writings of Zhabkar. It was only in recent years that anything like a complete collection was put together in a modern publication. I don’t have these new publications available to me, which may be unfortunate, since I cannot tell you for sure if the texts in our manuscript have all been published or not. At least one of them can be found in the body of the autobiography. But I am not ready to go into an exhaustive bibliographical search at the moment. I would like to dedicate this blog to Matthieu, an amazing person in his own right.

(*Two years ago Matthieu Ricard received some very positive press describing him as "The happiest man in the world." I’m not saying this might not be true. He does seem happy. Still, I would like to inject the argument that just because a person wrote a book on a particular subject, doesn't mean they have mastered it. Neither are brain scans a useful gauge of happiness. Seriously! But now I’m afraid I’ll find myself described as the crabbiest person alive. Better if you stop reading what I’m writing and have a peek at his website, which you can read in either French or English, although I recommend the French. It isn’t just that he’s taken some great photographs, as you will see for yourself.)

There are only a very few and mostly quite brief Tibetan writings about prostration known to me. I will keep some of them secret for now. This will save me from the need to discuss them. Let’s go straight to the text and translate it as best we can.

. . .   . . .


I prostrate with faith and veneration.
May the sins and obscurations of all animate beings be cleansed.

The joining of the right and left palms —
May method and wisdom be paired.

Placing the joined palms on the top of the head —
May we attain the Buddhafields, None Higher and Kechari.

Touching the forehead with the joined palms —
May all bodily obscurations be purified.

Touching the neck with the joined palms —
May all verbal obscurations be purified.

Touching the heart area with the joined palms —
May all mental obscurations be purified.

The parting of the joined palms —
May I in the two form Bodies come to the aid of animate beings.

Placing the knees on the ground —
May rebirth in bad destinies be suppressed, reversed.

Placing the ten fingers on the ground —
May the ten Grounds and five Paths be gradually introduced.

Placing the forehead on the ground—
May I attain the eleventh Ground, Light Everywhere.

Stretching out and contracting the four limbs—
May I naturally achieve the four activities.

The stretching out and contracting of all the veins and sinews—
May all the knots in the veins untie themselves.

The straightening and bending of the central spinal column—
May all the channels be inducted into the central one.

After touching the ground, rising up again—
May I not remain in sangsara, but attain the noble Path.

Then bowing down once more—
May I not remain in [nirvana’s] peace, but serve as a guide for sentient beings.

Through the merit of these, my prostrations,
may the present life be long and full and free of sickness
and in future life may I be born from the opening lotuses in Dewacan,
quickly attaining the level of perfect Enlightened One.

—This was written by the renunciate Tsogdrug Rangdrol.

. . .   . . .

Imagine my surprise and dismay...  I was about to post this blog when I was out on the internet trying to find out what is out there about Tibetan prostration practices — and what should I find, but another translation of my text on prostration, only this time very clearly attributed to Sakya Pandita (1182‑1251). It's located in several spots.  Press here for the English (a document ought to download automatically). Those who prefer English should compare the two texts in translation. Those who are equipped to do so should compare the two Tibetan texts. Photos (gifs) of the part of the manuscript that contains Zhabkar's prostration text have been hung up here at Tibetological website.* 
(*I intended to put up scans for the complete manuscript in 48 folios, but the uploading was taking a lot longer than I imagined it would; have patience, since anyway I want to blog about another text in it eventually... a Wylie transcription is down below, for those few who prefer it.)
It is a problem knowing who the real author might be, and I can think of no way of proving authorship one way or another. At the moment I am leaning toward Zhabkar's authorship, just because it is demonstrably the kind of topic he liked to speak and write about (I can point to a section on prostration in his title Golden Mountain; see the bibliography). That is not to say that Sakya Pandita could not have written on the subject. I can’t say that. A note to a French translation (sorry, link lost) says that the text is "generally attributed to" him, even while Khenpo Appey says it is not to be found in the collected works, so it is difficult to be sure. The title attached to the Sakya Pandita version is more apt for the content than the Zhabkar version's title is. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything for the authorship problem. 

It might be best to forget that it is a problem and try to find out more about Tibetan literary aims, ideas about what authorship means, the ways texts were circulated, and publishing practices and so on that would allow things like this to happen in the first place. That way instead of indulging once more the quotidian corporate practice of assessing blame (in this case, who took what from whom?) we might eventually come to interesting insights into worlds not, or no longer, our own. That would be the better outcome to my way of thinking.

. . .   . . .

This blog is also dedicated to Krisadawan Hongladarom.

