Sunday, February 19, 2012

Three Traditions of Ten Powers: In Buddhism, Judaism, Islam

From one of several old Kabbalistic ‘Tree’
parchments in the outstanding collection of
William Gross of Tel Aviv

This mystical monogram, looking a little like a labyrinth, is made up of the first letters of the names of the ten Sephirot of Kabbala or Kabbalah. If you read Hebrew letters some, you will see the 'm' of Malkut [‘Kingship’] at the center, with the 'k' of Keter [‘Crown’] circling  — and significantly, extending out beyond — the other nine.

I had a kind of transcendental uplift (well, at the very least it made me rise above some common assumptions) when I was looking at it, although it wasn’t the first time I’d seen something very similar as an illustration in a book somewhere. Maybe the difference was this time I was seeing it in a very old parchment page, an actual touchable one and not a virtual one, at the head of a long scroll of one of those amazingly opaque, complicated albeit overwhelmingly intriguing (which is to say, if I may, “mystical”) Kabbalistic diagrams called simply Ilanot, which is as much as to say, Trees.

Now if I say that material objects can bear psychic imprints from their past owners, you'll accuse me of the rankest occultism (well, I’d think it would have more to do with contact relics of saints, really), but if I tell you that this monogram turned into another one in my mind, you’ll probably start questioning my mental lucidity. I can hear you now. ‘Aren’t you letting this letter permutation stuff get to you? Maybe you should take a break, brave the record low winter temperatures outside instead of sitting all day in that stuffy apartment breathing book dust. A little fresh cold air may do wonders for a person in your condition.’

Well, to summarize a long story into a single tableau, here is what I saw it turning into:

OK, I agree that the visual similarity doesn’t necessarily overwhelm you in one fell swoop. But try to look beyond the surfaces. Each is a 'monogram' that combines ten letters identified with ten elements, closely bound up with each other, that somehow encapsulate whole realms of the universe, bringing macrocosm and microcosm together in one complex but integrated and encyclopedic system of science. Each of the ten letters stands for a cosmic element or principle that extends through different levels or orders of being.

The origin of the name rnam bcu dbang ldan (namchu wangden) — this being the Tibetan name of what you see just above — is locatable in the Reciting the Names of Mañjuśrī, a passage that has been translated (by Gavin Kilty) like this,

“Ten powers of ten meanings, the mighty one of ten powers,
  the all-pervading master, accomplishing the wishes of all,
  the great and powerful in ten aspects.”

The Great Commentary, in its comments on Chapter 1, verse 5, says (also in Gavin's translation):

Haṃ kṣa ma la wa ra ya is the assembly of the worlds and the vajra body. In space the letter ya, the mandala of air. On top of that the ra fire mandala. On top of that the wa water mandala. On top of that the la earth mandala. On top of that the ma Meru. That is the fifth. Above that the kṣa lotus of animate beings. On top of that the formless worlds ha. From the ha the visarga is the sun, the drop is the moon, and the nāda is the sign of the one-pointed vajra.”

For more on the colors and letters of this monogram, look here.  And here.

I’ve left this blog entry adrift in draft limbo for months now, half expecting some sudden revelation that would tie everything together for myself in a way that would be convincing to some other people. I think I’ll give up on that for the moment and just suggest that there may well be a way of establishing historical linkages between these things sometime in the future. My general hunch is that the ten categories, an Aristotelian idea to be briefly exposed here in just a minute was pre-ordained by the importance the number ten held for the Pythagoreans before him. This idea was then later taken up and transformed by the neo-Platonic teacher-student series of Plotinus > Porphyry >  Iamblichus. The ideas of all these just-mentioned people were especially influential in the Middle East and subsequently entered in various mixes into the Ikhwan al-Safa' in Iraq,* into Kabalah as it was emerging in Spain, into some streams of Sufism, as well as into the Kālacakra Tantra.** Well, I only ask you to accept the possibility that a chain of influences somewhat like this could have taken place, and that it could eventually be proven one way or another. I leave myself open to criticism from every quarter. I expect it.
(*I meant to say more about the ten categories in Islam, but for now I would just like to point out that the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity has an 11th chapter in the section on mathematical-philosophical subjects entirely devoted to them. The Brethren believed the ten powers covered all of existence. I think a translation of this section may have been published already, but I can't find a reference to it. But wait, I think I found it. Look here. Some may fault me for not getting into a comparison of the contents of the ten, but I will save this for later. At the moment I'm intent only on looking at the container, not the contents.)
(**All these things were occurring within the same basic time-frame, the 10th to 11th centuries more or less, long before the Mongol Conquest, in a time when the main avenues of knowledge transfer between India and Spain were in Islamic hands. It is now well known that some of the early Spanish Kabbalists were deeply influenced by the Ikhwan (their Epistles dating to around 980). One conduit for this Islam-to-Kabbalah influence, including the ten categories, would have been Ibn al-Sid al-Batalyawsi [1052-1126], who wrote in Arabic although some of his works were translated into Hebrew. His Book of Imaginary Circles was translated into Hebrew no fewer than three times! See  under the name Eliyahu in the readings list below.)  (I make a note to myself with a resolve to someday look into the book called Microcosmus by Joseph ibn Saddiq, aka Tsaddik aka Zaddiq aka Zaddik, dates 1075-1149.)  

