Monday, September 19, 2011

If All the Land Were Paper...

Nicholas Roerich's Книга мудрости — Book of Wisdom

...and all the ocean ink.

I was amazed to discover for myself recently some older works of literature that weigh in on an interesting turn of phrase — an extended metaphor — used in the 12th century by the Tibetan Kagyü teacher Phagmodrupa. I translated it and published it once or twice some years ago.  It goes like this, following my old translation:
“The learned scholars cut away the veils [of words] with words

and establish the objects of knowing... 
Make forests into pens, oceans into ink,
land into paper, and still there would be no
end to their writing. 
Yogins do not establish external objectivities;
they establish the mind. 
The mind established, its objects establish themselves.”
The search got underway in earnest when I read the following passage (put in lines of blank verse by myself) from Howard Schwartz's book Tree of Souls. The quote is quoted from a work called Akdamut Piyyut by Rabbi Meir ben Yitzhak Nehorai, composed in Worms, Germany in ca. 1100:

“If all the heavens were parchment,
if all the trees were pens,
if all the seas were ink, and
if every creature were a scribe,
they would not suffice to expound
the greatness of God.”


Or here is a rhyming and perhaps therefore more poetic version I found in a PDF on the internet (the original is in Aramaic). The English is said to be, in part at least, by Frederick M. Lehman*:

“Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.”
(*Linn, p. 960, and Köhler before him, attribute the identical verses to Isaac Watts [1674-1748], an inveterate rhymester, and very probably the most famous English-language Protestant Christian hymn writer of all time. I don’t have the wherewithal to solve this authorship problem at the moment. For all I know the story that Lehman copied it, or most of it, from a copy made from the wall of a mental institution after the death of the inmate who wrote it could be true.  Look here — a sectarian Christian message is to be expected — and go on wondering.  Or look on p. 57 of this PDF of an old 1876 book about hymn history, where it says that the lines, all eight of them, were by a “partially insane” person “at Cirencester, in 1779.”  Nothing about any writing on the wall here.)
It’s possible the saying goes back quite far in Jewish tradition (more on Islamic tradition in a moment), even as far back as the 1st century CE, with a quote I’ve taken from a book by Jacob Neusner, A Life of Yohanan Ben Zakkai (p. 46):


“If all the heavens were parchment, and all the trees pens,
and all the oceans ink, they would not suffice to write down
the wisdom which I have learned from my masters,
and I took away from them no more
than a fly takes from the sea when it bathes.”

So, too, says Neusner, his student Eliezer ben Hyrcanus said:

“If all the seas were ink, and all the reeds pens,
and all men scribes, they could not write down
all the Scripture and Mishnah I studied,
nor what I learned from the sages in the academy.
Yet I carried away from my teachers no more than does
a man who dips his finger in the sea,
and I gave away to my disciples no more than
a paintbrush takes from the tube.”

Neusner gives as one of the sources an article by Irving Linn very appropriately entitled, “If all the sky were parchment.” Linn consciously followed, and paid homage to, the earlier research of Reinhold Köhler, “Und wenn der Himmel wär Papier” Both of these works have been graciously made available on the internet.

The same complex imagery is used in al-Qur'an. Here below you can see it inscribed in Arabic on a stone inkpot. The words are from the Chapter of the Cave, verse 109:

10th Century Iran, from the Nasser D. Khalili Collection


“If the ocean were ink
(wherewith to write out)
The words of my Lord,
Sooner would the ocean be
Exhausted than would the words
Of my Lord, even if we
Added another ocean
Like it, for its aid.”


By now you’re probably convinced that the 12th-century Phagmodrupa must have heard it from Arab or Jewish immigrants or merchants in Central Asia, somewhere on the opposite banks of the Sambatyon. I rather somewhat doubt it, to tell the unvarnished truth.

Linn says that the earliest appearance in Hebrew was in the first half-century of the first millennium CE in the sayings of Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai, founder of the academy at Jabneh. Things become a little murkier when you see Linn go on to say (on p. 954) that the Rabbi “introduces the mention of pens, and that these pens are made from trees,” a feature, he says, not found in the Indian examples...  Uh, oh! Then where do those pens come from? How, then, did they get to Tibet?

What Indian examples? you are probably thinking.

Linn — and Köhler (due to information supplied to him by Theodor Benfey) before him — found old Indian sources in stories about Krishna, in the Atthāna Jātaka (Jātaka of the Impossibilities), and in the Vāsavadattā by Subandhu. In the Krishna legend, the writing material is the earth, but in Subandhu’s poetic work, it’s the sky. And it’s true, at least in the versions I’ve seen so far, that the Indian sources don’t seem to do anything about the pens being made from trees, as we find in Jewish sources, in one of the two Quranic sources (chapter 31, verse 27) and in Phagmodrupa. Both Linn and Köhler seem to think that the image is of Indian origins, brought to Europe by the wandering Jews who, due to their wanderings, are the most likely intermediaries. At the moment, it’s my own mind that’s doing the wandering.