Here is a transcription of the entire Tibetan text of the work on prostration as found in the Zhabkar Manuscript (basically given in texto form, except for the few abbreviations that are tacitly resolved):

phyag ’tshal phan yon bzhugs so /

bdag ni dad cing gus pa’i phyag ’tshal lo /
’gro ba kun gyi sdig sgrib dag par shog /

lags pa g.yas g.yon thal mo sbyar ba ni / [9v]
thabs dang shes rab bzung du ’jug par shog /

thal mo sbyar ba’i spyi bor skod pa ni /
’od min mkha’ spyod zhing khams sgrub par shog /

thal mo sbyar ba dpral bar btug pa ni /
lus kyi sgrib pa thams cad byang bar shog /

thal mo sbyar ba mgrin par btug pa ni /
ngag gis sgrib pa thams cad byang bar shog /

thal mo sbyar ba snying dkar btug pa ni /
yid kyi sgrib pa thams cad byang bar shog / [10r]

thal mo sbyar ba so sor ’gyes pa ni /
gzugs sku rnam nyid ’gro don byed par shog /

rkang pa’i spu mo sa la gtsugs ba ni /
’khor ba ngan song sdog par mnon par shog /

lags pa’i sor bcu sa la btsugs pa ni /
sa bcu lam lnga rims gyi sprod par shog /

mgo ba’i dpral ba sa la btsugs pa ni / [10v]
bcu cig kun tu ’od kyi sa thob shog /

yan lags bzhi po kyang skum byas pa ni /
’phrin las rnam bzhi lhun gyi ’grub par shog /

rtsa sgyu thams cad ’gyes sgul byas pa ni /
rtsa bdud thams cad shugs kyi grol bar shog /

rgal tshig dbu ma ’gyes sgul byas pa ni /
rtsa rnams thams cad dbu mar tshud par shog /

sa la btug te yar la langs pa ni / [11r]
’khor bar mi gnas ’phags lam thob par shog /

de nas mar la bsgur ba byas pa ni /
zhi bar mi gnas sems can ’dren par shog /

bdag gi phyag ’tshal bgyis pa’i bsod nams kyi /
tshe ’di tshe ring nad med phun sum tshogs /
phyi ma bde ba can du padma rdzas las skyes / [11v]
rdzogs pa’i sangs rgyas go ’phang myur thob shog //

ces bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyi mdzad pa’o // mangga lam //

§  §  §

Catalog of the Zhabkar Manuscript

(rough and ready English translations are supplied for the titles, with some indication of the content of the colophons).  The first few folios have been uploaded already to Tibetological website:

Cover title [1r]: Mtshan ldan bla ma tshogs drug rang grol gyi ’khrungs tshul gyi gsungs sgur [~mgur]* zhal gdams. The Way the Qualified Guru Tsogdrug Rangdrol was Born, together with Songs and Advice.
(*Note: I know some will carp shrilly about the ‘bad spellings’ in this manuscript but to tell you the truth I don't care much for their attitude. To them I say just get used to it and find more interesting things to carp about.)

Text 1—
Incipit [1v]: na mo gu ru pha yul mdo khams smad gnas yin... [An autographical poem.]
Colophon [4r]: ces pa ’di yang skal ldan snying gi blos bu [~slob bu] sbyin pa nor bu’i rnam thar bsdus pa zhig gos [~dgos] zer ba’i len [~lan] du bris pa’o // bkra shis.
Note: I take the genitive at the end of his disciple Jinpa Norbu’s name to be an accident for an instrumental. Otherwise we have to take this text as his (J.N.’s) own biography, which is clearly not the case. On fol. 2r there is the beginning of a drawing of the Buddha by a budding artist as well as a child-like scrawl at the bottom meaning ‘[My mother] is a highland girl.’ (This scrawl is just a bit of writing practice, imitating the first line of the text proper.)

Text 2—
Title [4v]: Rang rkyon ’dod pa’i man ngag rgya khab rno po. — Sharp Chinese Needle: Precepts on Desire [based on] My Own Faults.
Colophon [9r]: ces rang rkyon man ngag ’di dri can bla ma dam pa tshogs drug rang grol mdzad pa’o.
Note: As might be gathered from the title, this is a confessional text. If the sharp Chinese needle of the title makes you think of acupuncture, I think you are on the right track. It has been translated in The Life of Shabkar, pp. 383-385. A few samples from the book (these words are addressed to himself, nota bene):

This is what you are:
A sack stuffed with religious wealth
and food given by the faithful,
A bull sleeping like a corpse,
A snake filled with hatred,
A bird filled with desire,
A pig filled with stupidity,
A lion filled with pride...

If you have any self-respect,
A heart in your chest,
Brains in your head, and
Some sympathy for yourself,
Regret your past actions and
Improve your whole behavior.
It's time! It’s very late!

Text 3—
Title [9r]: Phyag ’tshal phan yon. — Benefits of Prostration.
Colophon [11v]: ces bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyi mdzad pa’o.
Note: This is the one I’ve translated above.

Text 4—
Title [11v]: Sems don brgyad pa. — Eight Statements on the Subject of Mind.
Colophon [12v-13r]: ces pa ’di yang slob bu skal bzang shes rab la gdams pa’o.
Note: This records precepts given to his student Kalzang Sherab.

Text 5—
Title [13r]: Bsgoms kyis skyong lug [~lugs] ’di ltar lags so. — Keeping a Meditation Session: Here’s How.
Colophon [16r]: bkra shis sarba mangga lam.

Text 6—
Title [16r]: Slob bu rnams la phan pa’i zhal gdams. — Advice to Help Students.
Colophon [20v-21r]: ces pa ’di yang skal ldan snying gi slob bu yongs la ’gro khar smras pa’o / sarba mangga lam.
Note: Advice given to a group of his students when he was ready to depart. It is spoken in couplets that probably consciously echo the Tingri Hundred couplets of Padampa. I may have more to say about this text another time.