A Window in Tsfat

- - -

I will try to keep this short and to the point, since it is a topic that has occasioned much ink spillage over many centuries, and I by no means regard myself as the one to give it full or adequate treatment.* Aristotle elaborated his “ten categories” in his book called, well, Categories.  They are more precisely to be understood as genera, or the most general of possible categories.  Initially it may strike one as amusing that some medieval thinkers call them “predicaments” ...  but this is because they have to do with predicates...   Predicates, as in the things predicated to nouns to make sentences, are really the very thing Aristotle was talking about. To get into a predicament means to be at the receiving end of the verbal sticks of the sentence.  Aristotle was answering the question, What would be a minimal yet general set that would cover the types of things one might meaningfully say about something or another?
(*To get a sense of the widely divergent ways of understanding them by the our contemporary scholastics, have a look at footnote five in this book.)

To follow one version of the Greek in its English translation (Gren-Eklund), we have these:  1. being or existence, 2. how much, 3. what kind, 4. related to what, 5. where, 6. when, 7. to lie, 8. to have or to be in a state, 9. to do, and 10. be affected.  

These largely verbal and interrogative expressions (which is more as it should be, I'd venture to suggest) were nominalized in the Latin translation to mean 1. substance, 2. quantity, 3. quality, 4. relation, 5. place, 6. time, 7. position, 8. condition, 9. active form of action, 10. passive form of action.

Apparently, Aristotle’s “ten categories” are directly applied (by him) to the actual rather than the potential (two hugely distinct concepts in his way of thinking).

However, later interpreters at least, took them to apply to the potential as well.  I’m thinking this may be how the categories became powers. But then, I think by “powers” we must understand potency or potential for movement, activity and change. To reason from the contrary, if a noun has nothing predicated of it, like when we encounter the bare word, like “grape” or “sobriety,” it’s doing nothing at all, is serving no purpose, goes nowhere. We haven’t produced a meaningful statement. At best we could blurt these out as one-word answers to simple questions.* 
(*In this case, perhaps, “What is your favorite soda flavor?” and “What do you hope to gain from going to AA meetings?”)

In any case, the “ten genera” idea itself did not remain static, but was transformed in particular by two Platonists of high historic significance: Plotinus (ca. 204-270 CE) and more importantly his most prominent disciple Porphyry (b. ca. 233 CE) who wrote what was often regarded as an introduction to Aristotle's CategoriesThis became perhaps the most influential text for instruction in logic in both the Islamic and European medieval worlds.

As I said, and I repeat: It isn’t in my present plan to go as far as to conclude anything, just to make some suggestive juxtapositions. I think that is enough of an assignment for me at the moment. Or were you expecting me to do more for you? You know I would try and help you more if I could. I hope I could at least get you thinking along these lines. Is it too difficult to imagine that the histories of logic (together with grammar) and esoteric spirituality could have been intertangled in ways we have previously overlooked?

§  §  §

It's possible to get along just fine, people.
Really it is.  Encountering people where
they are.  Encounter, not confrontation.

Much too much to read:

Thomas Block, Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity, Fons Vitae (Louisville 2010). The same author's shorter and perhaps more accessible article “The Question of Sufi Influence on the Early Kabbalah” may be encountered online at, which is definitely worth a visit. I think the book overly belabors its point that Kabbalah owes much to its historical encounter with Islam and Sufism, but that could just be me. The author is so thoroughly convinced his readers will be overly resistant. (I recommend turning to the works of Paul Fenton listed in his bibliography.)

George Perrigo Conger (1884-1960), Theories of Macrocosms and Microcosms in the History of Philosophy, Columbia University Press (New York 1922). Available for free in digital archives, this has surely been one of the most-consulted general works on its subject. As an alternative general study, there is the independently written and in some ways preferable essay by Rudolf Allers, Microcosmus: From Anaximandros to Paracelsus, Traditio, vol. 2 (1944), pp. 319-407. Allers was best known to history for being a breakaway disciple of Sigmund Freud and for his book on Freudian psychology entitled The Successful Error. For this reason alone there would necessarily be a webpage devoted to him.