Anyway, it isn’t my job to solve all your puzzles for you, so if you’d kindly go off and try to solve this “Who dunnit first” mystery, I’ll be happy to listen to every theory you may care to come up with.  Meanwhile, if you need me, I’ll be off at work on an upcoming blog about the Aristotelean categories, another clearly apparent case of still-underdemonstrated interdependence between far-flung corners of Eurasia. I hope you’ll be glad to hear that. I have my doubts.

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Reinhold Köhler, “Und wenn der Himmel wär Papier,” contained in:  Kleinere Schriften (Berlin 1900), vol. 3, pp. 293-318. This was reprinted from Orient und Occident, vol. 2 (1863), pp. 546-559.

Irving Linn, “If All the Sky were Parchment,” Publication of the Modern Language Association (PMLA), vol. 52, no. 4 (Dec. 1938), pp. 951-970. 

D. Martin, “A Twelfth-Century Tibetan Classic of Mahāmudrā, The Path of Ultimate Profundity: The Great Seal Instructions of Zhang,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol. 15, no. 2 (1992), pp. 243-319, at p. 249, where the quote is found. The Tibetan text of it is in 'Jig-rten-mgon-po, Works, vol. 4, p. 404 (the earlier reference to p. 408 was mistaken).  

- - -


Quiz:  Which major religions have been involved in the telling of this story?  Let's see... Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism...  Did I forget any?















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Here's how the Tibetan reads, first in Wylie transliteration, and secondly, if all goes well, in unicode Tibetan script:


de yang mkhas pa paṇḍi ta rnams tshig gis bdar sha bcad nas //
shes pa'i yul 'di rnams gtan la 'bebs pa yin te // ... ...


rtsi shing nags tshal la smyug gu byas //
rgya mtsho chen po snag tshar byas //
sa chen po la shog bur byas shing bris kyang mi zad pa yin gsung //
rnal 'byor pa ku sa li ni //
phyi rol gyi yul gtan la mi 'bebs te //
yul sna tshogs rnams kyang rang gi sems kyi rnam 'phrul yin //
sems gtan la 'bebs pa yin //
sems gtan la phebs na yul gtan la rang phebs su 'ong ste /





















དེ་ཡང་མཁས་པ་པཎྜི་ཏ་རྣམས་ཚིག་གིས་བདར་ཤ་བཅད་ནས།། ཤེས་པའི་ཡུལ་འདི་རྣམས་གཏན་ལ་འབེབས་པ་ཡིན་ཏེ།།  ... ...
རྩི་ཤིང་ནགས་ཚལ་ལ་སྨྱུག་གུ་བྱས།། རྒྱ་མཚོ་ཆེན་པོ་སྣག་ཚར་བྱས།། ས་ཆེན་པོ་ལ་ཤོག་བུར་བྱས་ཤིང་བྲིས་ཀྱང་མི་ཟད་པ་ཡིན་གསུང་།། རྣལ་འབྱོར་པ་ཀུ་ས་ལི་ནི།། ཕྱི་རོལ་གྱི་ཡུལ་གཏན་ལ་མི་འབེབས་ཏེ།། ཡུལ་སྣ་ཚོགས་རྣམས་ཀྱང་རང་གི་སེམས་ཀྱི་རྣམ་འཕྲུལ་ཡིན།། སེམས་གཏན་ལ་འབེབས་པ་ཡིན།། སེམས་གཏན་ལ་ཕེབས་ན་ཡུལ་གཏན་ལ་རང་ཕེབས་སུ་འོང་སྟེ།

I had a huge jolt of déjà vu the first time I set eyes on this painting by Nicholas Roerich (a friend sent it to me as a postcard), since I had already seen something very much like it in a dream of my earliest childhood. Only the giant book of my dream was more like floating in space than located anywhere. And the point of it seemed to be that it was written in an alphabet that I didn’t understand, or even recognize... at least not yet. Roerich, with his wife Helena, was co-founder in 1920 of something called Agni Yoga.


Nicholas Roerich's, Book of Doves

On the Book of the Doves, look at this video 

featuring Armenologist James Russell

"A great book fell from heaven..."








“It is He Who has sent down on you this (glorious) Book.”

— al-Qur'an, book 3, verse 7. 



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