Text 7—
Title [21r]: Zhal gdams bdud rtsi’i thigs pa. — Advice: Drops of Nectar.
Colophon [24v]: ces pa ’di yang slob bu yon bdag yongs la phan phyir / bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyi gnas chen la phyi nas smras pa’o // sarba mang ga lam // bkra shis shog.
Note: These words of advice spoken at the holy place of Lapchi were meant for both students and patrons.

Text 8—
Title [25r]: Yon bdag rnams la phan pa’i zhal gdams. — Advice to Help Patrons.
Colophon [29r-30v]: ces pa ’di yang dad can yon bdag pho mo yongs la ’gro khar smras pa’o // bkra shis manga lam.
Note: Words of advice for the patrons, both men and women, as he was about to depart.

Text 9—
Title [30r]: Dad can pho mo rnams la phan pa’i zhal gdams. — Advice to Help Faithful Men and Women.
Colophon [32v]: ces pa ’di yang bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyis yon bdag pho mo rnams la gdams pa’o // bkra shis mangga lam.

Text 10—
Incipit [33r]: gnas snying ga chos kyi ’khor lo nas...
Colophon [36v]: ces pa ’di yang bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyis smras pa’o // bkra shis // dge’o.
Note: Words of advice for a circle of lay patrons concerning impermanence and so forth. The author notes that he had lived for 70 years and would not live through another. As it turns out this was a very accurate prediction.

Text 11—
Title [37r]: Bla ma’i gsol ’debs. — Guru Prayer.
Colophon [40v-41r]: ces pa ’di yang dad gtong shes rab snying rje dang ldan pa’i slob bu mtho lding dge slong ngag dbang ye shes kyi bskul ngor // bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyis gnas chen gangs ri nas sbyar pa’o.
Note: Written at Mt. Tisé for his student, a fully ordained monk of Tholing by the name of Ngawang Yeshé.

Text 12—
Title [41r]: Myur lam bla ma’i rnal ’byor. — The Quick Path of Guruyoga.
Colophon [47v-48r]: ces myur lam bla ma’i rnal ’byor zhes bya ba ’di ni / dad gtong shes rab snying rje dang ldan pa’i slob bu ’jigs med rgyal mtshan sogs dad can gyi slob ma mang po’i bskul ngor / bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyi dpa’ bo mkha’ ’gro sprin bzhin ’dus pa’i gnas chen gangs ri’i rdzu ’phrul phug gis dben gnas nyams dga’ nas sbyar ba’o // // bkra shis shog.
Note: Written at the behest of his students, among them Jigme Gyaltsen, at a mountain cave Dzuntrul Pug located at Mt. Tisé (for its exact location, see the map in The Life of Shabkar, p. 624, top middle of the map; on the student Jigmé Gyaltsen, see pp. 291, 313 of that book).

Text 13—
Title [48r]: Bla ma dam pa tshogs drug rang grol gyi mdzad spyod gsol ’debs. — A Prayer-Biography of the Holy Lama Tsogdrug Rangdrol.
Ending: Missing. The end of the text would have likely occurred on a final folio no. 50, now missing. The final words found in the manuscript are: lha sa’i yul gnas ’bul ba thogs.

§  §  §

The text attributed to Sakya Pandita.

This was located in the Sa skya kha skong, a three-volume collection that was created in traditional pecha format based on computer printouts. Scarcely any physical copies were made available, but the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center did put it on a CD entitled "TBRC Sampler" several years ago. I transcribe here what is found in vol. 3, pp. 19-21. Unlike the Zhabkar text, it starts with a mantra that multiplies the merits of prostrations one thousand fold. Other differences might be noted.


phyag ’tshal smon tshig bzhugs so / /


phyag stong ’gyur gyi sngags ni /

oṃ na mo manydzu shrī ye / na maḥ su shrī ye / na maḥ utta ma shrī ye swā hā / na moḥ gu ru bhyaḥ na moḥ dharmā ya / na moḥ saṃ ghā ya /

bdag gis mchog gsum dam par phyag ’tshal bas //
bdag sogs ’gro kun sdig sgrib dag par shog //

lag pa gnyis mnyam par thal mo sbyar ba yis //
thabs dang shes rab zung ’jug thob par shog //

thal mo spyi bo’i gtsug tu sbyar ba yis //
zhing mchog bde ba can du skye bar shog //

thal mo smin mtshams dpral bar sbyar ba yis //
lus kyi sdig sgrib thams cad dag par shog //

thal mo mgrin pa’i thad du sbyar ba yis //
ngag gi sdig sgrib thams cad dag par shog //

thal mo snying ga’i thad du sbyar ba yis //
yid kyi sdig sgrib thams cad dag par shog //

thal mo sbyar ba so sor phye ba yis //
gzugs sku gnyis kyis ’gro don byed par shog //

rkang gnyis pus mo sa la btsugs pa yis //*
sa bcu lam lnga rim gyis bgrod par shog //

(*Here there is an obvious gap in the text that we have, since the first line doesn’t fit with the 2nd. See the Zhabkar version of the text, or the online English translation of the Sakya Pandita version, for the two missing lines.)