Gunilla Gren-Eklund, The Meanings of Words and the Categories of Things: Indian and Aristotelian, Orientalia Suecana, vol. 48 (1999), pp. 43-48. It was reading this article that first got me thinking about this subject.

Ayala Eliyahu, The Cosmic Circle of Ibn al-Sid al-Batalyawsi: The Representation of a Humanistic World View. Unpublished paper delivered at the conference “Text & Image in Religious Cosmography,” given at the University of Haifa in July 2011. Note, too, that Batalyawsi has been much mentioned in recent writings of the well-known Kabbalah scholar Moshe Idel, especially his Ascensions on High in Jewish Mysticism.

Ronald C. Kiener, Jewish Ismā'īlism in Twelfth-Century Yemen: R. Nethanel ben al-Fayyūmī, The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 74, no. 3 (January 1984), pp. 249-266.

Gavin Kilty, tr., Khedrup Norsang Gyatso [Mkhas-grub Nor-bzang-rgya-mtsho], 1423-1513 CE], Ornament of Stainless Light: An Exposition of the Kālacakra Tantra, Library of Tibetan Classics no. 14, Wisdom (Boston 2004), at p. 327.

Cyrill von Korvin‑Krasinski, Die zehn Kategorien des Aristoteles im Licht der altasiatischen Seinsstufen symbolik, Symbolon, vol. 4 (1964), pp. 119‑148.  This appears to be quite relevant to the subject of our blog, written by a person well known for his early study of Tibetan medicine, also author of a book entitled Mikrokosmos und Makrokosmos in religionsgeschichtlicher Sicht. The article is not available to me. I’ve never seen it, have you? I guess it’s possible that it has the same ideas I thought I came up with 40-odd years later.

J.N. Mattock, "al-Maḳūlāt." Contained in:  Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs; Brill (Leiden 2011). I could fortunately use the online version.

John Newman, A Brief History of the Kalachakra, contained in: Geshe Lhundup Sopa, R. Jackson and J. Newman, The Wheel of Time: The Kalachakra in Context (Madison 1985), pp. 51-90.  Also available online, and especially recommended as an introduction for readers looking for some more background.

John Newman, Islam in the Kālacakra Tantra, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol. 21, no. 2 (1998), pp. 311-371.

John Newman, The Daśākāravaśin in the Kālacakra Tantra, a paper presented at the American Academy of Religion's annual meeting (November 25, 1991).  An unpublished draft of the paper on the very subject of the Ten Powers (or is this the right name for them?) courtesy of the author. I haven’t gotten around to making use of this yet, perhaps in a future blog.

Giacomella Orofino, Apropos of Some Foreign Elements in the Kālacakratantra, contained in: Helmut Krasser, Michael T. Much, Ernst Steinkellner, Helmut Tauscher, eds., Tibetan Studies I and II: Proceedings of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Wien 1997), vol. 2, pp. 717‑724. The most interesting thing for myself in this fascinating (if perhaps difficult to procure) essay is the part about the “active intellect” of Islamic philosophy popping up in the Kālacakra (although in a negative context, and even if it was misconstrued at times in Tibetan as byis-pa’i blo, which means ‘childish mind,’ rather than byas-pa’i blo or byed-pa’i blo, the ‘mind that made’ or ‘mind that makes’...).  The 'Aql fa'al, or active intellect is especially emphasized in philosophical currents of Isma'ili and related groups that were active in the 9th-10th century when the Kālacakra system was in formation.

Paul E. Walker, Early Philosophical Shiism, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge 1993), p. 103. Al-Sijistani was active between 930's and 970's:
Nature arises within soul and this process al-Sijistani describes as “gushing” (inbijas). Since soul contains two contrary dispositions: motion and repose; in what she produces, these create a further pair: form and matter. Matter passively accepts the alternation in it of forms. Thus matter is inert and form constantly changing. The result of the union of form and matter is physical being which may also be defined as the world of substance and the nine accidents, or in other words the ten categories listed by Aristotle: substance (jawhar), quantity (kammiya), quality (kayfiya), relation (mudaf), time (zaman), place (makan), possession (jida), position (nusba), affection (maful), and action (fafil). Al-Sijistani mentions the categories in this order and calls them as a whole the “world of nature” (Calam al-tabl'a).
This nicely displays the set of ten as very active and universal forces in cosmogenesis, not just cosmology. That’s why I quote it here.