mgo bo dpral ba sa la btsugs pa yis //
bcu gcig kun tu ’od kyi sa thob shog //

yan lag bzhi po brkyangs bskums byas pa yis //
phrin las rnam bzhi lhun gyis ’grub par shog //

rtsa rgyud thams cad brkyangs bskums byas pa yis //
rtsa mdud thams cad ma lus grol bar shog // [21]

sgal tshigs dbu ma dgye bkug byas pa yis //
rlung rnams ma lus dbu mar tshud par shog //

sa la thug nas yar la ldang ba yis //
’khor bar mi gnas thar lam thob par shog //

de nas lan mang du mar phyag ’tshal bas //
zhi bar mi gnas sems can ’dren par shog //

bdag gis brkyangs phyag phul ba’i dge ba’i mthus //
gnas skabs tshe ring nad med phun tshogs shog //

’chi tshe bde ba can du skyes nas kyang //
rdzogs pa’i sangs rgyas go ’phang myur thob shog //

sems can thams cad bde dang ldan gyur cing //
ngan ’gro thams cad rtag tu stong pa dang //
byang chub sems pa gang na su bzhugs pa //
de dag kun gyi smon lam ’grub gyur cig //

sarba mangga laṃ /
sa skya paṇḍi ta kun dga’ rgyal mtshan gyis mdzad pa’o.

§  §  §

Bibliographical advice (only for those who might have been asking for it):

Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol (1781‑1851), The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, SUNY (Albany 1994), translated by M. Ricard, et al., ed. by Constance Wilkinson, and Michael Abrams. Reprinted by Snow Lion (Ithaca 2001). There is a brief biography of Zhabkar here at the Rigpawiki; or better, this bio. at "Tibetan Lineages" website. If your library has it, there is a manageably lengthed and informative biography contained in Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, translated by Richard Barron, Padma Publishing (Junction City 2005), pp. 339-43. That’s Milarepa you see in the photo, but Zhabkar looked just like him anyway.
Matthew Kapstein, The Sermon of an Ignorant Saint, contained in: Donald S. Lopez, Jr., ed., Religions of Tibet in Practice, Princeton University Press (Princeton 1997), pp. 355-68. 
There have been at least two English translations, and a German one, too, of The Flight of the Garuda, making it one of his best known compositions, I reckon.
Food of Heroes, Padmakara Translation Group, Shambhala Publications (Boston 2006).  I can’t tell you for sure, but I believe this contains extracts from The Life of Shabkar that are relevant to vegetarianism. Look here for a vegetarian/vegan website named after Zhabkar.
The Collected Writings of Shabkar, An Analytical Catalogue [in Tibetan], Shechen Publications (New Delhi 2005).  I can't say I have seen this either, but it is good to know that a book listing Zhabkar's works is out there.  There are serious studies on Zhabkar bibliography contained in The Life of Shabkar, pp. 577-88.  A more recent update is most warmly recommended to Tibetologists:  Matthieu Ricard, The Writings of Zhabs dkar Tshogs drug rang griol (1781-1851): A Descriptive Catalogue, contained in: Ramon Prats, ed., The Pandita and the Siddha: Tibetan Studies in Honour of E. Gene Smith, Amnye Machen Institute (Dharamshala 2007), pp. 234-253.  Looking through these works, I couldn't locate anything that resembles our manuscript or the texts it contains. Still, I feel confident that somewhere in the newly published collected works, probably buried inside still other titles, it will be possible to locate parallel texts. Help me if you can.
There are a couple of old academic articles about Zhabkar that I won’t mention here, partly because they have some embarrassing gaffes, such as placing his life one or two 60-year cycles sooner or later than it actually was.
Zhabkar's Golden Mountain is the 2nd of two titles contained in the publication entitled Mi shes mun pa mthung po sel ba’i lam rim gsal ba’i sgron me AND Rang gzhan thams cad ’tshengs pa’i gdams ngag gser gyi ri bo, "Two works on various aspects of Buddhist practice and realization by Zhabs-dkar Tshogs-drug-rang-grol, reproduced from Bkra-shis-’khyil blocks," Konchhog Lhadrepa (Darjeeling 1985).  It has also been reproduced in the "TBRC Sampler" CD mentioned earlier.  Look at pp. 188-190 (folios 33v-34v if you happen to have the woodblock print) for the interesting section on the benefits of prostration, where there are some very interesting scriptural and commentarial citations that deserve closer study.  Did I mention the text by Karma-chags-med?  Maybe next time, you think?
You can make a search for works by Zhabkar by typing the name "Zhabs dkar" in the search box at TBRC.  There are at least two very lengthy publications of his works in recent years that I hope to see someday.

Perhaps the most interesting and accessible passage about prostration to be found in English is this one.  Patrul Rinpoche, Kunzang Lama'i Shelung: The Words of My Perfect Teacher, tr. by the Padmakara Translation Group, HarperCollins (San Francisco 1994), pp. 317-321 ("2.1 Prostration, the Antidote to Pride").  If unlike me you have the other translation of this work by the late Sonam T. Kazi, which I understand (thanks to C.S.) has a drawing illustrating how a lazy person might try to cheat by prostrating up against a rock (kind of like 'cheater pushups'), you ought to be able to find the corresponding section in it without much trouble.

Here are a few more technical writings on the general subject (with focus on Europe and China) that may be of interest.  Try JSTOR if you have access:

James L. Hevia, The Ultimate Gesture of Deference and Debasement: Kowtowing in China, Past and Present (2009), supplement 4, pp. 212-234.
Eric Reinders, The Iconoclasm of Obeisance: Protestant Images of Chinese Religion and the Catholic Church, Numen, vol. 44 (1997), pp. 296-322.

The video evidence:

Here is an instructive animation showing how to do Tibetan style prostrations.  Recommended for those who have never seen them done, or who are thinking about doing them.

Ven. Thubten Chodron explains some of one of the more general practices that include prostrations.  If you have read this blog so far, you will already know some (not all) of what the Ven has to say about them. There are more prostration videos, but those other ones don’t seem to explain much. Don’t miss the sequel, where you will see a demonstration.

The 'vase' and the eyed harmika, with part of the spire, 
of the Bodhnath Stupa in the Nepal Valley, 
a purely magical Place
(taken by myself; help yourself)

Here is an Islamic site with an explanation of prostration practice. It seems to have been copied over again and again all over the internet (try schmoogling "Islamic prostrations" or the like). Can anyone tell me who the author of it is?  Is it by al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE)? I believe the Arabic word for mosque, masjid, shares the same three-consonant root s-j-d with the word for prostration, sajda. Oh, and this Shi'a oriented tract, entitled Prostration (Sajda) on Dust (in PDF format), is definitely worthy of attention.

There is a Buddhist teaching on prostration by Lama Zopa, given in 1986, here.

At the top of my reading list?  A new book by Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia 2010). It just arrived today.

§  §  §

Mysterious, incomprehensible,
I realize, is my mind—
the root of prison and freedom,
ungraspable, without substance. 

                -From a song by Zhabkar in 
                Thupten Jinpa & Jás Elsner, trs., 
                Songs of Spiritual Experience
                Shambhala (Boston 2000), pp. 66-67.

It isn't a question about whether a key is for locking or unlocking.
The question is why we think there has to be a lock there to begin with.

Open-house at the Armenian Church,
German Colony, Jerusalem 


Sunday, October 03, 2010

South India in Tibetan Geography

Shree Ayyappa

It was only a few years ago that I first visited South India. I wonder what took me so long. Today I am wishing I had taken a camera with me. All my earlier Indian travels had been in the north, mostly in the Gangetic Plains, Delhi area, and Himachal Pradesh. But I’ve felt an increasing interest in South India that can in some part be explained by my personal liking for some special persons who study the area or who originated there. And all this knits together in an inexplicable way with my interest in Padampa Sanggyé, and the ever-increasing conviction that I may need to know more about South India in order to understand him better. 

I believe Padampa lived his young life somewhere in the coastal regions of Andhra Pradesh, probably in the mouth of the Krishna River. My reasons for thinking so are several. The most obvious indications in early sources are that he must have lived quite close to Shri Parvata (Dpal-gyi Ri), by which I understand the Shri Parvata that is in  the same area as Dhanyakataka Stūpa in Amaravati (there is this wiki with a map location if you are curious). We also have (less specific) testimony in the frequency of sea turtles in his metaphors, along with the story that his father was a sea captain. A number of early sources say that he was from Be-ta’i Yul. Some have interpreted this to mean the kingdom of Vidarbha, but I don’t believe this is necessarily correct. I think the name Be-ta Country would just mean Coconut Country, as a cover-all term for the entire South Indian region, where coconuts are one of the most important items in the cuisine.  Be-ta is the Tibetan word for the coconut palm.* 

(*Berthold Laufer’s remarkable work on Loanwords, known to readers of earlier blogs, discusses this on pp. 457-8, but it can be found in quite a few modern English-Tibetan dictionaries under ‘coconut.’ I say this for the benefit of those who might pride themselves on their unwillingness to trust me.) 

I’m eager to read Karl Brunnhölzl’s new book Straight from the Heart, supposedly already in the mail. Among many other things, it has what looks like a very substantial chapter on Padampa entitled Padampa Sangyé’s Meetings with Milarepa and the Nun Düdsi Gyi. It can be seen in part at Googlebooks. There (p. 203) he gives the country’s name as Veta and says that it was in a particular part of that land in a place called Carasimha that Padampa was born. With no footnote or other identification, both place names are left drifting across the page as blank signifiers, with not much of a clue as to where we might be, although it does say, without clueing us in on how anybody would know this, that he was a South Indian.

I’m not ready to rule out the Vidarbha idea quite yet. It was more-or-less synonymous with ‘the south’ in the Mahābhāratabut south in those days didn’t seem to go very far on the map. (And nowadays the name Vidarbha is limited to eastern Maharashtra with its population of Marathi speakers — try this wiki.) Anyway, ‘coconut country’ could be equally descriptive of the Kingdom of Vidarbha and of South India as a whole. Still more mysterious is the identity of Padampa’s hometown Tsa-ra-sing-ha. I’ve found some new sources that might shed light on that, but it’s not too relevant at the moment, and would provoke some lengthy technical arguments. Another time, perhaps.