Steven M. Wasserstrom, Sefer Yeṣira and Early Islam: A Reappraisal, Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, vol. 3 (1993), pp. 1-30.  Idem., Further Thoughts on the Origins of Sefer Yeṣira, Aleph, vol. 2 (2002), pp. 201-221.

Analysis of the syllables e and vam (evam being the first word of every Buddhist scripture),
seen on either side of the Ten Powers monogram depicted earlier on.
From “Illusion Web,” available at Digital Himalalaya.


  1. Dear Dan,

    Thanks for an interesting read. Here are my first gut reactions (the only ones I am capable of). When I see your Kabbalistical monogram I see 1+9. When I see the Kalacakra mantra I see two pentades 5+5. So not necessarily the same 10. That’s one point.

    Ideas and theories may travel and influence other cultures, but in this case there may also be a fundamental structure, common to various human cultures. The fact we live on the earth, and above us there is the sky, with the sun and 8 or 9 (since 1930) other planets. The idea that we have a body and a mind and in a sort of a combination of both, where the sky symbolises the mind and the earth the body. The idea that those 9 ancient planets have an influence (force) on the 10th one, the earth, us, and microcosmically that the mind influences the body.

    « What would be a minimal yet general set that would cover the types of things one might meaningfully say about something or another? »

    Well, if « material objects can bear psychic imprints », the nine planets and the earth itself, should have some influence on every single human being walking on planet earth and gazing at the sky for answers. The first and most powerful Neuro-linguistic programming. So nine and one (including the planet one is standing on) makes ten. Ten categories and genera to make sense of the world, actual and potential.

    The philosophical stage follows a mythological stage, where the gods (planets) were the general set, and where we can also find the number nine. E.g. nava brahma, srid pa chags po lha dgu. The gods and their powers seem to be the prototypes for the categories.


  2. Dear J,

    I get the sense that you're trying to push me into writing a big followup blog, which of course is something I ought to do as soon as possible... maybe a whole lot of followup blogs! I can see how the 1+9 division could stand out, particularly since that's what I started out the blog with. Some of the charts of the Muslim grammarian (etc.) Batalyawsi actually leave the 10th invisibly 'off the chart' (I'd love to learn more about this and the reasons for it). But by far the most likely arrangement is the one you see in the synagogue window. And generally the top three are singled out as being especially special. In some Islamic Sufi traditions studied by Corbin you see that there are ten levels in the way the divine manifests toward we humans, but only seven steps that humans can take back up the ladder toward the divine.

    So actually, I'd say that the top three in all three systems are the ones to be singled out, with the remaining seven perhaps in some way standing for planetary spheres, as you suggest. (As well as still other things.)

    I don't think I would be as quick as you seem to be to cross back and forth between the Aristotelian genera and what came after the neo-Platonics. The earlier content would seem to be largely displaced in the process. (This opens whole new and interesting discussions, but one common element I see is just in the theme of the moving and unmoving worlds... I'll get back to you on that...) I'm rather used to seeing this kind of thing - An enumeration (rnam-grangs) might seem as good as set in stone, yet get refilled with content more native and pertinent to the particular tradition.

    In any case, I'd still hold that it's more the generalities that count: the lights and colors, the visualization practices, mediation of macrocosm and microcosm via a 'subtle body' and so on that cement all three of the traditions together. They're doing very similar things with a set of things that are overall very similar.

    I'm 100% sure I don't tell you anything new if I say that the colors of the directions in the mandalas change according to different systems internal to Vajrayana. That being the case, if we were to insist that the color of no. 3 has to be red in all three systems, that would be asking for too much 'sameness.' (Corbin shows that two of the early Sufi traditions he studies don't agree with each other on the colors.) Somebody can always jump up and say, "But look, here's something that's different" and all I can do is come back, "but in general principles what they are doing is quite similar." And so on, and so on.

    Oh, I also think the 5+5 is the most 'natural' one for the 10 to fall into, really, just because we have five fingers on each hand. But then didn't Pythagoras divide the 10 into 1+2+3+4? So I don't necessarily see this ten-ness starting with the fingers in any very meaningful way.

    OK, more another time; you can count on it. (How many fingers you'll have to count while the days or weeks go by it's hard to say.) Thanks for writing. And thanks also for writing that most recent blog on Aztec Buddhism. I think I might have gotten the general point of it.


  3. Hi Dan,

    thanks for the stimulating post, it is very helpful. Actually, during our cataloguing project we came across a very interesting manuscript with this monogram and wrote a short post on it. Here is the link:



  4. Splendid link, Camillo! Thank you for sharing it.


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