Today I will limit myself to a fairly simple question. What general knowledge did educated Tibetans of the past have about South Indian geography?

No sooner is this simple question framed than the doubts and complications raise their tiny heads to assert their importance. If names are preserved in books, it doesn’t mean that people necessarily knew about them or knew how those names ought to be found on the ground. Let’s keep those tiny hydra heads at bay and try heading for the big picture based on what textual sources we have, in an attempt to avoid being ruled by our overactive imagination.

Butön (Bu-ston Rin-chen-grub, 1290‑1364 CE) was one of the most intelligent among the leading Tibetan historical personages, no doubt about it.  Tibetan iconography normally depicts him with an abnormally shaped head, extremely wide at the temples with a huge cranial bump, but narrowing sharply downward to his jutting v-shaped chin.  (As you can see, I’m trying to get a job writing art show catalogues.)

I find myself entirely unable to make up my mind whether [1] the cranial bump is an iconographic convention to denote superior intelligence or [2] this way of depicting him his based on his actual physical appearance, which is not to neglect the possibility the answer might be [3] both (see the Heller book).

In volume 24 of the old Lokesh Chandra edition of his collected works (that’s right, he wrote more than 24 volumes of collected works!), at pages 866-7, is one of the most interesting of classical Tibetan lists of countries. This is part of his famous history composed in 1322 CE. I’ll give this list in a moment, with some of the countries identified in parentheses. I believe all of these country names are names of real countries, and No, that really does not go without saying. If a few of them might not be immediately identifiable with real countries, my assumption is that we need to go back to the earlier sources for parts of the list and think harder until we come up with the answers.  (That’s right.  I’ve got faith.  But I feel I have good reasons to have faith.) You will soon see that I give links to Wikipedia articles, which are, you know, sometimes not exactly on the cutting edge... But I believe many will benefit from having the quick reference, on the understanding that no seal of approval has been applied from my side.

First he gives a list of a few places in which gigantic versions of tantras are said to exist: 

1. lha’i gnas (divine abodes).
2. Shambha-la (Shambhala).
3. U-rgyan (Oḍḍiyāna), etc.

Then he gives a much longer list of countries where the Buddha-Dharma has spread at some time or another in one form or another:

4. Rgya-gar (India).
5. Kha-che (Kashmir).
6. Bal-yul (Nepal Valley).
7. Li (Khotan).
8. Rgya-nag (China).
9. Rgya-nag Chen-po (Greater China, or China together with Tang Dynasty conquests).
10. Par-sig (Persia).
11. Tsam-pa-ka (Campaka).
12. Spre’u (this being Tibetan for ‘monkey,’ but most likely intending Sanskrit Vānara).
13. Gser-mig (This being Tibetan for ‘gold eye,’ but probably a misreading of Skt. Suvarṇākhya as Suvarṇākṣa; to simplify, this just means the ‘Gold Country’ or the country known as ‘Gold’.)
14. Rug-ma, with an added note reading Shambha-la, implying that it is part of that country.
15. Ram-ma.
16. Zangs-gling (Tibetan meaning ‘Copper Isle’), with an added note reading Rgya-gar, ‘India,’ implying that it is part of India.  It may be Sri Lanka, a part of Bengal, or a coastal area of Burma. It’s the place Sinhala was when his lamp laughed at him.
17.  Sing-ga-la’i Gling (Isle of Siṅgala), with an added note reading Rgya-gar, ‘India,’ implying that it is part of the Indian sphere.
18. Pri-yang-ku’i Gling (Isle of Priyaṅku).
19. Ya-mu-na’i Gling (Isle of Yamunā [River?]).
20. Gser-gling (‘Gold Isle’), with an added note reading Rgya-gar, ‘India,’ implying that it is part of India.  Likely to be the Śrīvijaya kingdom in Southeast Asia?
21. Zla-ba’i Gling (‘Moon Isle’).  Candra Dvīpa, sometimes identified as an island in the Ganges delta area, or a larger part of coastal Bengal.  The Das dictionary says something about it.
22. Ma-kha (Mecca).
23. Kha-sha (Khasa?).
24. Gyi-ljang (a known placename in Tibet, but not well identified).
25. Zhang-zhung (Zhangzhung kingdom of western Tibet).
26. Bru-sha (Burusho).  
27. ’A-zha (T’u-yü-hun).
28. Sum-pa (Supi).
29. Za-hor (as the birthplace of Atiśa, although disputed, this must be in area of Bengal).
30. Me-nyag (Tangut).
31. ’Jang-yul (Nan-chao).
32. Yo-gur (Uighur), with a note that says it is in the direction of China.
33. Tho-gar (Tokhar).  This ethnonym also occurs in the Hebrew Bible (Bereshith 10:3) according to Jäschke.
34. U-rgyan (Oḍḍiyāna).  This repeats no. 3 above.
35. ’Gro-lding-ba’i Yul.
36. Long-ba’i Yul.
37. Tso-la.
38. Ka-lingka.
... etcetera.

You can find a quite old, but not for that reason negligible, English translation of this.  If you have on hand a copy of E. Obermiller’s The History of Buddhism in India and Tibet by Bu-ston, look at part 2, p. 171. If you have the recently published book Thuken Losang Chökyi Nyima’s The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems, The Library of Tibetan Classics series vol. 25, Wisdom (Boston 2009), p. 371, you will find a translation of a later borrowing of Butön’s list with some interesting footnotes, although the translators could have saved themselves a bit of trouble if they had known about the earlier version of the list in Butön’s history along with Obermiller’s translation of it. (I know of another copy of Butön’s list in a much-neglected mid-16th-century history.)

One significant part of our list is copied from a passage in the Vimalaprabhā commentary on the Kālacakra Tantra (chapter 1, part 4).  Following the Peking edition of the Tibetan text, these countries are: 

[1] Bod (Tibet),
[2] Rgya-nag (China),
[3] Rgya-nag-chen-po,
[4] Pār-si-ka,
[5] Tsam-pa-ka,
[6] Spre’u,
[7] Gser,
[8] Rug-ma, and
[9] Su-ra-ma. 

In each of these countries, says the Vimalaprabhā, the teachings of the Buddha have been set down in writing in their own languages (the author saw no reason to mention India here, since that would go without saying... and did; likewise for Butön’s list Tibet went without saying).  So I hope it’s clear that nos. 8-15 in Butön’s list correspond exactly in order and very closely in spellings to the earlier Vimalaprabhā list nos. 2-9. Although I have some different ideas than those he arrived at some years ago,* I would like to just send you to John Newman’s unpublished 1987 dissertation on the Kālacakra Tantra’s chapter 1 for further discussion of these particular names (on p. 362 of my UMI reprint). There is nothing better to the best of my knowledge.

(*I’m now of the somewhat supportable opinion that nos. 14-15, Rug-ma and Ram-ma both (or perhaps the latter alone) are somehow concealing the names of the two halves of early Burma Rāmañña (EoB [Encyclopaedia of Buddhism] VII 496) and Maramma ("upper Burma"), the two countries that combined to form that once-blessed country of Burma/Myanmar.)

We could go into a lot of other interesting problems, but I am eager to get to the end of the list. So let me just say, perhaps stating the obvious, that no. 17, the Isle of Siṅgala, could only mean Ceylon / Sri Lanka.  But then what is no. 18, Isle of Priyaṅku?  I believe I am the first person to identify it as the Piyaṅgu Island known to Sri Lankan sources (EoB VII 421 has an entry). I found in a Singhalese dictionary that piyaṅgu and priyaṅgu are considered variant spellings.  It is variously interpreted to mean panic seed or millet (both regarded as poor-people’s foods, known as ‘famine grains’), black mustard-seed or long pepper. Or, a tree with fragrant flowers (?). Pri-yang-ku is even known to Tibetan medicine, which would further perplex us if we were to pursue it now, which we won’t. The conclusion of the EoB entry is just that it was a small island near the northern coast of Sri Lanka.  Since anyway the monks mostly had to commute there by miraculous means, especially by flying, I imagine a better explanation may be that it is Pegu. In early times Pegu was a well-known port-of-call (true, not an island, although this doesn’t bother me much) in eastern coastal Burma (preserved in the modern city name Bago, I guess).  I would like to find good reasons to verify or reject this idea.

Okay, enough of that.  Let’s look at the last four in the list.

35. ’Gro-lding-ba’i Yul.

Translating the Tibetan, this means ‘country of hovering/soaring travel.’  Obermiller gave it in an Indic form as Dramila (a form that actually appears in a few Sanskrit texts). This means the land of Tamil speakers.  I haven’t thought of a reason why the Tibetan would be translating the name, have you?  But I’m sure that it does translate it, since it appears in this Tibetan Kanjur title:

Dramiḍa Vidyārāja (’Phags pa ’gro lding ba’i rig sngags kyi rgyal po).  Tôhoku no. 927 (also, no. 610), Dergé Kanjur, vol. E (101), folios 273‑276.  It was translated in late imperial times, or circa 800 CE.

The Tanjur contains a quite lengthy text that would appear from its title to be a Dravidian vase ritual:

’Phags pa drā bi da’i bum pa’i cho ga.  Tôhoku no. 3130.  Dergé Tanjur, vol. PU (74), folios 129‑244.

36. Long-ba’i Yul.

Translating the Tibetan, this means ‘country of the blind.’  The reason for this is not very difficult to find (and Obermiller found it long ago).  Someone at some point in the past dropped the ‘r’ from Andhra, resulting in Andha, which means ‘blind.’

37. Tso-la.

This can only mean the Chola (Cola) kingdom of south India.  Tamil in its origins, when the Chola was at the height of its power in around 1050, it controlled most of the eastern India coastal regions as well as the western parts of insular Southeast Asia.

38. Ka-lingka.

Kaliṅga was a very well-known kingdom in the history of southern India. It was centered north of Andhra in what today is Orissa.

The first two of these four would seem to correspond very nicely with the two modern states of Andhra Pradesh, with its majority of Telugu speakers, and Tamil Nadu with its majority of Tamil speakers. The two other modern states of South India, Kerala with its Malayalam speakers, and Karnataka with its Kannada speakers, may not have yet achieved identity as ethnic entities when this list was originally made. In the case of Malayalam, it could in early times have been considered a dialect of Tamil. Kannada, according to linguists, would have split off from Tamil at an even earlier date. There are about 20 more Dravidian languages, but the four I mention are today the major ones.

So at least we know that an early 14th-century Tibetan source appears to know something about the lands of South India. Like other lists incorporated into that list, the list of lands of South India is probably older than the 14th century, reflecting as it does earlier political divisions (for example, the Chola Dynasty ended in 1279). This doesn’t directly bring us closer to finding out where Padampa was coming from.  But it doesn’t hurt, either. At least we know that he, just like Nāgārjuna, was from Coconut Country, a place the Tibetan teacher Manlung Guru visited in the 13th century. That's right.  A Tibetan actually went there back in those days. But now I’m getting ahead of myself on a story that hasn’t even started yet.

And do I even need to mention that a lot of this requires further work? Please be brave and kind and write to me in the comments box if you want to criticize or discuss any of this.

Ready to read more?

Bu-ston Rin-chen-grub’s history of Buddhism is available on the world-wide web in the Wylie transcription form of Tibetan. I believe there are two versions out there.  These digital texts are extremely useful for Tibetan readers, given the ease with which you may locate Tibetan words and names in it. Limited to English? You will probably have to settle for mail ordering an Indian reprint of the 1932 Obermiller translation. The indexing is totally inadequate.

Alain Daniélou, translator, Manimekhalai (The Dancer with the Magic Bowl) by Merchant‑Prince Shattan, New Directions (New York 1989). This is an English version of the only significant Buddhist literary text that survives in Tamil, dating from around the 6th century CE. The translation gets mixed reviews. There may be a better one out there.

D. Martin, Tibet at the Center: A Historical Study of Some Tibetan Geographical Conceptions Based on Two Types of Country-Lists found in Bon Histories, contained in: Per Kvaerne, ed., Tibetan Studies, Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture (Oslo 1994), vol. 1, pp. 517-532.

John R. Newman, The Outer Wheel of Time: Vajrayāna Buddhist Cosmology in the Kālacakra Tantra, doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin (Madison 1987), in 681 pages.  UMI order no. 8723348.

D.C. [Dinesh Chandra] Sircar, Studies in the Geography of Ancient and Medieval India, Motilal Banarsidass (Delhi 1971), 2nd edition.  This (plus other works by the same author) is my Bible for the historical geography of India.  You can get a good look at most of it at Googlebooks

Japanese readers are invited to download this PDF to find out more about a Tamil mantra in the Lotus Sutra. 

On Butön's iconography, be well advised to go and have a look at plates 63 and 64 in Amy Heller's book Tibetan Art: Tracing the Development of Spiritual Ideals and Art in Tibet, 600-2000 A.D., Jaca Book (Milan 1999), with discussion on pages 85-86. The island of Buton, unknownst to Butön, is located here.

And here is a marvelous passage from the  Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 2.4.18.  In the commentary, notice how the Khasa (the Kha-sha of  our list?) are explained as people with stunted hair on their upper lips, and therefore Mongolians and other equally mustache-challenged peoples. Really, I somehow doubt this. The general point of this country listing within its context is to assert that even the most dreadfully sinful foreign cultures can find their full salvation in Vishnu. Are you listening to this out there?

For a discussion on Shri Parvata and surrounding area, since around 1960 submerged beneath a huge reservoir created by the Nagarjunasagar Dam, see this blog at

§ § §   § § §   § § §

The frontispiece is a popular print of the famous Ayyappa deity image, object of the largest pilgrimages in Kerala. Some believe this deity and its shrine were originally Buddhist. I have nothing illuminating to say on the subject, just to say that it is a fairly commonly expressed idea, that may or may not have a strong basis. You may be the judge. I might be the only one to notice it, but the deity's (iconographically speaking) rather unusual sitting position resembles the Zhijé (not the Chö) form of Padampa. I guess it is only a coincidence. But then their right hands are also displaying the same mudrā...  Hmmm...  I would also invite you to pay attention to the small detail of the coconuts in the offering tray. A gentle reminder that you are in coconut country.

§ § §   § § §   § § §

The hardcore Tibetanists among you are welcome to go and download “50 Geo Texts” HERE at Tibetological website. I uploaded it a long time ago, but then I forgot to tell anyone it was there. It is supposed to be useful as a search file for answering some kinds of questions about Tibetan geography and geographical knowledge. Its only proper use is as a reference tool along the lines of an index. That means the user should feel obliged to look up the original publications in order to verify that the readings are actually there. 

I imagine this to be a mother-of-pearl representation of Lao-tzu’s journey to the west on a water buffalo's back.  I can’t explain the ears, but I think that's probably a flute he’s holding.

Success is as dangerous as failure,
hope is as hollow as fear.

Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.

When you stand with two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.

When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?

Tao Teh Ching

I also put up an informal listing of titles of Tibetan texts of the typical geographical genres. It includes guidebooks to holy places (gnas), hidden countries (sbas yul), itineraries (lam yig) and the like. It's findable in HTML by clicking here.

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